In a tree outside my kitchen window, they built their nest: the male cardinal in brilliant scarlet, the female, a subdued reddish brown. For days they labored, ferrying bits of pine needles, twigs, and leaves to a chosen spot in the middle, buried within the green. “Tree” is perhaps not entirely accurate, as it lacked a trunk, roots far into the earth, branches sprouting from the top. This was more a glorified bush, but the spot they selected was hidden to those traveling overhead. Though it wasn’t hidden to me: I watched as they shared their duties, in the perfect rhythmic understanding of a couple that is more one than two.
The nest complete, some days passed. Female took her place. For days she warmed three eggs of soft speckled ivory. Always, in those days, if you scanned the area around the tree, you would see a spot of scarlet somewhere near: a sentry, ever watchful, close enough, but never giving a hint of the place that he guarded.
I knew the place, of course, inches from my kitchen sink. It being spring in Houston, wind gusts could be strong. I worried as I watched branches sway, threatening to topple the nest. I wondered, could I possibly devise some way to anchor the non-tree. No, I could not interfere; this was nature, so I just watched.
Mother and nest weathered the worst of the winds, and one morning I walked into the kitchen. My eyes drifted to shades of green through the glass, and there he was: the male cardinal, sitting so close I could have touched him were it not for a barrier of glass. Suddenly, I felt fear. Our connection was primal; difference of species fell away. He was telling me: stay back. I would never hurt them, I’d have told him if I could. There he stood, tall, brilliant red, a head turned ever so slightly, a tilt that said, no. Come no closer.
My mind traveled, to a book, to a page.
Here was Hector. Hector of The Iliad, soldier, husband, father.
In Book Six of Homer’s epic of long ago, we see into the soldier’s home. Hector and Andromache’s little son, Anastayax, is frightened of his own father:
[S]hining Hector reached down
for his son—but the boy recoiled, cringing . . .
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror—
so it struck his eyes.
He cries, and father understands. His son fears the headdress of war, a horsehair crest atop Hector’s head. Hector removes the helmet; they laugh, father, mother, son.
The cardinal wore a helmet, a scarlet crest. He stood, tall, ready, to protect: everything, every cell, every bit of energy, every moment he’d had up till that one, all culminating in one moment, one duty, to shield his young. Where Anastayax cried, I stood, watched; the benefit of years, I understood.
Rereading The Iliad as an adult, as a mother, I was struck by this passage, which became for me the heart of the story. It is the story of war, yes, but it became also the story of family, and in the end, of family destroyed. Here was Hector, soldier: stalwart, brave, ready to fight. What was he fighting for? We learn, in Book Six: he was fighting for family, for mother and son, a unit much like my own, of that day, and of my youth, a family, living, playing, crying, laughing. Life isn’t war; shouldn’t be. Life is inside the home, for all animals, at all times.
What struck me then, what strikes me now, was that Homer’s ancient epic was alive, fiercely alive, at that moment. Differences of time, of species, all differences, faded away. I saw Hector, a human, sporting a crest; I saw him, I saw his face, in front of, behind, altogether one, with the cardinal’s. That union before me, my thoughts swirled. I recalled stark truth, that Hector dies, the epic’s final line capturing both his magnificence and his mortality:
And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.
For the cardinal, I fought off my own thoughts, of wars I hoped would never come; I hoped for a family allowed to live, parents allowed to nurture, babies allowed to fly.
They hatched the next day, three babies, the most helpless, tiny creatures, primitive, prehistoric. A few days later, the family was gone. Though they didn’t go far: I still heard their signature call, a short, crisp chirp, from time to time. Mother and father’s way, I learned, of signaling danger.
— Joy Archer Yeager¸ Zeteo Contributor
Joy Archer Yeager, a freelance writer living in Houston, Texas, holds a Master of Liberal Studies degree from Rice, a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and Spanish from the University of the South (Sewanee), and a Juris Doctorate from Southern Methodist University. An attorney specializing in legal writing, Joy has a husband, Doug, and two daughters, Melanie Kate and Holly. She reads and swims as much as she can.
 Homer, The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), Book 6, lines 556–62.
 Ibid., Book 24, line 944.
“Male Cardinal in all its Splendor”: from artworkbynature.com.
“The Meeting of Hector and Andromache”: John Flaxman Prints at magnoliabox.com.
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