The Cardinal and the Christmas Tree

Posted: April 11, 2013 in Stories

The snow from the previous evening’s storm had been melting through the morning and the silence in the house had been sporadically punctuated by the sudden sounds of the stuff slipping off the eaves and splattering into solid ice flowerbeds, where, in a few short months, crocuses would poke their necks out from their bulbs and through the soil between the thorny, perfectly pruned branches of the two rose bushes which had sat there since the beginning.

As he leaned over the sink, slight paunch resting on the countertop, eating a bagel, looking out the window to the trees in the backyard slowly stripping themselves of the snow like bridal lingerie in the wind, it dawned on him that he didn’t know the first thing about gardening and, now that he thought about it, the word “pruning” meant nothing to him. He figured he had at least four – no, make it May – five months to learn. Plenty of time. The bagel gave an ashy crunch as he bit into it, and he figured he would only need a few days to learn the settings on the toaster. He had made the mistake of thinking that the icon of the all-white slice of bread on the dial meant “barely warmed” and the slice with the white outline and black interior “unrecognizably burned.” He could see how it made sense the other way around, but he still thought he was right.

“Stubborn,” he repeated with a single chuckle and chomped down the last bite of the burned bagel before opening the fridge for something to help him swallow it. The grapefruit juice stood out to him first, and he told himself he’d have to dump it down the drain once he got the chance. Always hated the stuff, and he was glad to finally have the opportunity get it out of his refrigerator. If he had more of an appetite, he would have eaten some of the food still sitting inside there but right now he really had no choice but to leave it to spoil.

He adjusted his bifocals and squinted to read the expiration date on the carton of eggnog. Still distrustful, he folded open the cardboard spout and sniffed the contents. Reasonably assured that it had not curdled, he set it down on the counter and took to rinsing and washing the snifter he had left in the sink. Outside, a drooping tree shook the last of its snow from its top branches. He watched as it fell onto a handsome feral cat that used his backyard as a hunting ground. The streak of fur flew out across the snowfall towards the chain link fence that separated the man’s house from the neighbor’s.

He chuckled again. He emptied the carton into the glass and frowned when it didn’t even fill it up halfway. He grabbed the empty carton and tossed it out with the rest of the recycling before returning with his bottle of “X.O.” brandy. He checked the clock on the microwave (it was 12:12) before proudly opening the bottle, closing his tired eyes, and embracing the cork’s aroma. He poured enough so that anyone could tell the glass was now more than half-full.

As he sat down on the stool by the granite island, he ducked his head down to get another look at the drink, and scowled when he saw the brandy floating neatly on top of the eggnog. He groaned as he stood up and leaned over to the sink, reached inside, and pulled out the knife, blade still covered in cream cheese. He jammed the handle in the glass and started stirring and mixing the two ingredients into a single milky-brown sludge. The clinking of the knife against the glass echoed sharply in his skull and began to bring back his headache, so he stopped and tossed it back in the sink. The clang made him flinch and shiver. He was beginning to feel his heart pumping again and decided that the drink would help him to calm down. I deserve this, he thought.

The celebrations had thoroughly exhausted him. He made a mental note to call Adam and Heather to congratulate them on a successful evening, thank them for their hospitality, and apologize for having left before midnight, but at his age he just gets so damn tired. Who could blame him for that? He’d do it tomorrow, when he’d be feeling better and they wouldn’t be as busy. He was busy. He had to go out and shovel, but then again, it looked like it might melt on its own in a day or two, so on second thought, why bother?

Instead he sat and looked out to the patio and a perfect white stillness and he knew that this frozen blanket was melting away – slowly receding as a hidden stream underneath followed the cracks in the concrete, collecting here, rushing there, pooling and flowing, each icy drop forcing its way forwards until finally it reached soil and, resigning to gravity’s irresistible impetus, buried itself deep in the earth.

The glass was empty. He thought about how bad this must be for him– drinking eggnog – and he nearly resolved to take advantage of the auspicious opportunity to do something about his health, but the thought of engaging in such a cliché made him sick to his stomach. Besides, it would look like he was following her advice, and he wasn’t nearly desperate enough to do that. As he got up to bring the glass to the sink he wondered what he would do next until a sheet of snow dove in front of the window with a low rumble followed by a terrifying silence just long enough for him to gasp as it hung in the air before splattering with a sickening wet crush out of view. He gripped the faucet and his chest, breathing. He was breathing. His hands were throbbing. He tried loosening his grip, letting go and relaxing them, but they wouldn’t stop shaking. He caught himself feeling afraid, and he hated himself for it. He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his palms against his temples. As he exhaled, he felt like he was forcing all the air out of his body. The pain persisted. His vision didn’t come back immediately when he opened his eyes and he almost panicked before it slowly returned until only a black ring remained in the periphery and he decided it probably wasn’t worth worrying about; it would come back once he calmed down in a few minutes. It had to come back.

He could make out the shattered remains of the snifter scattered across the linoleum floor. Some probably got underneath the dishwasher and the refrigerator and there was no use trying to get to them. About a third of the glass was still attached to the stem, round and wide at the bottom with a sharp, pointed tip like the serving utensil for a wedding cake. He picked it up along with some of the larger shards and threw them into the garbage in the cabinet under the sink. He cursed himself for letting it happen; the rumble was enough warning. He shouldn’t have been so surprised.

He pulled out a new snifter while avoiding the pieces of the old one. He twisted the last drop out from the bottle. It should last him through the afternoon, he thought. He shuffled his feet across the floor so he wouldn’t accidentally step on any invisible shards. He could hear the occasional tinkle. He’d find the dustpan later, come back and fix all this. Just not now. Later. But not now.

When he reached the carpet he began to pick up his feet again, but was careful to not spill anything. An impulse commanded him to pick up and smash the lamp on the table that he never turned on because he always thought the crystal gems, worthless fake diamonds, which hung from it were gaudy. He repressed the childish surge of anger and instead placed a coaster they’d gotten as a housewarming present at the lamp’s base. He set down the drink on the coaster on the table that was on the wrong side of his chair. It had been moved to make room for the Christmas tree he didn’t want in the first place.

He hated the way it was decorated; unevenly, with too many ornaments that lacked any kind of meaning or held any kind of sentiment. Too many were new. Manufactured. He thought back to the handpainted wooden ones of his boyhood. He had favorite decorations that were just his, and every year he’d be able to hang them higher and higher. Three elves with their tools. A racecar. A smiling soldier. A couple locked in each other’s arms. Each of those had a meaning to him, so what was this? Just shiny. Pointless. Bare underneath, except for a ring of fallen needles. At least it smelled good as it stood there dying.

His stomach made a strained gurgling sound and he wondered if it was loud enough for people to hear. He sat down, rested the drink on the arm of his chair, and turned on the TV. It was a news program playing a montage of the best fireworks displays from around the world but he was tired of those. He remembered a time when they were fun, but at some point they had lost their appeal – now they bored and sickened him. There’s only so many ways a firework can pop.

He wondered if the people in Sydney, Hong Kong, Dubai, Paris, London, New York, and Seattle thought the same thing. Did any of the couples in Times Square stop holding hands, look into each others eyes, and ask, what the fuck are we even doing here? Isn’t there something besides this? Look me in the eyes and tell me you didn’t hope it would be better than this. We thought it would be better than this. A long time ago… Let’s go away together. Don’t be afraid. Anywhere – anything but this! It’s so old and I love you. I love you so much. I do. Let’s just pack up and go. Okay. No, not tomorrow. Tonight. Tell no one. I love you. I do.

He unclenched his eyes and his cheek felt cold, but he wiped it with his thumb and felt better. He drank again. All the other channels…

Snow smashed again, and again he recoiled. He should have known. But then, where was the rumble? Had there been a rumble? He would have remembered a rumble. There was no rumble. So what was the noise? It wasn’t snow falling. He put the drink down on the carpet, stood between the window and the tree and looked outside to his neighbor’s house. It was empty. It didn’t come from there. Silence. Placidity. Peace.

But then, in the periphery, he saw her on the ground: a cardinal lying on her side in the snow. He finally noticed the small dirty mark on the window and the tiny poof of a feather that remained at the point of impact. Poor bird. Stupid bird. Probably still stunned by her stupidity. And he stood there waiting for her to chirp up but it was taking too long to happen and he felt his blood and his head pounded and he ran into the kitchen and grabbed a shot glass from the sink and spurted some warm water into it and rushed out the door with a pair of women’s slippers that didn’t fit and got soaked in just a few crunchy steps and then stopped.

He set the glass beside the bird, thinking that might be all the encouragement she needed. Nothing. He tapped her beak with the glass. Nothing. He must look ridiculous, he thought. But he was afraid. She wasn’t breathing. He nudged her with his foot, careful to curl his toes so the slipper wouldn’t fall off. Nothing. He was afraid. So he ran back inside and grabbed one of the rubber gloves from underneath the sink and put it on, even though it barely fit, and came back outside and poked her chest and when nothing happened he did it again and again and again and she was so soft and so pretty and his cheeks were cold again by the time he gave up and stopped.

He breathed. He stared down at her for what felt like a long time before scooping her up. Her head fell back too far. He winced. The neck had snapped. She had died instantly. He shifted his gloved index finger to support her, see what she was like before. Her black eyes were still open.

He turned and looked through the window, past the mark. On the unlit Christmas tree sat a bird, shiny and silver, clipped to one of the top branches. Its tail was made of real feathers. Bright red. When he bought it a long time before it came with a partner, but he had dropped it when taking down the decorations one year so this last one sat alone. Was that really the last thing the tiny corpse in his hand had seen? Was she flying headfirst to… do what, exactly? He warmed his cheeks and thought how unfair it was that the males of the species got to be bright red and the females were more like a dark reddish-brown, like dried blood. She’s so beautiful. He was still gentle with her, almost as if he expected her to suddenly pop up and be fine. But these things don’t happen. But what if it did? And he felt the snow melt and soak into his feet, water seeping in to the wrinkles and the cracks and dripping upwards and burning straight through his core.

In a springtime playground he saw himself wandering to the base of a budding oak, hungry chirps cascading from a branch above. With bare hands, he picked up the mother and, surprised by her lightness and softness, ran to a girl whose name he had now forgotten. In what seemed like a thousand instances happening all at once, he watched her turn, look, raise her delicate black eyebrows, and scream. Then cry. He felt like a larger boy pushed him, but he may have fallen over on his own, and he landed on his shoulder, which hurt, and he held the little limp gift close. The world was sideways. He got up and ran back to the tree and put the bird down how he found her and he didn’t understand or know what else to do. The air was warm and wet.

There was a rumble above him. He didn’t flinch when the snow fell and instead looked back to the neighbor’s house on the other side of the chain-link fence and followed the footsteps of the cat towards it. There would be no burial. The snow was too deep. He gave a long, focused breath, watching it freeze before him, blessing the bird from head to tail. He tried to think of something else to do, some other kind of appropriate ritual, but he failed and, in acceptance, dropped her over the fence into the snow where she sank out of view.

He stared at the house for a while. They had packed up what they wanted and left, and they were miles away from caring about the past. Soon, last night would be just a shrinking dot on the horizon, the diffusion of smoke from a firework, a pool of water drained into an unsaturated ground. He stared until he caught the faint glimmer of the cat’s eyes peering out from underneath the porch.

He breathed again, a final goodbye, and walked back inside with the shot glass of water. He came back out with a sponge and cleaned the window. Then he got the dustpan and swept up the remaining shards of glass. Then he threw away the grapefruit juice. Then he just stood there, staring out the window. He wept. Then he returned to the living room, where he turned on the lamp and plugged in the lights on the tree, determined to enjoy their silent sparkling shimmers for at least one night before he took it all down the next morning.

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