A petite, red cardinal sits atop a tree branch. He fluffs out his feathers on the warm spring morning, letting out a cheerful chirp to greet the neighborhood. The branch sways as he hobbles across it, looking out to the rows of houses below him. The sun is just beginning to rise, making dew drops glisten on the grass. The other birds begin to awake, as well, letting out their morning greetings to each other. The cardinal sings a chirp back and leaps off the tree branch. He swoops under high branches and in between houses. The morning breeze intertwines with his feathers, making them flutter. He begins his usual breakfast routine, stopping by an old woman’s house. She is up as early as he is, sipping coffee and lounging on her back porch.
“Why, hello there, red birdie. How are you this fine morning?” She asks when he stoops down onto the metal feeder. He chirps a response which makes her giggle, eyes crinkling in the corners. She waves him a goodbye as he swoops up into the sky above her.
He floats seamlessly in the air, leaning right, then left, then right again. The houses sparkle underneath him and his little black face wrinkles happily. As he floats, he descends to a new house, landing on the patio table.
“Mom, I know that I should be there, but I have a deadline this Friday. My editor keeps insisting that I finish that first chapter. I’ve pushed it back as far as I can and if I miss one more day, I might as well say goodbye to my career.” May pulls out one of the wicker chairs and drops into it with a thud. Her mother continues to ramble on about how this might be her father’s, May’s grandfather, last birthday, and they want the whole family there. May wants to be there too, but with her novel scheduled to release in December, she doesn’t stand a chance. “Grandad will understand. He’s always been supportive of my work.”
“Well, now it’s time to be supportive of him, hon.”
She runs a hand over her face, holding back a frustrated groan, and hears a twitter beside her. She startles and removes the hand covering her eyes. A little red bird sits on her glass table, staring at her with beady eyes. He tilts his head and lets out another chirp. The irate voice behind her cellphone draws her attention away from the bird.
“Mom, I really need to go. I’ll talk to my editor, okay?” She only says this to appease her mother; she knows her editor could not care less about her personal issues. “Okay, love you, too. Bye.” Her mother hangs up first and May clicks her phone off. She turns to her right and narrows her eyes at the still lingering bird.
“Enjoying the view?” She asks with a hint of snark. “Alright, what do you want, hm? I don’t have any birdseed or seeds of any kind, really. So, if you would…” May makes a move along gesture with her hand. The bird continues to stare. “You’re a stubborn one, aren’t you?” She huffs.
She watches as the bird’s wings twitch and it reaches around with its beak to scratch beneath some feathers. The bird has midnight black coloring surrounding an orange beak and crimson feathers covering the rest of its body. She has only seen red cardinals on the front of Christmas cards, ones with a single bird surrounded by icy white snow. Her mind wanders to an article she once read, one about the symbolism of this particular kind of bird.
“Are you a long lost relative of mine trying to warn me of my demise?” She questions the bird, voice soaked with sarcasm. “Get on with it, then.” Nothing. “Guess that means I’ll have to find out for myself.”
May’s conversation with the bird is interrupted by the annoyingly shrill ding of her phone.
MR. RILEY: How are we doing on that first chapter? 😊 Chop, chop, Miss Hough!
MAY: Working on it now.
May slides further down in the seat, trying to see how far she can go before she disappears completely. “Break time’s over, I suppose,” she grumbles. The little bird hops over to the very edge of the table, preparing to take off. A spark of disappointment appears in her stomach without warning. The cardinal lets out a shrill chirp, then flies up and into the sky. “Guess I’m all alone, now,” May says, a headache already forming behind her eyes. She slips inside her back door and shuts it quietly behind her, leaving a glass barrier between the outside and her dreadful work.
It is mid-morning the next day, the sun beating down on the earth below. May sits in her wicker chair, laptop laid carefully on her lap as she types furiously. Sweat prickles underneath her sweater and she pulls at it to let any cool air through. There are dark blue circles under her eyes, a result of working until the early morning.
Her nails click against the keyboard as the spring air rustles her hair. She pushes it out of the way, irritated, when she catches a flash of red in the corner of her eye. May looks up from her screen and sees the tiny red cardinal pecking away at it’s feathers beside her. A smile plays at her lips.
“Welcome back,” she says, only slightly snarky. “I have to say, I’m not sure why you are so interested in me.” The bird chirrups. “Is that a compliment? I’ll take it as one, anyways.”
She turns back to her laptop, feeling the ever-present nudging of her editor. One paragraph, then two, then three. Soon she is passing five pages and feeling more accomplished than ever. She grins. “You see that?” She turns to the bird. “Five pages! If I continue at this pace for the rest of the day, I might have that first chapter done early,” she emphasizes. The bird tilts it’s head, beady eyes narrowing. “What? You’re not impressed?” Nothing. “I see, bird has an attitude. I bet if I grabbed the sunflower seeds inside, you would change your perspective.” May winks, then grimaces. “Jeez, I’ve gone crazy.”
She slips inside the back door and over to the kitchen. After the bird’s visit the day before, May had gone to the store in search of seeds, just in case he showed up again. Her phone lies face down on the counter, purposefully for no distractions. Her grandfather’s birthday gathering is today and she wonders if her mother has sent any pictures. Clicking it on, the phone reads fourteen missed calls and ten unread text messages. May’s stomach drops. She hurriedly calls her mother, disregarding the voicemails and text messages.
Her mother picks up on the first ring. “Hey, I’m sorry. I left my phone inside and—” May pauses when she hears heavy sobs on the other line. “Mom, what’s wrong?”
“It’s your grandfather,” her mother chokes out. She continues to explain but May doesn’t hear any of it. The phone slips out of her hand and she falls to her knees. Her grandfather is gone. And she never got to say goodbye.
Days pass, then weeks, as May isolates herself inside her home. She continues to focus on her work, surpassing the needed chapters for her editor. She now types, then deletes, then types the last words of her fifth chapter. The atmosphere in her house is quiet. Unsettling. It has now been two weeks since she last stepped outside. Two weeks since her grandfather died. Her mother had tried to console her that day, saying it wasn’t her fault that she was not there. Granddad was old, he was getting weaker by the minute. It could have happened any day. She learned that her grandfather was admitted to the hospital the day her mother called, which makes May feel worse about the situation.
May pushes any thought of her grandfather’s passing far back into her mind, solely focusing on her work. The more she tries, though, the harder it gets. She glances hesitantly out the window looking out onto the empty patio. She writes best outside; it is where most of her inspiration originates from. May takes a sharp inhale, then exhales loudly, rising up from her sofa and over to the glass door.
A cool breeze hits her as she steps outside, nearly knocking the breath out of her. Her teeth chatter and she hugs her laptop close. When she turns towards the table, a tiny crimson being is waiting for her. He sits atop the wicker chair, head tilted, red coat shining more than ever. He chirps a cheerful song just to her. As she stares at the bird, a strange sense of recognition washes over her. Her hand flies up to her mouth, hovering over the o-shape. Two weeks have gone by without a single thought to this bird and now it is the only thought clouding her mind. Tears prickle behind her eyes and her vision becomes blurry. The bird’s song stops, and May begins to cry. Her wails are loud, shoulders shaking. It is the first time she has truly allowed herself to grieve about her grandfather’s death since the news. The cardinal does not move an inch, simply staring at her. “I’m sorry,” she sobs. “I’m so sorry.”
When May wipes her cheeks and looks into the cardinal’s eyes, she feels peace. If it is possible, there is a sadness etched into the bird’s face. She walks over to it with cupped hands and the bird hops into them, nestling against her skin.
“You have no idea how good it is to see you,” she whispers. Another lump forms in her throat and she swallows. The bird looks up into her eyes and blinks. “I’ve missed you.” The bird’s eyes glisten with impossible tears. She gently strokes it’s head and a realization goes off in her mind.
She carries the bird to the table and gently places it down. “I think I have somewhere to be,” May says, smiling. Before she goes inside, she turns around one last time. “Thank you…little red bird.”
She carries her laptop inside and deposits it on the sofa not to be looked at any time soon. She grabs the keys off the entrance table and heads out the door. It’s time she visits her mother.
Goodbye, May. I’ll see you soon.