It was colder than usual that winter on the northwest coast of England, and the frozen snow had gradually lost its pristine brilliance. At the end of the road the sand hills wore lacy petticoats of frozen wind-whipped sea foam.
On the coldest day of all, I was walking along the driveway to the gate when my foot, of its own sweet will, it seemed, hesitated in midair, and grounded inches farther on than I had intended. Even so, it almost stroked a small tawny object that lay in its path -- and in the track of any wheeled vehicle on the way to the house.
As I picked up the pathetically listless little form, surprised at its weightlessness, the vermillion feathers on the breast came into view. A robin! But I was certain that this was not the impudent, long-legged charmer who was so eager to "help" with the gardening in the summer, garnering the spadeful of worms which had been destined for a happy and useful life on the compost heap. This little thing did not seem interested in self-preservation.
Retracing my way to the house, and holding my minute passenger, I murmured those reassurances one makes to small things in distress. Then I took a deep breath of the freezing air, held it as long as possible in the hope of warming it, and slowly, gently, exhaled it around my little friend in the bowl of my gloved hands. As the near-side eye quivered my heart responded joyously. I repeated the breathtaking process until that bright, beady eye opened momentarily and surveyed the situation. Then those glow-ing feathers rose and fell -- almost imperceptibly rose and fell.
Although I had no specialized technique in nest-building, I fixed up a corner in the vestibule behind the outer door, on a scrap of carpet as a base, and with other bits and pieces. A piece of cardboard kept out any draughts, as it seemed wise to leave the storm door open in case the mite felt confined in the night. I left the scrap of a feathered bundle sleeping, a bundle unaware of, and at that time uninterested in, the private restaurant on the floor at her wing tip, in the shape of bread and water.
That might, curious, maybe solicitous, I returned to the vestibule, and those two shining beads peered down at me from the lintel of the door. I whistled softly to her, and the small head bent to one side in the manner of her kind, then the other way, still listening when I told her what a good little robin she was.
The next morning the space between the doors seemed strangely empty. Our visitor had flown, the only evidence of her sojourn being the leftover crumbs and bespattered floor, where she had enjoyed a morning bath before leaving.
The spring that year was even more welcome than usual, not only to people, but to all plant life. After the period in cold storage the ground was impatient to produce its fresh green finery, and that episode of the winter was filed away in memory.
Then one day, from the back door as I was pondering on the miraculous change of scene, a familiar little figure landed on the cannonball by the terrace steps. This was not our assistant gardener of the previous summer. Oh, no! This, I knew, quite certainly, was my little winter guest. I "spoke" quietly in a whistle and she came towards me, perched along enough to reverse, then returned to the ball. With head tilted she looked back at me and repeated the maneuver, then extended the flight over a rosebed, then back to the ball. It was after a further double encore in an agitated, faster tempo that her excitement reached me. I was being asked, peremptorily, to follow. Was there, I wondered, a problem? Hungry, perhaps? I grabbed some bread, just in case.
Down the steps we went, then over the roses she flew. Having mere feet, I perforce had to travel on terra firma round the rosebed. Across the lawn I followed, skirting the rhododendron bushes, towards the birdbath under the trees , where she came down to earth. Pulled up suddenly, astonished, I could only gaze at the sight before me.
I was allowed to approach within an arm's length of her, and then quietly sank to the ground, where I could have touched her with a finger. Every inch of her exuded pride of achievement. Flanking her on either side were two raucous tiny chicks, who already bore a startling resemblance to t heir mother.