The Water Way
The Last Chickadee
By Tamia Nelson
December 23, 2008
The Old Ones were nervous. They took pains to hide their fear from the young birds now facing their first Winter, of course, but this well-meaning deception was always doomed to fail, and little Taiga felt more and more uneasy with every passing minute. Despite this, he made the most of the warm breeze that ruffled the feathers on his breast. He’d already survived one frigid night, after all, waiting patiently for the sun to transit the great unknown country between dusk and dawn, while clear ice formed right across the big lake. That night had seemed endless. He’d been wakened repeatedly by the penetrating cold, hoping each time to see the sun’s red orb inching above the horizon, but instead finding only the wan globe of an icy moon reflected in the frozen lake’s glassy surface. Not even dawn had brought warmth, and snow soon started to fall—big, lazy flakes that drifted down through the gelid air, flakes as light as down and as cheerless as the cry of a hunting hawk. It had snowed all day, blanketing the forest in a white shroud and turning the welcoming landscape into something alien and ominous.
But that was all in the past now, nothing more than an unpleasant memory. The snow had already melted back to a few dingy tatters, and the lake was once again ice-free. Could it be Spring already? It seemed too good to be true. Taiga had heard the Old Ones’ tales about Winters past, about months of short chilly days and endless frosty nights, nights when the bark on the big maples burst open with explosive force and the ice on the lake groaned and heaved like a living thing, nights when the Family huddled together in their roost, nestled deep in the cedar thicket, each bird taking his or her turn in the most exposed spots. Were these just stories? Taiga wondered. Is Winter already over? Taiga asked his mother, but her reply did nothing to cheer him up. No, she had said, Winter was only beginning, and the unseasonable warmth would soon be followed by another onslaught of cold weather. Gather food while you can, she said. Store it in as many places as possible: crevices in the bark of trees, the spaces between the scales in old pine cones, anywhere safe. And make sure you remember where you put it, she concluded. Winter is just beginning. You will need all your stored food before it’s over. You can never have too much. And then she left him to forage for food herself.
Taiga followed in her wake. He found a cone that still had seeds in it—That was lucky! he thought—and some withered pin-cherries, as well, and he surprised a hapless moth who shouldn’t have been fluttering about in Winter. Perhaps the moth also believed the cold weather was over and Spring had begun, Taiga mused, as he beat it against a branch before gulping it down. Then he resumed his search for seeds and berries to add to his Winter stores, always taking care to note exactly where he put everything.
The day passed quickly. Before long the pallid December sun had disappeared behind a low wall of dirty gray clouds, and a freshening breeze was tossing the tops of the tallest pines from side to side. A few clods of old snow that had survived the thaw were now hurled to the ground with liquid Splats! Red squirrels shouted insults at everything and everyone—at the snow bombs hurtling down from the pines, at the deer who stood on their hind legs to reach the tender tips of the hemlock boughs, at one another, at the wind itself.
Grizzle, the oldest of the Old Ones and the head of the Family, turned his face into the breeze for a minute, considering what to do next. It was time to seek shelter, he decided, and he called the Family together. They flew to him from all the points of the compass, then headed off to their roost, pausing only long enough to get a last drink from the lake. Once they reached the cedars, Taiga took his accustomed place on a branch, wedged tight between his brother Musk and his sister Bright. Together they settled down to meet the challenge of the long Winter night.
Taiga woke with a start. He’d been dreaming of sultry August evenings. But the scene that greeted him was far from sultry. The tall cedar lashed back and forth like a sapling in a summer thunderstorm. The wind shrieked. Sleet and snow hissed through the dense evergreen thicket. All the Family were awake now, and they struggled to keep hold of their branch as the cedar tossed and gyrated in the gale.
SNAPPPPP! The branch broke without warning, and Taiga was flung headlong into the howling dark. He called out to the others—Chickadee! Chickadeedeedee!—but his cries were lost in the roar of the wind and the crash of falling limbs. Now Taiga was on the ground. Snow had already drifted deep. He tried to fly back up into the tree to rejoin the Family, but the wind was too strong for him. So he huddled close against the trunk of the cedar, instead, calling again and again: CHICKADEE! CHICKADEE! CHICKADEEDEEDEE! No answer came. The wind screeched. Branches smashed down only inches from his beak. Snow stung his face. But he heard no familiar voices, and there was nothing he could do to make himself more comfortable. He could only wait for morning.
It was a long time coming. The Winter night seemed to last forever. Taiga dozed repeatedly, only to wake with a start every time a branch cracked. Whole trees were falling now. Snow drifted over the little chickadee. He shook himself free, preening his feathers in a desperate attempt to keep the cold at bay. But then snow covered him once more. Again and again he struggled to shed his frozen cloak. Again and again he called out to the Family. Yet there was still no answer. Taiga wondered if he was alone.
Dawn brought a grim gray light. It did nothing to raise Taiga’s spirits. The wind had abated, but not before it had brought down the top of the tree that sheltered the Family. Taiga wondered how he had escaped being crushed. The forest was now a scene of devastation. Ancient pines had snapped off thirty feet in the air. Whole cedar groves had toppled. Branches littered the snow-covered ground. Taiga resumed his frantic calling. CHICKADEE! CHICKADEE! CHICKADEEDEEDEE!. Only the wind replied. Even the red squirrels were silent.
The cold gripped Taiga like the talons of a hawk. He was very hungry. He had to find food. Now. He fought his way into the air and circled around to get his bearings, then flew to a white birch at the lake’s edge. There were seeds cached under the curling bark. Taiga wrested one from a crevice and carried it to a splintered stub that was all that remained of a branch, but the wind tore the seed from his grasp before he could bolt it down. Sick with frustration and hunger, he returned for a second seed, and this time he held onto it. Then he went back for a third and found an unexpected treat: a fat grub. He ate that, too, and it gave him the strength he needed to go on. He started calling again. CHICKADEE! CHICKADEE! CHICKADEEDEEDEE!
No one replied.
Snow piled deeper and deeper, obliterating all color from the landscape. It clung to every trunk and branch. The wind blew steadily. It no longer had its earlier force, but it sucked all the warmth from the little bird’s body nonetheless. Taiga foraged constantly, and while he searched for food, he continued to call. Once he thought he heard an answer, and he called again, hoping against hope that he would hear a familiar voice in return. But he heard nothing. The woods were silent. Only the wind spoke to him, and the wind’s words brought no comfort.
Night came quickly, adding to Taiga’s growing despair. He returned to what remained of the Family’s tree, finding some solace—though little shelter—among the tangled remnants of its branches. At long last, the snow had stopped falling, and shortly after midnight the sky cleared. The temperature plummeted. Sudden, sharp reports of splitting bark wakened Taiga from his fitful slumber. It’s true, he thought. What the Old Ones said is true, and it’s happening right now. The trees are exploding in the cold. Soon nothing will be left of the world.
Worst of all, even worse than the wind, was the helplessness he felt. There was little he could do but try to sleep. And sleep he did. He dreamed of summer, of warm August days and sunny skies, of sunflower heads, swollen with seed, swaying in a gentle breeze. He was reunited with the Family, his family, all of them chattering cheerfully as they foraged together, mining seeds from the swaying sunflowers and carrying them away to places of safety, places known only to them.
But dawn brought an end to all dreams of summer. Once more, Taiga woke to a monochrome world, a world of snow and ice and deadly cold, a world in which all that was familiar was gone. And Taiga now realized that it was a world he must face alone, without the Family. He looked out at the steely gray landscape and tried to summon up a vision of the green, welcoming woodland that he remembered.
Try as he might, though, the lost world of August eluded him, even in recollection. It was a place he could visit only in his dreams, a refuge denied him in the terrible reality of the wakeful day. Still, he knew he couldn’t afford to give way to self-pity. The cold bit deep. Even if he was the Last Chickadee—this was the first time that he had admitted the possibility to himself, and his heart fell at the thought—he had a constant companion: hunger. So Taiga resumed his endless search for enough food to nourish the vital fires in his body. He continued to call out. CHICKADEE! CHICKADEE! CHICKADEEDEEDEE! But he no longer listened for a reply. He now called to the Family more from habit than from any real hope. But at least the habit afforded him some small crumb of comfort.
So did the red squirrels, who had resumed their lively invective, directed—or so Taiga guessed—at Winter itself. At least life was returning to the shattered forest. A doe accompanied by twin yearlings browsed happily on the tight buds of a fallen beech, finding a boundless store of food newly within reach. The storm had brought good fortune to some, at least, Taiga decided. This too buoyed his sagging spirits as he readied himself to face a third night alone, at the end of another disheartening day. But the relief he’d felt in hearing the squirrels and seeing the deer was transient. It was no substitute for the security he’d known when he was surrounded by the Family. Eventually, however, fatigue triumphed over melancholy, and Taiga dropped off to sleep, huddled once more in the remains of the Family’s cedar.
He dreamt of Musk and Bright. But he awoke alone.
The lake was again frozen hard from shore to shore, and the ice cracked and heaved as the weak light of the pale sun brought a teasing illusion of warmth to the land. The sharp reports made Taiga think of the exploding trees he’d heard two nights ago. Soon, though, he had taken up his quest for food again. He still called out from time to time, but his calls were now joyless and mechanical. Whatever lingering flickers of hope had survived the first three days of solitude were now dead. Habit was all that remained. And when habit, too, died, Taiga knew that he would be no more. He realized with a start that this prospect no longer dismayed him.
That realization was frightening. After all, Taiga, reminded himself, the People were duly proud of their fighting spirit. As the Old Ones repeatedly told the youngsters, chickadees were steadfast in adversity and cheerful in all weathers. When lesser birds fly before Winter’s onslaught, the Old Ones boasted, puffing out their chests to the fullest and struggling unsuccessfully to keep a note of self-satisfaction from creeping into their voices, we stay behind. We do battle with Winter on his own ground, and we do not admit the possibility of defeat. And what is the result? Every year, in Spring, when at last Winter is forced to give ground, we are still here.
That was what the Old Ones told the youngsters, and they believed what they were told. Taiga was no exception. The storm is over, Taiga thought. The Family is gone. But I am here. I may be the Last Chickadee, but I will be a credit to my People. I will not surrender to Winter. And with that he gave voice to a fusillade of calls louder than any he had uttered since the night of the Great Storm, calls that owed nothing to hope and nothing to habit, calls that flowed direct from an unconquered heart: CHICKADEE! CHICKADEE! CHICKADEEDEEDEE! CHICKADEE! CHICKADEE! CHICKADEEDEEDEE!
And then the impossible happened. Taiga heard an answering call. It seemed to come from across the frozen lake, from a country that was as foreign to him as the unknown land where the sun spent every night, leaving the People’s world in darkness. To be sure, the Old Ones had spoken from time to time of the country on the other side of the lake. Grizzle even claimed to have been born there. He called it the Land Across the Water. Of course, Taiga had never visited it, and Grizzle had now vanished, swept away by the howling wind along with the rest of the Family, to be lost forever amid the splintered remnants of the forest that they had once called home. That much was certain. Taiga knew he was the Last Chickadee. So he must have been mistaken. Must have been. There could not have been any answer to his call. The impossible is just that, he chided himself—impossible. But Taiga’s heart ignored his head. Once again, he called out, even louder than before: CHICKADEE! CHICKADEE! CHICKADEEDEEDEE! And once again, he heard a distant answer.
Taiga’s joy now knew no bounds. He flew up to the top of the tallest of the tall pines still standing along the margin of the frozen lake, and he looked in the direction of the Land Across the Water. He saw something in the distance. At first it was only a smudge against the white of the snow-covered ice. But the smudge drifted closer as he watched, and before long Taiga realized that it was a flock of small birds. Were they… ? Yes, they were! Chickadees. Flying toward him. Was it… ? he wondered. Yes, it was! It was the Family. And Taiga leapt from his perch on the top of the pine and flew out to meet them.
Later, much later, as the sun slid down into the unknown country of the night, and as the temperature once again plummeted and the ice on the frozen lake muttered and moaned, the Family finished their final meal of the day and slaked their thirst with beakfuls of snow. Then they flew up to claim their new roost in one of the cedars that the Great Storm had spared, preening and grooming their feathers to defy the coming chill. The air was already bitterly cold, but Taiga was warm. Reunited with his Family, perched contentedly between Musk and Bright, the Last Chickadee closed his eyes and slept, dreaming of sunflower heads swollen with seed, tossing in a gentle August breeze.
Soon it would be Spring. All was as it should be.
Copyright © 2008 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.