Photographic image © 2017 Stuart Gelzer
He gets this from her secondhand, the death of a bird, and what sticks with him isn't so much the bird itself as the act of mercy in that quietus.
She found it on the beach. Maybe she was alone. Maybe with someone else. The detail doesn't stick in his mind when he recounts the event, when he tries to see it through her eyes. He remembers her saying it didn't run from her, didn't fly. She picked it up. Even before she picked it up, it stopped struggling. It just waited.
She picked it up and carried it with her away from where the other birds had gathered, a signal undignified, circling, and cawing.
She carried it with her for what, half a mile? Fifteen feet? He's not sure she specified. Only, she said, it stopped struggling. It curled against her. It made no noise. It was calm as it looked at her. Then, maybe a few steps, maybe half a mile later, it closed its eyes and died in her arms so she was left holding a thing that had been bird, had been that morning, morning's minion, and now was no more.
He tells her this, how it soothes him to think of her holding a dead bird, looking to dispose of it, or not looking, just carrying it along like an avatar of—what?—of Charon? No, something simpler than that, something—
She corrects him.
You've made this too still, too pacific. You've forgotten the way the bird was struggling in the wash at the beach, how it danced like its bones had been broken, its wings broken, how much it shivered in pain.
And you've forgotten to think about the family there, on the beach, playing only a few feet away, not noticing the dance at all.
That is the death I knew. Dead already, really. Unremembered, preparatory to mud and the ridicule of gulls. Nothing to do with the brute beauty and valor of a windhover, nothing so stately and referential as Charon.
Still, there she is in his mind, transporting the body and blood of a bird away from decay, if only for a moment. If only for a moment, linking the inevitable with grace.