A thin cardinal, red and black, perched silently on the branch of a pine tree. And light sparkles of snow wandered down from under its empty, searching gaze. Mandarin felt his stomach tighten around a feeling. ‘Or is it the lack of feeling?’ he said. The words formed thick white waves of warm air in the green woods, then dissolved, and he wanted to close his eyes. But the muscles under his coat, and sweater, and shirt, and scarf, began to hurt from strain. It felt like hunger. It felt like fear. And he wondered if the red cardinal’s black eyes could see him, through him into the empty barrel of a place he protected so very well. The long fat tree he pulled behind him, its trunk carving a deep trail through the fine, icy snow, shivered and several brown green needles fell by his boots. ‘I forget, tree, are we going somewhere?’ he said. ‘Or are we leaving?’ The orange December sun was low behind the woods, and everything was a soft purple of winter and cold. From a distance, beyond the woods and the field where Mandarin’s trail lay like an obtrusive cut, a dog barked. And then stopped. ‘We must be going somewhere? How could we not, tree? Everywhere is somewhere to someone. Or something. Let’s keep moving. You and me. Until we get there.’ After some walking and hearing the snow crunch under his boots, Mandarin slowed. ‘Keep moving, tree. That’s what I always say. Keep moving,’ though he knew it was a lie. He had never said that before. He didn’t believe himself. But hearing, watching his words affect the physical world, the air before his nose and eyes, distracted him. Kept his thoughts from going back to the empty barrel in his guts. He looked over his left shoulder but the cardinal was gone, out of sight under the dense pine branches. His tree trunk scraped over a large stone.
Mandarin walked on and put his one free hand inside his coat pocket. In his palm he squeezed a cardboard box of matches. He shook them. ‘Sounds like sleigh bells,’ he said and shook them again. ‘Too bad you can’t sing, tree. A carol would be nice. Maybe.’ Brown green needles fell to the snowy floor but Mandarin did not hear them, so great was the empty barrel in his chest. ‘Just like sleigh bells,’ he said and together the two walked on, deeper into the wide green woods.