The Sparrow’s Ghost
By Eric Kovach
The ghost of a sparrow flitted through one wall and out the other…
I waited, eyes closed, far too long, for more to come through. I don’t know why I was expecting more of them. I have never seen a flock of sparrows, only the cute little individual ones pecking for crumbs near the cafe tables, or hobbling on mangled feet on the streets of the city. Then suddenly I remembered this one.
It was the one who slammed into our picture window when I was six. It was the one who introduced me to death. It was a much gentler introduction to the cruelties of life than some have had.
Shocked by the violence of the sound of its beak slamming into the glass and its instantaneous fall to the ground, I stood staring at it, through the window. Then I saw our neighbor’s cat creeping toward it under our privet bushes. I quickly ran outside to scare the cat away, but it only turned sideways toward me, arched its back, and hissed. I picked up the newspaper from the porch and threw it at the cat, which finally ran away, but not before turning and staring at me with obvious malice, and hissed one last time.
I scooped up the bird in my hands. It was the first dead body I ever touched. I didn’t want it to be dead. I held it in my hand and shook it gently. I tried to toss it into the air so it would fly away, but it just landed back in my palm, limp, cold. I knew it was dead because of its eyes. You know how in cartoons, when someone is dead, they have Xs for eyes? That’s how the little sparrow looked. It’s eyes were Xs. But even though I knew it was dead, I didn’t yet know what dead meant.
My mom ran out and told me to drop it. That it was dirty. But I ran away from her. I ran, with the little thing in my hand, down the block to the edge of the cemetery at the bottom of the hill, and hid behind the rotting, moss covered wall between two wild blueberry bushes. As frogs and crickets croaked and chittered from the marshy forest on opposite the cemetery, I held the poor lifeless bird in my palms, staring at it, willing it to move. I stroked its tiny feet, which felt rough on my finger. I pulled one wing open and marveled at the way its feathers spread open so evenly.
The second dead body I saw in my life was that of my mother. They did not tell me what they meant, my aunts, when they asked if I was ready? They did not tell me they were asking if I was ready to see my mother’s body, lying in a casket, looking like a sleeping stranger. So when I walked into the viewing room in the funeral home and saw her, the first woman in my life, the one who gave me life, I nearly ran out again. I nearly ran out because I had turned my back on her when I was 9 years old. I blamed her for destroying our family. I blamed her for all my childhood unhappiness. Now that I knew I was wrong, it was too late to make peace with her. I nearly ran out in shame.
As the damp ground soaked into the seat of my pants, the dead sparrow weighing heavy in my hand, I cried, barely knowing why. I sensed the loss of a soul, I think. Through my tears, I saw the ghost of that sparrow alight on a headstone. It was strange to see how alive it seemed. It looked at me, tilting its head from side to side. It called me to it with nothing more than its presence. I went to the headstone, with its body in my hand, and the ghost did not fly away. i looked into its eyes forever and it looked at me forever, a seemingly endless, wordless conversation. It told me everything I needed to know, but would never remember, until my last day.
At last the sparrow’s ghost lowered its head and pecked at the top of the headstone. I placed its body on the top of the headstone, smoothing its wings tenderly. I lowered my head in my six-year-old attempt at reverence. When I looked up, the sparrow’s ghost and its body were gone and I could see the name on the headstone. It was my mother’s name.
The ritual smoke stung my nostrils and brought me back to consciousness, momentarily. My breathing echoed in the dusty air of the lobby of the abandoned shopping mall. I tried to open my eyes, but they were too swollen shut, by age, by tears, by dust, by sadness. I felt a cold cloth placed on my forehead as the shaman muttered some words of comfort.
The ghost of a sparrow flitted through one wall, and turned toward me. It landed in my open palm. And as I breathed my last few breaths in this life it reminded me what it had told me when I was six. It reminded me what I had forgotten for so many years. It showed me my mother’s face the first time she set eyes on me. It showed me all the times she thought of me during those years when I did not call her. It showed me her final thought. Yes, my mother did love me.
© 2013 Eric Kovach