On the way down the hill from Gül Baba türbeje, as we stumbled on the large uneven cobblestones, I said that we’d found our dead bird. My son heard me, but said nothing. He knew what I meant.
How is it possible I have not written down the story of the dead bird?
|A dead bird
When I was in Italy, I told it over and over. The story of the dead bird is a story I tell so often and to so many people that sometimes, I, too, am tired of telling it.
A couple of years ago, in North Dreadful, one of our dogs found an injured bird on the porch; we think it hit a window. He brought it to us, in good retriever fashion, and surrendered it on command. It didn’t last long, but it was put into service as an artist’s model. This dead bird made a nice addition to a still life: lightweight, odorless and capable of maintaining its pose indefinitely, the only real problem it presented was keeping the pets away from it. Well, and I guess not all the people in the house thought having a dead bird lying around was ok. I started writing the story of the dead bird then, but never finished.
I never tell the story exactly the same way.
Once, on a day when I was a working parent at the co-op preschool, we were scheduled to go on a field trip, by city bus, to the University of Washington to look at the cherry blossoms in the main quadrangle. The co-op was my whole life when we first moved to Seattle; we had moved there, knowing no one, and still living the small, busy life of having very young children. Co-operative pre-school gave me and my kids instant friends, a place to go on a regular basis, and scheduled field trips to all the new things we needed to discover about Seattle: the Woodland Park Zoo, the aquarium, the Ballard Locks, the Flight Museum, the Space Needle, etc. Being a “working parent” meant I stayed for school that day, and helped with snack and clean-up and generally providing another pair of hands where needed.
A pre-school field trip is a serious undertaking. The logistics of getting a dozen three and four-year-olds safely to a destination and back are numerous. If you drive, most cars only hold two car seats in the back seat (three are usually too wide). If any family forgets to drop off a car seat, it’s an emergency. If a working parent can’t make it at the last minute, the whole trip may have to be cancelled. Some destinations are too hard to get to, have inadequate parking, or are too expensive.
But most preschoolers love field trips, and while routine is great for them, the break from routine is great, too. Our co-op was in a windowless church basement with cinderblock walls and clammy linoleum floors, across the street from a nice little park full of broad maples and tall oak trees, providing a reasonable supple of collectible acorns, and an old, sand-footing playground. There was a long slide coming out of a tall metal tower made of vertical poles, with a conical top, meaning it was a rocket or a jail or a castle depending on the imagination of the users. One block beyond the playground was a city bus stop, so field trips by bus were a good way to go.
The two teachers at the school then were Nancy and Teacher Wendy. Teacher Wendy liked to be known as Teacher Wendy, and she taught the younger kids. Nancy liked to be called Nancy, and she taught the older kids. When she was a child, Nancy’s brother used to tease her and call her Child Nancy and she hated it, so we always called her Nancy and never Teacher Nancy, although having a Teacher Wendy made everyone want to call her Teacher Nancy.
On the day of the dead bird, we had the backpacks full of snacks, the folder with emergency medical forms and a first aid kit, plenty of parents helping, and all the kids lined up, their coats zipped, their name tags pinned on with diaper pins. Nancy waited until she had everyone’s attention and then she opened the door. The kids were allowed to go to the top of the stairs, and then they had to wait. A parent always brought up the rear, and I was that parent on this day.
Next, when Nancy said so, the kids got to run ahead to the corner of the building, and then they had to stop again and wait. It was April; the kids knew the routine. Nancy said ok and they ran to the corner. It was a perfect spring day, with a bright blue sky above and green, green grass below. The daffodils were done, but the tulips were up and open. When the lingering parents, distracted by the lilacs, had caught up to the kids, and she had everyone’s attention, Nancy gave word that they could run to the corner to wait to cross the street.
It was at this corner that one of the children found the dead bird.
I have told this story to adults at a cocktail party, teetering on high heels and trying not to fling champagne on myself. I have told this story in the dark, around a campfire. I have told this story walking in the fog in the Dolomites, to a new friend worried about her life having meaning. I have told this story to high school math students. I have told this story to another friend as we wandered lost in Venice. I have told this story so often my husband and children don’t listen anymore. But I no longer remember what kind of bird it was.
“Look, Nancy! Look!” said one of the children. He was standing on the curb, pointing into the metal grate of the storm drain.
Nancy stepped up and bent to see. She was not tall, but was taller than her students. It was a dead bird, a songbird. Maybe it was a robin, but I think it was small and brown and bland. Perhaps a sparrow.
“Oh, look!” said Nancy. “It’s a bird.”
Another child asked, “Is it sleeping?”
“No. It isn’t sleeping. It’s dead,” she said.
By now all of the children ringed her, trying to see.
Nancy reached into her pocket—a pocket that always had enough tissues—and, cradling it in a sheet of tissue, lifted the dead bird out of the gutter. All of the children pressed in around her closely. The adults stood back. One child wanted to make the bird alive. The other working parents exchanged a glance, already aware that we were in danger of missing the bus.
“Why is it dead, Nancy?” someone asked.
“Everything dies,” said Nancy. “Maybe it was old, or maybe it was sick. It’s hard to tell.”
“Did it hurt when it died?”
“I don’t know. It was probably quick, I think. Like falling asleep,” she said.
They had more questions. The bus came and went without us. The working parents saw it go.
Nancy registered the expressions of the parents over the heads of the children. “It’s ok, “ she said. “We can catch another bus.”
Some of the children wanted to touch it. Some of the other children really didn’t want to touch it. One of them wasn’t sure. “If you touch it, we are going to have to go back in and wash your hands really well,” she said.
The children nodded gravely.
The curious children stroked the quiet feathers with an outstretched index finger, and came away holding up that finger like it wanted a bandage, or needed kissing, or had wet paint on it.
The child that wasn’t sure said, “We have to bury it.”
This, having been said, could not be unsaid.
Soon, we were all back in the classroom, one line of kids washing their hands under the supervision of a working parent, others kids helping to look through the available small shoe boxes for the perfect bird coffin. A group wanted to go back outside to collect leaves to put in the box. Everyone wanted to see the bird once it was in the box, resting quietly on a layer of last year’s dry, brown, oak leaves.
When it was time to take the coffin back outside, the children lined up again and went up the stairs, this time marching seriously and with confidence, the run out of their legs. A perfect spot was found under a bush next to the church. Everyone took turns (except the parents) digging a shallow hole using a large serving spoon borrowed from the kitchen in the church basement. When the hole was dug and the coffin placed, everyone took turns (except the parents) covering the box with dirt. The dirt lay in a mound over the box. Words were said about the bird.
“I’m sorry you’re dead.”
“You were nice, bird.”
It was now time to go to the playground and play.
After that, we came in, washed up, and had snack. After snack, we drew pictures about the dead bird, and every child dictated a small story about it. At the end of the day, we sat in a circle and Nancy shared the stories.
We never made it to see and dance in the falling, magical, pink petals of the cherry blossoms at the University of Washington that year. We had gone the year before and we would go the next year. The co-op preschool was an important part of our lives for many years. But the day of the dead bird was always the most memorable day of preschool.
At some point, as we wiped off the tables and stacked the indoor play equipment so there would be room for that night’s meeting in the church basement, Nancy confided, chuckling, “It’s called ‘emergent curriculum.’ Teaching the kids about whatever really engages them that day. It’s so…obvious.”
Just the other day in Hungary, we didn’t exactly know why we wanted to go see the Gül Baba’s tomb; we had ended up there after not being able to see the big synagogue. And I didn’t have the moment of recognition until we were headed away from it. Because the street below the tomb is crumbling and uneven and impossibly old and beautiful, and except for the woman trapped in her car, it could have been any time at all, here on this street. It could have been 1654. Except for the car.
Why had she driven up so obviously bumpy a road? Why had we walked down it?
The guy next to her, watching as she tried and failed to make the car go forward or back, said, “Én nem tudom hogy mit mondani.”
My husband turned to us and quietly translated: “I don’t know what to tell you.” She looked pretty stuck.