On my morning walk today, making my sweaty way round and round a shaded children’s playground, the morning sun not yet high enough to peek up from behind the large Yellow Flame tree, I spotted a black-and-yellow bird.
It lay upside down, about the size of my palm, stiffened up on the spiky, overgrown grass, its tiny feet curling up over an invisible branch one last time. Around it, dried leaves, withered flowers of Yellow Flame. My first, unthinking response was to pick up the phone and frame a picture.
Noticing little things. That’s what my walks on clammy, hot, tropical mornings have been about for the past year that I’ve taken to strolling on roads– ever since gyms turned off-limits for the first time. I’ve recorded these ‘moments’ on my social media posts, engaging in some sort of collective commiseration, finding refuge in ‘being present,’ the new panacea and nemesis of our times. What if yours is a present you do not want to be present in? Gyms are back to being off-limits once again in Singapore after exactly one year, but I digress.
The bird had made me pause in my manic steps on the tiny, deserted playground with its tagged-up notice of safety measures, its multi-hued metal horses, its wonky swings, its bouncy, non-slip rubber flooring in once-bright colors. I go there so I can take off the mandatory mask for a while and breathe easy.
Once I’d realized I didn’t want a picture of the bird after all, I strode on, unable to stop and not able to leave the playground. I kept my gaze on the rubber floor where my feet sank sometimes on the cracked surface, but never into the grass. Too many obituaries, tributes and condolences on the timelines of my friends and families back in India. My own timeline has not been immune. I don’t need more. No one does.
Part of me wanted to pick up the bird, feel the downy yellow feathers on its stomach beneath my fingers, turn it over and check out its black wings. It had not been there long, because nothing had touched it yet. No ants or beetles or cats. I’d be the first.
Unsettled by the thought, I set out again, circling, circling, my feet near-stomping on the rubber, reassuring myself that my knees might hurt a little when I panted through my squats or stair-climbers, but that wasn’t anything to worry about. Walking didn’t hurt. Yet.
The ants and worms and beetles and flies would soon arrive, and if the bird were left undisturbed, in a few weeks, a tiny mound of crumbly dust, and then nothing. Just grass, maybe a little denser at that spot.
Sweat-soaked and dehydrated, I looked up to find the sun ready to hit the playground, making it unpleasant to walk in. The arms of the Yellow Flame tree stretched wide, but not enough to keep the playground shaded for much longer. In the air, birdsong. Singaporeans treasure their songbirds. The caged birds in the neighborhood of the playground clamored as the house help filled up the feeders.
On my way back crushing brown leaves under my shoes, and possibly, along with them dozens of ants and other tiny, near-invisible things, I wished I’d taken a snapshot of the bird. Not for my social media, but to preserve, to become familiar with, as a reminder of the every-day-ness of it.
The bird? Sad, but not devastating. Had it been a bird I’d reared by hand, things would have felt different. More different still, a human, even a stranger. A relative. A friend. Best friend. Spouse. Parent. Child. Myself. At all corners at all times–to a bird laying beside a colorful playground in hyper-sanitized Singapore, and on schoolyards in Delhi with burning pyres seen on millions of screens across the world–in essence, it is the same. The same stench of loss, the same bleak embrace of grief—the difference only in degrees, the measure of absence felt in proportion to erstwhile presence.
Should I have picked up that bird? I paused, ready to turn back, picturing myself talking to toddlers if they’d found it. I’d let them touch that bird clinging to air laying yellow-breasted on the grass. I’d touch it, and tell them that yellow-and-black bird is me, and you, and all of us, and that’s all right. That’s okay.
I wrote this in about an hour, using prompts from the wonderful Kathy Fish’s flash-memoir workshop I took this weekend. I usually submit my work to magazines, but lately, I’ve wondered if I’m not getting too precious about my writing. Why not share it here instead, with you all, who have been with me through a decade and more?
Publication is quite all right, but all I want in this dark time in my life is to connect, and be myself. And ever since 2008, you guys have let me be just that.
What have you been up to, lately? Have you ever walked in a children’s playground? What has death come to mean to you? How would you explain death to a toddler?
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