Ellie pulled the zipper up to her chin and shoved her hands deeper into her jacket pockets. Her worn tennis shoes scuffed along the sidewalk. The Saturday morning was dull and overcast. The cold rain had stopped, but everything was wet; her bike had a flat tire, and none of her friends could play, anyway. I hate days like this! She thought as she angrily kicked a rock.
She didn’t lift her head when Mr. Coriman’s front door slammed. “Hey, you, missy! Come here!” Mr. Coriman’s booming voice made her jump. She froze right there on the sidewalk in front of his house.
Mr. Coriman was a crotchety old neighbor who lived four doors down from her house. Ellie and her friends called him “the crank.” Once Marty had dared Alex to ring his doorbell and run away, but Mr. Coriman had caught them. He had stood on his porch, shaking his cane at them, and had shouted at them to stay off his property. Now he was hollering at her!
“Me?” she asked nervously. “I haven’t done anything!”
“I didn’t say you had! Just come here!”
She wanted to run home; instead her feet walked unwillingly up the worn path to his front porch, where he stood staring down at her.
“Do you know why you’re bored? ’Cause you can’t be loud!”
Ellie looked up at him in surprise. This wasn’t what she had expected. Mr. Coriman’s face was scrunched up and angry. She watched his bristly eyebrows shoot up as he opened his watery eyes wide and tottered toward her, buttoning his heavy sweater against the chilly air as he came.
“All day long you and your friends scream up and down this street with your sleds or on your bicycles, and now that you don’t have anyone around to be loud with, you can’t think of anything to do!”
He leaned so far forward that Ellie wondered if he would tumble down the front porch steps. He spoke more quietly now, and the corners of his mouth lifted in what might have been a smile. It was hard to tell—she had never seen him smile before. “That’s a shame. There’s a lot to see and hear if you’re quiet and listen for a minute.”
He turned away from her and scraped a battered old lawn chair across the porch to the top of the steps. As he slowly settled himself into it, Mr. Coriman pointed to the steps. “Sit down for a bit.”
She really didn’t want to stay here with this crabby old man, but since she didn’t have anything else to do, she sat down on the creaky, weathered step. She glanced up warily at Mr. Coriman, but he wasn’t looking at her now. He was squinting and looking into the distance.
“Look at how many birds there are today in my maple tree over there.” He poked her with his finger and pointed towards the far corner of his yard. The maple tree was huge and spreading, with thorny branches from nearby bushes growing around the trunk. Beneath the tree, she noticed that the grass was long and scraggly.
“I bet you can’t name all the kinds of birds in it!” Mr. Coriman leaned toward her, and she saw with surprise that he really was smiling. He challenged her again. “What do you see?”
“I don’t know—I can’t see that far away. And I don’t know their names, anyway,” Ellie admitted.
Mr. Coriman chuckled, “I can’t see them very well, either. But I listen to them singing. You get to know each bird when you listen to its song.”
They both sat quietly and listened for a moment. There were so many birds singing that it seemed impossible to listen for just one bird’s song. This is stupid! Ellie thought. She shifted impatiently on the cold step and turned toward the old man.
He put his finger to his lips, then whispered, “Just listen. You have to wait and be patient.” He looked into the sky above the tree and closed his eyes. “And maybe close your eyes.”
Ellie scrunched her eyelids closed and sat still for longer than she ever had before. At first the birdsongs all blended, but as she listened, they became separate sounds that split and overlapped. She tried to catch up with them, and for a few seconds, Ellie did hear just one song. Her eyes flew open. “I did! I heard a song! It was a ‘tweet tweet tweety tweety tweet.’”
“That was Mr. Meadowlark. Now we know he’s here this morning. Look on a middle branch.”
Hopping to the end of the branch as if to help Ellie see him better, the little brown meadowlark sang again, and she heard his song above all the others.
Ellie moved to the other side of the post and sat closer to Mr. Coriman’s chair. “What others are there?”
“Oh, no,” Mr. Coriman said, his eyes twinkling, “I’m not going to tell you. You have to hear them for yourself.”
Ellie concentrated and looked at the tree. Soon she ventured, “I hear ‘cheep cheep cheep.’”
“That’s Mr. Sparrow—but he’s not in the tree. He’s up on the power lines with his friends.”
Way up high, Ellie saw two tiny birds perched on the power line that stretched across the gray sky to Mr. Coriman’s house.
He leaned toward Ellie and cupped his ear. “Hear that other one?”
Ellie nodded. “It’s really pretty and ends with a ‘brrr.’” She trilled her tongue.
“He’s one of my favorites, Mr. Red-winged Blackbird.”
Ellie stopped listening for a moment and looked at the long grass and overgrown brambles. Then she wondered aloud, “Why is your yard so messy?”
Mr. Coriman pulled his sweater closer around him. “I can’t keep it up. My heart’s bad, and I have to take medicine.” He looked down and shifted his chair. “My nephew used to mow and trim for me sometimes, but then he had to move.”
The silence hung between them. Ellie thought of the lawn mower and clippers in her garage, and of her three older brothers. She should talk to her mom. It would be fun to surprise him.
“Well, Missy, do you hear any more birds?” the old man’s voice broke into her thoughts.
Just then Ellie’s friend Marty screeched to a halt on his bike by Mr. Coriman’s driveway. He looked puzzled. “Uh, Ellie,” he finally said, “you want to come play?”
“Come here, Marty!” Ellie stood up and waved to him. “We’re listening to the birds. Mr. Coriman is showing me how to tell the birds apart!”
Marty leaned his bike against the rusty mailbox.
While he was coming up the walk, Ellie explained, “You need to sit down and be quiet. Sometimes you have to wait and be patient and listen for each bird’s song. Listen to his song, and then you’ll know who he is!”
She looked up with pride at Mr. Coriman, and his wrinkled smile warmed her.