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W.When I wake up, sunlight pours in through the bedroom window. I check my cell phone to check the time: just after 6 a.m. Then I see the date and I have a sudden and overwhelming need to escape from the room before my wife can wake up and wish me a happy birthday.
I get dressed in silence, in the clothes from the day before. My wife seems to move for a moment, but then she calms down. I step over the sleeping dog, squeeze past the door without opening it (it is dragging noisily on the carpet) and crawl down the stairs.
I lost interest in aging about 30 years ago, but this is my first brush with real fear. I think: if nobody says anything, then my birthday has not happened yet.
When I enter, the cat is sitting on the kitchen table as if it has been waiting for me all night.
“Meryl,” it says.
“I’m not Meryl,” I say.
“Eireann,” they say.
“Where did you get these names from?” I say. “Is there a website you visit?” The cat stares.
“Meow”, they say.
“Absolutely,” I say. “Let’s do without formalities. After all, it’s just a day like any other … “
“Meow!” says the cat.
“Good,” I say. “It is cat food.”
I fill the cat bowl with some vet-prescribed dry food specially formulated to promote kidney health. It’s expensive, but it lasts much longer than regular cat food because the cat hates it. I put the bowl in its usual place on the wide window sill, where the cat looks at it contemptuously.
“You’re welcome,” I say.
The sun is already high enough to dry the dew from the grass. The roses are blooming outside and the thimbles are as tall as a man. Last but not least, it is a nice time of year for a birthday.
I open the back door, make coffee, and sit at the kitchen table with my head in my hands and listen as the cat reluctantly cracks a few dry lumps between its teeth. I don’t think that’s so bad. It would be nice if I could just stay like this for a while, or the next 10 years.
A haunting sound comes from outside, like a flag snapping in a stiff breeze. Then the sound moves inward and stops. I lift my head from my hands and see a magpie the size of a chicken standing in the middle of the kitchen floor.
It’s not exactly a phobia, but I set tight limits on the time I can spend in a room with a large bird: ideally, no time. I recognize this crooked tail magpie as the same bird the youngest sometimes feeds from his bedroom window, but this relationship has nothing to do with me.
“You should go,” I say. The magpie seems to be thinking the same thing: it takes off and flies straight into the rear window, flaps its wings against the glass for a few repulsive seconds before falling stunned back onto the window sill next to the cat.
The cat cannot believe its luck. It pounces on the bird immediately, but the magpie has a significant advantage of size. It breaks out and flies straight up and hits the skylight. A single black feather hovers to the ground.
“Okay,” I say. “I can’t be here for that.” I leave the kitchen and close the door.
Another day I wouldn’t wake my wife to come down and deal with this situation, but not today. In the living room I find a wooden lap tray with handles that I hold in front of my face as I enter the kitchen again with a racing heart.
The magpie is now enthroned on the tall chest of drawers in which the cups and glasses are kept. The cat and I watch her look at both of us, then the window and the skylight and the open door.
“That’s right,” I say quietly. “Work it out.” The magpie hops along the top of the chest of drawers in the direction of the door and flies away after one last look.
“Jesus,” I say, and sit down. The cat jumps on the table, walks over it and sits in front of me.
“Meow?” it says.
“58”, I say.