There’s a lovely legend about cardinals. Some folks believe that when a redbird lights nearby, it signifies a message from Heaven. A dear, departed loved one—whichever dead relative or friend comes to mind at the moment, I presume—is relaying their greetings from the Glorious Hereafter. I believe such an encounter is tantamount to a blessing, a sort of nod of approval from the Beyond.

Imagine my delight when on my morning walk a particularly brilliant cardinal, so red he was almost vermillion in the iridescence of the early sun, fairly led me down the woodland trail. He watched me intently from a fencepost. I greeted the bird with a cheery “Good Morning, S!” The bird chirruped in reply, flitting to safety only a few feet away. Then, it turned and contemplated me again. This exchange, a friendly game of Follow the Leader, continued for some distance.

Now, I’m much more likely to channel Poe or duMaurier when it comes to bird encounters. Hitchcock’s jackdaws perching menacingly on a jungle gym is more my speed. I’ve somehow connected the cardinal lore with cheesy Christmas cards, so I surprised myself with my spontaneous greeting to the redbird. No, Gentle Reader, I was not surprised to find myself conversing with a bird. I talk to animals all the time, and I hope you do as well. The surprise came in my immediate recognition of the bird as an emissary of my departed mother. My mind accepted the notion as a given, and to be frank, that idea spooked me a bit.

Even if I am a horror writer—Southern Gothic is ever so much more accurate—I like to keep my macabre side firmly compartmentalized in the imaginary. This cardinal was very much real, and I was quite certain he was toying with me. I felt no apprehension, though, from the bird even though the seeming surety of its connection with my mother gave me some pause. I called her S, which was short for Sweet Precious Mommy. Our family has its own special lexicon, punctuated with nicknames that bind us. It is a tradition that I have continued with my own children.

I smiled along at the bird, suddenly at ease. It’s a comforting legend after all, and I could almost believe the whiff of White Shoulders on the eddying breeze was more than just a figment of memory and longing. Finally, the cardinal grew weary of my company and flew to a branch above. It remained perched overhead as I passed, struggling to recall the sound of my mother’s laughter. I did not feel sad or lonely. In fact, I felt the warmth of a mother’s love.

It was at that moment when I looked up to wave farewell to the redbird that it happened: the unequivocal presence of her spirit. I got plopped right on the shoulder with a big glob of cardinal poop! There I was rapt by all these lofty thoughts about messages from Heaven, and I get totally smacked with a reality bomb. It cracked me up, and in my silly giggling out on a woodland trail with a deadshot bird and a bunch of memories, I found my mother’s laugh in the echo of my own.

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