September and October

Excerpt from Broken Wing by David Budbill


Once, a long, long time ago and far to the north, on a remote mountainside above a little village that lay far down in the valley below, there lived a man who the people in the village—and the man’s neighbors on the mountain, what few neighbors he had—called The Man Who Lives Alone in the Mountains.

It was fall. Summer had come and gone. The garden lay withered by the autumn frosts. The hillsides had begun their turning from green to red and yellow. And The Man Who Lives Alone in the Mountains was busy with his getting-ready-for-the-winter chores.

He pulled up the withered garden plants and took them to the compost heap, where they will rot back into earth so they can return again, into the garden soil. With all the withered plants on the compost heap, he tilled the garden again and again, until the earth was clean and smooth, and there was no sign of the forest of plants that all summer he had called his vegetable garden. He has already sequestered safely underground in his root cellar or put away in his freezer or canned in jars and put on shelves the vegetables he grew in his garden during the summer.

The Man Who Lives Alone in the Mountains then turned to loading his woodshed with the wood he, last spring, cut, split, and stacked neatly on the hillside beside the house to dry under the summer sun. He brought it into his woodshed to keep it away from the rain and the winter snows. This firewood, for the woodstove inside his house, will keep him warm through the darkest and the coldest time of the winter to come.

He took down the screens from his windows and put up his storm windows, and when that was done, he banked the foundation of his little house with balsam-fir and red-spruce boughs to keep out the cold winds, and thus, he readied himself in every way for the coming winter, just as he has done every fall for all the years he has lived on this lonely mountain.

And with all these preparations done, The Man Who Lives Alone in the Mountains got out his wintertime bird feeders. The Man loved birds. He put the feeders on posts, hung them from the branches of the apple trees, nailed them to the side of his house, and made himself ready to receive the multitude of feathers and wings that would soon be his companions throughout the coming lonesome months of dark and cold.

As The Man worked through his autumn chores in preparation for the winter to come, the winter itself drew nearer.

The red- and sugar-maple leaves that had earlier turned yellow and red had, weeks ago, fallen to the ground. Then the birches and the poplar, the balm of Gilead, the aspen flared yellow momentarily and let their leaves descend to the ground. Finally, the needles of the northern larch, the tamarack, turned their own shade of yellow and also fell. Now they, along with all the other leaves, lay sodden on the forest floor. All the leaves were down except the coppery-brown leaves of the beech trees, which would cling to their branches long into the winter, so they could rattle in the cold winds. And then, after all the other leaves were buried under feet and months of snow, then the beech leaves would let themselves go one by one, two by two, and blow here and there, tumbling across the snow until they collected themselves in little piles, gathered together in depressions in the snow where they would remain until the next snowfall buried them, until the spring came and the snow melted, and the beech leaves descended slowly toward the earth through the layers of melting snow until they met the other leaves waiting for them since last fall, on the earth below.

Then, that one day, late, late in October, after the woodshed was full, a day of unnatural warmth and sun, the day when The Man Who Lives Alone in the Mountains could see the lazy bees under the sweet and warming sun doze and feed on the chrysanthemums—this was just the kind of day The Man knew he would not see again until next May.

So, on such a beautiful day as this, he went out into the woodshed, opened the big, wide loading door, stepped inside, and took down out of the rafters his snowshoes. It seemed strange, odd, to see these tools of the deep winter leaning now against the side of the woodshed, the grass still green, the autumn sun beating down. He got himself a chair, sat down in the entrance to the woodshed, and in the warm sun, he began carefully to revarnish his snowshoes. He applied coat after coat of varnish to the snowshoes until the wooden frames and the rawhide webbings glistened with a soft patina that made The Man Who Lives Alone in the Mountains smile.

As he worked on his snowshoes, the fearless, friendly, curious chickadees came to see what he was doing. One particular chickadee came closer than the others. She was the one with the featherless place and the horrible scar on her breast.

Last winter, about the middle of the way through, a chickadee had started showing up at the windowsill feeder. She was distinctive from all the others, because she—The Man had decided, for reasons he could not say, for it was impossible to tell, that this particular bird was female—she had a featherless, raw and torn, bloody, and oozing place upon her breast, evidence certainly of some kind of attack, perhaps from an owl or a hawk or a cat, a particular cat, a cat whose name was Arnold.

About a mile down the road from where The Man lived was another house, the only one for miles around, which was where Arnold lived with two brothers by the name of Beinke and a varying number of big dogs the Beinkes kept chained to posts in the dooryard, except when the two men and their dogs went bear hunting.

Because Arnold was a cat, he also just naturally liked to hunt. He especially liked to hunt little birds, and the best place for hunting little birds was in the dooryard at The Man’s house. Arnold liked to saunter up to The Man’s house, since the hunting was so easy up there under those apple trees among all those bird feeders. There were always dozens of birds delighting in the dooryard feast and, therefore, a little less on guard, less cautious, and more susceptible to Arnold’s sneak attacks. Easy prey was what they were, and Arnold knew it. He preferred to attack, capture, and torture his victims for as long as possible and then, more often than not, after having done what often was irreparable damage, walk away and leave his victims to their agony.

Whenever The Man saw Arnold prowling about, he hollered all manner of horrible and insulting profanities at him—and at his two owners also—and threw sticks and stones at him, and drove the cat away, but always, after a time, Arnold came back, looking for another unsuspecting bird. The Man did not keep a cat, even though almost all country people did, because he knew cats couldn’t keep themselves from hunting birds.

From time to time, The Man Who Lives Alone in the Mountains entertained, if only briefly, various drastic and violent measures for being rid of Arnold permanently, but The Man, being a man of peace and serenity—most of the time, at least—never acted on these fantasies. Nonetheless, if the truth be told—as in all stories worth telling, it must be—The Man Who Lives Alone in the Mountains wished more than anything that Arnold and the Beinke Brothers and their dooryard full of dogs did not live just down the road. Oh! If only Arnold didn’t live just down the road! If only the Beinke Brothers didn’t live just down the road!

Arnold the Cat

Any wounded bird broke The Man’s heart, but to suspect that it was Arnold, the cat, who had wounded this particular chickadee, who was now watching him work on his snowshoes, made The Man especially upset. Perhaps this chickadee had been wounded by a wild predator such as an owl or a hawk, but more than likely, her wound was, instead, the mark of Arnold’s only partly feral pleasure.

The Man had named this singular chickadee Samovar, because, for some reason, the bird’s little body reminded The Man of that big Russian tea urn called a samovar. The Man always seemed to come up with names for the wounded birds who appeared from time to time at his feeders. A number of years ago, there had been another chickadee with only one leg who had spent one whole winter with The Man Who Lives Alone in the Mountains. The Man had named her Peg.

Why this little, skinny, wounded bird here now reminded The Man of a huge teapot, he could not say. Perhaps he thought to name the struggling, sickly bird Samovar because if and when the bird regained its health and stature, it would then actually be a miniature, round, whimsical version of the Russian teapot. Perhaps that is what The Man dreamed of, hoped for: the bird’s body, healthy and plump, full of curiosity and song, and not the emaciated, struggling little wretch with that bloody open sore on her breast, who was, that winter, every day on his windowsill.

Chickadee from "Broken Wing"

To save the story of what happened to Samovar for some later time, suffice it to say that Samovar struggled through and survived the winter and the wound. With an abundance of the nutritious and healthful black-oil sunflower seeds The Man provided every day all winter, Samovar passed through the winter into spring and summer, then stayed on to become a faithful resident of the orchard that surrounded The Man’s little house. And now that fall had come and almost passed into winter again, Samovar, exercising the usual fussy and familiar curiosity that all chickadees do, flitted over toward where The Man was sitting, varnishing his snowshoes, and began to chatter the way chickadees do when they are more excited than agitated.

In The Man’s imagination, he thought he could hear in Samovar’s chatter the little bird saying, “What are you doing? What are you doing? What are you doing, Man Who Lives Alone in the Mountains?” The man chuckled to himself, thinking, “Boy, that’s quite a mouthful for such a little bird!” Samovar ignored The Man’s thoughts and continued. “What are you doing? What are you doing? What are you doing with that varnish? What are you doing with those snowshoes, those snowshoes, those snowshoes? Are you doing those snowshoes with that varnish? How do you do that? How do you do that? How do you do that, Man Who Lives Alone in the Mountains? How do you do that with those snowshoes, Man Who Lives Alone in the Mountains?”

That last day of gentle light and warming sun passed into evening, the birds went to roost, and The Man Who Lives Alone in the Mountains closed the woodshed doors with a grave sadness, for he knew what kind of change would be here in the morning. He turned to go into the house, then paused for a moment on his porch to say goodbye, farewell, and thank you to the summer and the fall, for he knew, he could feel it in his bones, that the beginning of winter stood waiting impatiently on the other side of the mountains.

And when the morning came, the cold, gray, dank chill of November had begun. Rapidly now, the last bit of color, the remaining pale yellows, drained away from the hillsides. Now the skeleton of the world revealed itself; the sere gray and brown of the naked hardwood trees stretched their skinny fingers against the sky. Now was the damp time, the dark time, the dank time before the coming of the snow, before the coming of the months of cold and isolation.

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