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A CARDINAL SEEKS THE ORIGIN OF ITS CAMOUFLAGE by Zach Powers

I posed for weeks as the jacket of a lawn jockey, clutching his back and draping my wings over his shoulders. That was the longest I ever stayed in one place. I felt understood by the jockey and vice versa. Living life as an unwilling decoration. This was long before the mooning gnome’s conical red hat, but after the red-striped lighthouse in the flower bed. I don’t know what drew me first to lawn ornaments. Perhaps the reason for their inexplicable existences would relate to my own. I flew up and away from the lawn jockey, tipping my wing in adieu.

I survived my days in the hospital scavenging leftover noodles from trays the orderlies set in the halls. The clumpy marinara stuck in the feathers of my face. I snuck moments of preening, dared trips to the clogged drinking fountain for baths. My plan had been for a simple flight through the halls. Reconnaissance. But on my way out, there over the door hung the emergency exit sign, a red that glowed. I hooked my feet at the base of the E and contorted myself to the form of the letter, head and wings extended in profile, a hieroglyph of some forgotten god. The next day the X and then the I and the T. Out of letters, I followed the instructions I had spelled to myself and darted through the automatic door as a gurney rolled in. The woman on the gurney bled from her gut, a wound that gushed so bright I almost turned around and followed.

In the cooler months, I found myself chasing sunsets. For warmth, of course, but also to linger in that moment of perfect red, the instant each day the sky pauses between orange and indigo. If only I could fly faster, keep pace with that color as it circled the Earth. I imagined my forebearers born from chunks of the sky itself.

The most difficult part of the rose bush was avoiding the thorns. I tucked my body behind the leaves and poked out my head as though I were a fresh bud. I chirped at bees to keep them at bay. I sat as still as a scarecrow whenever a person bowed to sniff. No one ever noticed me. Perhaps I smell like a rose, but I can smell the roses and not myself.

I clung to the spoiler of a cherry red Corvette. Trees alongside the highway stretched to green streaks. Farther away, the trees seemed to move more slowly. A radio tower in the distance, red light flashing at the top, barely moved at all.

The decorative shutters on a house, a bold crimson almost too much for me to bear. I started at the top and hopped down one slat at a time. Then from the bottom back to the top. The paint flecked at my touch, revealing an older, fainter red underneath. The shutters were bolted to the brick wall at all four corners.

I joined the cheering crowd at a high school football game, the home team in red and white. Dipping down to the sideline, I claimed a spot on the shoulder pad of the smallest player. He sat on the end of the bench, as far from the coach as possible. He held an empty Gatorade cup for the whole game. A few drops of fruit punch flavor still gathered in the seam at the bottom. After the game, the player crumpled the cup and threw it on the ground. The marching band stomped it into the mud as they took the field for a final rendition of the fight song. 

Stand on a fire hydrant for long enough and you learn to feel the thrum of water through your feet. Nestle in the corner of a fire engine, and you learn that the most it usually moves is to the driveway for a wash.

Signs for shopping. Signs for stopping. Certain stripes of certain flags.

Some days there was hardly any red to be found, at least nothing I hadn’t seen a dozen times before. I soared over the suburbs, dulled by the familiar front doors and generic cars. So many backyard tool-sheds made up to look like barns. The paint on the curbs had faded so badly you couldn’t fault a person for parking along a stretch where parking was forbidden.

I almost missed it, a small tree alone in a front yard, the highest branches barely reaching the peak of the house’s roof. Red leaves, every single one of them. No, the leaves weren’t quite the same color as me. My red is noble, the leaves more brash. I’d seen red leaves on trees each autumn, of course, but always mixed with yellow and orange. Even the slightest jostle sent those leaves fluttering to the ground. This, though, this was spring, the branches full, the color uniform all the way around.

The shock of the sight stopped my wings from flapping. I plummeted, relishing the moments of freefall. Spreading my wings, I caught an updraft and glided the rest of the way down to the tree. The leaves whipped into motion, as if a gust had swept through them, but the only movement to the air was my updraft, nothing that would disturb a leaf more than a little.

I settled on the highest branch, a decoration at the top of the tree. It was covered not with red leaves but with other birds, summer tanagers, distant cousins I’d seen often enough but with whom I seldom spoke. I chirped. The tanagers met me with silence. I shifted awkwardly on the branch, one leg to the other. A shudder passed through the tanagers, from those nearest to those farthest away, an effect like rippling water. The tanagers lifted from the tree as one, as if each were a single feather on a larger bird, spreading in every direction, their color diminishing like smoke. From far enough away, all birds look like dots of black against the sky.

I expected the tree to be bare, but the tanagers had merely obscured the foliage. Small leaves like seven-toed feet grew in clusters at the ends of the branches. Some sort of maple. And these leaves were red, almost the same color as my plumage. It was as if I stood in front of a window that multiplied my reflection into an entire flock.

If I told you I didn’t know why I spent hours scouring every branch of the red-leafed tree, I’d be lying. It’s embarrassing for a grown bird to admit, but I sought the nest I had come from, the shards of the shell from which I hatched. But there was no nest, not even the ugly lump of a squirrel’s.

I fluttered back to the top of the tree. I’d never been much for nesting, but how often do you find such prime property? Maybe all this time it wasn’t where I’d come from for which I was searching, but for a place to settle down. A home for my own chicks’ first flights, the place they would depart before they were old enough to remember having been there at all.

A human child pedaled past on a red bicycle, sleek and shiny. She rode on the sidewalk, tires buzzing over the concrete. The sun caught the bike’s glossy finish and flashed like the light on a fire truck or atop a tower.

I was aloft before I knew it, pumping my wings in the bike’s wake. The tree would always be there, I told myself. But if I’m honest, I’ll never be able to re-find it. I’ve already forgotten the landmarks nearby, the signposts along the way. Even a fledgling knows the first tree you forget is far from the last.

A car stopped at an intersection to let the girl pass. She rang the bell on her handlebars, a pleasant chirp of a sound. I barely noticed the car’s brake lights wink on and off as it inched over the white line painted on the roadway. On and off. Impatient to make it home at the end of another long day.

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