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?
My debut literary crime novel,”You Beneath Your Skin,” published by the fab team at Simon and Schuster IN is optioned to be a TV series by Endemol Shine.
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Beautiful piece. Evocative. Wonderful structure. I love your flash fiction pieces.
Thanks always for reading, and your support,
Thank you for sharing!!… as for writing, just let the fingers do the walking and the heart do the talking… “The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.” (Gustave Flaubert)… perhaps a bit of sadness in death but the heart does go on and knowing we will all face it as some point, the important thing is to concentrate on living the life… whenever death comes to mind, I think of the poem by Mary Frye….
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep
I am a thousand winds that blow
I am the diamonds glints in the snow
I am the sunlight on ripened grain
I am the gentle autumn rain
When you awaking in the morning hush
I am the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds in circled flight
I am the soft star that shines at night
Do not stand by my grave and cry
I am not there, I did not die
Until we meet again…
May flowers always line your path
and sunshine light your way,
May songbirds serenade your
every step along the way,
May a rainbow run beside you
in a sky that’s always blue,
And may happiness fill your heart
each day your whole life through.
Such a lovely poem, Larry! Thanks for sharing!
A Baltimore Oriole–I think–though I don’t know what it’s doing over there! I don’t believe they live much longer than a few years so maybe this was a natural death? I’ll see what the rest of the group say.
This one is a free stock picture. The one I found was a black-nape local oriole–similar to the oriole you mention.
It must be hard for you to see 🙈 it. I love all of birds and I don’t really want to see the moment like that
It was hard, but it was also a way into myself.
You asked about death and what it might mean to me. Maybe writers can (and should?) have a close link with death. The deaths of places, ideas, people, animals and the small daily deaths of plans and hopes. Maybe writers can, in a way, fight off these deaths they see around them (no matter how small or inevitable) by reflecting on them and sharing the experience. In this way they can breath new life into the event by creating possibilities that live beyond the passing. Keep writing and sharing as you do, it keeps many things alive, published or not.
Yes, in a way, all writing is a crusade against mortality. In others, it is about a search for universal resonance. Thanks for dropping by and your insightful comments.
Thank you Damyanti for this great reflection. This may be obvious, but it feels like you did pick up the bird and show her to all of us, linking her death to our lives and setting up who knows what chains of cause and effect. A bird died in Singapore. You wrote about it. A bloke in Jamaica was nudged to remember the responsibility to write for writing sake. A good, good thing.
Thanks you so much for your kind words, Huw Boyt. I appreciate them, and yes, in a way, I did pick up the bird and it is with us now.
Poignant piece Damyanti. So much to ponder in these grim times. I agree about the writing bit you mentioned. At times writing within a closeted structure binds you and it is liberating to just go with the flow.
Thanks so much for reading, and your kind words, Meha. And yes, writing needs to be free from external constraints and expectations at times.
Hi Damyanti – death of any sort is sad, but is part of our life isn’t it … sometimes too early – and now in these times often desperately. Your memories and thoughts will hold you in good stead as you continue on your writing journey. You express aspects of life so well … it’s always good to read your words. Thank you – Hilary
Thanks for your kind words, Hilary, and your support as always. Thank you for always being there.
Damyanti too many of the friends I worked with in India have passed on because of the pandemic. I feel very sad for their families and all who will suffer from this pandemic into the foreseeable future. Your story resonated with me.
So very sorry for your loss, Ian. India is burning, and the trauma will be generational.
Thanks for reading–there’s solidarity in resonance.
Thank you for sharing that beautiful piece with us. I did have the thought: Damyanti could publish this. But, you know, we do publish, when we publish on our blogs–and I don’t think it’s a lesser publication. I think you’re right that it’s oftentimes more intimate. So saddening the loss of life around the world. Unimaginable, no matter how many times we see it or hear about it. How is it that death is always fresh and new in the worst way?
“How is it that death is always fresh and new in the worst way?” So much truth to this.
I decided to publish it here because for a long while, this is where I published everything, and it helped me connect with people from across the globe. It also taught me not to be so stuck up about my work–to just keep flinging it out. That way the subconscious descends into play, and better work keeps coming from wherever it is all my work comes from. By submitting to magazines and publishers, I’ve lost touch with that white-hot-ness of writing and letting go. I feel like I need to write more, and care less about it.
Not dissing editing, nor publications. Those will continue. Just that I think I need to bring back a natural sense of ease in my writing and submission process.
Death is all around it seems Damyanti – I know you’ve been touched by it. I’m so sorry for what is happening in India, may the tide turn soon. Sooner, soonest. A little dead bird … poor little thing. Perhaps it would somehow be easier to explain to a child about the death of a bird, rather than the death of a family member or friend … I don’t know. It’s such a big thing – things ending, being born … the life cycle which includes death …
Thanks for your kind words, Susan. Death is such a deep topic, not spoken of often, but is so commonplace, so much a part of life.
Sending you hugs and here’s hoping this nightmare ends soon, for all of us.
I don’t think you can explain death to a toddler. A little older, telling them about Heaven, they might understand just a little.
I think toddlers understand things their way. We could explain it to them, using their worldview, and vocabulary.
Very beautiful, Damayanti.
Last week a bird got into my living room. As I was trying to open the window to let it out, it flew into the glass pane and fell to the ground. I gently picked it up, hoping it would come to and I could release it to the outside. Instead, I felt the life force evaporate from it’s tiny, warm body. I’ve hardly ever felt more helpless.
Ah, sorry about that Graham. Having something dying in your hands is a poignant experience. It shakes you up.
That helpless feeling is so hard to get out of. Sending hugs.
It’s been a while since I’ve walked anywhere outside. Death isn’t something I think about, though it’s so obvious nowadays. Times have been tough, at times too tough. But thinking about what I still have, my life, reassures me that I must make it worthwhile. We’ve all come here to finally go, how and when, only time will tell. Fear that which you can change. My best wishes to you and your family, and prayers for the departed.
“We’ve all come here to finally go, how and when, only time will tell.” Very well said.
So much truth here. Lovely.
What a lovely evocative piece with so much to ponder upon.
Thanks, Sonia. Writing has been hard this past year, so I’m grateful this resonated with you.