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Thursday, June 2, 2011


The kettle started to shriek and Marty snapped the book shut and grunted out of the chair. He went to the stove and removed the kettle from the stove, pouring the steaming water into a coffee mug with a picture of a cartoon bear on it. The mug said Yosemite National Park on it in script that wrapped around the picture of the bear. His sister had bought him this mug when her and her husband and her brood of kids went to the park. She was always going places. She lived currently in Galveston, TX where her husband worked as an accountant or an actuary or a gravedigger.

Marty reached in the cupboard for a box of tea bags. There were two of them in the cupboard: a yellow box for the morning and a blue one for the evening. He grabbed the blue box and pulled the last tea bag from the box and soaked it in his mug.

“I’ll need to go to the store tomorrow,” he said and nodded his head in agreement as he bobbed the bag in the water. Vapor condensed on his wrist.

He thought about his sister and the places she’d gone. He didn’t understand her, never had, not even as kids. One day she’d called to him and told him to follow her, and when he rounded the house he saw her standing over a spot on the lawn and looking down at something in the lawn. He walked up to her, reaching for her hand as he always did at that age. On the ground was a tiny bird and it opened and closed its beak in silent suffering.

“Where do you think its mama is?” His sister had asked and Marty hadn’t answered. He was horrified by the tiny creature. It’s eyes were milky and black all at once, like a blood blister, or a film negative of an egg yolk. “I think we need to bring it inside.”

Marty shook his head no, but his sister either didn’t see him or was ignoring him because she cupped her hands and gingerly scooped up the bird. It made a sound like pebbles clicking together and opened its beak wide.

“It’s cute, isn’t it, Marty?” asked his sister.

Again he didn’t answer but he followed her to the house where she went inside and found a shoe box to put the bird in. She filled the box with shredded tissue paper and set the bird under a lamp and then went out into the yard to find some worms to feed the bird. Marty stayed behind and he stood over the bird and looked at it as it silently begged for food from a mama that would never come.

Marty understood several things about the world as he looked at the bird: that sometimes shitty things happened to even the most innocent and helpless things; he felt helpless in the facing of suffering; and he hated himself for his helplessness. He looked out the window and saw his sister scouring the dirt of the flower beds for worms and felt a nascent pity for her, a pity that was too developed for his five-year-old mind to fully incorporate, and which sank in him like bricks in a nylon stocking. He tore at the seams. He pitied her because she labored in vain in the face of certain defeat.

Marty reached into the shoe box and grabbed the bird in his hands and he squeezed as hard as he could and he could feel the bird writhing against his skin and its claws scratching at him and a tiny, sharp peck from the beak, and then there was the sound of a snapping pencil in a backpack and the bird went still. Marty let the bird fall to the shredded tissue where it seemed to take on a weight in death in never had in life.

His sister came in then, with a handful of worms still wriggling between her fingers. She looked down at the bird and at first she didn’t understand what had happened. But then her face became like the sun blackened by clouds and her mouth opened and shut like the bird's had just moments before. Then she looked at him and her face was inscrutable. It was the most complex look Marty had ever seen up to that point and he simply didn’t understand it. He couldn't understand it; it was white noise. Then she said his name, once, “Marty…” and walked away from him, to her room where she closed the door and didn’t come out until their mama called them for dinner. By then Marty had buried the bird in the flower garden and thrown away the shoe box, and washed away the bits of feathers and blood on his hands.

It wasn’t until much later, as he slipped out of this world and into the blackness of sleep, that he realized what he’d seen on his sister’s face. There had been revulsion, surely, and disappointment, and anger, but it wasn’t any of those emotions that had scrambled Marty’s signals so thoroughly all those years ago. What had confused him was the depth of the sorrow he saw etched there. It was as if she felt a sadness beyond tears, beyond wailing, beyond groping frantically for another human being. But it wasn’t for the bird that she felt this, the bird’s death had been inevitable to her. No, she felt her sorrow for her little brother, because in that moment she saw something in him that he wouldn’t see in himself for a very long time, if he ever really saw it at all. It was the first time she saw the terribleness of G-d when all His glory was refracted through the prism of Man. She saw an empty space in her brother that would never be filled, and if it ever was she hoped she wouldn’t be around to see it. It made her sad, and to a certain degree she would never be consoled.