“one who creeps into holes”


This little bird house swings from an eave out my study window. A winter wren (I know they’ve been reclassified as Pacific wrens but old habits die hard) visits most mornings. After Brendan gave me this house for Christmas five years ago, I hoped a wren might nest in it but I suspect the opening is too wide and the house is too obvious.  The genus name Troglodytes is from the Greek (and I can’t do the orthographic decorations here) and means “one who creeps into holes”, a perfect designation for these tiny birds that dart about in the underbrush, in and out of roots. They are territorial and quite fierce about protecting their (small) ground but they will gather communally in cold weather to keep each warm during the long winter nights. I was sitting at my desk in late afternoon in December and saw 6 wrens arrive at this house, one after another, and each one paused at the opening, looking around to make sure of, well, I’m not sure what (they didn’t know I was watching and probably thought no one could see them), before entering. Was it memory of that safety that brought a wren just now to enter the house and peer out? Or, more likely, the prospect of little spiders and pupae to make a breakfast.

In my forthcoming novella, Winter Wren (Fish Gotta Swim Editions), there’s an elderly reclusive man, the son of a famous artefact collector (based loosely on Charles Newcombe), who earned a living by preparing bird skins for museums. I tried to imagine preparing a study skin of these tiny birds and realized the skill it takes to do such work. Skill and love. The man, whose name is Tom Winston, also learns something about the music of wrens. I’ll leave that to prospective readers to discover for themselves. But here’s a passage in which wrens occur — and if you read this novella, you’ll learn that they’ve been there all along and that they don’t forget.

Dreaming of water, further north, near Tanu, the darkness that surrounded them as they edged towards an island where burials had taken place. I only want to look at the mortuary poles, Tom, his father told him as the boat bumped against rock, pipe-smoke damp and sweet in the rain. Only want to look. But then his father was winching a pole to the shore with someone else and Tom was helping them tip it into the boat which swayed and lurched on its tether. The smell of rotting cedar and moss. He was dreaming of what was concealed in the niche in the back of the pole, the bones huddled in scraps of clothing. The remnants of a woven cape, skins around the torso, winter wren song trilling out of the underbrush, witnessing their theft.

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