The pine warbler eats its neighbors in the pine tree-insects and spiders-as well as seeds and berries. As it creeps over the bark of the tree, the warbler's olive green and yellow plumage sometimes becomes stained with pine resin.

Rachel comes to take my dishes. I watch her move slowly and silently. I have cleaned my plate tonight, have used my biscuit to polish its surface. The dish is one Rachel makes from an old recipe card titled Irma's Beef Dinner. The card is worn around the edges and splattered with tomato sauce and onion soup. Rachel doesn't know who Irma is, she has told me, and she doesn't remember how she came by the recipe card. Rachel may be excused from remembering such details.

As for me, perhaps I may be excused from remembering details, also. I have been young, but now I am old. That is the usual course, though I have often dreamed of how it would be to say I have been old and now I am young, to implant my old mind into my youthful body of fifty or sixty years ago. I would even trim it to twenty or thirty if someone were granting favors. Or ten.

In matters of money I have been poor, and now I am rich. I have often considered how it might have been had my youth intersected at some point with my wealth. But I have no time for dreams now, nor for regrets. I have had plenty of both in my life, as any other man or woman, but I give my attention now to staying alive. It is an endeavor at which I continue to toil in spite of its many inscrutabilities, for to give it up would be to yield to nothingness, an enemy I am not eager to confront.

I am in the cold season of life, and the words that come to mind as I rise in the morning are these: "Now, is the winter of our discontent." I borrow them from William Faulkner, a fellow Mississippian, who lifted them from Shakespeare, who put them into the mouth of the Duke of Gloucester, also known as Richard III. Though I am hardly the villain Richard III was, I am no saint. Though I have not murdered, I have used words to maim and destroy. Though I repudiate the notion of conscience, as did Richard, I do not rest easy at night. Often when I wake in the morning, it is after few hours of troubled sleep. I cannot sleep long for fear that I will let go of living. Rather a winter of discontent than no winter at all.

By day birds flock to my window. I watch them feed, sometimes companionably, two or three different species at the same feeder, and sometimes singly, pecking quickly, nervously, darting glances to yard and sky for unwelcome company. I monitor the feeder for squirrels, which devise crafty methods of mounting it. If tapping on my window fails to scare them off, I open the window. I also have a small-caliber handgun, which I know how to use. Squirrels, however, are not intimidated by the sight of a gun, and I would never fire it for risk of damage to the bird feeder.

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Birds never interested me before this, the winter of our discontent. I was sometimes diverted by other things, but never birds. Even now I know little of them except what I observe through my window and what I read in my Book of North American Birds, a large but overly generalized collection of short summaries describing six hundred different species of birds, each page also boasting an artist's rendering, in color, of the featured bird. This worthy volume was compiled by the editors of Reader's Digest, a body of persons whose aim is knowledge rather than understanding. It was presented to me by my nephew Patrick, who, with his wife, Rachel, shares with me the winter of our discontent.

Because of Patrick and Rachel, I do not have to modify the phrase to make it singular: "the winter of my discontent." Truly, it is the winter of our collective discontent, though Patrick and Rachel try to hide it and though at the end of it they will receive a reward to compensate for the trouble of wintering me. It is a winter barely begun, for I have been here only four weeks. By the calendar, a week into November, it is shy of literal winter by six weeks. "Short winters" is a description misapplied to Mississippi by those who know nothing of the South. We natives know how long these short winters can be.

A cantankerous old woman is never so annoying as when she is in some way related to you, and if you are strapped with her, overseer of her care, recipient of her complaints, then she may be a burden past telling. I know this. Before I lived here, before I myself qualified as a burden, I knew this, for I was my mother's keeper for five months before she died of irritability, a condition that had started in her bowel years earlier but metastasized to her mind and behavior by the end. Throughout my life I have been told that I am like my mother in many ways except in looks. My mother was a great beauty in her youth.

A difficult old woman may be entertaining if you are not responsible for her upkeep. Such a termagant lived in my mother's boardinghouse when I was a child. I used to delight in Mrs. Beadle's nasty temper, the tactless things she said about the meals my mother prepared, the way she upbraided the postman, whom she accused of withholding letters from her and whom she regularly threatened to sue in a court of law.

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Used by permission of Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright 2006. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.

Related Elsewhere:

Winter Birds is available from and other retailers.

The rest of chapter 1 can be viewed at Bethany House's Winter Birds section.

The book won an award of merit in the fiction category of Christianity Today's 2007 book awards.