C. K. North :: Cardinals ::


Southern Legitimacy Statement: Northern Virginia – The South by definition, but not by heart. I was born and raised here, enjoying a childhood with farms, general stores, apple orchards, and civil war artifacts found in frequently yards and creeks. Suburbia has since stomped the out the Southern ways, but my heart still remembers.


I eased my copper-colored truck up the gravel drive and saw my grandfather already out on the covered porch, hands folded across his lap, ready to watch the sun go down. I parked and went through the side door to see if the old man had anything to wash down the evening with. 

He kept his whiskey in the laundry room of all places. I found the bottle of bourbon on a high shelf, next to some stain remover, and splashed a double shot into the same hard-plastic cup I drank milk and juice from as a kid. 

Creaking open the screen door, I pulled up a wrought iron gliding chair, and plopped down.

“Hey bud, did you get something to drink?” 

“Yes sir. You had some whiskey left.”

“Good. I was afraid your brother drank it all.”

I chuckled and sipped as we started out into the distance. The sun had eased behind the mountain and swirled the sky hot pink and blood orange. On the neighboring farm, a tractor droned across a field, dragging a bush hog that filled the air with the smell of cut grass. In the yard, a pair of red cardinals chirped furiously and batted their wings in territorial combat. 

“Son”, the old man whispered, his eyes on the birds, “I wish you’d get a job.”

My hand tightened on my cup. Here we go again. “I’ve got a job.”

He threw a raised eyebrow my way, then turned back to the mountain beyond. “Moonshining ain’t a job. You need steady work. You can’t feed your family from a damn jail cell.”

The orange sky turned red in my eyes. Every time I visited he went down this road. He barely even bothered to make small talk any more. I clenched my chest to keep the ball of anger from rising up, while the old man stared straight ahead, as peaceful as the sunset. He hacked up a little phlegm and went on. 

“You ought to listen to me, this life goes by too fast. The best thing a man can do is to protect and provide for your family.”

I kept quiet. 

He pointed a gnarled finger at the yard. “You and me are like these cardinals here. We both got a lot of fight in us, but what good does it do? Right now, these two are flapping over an empty bird feeder.” The birds bounced off the grass and met in the air, a frenzy of red, twirling and flapping and separating again. “You got fire, son. But you got to aim it in the right direction.” 

I tilted the bottom of my cup to the sunset, the mouthful of whiskey running past my tongue and down my throat, hitting my chest, burning away the ball of rage. “You sure got a lot of opinions for a man who did the exact same thing at my age.”

“I didn’t say I am better than you. I’m just saying I know better now. Besides, times were different back then. There wasn’t any work so I did what I had to to survive.”

“That’s right, times were different. Nowadays, everyone’s working but they don’t know what the hell towards. I’ll be just fine because these days, the world favors those who swing for the fences.”

The sun had dropped now. The sky fading to an ailing purple. The two cardinals ceased squawking, both perched amicably on a nearby branch.

Pap sighed. Then whispered, “better swing hard then, son.”