On her deathbed, Ms. Emma Cooke bequeathed a feather to me. Of course, I didn’t know what lay inside the envelope-shaped silk bag when she asked me to retrieve it from her lingerie drawer. It was blue as a robin’s egg, and she set it upon her lap with quivering hands.
“I’ve waited a long time for you,” she said to me.
I snort-laughed. “Ms. Cooke with an e, I can’t see how that’s possible. The agency only hired me a month ago.”
She laughed and said, “Oh, I knew you’d come.”
The old lady was old. I figured she’d confused me with someone else. Her hospice nurses said she could go at any time (a thought, they’d said, that had persisted for the past two years). The agency prepared me for Ms. Cooke’s ire. Said she hadn’t been happy with a single home health care provider they’d brought her and kept demanding replacements. “I’m looking for the one,” she’d told them each time.
But I was happy for the work. Pleased she hadn’t fired me yet, and with any luck, she’d last a while longer and keep me on. I hated new jobs. Hated the getting to know one another period where trust had to be gained. The thing about Ms. Cooke was she seemed to trust me all out from my first day.
I plumped a pillow up behind her back, and she placed a hand on my arm.
“Take me to the garden.”
She didn’t have the strength God gave a newborn kitten, but with her arms wrapped around my neck and mine around her waist, we got her into her wheelchair. Mind you, she weighed all of eighty pounds soaking wet.
Ms. Cooke’s backyard looked like something from the cover of a magazine. There were more types of flowers in bloom than I knew the names of. I liked to take smoke breaks out there during my shift when she was sleeping.
“Fetch my pipe,” she said. “And get your smokes.”
I opened my mouth to lie and say I didn’t smoke, but she tapped her nose and said, “I may be old, but my sniffer still works.”
Dappled light from the afternoon sun created a lacy pattern on the lawn as I packed her pipe. My first shift on the job, the other nurse brought me outside to the same spot to meet Ms. Cooke. The old lady sat slumped forward in her chair, and I worried because she didn’t appear strapped in. Then she’d sat up tall at our approach, and I saw she’d been holding court over a parcel of pigeons, feeding them breadcrumbs. She took up her pipe from an ashtray on the table next to her and took a puff before turning to catch my eye. We all remained silent, and a chill went through me as I swear Ms. Cooke looked inside my soul, or at the very least, beneath my skin. I must have gasped because that’s when the other healthcare worker introduced me.
“It’s about time,” Ms. Cooke said. The smoke that trickled from her mouth smelled woody, with a hint of something that reminded me of cardamom.
A slight breeze made the spots of sun dance on the grass. I tapped down the loose tobacco, catching a whiff of that same cardamom smell. Then I handed her the pipe. She examined my technique.
“Pretty good,” she said. “Looks like it’ll draw fine. Did I mention where I learned to smoke a pipe?”
“In the circus,” I said, holding a match to the bowl as she inhaled and pulled the smoke into her mouth.
“Righto. I rode the elephants.” Her fingers went to the silk bag, which still lay in her lap. “Once upon a time…”
“Ah. Telling fairy tales now, are we?”
She sighed. “No, Josie. Josephine. I’m too old for tales. Once upon a time, my husband died.”
Funny thing about caring for people. You really don’t know them at all. If they’re like Ms. Cooke, they don’t have photos on the walls, they don’t have closets with clothes that belong to anyone but them. They can curate their lives, only revealing in dribs and drabs the tidbits they want you to know. A husband? It was the first I’d heard of him.
“I didn’t know you were married.”
“Oh, yes. I was a real looker in my younger days. But don’t interrupt. I have a lot to tell you before the sun goes down.”
I pulled my fingers across my lips, zipping them shut. Not talking was easy. Old people can talk your ear off. If she didn’t expect me to comment, I could let my mind wander if I got bored.
“This yard was different back then. Before Muriel taught me all about plants and magic, but we’ll get to that. So this story happened decades ago. All that was in this yard was the willow, the lawn, me, and my husband, Tobias…”
“Your preamble, my dear.”
Tobias poured a martini from the silver shaker and handed it to Emma.
“To our constitutional,” she said, clinking her long-stemmed glass gently against his.
The first sip hit her tongue like tangy fire, and she yipped. Tobias laughed, and they sat down on their deck chairs to enjoy their cocktails and wait for the last fireflies of the season.
“I’m going to miss these nights,” Emma said.
“It’s only June.”
But Emma swore she smelled snow, felt the bitter bite of cold against her skin. Later, she’d recollect that moment and realize it wasn’t winter but the beginning of her own change she’d glimpsed.
The thump startled both Emma and Tobias.
“A bird,” Emma said.
A few downy feathers stuck to the window where the bird hit. Emma crouched down to where it lay on the deck. It looked like a crow but had a white belly and white on its back and wing feathers.
Tobias came up behind her. “Is it dead?”
Emma lay her palm against its chest. She felt a fluttering heartbeat. The panicked bird looked at her and stood, trying to open its wings. But one hung heavy and would neither open nor close.
“It hurt its wing,” Emma said.
Tobias hurried to the garage. “I’ll fetch a box.”
For three months, they cared for the bird while it healed. Emma learned it was a magpie and spent hours talking and singing to it. The bird watched Emma as she cooked dinner. It followed her outside into the yard when she watered the lawn. It helped her sort laundry by pulling out anything white. It seemed to Emma that the bird understood her better than anyone, even her husband, and she loved it. One evening, when she went outside, she found magpies all over the yard. And a line of birds perched shoulder-to-shoulder on the fence.
“Tobias. Come quick.”
Their bird, who’d followed Emma from the kitchen, hopped to the middle of the yard. As Tobias left the house, the flock of birds squawked and chattered. Their injured bird flapped its wings, checking whether they were flight-ready, and then, in a heartbeat, it was airborne. All the magpies followed. The ruckus brought the neighbors out of their homes. The sky roiled, and the birds rolled like a dark foam-tipped wave and vanished.
Emma stood, dazed, with her hand to her forehead until Tobias handed her a martini.
“You’d think they’d show us a bit more respect,” he said, grabbing a hose to wash away the copious bird droppings.
Emma said, “It’s not like they’re toilet trained.”
“Oh, they have a toilet. Our yard.” Tobias tried to sound serious, but the wrinkles around his eyes belied his tone.
“Look,” Emma said, holding up a perfect white feather she’d found on the ground. “It had to come from one of our baby’s wings.”
Tobias touched her hand near the feather, then laughed and shook his head. “You’d need to know magic to differentiate it from one of the other birds.”
Emma turned it over and over, marveling at how it shimmered in the evening light. While she brought the feather inside and tucked it safely away in a drawer, Tobias’s heart gave out.
By the time she found him splayed beneath the elm tree with the hose spraying straight into the air, he was already dead.
“With all the grieving and paperwork that followed, I forgot about the feather,” Ms. Cooke said, shivering.
“Do you want a sweater,” I said.
She laughed. “Those aren’t cold shivers, my dear.” She patted the bag on her lap. “I never suspected, as I tucked that feather away, that it would alter my life forever. But I think that’s how kindnesses work, don’t you? You don’t do them for reciprocity, so if something nice comes of it, it’s a surprise.”
I started to ask her how on earth a feather could change anyone’s life, but she set her pipe down and took a deep breath.
“You know what? I will take a throw after all.”
I reached for the one we kept on the porch and put it over her lap.
“You’re a doll,” she said. “Sit. It’s important I tell you the rest while there’s time, before sunset.”
I obliged, taking the seat next to her. She grasped my hand, and her bones felt tiny and frail beneath her thin skin.
She gave me a squeeze. “People think I make things up.”
“It’s okay. I do tell lots of stories. Other people’s stories. But I don’t make them up.”
I cocked my head. “I don’t understand?”
“I’ve waited so long, just about to let go when you showed up. I thought I’d die, and all the stories would be lost.”
I’d never noticed how sunken Ms. Cooke’s eyes were or the dark circles beneath them. I could see her heartbeat in her temples. “We should go inside.”
“Josie, we only get the time we’re given. But our stories can continue, and you can help.”
She looked at me the same way she had when we first met. Ms. Cooke saw my insides, what made me, me. No one had ever seen beyond my tough, no-nonsense exterior, and I wasn’t sure I liked it, but it was intoxicating.
“Okay,” I said.
“Life’s a conundrum.” She sat up a little taller. Her eyes twinkled. “Magpies don’t live here, don’t you know?”
“I don’t get it?”
“Put on your storyteller hat, Josie.” She slapped her hand down on her thigh for emphasis.
I gasped. “Don’t hurt yourself.”
She took a deep breath and sighed. “Think, Josephine.”
I nodded. “If magpies don’t live here, then you never rescued one.”
“Yes! That’s right.” Ms. Cooke clapped her hands. “Tobias and I hadn’t saved a bird at all.” As she became more animated, the color returned to her cheeks. “We’d nursed something far more precious, though my poor Tobias never lived to know it. We’d rescued something more like an angel.”
I stood. “I’m taking you inside, Ms. Cooke.”
“No!” Emma shouted. “I can prove it.”
She practically shouted at me. I spoke in a calm voice. “Okay, okay. I’m listening.”
“When I found the feather in the drawer, I decided to throw it away. All the sweetness I’d felt about it had been replaced by memories of the night Tobias died. But when I touched the feather, a wave of memories struck me. And when I say struck, it was like a wall of energy permeating every cell. I collapsed onto the floor as Tobias’ recollections filled me.”
“I know no other way to say it. It’s not like watching a movie. I didn’t see them. I simply knew them.”
“Right.” I grabbed onto her wheelchair’s handles. Ms. Cooke was agitated. I needed to get her back in bed before she hurt herself.
“I know it’s hard to believe, Josie. I didn’t believe it either. But Tobias touched me while I held the feather. I am the conduit. I thought this was a simple gift the magpie gave me, a way to keep Tobias close. But I learned it was more than that. I can collect anyone’s life story. I told you Muriel helped with my garden. Muriel was a master gardener. The feather stores all her memories, and I can access them anytime. I returned to the circus and collected memories from the Bearded Lady and Snake Charmer.”
“Ms. Cooke, that all sounds kind of creepy.”
“No, no. I can’t access their lives while they’re still alive. And they all gave their permission.”
“Probably because they thought you were crazy.”
“Does it matter?” she said. “I collected their stories, and now you can do something with them. You can continue to collect more. It’s a repository.”
“But why? Why would I want all these stories?”
“Oh, Josie.” Emma sunk deeper into her chair. “You were supposed to be the one. I recognized the need in your eyes.”
“Here,” I reached to lift her up.
She swatted at my hands. “No. I thought you’d understand. See the value in the knowledge. You pretend to just do your job, but there’s more to you, Josephine. I feel it. Same way that old magpie felt it in me.”
I grasped the wheelchair and turned it toward the house.
“Even if it were true. You’re wrong. I’m here to do my job, collect a paycheck, the rest is details.”
Ms. Cooke gasped. Her jaw hung open; my mother would say it looked like she wanted to catch flies.
“I’m sorry. That was cruel. I’m so—”
“I’m dying. Today. You are my last hope. You were my wish.” Ms. Cooke held the silk bag out to me. “Please, just try.”
I took it from her hands, rougher than I intended, but took it nonetheless. A big abalone shell secured the flap. I pushed the button through the hole.
The feather seemed to shimmer. Tiny sparks darted across its surface.
“It’s beautiful,” I said.
“My story is ending, Josephine. Who will remember what it was like to ride an elephant when no more elephants walk the earth? Who will remember the flutter of an angel’s heart, the way it could look into my soul and fill me with joy? Who will know the sharp bite of a gin-soaked olive or the love of a man who died cleaning celestial poop off his lawn?”
The tears sparkling in her eyes mirrored the shimmering feather.
“Please,” she continued. “The sun is about to set.”
The old lady’s story was insane. But she thought she was about to die, and what could it hurt to go along with it? Make her happy by complying, and then wheel her back to bed.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
“Thank you,” Emma said. “Ready?”
I took the feather in my hand.