July 23: six weeks of high summer still to go. A heat dome has simmered us in 110 degrees. When it breaks like a fever, we throw the windows open for the first time in a month. But I sleep inexplicably poorly, restless all night, and finally give up trying at five. Something is wrong, but I can’t say what. Sitting by the open kitchen window with my tea, it comes to me. I can hear a squirrel quaaing, a white-breasted nuthatch yammering—and that’s all. What’s shifted is what’s missing: no wrensong. The house wren who arrived in April, whose descending liquid trills have flashed through my days like a bright needle from dawn to dark, is silent. His insistent fountain of song has woken me every day these last three months, the sound track of summer, its fulcrum. A tiny bird with a big voice, quick, sparky movements and imperious habits, he’s a tyrannical sentinel. His territorial call bubbles out of the air as he bossily patrols the fence, the compost bin, the sumac that’s taken over the back yard, the miniature plum tree, the overgrown mock orange, the arbor vitae, the neighbors’ redbud, the black walnut, the nodding plumes of the ostrich ferns. He’s a natty dresser, with his herringbone waistcoat and neatly barred tail cocked at a pert angle. He and his scolding mate are always busy with the important work of staking their claim and raising their brood. They were here for the Virginia bluebells, the lily-of-the-valley, the trillium, the magnolias, the dame’s rocket, the bleeding heart, the Korean Spice viburnum, the crab apples, the lilac, the irises, the peonies, the locusts, and the beebalm. But now that the leggy daylilies with their blaze orange stars and their avid yellow throats are tumbling everywhere in loose profusion, like late fireworks, now that the black-eyed Susans are starting to flower, our two wrens have gone south. They must have left after dusk last night. Gone, like the two big green ash trees that vanished from the other side of the street somewhere between 9 and 5 yesterday. Like a pulled molar, the tongue returns to the mental gap, exploring the space again and again, memorizing the exact shape of loss. The flatness of without, diminished and drearily quiet. The sunflowers and the sweetcorn and the musk melons are almost here. But I’m grieving the disappearance of our diminutive neighbors, surprised, again, at how much it affects me, even though I knew it was coming, as the wheel of the year spins inexorably on. I want to say my goodbyes, thank them, wish them well on their journey, now that it’s too late. It may seem like the height of summer, but our wrens are gone. The first of all the losses.
Catherine Jagoe is a translator, poet and essayist who has published eight books and three chapbooks, including her debut poetry volume, Bloodroot (2016), which won three awards. Her nonfiction appears in the 2016 Pushcart XL anthology and received notable mention in the 2019 Best American Essays. Her most recent essays feature in Memoir Magazine, The Coachella Review and Under the Gum Tree.
featured photo by Mike Bailey