Our house is in the suburban scablands of Kelowna, B.C., off a highway that yawns with constant traffic. Silence is a steady hum of human endurance: airplanes, crying children, ticking engines, barking dogs, and midnight sirens chasing crime and injury. There is no birdsong in the winter; there is only a fraying pulse, a white noise blanket stitched with buzzing telephone wire that settled over everything in uniform suffocation. But that fabric was torn one morning, because the robins had come all at once.
A hundred of them lighted down in our yard at dawn at the end of March. Even with our windows closed we could hear them, shaking the shadows of the cedar tree across the back lawn. An alder’s naked branches had burst alive with the bustle of red breasts. They all jostled for a perch, sidestepped flapping wings and whistled back and forth about the weather. They didn’t root for worms, their dark eyes a different kind of hungry; they had come to make a life, but they were not going to make it here. I had come here like them years before, and was still learning how to leave.
I sat on the porch and listened; I was told two migrating rounds had arrived at the same time, that in Vancouver they had also flocked in droves. Their song was a chorus and a cacophony, a ringing above the drumbeat of daily drudgery that gentled a bit of the sorrow that is, sometimes, a symptom of living. The hum of the fridge and the lights and the clock set 10 minutes early—the tick of perpetuity, the desire to punctuate—was cleared by these hundred wings beating, lighting up and down in the cedar eaves.
The robins winter where it is warm enough and follow the weather north when it comes to wet the earth for worms. They do not migrate on a schedule; some of them do not migrate at all. Like all things brave, they are dumb with determination. They are eaten by cats and hawks and tire treads, kill themselves against windowpanes and fall against crosswinds. And still they fly, from here to there and halfway back again. They build their nests with mud, chasing the rains that carry them up and out, not always to places they’ve been.
My brother and I tried to raise a robin once, when I was six and we lived in Tennessee. We found him in our front yard and carried him around in the cups of our palms where he rode beady-eyed and pacified, his large beak frowning. He was a soft bundle of down, his wings and tail budding with remiges and retrices that would soon learn to trick flight from still air. No doubt he had already tried to fly, and tumbled instead from a nest we knew was tucked against the belly of the bridge across our front creek. Still, he was big enough and we were young enough that we thought maybe we could teach him the kinds of things we ourselves didn’t know.
We kept throwing him to the sky to see if he could catch it underneath. My brother would lob him underhand and the robin would reach the top of the arc with wings braced out as if to hold the rise. Flying, we found, was not an easy lesson, but sometimes he did catch, or would seem to. There was a moment of grace before gravity, before the air slipped through his feather phalanges and he fell grasping with wings too short, too slotted, too small to carry him anywhere but down. Each time I would rush forward in my own fluttering panic to catch him in a pillow I’d pulled from my bed, outstretched like a catcher’s mitt.
For a day he was our secret. We brought him bugs he would not eat and made him a nest of old leaves beneath the side yard oak trees. We held his trembling body gently against our thunderous hearts and he was quiet about that, and most everything else. We took this to mean he was not afraid, that he knew somehow we were not hungry the way other beasts are, with our soft hands and square teeth. When we bedded him down for the night we covered his back with the crinkled leaf palms of last year’s fall and tried one more time to feed him.
In Kelowna the robins left the way they had come: all at once and without warning. They let the backyards resume their hollow hum without the slightest echo of apology over the stale grass and pitted lawns. If they had asked I would have followed, and learned to make a home from the rain-soaked detritus of spring. Instead I waited from the porch, listening for clues, looking to see if their small feet had scrawled a message in the mud that told where they had gone. But there was nothing left, just a signature of shit on the corner fence.
In Tennessee, our robin had left a note made of feathers, the traces lingering as long as the decay, feathers first blown and then rotting. There had been a storm the night before, a tornado warning that had woke us with wind and sirens and drumming windowpanes, our trembling home pressed against a different kind of thunderous heart. The gales had scattered his note—quills sticky—across the ground in a message we couldn’t read and only kind of understood, an early education in the dark things our youth refused.