In January the birds get tipsy. You know that moment in the long stretch of winter when the holidays are over and there’s nothing to distract you from the darkness and bleakness and the never-ending grind of feeding yourself and keeping warm and the snow that continues to fall and drift.
The cedar waxwings mass on a telephone wire near the mountain ash, now bare of leaves, waiting for the boots on the kids walking to the bus stop to stop crunching, not unlike the stay-at-home mother who waits, peeking from behind the kitchen curtains before turning to what will distract her or give her day a bump or soften the feeling that she is slipping away, getting smaller, the way the bus does as it gets to the end of the road, before it completely disappears.
When the yellow bus is gone, and then one day, the children themselves, it is still. You are alone with the day. With the chores that must be done and the guilt when they’re not done and the story you said you’d write or the friend you said you’d call or the still life you said you’d paint or the life you said you’d live. You sit at your loom and look at the scarlet warp yarn wrapped there for months, or at your piano, where you note the waxen skin on hands that rest on yellowed keys. Your eyes drift to the window.
The snow topping the cedar rails of the fence is piled high, undisturbed. It looks firm, permanent, dignified even, but all it would take is a child running a red wool mitten along the top to tumble it to the ground where it would be just more snow. You see the waxwings, acting as one, descend on the mountain ash and gorge on berries that are slightly frozen, a little sugared, a bit fermented. Avian ice wine. You want to tell the birds to pace themselves, but you would only scare them back to the wire, and why begrudge them this folly now, so deep into winter?
After the easy berries are gone, the bird bodies twist and contort, reaching toward more distant branches for glossy, smooth fruit the color of fire. The birds try not to lose their grip, but after all those berries, one slips. You watch it land in the snow under the ash, stunned, then shake the snowflakes off its pale brown head and the yellow tips of tail feathers. You wait to see if it will fly back to a branch or settle where it is.
The birds strip the tree, like an old woman picking her savings clean.