The Cardinal

By Journey Sloane

I find the cardinal on the ground, wings splayed as though still in flight. A strangely beautiful, silvery substance–almost like mercury dust would look, I think–covers the front half of its body. It creeps forward to envelop the wing feathers as I watch. I want to touch the silver, to capture the precious substance. I’ve never seen anything like it, but nothing so shiny and beautiful can be bad, right?

A single scarlet feather, likely dislodged on impact with the unforgiving ground, catches my eye. It is untouched by the silvery dust, and the full hollow shaft of the feather–the calamus–is intact. It would make a perfect quill. I snatch it up, knowing my mom would have a shit fit if she caught me handling bird feathers with my bare hands, and use my pocket knife to slice the calamus at an angle.

The bird is mostly silver dust now. A pile of gorgeous pigment that begs to be turned into ink. I scoop up some of the dust into my palm and wet it with my spit. Using the newly fashioned quill, I stir dust and moisture together until I have a silvery liquid that sparkles in the sunlight. 

I’ve always loved to give myself ‘tattoos’ with ink pens and markers. This would make a gorgeous one. I sit down on the bare dirt, dry yellow straws of grass crunching under my light weight. It hasn’t rained in eight weeks, but we’re hopeful. The scientists said the tiny machines they released today will change everything for the better. It’s a fleeting thought as I pick out the perfect spot on my forearm for my new tattoo. I don’t think things will ever get better. None of us do. That’s why I don’t go to school anymore. Why Momma says I should focus on finding things that make me happy while they still exist.

This will make me happy, so it’s what I focus on. Dipping the end of the quill into the pigment, I start sketching an open eye on the inner skin of my forearm. I take my time with it, making sure to give the eye a tear duct, a waterline. To surround the silver iris by thick, sweeping lashes. If things did change and I got to grow up, everyone said I’d make a good artist. I’d like that, but it won’t happen. Those “nanite” things can’t fix something as broken as this world.

When I finish, the eye is beautiful against the ivory tones of my skin. But it doesn’t feel beautiful. Not for very long. As the pigment begins to dry, my skin begins to burn. At first it’s not too bad, but then it feels like that time I burned myself pulling a tray of algae cookies out of the oven. Panicking, I try to brush it off, frantically rubbing my forearm against the rough denim of my jeans does no good, and when I look again, I can see silver strands as delicate as spiderwebs spreading beneath my reddened skin. 

I get to my knees, planting one hand on the ground to push myself up. It’s when my hand sinks into the oddly soft ground that I notice something has changed. It’s no longer just the cardinal which has turned into the beautiful but dangerous silver dust. It’s touched the dead grass, the parched earth. Even the leaves littering the ground though it’s the middle of summer are now a gorgeous silver as well.

And now that silver dust is racing up the hand that I’d touched to the ground. It doesn’t hurt, not like the dust that I’d turned to ink, and I wonder at that. But not too much. My one arm hurts like the dickens, but all I can think is how beautiful I’ll be now.

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Journey Sloane is a queer writer and avid reader of speculative fiction. They love stories that pull no punches and rarely have happy endings.

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