Framing the Red-Breasted Nuthatch

by Mark T. Kashman © 2002

Beyond the lowlands and thick brush - he had wandered where his photographs took him - existed a quiet, untouched forest. A bright Red-Breasted Nuthatch filled Shawn Madsen's viewfinder. Its plumage puffed in response to his presence. What Shawn didn't see was the gnarled root from a massive maple tree sticking up in his path. He tripped. A surprised yelp burst from his mouth mixing with every waiting sound. The sound of MANY birds; wind scratching through the trees; the unconscious click of the shutter; and a hum he couldn't quite put his finger on. He fell quickly; his feet burdened with obdurate boots, thick with leather, unscuffed till now.

The autumn rain from the night before littered the trail with puddles. Shawn fell so fast that his brain did not have enough time to send a message for his hands to put themselves out in front of him. A rock lay under the surface. His head hit hard, square. And he came to rest.

"Welcome." A voice hailed from off the trail, behind the maple tree.

"Hello?" Shawn asked startlingly.

"Hello. You took quite a spill." The man said poking his head from around the tree. His voice was confident and excited. And as he spoke he gestured, mostly recreating what he saw happen from his vantage point.

"I did?" Shawn responded wearily. He could see the man speaking to him wore a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap. The brim was carefully molded and shaped forming a perfect "U."

"I guess the lesson is 'Don't take pictures and walk at the same time.'" The man stepped gracefully toward Shawn. He moved through the underbrush and out onto the trail. The Nuthatch scurried away, first swooping low ahead of them, then off high disappearing into the trees. They stood in silence. Where did this man come from? Had he not heard him rustling about? Was he following Shawn? The sound of a low, anguishing groan broke the stillness. The groan turned into choking.

"Do you hear that?" asked Shawn.

"Yes," the man plainly replied.

Shawn hesitated, and then said, "Where on Earth is it coming from?"

"You. Your body that is"

Shawn turned and saw his body lying flat on the ground, his head submerged underwater. The backpack had slumped up over his shoulders from the fall and was now resting on top of the base of his head. Camera equipment spilled over into the puddle and onto the trail. His toes awkwardly pointed in. The puddle became murky, tinged, dirty, red.

"I think you would have survived if you weren't hiking alone. When we were first talking your body was still alive. You were unconscious. And since you couldn't raise your head, you inhaled water and drowned. Someone will find your last roll of film, develop it and get an idea of your last moments"

Shawn stuffed his hands deep into his pockets to remain calm.

"Me," the man began with poise, " I fell off a cliff not far from here. Didn't have anyone to come looking for me. Sometimes I go to see my body, though it's not much to look at these days."

Could it be true? There had been no pain. No struggle. Shawn stood for several minutes trying to rationalize the startling situation that lay before him. Then all at once he ceased to feel. No emotion. No disappointment. Surprisingly, he was not sad. He was devoid of grief and horror. A strange, novel sense of calm came over him, pure logic.

"Where?" Shawn said.

"Where what?" The man responded.

"Where is your body?" Shawn specified.

"That way. A few hundred yards," the man said and began to walk away from Shawn's body.

The forest continued its symphony of sounds. The chirping distracted Shawn as he unconsciously followed the man off the trail. He minded to step where the man stepped. Their movements were light and unobtrusive.

"The Cardinals moved to Phoenix not too long ago," Shawn said mechanically.

"Really." The man paused. He worked his hands forming and reforming the U-shape in the brim of his baseball cap, reflecting. He pointed toward where his cliff lay ahead, and continued walking.

x x x

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