A Cardinal Life
In a world of white, I only saw the red.
When I was seven years old, I found a cardinal lying in the snow. Its wings were brittle like snowflakes, and blood red against the stark white ground. Its tiny chest rose and fell slightly, and even though I was young I knew, that it was too slightly for a bird. The snow crunched beneath my feet with each step and I imagined bones breaking. I rushed inside, holding it against my chest, worried that it would crumble like freshly fallen snow if I held it too tight. My tears had blurred my vision by the time I found my parents; the kitchen and their faces now an abstract watercolor with undefined shapes and diluted hues.
“What do you have there, Collin?” My father stood from his chair, the legs scratching the hardwood floor with a prolonged squeal.
I couldn’t speak, so instead I placed the bird on the table for dad to see and just stood there crying. He gazed at my mother for just an instant before leaving, only to return minutes later with an old wool sweater.
“Mom, will she be alright?” My words gurgling in my throat. I knew it was dumb for little boys to cry, especially over a bird, but I had already decided the bird was a girl and was going to be my pet. I was going to name her Snow because of the story mom read to me once, about Snow White who almost died from biting into a shiny red apple as red as a cardinal. I was going to let her live in a shoe box under my bed and feed her brown sugar pop tarts because I hated that kind.
“Your dad will do everything he can for her sweetheart. She’s going to be okay.” My mother managed to say, but I could tell she was unsure.
“We’ve got to keep her warm.” Dad rubbed his hands together quickly like he was trying to light a campfire before lifting Snow gently off the table, placing her on the sweater that now served as a makeshift nest. Even though I was upset, I recognized the sweater. It was a faded powder blue, the edges coming undone with frayed pieces of wool sticking out. I had outgrown it months ago, but I used to wear it every weekend when mom and I would visit the old graves outside of town.
“Isn’t this wonderful?” She would say as we walked along the tombstones, reading the names and dates aloud. My mom always seemed so happy and excited to be at the cemetery. “A whole generation of souls before our time, hidden beneath us.”
“What happened to them?” I would ask, always running behind her trying to keep up. She would pause, contemplating about her answer, and I would think that I was so smart for asking such a difficult question.
“Well, they’ve all just gone to sleep for a really long time, but people say that if you stay here long enough, you might meet their spirits.” Her voice was always so full of anticipation and wonder when she said that, as if any moment now, a specter would show itself. We would end up wandering along the graves until just before the sun completely disappeared below the horizon. Even though I didn’t really understand why, I wanted to see them too. I wanted to know why they excited my mom so much.
But I didn’t want to know this. This pain and sadness I felt for a little bird. It didn’t feel normal. Things like this didn’t happen because your parents wouldn’t let it, right?
I wanted to stay and watch dad work but mom wouldn’t let me.
“Let’s get you out of these clothes. You’re going to catch cold if you don’t get into something dry.” She tugged me by the hand, leading me upstairs towards my room.
“Dammit!” Dad cursed, and I turned to see him holding his finger, a bead of blood beginning to form along the knuckle.
“I’m sorry, she just bit me is all.” And with that, he turned his back to me, hiding Snow from my view like a doctor about to perform surgery. Mom stayed with me upstairs, trying to distract me. She read me stories and rubbed my back gently until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I felt bad for sleeping, but I felt so weak and tired.
“I’ll wake you up when your dad’s finished okay, Collin?” She began humming a tune
I didn’t recognize until I drifted off.
I thought my dad could fix anything: skinned knees, my broken toys, and even a car. In the end, though, he couldn’t save my bird.
I used the shoe box I was going to keep Snow in as her coffin, and dad wrapped her up in the sweater so I wouldn’t have to see her. As mom held my hand and dad began to shovel light piles of dirt on top of the box, it was then that I realized.
The people in those graves, and now Snow, weren’t sleeping. They were gone, and they were never coming back. They were dead, trapped underneath the ground forever. Those spirits my mom wanted to see so badly didn’t exist, and in the end this terrible thing had to happen to all of us, didn’t it?
I placed my favorite matchbox car on top of the grave: it was bright red too, just like Snow. “That was nice of you, son. I know she would’ve –“A cough shuddered through him suddenly, puffs of white air expelling from his mouth like a dragon.
“Are you alright, Nicolas?” Mom asked, dropping my hand to reach for him.
The coughing ended quickly, and he was able to answer, “Yeah, the cold’s just irritating my lungs a little.”
“Hey Collin, what do you say we go inside and make some hot chocolate, ok?” He was trying to cheer me up. But it wouldn’t help.
Snow’s death had cracked the childish looking glass world I thought I knew, but what happened next left it completely shattered. A world where we stay the same forever and the ones you love never get old or sick: a fair world. But this wasn’t a fairytale. Love wouldn’t bring back Snow or anyone else, and I wasn’t the valiant huntsmen that comes in to save the day. Instead, I became the evil villain who had unknowingly given my dad the poisoned apple.