She wanted to live out in the country, where the poet in her could find its muse, and be inspired.

I was a hard-nosed reporter whose pulse quickened at the sound of a police siren or the wail of an ambulance, who liked the fast tempo of city life, the energy it sizzled with, the babble of different tongues, the gritty noise of survival. Besides, I was a rising young star in the world of broadcast news, and I couldn't give up my job now at the big station where I worked. There was nothing for me there in the country, and a long commute to the city was unappealing.

As always, she was the one asked to make the sacrifices in our marriage, the one who deferred a dream.

"At least," she sighed with resignation, "a big yard with lots of trees and bushes and flowers and birds."

I promised her that and I kept my word.

The house was small but it came with a wraparound deck that overlooked magnificent and sprawling grounds. There was a large expanse of lush grass dotted by majestic trees, evergreen bushes, a rose garden, even a vegetable patch.

"Perfect!" she breathed. "It's a little oasis where I can retreat. Where we can retreat," she corrected herself, stealing a sidelong glance at me.

"Promise me you'll sit out here with me every now and then and just inhale the beauty of the scene," she begged.

I laughed. I had married a nineties hippie, into meditation and alternative health, whose soul was stirred by a verdant expanse of rolling lawn. We were so different, but she brought a kind of music into my life that I had never quite heard before.

I kept that promise, too. Every now and then, I would join her on the deck and, despite myself, be moved by the idyllic scene. Sometimes we moved our chairs together from the deck into the yard itself, where branches from the old oak trees were entwined and formed a canopy over our heads.

It was a month after we had moved into the house that we first saw them. A pair of cardinal birds, hidden in one of the evergreen bushes, suddenly alighted onto the ground, a dash of vivid and warm color only a few yards from where we sat.

"Look!" she exclaimed, with the delight of a young child. "It's husband and wife!"

"Cardinals get married?" I teased.

"They mate for life," she said.

"I didn't know that," I answered.

"You never, ever see a female cardinal without a male. And what's nice is he always defers to her. He always lets her feed first. I really find that very sweet."

"But how can you tell which is the male and which is the female?" I asked, confused.

"Oh," she laughed, "you don't know anything about birds at all, do you? There is no bird more easily recognizable than the male cardinal, almost entirely red except for the conspicuous black mask on his face. And see? The female cardinal's overall color is buff-brown and yellowish-olive."

"You never cease to amaze me with all the stuff you know," I said.

"Wait till you hear them sing!" she enthused. "They are proud musicians. Their notes are very distinctive and beautiful, kinda like the quality of a small bell being rung. They sing different songs, too. The song they sing in the winter sounds something like "pretty, pretty, pretty," but their spring ballad is more piercing and poignant: a series of sounds that sort of descend into a kinda 'sweet slurring' and that some people describe as 'cheer, cheer' or 'dear, dear.'"

"When they look at you," I said lovingly, "they're clearly singing 'pretty, pretty.'"

"Oh, you!" she giggled, planting a tender kiss on my cheek.

For months the cardinals came, visiting us on a regular basis. She knew that they loved sunflower seeds, and she kept a huge bag stored in the pantry. As faithful as they were to each other, they became more and more emboldened, until they were only a few feet away. They always sat opposite us, like mirror images, the female opposite my wife, the male opposite me. They watched us carefully, and we watched them, and my wife fancied that the pair of cardinals were metaphors for life, or at the very least, for our life. We felt we were all connected in some great cosmic way. Even I, the entrenched cynic, was beginning to feel some bond that was bigger than all of us combined.

And then something strange and mysterious and anomalous began to happen, something that, according to my wife the expert, definitely deviated from patterns of typical cardinal behavior.

Whenever my wife would sit out alone in the yard, only the female cardinal would come to visit. And when I had occasion to unwind in the garden and sat by myself in the lounge chair, only the male cardinal would make an appearance. But when we both sat outside together, the cardinals would come to call as a pair, and would sit opposite us side by side, as they always did. It was as if the two birds were beginning to mirror our lives more and more.

And then the day came when we sat outside together no more.

It was galloping leukemia, the doctors said, and it took her very fast. Six weeks after the diagnosis, she was gone.

At first, I couldn't venture into the yard at all. It held too many memories of our best times together, the times when I held her close and she melted my heart. But then I wanted to be in the place where her memory was the strongest, and it was there in the yard, surrounded by the nature that touched her spirit so.

So I hazarded a few steps into the garden, looked around at the lush foliage that had entranced her soul, and sat down in the lounge chair that remained where it had been left. I leaned back in the chair and covered my face with my hands, and the tears began to fall.

It was then that I heard it, a beautiful vocalization, a full-fledged song. I raised my eyes and saw the male cardinal, alone, sitting opposite me, a few feet away. I fancied that he looked mournful and had come to pay a condolence call.

The female cardinal was nowhere to be seen.

And just as my wife had once told me, the song in the spring was different from the one in the winter. In the winter, it was just one note, but now it was a series of sounds that descended into a sweet slugging.

And I could swear on my life that what I clearly heard that day was the cardinal's commiseration, a vocalization that sounded like "cheer, cheer" or "dear, dear."

Now I always retreat to the chair in the yard, which has become both my sanctuary and my mourning stool, and the male cardinal faithfully returns to keep me company, day after day, alone.
from the book: Small Miracles II

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