The Scarlet Ibis

The Scarlet Ibis

It was in the clove of seasons, summer was dead but autumn
had not yet been born, that the ibis lit in the bleeding tree. The
flower garden was strained with rotting brown magnolia petals and
ironweeds grew rank amid the purple phlox. The five o’clocks by the
chimney still marked time, but the oriole nest in the elm was
untenanted and rocked back and forth like an empty cradle. The last
graveyard flowers were blooming, and their smell drifted across the
cotton field and through every room of our house, speaking softy the
names of our dead.

It’s strange that all this is still so clear to me, now that summer
has long since fled and time has had its way. A grindstone stands
where the bleeding tree stood, just outside the kitchen door, and now
if an oriole sings in the elm, its song seems to die up in the leaves, a
silvery dust. The flower garden is prim, the house a gleaming white,
and the pale fence across the yard stands straight and spruce. But
sometimes (like right now), as I sit in the cool, green-draped parlor,
the grindstone begins to turn, and time with all its changes is ground
away-and I remember Doodle.

Doodle was just about the craziest brother a boy every had. Of
course, he wasn’t crazy crazy like old Miss Leedie, who was in love
with President Wilson and wrote him a letter every day, but was a
nice crazy, like someone you meet in your dreams. He was born
when I was six and was, from the outset, a disappointment. He
seemed all head, with a tiny body which was red and shriveled like
an old man’s. Everybody thought he was going to die-everybody
except Aunt Nicey, who had delivered him. She said he would live
because he was born in a caul, and cauls were made from Jesus’
nightgown. Daddy had Mr. Heath, the carpenter, build a little
mahogany coffin for him. But he didn’t die, and when he was three
months old, Mama and Daddy decided they might as well name him.

They named him William Armstrong, which is like tying a big tail on
a small kite. Such a name sounds good only on a tombstone.
I thought myself pretty smart at many things, like holding my
breath, running, jumping, or climbing the vines in Old Woman
Swamp, and I wanted more than anything else someone to race to
Horsehead Landing, someone to box with, and someone to perch
with in the top fork of the great pine behind the barn, where across
the fields and swamps you could see the sea. I wanted a brother. But
Mama, crying, told me that even if William Armstrong lived, he
would never do these things with me. He might not, she sobbed, even
be “all there.” He might, as long as he lived, lie on the rubber sheet in
the center of the bed in the front bedroom where the white Marquette
curtains billowed out in the afternoon sea breeze, rustling like
palmetto fronds.

It was bad enough having an invalid brother, but having one
who possibly was not all there was unbearable, so I began to make
plans to kill him by smothering him with a pillow. However, one
afternoon as I watched him, my head poked between the iron posts of
the foot of the bed, he looked straight at me and grinned. I skipped
through the rooms, down the echoing halls, shouting, “Mama, he
smiled. He’s all there! He’s all there!” and he was.

When he was two, if you laid him on his stomach, he began to
move himself, straining terribly. The doctor said that with his weak
heart this strain would probably kill him, but it didn’t. Trembling,
he’d push himself up, turning first red, then a soft purple, and finally
collapse back onto the bed like an old worn-out doll. I can still see
Mama watching him, her hand pressed tight across her mouth, her
eyes wide and unblinking. But he learned to crawl (it was his third
winter), and we brought him out of the front bedroom, putting him
on the rug before the fireplace. For the first time he became one of us.
As long as he lay all the time in bed, we called him William
Armstrong, even though it was formal and sounded as if we were
referring to one of our ancestors, but with his creeping around on
the deerskin rug and beginning to talk, something had to be done about
his name. It was I who renamed him. When he crawled, he crawled
backwards, as if he were in reverse and couldn’t change gears. If you
called him, he’d turn around as if he were going in the other
direction, then he’d back right up to you to be picked up. Crawling
backward made him look like a doodlebug, so I began to call him
Doodle, and in time even Mama and Daddy thought it was a better
name than William Armstrong. Only Aunt Nicey disagreed. She said
caul babies should be treated with special respect since they might
turn out to be saints. Renaming my brother was perhaps the kindest
thing I ever did for him, because nobody expects much from
someone called Doodle.

Although Doodle learned to crawl, he showed no signs of walking, but
he wasn’t idle. He talked so much that we all quit listening to what he said.
It was about this time that Daddy built him a go-cart and I had to pull him
around. At first I just paraded him up and down the piazza, but then he
started crying to be taken out into the yard, and it ended up by my having to
lug him wherever I went. If I so much as picked up my cap, he’d start crying
to go with me and Mama would call from where she was, “Take Doodle
with you.”

He was a burden in many ways. The doctor had said that he mustn’t
get too excited, too hot, too cold, or too tired and that he must always
be treated gently. A long list of don’ts went with him, all of which I
ignored once we got out of the house. To discourage his coming with
me, I’d run with him across the ends of the cotton rows and careen
him around corners on two wheels. Sometimes I accidentally turned
him over, but he never told Mama. His skin was very sensitive, and
he had to wear a big straw hat whenever he went out. When the
going got rough and he had to cling to the sides of the go-cart, the hat
slipped all the way down over his ears. He was a sight. Finally, I
could see I was licked. Doodle was my brother and he was going to
cling to me forever, no matter what I did, so I dragged him across tile
burning cotton field to share with him the only beauty I knew, Old
Woman Swamp. I pulled the go-cart through the saw-tooth fern,
down into the green dimness where the palmetto fronds whispered by
the stream. I lifted him out and set him down in the soft rubber grass
beside a tall pine. His eyes were round with wonder as he gazed
about him, and his little hands began to stroke the rubber grass. Then
he began to cry my shoulder and carried him down the ladder, and
even when we were outside in the bright sunshine, he clung to me,
crying, “Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.”

When Doodle was five years old, I was embarrassed at having a
brother of that age who couldn’t walk, so I set out to teach him. We
were down in Old Woman Swamp and it was spring and the sicksweet
smell of bay flowers hung everywhere like a mournful song.

“I’m going to teach you to walk, Doodle,” I said.
He was sitting comfortably on the soft grass, leaning back
against the pine. “Why?” he asked.
I hadn’t expected such an answer. “So I won’t have to haul you
around all the time.”
“I can’t walk, Brother,” he said.
“Who says so?” I demanded.
“Mama, the doctor-everybody.
“Oh, you can walk,” I said, and I took him by the arms and
stood him up. He collapsed onto the grass like a half-empty flour
sack. It was as if he had no bones in his little legs.
“Don’t hurt me, Brother,” he warned.
“Shut up. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m going to teach you to
walk.” I heaved him up again, and again he collapsed.
This time he did not lift his face up out of the rubber grass. “I
just can’t do it. Let’s make honeysuckle wreaths.”
“Oh yes you can, Doodle,” I said. “All you got to do is try. Now
come on,” and I hauled him up once more.

It seemed so hopeless from the beginning that it’s a miracle I
didn’t give up. But all of us must have something or someone to be
proud of, and Doodle had become mine. I did not know then that
pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life
and death. Every day that summer we went to the pine beside the
stream of Old Woman Swamp, and I put him on his feet at least a
hundred times each afternoon. Occasionally I too became
discouraged because it didn’t seem as if he was trying, and I would
say, “Doodle, don’t you want to learn to walk?”

He’d nod his head, and I’d say, “Well, if you don’t keep trying,
you’ll never learn.” Then I’d paint for him a picture of us as old men,
white-haired, him with a long white beard and me still pulling him
around in the go-cart. This never failed to make him try again.
Finally one day, after many weeks of practicing, he stood alone
for a few seconds. When he fell, I grabbed him in my arms and
hugged him, our laughter pealing through the swamp like a ringing
bell. Now we knew it could be done. Hope no longer hid in the dark
palmetto thicket but perched like a cardinal in the lacy toothbrush
tree, brilliantly visible. “Yes, yes,” I cried, and he cried it too, and the
grass beneath us was soft and the smell of the swamp was sweet.

With success so imminent,4 we decided not to tell anyone until
he could actually walk. Each day, barring rain, we sneaked into Old
Woman Swamp, and by cotton-picking time Doodle was ready to
show what he could do. He still wasn’t able to walk far, but we could
wait no longer. Keeping a nice secret is very hard to do, like holding
your breath. We chose to reveal all on October eighth, Doodle’s sixth
birthday, and for weeks ahead we mooned around the house,
promising everybody a most spectacular surprise. Aunt Nicey said
that, after so much talk, if we produced anything less tremendous
than the Resurrection, she was going to be disappointed.

At breakfast on our chosen day, when Mama, Daddy, and Aunt
Nicey were in the dining room, I brought Doodle to the door in the
gocart just as usual and had them turn their backs, making them cross
their hearts and hope to die if they peeked. I helped Doodle up, and
when he was standing alone I let them look. There wasn’t a sound as
Doodle walked slowly across the room and sat down at his place at
the table. Then Mama began to cry and ran over to him, hugging him
and kissing him. Daddy hugged him too, so I went to Aunt Nicey,
who was thanks praying in the doorway, and began to waltz her
around. We danced together quite well until she came down on my
big toe with her brogans, hurting me so badly I thought I was
crippled for life.

Doodle told them it was I who had taught him to walk, so
everyone wanted to hug me, and I began to cry.
“What are you crying for?” asked Daddy, but I couldn’t answer.

They did not know that I did it for myself, that pride, whose slave I
was, spoke to me louder than all their voices, and that Doodle walked
only because I was ashamed of having a crippled brother.
Within a few months Doodle had learned to walk well and his
go-cart was put up in the barn loft (it’s still there) beside his little
mahogany coffin. Now, when we roamed off together, resting often,
we never turned back until our destination had been reached,
and to help pass the time, we took up lying. From the beginning
Doodle was a terrible liar and he got me in the habit. Had anyone stopped to
listen to us, we would have been sent off to Dix Hill.

My lies were scary, involved, and usually pointless, but
Doodle’s were twice as crazy. People in his stories all had wings and
flew wherever they wanted to go. His favorite lie was about a boy
named Peter who had a pet peacock with a ten-foot tail. Peter wore a
golden robe that glittered so brightly that when he walked through
the sunflowers they turned away from the sun to face him. When
Peter was ready to go to sleep, the peacock spread his magnificent
tail, enfolding the boy gently like a closing go-to-sleep flower,
burying him in the glorious iridescent, rustling vortex. Yes, I must
admit it. Doodle could beat me lying.

Doodle and I spent lots of time thinking about our future. We
decided that when we were grown we’d live in Old Woman Swamp
and pick dog-tongue for a living. Beside the stream, he planned, we’d
build us a house of whispering leaves and the swamp birds would be
our chickens. All day long (when we weren’t gathering dog-tongue)
we’d swing through the cypresses on the rope vines, and if it rained
we’d huddle beneath an umbrella tree and play stickfrog. Mama and
Daddy could come and live with us if they wanted to. He even came
up with the idea that he could marry Mama and I could marry Daddy.
Of course, I was old enough to know this wouldn’t work out, but the
picture he painted was so beautiful and serene that all I could do was
whisper Yes, yes.

Once I had succeeded in teaching Doodle to walk, I began to
believe in my own infallibility,5 and I prepared a terrific development
program for him, unknown to Mama and Daddy, of course. I would
teach him to run, to swim, to climb trees, and to fight. He, too, now
believed in my infallibility, so we set the deadline for these
accomplishments less that a year away, when, it had been decided,
Doodle could start to school.

That winter we didn’t make much progress, for I was in school
and Doodle suffered from one bad cold after another. But when
spring came, rich and warm, we raised our sights again. Success lay
at the end of summer like a pot of gold, and our campaign got off to a
good start. On hot days, Doodle and I went down to Horsehead
Landing, and I gave him swimming lessons or showed him how to
row a boat. Sometimes we descended into the cool greenness of Old
Woman Swamp and climbed the rope vines or boxed scientifically
beneath the pine where he had learned to walk. Promise hung about
us like the leaves, and wherever we looked, ferns unfurled and birds
broke into song.

That summer, the summer of 1918, was blighted. In May and
June there was no rain and the crops withered, curled up, then died
under the thirsty sun. One morning in July a hurricane came out of
the east, tipping over the oaks in the yard and splitting the limbs of
the elm trees. That afternoon it roared back out of the west, blew the
fallen oaks around, snapping their roots and tearing them out of the
earth like a hawk at the entrails of a chicken. Cotton bolls were
wrenched from the stalks and lay like green walnuts in the valleys
between the rows, while the cornfield leaned over uniformly so that
the tassels touched the ground. Doodle and I followed Daddy out into
the cotton field, where he stood, shoulders sagging, surveying the
ruin. When his chin sank down onto his chest, we were frightened,
and Doodle slipped his hand into mine. Suddenly Daddy straightened
his shoulders, raised a giant knuckle fist, and with a voice that
seemed to rumble out of the earth itself began cursing the weather
and the Republican Party. Doodle and I prodding each other and
giggling, went back to the house, knowing that everything would be
all right.

And during that summer, strange names were heard through the
house: Chateau-Thierry, Amiens, Soissons, and in her blessing at the
supper table, Mama once said, “And bless the Pearsons, whose boy
Joe was lost at Belleau Wood.” So we came to that clove of seasons.
School was only a few weeks away, and Doodle was far behind
schedule. He could barely clear the ground when climbing up the
rope vines, and his swimming was certainly not passable. We
decided to double our efforts, to make that list drive and reach our
pot of gold. I made him swim until he turned blue. and row until he
couldn’t lift an oar. Wherever we went, I purposely walked fast, and
although he kept up, his face turned red and his eyes became glazed.
Once, he could go no further, so he collapsed on the ground and
began to cry.

“Aw, come on, Doodle,” I urged. “You can do it. Do you want
to be different from everybody else when you start school?”
“Does it make any difference?”
“It certainly does,” I said. “Now, come on,” and I helped him

As we slipped through dog days, Doodle began to look feverish,
and Mama felt his forehead, asking him if he felt ill. At night he
didn’t sleep well, and sometimes he had nightmares, crying out until I
touched him and said, “Wake up, Doodle. Wake up.

It was Saturday noon, just a few days before school was to start.
I should have already admitted defeat, but my pride wouldn’t let me.
The excitement of our program had now been gone for weeks, but
still we kept on with a tired doggedness. It was too late to turn back,
for we had both wandered too far into a net of expectations and left
no crumbs behind.

Daddy, Mama, Doodle, and I were seated at the dining-room
table having lunch. It was a hot day, with all the windows and doors
open in case a breeze should come. In the kitchen Aunt Nicey was
humming softly. After a long silence, Daddy spoke. “It’s so calm, I
wouldn’t be surprised if we had a storm this afternoon.”
“I haven’t heard a rain frog,” said Mama, who believed in signs,
as she served the bread around the table.

“I did,” declared Doodle. “Down in the swamp-”
“He didn’t,” I said contrarily.
“You did, eh?” said Daddy, ignoring my denial.
“I certainly did,” Doodle reiterated, scowling at me over the top
of his iced-tea glass, and we were quiet again.

Suddenly, from out in the yard, came a strange croaking noise.
Doodle stopped eating, with a piece of bread poised ready for his
mouth, his eyes popped round like two blue buttons. “What’s that?”
he whispered.

I jumped up, knocking over my chair, and had reached the door
when Mama called, “Pick up the chair, sit down again, and say
excuse me.”

By the time I had done this Doodle had excused himself and
had slipped out into the yard. lie was looking up into the bleeding
tree. “It’s a great big red bird!” he called.

The bird croaked loudly again, and Mama and Daddy came out
into the yard. We shaded our eyes with our hands against the hazy
glare of the sun and peered up through the still leaves. On the
topmost branch a bird the size of a chicken, with scarlet feathers and
long legs, was perched precariously. Its wings hung down loosely,
and as we watched, a feather dropped away and floated slowly down
through the green leaves.

“It’s not even frightened of us,” Mama said.
“It looks tired,” Daddy added. “Or maybe sick.”
Doodle’s hands were clasped at his throat, and I had never seen
him stand still so long. “What is it it?” he asked.
Daddy shook his head. “I don’t know, maybe it’s-

At that moment the bird began to flutter, but the wings were
uncoordinated, and amid much flapping and a spray of flying
feathers, it tumbled down, bumping through the limbs of the bleeding
tree and landing at our feet with a thud. Its long, graceful neck jerked
twice into an S, then straightened out, and the bird was still. A white
veil came over the eyes and the long white beak unhinged. Its legs
were crossed and its clawlike feet were delicately curved at rest.
Even death did not mar its grace, for it lay on the earth like a broken
vase of red flowers, and we stood around it, awed by its exotic7

“It’s dead,” Mama said.
“What is it?” Doodle repeated.
“Go bring me the bird book,” said Daddy.

I ran into the house and brought back the bird book. As we
watched, Daddy thumbed through its pages. “It’s a scarlet ibis,” he
said, pointing to the picture. “It lives in the tropics-South America to
Florida. A storm must have brought it here.”

Sadly, we all looked back at the bird. A scarlet ibis! How many miles
it had traveled to die like this, in our yard, beneath the bleeding tree.
“Let’s finish lunch,” Mama said, nudging us back toward the
dining room.

“I’m not hungry,” said Doodle, and he knelt down beside the ibis.
“We’ve got peach cobbler for dessert,” Mama tempted from the
Doodle remained kneeling. “I’m going to bury him.”
“Don’t you dare touch him,” Mama warned. “There’s no telling
what disease he might have had.”
“All right,” said Doodle. “I won’t.”

Daddy, Mama, and I went back to the dining-room table, but we
watched Doodle through the open door. fie took out a piece of string
from his pocket and, without touching the ibis, looped one end
around its neck. Slowly, while singing softly “Shall We Gather at the
River,” he carried the bird around to the front yard and dug a hole in
the flower garden, next to the petunia bed. Now we were watching
him through the front window, but he didn’t know it. His
awkwardness at digging the hole with a shovel whose handle was
twice as long as he was made us laugh, and we covered our mouths
with our hands so he wouldn’t hear.

When Doodle came into the dining room, he found us seriously
eating our cobbler. He was pale, and lingered just inside the screen
door. “Did you get the scarlet ibis buried?” asked Daddy.
Doodle didn’t speak but nodded his head.

“Go wash your hands, and then you can have some peach
cobbler,” said Mama.
“I’m not hungry,” he said.
“Dead birds is bad luck,” said Aunt Nicey, poking her head
from the kitchen door. “Specialty red dead birds!”

As soon as I had finished eating, Doodle and I hurried off to
Horsehead Landing. Time was short, and Doodle still had a long way
to go if he was going to keep up with the other boys when he started
school. The sun, gilded with the yellow cast of autumn, still burned
fiercely, but the dark green woods through which we passed were
shady and cool. When we reached the landing, Doodle said lie was
too tired to swim, so we got into a skiff and floated down the creek
with the tide. Far off in the marsh a rail was scolding, and over on the
beach locusts were singing in the myrtle trees. Doodle did not speak
and kept his head turned away, letting one hand trail limply in the

After we had drifted a long way, I put the oars in place and
made Doodle row back against the tide. Black clouds began to gather
in the southwest, and he kept watching them, trying to pull the oars a
little faster. When we reached Horsehead Landing, lightning was
playing across half the sky and thunder roared out, hiding even the
sound of the sea. The sun disappeared and darkness descended,
almost like night. Flocks of marsh crows flew by, heading in
land to their roosting trees; and two egrets, squawking, arose from the
oyster-rock shallows and careened away.

Doodle was both tired and frightened, and when he stepped
from the skiff he collapsed onto the mud, sending an armada of
fiddler crabs rustling off into the marsh grass. I helped him up, and as
he wiped the mud off his trousers, he smiled at me ashamedly. He
had failed and we both knew it, so we started back home, racing the
storm. We never spoke (What are the words that can solder cracked
pride?), but I knew he was watching me, watching for a sign of
mercy. The lightning was near now, and from fear he walked so close
behind me he kept stepping on my heels. The faster I walked, the
faster he walked, so I began to run. The rain was coming, roaring
through the pines, and then, like a bursting Roman candle, a gum tree
ahead of us was shattered by a bold of lightning. When the deafening
peal of thunder had died, and in the moment before the rain arrived, I
heard Doodle, who had fallen behind, cry out, “Brother, Brother,
don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!”

The knowledge that Doodle’s and my plans had come to naught
was bitter, and that streak of cruelty within me awakened. I ran as
fast as I could, leaving him far behind with a wall of rain dividing us.
The drops stung my face like nettles, and the wind flared the wet
glistening leaves of the bordering trees. Soon I could hear his voice
no more.

I hadn’t run too far before I became tired, and the flood of
childish spite evanesced as well. I stopped and waited for Doodle.
The sound of rain was everywhere, but the wind had died and it fell
straight down in parallel paths like ropes hanging from the sky. As I
waited, I peered through the downpour, but no one came. Finally I
went back and found him huddled beneath a red nightshade bush
beside the road. He was sitting on the ground, his face buried in his
arms, which were resting on his drawn-up knees. “Let’s go, Doodle,”
I said.

He didn’t answer, so I placed my hand on his forehead and lifted
his head. Limply, he fell backwards onto the earth. He had been
bleeding from the mouth, and his neck and the front of his shirt were
stained a brilliant red.

“Doodle! Doodle!” I cried, shaking him, but there was no
answer but the ropy rain. He lay very awkwardly, with his head
thrown far back, making his vermilion neck appear unusually long
and slim. His little legs, bent sharply at the knees, had never before
seemed so fragile, so thin.

I began to weep, and the tear-blurred vision in red before me
looked very familiar. “Doodle!” I screamed above the pounding
storm and threw my body to the earth above his. For a long time, it
seemed forever, I lay there crying, sheltering my fallen scarlet ibis
from the heresy of rain.

One Response to “The Scarlet Ibis”

  1. this is like the sadest story EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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