The flock wheeled and dipped, guided by some unseen signal. Muriel watched the black cloud of birds insert themselves into the towering lodge-pole pine. Settling on branches like ornaments on a Christmas tree, they talked softly among themselves. She imagined the conversations.
“Where are we heading?”
“No idea. I’m just following everyone else.”
And yet for all the anarchy of their system, it worked beautifully. Muriel wished her own life system worked as well. Her children had departed in much noisier fashion than the birds, one by one flying off to college, their own apartments, their significant others. They came home for holidays and the odd visit, circling the house and flying off again before she could acclimate to their presence. Her empty house was quiet. Sometimes she didn’t speak all day.
Muriel read the articles about empty nest syndrome. She noted the advice to join a group, take a class, exercise, get out more. Deeply shy, she couldn’t imagine herself doing any of it. Aside from her weekly trips to the library to renew her stash of novels and the necessary forays to the grocery store, Muriel kept to herself. Every surface in her house gleamed, every weed in her garden was plucked, but there was still so much time.
Outside, the blackbirds murmured, discussing flight plans, no doubt. Inside, Muriel looked at the dull November landscape and said aloud, “Why don’t I fly away? I’ve got the money and the time. No one would miss me. Why don’t I just go – somewhere?” For a few minutes she sat wondering where she’d go, theoretically speaking, if she went. Tropics? Europe? Asia? Impulsively, she picked up her cell phone and searched for travel agents.
The heat nailed her when she stepped off the plane. She felt her careful hairdo go flat instantly. The water in the bay cast a ferocious light that was painful to her eyes. Sweat popped out on her upper lip.
What have I gotten myself into? I hate to sweat!
But she was here now and there was nothing to do but make the best of it. She dragged her suitcase to the row of taxis and climbed into the first one.
The cottage she’d rented proved to be just as pretty as the pictures, though rather more rural than she’d thought. She liked the wonderful view of the water and the short walk to the beach. She liked the little green salamanders that zipped about on the patio.
She liked less the pack of dun-colored dogs that milled around in the space between her cottage and the beach. They had ribs like corduroy and curved tails that whipped the air above their backs. Clearly, they were strays wanted by no one. Muriel had to admit she felt a certain kinship. When one of the dogs, a little yellow female, worked up the courage to approach her as she sat on the patio, she shared the last bite of her sandwich with it. The dog’s tail went into hyper-drive and she smiled – no other word for it – up into Muriel’s face. Muriel bought a bag of dog food in the local bodega.
The dogs became her pack then. Every day they waited on the patio, sniffing at the sliding glass door until she emerged. They were always hungry, but waited politely while she filled the assorted coffee cans and flower pots with food and water. Surprisingly, they never snarled or fought for position over the food. After they ate, they approached her one by one for a scratch behind the ears, a long stroke down a washboard back. Then, replete with unaccustomed food and affection, they stretched out on their sides and slept. She named them; she knew she shouldn’t, but she did.
Every day Muriel walked along the beach with the dogs in sunlight that now seemed like a benediction. When she got hot, she waded into the surf. Her pale skin turned red, then golden. Her mousy brown hair developed blond streaks. She felt better than she had in years,
She met the same beachcombers most days and they’d pause to chat. Her shyness seemed to fly away on the ocean breezes. Maybe she’d forgotten to pack it. There was one man, Andre’, whom she came to think of as a friend. She talked to him about the worry that pressed on her mind. What would become of the dogs when she went home?
“Do you have to go home?” he asked.
“Well, of course…” she began, but stopped short, silenced by the thought of gray, empty days.
“Here you have sunshine, friends,” Andre’ said with a shrug.
A cloud of ebony wings – starlings, red-winged blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds – swept the sky, their soft cacophony falling to earth.
Andre’ sighed with pleasure, tipping his head back. “Ah, a murmuration of blackbirds.”
Muriel listened to what they said.
“Do you think she’ll stay?”
“I think she might. I think she very well might.”