I found the bird before my brother did, laying just below our kitchen window in a crumpled heap of red. At first, I thought its twisted body was covered in blood. But, as I crept closer, I saw that the color came instead from its vibrantly colored feathers.
“Goddamnit,” Zack muttered as he crouched down beside me. “Stupid thing flew right into the window.”
He squinted up at the speckled, greasy smear the cardinal’s body had left on the glass above us before standing up dismissively. Now that he had diagnosed the situation, he was ready to be done with it. But I didn’t move. Instead, I sat huddled in the damp grass with my shoulders hunched close to my ears, my heart fluttering in my chest. Just inches away from me, the bird’s legs twitched convulsively.
“Come on, Greg,” My brother said in a quiet voice. “There’s nothing you can do for it now. It’s best to just let nature take its course.”
But I didn’t move from my place on the ground, and I didn’t look away. Instead I sat, transfixed by the struggling animal in front of me, and watched the rise and fall of its tiny breast. The bird’s wings were crumpled unnaturally underneath its body, its bright, orange beak lulling open in either shock or pain. It could have been both, but there was no way to know.
“Leave it, Greg,” Zack warned, his voice suddenly stern.
“No,” I said softly. “You go. I don’t want it to be alone.” Zack let out a long sigh, and it was as if I could hear everything he was thinking in that one puff of air.
“Greg, it’s a bird, not a person. You don’t have to give the thing a fuckin’ funeral.” I bristled slightly at his condescending tone, the kind that was so often used by older siblings, and momentarily tore my eyes away from that dying speck.
“How would you feel if you had to die alone?” I challenged.
My question dropped between us like a stone. Zack’s annoyed ex- pression suddenly changed as every crease and corner of his face filled with angry shadows. In that instance, I knew our minds had wandered to the same place, and that there would be no going back.
For a terrible, pregnant moment, we said nothing, only stared at one another. Maybe, even now, we were still too afraid or broken to talk about what had happened. Because it was a long time before either of us broke our tense silence.
Until, finally, “Fine. It’s not like I care what you do,” Zack snapped. “But if mom finds you out here with that thing, she’s gonna flip a shit.” With a frustrated snort, he stalked off towards the back door, slamming it behind him. But I had already forgotten about my brother. Instead, all I could think about was the sickening “thud” the cardinal had made when it hit the window.
I couldn’t stop imagining what it must have been like for it, to be flying through the air, free and safe, before seeing the house and window speeding nearer. Then the headlights, bright and blinding as he watched the car speeding towards him, knowing that he was about to crash. That he was about to die. I blinked suddenly, bringing myself back from my imaginary flight. This bird had hit a window, and windows didn’t have headlights. It wouldn’t have seen anything like that. It wasn’t like…I gritted my teeth.
I had never seen Bryan’s body. My parents never let me. They said I was too young, that there were some things in this world that children didn’t need to see. I don’t blame them though, not really. Because I know they didn’t know any better. They did let Zack see him though. He got to say goodbye to our mangled older brother. And I still remember the look on his face when he came home afterwards. It wasn’t so much broken, as breaking. As if he still couldn’t believe what had happened. He wasn’t the only one.
Gently, with hands shaking only slightly less than the bird, I reached for its heaving form and lifted it off the ground. Through its broken form, I could feel its tiny pulse tapping against my hand, a frantic count down its certain end.
“Why do you have to die?” I asked.
It seemed like such a simple question, but it was one I knew I would never find an answer to. This bird hadn’t seen our window. Just as Bryan hadn’t seen the girl who ran the red light at the intersection my family didn’t drive through anymore.
“Why did you have to die?” I whispered softly to my brother, letting my tears drip down onto the cardinal’s blood colored feathers. Too far gone to care where they might fall.
Between my fingers, I felt its breaths growing slower and further apart. In and out. Life and death. Here and gone. In those last few moments, I told it my secrets, whispering all of the things I wanted it to know before it died. I told it about the cold and the sadness I felt, about what I had done since I had last seen Bryan, about what I wanted my bird to tell my brother, if it ever saw him on the other side. I don’t know how long I sat there, whis- pering to that dying animal, trying to grab for something further away than I could ever reach. All I know is that it was a moment when time stood still, and death and I came closer. Until, without ceremony or recognition of any kind, the bird in my hands went still, and another life ended. And the world didn’t notice.
“Where is my brother?” I asked the quiet, still air. But there was no answer. I covered my cardinal’s bright, still body with my hands, pressing my forehead against them.
“I wish I could go with you,” I whispered to them. But I didn’t mean it. And the quiet world around me knew it.