From Issue I (2016)
When the Cardinal Takes Flight
by KRISTEN M. PLOETZ
“Do you hear that?” I whisper to my daughter. “It’s the cardinal,” I tell her.
She stops what she’s doing to find him, her lake-blue eyes scanning the lone, leafed-out maple in our yard. His red cloak is camouflaged among the fluttering leaves. Elusive and coy, he wishes to remain unseen.
“I can’t see him. Where, Mama?” She turns back to face me.
I take in the full picture of my soon-to-be eight-year-old: gap-toothed innocence, boundless curiosity, and a haircut that’s long overdue. Before I can answer, the cardinal emerges in full and furious flight toward the neighbor’s oak tree. A new vantage point was needed. He finds a suitable perch and picks up where he left off.
Birdie birdie birdie birdie.
Not much in life is certain. Yet I trust my daughter will learn there is beauty in this world, even if it is not always visible. The cardinal’s call will remain steady, just as it has for the time I’ve come to know it. Like I have, she will come to understand some things are reliable. I am consoled by the knowledge that she can always listen for his lyrics, even when I am long gone. I don’t have religion or recipes to pass down. There are no guarantees I can give about paths to future passions or professions. Only this.
Later, my mind wanders while I dig a shallow trench for the Purple Majesty and Yukon Gold. Thoughts of potato salad at late summer cookouts keep me motivated in the scorching midday sun. Then I spot it: a slender ribbon of soil undulates just out of reach.
“Oh, look how big this one is!” My excited utterance is involuntary, as it often is. I am usually by myself, but on this day she plays nearby.
She extends her open palm toward me. “Can I hold it?”
I pluck the earthworm from the freshly dug hole and drop it in her hand. Wriggling induces giggling. Most of her friends would not willingly partake in such delight. I am uncertain whether I should be proud of her or saddened by this modern state of affairs. Perhaps both.
We talk about compost and castings and their particular arc along the circle of life. She already knows death and decay are a necessary corollary to life, but also that it possesses its own kind of heartbreaking beauty. Still, there’s no reason to have it unduly hastened. She sidles down the garden path a few steps, and after a brief (arguably one-sided) conversation held at eye level, finds him another spot in the soil, safe from my garden spade.
It’s the end of another day, one filled with errands and homework. If I’m not careful, Banality too frequently takes over as puppet master of our days. Oh, how she deftly works the marionette strings with an unappreciative ennui, relying on predictable endings that offer solace and satisfaction, but little surprise. Her calloused hands don’t always feel the tension in the strings as she tries to maneuver through yet another day like this. It remains unclear whether this makes her my muse or simply a menace. But tonight I quickstep backstage. I demand that Banality hand over the controls. She relents with a smile.
“Quick! Come on the deck. Look at this sunset. There is so much pink tonight!” I shout through an open window.
Bare feet scamper across the wood floors. The kitchen door slams behind her.
“Wow,” she sighs.
For a moment, we are connected through our shared awe of this scattering light in the twilight sky. We watch the colors shift. Cotton-candy pink yields to deep, dusky violet. Gunmetal creeps on hindquarters toward black, and the margin of evening has kissed the day good night. The kaleidoscope of colors may vary in opulence, or even become occluded or obscured from time to time, but the close of every single day offers its own kind of consolation and countenance. She already expects the pattern to repeat again tomorrow and the day after that.
A hush falls over the theater. We are still in the backyard, and the final act—bedtime—is upon us. Pajamas, books, and good night are no longer met with resistance. It is now, of course, an easy path. After this many years, its terrain is expected and familiar, for both of us. I indulge in this reprieve once it arrives each evening—I know what waits for me on the other side of her slumber. Yet, as the darkness slowly fills in around us like a stub of charcoal quietly rubbing against cotton bond, filling in from edge to center, we linger.
“Remember, look for the three stars in a row. That’s his belt,” I whisper into my daughter’s ear, her flaxen hair brushing against my lips.
“I see him. Right there, Mama!” she exclaims with delight, pulling me tighter to her lanky body.
As we tilt our heads toward wonder and away from the clock, I remember one of her first words: moon. “Moo-in,” she’d say, pointing her pudgy finger at the gray-white slice of rock smiling back at us. A few years later she learned the difference between the Corn Moon and the Worm Moon. Last summer she danced on a sandy Rhode Island shore, frolicking before the swollen pink supermoon that hovered low above the Atlantic, perfectly punctuating the end of our vacation. These are the primitive teaching tools offered by the night sky. I use them to show her there is beauty beyond us, and we can count on it to offer context for the deepest of loves. Complexities found in well-charted constellations and the orbits of comets will soon follow. There’s a new cadence to her understanding. I sense that it is quickening, deepening.
When life is lived the right way, with vulnerability and bravery tendered at the fore, subtle shifts and seismic faults will inevitably etch new contours in the heart’s landscape. The bedrocks of love and friendship might be discovered as unreliable, unrequited, or else in finite supply. People will move on without you—whether it is deliberate or demanded by death, in both cases it hurts. New maps are always needed to navigate the shifting terrain, to recalibrate the cardinal directions.
My daughter has not yet lived long enough to learn these truths. I want her to be prepared. I want her to become familiar with what she can trust. When so much will be beyond her control, I want her to find solace in the wondrous, beautiful things that remain constant.
My outdoor classroom is small for these lessons on the fly. We do not have mountain vistas. There is no roar of the ocean at our back door. Homes in this dense neighborhood are the same age as her grandparents, sitting mere feet from the property line. Yards are measured in square feet rather than acres. It can feel crowded, if you let it. I must compete with the din of the highway traffic and overhead jets painting the white noise around our days. The trees are old and sparse, surviving each season of Nor’easters with another hard-won ring in the sapwood, but fewer branches. Skittish and scrappy, the resident wildlife offers few opportunities for sustained awe.
Still, I find ways to make our world feel vast and steady, a place of comfort and quiet wonder. I help her knit a chain mail of resiliency by showing her how to pay attention to the world around us. The familiar flicker of a blue-feathered wing. Thousands of helicopters that drop each year from our maple tree, decorating the yard like confetti after a raucous party. A roly poly bug that hugs itself into a tiny armored sphere when she tries to coax it into her hand. I want these constants of our world to run along the bias, bending with her when she tumbles through the heartaches of life. Sunsets and stars, seasons and stones, songs and stamens—these will remain steadfast when all else falters.
And so we dig. We listen. We look up. We outstretch our hands. We open our hearts.
Kristen M. Ploetz
Kristen M. Ploetz is a writer and former land use attorney living in Massachusetts. Her other writing has appeared in print and online journals including NYT Motherlode, Literary Mama, Modern Farmer, The Humanist, and Manifest-Station, among others. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. Find her online at kristenploetz.com and on Twitter @KristenPloetz.