|"The Red Bird ," by Cori Cain (8-15-06)|
[See the first draft of this essay on the Blackboard workshop, "Creative Writing About the Environment."]
This year, we couldn’t seem to wait for summer. In the summertime, the creeks and woods surrounding our house were never merely creeks and woods. They were alive with imagination and possibility. In those woods, my cousin and I had captured Indians and apprehended robbers with our driftwood muzzleloaders and imaginary ammunition. We had played endless games of hide and seek in the maze of maple and oak trees. Odysseys through overgrown brush and briars were filled with futile treasures of abandoned wood and rusty car doors, which we craftily assembled to create the makeshift huts that became our second homes. Every summer was a new adventure and the woods and creek were merely territory to be conquered. We spent every moment of each dreary December afternoon perched by the living room window, waiting for the summer to recapture the woods.
School let out early because of snow one day that winter. My cousin and I were at his house, pondering how to make the most of our day away from Mrs. Courtney. We were tired of watching television so we decided, as long as we were back inside before my aunt and uncle got home, that we should embark on one of our expeditions into the woods. After all, summer expeditions had led us to hidden caverns and isolated swimming holes, and what was to say winter wouldn’t hold its’ own surprises. Winter, though, was different. It seemed to muzzle all the sounds of life that seemed to echo around us during our summer adventures. No Bob Whites to mimic or crickets to search for. The only thing reverberating through the air of these winter months was a hush, a scary silence that hung over our wonderland like a parent over an unruly child. Winter had forced the woods into submission.
The creek was the only creature strong enough to brave the snow and sleet. With each familiar bend in the ancient path, muddy water collided with rocks before rushing past, displacing drops of the Holston River on the bank with each new trip. It flowed, rushing over rocks and carrying twigs quickly in an unsuccessful attempt to keep them from saturating with cold. Frigid streams fell into place among patches of ice, its monotony undisturbed by its’ living inhabitants. The creek sounds replaced the cricket songs of the summer, breaking the lull that hung in place of oak leaves on the branches above.
My cousin and I had often scaled those branches, using them as makeshift diving boards for our natural pool. We tied a rope to the one we would jump from, the knots dividing the string every ten inches serving as steps toward the top. We had climbed that rope every summer since we had placed it there four years ago. At nine years old, those branches seemed so high above the water. Every year the branches seemed to subside. They seemed to be drooping even lower in their winter state.
We made sure to step softly in the snow, fearing that we might be reprimanded for interrupting the overbearing silence. I walked behind him, making sure to plant my feet into the indentions he had already made, so as to keep any knowledge of an invasion of life among those dead woods to a minimum. We crossed the fence line separating the field from the forest, ignoring the tugs of barbed wire on our pant legs, and made our way into this familiar yet unknown land. We had never taken an adventure in the winter.
During our summer adventures at the swimming hole, my cousin always traveled the rope first. I waited below keeping my eyes on his feet so I could mimic his placement on the knots. Michael scaled the tree with such ease, stretching his legs from knot to knot in stride. He took his warrior stance among the branches and began coaxing me to the top. Michael would always make me jump first, just in case I slipped or didn’t come to the top soon enough. I would stand for a moment before mustering the courage to plunge into our swimming hole. A juvenile shout drifted from our perch as my flailing body fell to meet the water. Once I came to the top, Michael performed his acrobatics, flipping into the pool as I watched from the bank. We climbed for hours every day, inventing games and new jumps with each trip to the top. My cousin would never jump until I had made it to the bank. Even though I had never fallen, Michael never let me go first.
We began toward that same pool on the creek, just to see if the water had frozen. Michael led the way and even though we were together, I kept my eyes focused on his calves to remind myself that I wasn’t alone. We didn’t talk the majority of the way. We listened, the same way we listened during silent worship at the Quaker church. We were waiting. Waiting for what, we were unsure, but waiting, nonetheless, for something to break the hush. Something about the cold, white woods had captured our attention. The snow lay evenly along the ground, flattened by the thick air that was circling around my head. There was something menacing about that air.
We came to our favorite spot on the way to the swimming hole, the two parallel logs that had created a bridge over the creek. We were veterans when it came to navigating these logs, prancing upon them with the same confidence and grace as the acrobats walking tightropes at the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Michael tiptoed onto the log first then I followed. Our feet disturbed the flakes that had settled upon the logs as we danced from one end to the other. As we moved our legs, our bodies warmed up and our minds drifted forward to summer. We crossed and then crossed again, becoming braver with each new trip from one end of the logs to the other. I balanced myself on one foot and Michael immediately tried it too. We stayed that way as long as we could, one of the traditional June competitions we were trying to revive in the midst of those lifeless woods.
I was good at balancing. Out of all the years we had been exploring in those woods, Michael had never beaten me in this game. Before lifting my right leg to begin the balancing act, I would wrap the arch of my foot tightly around the log, gripping the wood with my toes. I placed my finger on my belly button while we stood there. Michael’s belly button must have been off center because the technique never seemed to work for him. I would stand there securely, singing “Miss Susie Had a Daughter” to keep my mind off actually having to balance. Michael never lasted long enough for me to get to the part of the song where Miss Susie calls the doctor. He always lost and I never fell.
Balancing was difficult on this day. Everything around us was determined to pull us down, to kill the reminiscent summer aura that we were so caught up in. The chill wind tossed my outstretched arms and wrapped around my knees so tightly that they began to buckle underneath me. Splashes from the creek leapt onto the surface of the log, saturating the wood just enough to undermine the tread on my shoes. For a while, I fought with the wind, shifting weight as I swayed from front to back, side to side, until the push became so strong that I had to brace myself. As my foot went down and the game was over, the snow underneath crunched just loud enough to draw my mind back into those frigid winter woods. I sat down after my defeat. Dark and cold seemed to creep up on the log bridge where we sat. The numbness in my toes paired with the rhythmic chatter my teeth made me reluctantly conscious of my surroundings. Blood-flow seemed to cease as my body began to shiver, giving in to the numbing atmosphere. The winter mist pulled visible streams of air from my mouth with every breath I took.
Michael and I sat facing each other for a long time. The silence was too strong for us to break with words. We sat, waiting for some sign of life in the woods besides our own. Fighting against our notions to return to the warm house became more difficult as the afternoon slowly crept into night. Clouds began to spit flakes around us, relying on the wind to guide them into the most uncomfortable crevices of our necks and faces. The water began to roar, almost commanding that we remove ourselves from the perch above, intermittently sloshing a pant leg or shoelace until both Michael and I became soaked. As we began to give in to the elements, a scarlet stroke disrupted the white canvas of the woods. A red bird had perched itself in the middle of the pathway leading up to the very log I was sitting on. No bird had ever landed so close to us in the summer and we began to forget about the frigid grip that winter had held on us. Our teeth slowly settled from chattering, a reaction we had both succumbed to. We looked at each other and began our attempts at getting closer to this living thing.
At first I edged my way toward the bird, sliding my numb bottom strategically, until knots on the log forced me to either stop or stand. I braced myself with my hands before attempting to plant my feet. I was almost completely standing when my left foot slipped and I toppled into the creek below. Two feet of the Holston River waited below to catch my flailing frame. As I hit the surface I gasped at the shock of the cruel cold seeping through my clothing and cutting through my skin. The creek bed jarred my body, rocks prodding into my legs and back as they broke my fall. My fall had shaken the log just enough to remind the red bird of his ability to fly, and he had.
During the summer, birds were everywhere. The woods were full of woodpeckers and humming birds. Pecking and singing played throughout the summer days, echoing off tree trunks until the woods chirped with life. Summer bird landings were never that exciting. Nests in split trunks seemed to be as close as the creatures got to us humans. Michael and I sometimes tried to get close to the nests but we could never seem to make it without being noticed. We watched that other world from the ground, pondering what the woodpeckers and red birds looked like close up, but never knowing. Before we forgot about the birds and continued on our expeditions, Michael always said, “Wouldn’t it be great to fly?”
Michael and I had once again been left alone. We searched the trees and sky for the bird along the path back to the house. It was gone. Walking back through this snow-covered world, my entire body ached from the chill surrounding me. Snow accumulated onto the back of my jeans, weighting my legs and making my trek from the woods even more difficult and displeasing. The white vision that had looked so inviting at the beginning of our jaunt was now spotted with the brown of mud and mush, disturbances created only by living things. My eyes scanned the canvas, dismissing the browns and blacks in hopes that the red stroke would glide through and land once again. The longer we walked, the farther away the red bird had flown. As Michael and I reached the fencerow, I slipped, catching my hand on the barbed wire as I once again, hit bottom. Soaked in water and now bleeding, I followed Michael’s lead, positioning myself to squirm through the opening. As I poked my head through the hole, a sense of relief met me on the other side. I was on my way out of the woods, nothing else to hurt or embarrass me. I slid my abdomen across the ground, not paying attention to the twigs and leaves that lay in my way. Just as I was about to escape, somewhat unscathed, the fence grabbed hold of my pant leg and held me there, helpless.
I was crying when we finally walked into my cousin’s house. Michael quickly went to get a rag and band-aid as I stood in the kitchen, tears, almost frozen from the cold, slowly streaming down my face. We were in the middle of caring for my hand when my uncle walked in to see my body and face both sopping wet. We told my uncle how I fell in the creek and how I had cut my hand, and he assumed these were the reasons I was crying. I didn’t really know what had caused me to cry. The fall hadn’t hurt that much and it was really only a scrape on my hand. In the summer, once we had returned from the woods, we always had a few scrapes and bruises from our expedition, but we never had time to notice them because we were busy retelling stories of how we had made some unbelievable discovery or experienced some isolated miracle that only we and the woods could bear witness to.
I kept crying until Michael started to tell my uncle about the red bird. He stood a few feet from my uncle to show him how close the bird had landed to us and described how amazing the red had looked in the middle of all that white. My ears perked up and my sobbing subdued as I listened to Michael’s recollection of the bird. It had been the highlight of our day, stirring the stillness of those sullen woods. I told my uncle how I had edged my way toward the bird as far as I could and tried to get up and walk to it before I fell off the log. He looked at Michael and I, eyes lacking the same amazement and awe that ours held as we spoke of the magical creature that had visited us in the midst of winter, and said, “The red bird landed on the ground, you say? Well, I guess that means more snow.” The marvel immediately left my eyes, replaced by the same tears that had earlier seeped from my lids, only this time I understood what was making me cry.