cardinals (they come in pairs) by Rachel Richmond

cardinals (they come in pairs)
by Rachel RIchmond

a sestina

Ever since I learned (from a swingset and a car crash) that death
is an eternal passenger in each car we drive, every time I see cardinals,
I see two. Two scarlet birds, their paths interwoven; they come in pairs.
After my friends died, my mom told me that cardinals are people you loved
coming down to earth to say hello, visiting you from heaven,
and for the longest time, I thought that these birds were my dead friends,

stopping in to say hello. Stopping in to say, “we will always be your friends.”
Stopping in to say “We are still here, we never left, not even death
can make us leave you, not forever; we are both here and in heaven,
we are still here we are still here we are still here.” I needed those cardinals
to be my friends; they were proof that something remained of people I loved,
and what were the chances of it being a coincidence that they came in pairs?

On my walks to school, I’d frequently see those red birds. They came in pairs.
I’d look fondly upon them, smile up at them and say hello to my friends,
a glowing warmth filling me as I got to tell them one last time that they were loved.
The sun filtering through the foliage of the trees they perched on made death
feel a little less eternal, more like something that turned people into cardinals
rather than turning them into nothing; like permanence did not apply to heaven.

After a few years had passed, I decided that my friends weren’t here or in heaven.
I ignored the red birds because they weren’t coming back, not even in pairs.
I stopped believing that they were here. I stopped believing in those cardinals,
in an afterlife, in souls, in a greater meaning. I stopped believing in my friends.
The world felt heavy with the crushing weight of death.
I was like Atlas, but it wasn’t the sky I was holding up; it was dead people I’d loved.

Now, I think I was right to think that those cardinals were the ones that I loved.
My friends are still checking in on me, even from as far away as heaven.
They’re still checking in on me because they died loving me and that love remains; death
is real, but so are my friends, and they always will be. There is something in those pairs,
something that logic can’t explain away; those birds may not really be my friends,
but there’s something to be said about the reason why I always see two cardinals:

something about love, something about loss, something about eternality; those cardinals
may not actually be my dead friends, but they represent who I lost and loved,
and that means that all that time spent seeing them as my dead friends
wasn’t a delusion: it meant something. The dead, even from as far away as heaven,
live on in the people who loved them, in the people who still love them, in scarlet pairs.
When I see cardinals, I think of my friends, and in that way, they exist beyond death.

My friends are still here, scarlet and skybound. They are cardinals.
Death is permanent, but nobody really dies as long as they are still loved.
My friends are either nowhere or in heaven, but they’re also here, and they come in pairs.

Hear Rachel RIchmond recite the poem on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast:

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Rachel Richmond is a senior at Hollins University majoring in English. She is an editor for Gravel magazine, and spends her time writing and spending time with her dogs. Her work has been seen in American High School Poets: Just Poetry anthology, as well as a Hollins University anthology about mental health. She writes as a form of healing, as well as as a passion.

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