Birdsong Under Water

Tim Dionne crouches at the river’s edge, listening to water under ice, whoosh and crackle, limbs snapping in the cold,



owls waking.

All day he’s willed himself to believe: ten hours since the boy leaped to save the dog and both plunged, swept down and under. You might rise even now, might hear the birds and wake with them.

Hundreds have searched since dawn, afraid to go home, to wait for word, to be alone there. Crazy, all of them. Looking for signs: a slant of light, a bird, an animal. This morning Tim Dionne followed a whitetail doe more than a mile into the woods—because she appeared at the edge of the river, because she lowered her head to drink and saw him, and wasn’t afraid and drank while he watched and let the sun strike her.

You might be spared!

Even now.

If you believe, if you follow.

He lost her an hour later. The doe hid her tracks in the tracks of others—dogs and deer, bobcat, human.

You don’t know who I am. You don’t love me.

In late afternoon, he drove fifteen miles to his own house—to be sure Juliana and Roxie were safe and warm, home from school. He couldn’t go inside. They’d kiss. They’d touch him. He called Angie from his cell phone. Come to the window. I’m across the street. I need to see you. She pressed one hand to the glass, and he whispered, Do they know? Did you tell them?

The ice speaks.

You can’t save me.

He remembers walking out on the reservoir with his brother thirty-five years ago—a January morning so cold he felt his breath stop in his throat, lungs burning. Vale wasn’t cold. No, never. He unzipped his coat and danced across the ice to prove it. Whooped and hollered, pulled his gloves off, sent his red flame of scarf flying. Nothing hurt, nothing scared him.

The ice moaned, a living thing. Growing, Vale said. Safe—that’s when you hear it. The ice creaked and cried, its voice a low growl, its echo through trees and stone rumbling.

Vale pulled Tim close to spin and twirl. The river’s never safe. One minute you’re waltzing on ice and the next you’re walking on water.

They skidded halfway across the reservoir before Vale took the hatchet from his belt. I’ll show you. Two inches, three—Vale kept chopping. Perfectly safe. See how thick? Tim felt foolish then: little boy, shivering child. Almost four inches down before Vale broke through and they saw not water, but air—twenty-five feet of air beneath them—then another layer of ice, the reservoir drained after the first freeze, and frozen again in a second layer. Below that, three hundred feet of black water.

Dead men walking. Not safe, not anywhere. They’d fall like stones.

Sun burned through clouds and ice groaned, plates shifting. They spread their bodies wide on the ice. Make yourself an angel, Vale said, his voice soft, just this once serious.

Angels, yes, blessed that day. They crawled inch by inch back to shore on their bellies. Don’t you ever tell. Dad would skin me.

He remembers how cold they were, faces raw, muscles cramping, Vale’s red scarf lost on the ice, Vale’s red scarf fluttering.

Nineteen years later Vale Dionne slipped on the ice outside his apartment, bled into his brain, lay on the ice three hours before Mrs. Odegard looked out her window and saw him.

Five months before he learned to walk again, nine before he started talking.

Scared straight, he said. Sober all that time. Saved in the hospital.

By spring the next year he was back in bed, liver failing, safe in his parents’ house, dying in the room where he’d slept as a child.

Don’t worry, little brother. I’m number five thousand seven hundred twenty-seven for transplant. A joke, even now.

Tim said, Take half of mine. A perfect match, they could be. He imagined a piece of his liver swelling up to full size, growing soft and dark inside his brother. A miracle. They can, you know—it’s possible. He would have given Vale his left lung, his right kidney. Three pints of blood. Anything you need. Anything to save him.

Tell you what, Vale said. There’s a twenty in my wallet. Bring me a fifth of Jack. That’s what will help. That’s what we need here.

He couldn’t explain. Close the window when you go. I don’t like listening to the birds. I just get so tired.

So hot, too hot already. Tim shut the window tight, never returned that night—or the next day—or the night after. Never bought his brother’s whiskey. Stayed gone till Vale was done saying stupid things. The birds, sweet Jesus, close the window. Till he was beautiful and still, down deep in a coma, flooded with poison, ammonia, creatinine, toxins his body couldn’t flush. Mother called. Come today if you want to see him.

Tim opened the window wide. To listen to the birds, he said. I think he’s ready.

He remembers layers of sound


doves under the eaves,

wrens trilling—

a thrush whistling in the woods,

high then low,

a long sweet warble—

Mother whispering, It’s okay,

a dog in the house next door barking.

He remembers his father pacing the hall, a soft, terrible sound: thump of the cane, left foot dragging. Vireos sang dawn to dusk. Ten thousand songs. Ten thousand questions. He remembers his father slumped in a chair downstairs, gasping for breath, shoulders heaving. And later, after, a night of summer rain—rain on the roof—vireos hiding high in dark leaves, sheltered from the storm, still asking—vireos singing all night, his father rocking on the porch, flash and flare of a match, red glow of the cigarette lit, rain on the roof thrumming.

Now, at dusk, thin clouds blow down from the north and a light frazzle of snow begins to fall on ice and melt in water. Two herons rise over the half-frozen river. So cold! You can’t be here.

But they are here.

They are real.

Silent birds circling in snow.

Sleep, my love.

No songs now.


No need to listen.