Mary Lucille Hays teaches writing at UIUC and at Zhejiang University in Haining, China.

In Birdland the color palette is black and white.

I woke to a snowstorm I didn’t know was coming. The sky is white and the fence row across the back forty is a dim silhouette of winter trees. Snow sticks to the northeast side of the trunks and softens the boughs and branches of each tree. The white sky has sucked color from the landscape so that even the evergreens—boxwoods, cedars, and pines—are almost black. You really have to squint to see any green. It’s supposed to snow all day, and I’d guess that the snow cover has doubled since I woke up.

I’m glad the storm didn’t come a day earlier because yesterday, Dylan, our middle son, had to drive back to Chicago. We had a lovely visit, though it was short. Now I’ve had a visit with all three of my sons, so I can go back happy to China when the time comes. We didn’t do much, just dropped in on his grandparents for a surprise, ate lunch at Maize, our favorite Mexican restaurant, and took the dogs to the woods.

The woods before the snow were brown and brambly, just how I like it in the winter. Michael keeps one path groomed, and we like to wander to the little stream and dream about a bench to sit and contemplate the rushing water—okay, water only rushes for part of the year. In the winter it’s just a rambling dry bed. We followed the path until we got to the crooked tree, but then lost it. It’s easier to see in the summer. I tried to show Dylan where we like to watch the stream, but we ended up much farther south—almost to the fencerow—when we found the stream.

We had Cullen on the leash and Ursula wandered. We lost track of her a couple of times and tried calling, but both dogs are getting so deaf that calling doesn’t do much good. Eventually, she always showed up and we wandered back through the meadow and over the clods in the field to end up in our back yard.

In the morning, Michael fixed us a fancy breakfast with eggs and toast and berries and lox. We visited a bit and then Dylan got back in his car and drove north. I hope we can make it up to Chicago before I leave. It’s always sad to say goodbye to our boys, and I think of how quickly the time passed and all I’d planned that we didn’t get to, like making Chinese salted eggs in three sizes from the turkey, our last lavender Orpington hen, and the tiny Serama hens.

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I have been collecting these since I got home specifically to brine in jars. We got as far as looking up some recipes, and then somehow got distracted and our talk turned to other topics, and suddenly we were saying goodbye.

Meanwhile, the snow keeps falling—earlier it was big flakes floating down, but now smaller flakes are sifting out of the sky like powdered sugar while big, wet clumps fall from branches and the legs of the windmill. Little brown birds with racing stripes and long, thin beaks come up to the kitchen window to get out of the wind.

The dogs lie at my feet as my fingers click over the keyboard. Cullen has been out exploring, and clumps of snow melt off of his withers. Ursula made a quick trip to the front yard and then came right back in. Now I realize she hasn’t gone out for her after-breakfast constitutional, and I urge her out on the snow-covered porch. She looks over her shoulder at me for a moment and then descends the porch steps.

In the yard, she finds Cullen’s footprints, sniffs one and then steps carefully into it, like she is putting on a boot. She sniffs the next one and places her foot there. In this way she follows his path around the house. This new caution is just one of the differences I’ve found in her when I came home after four months. Ursula used to love snow, and would beg to go out and roll on her back and wriggle around, glorying in the cold and the crunch. Cullen is as frisky as ever, but both dogs are losing their eyesight.

Now she gives her one gruff bark, and I let her in. Snowflakes have melted in her black fur and are shining like stars in a velvet black sky. She comes and claims Cullen’s place on the rug at my feet and I think about my little black dog, my little star.

Tramp in Beauty; Depart in Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays teaches writing at UIUC and at Zhejiang University in Haining, China. If you’re missing your weekly dose of Birdland Letters in the News Gazette, you can still read them every week in the Piatt County Journal Republican. Consider subscribing to support your small town newspaper. You can see photos of her travels on Instagram @BirdlandLetters. Mary can be reached at or via snail mail care of the Journal Republican, 118 E. Washington St., Monticello, IL 81856.