Birds in our souls
My grandmother told me something almost no one knows…."Every woman has a bird inside her soul”. So she said, as we strolled along the seaside on our way to the market, carrying our shopping bags - hers faded and worn from many years of use; mine brand new, and colorful, a gift she had just given me for my birthday.
The sea was calm. Smooth waves kissed the shore after the hurricane that had left the palm trees bare and bald. With a knotted finger she pointed out the seagulls. The birds glided gracefully on the last gusts of the muggy breeze. The sun rose awkwardly, painting orange hoops as it climbed the morning sky.
“What about little girls, Grandma?” I asked. “Do we also have birds in our souls?”
“Of course, my love,” she said, without hesitation. “Any time God wills a little girl to this earth. He makes a nest of her soul and there He places a bird. If you’d like, after the market, I will share with you my field guide of birds, and you can see if you recognize your own bird.”
In the town square, I walked by her side, pressed into the warmth and protection of her shawl. I pondered her words. The thought of having a bird caged inside my ribs was mesmerizing. Suddenly nothing else mattered, not even the assortment of the merchandise that usually kept me entranced. My attention was devoted to the hustle and bustle of the ladies who, dressed in their embroidered clothes, used their worldly charm to lure us to their booths.
“Try this tasty fruit, little one” screeched one of them. “I will sell it to you cheap!” I stepped closer to look at her carefully. Yes, indeed, she looked just like a parrot.
“A refreshing drink, señora” shouted another. “It will cure all ailments!” Her throat was that of a wild turkey.
My grandmother was right! I decided. Inside of every woman’s soul was a bird.
I spent the rest of the morning attentively “bird watching”. Poised behind a mountain of exotic fruit, I spied the flamingo lady. Wheeling and dealing incense and religious curios, I discovered the pigeon woman. In the fish market, Doña Aurelia was filleting an octopus. I now understood why she was nicknamed “The Cockatoo.”
We walked back to my grandmother’s house under the beating sun. Over-heated and tired, we climbed the stairs carrying our bags full of groceries and goodies wrapped in newspapers. Inside, she opened the window to the balcony, turned on the fan, and prepared a pitcher of cold, hibiscus tea.
I helped her wash the fruit, purify the vegetables, sort the beans and set the table. When we finally finished the chores, she poured me a chilled glass of tea. We sat on her velveteen sofa and looked at her book of birds; it was a beautiful leather bound field guide.
“In the animal kingdom,” she began, opening the book, “birds are special for two reasons: first, because they have feathers, and second, they are warm-blooded. Even in very cold climates, like Antarctica, they build their nests. Look at penguins. They lay their eggs without worry, even on ice! because they, themselves, are warm creatures. And this is how we are, my love. We women are warm creatures. And it doesn’t matter if we live at the South Pole; we make our homes cozy – even inside an igloo”.
She turned the page and paused at the image of a woodpecker. I knew the bird from the cartoon I loved so much, Woody Woodpecker. “Birds are hard-working,” she pointed out "like this one. They play an important role in nature. They eat fruit and scatter and sow seeds. Those that eat the seeds keep the weeds at bay. Others help the flowers produce their nectar. Just like us women, my dear. Our work is never done. Thank Goodness! Being idle is not a good thing.”
To the right of woodpecker was an egret. It looked like a marble statue, standing tall and elegant in a lagoon. She took off her glasses and took a good look.
“Birds are beautiful and so are women” she smiled. “Think of all the songs and poems that praise a woman’s beauty. We are often portrayed as symbols of love and peace, you know? Such as the white dove. Our gender is used to symbolize knowledge and power. Birds represent even God himself! like the Holy Spirit. And we, like the birds, over the years have become emblems of peace, love, freedom and knowledge. When you grow up and travel the world, my child, you will see the masterpieces of the greatest artists in museums. Oh how many times they have found inspiration in women! The beauty of the birds we carry inside is captured in their art.”
She touched my heart and then lovingly caressed my braids. We were halfway through the book. I never wanted it to end.
“But, you know what? Not all of us are alike,” she added. “Just like birds, we are exquisitely diverse. Did you know there are over 8,600 species of birds? And, what is amazing, is that not a single species can be found in all of the continents. Just like women! There are no two identical women on the face of the earth. And another thing, they all have wings, but not all can fly. Take the white partridge, the ostrich or the pheasant. They spend their lives with their feet firmly planted on the ground. And then there are those that will fly high and far away, like the hawk. Every year it leaves behind its nest and its’ young to seek out new horizons. Detached and independent. Some birds, like the egret, live a solitary life, and others live in big families, like the swallow. And then there are those that want to fly but can’t because they are caged, like the canary or the finch, poor things. This is the price they pay for being beautiful. They are condemned to be exotic pets like the toucan or the peacock. And this is how women are, my darling. All of us have wings, but not all of us will fly. Throughout your life you will meet women who are egrets. Respect their distance. Don’t be offended when they don’t want your company. They are like that; it is their nature to be solitary. You also will meet canary women or those who are exotic pets. Perhaps you will not understand why they choose to stay in their cage – don’t judge them. This is how they are – something or someone has clipped their wings. They don’t know how to fly.
My grandmother took off her glasses, closed the book and hugged me. The fan lulled us for a long while and we sat, snuggled, watching flies as they drowned in the melted ice of our tea. Then she uttered the words that would shape me.
“Seek out the bird in every woman’s soul, my love. And, if you can’t find it, bend your ear and listen closely for their song. The singing of the blackbird will enhance your joy. The duet of the “horneros” will heal your sadness. When you feel alone, find your sisters in the forests or in the sea. Delight in the symphony of the robins, skylarks and mockingbirds. Listen to the woman that sings as she sweeps the street, or as she makes her tortillas on the griddle or rocks her child to sleep in her hammock when the moon shines in the night sky. Thus you will find, my little one, that the singing of their soul is the honey that sweetens life”.
She bid me goodbye with a kiss on my forehead and her book of birds in my bag. I walked home slowly, treasuring my weighty gift, and when I reached the seaside, I took off my sandals and stepped down to the beach. When my feet reached the water I stopped and talked to the pelicans. Their scandalous cries confirmed what I had come to suspect. I was one of them.