The birds were all neatly arranged, catalogued, and positioned not according to species, size, or beak but in a system all of her own. Mrs. Inglethorpe was a very exacting woman with a very precise set of standards, ones she was reluctant to share but expected everyone to understand intuitively. The birds were not the only example, of course, but they were the ones I knew most intimately.
When I first met her, she already possessed the third largest collection of bird drawings and watercolors in North America. By my seventh year in her employ, her collection had more than tripled and had long left the Audubon Society in the dust. An achievement that caused Mrs. Inglethorpe no small amount of glee. She had even been known to giggle at the thought. although in later years her laughter would invariably fade into a chorus of ruinous, hacking coughs.
There was nothing, it must be said, about either my inclinations or my background that recommended me as a curator of avian paraphernalia. I had trained as a lawyer and initially became acquainted with Mrs. Inglethorpe through her husband’s foundation for dispossessed children.
One day I made the mistake of commenting on one of the watercolors in her office. This simple comment resulted in a long, confusing chain of events which left me in charge of procuring ever rarer and exotic bird prints, drawings, and paintings.
There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to her selections. Neither species, nor artist, nor quality was a reliable indicator of choice. I was simply expected to guess. And, in truth, I guessed wrong more often than not.
I was paid well for the privilege, of course. Certainly far more than Mrs. Inglethorpe’s daughter considered appropriate. She accused me more than once of taking advantage of an addled old woman.
I almost wished she was right. It would have made more sense than truth. Whatever the truth was. I remain as much in the dark as anyone. Especially since Inglethorpe’s death.
She left me the birds, you see, and not a penny more.
Her final joke.