The Cardinal

Only a handful of memories persist from those days, and those tattered and ambiguous at best. Yet my memory of the cardinal is most vivid; and viewed from the vantage of years the details of that day have become more understandable, though still not entirely understood. It was a long time ago. Those were different times, kids played outside in those days, it wasn’t unusual to see intrepid boys as young as five wandering the neighborhoods and parks. We lived in an old three-decker up on Sylvan Street. I have a vague memory of the house looking like a scaly old reptile in its Victorian shingles. At least, I remember thinking that as a kid, but I have no clear memory of the house really. Not like the cardinal. There is something about the red of a cardinal. So strikingly red that the sight of it burns indelibly onto the mind’s retina and does not fade with memory.

It was early spring and the sky was gray beyond the window. I wanted to go outside. I’d heard from older kids that if you went all the way to the end of the street you would come to the wild woods. It seemed like something I had to do. An important thing. Best I can remember, I had the feeling it would be a very good thing.

I pulled on my rubber boots, my coat, and slipped out of the house. My father had already left for work. I understood that the undertaking demanded secrecy, giving my mother no excuse to prevent it, as my usual range, unattended, spanned a radius within a block of the house.

I trudged up the street toward a distant line of hills, my exhaled breath streaming out to the cold morning. I walked for a long time, past the blocks of neighborhoods and beyond the street lamps and sidewalks where the road narrowed, then there were only a few houses, far apart, and then there were no more houses, and farther on, I came to the place where Sylvan Street ended at the edge of a snowy field. And beyond the field, the leafless woods in sepulchral light.

The wet snow made groaning sounds beneath my boots as I trudged across the field and into the woods. It felt exciting and mysterious and exquisitely lonesome. I went on, and it seemed the farther I went, the more intense those feelings; and among those feelings, new and strange, a compelling melancholy.

A long way into the woods I came to a thick stand of white birches. It began to snow heavy wet flakes, and in the silent woods the falling snow made a low hissing, like the sound of electricity coursing through wires. Everything in the world became black and white. The flash of red made my heart jump. I looked up, and there was a cardinal, red as a dying sun, tilted on a branch. It was very close, and lovely beyond thought, as if a thorn had pierced the cold white carapace of sky bringing a single drop of hot crimson to fall among the purity of birches. The cardinal’s stark presence somehow woke me to a more clearly defined and prescient reality. I felt the cold air trace my face and hands. I was sweaty; my socks were wet inside the galoshes. I raised my face and stuck out my tongue to catch a snowflake.

I watched the bird. Then I moved toward it, and it opened its wings and dropped from the branch and glided low, the woods absorbed its light and it was gone. I walked in the direction I’d seen the cardinal blink from view.

Beyond the birch stand I came to a tight grove of dark cedars, the lower branches drooped with the weight of snow.  The thick canopy formed an umbrella over the ground and there was no snow within the shadow of the cedar grove.  

The soft mast underfoot smelled like pencil shavings.  My eyes weren’t adjusted to the light when I nearly bumped into the hammock. A blue and green plaid hammock strung between two tree trunks, the colors providing good camouflage in the tented darkness beneath the cedars.

There was an empty bottle under the hammock. I bent to examine the gob of dead flies inside the bottle. I was a reader at five – my grandmother had taught me to read and I was already driving my parents nuts reading, out loud, every billboard and storefront sign whenever we went somewhere in the car. The label on the bottle read: Johnny Walker Red. There was a picture of a striding gentleman wearing a crimson long-tailed jacket. I presumed him to be Johnny Walker. While looking at the bottle I noticed the pistol lying next to it, rusted the same color as the cedar mast.

I let the gun lay and straightened to look at the skeleton reclined upon the hammock. It was dressed in a gray suit with a black tie. The black dress shoes were still shiny and looked out of place in the woods. A mat of gunky hair covered the top of the skull, but the skin was gone from the face except for a few small patches, like ash, the edges curled. I noticed the skull had a hole through the right temple; it was too dark to see what was inside. I traced the rough edges of the hole with my finger tip, and then I stuck my finger in, to the knuckle. I was not afraid. My smooth young mind had not yet been fully domesticated and imprinted with the fear of ghosts or monsters or the notion that skeletons are scary things. It all seemed somehow sad, but perfectly natural. I was most impressed with the hammock. That the man had set up the hammock to lie in. I thought that was a good idea. The skull appeared to be grinning at me, and I took that as a sign that the man in the hammock was happy I’d come to find him.

I turned and followed my tracks back toward the road. It had stopped snowing and the low sun streaked a pink meridian through the clouds beyond the supplicant branches of barren trees. I stayed on lookout for the cardinal, yet I did not see it again.


The Cardinal © 2011 Steven Bird. Click Steven’s profile for more articles, stories, and links to his advocacy blog. Image by M Dawn Thacker from her picture book Icicles and Snow.

2 Responses to “The Cardinal”
  1. This story touches an emotional spot deep inside, and makes me shiver. Thank you for letting my cardinal be a part of it. –tw

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