On Barbara Kingsolver and the Cardinal in my Window

Two days into a Tennessee March I squint at the inky silhouettes of birds stuck to the high arch of my bedroom window. Outside a flurry of snowflakes sharpen the contrast between the leaden sky and my own dark nest. These paper cutouts mark the end of a certain cardinal’s dogged mating dance. The instant I adhere them to the glass I regret my fleeting triumph over the irritating creature.

During the preceding four days the bird had pecked at my glass and flung himself in fearless regularity against my unscreened windows. On the first day I was certain his object was to pluck the glowing red lights on the smoke alarms scattered through the house. I imagined he saw them as plump summer berries suspended in the dreary winter landscape.

“You’re wasting your time,” my husband said as I dusted the sidewalk and window sills with steel cut oats, cranberries, and almond slices. I was certain the bird’s desperation was borne of starvation. I thought the food would surely end his spirited quest. Evening fell and all was quiet.

Day two. The cardinal’s onslaught resumed at first light. He hurled. My terrier, Betty, lunged. The racket was almost too much to bear. I was two days into a serious bout of the flu. My fever rose. I closed blinds to ward off the scarlet attacker but I couldn’t cover the tall arched glass.

By day three my fever broke but I was dizzy with head congestion. Such pain. The banging continued. I decided my feathered fiend was either demented or a portent. Surely someone in Missouri had died. I held that thought all day.

I recovered enough by day four to drag a laptop into my sick bed and Google “cardinal flying into window.” There were dozens of hits. The solution was simple: black shapes taped to the window. I walked into the garage, drug out the grandkid’s art supplies, and cut, freehand, a pair of flying birds, another pair with heads upturned in full throated song, and a pair in a fighting stance.

I stuck them up to the front windows and ended the cardinal’s fight against the reflection encroaching on his terrain. So that was it, the valiant cardinal had chosen my yard to mate and this was simply his task: to be indomitable in defending his territory. Now he was outnumbered.

Thus my small story ends but I feel anxious at its undistinguished hook. I long to feel the magic of a great beginning. Before I ever began to study writing, I instinctively knew to read the first sentences of a book before buying it. I put aside hundreds of books over the years based on those brief introductions.

Last night my eyes were unstuck enough to read a little. I started Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Flight Behavior. Since I had been watching the flight behavior of a certain bird, I thought it a fortuitous choice, and paid close attention to her opening lines and their power to grasp my fingertips, ever so lightly, and seduce me into turning page after page until my eyes grew heavy with the reading. She opens:

“A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture. Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame colored hair who marched uphill to meet her demise. Innocence was no part of this. She knew her own recklessness and marveled really, at how one hard little flint of thrill could outweigh the pillowy, suffocating aftermath of a long disgrace.”

Now that’s how I’d like to start a story. The flame haired woman is so like my little cardinal. She flings herself relentlessly toward her demise in much the same way the brilliant bird bashed his beak against my window. She does it for love, for lust, for the mating dance. Like the cardinal she is compelled and we know it instantly. It is a magical beginning that sets the stage for the real alchemy to come.

I never feel confident about where to start my stories. I think the great writers have an instinct about beginnings that I long to possess. Kingsolver begins in the middle with Dellarobia trudging toward an event she is sure will ruin her life.

Kingsolver drags us up the hill and deftly fills the reader in on all the characters that people D’s life: Dovey, Cub, Bear and Hester. We smell the sour milk and urine in her carpet, see the peeling shingles of her roof, and sense the rural poverty of her home. We feel the despair that drives her up that hill. Not a single word of dialogue for thirty-three pages, and a good bit of back story, but I am hooked. I love it when people break the rules and vanquish the critics.

I’ve only read the first chapter, but knowing Kingsolver’s prowess at weaving a tale, I think it will be a page turner and in the end I will be surprised. I’ll let you know. Or, find out yourself where it all ends.

In any case, I’m so sad to see the cardinal go, with me lying here still sick, the author of its flight’s demise. But I am glad I have the company of another fiery bird in Kingsolver’s heroine, gorgeously named, in rural fashion, after a wallpaper sample.

Please don’t tell anyone in my family that I’m now, officially, sandbagging. I, like Dellarobia and the cardinal, won’t give up. I’m going to lie here feigning illness until I finish the book and unravel the mystery of how an enchanted beginning leads to an extraordinary ending, or at least until the resilient bird returns to fight the magical cardinal in my window.

Teresa Burgher, Christiana, TN

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9 Responses to On Barbara Kingsolver and the Cardinal in my Window

  1. Tom ferguson says:

    Nice work Teresa! I hope you are feeling better.

  2. Beth Browne says:

    Lovely story! Bummer about the flu. I had it too and suffered for over a month. Books are what saved me.

  3. Kia says:

    Beautiful, Teresa. Hope you are better now, or at least closer to the end of your novel.

  4. Linda Cookingham says:

    Nice story and good choice on how to begin a story. I worry about how to start each and every one.

  5. Jeri Layne Burnett says:

    I remember walking into your bedroom last fall thinking (and maybe even saying to you), “If I lived here, the first thing I’d do is get a fan-shaped window shade to block the morning sun!” And now I see the blessings and wonder of having it uncovered!!! Great story. Glad you’re feeling better!

  6. Lovely story, Teresa. Beginnings are my nemesis. I just finished the novel I started about seven years ago. I rewrote the first chapter about 50 times!

  7. Monica Quinlan says:

    Your short story was wonderful. You grabbed my interested in your first paragraph in which you wrote “Outside a flurry of snowflakes sharpen the contrast between the leaden sky and my own dark nest” the tale of the cardinal’s onslaught juxtaposed to your illness was intriguing. I not only learned something about cardinal’s mating patterns, but enjoyed the way you related your experience and Kingsolver book. Great work!

  8. Marge Carrithers says:

    Great tale! You are a wonderful writer! I love Kingsolver’s books!

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