They take on many forms and can turn up anywhere. There was the man sitting next to me on the bus yesterday morning who removed his shoes, sniffed them, and then offered his left foot to me like a gift.
“What?” I said, surprised and a little wary.
“Wouldn’t you like to smell my foot?” he asked in the same tone one would offer a seat to an old lady or a napkin to a child.
There was the teenager who passed a note from across a crowded Denny’s restaurant last summer. The note went through four tables before ending up at mine. It was addressed to “the blond in glasses at the corner booth” and informed me that he very much appreciated the size of my chest. At the bottom were two boxes where he invited me to mark if I was interested in him or not. I wasn’t.
There have been dozens, probably hundreds, of these people. Most of them walk into my life, freak me out a little, and then disappear. But there have been a few who’s interactions have changed me forever. This is the group of weirdos who went beyond weird and into the creepy scary realm. While each of them is special in their own icky way, I have a special place in my heart for the Bird Lady. She was, after all, the first.
I met the Bird Lady in the fall of 1998. I was a recent high school graduate and eager to move out of my parents’ house. I went to school and met other young people who all seemed to have more freedom than I did. My parents were encouraging. Having very little money, I opted to rent a room instead of doing the apartment thing. I responded to an add posted at my college and soon found myself at a modest three bedroom house on a quiet Cupertino street. The woman who answered the door was small in stature, with flaming red hair and a jolly expression. She seemed like a young Mrs. Clause, full of good cheer and terms of endearment like “Dumpling,” “Duckie,” and “Dearie.”
Her name was Jan and she was eager for a renter. It seemed that her last renter had suddenly been offered a job out of state, and she told me that she was lonely and would knock fifty dollars off the first month’s rent if I signed the lease that very day. Her terms were simple and seemed more than fair. I had my room (a rather large room at that with a huge window and a door that locked), access to the kitchen, and free use of the living room when she wasn’t there. I could use the stove, a shelf in the refrigerator, a shelf in the cupboard, and the washing machine. It sounded perfect, but there was one thing that worried me.
Actually there were about seventeen things that worried me: the birds. They were everywhere! There were big birds, small birds, and birds of every color. They all lived in their own cages (spread about the entire house), and they were all noisy. I mean really noisy. Jan assured me that they were silent at night when she covered them up. She also told me that part of my rental agreement was cleaning the living room once a week but that I would never have to take care of the birds. With only a slight misgiving, I signed the rental agreement and moved in.
Things got weird real fast. The first morning in my new room, surrounded by boxes and incredibly tired from the move, I was awakened at 5:45 AM to the sound of what I can only describe as “bird music.” It was strange jungle music featuring pipe instruments and bizarre clicking sounds. At first, I thought I was dreaming. The music, if one could call it music, was awful. My teeth were on edge and a sharp pain had entered my head. The birds in residence didn’t share my aversion. In fact, they were all chirping, screeching, or otherwise making loud noises in accompaniment.
This was not an isolated event but rather the morning ritual. Every morning, seven days a week, from 5:45 to 7:00 the birds got to hear their music and I got a brilliantly painful start to my day. I asked her about the music, and she told me that her “darlings” liked to greet each morning with song. It was a sunrise ritual to foster peace and harmony for all. Now how can you argue with that?
I soon learned that the birds in Jan’s house were the be all and end all of Jan’s existence. I never saw her leave the house for longer than a few hours in order to maintain the birds’ rigorous feeding schedule. She spent a good two to three hours a day cleaning their cages and talking to them. Every night she would light strange smelling candles and chant quietly as she covered them up with intricately designed cage covers. My singular offer to help in the covering up process was rebuffed, and I soon learned that Jan didn’t really want me to have anything to do with her birds. Should I pause while walking through the living room to look at or talk to one of the birds, she would freeze and stare unblinkingly at me until I moved on. Once I whistled back at a large yellow bird with bright red head feathers while Jan was out. The next day she asked me not to excite the birds by whistling at them or trying to communicate in any other way. She said it made them nervous. I began to get freaked out.
A few days before Thanksgiving after I had been living with Jan and the birds for about three weeks, she asked me about my holiday plans. We were doing the dishes, or rather I was washing my cup and plate, and she was watching. I told her I would be doing the family thing, big dinner lots of stress, the usual. Jan became very still. Her hands clenched in front of her chest she asked me in a quavering voice what we would be eating for Thanksgiving dinner. I may not be the smartest cookie ever made, but I knew that a woman with this much love for regular birds probably wouldn’t be down on the whole traditional turkey dinner idea. Unfortunately, I am not as quick, on my feet type of liar. I stuttered out some lame excuse about not being sure and fled to my room. The next day or so I avoided her.
Of course she saw through me. The morning of Thanksgiving she cornered me outside my bathroom. I was running late, dripping wet, and covered only by an old icky colored towel when I opened the door.
“Dumpling,” she started, “I know today is a holiday for you. I was wondering when you would be leaving.”
“Well, pretty soon,” I said, beginning to edge my way around her. “Jarrod is picking me up in like ten minutes.” It was more like twenty, but she didn’t need to know that.
“I was wondering if I could talk to you before you went?” Her voice was soft and pleading. It was like she was on her death bed, and her last and only wish was for me to talk to her.
“Sure,” I nodded. “Just let me get ready.”
In my room I took my time. After getting dressed, I blow dried my hair (something I have done less than five times my entire adult life). I painted my nails red and then repainted them green. I was sure that Jarrod would arrive any moment and save me from actually having to talk to her. Casting about for something to do, I even made my bed and tidied my desk. Twenty-six minutes later she knocked on my door. I admitted defeat and joined her in the living room for our talk, cursing Jarrod under my breath.
Jan had changed clothes. She now wore a long white robe with a gold collar. When she sat down on the couch I realized her feet were bare. She pointed to a large white photo album sitting on the coffee table.
“Duckie, I want you to understand the beauty of Avi, the bird spirit.”
Yes, that’s right. Avi, the bird spirit.
Jan went on to explain that she was part of a group, “not a cult Dearie, a group,” that found holiness in bird life. Now, I had been raised to believe that everyone was entitled to their own belief system, but this really threw me for a loop. Fortunately, just about the time Jan started explaining about the “death and life stations,” Jarrod rescued me. With a promise to continue our discussion at a later date, I left Jan’s house of birds for the relative normalcy of a family holiday dinner at my parents’.
I did my best to avoid Jan for the next few weeks. With the end of the semester looming, Christmas shopping and working overtime to afford the Christmas shopping, it wasn’t hard to do. I did find the occasional feather resting nonchalantly in front of my door every so often. I also started to notice the birds individually a bit more. I realized that the bigger birds would grow silent when I entered the living room but would raise holy hell should I dare to approach their cages. I started to think that the birds didn’t like me. It was like they knew I had eaten two turkey dinners!
I normally got home from work around ten o’clock at night. I never wanted to wake Jan, so I would only use the stove light in the kitchen while warming up my dinner. Standing in the dark kitchen and watching the microwave timer count down, I would become aware of the silence from the living room behind me. In the shadowy room I could see the cages lined up, all properly covered of course. But those coverings didn’t fool me. I knew the birds were watching me. I could feel them staring from under their brightly decorated coverings. They sat in nightly silent judgment as I warmed up my pathetic microwavable dinners. Somehow they knew when I was eating chicken.
I started having trouble sleeping. I would wake up suddenly in the middle of the night, sure I had heard a bird call my name. The call never came a second time, if it had come at all, but in the still of the night, I would swear that I could hear those birds moving around in their cages. Through the walls I felt their growing resentment. I had vivid horrible dreams that they had all gotten loose and were chasing me a la Alfred Hitchcock.
Christmas Eve I was awakened, like every other morning, by the bird music. I stumbled out of bed, tripped over my backpack, banged my shin bone on the corner of my desk, and pulled open the blinds. Since the bird music happened as regular as clockwork, I had long ago stopped using an alarm clock. With the bird music going, I was hard put to even hear my own alarm clock or my radio in the mornings. This morning was bitterly cold -the air vent in my room being locked, something I hadn’t realized when I had moved in. I was about to make my way to the bathroom for some much needed water on the face when I noticed what time it was. According to the clock on my wall, it was 4:00. AM. I blinked, put on my glasses, and looked again. 4:00. Sure that my clock must have stopped, I fumbled for my cell phone. 4:00. Every clock in the room agreed. The bird music had started early.
Well, that was it. I had had enough. I shoved my arms into my robe and stomped out into the living room where Jan and her infernal birds were greeting the non existent dawn.
“Jan!...Jan!!!... JAN!!!!!” I yelled, trying to make my voice heard over the symphony of pipes, whistles, screeches, and other unnamed noises. The living room was still pretty dark, and in my rush I banged into something sharp hitting my shin bone for the second time. I squealed in frustration and cursed. The music stopped, the living room light clicked on, and the birds fell eerily silent.
“Oh, Dumpling, I’m so glad you could join us.” Her voice was deep and slow. I shivered and pulled my robe closed suddenly aware of my very immature froggy pajamas. Standing in the doorway and dressed in her white robe with the gold collar, she looked like every creepy cult picture ever seen. Every scary movie ever made flashed though my head.
“No,” I answered in what I hoped was a brave adult voice, “I’m not here to join you. I just wanted to know why you started early this morning.”
She glided into the room and pointed at the cage nearest my bedroom door.
“Mechal has died.”
It was true, the ratty looking brown and white bird was lying feet in the air on the bottom of his cage. It’s eyes were still open and glossy. It looked like it was staring at me.
“Oh, um, okay…” I had no idea what to say or do or think. “Well I better uh, go get ready for work.” My shift started at 6:30, I might as well be up. I stepped carefully around the violent end table and started towards my room.
“Wait,” Her voice was still all creepy and deep, and now she moved in front of me, “Mechal is dead. You have to stay for the ceremony.”
“What, are you going to bury him or something?” As soon as I said it, I knew it was the wrong thing to say. Her eyes got real small, and she crossed her arms across her chest. Biting her lower lip she glared at me and said nothing.
What felt like an eternity went by. The birds in the cages all around me shifted and moved but kept their peace. Jan just kept standing there glaring. At first I tried to meet her eyes, but unexplainable shame made me look away. When she finally did speak, her voice was softer than I had ever heard it.
“You did this. You. With your unclean thoughts and your chicken dinners.” Her voice began to rise until she was shouting, “You and your unclean aura! Mechal knew you. He saw the real you and he died. Died.”
“Hey, hey Hey!” I shouted back, “I didn’t make your damn bird die!”
She recoiled as if I had struck her then, whispering what sounded like angry gypsy curses, she backed down the hallway. A moment later the bird music came back on full blast and a moment after that the birds joined in. I fled to my room and slammed the door closed.
That was the last conversation I had with Jan the Bird Lady. When I emerged from my room half an hour later with my duffel bag full of all my valuables, I found an eviction notice taped to the floor. I had twenty-four hours to vacate the premises. Attached was a copy of the lease I had signed. She had been nice enough to highlight the passage that read, “Landlord has the right to evict the renter at any time for any reason.”
From work I called Jarrod’s folks who were sympathetic albeit a little confused. Jarrod’s dad agreed to go with me after my shift to get the rest of my stuff. When we arrived later that afternoon, I was disappointed to see Jan’s car in the driveway. I really didn’t want to see her again. Cautiously, I opened the front door and peered inside.
“Jan?” I called out in my quiet-I-don’t-really-want-a-response voice, “Are you here?”
The silence was encouraging. We made our way through the foyer and into the living room… the completely empty living room. Well, it wasn’t totally empty, the evil end table was still there and the couch; but the birds and their cages were gone. The house was deathly silent. We tip-toed our way to my room and unlocked the door.
My room looked empty too because all my stuff was gone! No, on second look my stuff wasn’t gone, but it had all been magically packed up in boxes which had then been taped closed and neatly stacked by the window. A pile of what looked like brown and white feathers was lying in the middle of the floor. We were careful not to touch it as we carried the boxes and the few sad pieces of furniture out to the truck. It took us twenty-four minutes to empty the room of everything except those feathers. We didn’t speak.
Finally the truck was loaded. I tossed my house key on the kitchen table, and we fled from the silence. As we pulled out of the driveway, I glanced back. The Bird Lady was standing on the front step, white robe and everything. Her lips were moving, and her eyes were wide open and unblinking. She raised her hand as if in a gesture of farewell but then brought it sharply down in a violent cutting motion across her chest. Chills ran up my spine and stayed there until we were out of Cupertino.
It has been almost ten years, but I still have the occasional nightmare about the Bird Lady. Did she curse me? Is that why I am a weirdo magnet? I don’t know. I do know that I was much more careful about whom I rented from the next time and that I have developed a strange fear of birds of any shape and size.