“Well, for one thing”-Black stuffed and lit his pipe and exhaled his aromatic concepts-‘ ‘you might clear off this stump and plant a new tree.”
They had been circling the stump and kicking it for inspiration. Fentriss froze with one foot raised. “Say that again?!”
“Good grief, you genius! Let me kiss you!”
“Rather not. Hugs, maybe.”
Fentriss hugged him, wildly. “Friend!”
“Let’s get a shovel and spade.”
“You get. I’ll watch.”
Fentriss ran back a minute later with a spade and pickax.
“Sure you won’t join me?”
Black sucked his pipe, blew smoke. “Later.”
“How much would a full-grown tree cost?”
“Yes, but if it were here and the birds did return?” Black let out more smoke. “Might be worth it. Opus Number Two: ‘In the Beginning’ by Charles Fentriss, stuff like that.”
‘In the Beginning,’ or maybe ‘The Return.””
“One of those.”
“Or-“ Fentriss struck the stump with the pickax. “ ‘Rebirth.’ “ He struck again. “’Ode to Joy.’ “ Another strike.
‘Spring Harvest.’ “ Another. “’Let the Heavens Resound.’ How’s that, Black?”
“I prefer the other,” said Black.
The stump was pulled and the new tree bought.
“Don’t show me the bill,” Fentriss told his accountant. “Pay it.”
And the tallest tree they could find, of the same family as the one dead and gone, was planted.
“What if it dies before my choir returns?” said Fentriss. “What if it lives,” said Black, “and your choir goes elsewhere?”
The tree, planted, seemed in no immediate need to die. Neither did it look particularly vital and ready to welcome small singers from some far southern places.
Meanwhile, the sky, like the tree, was empty. “Don’t they know I’m waiting?” said Fentriss. “Not unless,” offered Black, “you majored in cross-continental telepathy.”
“I’ve checked with Audubon. They say that while the swallows do come back to Capistrano on a special day, give or take a white lie, other migrating species are often one or two weeks late.”
“If I were you,” said Black, “I would plunge into an intense love affair to distract you while you wait.”
“I am fresh out of love affairs.”
“Well, then,” said Black, “suffer.”
The hours passed slower than the minutes, the days passed slower than the hours, the weeks passed slower than the days. Black called. “No birds?”
“Pity. I can’t stand watching you lose weight.” And Black disconnected.
On a final night, when Fentriss had almost yanked the phone out of the wall, fearful of another call from the Boston Symphony, he leaned an ax against the trunk of the new tree and addressed it and the empty sky.
“Last chance,” he said. “If the dawn patrol doesn’t show by seven a.m., it’s quits.”
And he touched ax-blade against the tree-bole, took two shots of vodka so swiftly that the spirits squirted out both eyes, and went to bed.
He awoke twice during the night to hear nothing but a soft breeze outside his window, stirring the leaves, with not a ghost of song.
And awoke at dawn with tear-filled eyes, having dreamed that the birds had returned, but knew, in waking, it was only a dream.
Hark, someone might have said in an old novel. List! as in an old play.
Eyes shut, he fine-tuned his ears .
The tree outside, as he arose, looked fatter, as if it had taken on invisible ballasts in the night. There were stirrings there, not of simple breeze or probing winds, but of something in the very leaves that knitted and purled them in rhythms. He dared not look but lay back down to ache his senses and try to know.
A single chirp hovered in the window.
Go on, he thought.
Don’t breathe, he thought; don’t let them know you’re listening.
A fourth sound, then a fifth note, then a sixth and seventh. My God, he thought, is this a substitute orchestra, a replacement choir come to scare off my loves?
Another five notes.
Perhaps, he prayed, they’re only tuning up!
Another twelve notes, of no special timbre or pace, and as he was about to explode like a lunatic conductor and fire the bunch-It happened. Note after note, line after line, fluid melody following spring freshet melody, the whole choir exhaled to blossom the tree with joyous proclamations of return and welcome in chorus.