Songs my grandfather taught me

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The Cuffer Prize: 2009 3rd prize winner

My grandfather used to say his life seemed shorter because he was attracted to the patterns of nature. His life didn't go by in seasons or even in years. For him, the passing of time was marked by the migration of birds and the singing of their songs.
In spring he listened for the over-wintering birds to break their silence. He loved their songs best, the melodies sung by males to attract females. The black-capped chickadee was often first to pierce a still morning with its simple three-note masterpiece. As spring thickened, he gave daily updates on those species that had completed the great migration from as far away as South America. He welcomed them all. The warblers. The sparrows. The flycatchers.
A note was hardly whistled before he named the species singing it. Lines of feathers hung from the walls of his study like the shrapnel of a wartime friend's plane. Standing in the window, reaching for the hanky he used to blow his nose a thousand times a day, he would speak to whoever might be passing down the hall.
"Hmmmmmyyup. The warblers are in pairs now. Nests built, too. Might be on eggs."
He was forever with his head tilted back and binoculars pressed to his eyes, his long bony frame picking its way through the forest surrounding his St. Philip's home. He would spot a yellow warbler, a bright yellow bulb twisting through the branches, and wonder how many trips across the continent it would make in its short time. A little life full of quest. The greatest adventures of his life were with the Merchant Marines. Far out to sea, he would find hordes of migrating birds on the upper decks. Little creatures devastated with exhaustion and attracted to the warm lanterns turning in the ocean's embrace.
He spent each Saturday teaching me new species. I would sit on a sawed-off stump while he beat junks of wood to pieces, the sweat dripping down his plaid collar and over his long face. His eyebrows pumped like giant fuzzy caterpillars as he spoke, forever squirming across his forehead.
Between the hammering of the axe he would point out a singing bird.
"Black-throated green warbler?" I would guess and his eyebrows bobbed in approval.
Then he would ask what habitat it preferred. If I couldn't answer, he would tuck the axe head into a chopping block and begin his monologue about the species. His eyebrows squirming to escape as he spoke. His nose ripening with every breath. Nan would spot him resting and storm the front door.
"Ohhh, Patrick. Look at how red your nose is! That wood has to be split by the fall!"
And with that he went to work again. My grandfather chopping the wood. My grandmother swinging the axe.
On Sundays, when Nan would listen to the church broadcast on VOWR, he would be in another room with recordings of birdsongs he didn't quite know blasting over the word of God.
He grew silent when the light changed in fall. He was a quiet man in winter but for the song of the American robin. He would hide in their towering house of constant renovations and whistle the Cheeri-Oh! Cheeri-Up! Cherri-Ly! of the robin. I would thunder over the stairs tracking the bird that never stopped singing for the fall of night or the slumber of summer.
I remember all this. I remember every song and every soft feather of the forest. It was in this way I grew to understand my grandfather's philosophy about the shortness of life. As soon as things stay the same, the seasons change.
Nan insisted it was just old age. I laughed when we found tiny abandoned birds' eggs he had collected over his life in the door of the fridge alongside those from the market. I grew concerned when I found feathers in the cereal box and his binoculars in the oven. He still cocked an ear for any song. It was only when I tested him that I realized what was happening.
"What song is that Pop?"
He looked shocked that I didn't know. Then there was a shift in his eyes, a slow turning as he grasped for an answer that was always just out of reach. What was common sense just didn't seem so common anymore.
"Mourning Warbler," he said and I smiled my approval.
But it wasn't a Mourning Warbler. More and more they weren't the birds he thought. I watched his life disappear one song at a time. There was a quickness to it all that was heartbreaking. The warblers. The sparrows. The flycatchers. They all flew south one fall and never came back. Every day was like winter.
We managed to get him into the Alzheimer's ward for veterans at the Miller Centre. The medals of the young and the brave marked the entrance to the fallen and forgotten. Within a few weeks he seemed to forget he had ever been anywhere else. At first I took him for walks down through the gut and near Quidi Vidi. Then one summer day, resting on a bench near the lake under determined song of a ruby crowned kinglet, he turned and snarled up into the trees.
"Oh, don't those things ever shut up! What
a bloody racket!"
I never walked with him again.
I got the call early one winter evening. He was missing. The staff had checked not only the ward but the entire hospital. I understood by the panic in the young nurse's voice the seriousness of the situation. It was 10 below outside with a stiff wind. They had no idea what he was wearing.
I parked at the hospital but never went in. I was convinced he was walking near the lake. The wind touched the water at the edge of my eyes and turned it to stone. I thought he was surely doomed. Then, storming the rows of the Anglican Cemetery, calling his name against the February howl, I heard it. That unmistakable song. Cheeri-Up! Cheeri-Ly! Cheeri-Oh! The only bird that sings in winter.
The gravestones passed me like bullets as I ran towards the sound. I was a kid again, but instead of being inside the house he always kept us warm in he was outside freezing to death. In my panic and the turning wind his whistling vanished. I got my bearings and rounded a group of trees into a new row. And there he was. Lying on the frozen ground. His face as blue as a robin's egg. Not a touch of life in him. And on a branch just above him with its head thrown back and little red chest pumping like an engine. Cheeri-Up! Cheeri-Ly! Cheeri-Oh! A robin. Singing his heart out in the bitter raw dead of winter.

Josh Pennell is a freelance journalist working in print and radio in St. John's. He also has a biology degree from Memorial University and works in the field of environmental assessment.

Organizations: Merchant Marines, Miller Centre, Anglican Cemetery

Geographic location: South America, Quidi Vidi, St. John's

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