The story begins in between summer and autumn, with a scarlet ibis landing in a "bleeding tree," which is a tree that oozes sap. Surrounding the tree is a garden with rotting brown magnolias and overgrown weeds, the nearby oriole (a type of bird) nest is empty, and the smell of blooming "graveyard flowers" drifts into the narrator’s house, "speaking softly the names of our dead."
The narrator remarks upon how strange it is that this is all so clear to him, even though summer is long gone. A grindstone, used to sharpen tools, now takes the place of the bleeding tree outside. The flower garden is tamed, the house painted a gleaming white, and the fence across the yard clean and organized. Even though things are different now, the narrator says he can sit in the house's parlor and the grindstone turns, taking the narrator back to the past and allowing him to remember his brother, Doodle.
Doodle is "the craziest brother a boy ever had," though he is not as crazy as Miss Leedie, who is allegedly in love with President Wilson and writes him a letter every day. Doodle is a nicer kind of crazy, and, according to the narrator, is like someone you would meet in a dream. Doodle was born when the narrator was six, and was a disappointment from the outset. He had a big head and a tiny, shriveled body. Everyone thought he was going to die except for Aunt Nicey, who delivered him; she says that because he was born in a caul (a membrane that sometimes surrounds a baby's head at birth) he is going to live, because it makes him sacred. They even have a coffin built for Doodle. But Doodle doesn't die, and at last when he is three months old their parents choose the name William Armstrong for him, which the narrator does not approve of. He thinks it's too big a name for him, and it's a name that sounds good only on a tombstone.
The narrator thinks he is good at a lot of things, like running, jumping, and climbing, and he's been hoping for a brother to do these things with. But his mother tearfully informs him that even if Doodle lives, he will never be able to do those things. He might not even be "all there," meaning he might have mental problems that will allow him to do nothing but lie in his bed for as long as he lives.
The narrator cannot stand the idea of having a brother who is not "all there" on top of being incapacitated, so he begins to make plans to kill Doodle by smothering him with a pillow. One afternoon, though, while the narrator watches him through the bars at the foot of his bed, Doodle looks straight at him and grins. That's when the narrator realizes Doodle is all there, and he skips through the house telling everyone so.
This short first section of the story gets readers acquainted with the setting and characters that we will be dealing with. Although the author has not yet provided an exact year in which this is taking place, the reference to President Wilson gives readers a clue that this is occurring in the early 20th century, around the time of World War I.
A specific location is not provided, either, but this is less important that the description of the scene. Take note of the fact that the first thing mentioned in the story is the scarlet ibis in the bleeding tree; this is a reference back to the title, so we know that it's going to be significant. Following this, the first paragraph of the story adds many layers to the setting. It tells readers that this is a place that experiences seasons, as the narrator notes that they are in between summer and fall. It paints the picture of a house surrounded by flowers and wild, overgrown weeds. This setting is juxtaposed with the current appearance of this place, at the time when the narrator is actually telling the story; apparently now the garden is tamed and trimmed nicely, but it was not this way back then.
Right away readers learn that this story is being told in the present about something that happened in the past. The change in setting from past to present suggests other changes have happened from past to present as well, and the story will go on to explain exactly what. This is a common device used in stories, and it is used when something about the narrator's life or his perspective has changed or evolved. With this knowledge in mind, it is important to be on the lookout for this sort of evolution in the story.
This first section establishes that the two main characters in this story are going to be Doodle and the narrator, his older brother. The story will center on the development of their relationship. The narrator expresses his expectations for his little brother right away: he wants a brother who is active, playful, and "all there." It seems like Doodle will not fulfill those first two desires, but at the end of this section when Doodle does appear to be "all there," the narrator's excitement skyrockets. Right here, it becomes clear that the narrator has high hopes for his disabled little brother.
Doodle has already shattered the expectations that others had for him, so he will no doubt continue to do so. He lived, when everyone except Aunt Nicey believed he was going to die. He is sane and aware, even though his mother believed he would not be "all there." Though Doodle is still an infant, he has already set a pattern to continue to live up to. Though at this point it has not been revealed how, he has even earned his own, new name, when most babies are simply given a name that their parents choose for them before their birth.
There is one instance of foreshadowing here, which isn't noticeable until reading through the entire story but that stands out very strongly afterward. The narrator says Doodle's real name, William Armstrong, "sounds good only on a tombstone." This choice of comparison is so deliberate and so chillingly ironic, in light of what will happen as the story unfolds. Small hints like this remind readers that the narrator knows what is going to happen. He is not experiencing these events for the first time like readers are; he is recounting them in retrospect.