Far from the Nest
Lisa J. Bigelow
Robbie sidles up to me on the playground while a dozen of his kindergarten classmates swing on the jungle gym and slam balls at each other on the four-square court. With an odd mix of eagerness and hesitation, his words tumbling one moment, dragging the next, he says, “I have something to show you. Over on the other side of the playground.” I’m used to hearing and responding enthusiastically to shouts of “Lisa, watch!” from children wanting to show me some amazing trick on the rings or tire swing; but no, I heard it wrong, he actually said, “I have to show you something.” An entirely different meaning. The need, rather than the something, receives emphasis.
I agree, perplexed and a bit apprehensive, to go with him, and together we trudge across the woodchips toward the hedge that flanks the playground’s periphery. Eian jumps in front of us with his collapsable light saber, in three neon colors of plastic, shouting, “Robbie, let’s —” “No,” Robbie insists. “I've got to show Lisa something.” Children hide in the hedge, from friends and enemies, the school bell, punishment; the hedge is also the primary locale for games of make believe. I sympathize with the children who don’t want to leave the hedge for their class in the morning.
My anxiety looms a little larger when Robbie adds, "I think it’s kind of bad.” I have no idea what he could mean. Sometimes children steal objects from the classrooms and use them in their games, or shovels find their way from the sandbox on the other side of the building and begin, mysteriously, digging holes at the roots of the bushes. Sometimes cats and dogs find their way in and leave their odiferous calling cards.
I’m not prepared for the bird. Just short of the hedge, Robbie halts, and there it is, sprawled on the woodchips, its wings featherless, its legs pale and gangly and equally useless. It’s probably a jay, given the few blue and gray feathers along its spine; it’s certainly too young to fly; it’s also dead. Its visible eye is a horrible, visionless red. Insects crawl over its yellow beak. I’m grateful for its stillness. I want to see no feeble twitch of its infantile wings, to hear no pathetic peep escape its scrawny neck.
One spring afternoon about ten years ago, I was helping my mother clear the drainpipes which had become clogged with sodden leaves and pine needles, when a dead sparrow fell out before me. I jumped back and shrieked, terrified and disgusted that I might have touched it. I could practically feel its tiny claws digging into my skin — just as one’s spine might chill at the thought of a skeleton grabbing at one’s ankles at the foot of a dark staircase.
Now, though, I say as nonchalantly as I can, “Oh, it’s a dead baby bird, isn’t it? I bet the poor thing fell out of its nest.” Then, when Robbie squats by it for a closer look, “Robbie, get back. Don’t touch it — just — please don’t touch it.” I rush to the classroom for Mrs. T’s sage advice: “Send Robbie for a shovel from the sandbox. Here’s a bag.” In the meantime, more children have gathered around Robbie and the bird. As I run toward them I call out more warning pleas. “Nobody touch it! Just stay back, okay?” I send both Robbie and Eian for the shovel, for although it will take several times as long with two of them on the task, I don’t want to contend with Eian poking the bird with his light saber.
About six children remain huddled and squatting in a semi-circle around the bird. I’m about to tell them to return to their playing. I want to pass off the bird and its death as nothing. Fortunately, before I say any such thing, I realize that they’re riveted. Death is novel to them, more novel than it is to me. They want to talk about it. I sit down with them, warning them again not to touch it, and entertain questions as we wait for the shovel.
I tell them the bird was just a baby, and that it probably fell from its nest. It was too young to fly. “Maybe it tried to fly but it couldn’t,” Emma suggests; I doubtfully agree that this might be true. “Was it a nest in that bush?” another child asks, indicating the one just behind us. I look up at it, wondering the same thing. The hedge seems too low for a nest, but the taller pines, which grow on the hillside beyond the playground, seem too far away. I worry that a cat may have been the culprit, but somehow the idea of falling seems less traumatic to me than being eaten. The children might disagree, but for simplicity’s sake I stick to my original story. “A taller tree,” I amend. “It fell.”
Quiet and perceptive Marina creeps up to my elbow, and somehow I know her question before she speaks it aloud: “How come when we fall, we don’t die?” So I tell them it’s because the bird is so small, the tree so tall. I tell them it would be the same as if a person fell from a very tall building. “But then you wouldn’t die,” Evan, who weeps daily from various scrapes and tumbles, protests. “You’d just be badly hurt.” “No, you could die,” the others argue, and I feel obliged to confirm. I don’t even know what dying means to them, but I can’t lie.
I shout for Robbie and Eian to hurry, because they’re taking far too long, and I’m tired of talking about death and of staring at the pathetic still form on the woodchips. Robbie and Eian appear to be relaying their important mission to the boys playing slaughterhouse, a ball game not nearly as brutal as its name suggests, on the far side of the playground. Almost reluctantly, Robbie trots over with the red plastic shovel from the sandbox.
The children ask me if they can watch me bury it, “if it’s not too far away.” They suggest locations: in the garden, under a particular bush in the corner of the playground. For the first time in the conversation, I fib; I agree to everything they say, but add that we’ll have to ask Mrs. T’s permission first. But I’m already certain she’ll just tell me to stick the bird in the garbage. Meanwhile, Robbie has recovered from his initial concern and revulsion and wants “to see the other side.” I put my foot down: “Absolutely not.”
The bell rings for rest time, but several of the children linger as I stoop and slide the shovel blade deep into the woodchips beneath the bird. I don’t want the shovel to touch the body. I don’t want the head to flop or the legs to gracelessly rearrange themselves. I slide the whole heap into the plastic bag, afraid as I do so that the bird will slide off and flop its way to the ground. It’s the closest I've come to shuddering. But at least there’s a shovel to pick it up with. Jackson had suggested, pragmatically enough, that I use tweezers. But I couldn’t stand to feel the dead flesh give between the tongs, or fingers, or anything. I needed those woodchips as a buffer. I knot the bag and it’s finished.
I send Robbie back to the sandbox with the shovel, and, when he wrinkles his nose, remind him that the blade touched only the woodchips, not the bird. The spot where the bird died is bald without those chips, the dry yellow clay exposed. After a very brief conference with Mrs. T, I drop the bag into one of the huge outdoor rubbish bins, fervently hoping that none of the children will play at garbage picking today. During rest time, Robbie whispers to me, “Did you put it in the garbage?” I feel badly; there will be no funeral. “Yes,” I say. “Which one?” he asks. I lie: “I forget.”
None of the kindergartners mentions the bird to me again that afternoon, but I find myself bringing it up when Eva, a second grader, tells me that a dead rat was found on the playground that morning. I think of the feline hypothesis again and worry that I misled the children. After all, they understand that cats hunt; they might not understand why, but they accept it. For myself, it was easier to think of death as plummeting fifty or more times one’s height to the ground, rather than as the teeth of a wild beast sinking deep into one’s gut. It was the easier explanation for me, right then, the easier story to tell the children, the way some people need to say “passed away” rather than “died.” But my version of the story was no less gentle in the end.
And I suppose there is no way that I can answer for the bird.