Feed the Birds
The air was crisp and chill that morning in London, and a soft dusting of snow swirled around the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral. Brisk footsteps clocked across the pavement - men in impeccably tailored pants and spit-shined shoes, mostly, moving with the purposefulness of those who know there are ledgers waiting to be filled with neat black ink the moment that the nine o'clock bells chime. They moved past the bird lady without seeming to see her, just as they'd moved past the flower-seller two blocks back, and the violinist with his cap on the ground in front of him on the corner before.
A little ways away, a woman in a neat navy suit and a black hat adorned with cherries sat on a bench, gazing toward the cathedral steps. A furled umbrella lay beside her on the bench, silent for the moment.
The woman started, then smiled with genuine warmth as she turned to face the speaker. "Bert. How lovely to see you again."
"Why, same to you." He planted an impetuous kiss on her cheek; she permitted it with demure decorum, moving her umbrella so he could sit beside her. "So here you are, back in London. Nannying again, I suppose?"
Mary smiled a little and shrugged. "I don't know yet. The wind carried me in this morning and left me here. I suppose I'll find out why in a day or two."
"Seems like the wind brings you here a good deal," Bert commented.
Mary glanced at him sharply, but made no reply.
Bert stretched elaborately. "Well. Might as well set up here as anywhere, I suppose -" He gestured at his equipment; a jumble of ragtag musical instruments, today.
"No," Mary said shortly.
"You'll disturb the birds." She let her gaze travel upwards, tracing a graceful spiral of white wings with her eyes.
"Disturb the bird woman, more like," Bert said, watching her keenly.
Mary kept her eyes trained on the sky. "I haven't the faintest idea what you mean."
"Oh. Well." He flapped his legs out and crossed them back at the knee, quick as a wink. "You'll have given her tuppence anyhow, I suppose?"
"No." Subtly, Mary moved a hand to her umbrella, placing two fingers on either side of the bird-handle's beak. "I don't seem to have any money with me at present."
Bert laughed outright. "Mary Poppins! All I've seen you do, and you're telling me you can't scare up tuppence from one of them pockets of yours to feed them poor starving birds?"
"Really, Bert." She shook him off, eyes cold. "I don't see that it's any of your affair."
"Maybe not." He regarded her thoughtfully. "Maybe not."
They sat in silence for a long moment. Tiny snowflakes clung to Mary's primly knotted hair, a light sprinkling of white over hair that would never gray. Across the plaza, the snow gathered on the bird lady's ragged coat.
"We were young together," Mary said eventually.
"Eh?" Bert said.
"Clara and I." Mary inclined her head toward the woman on the steps, crooning a soft wordless song to her flocks.
"Well, then, I'd say you're aging much the best of the two of you," Bert said brightly.
"Bert." Mary glared at him. "It isn't a laughing matter."
"It's quite true," Mary said, her manner still brusque. "I've not aged. Not in years, anyhow."
"Just a part of how you is, I suppose," Bert said.
"I suppose so." Mary sighed. "I've known for some time who I am, of course. Who I'm meant to be. I'm here for the children."
"One pair after the other of 'em," Bert murmured.
"Quite." She let a long pause elapse. Bert waited her out.
"It's only that..." She stopped again. "Well. It wasn't so clear, when I was younger. What the natural course of things would be for me."
"You weren't popping up in the air with that umbrella of yours every windy day back at age six, then?"
"Of course I was." She regarded him severely. "Granted I tended to stay close to home then, but still, I have never been less than I am right now, Bert. The only difference when I was a girl was that I didn't understand."
"Understand what, now?"
"I hadn't learned not to form attachments, you see. Clara and I were - well, we were school chums. We were extremely well-suited. She loved the birds, and so I would bring them to her. We learned to speak with them together." Mary's eyes had a bright, faraway shine to them now. "Once or twice, when the wind was willing, I brought her to them - to the roofs above the city, or even farther, into the countryside sometimes. We loved it there. There was a path in the hills..." She stopped.
"Like what were in that chalk picture we visited last time I saw you."
"No." She shook her head. "This was real."
A chink of falling coin from across the plaza, as someone took pity and dropped twopence in front of Clara. Mary and Bert watched the exchange in silence.
"At any rate." Mary shook her head firmly. "All in the past, of course. Eventually I... well, the wind grew stronger, I suppose. Or perhaps I was the one growing stronger. In any case, I began to travel more widely. There were families who needed me, duties to fulfill." The bright look in her eyes had turned to a damp shine. "And one day when I came back..."
"She weren't the same," Bert finished.
"No. Well, of course -" Mary strove for her customary briskness - "it was hard to see. Small things at first. A few wrinkles here, a stiffening in the joints there. We tried to keep on... but it was no use." Her voice hardened. "It was a fool's game all along. It's not for me, this workaday life of grime and grit, sagging skin and gray hair. And it's as messy as your London gutters, playing at sentiment and... well, and -"
"Love?" Bert suggested quietly.
"Really, Bert!" Mary cut him a diamond-blaze blue glare. "Such nonsense! As if I'd ever time or inclination for such foolishness."
"Just as you say," Bert said softly. "All the same, I don't see what's the harm in buying a bag of birdseed off the poor lady."
"She has no need of my help, I'm sure."
"Mary." He touched her arm; she kept her gaze steady ahead. "You say the wind carried you here today - here and no further. Ain't it possible this is where you're meant to be?"
A long silence. The wind eddied small drifts of snow about them, nipping at them in small, urgent circles.
"Very well." Mary stood, ramrod straight. "Perhaps you're right. In any case, I'm sure she and the birds could both use a meal." She rubbed her fingers together briskly; a coin appeared between them.
"That's a pound coin, ain't it?" Bert said, a twinkle in his eye.
"Don't tempt me to change it, Bert." She moved across the plaza, as purposeful as the bankers totting up compound interest in their heads.
Bert watched from the bench as Mary approached the bird lady. The birds' feathers seemed to ruffle in unison as she approached; then, as if by prearrangement, the flock separated into two and drifted to the sides, clearing a path before her.
As Mary reached the step where Clara sat, the eddies of snow seemed to swirl more fiercely, shining pearlbright against the gray morning. A single metallic clink; the pound coin had dropped at Clara's feet. Clara turned her face up to Mary, then paused, sunken eyes searching the stern beauty of the woman before her.
Gently, Mary bent and pressed her lips against Clara's wrinkled cheek.
A shock of flapping noises, hooting, clucking; Bert started back reflexively as the birds exploded up from the pavement, flocking around the two women in a storm of feathers. The snow glowed phosphorescent in the air around them, enclosing them as if in an isinglass dome. Bert squinted as hard as he could, attempting to make out the shapes of Mary and Clara behind the flurry of birds and the encircling snow. He could never tell afterwards if what he had seen had been truth or a trick of the eye: the two women locked in an embrace, lips pressed together and faces shining with fierce desire - Mary's face, yes, but then the face of a woman as young as she, clouds of blonde hair falling around her face, one smooth pink hand twined in Mary's curls, which had tumbled down about her shoulders. For a fraction of a breath the vision remained, and then the birds broke their tight circle and swarmed upward rapidly, spiraling fast and high against the dank gray sky. The snow glowed white and hard as a winter morning's sun for one final second, and then snapped out like an extinguished lantern.
Mary and Clara were gone.
Bert regarded the empty plaza for a moment. "Well, how do you like that," he said softly.
Humming, he turned to his instruments and began to set up for his day's work.