Today I am taking my dog for a walk on a remote trail. We jump out of the truck. I turn him loose.
At home I have two dogs, but I only brought one with me. This is Otis Campbell (alleged Labrador), who I can let off leash. He won’t go far.
My other dog is a bloodhound. She is not with me because if you let her off leash she will find a way to make national news.
Otis bounds along the trail, I see his black and white body turn into a streak. He runs far from me so that I am meandering alone.
So much for man’s best friend.
On the trail I meet an old woman in a sunhat, wearing a surgical mask. She is out here watching for birds. Today, she has seen red-bellied woodpeckers, blue jays, mockingbirds, and starlings. And she swears that she has even seen an oriole. I have never seen an oriole before except at Major League Baseball parks.
“Birds have meaning,” she says in a low voice. “They represent spiritual, universally cosmic truths, about life and death.”
“Would you look at the time?” I say, cheerfully hiking forward. “Have a great day!”
I love birds. I don’t know much about them, but I’m a fan. Probably because they can fly. Then again, I come from country people who were always attaching meanings to birds. A notion I’ve always thought was farfetched.
My mother, for example, used to sit on our porch and watch the pond behind our little house, talking to God. If a certain species of bird showed up on the water, this was a good omen. Likewise, if my Uncle John showed up in his RV, looking for a place to crash for the month, this was a bad omen.
I can hear people talking ahead of me on the trail, laughing. I hear my dog’s collar jingling. I can tell his jingle from a distance. I only pray that he is acting like a gentleman and not romantically involved with someone’s lower leg. He is a boy dog, you understand.
I trot ahead, but I am stopped in my tracks when I see a bird. A cardinal. It’s beautiful. Vibrant red. It is staring at me. When I get farther along, the cardinal follows me, leaping from limb to limb.
My mother would have a field day with this one.
As it happens, I have a long history of wildlife following me. About five years ago, I was out for a walk in the morning when I heard a fast-paced TICK! TICK! TICK! behind me.
I turned to see a large, blue peacock beside me. Keeping my pace. I did not know peacocks were so big, but this guy was huge.
I got so worried that I started jogging. The bird started running with me. When I turned right, he turned right. When I stopped, he did too. And in that moment, I thought I was hallucinating.
Finally, the bird turned into the woods, and I pinched myself several times to make sure I hadn’t been visited by the ghost of Jerry Garcia. Later that week I read in the paper that someone was missing their pet peacock.
My wife has an interesting relationship with birds, too. After her father’s funeral, we were vacationing at Lake Martin to clear her head. It was the worst period of her life. You do not simply “snap out” of a depression that follows the death of a loved one. I’ve been living with the remnants of my own grief for nearly three decades.
I tried to help her through the hard times with a few proven tricks. My primary secret weapon against depression is spaghetti sauce.
I know it sounds silly, but I can—at least temporarily—lift certain kinds of depression with enough spaghetti sauce. My magic ingredient is minced bacon. Lots of it. Also, this recipe works pretty good if you pair it with most domestic beers.
But my sauce didn’t work. I woke up one morning to find that my wife had left the cabin for a walk. I was immediately worried. I had no idea where she was. So I went looking for her, still wearing my PJs and flip flops, shouting her name.
When I found her, she was beside a countryside fence, looking at a meadow.
“SSSHHH!” she said.
She was smiling at a bunch of turkey buzzards who were all looking back at her. Some were squawking.
“That bird reminds me of Daddy,” she said.
I put my hand on her forehead. She didn’t feel hot.
“Sweetie, those are turkey buzzards,” I pointed out.
Even so, there were tears in her eyes. And I’ll be danged if that bird didn’t crow at us.
I have never looked at a buzzard the same again.
I finally catch up to my dog. He is on his back and two teenagers rub his belly. Also with them is the older woman from before, holding a walking stick. The lady is gazing into the bushes. She sees something. She shushes everyone.
“It’s a cardinal,” she whispers. This woman is getting very excited. “Do you KNOW what a cardinal represents?”
“What?” the young man says.
“It means that a wonderful change is on its way,” she says. “A big, big, happy change for each of us, and we could all use a nice change right now.”
“But it’s just a bird,” I tell her. “How do you know it means something?”
The lady winks and says, “How do you know it doesn’t?”
She makes a good point.