A CROOKED mulberry tree, tucked under the eaves of an old farmhouse like a fiddle under an old man’s chin, has a history so intimately connected with people that just the word ‘mulberry’ recalls the memory of Ianthina coming from the buttery through the kitchen, out on to the stone doorstep. If the screen door slammed, you knew that Ianthina and her sisters had been quarreling, probably about serving the cake. Should it be cut in squares or in oblongs? But if the screen door closed softly, you knew there was a bird in the mulberry tree.
Ianthina’s father was so queer that he liked to read the dictionary. That’s where he found Ianthina’s name, which was very appropriate, for her eyes were indeed violetblue. Ianthina was odd, too. That is, she ate a fly once just to see what it would taste like. If birds liked them, why would n’t she? She would sometimes stand in the middle of a field reading a book. But she could fry potatoes and read at the same time.
She was the kind of person you would send your own verses to, knowing that she would appreciate whatever merit they had, if any; or you would think of her when you found a lonely buttercup in October.
Squirrels would scramble up to her and wait with folded arms while she removed the cake they declined to eat and replaced it with butternuts held in her hand. When she went to the city she tossed crumbs from her pocket to the English sparrows. After all, a rare warbler was no more of a bird than these chattery sparrows of the gutters.
Ianthina said that people could see nothing but bushes where she lived. ‘But I see a lot more than bushes. It’s a good place, with birds and squirrels all around it. Thoreau knew what it’s like. He could see a landscape in a mud puddle.’ So Ianthina placidly fed birds, conscious of her long dark skirts and stray hairs and a figure that bulged in the wrong places.
After the supper dishes were washed she liked to spend the early hours of evening sitting under the mulberry tree, wondering how each of her bird friends looked tucked in some warm nest or nook.
One July day a home for insane people gave notice that Ianthina was dead. As a last gift to a good friend we laid beside her a spray of rosy-pink spikes of the steeplebush picked fresh from her pasture, and tender ferns from the woods.