Cardinal

By Melissa Nunez



The Edinburg Scenic Wetlands opened the year before I graduated high school, but I was not aware of its existence, would not step foot on the grounds until after my first child was born—a decade later. I took my son to an educational event hosted there and he learned about the life cycle of the frog, or maybe why bird beaks are different shapes. While I really don’t recall the activity specifics, what did resonate was the beauty of the trees and shrubs lined up along the water. Mesquites leaning lanky limbs to skim the surface, as if they too want to take a drink. The birds—here a diving Osprey, there a statuesque heron—that fish and nest along the shore. Despite the longer drive, I have made a concerted effort to visit often.


We have planned to meet my sister and her family here. The children delighting in the hideaways tucked along the trail. The wooden platforms overlooking the water. I try to point out the plants I recognize: cenizo and scarlet sage. I use the plant identification app on my phone for the ones I don’t: Spanish dagger and Mexican bird of paradise.


We have arrived a little later than I usually like, closer to midday than morning. The sun has dispersed the clouds and the heat sits on our skin, like a sleeve of siphoning mosquitos you can’t swat away. At the first sign of discontent from the kids, we find a picnic table close to the entrance to rest and rehydrate. This table is within clear view of a bird feeder. A square slab of wood raised on a metal pole amid the chapote, Texas persimmon trees. Here they scatter seeds and fruit. If you are still and quiet, presenting unaware, the birds will come snack alongside you.


While my children eat their granola bars and joke with their cousin, I notice movement to my right. I turn and see a cardinal perched and pecking on the feeder. It has a little triangle of a beak with just enough orange in it to distinguish it in color from the red feathers. The beak is surrounded by black, as if he dipped his face in ink and followed up with a quick and incomplete grooming attempt, hastily wiping at his mouth and continuing on his way, leaving cheeks and chin unclean. His wings are dark at the edges, as if he used them for the job. His head is topped with a tuft of feathers resembling my son’s first haircut, a faux hawk. He is brilliant and breathtaking, a bright beckoning beacon. A bird I never had the pleasure of seeing in the wild until I was an adult. I snap some pictures and point him out to the kids, who of course want to get closer and closer until he flits away. He returns a few more times, once joined by the more demure, though nonetheless beautiful, female. Her tawny coloring accented with red at wing tip and crest, bright beak also circled in inky black. Each time to the same result.


When the food is finished, we pack up and continue traipsing along the trails. We return to the waterfront one last time, where there are benches and a playhouse, where even though it is Spring Break, the children decide to play school. I make a slow circle around the area, admiring more of the foliage, when I hear a familiar call. A series of down-sliding whistles followed by a warbling trill. I hear it once, and again. I look up and all around and see nothing. As I hear the song once more, the one from the feeder, I see movement in the granjeno. I peer between the spiny branches and there in the shadows of leaf and limb sits the cardinal. I marvel at his ability to camouflage his eye-catching feathers among contrasting leaves and bark. A feat I would have thought impossible. He was invisible if not for his voice.


After the birth of my third child, when he started getting older and the depression still had not lifted, was no longer so postpartum, I finally called myself on the procrastination promise that time heals all wounds. I started going to therapy. Even though my therapist has excellent credentials and is very welcoming and kind, has helped me work through some of my deepest childhood insecurities, I still find it difficult to broach certain subjects. Despite the fact that it is only her and I, and the very detailed confidentiality agreement we both signed that guarantees no one else would ever have to know unless I said so. Let’s say, sex, for example. Speaking of sex in general can be accomplished with the appropriate amount of notes and prepping and breathing. But using terms like foreplay is too vague, cunnilingus too assuming, not to mention the more vulgar options. And given the fact that she can count the freckles on my face while I say the words, see the blush bloom on my face, I usually let her lead in with the questions.


“Well, look at you. That’s a big change,” she says in greeting.


Her office is small but not restrictive. The lights are usually soft and dim, which puts you more at ease than the harsher white light of the lobby and hallway. I am perched on the padded armchair across the coffee table from her own seat. Even in the lazy light, the vibrancy of my newly neon hair is obvious. I reach up to touch it and laugh little. The way I always do to pleasantly buy some time.


“Pink. It’s so bright.”


“Yes. I wanted something different.”


“That’s very interesting. You seem to very much dislike being the center of attention. Then here you are with that hair. What’s your take on that if you don’t mind my asking?”


We have been working through my social anxiety and fear of confrontation. Both in my personal life, with family, and out in the public sphere with acquaintances and those unknown. I understand the question, but I have been dyeing my hair so long now it feels like organic ritual.


“I think when I first started it was for attention. I wanted to stand out. I was sixteen and had wanted red hair forever. I have had so many shades of red, from the more natural wine and amber tones to the unnatural and vibrant. I am used to it now.”


“I just wonder how you handle all the attention. You’ve mentioned not liking speaking to strangers.”


“It’s funny because it’s actually a way to blend in. If they notice me, I know it’s for my hair. If they speak to me, that’s what it will be about. And I am ready.”


I can hide among the chunky jewelry clustered on arms and bold patterns clinging to legs. The revealing and the painting of skin. I can appear a person who doesn’t internally cringe every time someone looks her way, wondering what she did wrong. The ugly duckling that was never found out. Awkward, but not as obvious in the smoke screen of the flock. Hiding in plain sight.




 


Melissa Nunez is a Latin@ writer and homeschooling mother of three from the Rio Grande Valley. Her work has appeared in Acropolis Journal, Latinx Lit Audio Mag, Yellow Arrow Journal, and others. She is also a staff writer for Alebrijes Review. She is inspired by observation of the natural world, the dynamics of relationships, and the question of belonging. You can follow her on Twitter and visit her homepage.