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On our walk to preschool lately we’ve been passing the carcass of a headless bird, just lying there on the red-brick sidewalk, rotting.
The first time we passed by the dead bird, my preschooler called it a “dizzy bird.” I thought she called it dizzy because its head was missing, but after further reflection I thought maybe it was because whenever we play Ring Around the Rosie she gets dizzy and falls to the ground, dead-like. Whatever the reason, I decided I didn’t want her to have the wrong idea about that bird.
“It’s not dizzy, darling: it’s dead,” I said. “It’s a dead bird.”
“Why is it dead?” she said.
“I don’t know why. Maybe a predator killed it or old age or something else. Somehow, though, it died. So it’s dead. Not dizzy. That bird is dead.”
I pushed the double stroller that held her and her younger brother further along our route and watched the back of her head. I imagined that I could see inside her head, that I could see tiny people, homunculi-like, responding to my words, using some sort of elaborate computer system that cross references incoming information against a collection of memories, experiences, and known words and concepts, trying to piece together what “dead” meant, and coming up with nothing out of all that young knowledge. So I tried to help.
“It’s not…” I said, and I paused, grasping, looking for a way to say something that would help make it make sense to her. “It’s not living anymore. Sort of like the bird went away, but left its body behind. I guess the best way to explain it is that living things eventually stop living, and when that happens we say that they are dead.”
Killed, died, dead…I wanted to take those words back out of fear that she’d ask me if one day I was going to die, or if one day she was going to die. I hadn’t yet thought out how I’d answer those questions when they eventually—when they inevitably—did come. Fortunately, during the remainder of our brief walk that morning, she didn’t follow-up.
• • •
It’s been three weeks since we first saw the dead bird, but every day on our walk to preschool, without fail, the carcass is still there, broken and waiting for us. My one-year old son hasn’t displayed any signs that he’s even noticed the bird, but my preschooler, from the moment we leave the apartment, she starts talking excitedly about how we’re going to see it.
Today as we approached it, she shouted, “There it is! There’s the dead bird, daddy.”
“Yes,” I said. “I see it.”
“Why is it still there?”
I pushed the stroller just past the dead bird so it was out of the children’s line of vision and stopped to look closely at the battered carcass. A wing, with splayed black and bright yellow feathers, was nearly severed from the rest of the weathered and shrinking carcass. Little gray bird feet were curled in the way that dead feet curl in. It was a decaying mess. But odd as it may be, the thought that occurred to me right then and there was, What beautiful feathers.
“I don’t know,” I said, pushing forward. “I don’t know why no one has moved it yet. That’s a good question.”
• • •
After preschool my daughter’s teacher, Ms. Patricia, said, “Tara and I had a conversation today about a dead bird…”
“Oh yeah,” I said, “Well, for the past few weeks on our route to and from here there’s a dead bird that’s been lying on the sidewalk. She seems pretty interested in it.”
“Ah, I see,” Ms. Patricia said, nodding, as though I just helped her solve the puzzle of the day. “I couldn’t figure out exactly what she was talking about, but I sensed it was something like that.”
“Yeah, it’s been there awhile,” I said, looking at my daughter, who seemed to be paying attention to a game a couple of her classmates were playing. “Maybe I’ll bring a plastic bag tomorrow and, if the bird’s still there when we walk past, I’ll pick it up and throw it away.”
“Maybe that’s not such a bad idea,” Ms. Patricia said.
• • •
On our walk home, as we approached the dead bird, my daughter turned around in her stroller seat, looked at me.
“Daddy,” she said, “I don’t want you to throw the dead bird away.”
“Oh,” I said. “And why not?”
“Because,” she said, pausing, checking in with the tiny people at central command. “Because I don’t want you to throw it away.”
“Okay, darling,” I said, thinking that her request seemed fair enough. “I won’t throw it away.”
We moved closer to the dead bird.
“Daddy,” my daughter said, covering her feet with her backpack, “I don’t want the dead bird to get me.”
“The dead bird won’t get you, sweetheart,” I said. “Don’t worry. It definitely won’t get you.”
“And don’t throw him away. Okay?”
I didn’t understand why she didn’t want me to throw away the dead bird, or why she was afraid that the dead bird would get her. But, once again, I thought, fair enough. “Okay,” I said. “I won’t throw the bird away. I promise.”
“Burr!” shouted the one-year old, pointing up at the sky, where a blue jay was flying overhead, screeching.
“Yes, Jackson,” I said. “That’s right. There’s a bird.”
The blue jay soared higher and higher, up above and then past a group of oaks, out of view.
The three of us, with our varied misunderstandings, experiences, and perspectives, with our collective yet incomplete knowledge, we carried on. A moment later we quietly strolled past the dead bird, toward home.
Peter Witte’s stories have been published in ARDOR and Hobart (web). A native of Illinois, he now lives near Washington, D.C. with a philosopher, two children, and a handsome dog.
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