I was out of half & half this morning, and it was early, around 6am, so I had to spend a few moments figuring out what would be open. Once I settled on a store that wasn’t too close but close enough, I sent a text to my sleeping daughter in the off chance she woke while I was out and worried: Ran out for cream. Back in a few minutes. Love you.
Pulling out of the neighborhood, I notice in the street a cardinal standing there, in the center of the road. It is quite still. Perhaps it is pecking gravel or some crumb it has found there. But this happens in a split moment —
By the time I register what I see, I am already upon it, and it seems not to have noticed my car, either, until that last moment — it startles late — finally rises into the air with a flutter of wings but only to ricochet off another oncoming car that just happens, at that moment, to also be driving past.
I look back and wonder if the bird has made it to safety, and in my rear view mirror see its wild tumble through the air to land at the side of the street. Little being who’d been up early like me. Little flame receding. I feel a pang and my chest, but cling to hope. Already at the stoplight, I decide to check on it when I come back.
Turning onto the main thoroughfare, there is no traffic or very little, the town mainly sleeping in on a Saturday morning. I marvel at this, at the green lights I kept making. I make my way swiftly, easily.
The store is gleaming and shiny, an oasis of light in a still-dark town, and almost completely empty save for a few employees filling and straightening shelves. Lines of freezers are packed with brightly packaged meals marked as enticingly exotic or comfortably familiar and made convenient and ready-to-eat in minutes.
I don’t usually shop at this store, having traded in all those questionably-processed national brands for food not sold in packaging, whole and minimally unprocessed — at least whenever possible, whenever I can afford it or when my kids aren’t asking for the chips or cookies or mass-produced breakfast foods they love — but in that store surrounded by so many bright flavors and color, I am momentarily dazzled.
I shake myself and check out, glad to return to my car. Three crows perched on the roof peer down at me, chuckling amongst themselves whilst grooming their beaks on the metal edge. As soon as I shut my door, they take off in the direction of my home, but as the crow flies — you know — a quicker trip than the streets I’d taken. I decide to follow them and take a short cut through another neighborhood. A quick check of my phone and no message from my daughter. Still sleeping.
I enter my own neighborhood the same way I’d left, and as I approach the intersection, hope fervently the bird has gone. But a spark of red catches my attention, strewn on the street like petals blown after a storm.
I pull the car over and get out, and approach — it lay on the street small and bright, bunched like discarded silk. At the same moment, another car approaches the intersection from a side street. I can’t bring myself to focus on the driver, I am too ashamed, really — had I not wanted cream for my coffee we three would not be arrived here at this intersection and moment — and my heart is thick with dread and realization. I simply look in their direction and held up my hand. Wait.
I reach the small bird and kneel, coo softly to the small, pitiful thing, and cup her still-warm body up into my palms. She is still warm. When I lift her, her head falls over my fingertips at a terrible angle.
It occurs to me to at least get her out of the street because cardinals will mourn each other, and don’t want another one hurt. I move a few feet away and lay her gently in the grass. But this is someone else’s yard, and even this is a failure — I sense my actions here inadequate — and don’t know what else to do for her but bow my head and ask for a forgiveness that can’t be given, a forgiveness that doesn’t come.
They say that when you see a cardinal, the dead are visiting. It’s meant to bring comfort to those who are mourning. The dead visit me but there is no comfort. At great cost, my moving clumsily and selfishly through the world.