South for the Winter

I met you when you were a tree. I built my nest high up in your branches.

It started out simple: I’d been flying for hours, and I landed to take a rest. Way at the top, beneath a pillow of leaves, where I’d be hidden from larger birds.

The view was extraordinary. A field to the south, open for miles. To the west rolling hills, lined with houses.

There was a house near you. That worried me. Still, that field would have bugs, and worms when it rained. And every house still had trees in its yard, so I didn’t think you were going anywhere anytime soon.

“What a lovely home,” I thought. And that was that. You were my home.

I spent the summer up there. The field had plenty of food, and your leaves were thick, with tiny branches sprouting off of every larger one. I could spend a lifetime there and not be seen.

But I would be heard. I’d be heard for miles. You were so tall! I could sing my songs, and now and then another bird was loud enough to sing back, but they were always softer, no, always lower.

Winter came on fast and cold. It does that now; all of my senses are off. Maybe the seasons are off. But the air was cold, your leaves were disappearing, and it was time for me to go. I said goodbye and I went south. I hoped I’d find another tree like you there, but I knew I wouldn’t. I found shelter, but not a home. And I was so afraid you wouldn’t be there when I came back. But you were.

One summer I sang my song, and another voice came back, still lower, but stronger than the others. I sang out, and it came back again, playful, this time closer. I sang softer. The voice came back just below me.

Back and forth we sang, until the ladybird tweeted right below me, then right beside me, and back and forth we fluttered and sang so low no one else could hear us. It was like I led her up there, but it was more like you did.

I remember when our eggs hatched. Three littlebirds, squawking and screeching, hungry. We raised them, the ladybird and I and you, our nest and our shelter and our home.

I watched as they learned to fly. I watched them catch their own food. And I watched as, one by one, weeks apart, they would fly away and never return. My heart sang its sorrow song, but I hoped they found a tree half as good as you.

I remember the cat that chased me once, and how it couldn’t make it to even your lowest branches. I remember the young boy who tried to climb you, and I watched him grow alongside my own littlebirds, and his own ladybird he would sit beside, right in your shade, singing their own songs.

And I remember the night it stormed. Thunder crashed, and my heart beat faster, but I nestled closer to my ladybird and tried to sleep it away.

Then lightning struck, and we were falling. I tried to fly, but I didn’t know which way was up. Everything was just black, and wet, and cold, and the last thing I remember is my ladybird taking off into the night, moonlight fighting through the clouds and glinting off of her wings, beautiful.

When you die, part of you stays here, just for a little while, while your soul is fighting its way out of an egg. I stayed right here, where you used to be.

The storm lifted, like all storms do. My heart cried out a song I didn’t know it could, seeing you lying on the ground, your branches broken, your leaves scattered, part of your trunk still standing, jagged and aimed at the sky, a brutal memorial of what used to be.

I watched the humans come, and I knew I was seeing you for the last time. They would sweep it all away, cut down and dig up whatever was left, and you’d be gone like you never existed.

They did sweep you away, and cut down what was left, but they left your roots and stump. And that boy I watched grow beneath you, nearly a man now, placed a bird bath where you used to be, a new memorial, a tribute to what you were, and a promise that you could still be. And I watched my ladybird play in that fountain, I watched the other birds whose songs I’d always heard join together, and my heart sang.

Because you’re still here, in a way. And even as my spirit starts to spread its wings, I know what we shared was here, even though we’re not. And nothing can ever take that away from us.

I sang you one last song, and then my spirit flew south for the winter.