Story Slam Winner Jordan Engelke: "The Gathering"

photo of the author

The feeder stood silent against the waning sunshine, as the tendrils of night, waiting their turn in the yard, began to creep along within the shadows of the oak trees. Dusk was beginning to settle, slow and serene as a silent fog. Suddenly, a flurry of movement from a nearby pine, quick as a dart into the clearing of the open yard, then just as quickly the bird flew back again. Stillness once more.

“Did you see it?” He raised his binoculars to follow the trajectory of the bird, but had lost it among the trees.

“No,” I said. I missed it because I hadn’t really been paying attention. I’d been watching him watch the yard through the window. His eyes sparkling with joyous intensity.

Witnessing the nightly gathering of birds at the feeder quickly became ritual for us. At first, he lured in cardinals, their crisp red heads stark against the fading blue skies. After a few weeks, we started to see mockingbirds, wrapped in their hypnotic dances across the grass. A family of wrens, black-capped chickadees, Eastern bluebirds.

It can take several weeks to “train” local birds to visit a new feeder. But once they start coming, they’ll stick around as long as you’ll have them.

The promise of celebrating holidays with his large, extended family is what drew us the 2,842 miles to Tallahassee. We drove through a dozen states, a dozen other places I’d fantasized about living in. Washington, with its lively but shy meadowlark, or Colorado’s dreamy mountain sunsets and striking goldfinch. Instead, we opted for the place where the birds of my childhood headed when the weather at home became unbearable.

Our first Christmas in Florida was my first “real” one. The kind with presents and extended family and a large meal shared by all. Norman Rockwell-style, but a little crazier – in the good way. In the bed of his childhood that night, facing each other in the dark, he helped me memorize family members’ names and relations. I had cried, vulnerable in the face of so much love, overwhelmed by this foreign but not unwelcome sense of belonging. A part of my heart began to unfurl as I pictured holidays like this in my future, making up for all the ones I’d missed.

Often, in the aftermath of a breakup, we dwell on the unknown, flitting back and forth between reflections of time wasted and deep feelings misplaced. What would I have done differently with all those years in my twenties, that critical time that I can’t get back? Impermanence is the feeling creeping in the underbrush. If this was so fleeting, what else is?

It’s been three months. The season is starting to change now. New birds are visiting the feeder with the cooler weather. A white breasted nuthatch, perpetually upside down, clutching the ash tree we planted together. A red-headed woodpecker, the only one who eats the suet. I’m no longer there to witness the gathering at the bird feeder each night, but it goes on all the same. And surely, a visit from rarer birds who’ve come, driven by instinct, to escape the harshness of a winter north. They’d be shy at first, only coming to the feeder after a long bout of stillness, and even then, only for the blink of an eye.