The flash was so bright it pierced her closed eyelids, waking her from her nap. A thunderclap followed, Pam Miller felt the deep vibration even in bed. Spring storm, maybe I'll get up and watch the show. After a few minutes with no further drama offered by the April skies she went back to sleep.
Awakening hours later in post twilight gloom she felt disoriented. It took her a moment to remember it was Sunday and she was home in bed. A 'mental vacation' she had called her lengthy afternoon nap, although she didn't feel particularly rested. She reached over to switch on her bedside reading light. After several clicks with no response Pam noticed the digital alarm clock was also dead. Great, the power's out. She fumbled around in the bed stand's drawer groping for the flashlight she kept there; finding it she got out of bed with a groan to make her way to the kitchen.
She had left the kitchen door propped open; a chill breeze blew through the screen door, smelling strongly of pine. Her nose wrinkled at the unusually powerful scent. Pam peered out into the darkness of her garden, her flashlight playing across the six foot tall tower of the bird feeder, then the row of large rhododendron bushes that made the border between her yard and the copse of box elders and maples stretching up the hill beyond. There were a few pine trees up there she thought, but couldn't recall them ever putting off such a noticeable smell before. She shivered; the breeze was unseasonably cold so she hastily closed the door. After a dreary dinner of cold pizza which the candlelight failed to lend any romance to, Pam sighed and decided to call it a night. So, this is the exciting life of the divorcee. At least her ex-husband had helped warm the bed sheets.
The next morning she woke up before dawn feeling refreshed, finding the unusually cool air pleasantly invigorating. It must have blown here all the way from Canada! The power was still out so she made a fire in the wood stove that helped save on electricity in the winter. Soon she had a nice cup of rich 'Italian Roast' coffee, milk no sugar, warming her up, and sat down to enjoy the morning show at the little table she had placed beside the picture window looking out on the garden. Breakfast time at the bird feeder! A group of black capped chickadees were already enjoying some sunflower seeds in the pre-dawn grayness. Soon they were joined by a pair of rufous sided towhees, an attractive bird with a black head and rust colored sides. She sipped her coffee enjoying the company.
Pam had always loved birds, it was fostered in her at a young age by her grandmother in Fairmont who delighted in the nature walks they took together through the friendly West Virginia wooded hills. She had learned their names and over the years had observed their habits. She never really thought of herself as a 'birdwatcher' but her interest had only increased as the years went by. A well-worn copy of Peterson's Eastern Birds field guide lay beside a small but useful pair of field glasses on the table before her—nothing fancy, just a hobby. The birds had become regular company once she had put up the bird feeder. It was company she welcomed a little more than she liked to admit. After the divorce she had rented this little one bedroom house on the outskirts of town, a truly tiny place but featuring a spacious garden for her to putter about in. It was good to keep busy, between the garden and the birds she didn't feel all that lonely . . . most of the time. Morning with the feeder had become a daily ritual.
What in blue blazes happened to the power? Pam got up to pour herself another cup of coffee from the old copper kettle on the wood stove. Returning to the table she hoped that her favorite birds would make an appearance today, it would be nice to see them. A few minutes later her hopes were rewarded. A flash of flaming scarlet winged over the rhodies to alight on the bird feeder in red splendor. The cardinal had come. The brilliantly plumaged male dipped his crest at her in what she liked to think was greeting and proceeded to help himself to the sunflower seeds. Even in the lingering shadow of night he glowed. Soon he was joined by his olive hued mate who wore just a blush of rose on her head and wings—nowhere near as striking as the male, of course, but still a very elegant and beautiful bird.
She watched them closely as they ate and was mesmerized for a time, deeply enjoying their bright movement in the stillness of the dawn. No wonder they were chosen as our state bird—we weren't the only state that had chosen cardinals, either! The cardinals sometimes seemed to her as if they didn't even belong in a place as normal as West Virginia; they had the look of a fanciful jungle bird from some exotic clime, such was the glamor of their crest and hue. They brought a sense of wonder to her garden and she was awfully glad to have that . . . it was important. Everything else seemed so drab these days.
Her eyes were taken away from her cardinals by the fluttering of a new arrival at the feeder. A bird about the same shape and size as the towhee was now testing the sunflowers with an inquisitive peck. It had a brown back, a creamy light orange border on the lower breast curved up around an eye catching bright blue bib flashing from breast to beak. It was a lovely thing and she realized with some surprise that she had no idea what it was! A new bird for her list and one definitely not common to the area! She grabbed her field guide in excitement and began flipping through its pages in search of the new, her attention torn between studying the strange bird and trying to locate it in the pages. As she searched it was joined by two more, another sporting the blue patch and then a drabber brown bird that shared the same creamy breast and belly—the female, obviously!
"This is ridiculous." Making herself go slowly and concentrating on each page she made her way through the entirety of Eastern Birds. There was nothing that matched the strangers at her feeder. Eyes narrowed stubbornly she went over to the small bookshelf by the bedroom door. She found the little Golden Guide to American Birds she'd had since she was a kid. On a whim she also grabbed the rarely opened Birds of the World her ex had given her as a birthday present. It was a typical gift from him, an attempt to show that he knew what her interests were but a failure to know them in any depth. He didn't understand her birdwatching, or for that matter her, at all. In Trent's mind it was a pastime for doting little old English spinsters. Which is what you are becoming, isn't it? Shaking the bitter thoughts from her mind she hurried back to the table. Amazingly the new birds now outnumbered the ubiquitous chickadees, nearly a dozen of them feasted in her garden!
"All right then, so they've wandered in from the western states." she mumbled to herself. The Golden Guide was quaint and full of pleasant childhood memories but it was an overview of all of North America and really wasn't any use. She would have to order Peterson's Western Birds; strays were rare but they did happen. She picked up her coffee then nearly dropped it in surprise. The cardinals had flown away and a new bird had taken their place at the feeder. It was as large as the cardinals, its body was a powdery orange combined with patches of light gray and it sported a bright blue bar on its wing. In place of a crown it had light and dark stripes running back from its sharp beak. It called out in a harsh rasping call causing the chickadees to scatter away into the safety of the rhododendron. She had never seen this bird before but she knew its voice: it was a jay, and it sure wasn't blue!
"What the hell!?" She grabbed Birds of the World, flipping directly to the corvids, the family that included jays and crows in its genealogy. There it was in a color plate photograph. The Eurasian Jay. Definitely a European bird and here it was helping itself to her feeder.
Maybe one stray in a day but not two, not two in a whole season! The odds are too much against, especially across the damn Atlantic! She watched in amazement as the big bird made itself right at home in her garden, devouring the sunflower seeds with messy relish in the morning sunlight . . . the morning sunlight . . . . Pam stood up at the table, the wonder of the stranger birds forgotten.
Pam ran out the kitchen door into cold air, rife with the scent of too many pine trees. She stopped near the feeder, the birds scattering into the bushes at her intrusion. Pam watched the morning sun climb higher above the hill into a somehow too blue sky, no haze, no drift of pollution. The sun was beautiful, the sun was warm. The sun was in the wrong place.
"That's not possible." A lot of people go through their lives not caring or noticing where the sun rises and sets throughout the seasons and she was not one of them. Pam paid attention to things like that, to the world around her and this was wrong. She stood very still in her garden as the shrill cries of a bird that shouldn't be there rang out in a morning that shouldn't be happening.
She was afraid to move for a very long time.
One Year Later
There was no coffee left. Pam sat at her table with a cup of hot water that she'd poured some fresh cream and a single drop of artificial vanilla into—a poor substitute but it made the morning a little warmer. She watched what she now called the 'bluebibs' at the bird feeder picking at a meager assortment of flax and some wild grasses she had gathered. She couldn't give them very much since she was saving the sunflower seeds for next year's garden.
Pam frowned at herself. If she had been smarter last year she would have planted the entire yard in sunflowers! She, like everyone else in Grantville had been too busy just trying to survive. Her cranky landlord's precious grass had been turned up to put in vegetables in the rush to grow enough food for a seventeenth century German winter. Pam had grimly enjoyed that; the mean old coot hadn't even allowed her to plant a few trees along the road; such was his obsession with that damn grass. At least she'd had sense enough to plant one row of sunflowers in the midst of the chaos; twelve dried sunflower stalks from last year tied in a bundle leaned against the wall beside her garden window, their round heads full of seeds. There had been times where she had looked at those seed pods hungrily but had not allowed herself. If she could get enough of them growing this coming year she would have enough for the birds and not feel guilty. No one starved, I'm right to horde the seeds.
A few black capped chickadees that had come with them through the Ring of Fire mixed with the native German birds at the feeder. They were tough little buggers; they had made it through the first winter and just may have a chance here. I'm glad to see them, I just wish . . . She knew she should just forget about it but she had never given up hope . . . . I just wish the cardinals were still here. She knew the chances of a breeding population were entirely too slim. Pam swirled her faux coffee around in the cup. She had been through it in her mind a thousand times. First of all I can only guess at the number that came through with us. Anywhere between the six I actually saw at one time at the feeder and maybe ten . . . twenty . . . or more? Wishful thinking!
By autumn of that first year there were none to be seen. She had spent every morning watching for them but now only the chickadees and the native birds came to her feeder. She sometimes tried to make herself feel better by considering that there were still lot's of cardinals . . . across the Atlantic. It never really helped much and usually just made her feel more lost. Even so, she couldn't help thinking about her lost cardinals. Were they eaten by some new unaccustomed predator? Various stoats and weasels from the Thuringian forests had found their way to Grantville and the formerly spoiled up-time house cats turned hungry feral predators were probably the biggest danger. Maybe they flew away too far to find each other again. That was also pretty likely. The chances of a successful breeding population remaining here in Thuringia were extremely low. And even if they did, she wondered if it would really be a good thing.
Whenever nature's balance was changed something inevitably paid. Transplanted species had often become pests back up-time. The English sparrows and starlings brought to America to make it feel more like home had bred in such numbers that they often threatened native species. The starlings had begun with only one hundred introduced to New York's Central Park in the 1890's eventually spread throughout the entire North American continent. It wasn't natural. But then again, neither are we. There was some small hope for cardinals in Europe, if they stuck together and could breed fast enough for their population to grow. They are out there somewhere, out there in this time's Germany. I need to believe it.
Pam found herself becoming more and more devoted to her birdwatching. It was a hobby that didn't require technology or resources that could be better spent on Grantville's survival. She began taking long walks around Grantville, sometimes even stepping over what she personally called 'The Rim' to venture into Thuringia proper. This edge was becoming less and less apparent as West Virginian and German plant species mixed and mingled along the ring's edges. Grasses and runners had already covered most of the raw exposed earth created by the mismatched elevations. Nature at least was going to absorb the presence of this misplaced chunk of the world quietly. "Not so its people!" She laughed aloud thinking of the political turmoil their American presence had created across this century's Europe. We are a weed that isn't going to die off too easily.
On a fair June afternoon Pam was watching a flock of native birds playing in the pine trees at the forest's edge from a vantage point atop a crumbling Grantville embankment in the process of sliding into a Thuringian meadow at the rim. The birds were about thirty yards away across the meadow. She sat comfortably in the tall grass with her legs dangling over the rim half in, half out, enjoying the bird's antics with her field glasses. They were true beauties, bright lemon yellow with black wings and tail. She was quite sure they were orioles and had dubbed them such in her notebook. She put down the glasses to look at the pencil sketch she had made. It was in black and white, she was hoarding the lone box of colored pencils she possessed back at the house until she became a better artist. Around the simple but fairly accurate drawing she had described the colors in detail in her notes. At the bottom of the page she had whimsically written 'Lemon Oriole.'