Advance Praise for
THE BIRD SISTERS
BY REBECCA RASMUSSEN
“Rebecca Rasmussen has written her graceful debut,
The Bird Sisters
, with unflinching and transporting empathy. After a few short chapters of this vivid, lucid novel, you will forget you are reading words on a page; the book in your hands will become a portable window into the interior lives of two remarkable sisters.”—
STEFAN MERRILL BLOCK,
bestselling author of
The Story of Forgetting
The Bird Sisters
, Rebecca Rasmussen has created the ultimate literary heroines with Milly and Twiss. Heartbreakingly brave as they are fragile, the sisters endure despite the failings of love both familial and romantic, of promises not kept, of dreams deferred and the price one pays for keeping secrets. In prose that sings, Rasmussen has created a magical world where you will believe that birds and perhaps even humans—no matter how broken—will soar under the capable ministrations of Milly and Twiss.”—
The Summer We Fell Apart
“With a poet’s ear and a wisdom about the subtleties of the heart, Rebecca Rasmussen delivers an unforgettable debut that takes its reader to the depths of love, fidelity, and a sense of belonging. From the opening image of one sister gently placing a wounded bird inside her pocket, I was hooked. And I’ll wait a while before I pick up my next book because I’m not ready to leave this world just yet.”—
Up from the Blue
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2011 by Rebecca Rasmussen
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
CROWN and the Crown colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The bird sisters : a novel / Rebecca Rasmussen.—1st ed.
1. Sisters—Fiction. 2. Single women—Fiction. 3. Reminiscing in old age—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3618.A78 B57 2010
Jacket design by Jean Traina
Jacket photography © SuperStock/GettyImages
About the Author
These are the days when Birds come back—
A very few—a Bird or two—
To take a backward look
. —EMILY DICKINSON
sed to be when a bird flew into a window, Milly and Twiss got a visit. Milly would put a kettle on and set out whatever culinary adventure she’d gone on that day. For morning arrivals, she offered her famous vanilla drop biscuits and raspberry jam. Twiss would get the medicine bag from the hall closet and sterilize the tools she needed, depending on the seriousness of the injury. A wounded limb was one thing. A wounded crop was another.
People used to come from as far away as Reedsburg and Wilton. Milly would sit with them while Twiss patched up the
poor old robin
sweet little meadowlark
. Over the years, the number of visitors had dwindled. Now that the grocery store sold ready-bake biscuits and jelly in all the colors of the rainbow, people didn’t bother as much about birds.
On a particularly low morning, while the two sisters were having tea and going over their chore lists, Milly pulled back the curtains when she heard an engine straining on one of the nearby hillsides. When all she saw was the empty gravel drive, the hawkweed poking up along the edges, she let go of them.
“We should be glad,” she said. “Maybe the birds are getting smarter.”
Twiss brought the breakfast dishes to the sink. They were down to toast and butter now, sometimes a hard-boiled egg from the night before. “How can you stand to be so positive?”
“We’re old,” Milly said. “What else can we do?”
But even she missed the sound of strangers in the house, the way the pine floors creaked under new weight. Had it really been a month since a person other than Twiss had spoken to her? Time had a funny way of moving when you didn’t want it to and standing still when you did. Milly didn’t bother to wind the cuckoo clock above the sink anymore; there was something sadistic about the way it popped out of its miniature door so cheerfully every quarter hour. But the visitors! Though she and Twiss had devoted their lives to saving birds, not wishing for them to be injured, the last few years Milly had perked up whenever a car turned into their driveway instead of continuing up the road. Most of the time, the people would be looking for directions back to town. They’d spread out their laminated touring maps with expressions of shame because “just in case,” the words they’d used to justify buying the maps in the first place, meant they were lost, and there were no noble ways to say that. The men would look up at the sky, trying one last time to discern east from west, and the women would look down at the ground because their husbands had failed to understand a simple map. Milly would put the couples at ease by admitting that she missed a turn every once in a while, even though there wasn’t one to miss. She’d point to the blank space between the hills and the river.
This is where you are
When the sound of the engine grew louder, unlike all of the others during the last month, Milly pulled back the curtains again. This time, a green minivan was barreling down the driveway, kicking up dust that did not quickly settle.
“I knew this one was for us,” she said.
“Better get ready,” Twiss said, leaving her cup of tea and going for the medicine bag in the hall closet. “People who drive minivans usually know where they are.”
And the driver of the green minivan did, although the country wasn’t where she was supposed to be at eight thirty in the morning. On her way to drop her children off at the elementary school in town, the woman had run over a goldfinch, and her daughter had cried enough to make her do something about it. The minivan’s tires, rutted monstrosities that belonged on a tractor, had severed one of the goldfinch’s wings and crushed the other one. The goldfinch was also missing his left eye, which the little girl said she’d looked for on the road but couldn’t find among the crumble of loose blacktop.
“Poor thing,” Twiss said, which meant the goldfinch wouldn’t live. Twiss had spent her life saving birds; all she had to do was glance at one to know if it would recover or not. And all Milly had to do was glance at Twiss, who’d never been especially skilled at hiding what she saw.
Twiss kissed the goldfinch’s tawny beak.
“Yes, you are a poor thing,” Milly said, kissing it too.
Twiss took the goldfinch, the medicine bag, and the little girl to the bathroom off the kitchen. After she laid out her instruments on a towel, Twiss would pick up Dr. Greene’s old stethoscope. If she heard even a faint heartbeat, she’d patch up what she could and splint whatever she couldn’t with strips of balsa wood from the old model airplane in the attic. She’d offer the goldfinch a teaspoon of millet and peanut butter and hold him up to the window so he could see the sky. Once a bird had lost his ability to fly, not much else could be done in the way of mending him. Losing a wing was a little like losing a leg and the freedom of movement, of spirit, it granted you; most people could live without the former but not the latter.
Milly steered the mother, a woman with the frame of a thin person but the flesh of one who’d had too many children and worries to keep her figure, to the kitchen. Instead of taking the seat Milly offered her, the mother paced across the linoleum, pausing to examine the surroundings now and then. She paid particular attention to Milly’s collection of ceramic salt-and-pepper shakers lined up like avian soldiers, orange beak to orange beak, hummingbirds to owls, on the shelf above the stove, and to the damask wallpaper Milly and Twiss had helped their mother put up when they were girls, which had bubbled at the outset because they’d applied the glue too liberally. Over the years, the wallpaper had peeled back little by little so that now it clung to the wall desperately when it clung at all.
The mother seemed the most interested in the milk-glass lamp in the far corner of the kitchen and the
stenciled in blue paint on the bathroom door. Like many other visitors before her, she seemed surprised to find the house equipped with indoor plumbing and modern electricity. Milly expected the mother to say what everyone from her generation said:
We used to have that exact shade in our kitchen!
What they didn’t say but what Milly had gleaned from their collective tone, and the decorating magazines in the general store, was that they’d replaced the opaque milk-glass fixtures with track lighting the moment they could afford it. And the moment they could afford track lighting, they could afford to be sentimental.
Milly would say, wondering why anyone would want the equivalent of a runway on his or her ceiling. But the mother didn’t say anything about track lighting.
“I kept telling her a bird’s nothing to cry about,” she said about her daughter. “When you’ve had your heart broken, you’ll run over a person and you won’t even notice.”
The mother finally took the seat Milly had offered her, which pleased Milly since she was used to people sitting down and telling her things, seeking from her a kind of emotional support only strangers could offer while Twiss patched up the birds in the bathroom; that kind of listening made Milly feel useful when most of the time now she felt useless.
The rest of the woman’s children, three gangly boys, were standing on the front porch daring one another to jump off the steps into the mud puddle that had formed beside Milly’s freshly watered flower beds.
“Would you like a biscuit and jam?” Milly said, mentally hauling out the mixing bowl and the sack of flour from the pantry. There had to be a jar of jam left in the cellar that mold didn’t inhabit. Another stick of butter, too.
“I have to stay away from things I enjoy,” the mother said, pulling her T-shirt over the part of her stomach that had become exposed in the process of sitting down. “This book I’m reading says if you want to be as thin as a stalk of celery, then that’s what you should be eating. I’m not sure I want to look like celery, but I know I don’t want to look like a biscuit.”