In early December, Chlora gets confused about the annunciation and the visitation…
When she opened her front door
the big pregnant neighbor lady
She felt the baby jump, and said
“either he’s a gymnast or you’re Elizabeth
and this is the Visitation.”
Chlora knew she was not Elizabeth.
Maybe this was Great Expectations.
Plus she had the annunciation and visitation all mixed up.
Mary was in both events,
but one involved an angel and the other an old lady,
and in pictures both usually showed two people,
one in confrontation and the other pair in a hug.
Luke said at one point that Mary was deeply disturbed.
No wonder. Somebody either got the math wrong
or Gabriel was calling on the wrong girl.
…now it is Christmas Eve, and Chlora decides to hang a trio of birdseed bells
outside in the snow…
Before they went to church,
they checked the weather on the TV news.
First there was a report from Rome.
The Pope had done Christmas mass in the bulging
St. Peter’s Cathedral, and they had a parade of cardinals.
Cardinals? Was the Vatican is full of birds?
Ha ha, Chlora thought, they better call Alfred Hitchcock.
This reminded Chlora to also feed the birds.
It was night and they probably wouldn’t discover
their treat until the morning,
and if it was snowing, they’d need some help.
Their dog got a stocking of treats, and the birds deserved
a merry Christmas too.
Three neighbors had given them bells shaped of birdseed;
these had apparently been the latest fad
at the hardware store which had promoted
regular bird feeding to change the migration patterns
of certain species. Chlora was happy to comply.
Redbirds were serendipitous, like vermillion messages
of hope. And to get more hope, you had to sometimes
provide for it. That was a cardinal rule
for harbingers of grace: prepare the way.
There was no better way than sunflower seeds for redbirds.
She liked to spread the seed all down the railing for the deck
and then wait for the long conversation
of birds flitting from one end to the other.
But squirrels always interrupted the birds
and she had to chase them off.
Chlora figured one way to fend off the squirrels
was to hang real bells on the birdseed bells.
Maybe the jingle would scare them off.
She borrowed three redbird ornaments from
the Christmas tree and attached them to each bell.
If redbirds were anything like bulls,
they’d be attracted to red
and come a-flying. It’d be like they had
their own handbell choir while they ate.
One bell had a picture of Jesus stuck on it,
another had Mary and her friends visiting,
and the third showed that hippie
St. Francis Feeding the Birds.
She tied big plaid ribbons on them
and found twine to hang them high.
The three would work well together,
like a campanile or carillon, hanging
side by side out on a limb right outside
the kitchen window.
She came back inside and admired her handiwork.
From behind her, the cardinals on TV
reflected in the windowpane
right over her campanile.
…after the rush of Christmas morning presents, Chlora sits down for breakfast and observes her birdseed bells…
Carols were on the stereo.
Jeannette and Isabella were making haste.
Was there a recipe for haste?
Mom was a good cook and didn’t even need recipes.
She was slamming around in the kitchen
exuding non-verbal communication
that needed no interpretation.
It had something to do with unwrapping a steam iron
that Dad put under the tree.
There was a gurgling sound and
the warm scent of coffee
wafted in from the kitchen, soon followed by
bacon, gingerbread waffles, and fluffy omelets.
Chlora preferred the spiced tea over coffee,
but was tempted to try a latte with cinnamon on top.
After all, Mary was a Madonna del Latte
as plenty of pictures showed in the art history book.
The Via Lacteal was like the Milky Way.
Sometimes pictures of the Madonna of the Milk
would show an infant Jesus
rooting around her big bosom
with the gulping eyes of a satisfied baby.
Those paintings were not too titillating,
Although Mary herself could give you
a heavy-breasted buzz almost as good as caffeine. In some, baby Jesus looked more like
one of the toddler twins licking away the sweet grace
while displaying his teeny weenie
so we’d all be assured that he
had all his parts. Chlora asked for a latte
made with Half & Half Jesus.
Her Mom smiled, and mixed it up special for her.
She tasted the froth and smiled through her milk moustache.
She could be in a magazine ad with that!
Why did coffee smell so good and taste so awful?
She sprinkled on cinnamon and asked for more sweetener.
Mom told her that she did not need more Equal, dear.
Just stir what you’ve got.
You soul stirrers need a long spoon.
They rubbed noses like Eskimos.
Sure enough, there were bells on Christmas day.
Out the window a pair of redbirds
had discovered the seed bells she hung up last night.
They surveyed the area warily.
Then, as if St. Francis was preaching to them,
coaxing them closer, they landed on top of the bells
and tentatively pecked
at the seeds. Tap, tap, tap, and the signal was out—
more birds flew in for the feast.
The jinglebells twinkled as redbirds
played the campanile
and soon the bells and bows twirled
in a flurry of red feathers, like
It was a joyful visitation,
like the painting of Mary and Elizabeth
hugging while their babies did high fives
in their wombs.
Chlora had read the story of the Visitation
all the way through. It began with praise
and Mary holding up a magnifying glass
to the Lord. Then it got flat out political.
Who put in that stuff about revolution??
It was all about feeding the hungry,
lifting up the lowly, and disgracing the rich.
Did mean old King Herod in his finely feathered nest
hear Mary’s song?
It was no jolly Christmas carol,
no meek and mild virgin humming Away in the Manger.
How come this wasn’t a Christmas carol?
Maybe it just was too up close and personal
for people of capacity, especially in the season
King Herod would go after these birds
just like he did innocent babies.
He was good at violent multitasking
and could easily kill two birds with one stone,
especially if they were all congregated in one place,
like on this campanile.
Why kill even one bird, even an obnoxious mockingbird?
The Magnificat ended well, however,
with the reassurance of fulfillment,
that sort of promise that Presence
has always been with us.
As the birds devoured the bells,
their shapes gradually changed.
Sunflower hulls sprinkled over the deck below.
They were enjoying their own bird communion
until a squirrel ran them off.
The greedy squirrel jumped on the middle bell
and hung onto it upside down and gnawed
at the ribbon. Then a second squirrel
piled on and the whole thing
fell to the ground.
The two of them ate it down to a nub.
It was sort of sad, like that Longfellow carol
about the Civil War and mourning his wife,
who had died in a fire,
when he wrote “There is no peace on earth.”
But then, the one they feasted on
was the Bellini bell, the one
with Jesus on it, offering himself as food.
Brave redbirds returned, tweeting,
and Chlora whistled back at them.
If his eye is on the sparrow
then I know he watches me, she thought,
which is nicer than You better watch out
from Santa Claus is coming to town.
He’s watching even me,
and it is Christmas morning, and this is peace,
when time stands still as an unstruck bell,
your cup overflows with the real thing,
inconvenient and immeasurable, this liquid love.
It made Chlora glad to be a mammal.