The little bird house sagged on the branch, heavy with ice. He hadn’t gotten around to taking it down for the winter. So many other things had come to claim his thoughts, and then the season hardened with the cold.
He recalled the work he and the little girl had done together on the bird house, the endless measuring and planning. Now it hung on the tree branch almost without moving, despite the icy wind. He looked out the window, and remembered her words last spring when she had picked the perfect spot to place their creation. She had told him, “I can sit here at the table with you and we’ll watch the baby birds.”
She had needed some help putting it up, and her hands trembled just a little bit. But her smile was broad, and he convinced himself that perhaps she was just excited imagining what birds might come on the edge of summer to build a nest and raise a family.
She’d had such confidence that a mated pair would choose her bird house the very first spring. Although she had never doubted it, he had wondered if the house would be accepted so quickly.
But come they did, brown and feathered and busy, seemingly without stopping. The little girl sat on a stool nearby, and watched the birds in the afternoons that she felt strong enough to be outside. They seemed to know that she was more like the rabbits and the squirrels that went about their own work, no threat to what lived and breathed above their heads. Soon the naked necks of the babies appeared briefly in the door of the birdhouse, and within a day or so were covered with fluff. Eventually fledglings staggered to the edge of branches, and then prepared to fly away. Late one morning they left, without hesitation or a look back to where it all had begun. The little girl watched as the parent birds took a last glance inside the house, then hopped around a final time, as if to say goodbye. She left the stool for her father to put away for her, as it was now too heavy for her to carry back to the cabin.
She had been sad as the bird house sat quiet, and said several times, “I hope they have wonderful lives. I will miss them.”
Then finally she asked, “Do you think I will be here to see another bird family?”
The question caught him unprepared. But he knew that she somehow was aware that every morning was a gift, and each night led them farther down a road towards a place that she would soon go without him. When he trusted his voice, he had replied, “There will always be another family to remember you.”
He had immediately regretted his own words, because to him they sounded too much like a promise that he had no power to keep. But once he had answered and the words couldn’t be pulled back, she seemed satisfied and turned their conversation to the coming autumn and the apples that would be.
But despite her talk of fall, September and the sunflowers were to be her final glimpse of this earth, and the little bird house had still been empty when she left forever. Her father thought about taking down the tiny structure, but it had remained where she had put it, as he felt the silence close around both him and the little girl’s mother.
The season passed as seasons will, and the fall brought winter and January. This knife cold day, the snow squeaked beneath the boots of the little girl’s parents who stood below the branch where the little house moved slightly in the wind.
Its door opened up onto a gray afternoon, and the snow clung to the side away from where the wind had blown all night. But faint sounds from within were springtime, like the May afternoon when the little girl had made the bird house with her father and hung it there.
The father tilted his head back to listen. He said to the little girl’s mother, “Do you hear that? It sounds like baby birds.”
She nodded her head, and listened without moving. Her face was mostly hidden inside her hood and behind her scarf. She replied after a moment, “But how could it be? It’s impossible. It’s below zero.”
The little sleepy sounds suddenly grew more insistent, and excited. “The mama bird must be back with food,” she said. “I can hear her feeding them.”
“Back from where?” he asked. “And what is she feeding them?”
The woman did not reply.
The man wrapped his arms around himself against the wind, then stepped forward to put his arm around the shoulders of his wife. They leaned together and looked at the frozen little bird house, with the sounds of spring coming from inside. After a what seemed like a very long time, the house grew quiet, and the rustlings of nightfall ceased.
There was no sun strong enough to come through the clouds, so the light seemed to dim without color. The man finally said, “Come on in, and let’s have some coffee. I’m freezing out here.”
They entered their own little cabin, and hung their coats on the hooks that still held a red jacket, and a muffler with stripes. The father touched it. “She was so proud when she knitted that herself. She just loved to make things.”
Throughout the winter days that moved them forward, he sometimes heard springtime in the little bird house. Often when he passed the tree -- raising his boots past the snow -- he’d hear the soft voices of the birds his daughter had known would come. During the days of ice, he quit his crunching through wintertime, and stopped to listen.
He never looked inside the bird house, but let the sounds reach him where her voice had once been. He knew that some things simply are, whether eyes choose to believe or not.