By Emmett Knowlton
On his fifth birthday, his grandfather gives him a book about birds. He likes books and he likes birds and unlike his brother who is nine he does not like sports and he does not like climbing trees. Last summer when he was four he fell out of a tree and hurt himself so badly that he had to spend two nights in the hospital. But now he is five and after he blows out the candles his grandfather tells him to memorize the names of all the birds in the book because doing so will bring him good luck. He doesn’t know how to read but he loves his grandfather, so he promises him that he will.
One day after school he finds a dead bird in his front yard. It is fall and the sun has started setting early, casting long shadows across his lawn like the legs of an enormous spider. In the dusk he sees a flash of blue against a pile of yellow leaves and from his new book that his mother has been reading with him before bed he knows that this is an Eastern Bluebird. He crouches to examine it.
It’s lying on its side. Eyes closed, head tilted downward into its breast. It’s funny to him that a bird called a bluebird would have a belly that’s orange and white like a Creamsicle, but the incredible blue of its head and wings and back helps the bird’s name make sense to him. He’s never seen anything like it, this creature. So small and delicate. So blue.
He decides to bury it in the secret spot in his backyard, beyond the patio, next to the small crack in the fence that he and his brother use to spy on the two girls that live next door. He digs a small hole in the dirt and places the bluebird carefully at the bottom. After he fills the hole back up, he takes a stick and places it into the mound to remind himself never to step on this spot. Then he goes into his house and washes his hands.
His mother asks what he’s been doing.
I found a bluebird, he says. In the yard. It was dead and I buried it.
His brother is at the kitchen table working on multiplication tables. Gross, he says. You touched a dead bird.
Be nice, his mother says to his brother. To him she smiles and says, that was a very thoughtful thing that you did.
The next day after school the girls from next door come over and ask him if they can see the bluebird.
He asks how they know about it and they say his brother told them.
The younger of the girls is six. She has red hair and freckles and sucks her right thumb. She looks at him and takes her thumb from her mouth and says please can we see it.
Okay, he says.
He brings the girls to the corner of his backyard and does not show them the crack in the fence but does explain to them the purpose of the stick in the ground.
Smart, the younger sister says.
The older sister is ten. She kneels and begins digging with her hands until suddenly she’s holding the bird in her palm. It’s covered in dirt and looks smaller than he remembered and worse than before, but the blue of its body has not yet faded and for this he feels relieved.
Whoa, the younger sister says. It’s so pretty.
The older sister goes away and comes back holding a pair of scissors.
What are you doing with those? he asks.
Without responding she takes the scissors and in a sudden motion cuts off the bird’s left wing. He blinks repeatedly and watches it fall to the ground.
What are you doing? he says again. Why would you do that?
She ignores him and cuts off the other wing, then cuts off both the bird’s legs and each of its individual talons. She giggles as she does this, and when he looks at what’s left of the bluebird he feels sick to his stomach and worried that he might cry.
Why did you do that, he says again. Hearing his own voice out loud he realizes that it’s shaking. It did nothing to you and you ruined it. You ruined it.
It’s dead, dummy, she says. You can’t ruin something that’s already dead.
This sends a lump rising to the top of his throat, and an unexpected sensation emerges from deep within him that feels hot and itchy. Later he will understand that this is called rage. Later he will wonder if everything that happened next can be identified as the first real fulcrum of his life, the root somehow of all that went wrong, and he will wonder, too, how many things might have been different if his brother had never told the girls about the dead bird, or if his mother had never read to him from his bird book before bed, or if his grandfather had given him something different for his birthday. Or, if in dying light of that fall afternoon as he played by himself in his front yard, he had never spotted there among those dead and yellowing leaves that smallest flash of blue.
And then he will think to himself no, correlation does not imply causation.
What happens next is this: he walks to the older girl and pushes her as hard as he can. He pushes her with both hands and she stumbles backwards. Her eyes go wide with surprise and worry and only as she begins to fall does he become aware that she’s still holding the scissors. They’re in her hand, pointed back toward her. Next to him he hears the gasp of the girl’s younger sister. And then through the fence comes the familiar cry of their mother, announcing that it’s time for dinner.
Emmett Knowlton grew up in Montclair, N.J. He is a graduate of Amherst College and holds an MFA from the University of Montana. His short stories have appeared in The Masters Review and MAYDAY Magazine. He is at work on a novel.