November 2012
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Scent of cardinals

I am quite small.

He is not, but he is a child in this moment as he works with his father to rake the biggest pile of leaves I have ever seen.  Together the men work to clear the broad sloped lawn, their rakes laying bare the nakedness of the shivering green beneath.  Blades are pressed into uneasy concert by insistent metal fingers; it is as though the entire yard’s unruly hair has been brushed into painful submission.  My own head itches in sympathy, and I pull off my knit hat for a moment to smooth my long hair against my head.

The air is cold, the kind of cold that aches and struggles against the pulling warmth of my existence.  Each inhalation is sharp and crystalline within my lungs, and every exhalation is a fogged misty proof of the evanescent struggle against change.  I breathe as deeply as I can and hold the breath within, hoping to warm it to a thickness that will allow me to blow rings like the ones my father sometimes blows for me.  I make my lips a circle and puff the moist air into small incorrigible clouds that lack the magic of my father’s smoke.

I breathe in and then I breathe out and I wish upon the single guiding star of my father’s lit cigarette.

I run and spin with arms outstretched, and then I walk careful circles around the wooden pole that holds up one of my grandma’s birdfeeders.  I stand beneath the birdfeeder and stare up at the dark rectangle it cuts out of the light blue sky.  My grandma walks to stand beside me, and she stares into the sky as though she can read the secrets of the blue’s solidity.  She smiles, “The cardinals will be here soon.”  The cardinals are her favorites, and they arrive at the feeders with the snow, the males’ plump bodies an impossibly glossy brazen crimson.  The cardinals are not my favorites . . . I worry about their showiness . . . I have seen the impossibly glossy crimson of their blood dropletted against the snow.  “Cats cannot see color,” my grandma once assured me as she sadly bent to help me pluck the tiny rampaged feathers from the blood-soaked snowflakes, “They are attracted to movement.”

This explanation failed to satisfy me, as the tiny feathered quills wrote a tale of savagery against the white of the world’s page with ink the exact color of their plumage.

I am pretty sure the cardinals smell of the blood they advertise, and it is to this lure the cats are drawn.

But there are no cardinals now, and so I clear my mind of worry on their behalf.

My father is a child in this moment, and he calls to me from across the yard with sweeping arms and whooping cries of excitement.  My grandfather stands silent and tall as my father invites me to leap and jump into the pile of leaves they have collected.  The leaves crunch and crackle beneath my giddy flung weight.  I feel them scratch small messages of protest against my face and hands.  I lie on the pile and my father buries me until the light blue sky is only stars twinkling through a sieved midnight covering of promised decay.  I want to hide here, unhidden, forever.

I breathe in and I breathe out and I wish upon the azure frozen stars of a fragmented sky.

I call for my grandma.  I want her to see how I am gone.

But she has gone . . .

into the house to take a nap.

When I am done playing in the leaves, my father and his father rake them up into a pile again, and then my grandfather lights and throws a match.  We stand together and watch as flames lick eagerly at the sky above our heads, as golden-singed skeletoned leaves dance on the breezes of the fire’s creation.  Embered bits float high and luminescent, a million tiny stars out of time and out of place . . . against the light wintry blue.

I breathe in and I breathe out and I wish upon glittering stars of extinguishment.

When the fire begins to fade, my father’s father speaks of the possibility that they might burn some trash as well – no sense in letting this bonfire go to waste.

My father is a child in this moment, and he hurries off into the house to do his father’s bidding, returning after a few minutes with several brown paper bags of trash, which he dumps into the fire.

A different smokier kind of fire, then.  Less entertaining.  I turn my attention to other things as my dad and grandpa stand and tend the blaze.

Several hours pass.  The fire is now a warm ashen circle of cindered destruction.

My grandma wakes from her nap, and she cannot find her teeth.

I watch as the adults run around the house searching everywhere, as though it is possible Grandma’s teeth have walked off and hidden somewhere . . . in a drawer, perhaps . . . or under the couch . . . or in the laundry hamper.  Silly, because Grandma always puts her teeth in a cup next to her bed unless she is napping, and then she sometimes just wraps them in a tissue and puts them on the bedside table.

I see my father realize what has happened a few seconds before realization dawns on my grandma’s face.

He runs out to the still warm pile of ashes and sinks to his knees, digging with his hands in the burned debris.  I see the soft heated glow of rubies and gold as he sifts, tiny landlocked stars on which I make a wish.  My father is so small in this moment.  My father is so small.

My father reaches suddenly into the starry filth, and then he turns to me, a small misshapen monster of molten plastic and enamel in his hands.

Tears glisten in his eyes.

I breathe in and I breathe out and I wish upon those watery stars.

I remember his apology to my grandma, his mother.

The one and only time in my memory that my father apologized sincerely.

Meanwhile, my wish went unfulfilled.

As my every wish on every star went unfulfilled.

The wish . . .

to smell less . . .

like a cardinal.

    21 comments to Scent of cardinals

    • I do like when the light is broken by bits of darkness.

      • Thank you, babe.

        I thought I would be standing alone in comments on this one.

        Not that standing alone is an unfamiliar feeling.

        But thank you.

    • BEL2009

      Very well told indeed – I could smell the leaves, the air, and the hope.

    • This time of year is my favorite.

      I love the crispness of the air. The cold bite as you breathe it in.

      I have so many favorites that you have written. . . This one is now a part of that list.

    • Robin K

      Such a vivid work. For me, both telling and mysterious. Really love it and read it more than a few times.

      I remember being so intrigued by smoke rings…

    • Mishelle

      Kris, if I close my eyes I can see the bird, the fire and the look of remorse on his face. Amazing words that make me wonder if my father ever had an innocent childhood or even a “second” of one…


    • Jess

      This is the sort of post I always wanted to comment on. I must have had a similar scent when I was young.

      My own toddler smells of conditioner, earth, and licorice.

      The baby smells of milk and pears.

      Their father loves them as a father should.

      This post sent my mind back to my childhood. It makes me even more grateful for what my daughters and I have.

      • Jess?

        This kind of post, for me, is always about gratitude in the end.

        Whatever memories I offer up, whatever the fears of that little girl, whatever the sorrow of the woman looking back.

        In the end, my words are always about gratitude.


    • You know how when words are really good, you get to that last syllable, that last breath, and look up and wonder where you are or even what is was you had been doing before those moments of words?
      Yes, that.
      I love how you give the good, show the beautiful, but in an ever-so-crafty way weave tattered strings of broken in, barely visible to the naked eye.

      • Kim -

        What is there to say in response to such lovely complimentary words?

        I’m beyond delighted that you see what I meant to reveal.

        Thank you.


    • Sneaky Kris – you’ve opened comments back up. I know if I were reading you more frequently I would have noticed, but lately I’ve been taking you in big doses (because you are not a casual read, and I want to be in a clear undistracted space when i read you) – usually catching up weekly – but the hurricane and my mother’s needs just messed up my free time. That said… what a beautiful piece. Leaves me with such unsettled feelings inside, melancholy and bits of so many other things. Kind of like bright spots of crimson in a white and gray landscape.

      • Well, hello Varda!

        I re-opened comments not so long ago. I took time away from comments to write a book, because I needed to be talking less when I was writing more. I needed to commit to the quiet of that space.

        I have not been screaming about how comments are open, because honestly? I’m not sure how I feel about comments being open. I like the conversations here with those who reach for me, but I like less the sense that a post that garners a large comment-response is “better” than one that sits quietly.

        So we’ll see.

        I’m glad you came for this post. Glad you let me know you read. I appreciate that more than I can say.

        Thank you, Varda.


    • Jacqui

      This is such a heart wrenching post, thank you as always for your beautiful words.

    • Im playing catch up on my reading.

      This, so worth the wait.