— Christine Taylor

It’s early morning, and although the sun has risen, the house is still dark. The ironed cotton sheets on the bed are barely disturbed. The tile floor feels cold and damp underfoot. You raise the blinds in the kitchen window. The patchwork of clouds in the sky casts shadows over the morning. All you hear is the ticking of the old wall clock. The room remains as it was the night before: a single plate and fork in the sink, the other half of dinner settling in the pan on the stove. A housefly lands on the edge of the pan. You think of calling, but you can’t take another excuse, or even worse, the unanswered ringing.

Yesterday’s coffee sits in the pot, heavy and black. A few sticky drops stain the counter. You empty the pot, watch the day-old coffee swirl down the drain, clean the machine. You scoop out enough grains for a cup, then scoop out enough for a full pot. A few stray grains bounce on the granite. You take a mug out of the cabinet, one of the hand-painted pair that you picked up at a gift shop during vacation this past summer. The aroma of fresh brew fills the room. But when the sputtering and hissing stops, steam rising, you just stare at the pot.

Instead you go outside.

Sunlight breaks through the clouds and adds dimension to the morning. In the backyard, spring flowers have come into full bloom: daffodils stretch their golden heads, azaleas blush. Frogs burp and blare from a nearby stream. You walk across the stone patio and onto the grass, kick off your slippers, and sink each foot into the verdant carpet. The new blades are cool and sharp. Rustling in the bushes hints at the frolicking of garden critters, and then your tabby cat bursts from a bush and scampers behind a tree. You stroll around the yard and wonder what it would be like to not return to this place. Would you miss it?

Over the fence, the neighbor’s dog barks, and shortly after, voices follow. You slink behind the tree. The wood bark is rough against your fingertips and pebbles dig into your toes. When the clamor stops, you come out of hiding and resume your pacing.

There in the grass is a fallen bird. It doesn’t appear to be alive, but a closer look reveals the rise and fall of its pulsing heart. The bird is small, a sparrow or a finch of some sort. You gently cup the bird in your palms—it doesn’t resist. You look up into the tree and see a broken nest, twigs jutting from the homely circle. Carrying the bird, you sit on a squat stone bench. You examine the life in your hands: the frail feathers, the thin legs, the loose neck. A drop of blood the size of a pin-head beads at the base of one nostril. The eyes are the darkness of a story.

Only now do you wonder whether or not, through it all, the bird is in pain. You try not to move—you don’t want to be the cause of any more of its suffering. You should get help, but the bird’s shallow breathing tells you that it’s too late for saving. Not wanting to prolong its misery, you think of euthanizing the bird, snapping the already fragile neck or blocking its airway with your thumb. But you hesitate, not knowing if you can take its life, and when its breathing becomes quicker, quicker, the chest heaving, you know you’re not in control. All you can do is hold it and look into its eyes. The bird opens its beak wide and takes its last breath. A valiant exchange of life for death.

You sit with the bird in your hands for a while, stroking its little wing with your finger. From the house you take a monogrammed handkerchief, from the shed a spade. You dig a small hole at the base of the tree and lay the bird inside. You cover the grave and firmly pack the dirt. You snip a violet from the garden and lay it on top of the mound, the deep purple petals hug the earth.

Wiping the dirt on your pants, you walk to the gate. You look down the road and decide not to wait. You shut the gate behind you, careful to close the latch. The road welcomes you.

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