“Cardinal”

This morning, a small bird flew into the windowpane and fell stunned into the stippa grass, one wing awry, so small and light that the tuft it lay on did not bend to the ground.  A look of astonished befuddlement in its eyes.There you go, I said to it, halfway hammered, myself, at eleven a.m., that's it all right.  

I picked it up, no alarm or struggle.  I stroked the purple feathers on its tiny skull, about the size of a chickpea. I gently pressed the skewed right wing into a proper fold against its side. Bird in open hand, I walked into the weedy backyard, to the bench beside the crumbling barbeque pit. I held it up to the fruitcake feeder, at which it cocked its head and flinched. We walked to the old iron birdbath and took that in. We walked to the seedcake feeder and checked that out. We sat at the leaning picnic table beneath the leaning trellis covered with some kind of climbing vine, and soon the bird began to look around. When a big dove flew up, fanned, and flew away from our surprise presence, the little bird startled and crouched against my palm and curled its left talon into the crevice between two fingers and began to watch the bolder, closer flights of red finches and sparrows flicking in to the fruitcake feeder. Flycatchers alighting on the tops of the pecan tree rising golden green in the yellow light of late morning. A crow cranking by at an angle overhead like a shadow or memory.

This bird was mystified. I believe it suffered amnesia. I think it had forgotten not only that it was a bird, but also that there are birds in the world. I believe it thought like Adam it had awakened from a scattering of inanimate particles into a collection which possibly, could it be, was similar to these strange creatures flicking and fluttering and chittering and cooing with such supreme confidence. I suppose if this bird had religion, it might’ve assumed that I was God. Its descendants, distorting the story over years, would eventually see it that way. And then one day, when I was very old, they would have to kill me.

Was Adam’s first thought, looking around and blinking, surrounded by birdsong, that they were the embodied voices of God? 

As I was distracted, dreaming, the bird flew from my hand and into a bush behind the seedcake feeder. He perched there on a slim branch swayed by the breeze for another few minutes. I looked away at another dove alighting on the fruitcake feeder, a look of defiance in his eye, and when I looked back the little bird was gone.

I know that my love for birds is one of the few things you truly loved about me. As opposed to my birdlike indifference to your unhappiness. Although you will recall the time, when we lived in our old house near downtown, the little brown female cardinal went mad, and her mate followed her from perch to perch, circling the house, bush to bush to little tree, chirping in what seemed such obvious distress. It may have been some cat had robbed their nest, devoured their hatchlings.  But we preferred to think she had gone mad, the way people sometimes do, for no reason.

 

Brad Watson

About Brad Watson

Brad Watson is the author of three books of fiction, all published by W.W. Norton and Co. Last Days of the Dog-Men (1996) won the Sue Kaufmann Award for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as the Great Lakes Colleges New Writers Award. The Heaven of Mercury (2002) won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Fiction, the Southern Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives (2010) also won the MIAL fiction award, and was a finalist for the St. Francis College Literary Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award in Fiction. His short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Ecotone, The Oxford American, The Idaho Review, and elsewhere. They have been anthologized in The PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories, New Stories from the South, Best American Mystery Stories, The Story and Its Writer, and others. His books have been published in the UK, Germany, France, Poland, and China. Watson was born and raised in Meridian, Mississippi, and educated in the Meridian Public Schools. Prior to attending college, he spent a year in Los Angeles with his wife and son trying to pursue a film career, although the closest he got to a break-in was an audition to be an extra for Universal Studios. Instead, he worked several unskilled jobs before becoming a garbage truck driver in Hollywood. The accidental death of his older brother (along with a fading interest in Hollywood) led to his giving up the film idea, moving back to Meridian, running a dive bar for a while, then beginning classes at the local junior college and working in a woodshop to support himself, his wife, and two-year-old son. He went on to receive a B.A. in English from Mississippi State University and an M.F.A. in creative writing and American literature from the University of Alabama.



  • Heather

    Whoa, I love this. Just read it twice.

  • Jennifer Harvey

    Very touching story. Beautiful writing.