The birds came back this week. After a long, dark and cold winter. I’d been looking out for them, waiting for the flash of black in the sky. They’re like the first sight of the snow beginning to melt, dark patches of grass beneath hoping for a fresh glimpse at the sky. It’s been a cruel winter since Shadow Joe was hanged. Snowmen were built but remained unjudged and stood like sentinels in the village, watching us. It felt they drew closer to our houses each day, despite every fresh dawn of ice freezing them more firmly to the ground. There was a strange, creeping sense of dread unlike any winter I remembered. Ma Tulip says the dark woods have nestled up more tightly around the village. I don’t know if that’s true since trees don’t grow much in the cold months, and you can’t exactly watch them growing. Not if you want to stay busy. Dad says no one should listen too closely to Ma Tulip, that she’s exactly the sort who spends too much time on nonsense like watching trees. But standing outside, looking at the woods that encircle the village, they do feel closer, taller. Like there’s less of the village or just more of them I can’t say. Either way, it seems like we’re smaller, tighter, more squeezed than we were before the ice came. The stumps of the snowmen are out here still. It takes a long time for all that lovingly compacted snow to fade away. One night someone went out and smashed them all. Maybe it was the sight of them glowing in the moonlight, round faces turned to the sky or into your soul depending on how you saw them. For all the effort they took to roll up, our delight in them had soured fast. I don’t think we’ll make them again. It’s been a long winter. The Sallis family took ill after the third ice storm battered our homes. No one could get to them for a week, not with the snow and freezing splinters whipped through the village. When they did, when dad and the woodsmen hacked their way through snow drifts the height of our doorway, they found the family frozen to their beds, all the windows opened to the storm. No one said much about it. They left the bodies there to be removed and cremated once the thaw sets in – no use cutting someone off a bed just to burn them, dad says. So we spent half the winter with the dead family cold and waiting for a funeral. That’s tomorrow, the day after the birds have returned. It doesn’t seem like the brightest welcome home for them, but then the village does feel different. Whether Ma Tulip’s right about the dark woods or not I don’t know, but something has happened. The winter has sharpened things. We were tighter on supplies than we’ve been before, despite the hunters spending every day in the woods right up till the first ice storm, bringing back less and less. I feel like I’m more than just one winter older too. Shadow Joe’s hanging stuck with me long through the darkness, even though I know that his thefts were one of the reasons folks were so worried about the coming winter. Maybe I’ve just outgrown snowmen, and the world looks different now that people I know have died. People live and die in the village, obviously, but I liked Shadow Joe and I liked his children. It never seemed fair that children should pay their parents’ price, but the village was stretched too thin. Standing out here, watching the birds coming in over the crest of the forest, they’re like a vast wave of leaves lifted out of the trees themselves, a whirling darkness descending on the village. I wonder where they go. It must be a long way, to escape the ice and cold. Their cawing as they wheel into the village is a reminder of last year, and instead of bringing in fresh tales of their adventures elsewhere, they’re bringing back the past instead. I long for their stories of sun-filled meadows, the dusty heat of desert, lakes and rivers thriving loud and vibrant. For the first time in my life, I wonder if they’ll stay. They always have before – my whole life has been watching the birds come and go over the seasons. This is their home, or one of them at least. But if it seems different to me, colder, more closed and meaner than it did half a year ago, perhaps it feels that way to them too. They don’t settle on the hanging tree, picking other ice-battered hosts instead. The bier for the Sallises disturbs them; they travel to avoid the grim winter but they’ve returned to find it’s still here. I catch a glimpse of Ma Tulip also standing on her doorstep, watching the birds. She shakes her head at me, too far away to read her expression but in her shape I read sadness, resignation. Then she goes inside. Some of the birds have settled on her roof, but they all seem restless, unsure of themselves. Not their usual cocky and swaggering selves. I think Ma’s right. The trees are closer, denser, like the space between them narrowed over winter. Do trees draw near each other for warmth, or to stop the brutal icy wind from pushing them apart? I think it’s going to be harder for the hunters this year to make their way to the hidden glades where their prey might be. Imagine if those glades have closed up, pushing all the living things out. The village is just a big glade, really. A hole in the forest where people live. I watch the birds flutter a bit longer. I don’t want to go inside in case they all fly away as soon as my back is turned. But there’s work to be done, so I give them a wave and hope they’ll stay for the summer.
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