Michael Ugulini


Michael Ugulini is a full-time freelance writer from the Niagara Region, Ontario, Canada. He is a published writer of newsletter articles, feature articles, SEO articles, and corporate profiles. His creative writing works include short screen and play scripts, short stories, and poetry. His short screenplay Parched won First Place in the American Gem Short Screenplay Competition in 2006.

The Cardinals of Avery Street

Elaina showed me the nest, positioned for optimum safety, in the bush that separated our two homes. She pointed out how the male and female cardinals—the parents, she emphasized—were diligent in protecting their young and never strayed too far from the small alleyway that partitioned our properties.

I could hear the cries of the baby cardinals. Each night I watched from my back patio as "the parents" flew back and forth from lawn to bush, always with some morsel of food for their offspring. Elaina would watch me watching the cardinals. She watched from her sun room that looked into my backyard, peering from behind the California shutters that gave the traditional-looking house a contemporary veneer. I’m not sure if she knew I knew she was watching.


She arrived in Niagara Falls one October from Beslan, just as the autumn colors began their final performance of the year. Your winter is coming quickly upon you, she would say each morning as I left for work. She was always up, no matter what time I left in the morning, sitting on her front landing, always smoothing her dark black hair, a yellow ceramic coffee mug that seemed to glow always cradled in her hands.

Winters are for the strong, she would say. I could no longer survive them in Beslan; I may survive them here. She never seemed self-conscious that she was repeating herself every morning; this went on until mid-December. Then, as if commissioned to change her course of discourse, she stopped this banter and talked of a spring that was still too far away.


In Beslan, there are no cardinals, she tells me. I have not asked her any questions about cardinals today, or Beslan, but she stands at my car door grasping her coffee mug as if I am attempting to pry it away from her. Beslan is in North Ossetia. I learned that much a few weeks back when she told me the story of how she left this town in the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation.

We parents always try to protect our children. I told her I’m sure that is true.

It was unforeseen—the tragedy—something we never believed would occur, she says. Not at a school with children. Not a hostage taking by terrorists at School Number One. Our children were celebrating the start of the new school year. When it ended, one child was missing part of his face because of the explosions; another had a piece of shrapnel sticking out from his groin. Many more than a hundred children died. I can understand the cardinals not flying too far away from their young. It is a peaceful neighborhood—but you never know. And with that comment she receded to her porch, leaving me to wave in a neighborly fashion as I backed out of my driveway.


I’ve noticed Elaina circling her house like a focused sentry this past week. This typically occurs every fifteen minutes between 6:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. each evening. I’m not sure of her schedule in this regard during the day.

It’s that neighbor’s cat that creeps in under the fence in my backyard, she says. He can smell the cardinal babies. Am I not correct, they can smell them? Or sense them anyway. You must have seen that cat.

I have seen that cat I tell her. Now, I shoo it away whenever he breaks the plane of my property, for fear of arousing the wrath of Elaina, who is looking unkempt lately.

My husband back in Beslan loves cats. We always had five or six running around—not enough food for us; always enough food for the cats. He is happier without me; he can honor his cats without arguments from my end. He honored my desire to come to Canada. It is my new life away from Beslan and the lingering pain of the town’s residents. I could not take my son with me—it was impossible—the logistics. You have wavy brown hair like him, very natural and handsome on you both.

Niagara Falls is very beautiful, even in the winter. Do you appreciate your native land the way I do? The cardinals of Avery Street make it even more beautiful. Do you appreciate the way they care for their young? I tell her I do, although, until her arrival, I never really noticed the parenting skills of Northern Cardinals.


Alexei from the butcher shop ran to our home and told us of the hostage taking at School Number One, she is telling me. Alexei told us the militants were heavily armed. As Alexei related the details, one of the cats nuzzled up to him, but he kicked it away, grabbed me, and told me to be prepared for the worst. She asks me how someone prepares for the worst, when the worst has a myriad of faces.


Cardinals typically raise two broods of young each year—did I know that? I tell her I did not. Young cardinals leave their nesting place after eleven days. They can fly within twenty days. Did I know that? I tell her I was not aware of those facts. Cardinals build their nests in low bushes, shrubs, small trees, and thick vines. This is why they chose our alleyway with the low lush bush as their nesting place for their babies. The parents never let the babies out of their sight. They are watching both of us now, from somewhere in the trees, watching our every move. I tell her a good defense is the best offence.

She stares at me and asks me what the significance of that statement is as it applies to our mutual situation concerning the cardinals. I tell her that it is often used to describe the strategies of football and other sports teams. I tell her it has implications as concerns military strategy. I tell her the cardinals are employing this same strategy.

She tells me that the strategy of the guerillas at School Number One in Beslan, in North Ossetia was to use children as pawns. I saw the burned, half-naked children who survived run for cover after being released from the carnage, she says. My son, Valery, he climbed out the window and ran to find me. He did. I was waiting. His leg was severely cut and they let me hug him before they took him away to the hospital. A few days later they let him come home.


Elaina is out of sorts today. When I arrived home she immediately ran to me, talking in a rushed voice before I was out of my car. The cat is prowling and looking to kill the babies—can I do something. Where is the cat now? I ask. That is unknown at the present time. He is lurking, but his location is not verifiable. Are the babies okay? I ask. They are fine—the parents are performing reconnaissance. They have everything under control. The cardinals are territorial, but really, what can they do to a cat, so maybe I am mistaken—they do not have everything under control.

She is talking of how things got wildly out of control in Beslan. As the children fled the school and their hostage-takers, after three days of imprisonment, many were shot in the back. Who has the kind of mind that would cause them to shoot a child in the back? she says. A witness told her that one boy gurgled on the floor in the school hallway, vomiting blood. A young girl stopped and bent down to help him, only to have the bullets rip through her spinal column. The Russian forces tried to have everything under control against the guerrillas who had seized School Number One. They were also trying to be territorial.


She has me searching the flower garden that lines her backyard fence. She believes the cat is lying in wait amongst the gerberas, lilies, and geraniums. I poke and prod and call out to the cat. I hear and see nothing cat like. He must be gone, I say. She tells me I’m naïve. The cat is playing us like a good game of chess. He will exploit our weakness and the weakness of the cardinals. That is the military strategy of a cat and we must counter it with full force.

I suggest that we buy a female cat and set up a sort of honey trap and beat the cat at his own game. She tells me I’m mocking her. She feels I do not respect the beauty of the cardinals and what they bring to Avery Street. She is sorry she involved me in the situation. She walks back inside her home.

I retreat to my backyard. I see her watching me from behind the California shutters; the darkened sun room casts her as a silhouette; the slats of the shutters divide her body into perfectly proportioned segments.


She told me how the parents held vigil for three days at the local House of Culture awaiting news of the Beslan school hostage crisis. What culture results in the murder of children, she says. Is there not some code of ethics, some underlying, definable, set in stone morality that would prevent such a thing in a humane culture? Is there not a clear right and wrong, not endless debate on situational ethics, where everyone has their version of how a society should operate? Do you know that a man carried out his naked daughter and tried to breathe the breath of life into her as she bled to death?

I tell her that I remember some of the stories, but that it seems so long ago now. It was 2004, she snaps at me; it is not of another era. It is still current news because it will never be over. It is like yesterday to that father who tasted the blood of his daughter.


Amanda, the seven year-old who lives four houses down is looking for her cat. I did not know the family had any pets. She tells me the cat has not come home for three days. I ask her to describe her cat. She tells me it’s reddish-brown and is overweight. She tells me he likes to chase birds. The cat once placed a red cardinal before her, dead, as some sort of offering and example of his hunting prowess. I tell her that Elaina has seen the cat and believes it smells baby cardinals in the bush between our homes. I believe what Amanda says. She says he would eat the babies if he could reach them.

Maybe you should keep the cat inside, I say, just for a while until the babies can fly away and start their own life. I would if I could find him, she says.


When I first came to Canada, to lovely Niagara Falls, the first thing I did was put a picture of Valery in my motel room. I cannot forget the logistics of him being in Beslan and I being here, Elaina says. He would love the roaring Horseshoe Falls. He would love being able to walk across the Rainbow Bridge into America. He would love the freedom of going between two free countries where children play soccer on beautifully groomed fields in their subdivisions. He would laugh at the fact that there are two Niagara Falls, one across the river from the other. He would say, “Can’t they quit being copycats?”


“Where are the dead children?" A woman is screaming outside of School Number One. Elaina is reliving this moment and now there are tears running down her face. She tells me how she ran to the woman, grabbing her and easing her to the ground as the woman fainted.

She tells me she found a dead baby cardinal lying in the grass under the bush a few days ago. It was the cat, but the issue is resolved. The remaining babies will live and grow up to be beautiful parents themselves one day. Neither the father nor mother will flee their territory to start a new life elsewhere. They will remain in the area they were born and build a life. They will have everything under control at all times. She says the male cardinal will aggressively defend his territory—his family’s territory. He will not befriend cats and love them more than the female cardinal.


I do not know what ever happened to the man who tried furiously to breathe the breath of life into his daughter, Elaina says. I left Beslan one month after the massacre, two weeks after Valery succumbed to a blood infection from the severe cut on his leg. My husband buried him at the back acre of our small farm. The cats roam atop his grave as if to cajole him to come out and play with them. Someone told me before I left that the man just sits in front of his house and drinks cold coffee all day. He has stopped shaving and washing. I don’t know if this is true but I believe it is possible given the circumstances.


Amanda is crying hysterically. She found her cat in the neighbor’s back yard, the neighbor next to Elaina. He looked as if he was beaten with a shovel. Apparently, the cat crawled as far as he could before collapsing. Dried blood was caked around his mouth and his eyes stared, looking at something it could not comprehend.


The baby cardinals are learning to fly and forage. The parents are guiding them through their paces. I see them each evening as I sit in my backyard with my hot coffee after supper. Elaina sees them too. I don’t know if she knows that I see her peering from behind the California shutters, watching the parents always with their babies—doing their duty.