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My memories begin with a dead bird.
I was two, or maybe three, when I found it lying in the back yard. One wing was crushed under its body. The other was splayed awkwardly in the air. Its brown and white feathers were ruffled; its beak still open from its last anguished cry. My miniature reflection stared back at me from two lifeless, glassy eyes.
I understood that the bird was dead. I’d understood death for my entire life–it was just the way things were. You’re born, you live, you die. My father thought I had this knowledge because my mother died in childbirth, but I wasn’t so sure. I think I was born with it, the way you’re born knowing how to breathe and blink.
Since my father was in charge of my life, I didn’t interact with anyone outside of the family. I wasn’t old enough to be truly lonely, but I wished the bird would be my friend. I imagined it standing up, its beak closed, its eyes no longer glassy.
Something twisted inside me and, miraculously, the bird hopped to its tiny, perfect feet. I giggled, delighted, and reached out to stroke the soft downy of its belly. I scarcely noticed its coldness and lack of reaction. Following the traditional naming ritual of children my age, I decided to call it Birdie. “Birdie, Birdie, Birdie,” I chanted giddily. My pets got gradually less gentle until I accidentally knocked my new friend over.
I waited a minute. Two. Birdie didn’t get back up. I nudged him, called to him. It was only when I ordered him to stand that he obeyed.
Being a toddler, I took pleasure in controlling things. I felt the urge to do it again, so I told him to dance. He did a little skipping movement and flapped his crooked wings. I tried out a few more commandments: sit, walk, flutter, sing. Birdie was completely under my power.
I decided to do a little experiment, just to see how far Birdie would go.
“Bite your wing off.”
A grasp of his little orange beak, a yank, a CRACK.
Blood spilled from the wound, but weakly, since there was no heartbeat to pump it forward.
For a few eternal moments I was paralyzed from the horror of what I’d done. The tears came in a great flood, and my body was wracked with deep, shuddering sobs. I couldn’t take my eyes off Birdie, off the puddle of crimson blood, off his vacant, unseeing eyes. It dawned on me that he’d been dead the whole time, though that did nothing to dispel my guilt.
My father came running. “Sephtis, what happened?” he demanded. He caught sight of the bird, and a mixture of confusion and disgust crossed his face. “What is this?”
I hardly heard him. “B-be dead again,” I whispered to the bird. It stiffened and collapsed, torn wing still clutched in its beak. I turned to face my father, who was now wearing an unreadable expression. Was he amazed? Scared? I hoped he wasn’t angry.
“Sephtis,” he repeated, more urgently.
“I didn’t mean to!” I yelled through my tears.
I waited for him to tell me that it wasn’t my fault, that a dead-bird incident could happen to anyone. The words of comfort never came. Instead, he stared at me with dark voids for eyes. Often, when I got into trouble, he would say, What am I going to do with you? But he always said it in a joking matter. This was the real thing.
“Don’t throw me away,” I pleaded. I tried to give nestle myself into his arms, but he recoiled.
He didn’t say, I’d never throw you away. He didn’t say, Sometimes dead birds happen and there’s nothing you can do about it. He said, “Oh, boy.”
Oh, boy. I didn’t ask if I was the boy in question, though I wondered about it. I toddled inside to get a drink of water, as all that crying had made me thirsty. The image of the bloody wing was branded on the insides of my eyelids–I saw it every time I blinked.
After getting a drink, I went to get my father. He was still kneeling in front of the dead bird, like he was in a daze. I shifted so I could see the front of him and felt a chill run down my spine. My father, my unshakable father, was… no, it was impossible.
There was no way my father was crying.