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Flashy and Red

Birds, it would appear, read the newspaper. Or perhaps it is just the birds who live at Sandhill. Only days after the public revelation of my failure to attract anything other than aflatoxin, the birdfeeder dangling from the chinaberry tree was empty.

Amazed and hesitantly excited, I refilled it and a couple of days later it was empty again. I bought a second birdfeeder, hung it on a higher limb on the other side of the tree, and filled it. The next time I checked they were both empty. I bought a bigger bag of songbird mix.

But I didn’t see any birds. Nobody balancing prissily on the edge of the feeder, nobody gliding through the branches for a nibble or a nosh. Nobody pausing at the end of the meal for a brief nod of acknowledgment to the provisioner.

Then one day as I struggled to simultaneously still the springy branch, keep the leaves out of my eyes, slide the top of the feeder up the string, and avoid spilling the birdseed, I saw out of the corner of my eye a bird. Less than an arm’s length away, perched on a branch no bigger around than a wooden spoon, staring straight at me. The same pale chartreuse color as the berries on the tree. A head topped with a downy tuft of feathers like a mohawk.

Just a few leaves separated us. I wanted to reach out, to touch the feathers that looked like velveteen, to stroke the tiny head that tilted up so regally. But at the same time I did not want to break the moment. We stood there, the two of us. Staring. And breathing.

It was I who eventually broke the spell by remembering something or other that remained undone on the list of chores. I finished filling the feeder and left the bird to its supper. Back inside the house I went straight to the Audubon book and gasped out loud when I recognized my friend in the glossy photograph.

Female cardinal. Of course. She looked exactly like the flashy red male cardinal, right down to the tuft on her head, but I’d failed to recognize her because, well, she wasn’t flashy and red. She was subtle and green, the color of her surroundings. She didn’t draw attention to herself. I’d seen her only because I’d gotten so close and she’d been so still.

It’s been a long time since I was a girl. A long time since it mattered what Glamour and Seventeen said about how I should look. A long time since I slept in pink rollers the size of orange juice cans trying to straighten my hair. A long time since I refused to smile in pictures because I was self-conscious of the space between my two front teeth. A long time since I thought I needed to be flashy and red.

Flashy and red is beautiful. Flashy and red is reassuring when it shows up on a gray afternoon in winter. It’s inspiring when it streaks across a pale blue sky on an early spring morning. But flashy and red has never let me get close enough to stare into its eyes. Close enough to share a breath.

And that’s what I want. In birds and in people. So I’ll keep filling the feeder and watching for the ones that are watching for me.

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