Birds get better with age, I hear.
I didn't give her a name at first. She was an extra. An overly colourful jacket running around the park on the weekend while I ate my lunch. Just a speck of neon blue lumped together with the rest of the unfashionable garments that slid, swung, and scrapped around the grounds, leaving me to question what clown of a costume consultant was responsible for the chaotic mass of clashing colours on that playground's stage.
I ate lunch at a half-heartedly paint-flecked wooden table with an unreasonably large set of tooth marks carved out of the surface. As I sat, I read this book or that and then, after regaining my sense of time, dusted myself off and packed up for a hasty return to work. During the week, the kids were in school, but in summer and on the weekend, they tore up the park without much supervision and made a real catastrophe out of everything they did. I endured their formless noise every rainless summer day and weekend for a year before she earned a name.
Little Miss Bird. She was always running around the playground with a feathery friend in her hands. Dead, of course. No child could catch a bird alive. It was July. Sunny. A stillness rippled through the playground as kids here and there stopped and pointed. The sudden quiet pulled my attention over the ridge of my book, and the pointing fingers from the slides and swings directed my curious eyes right at Miss Bird, running up to me excitedly. She wore an unshakeable smile and told me all about her bird, scattering my thoughts everywhere but my lunch and reading.
"Hey mister! You're here a lot!" She was smiling pretty wide as she sat down on the other side of the table. Bits of feather stuck out through the cracks between the fingers of her firmly sealed hands.
When I think about it now, I should have walked away. When has a dead bird ever been a good omen? When I was young, dead birds meant something was funny with the electric wires running pole to pole and we had to call someone to fix it up. They meant a mine shaft was full of toxic gas. They meant that a cat had gone a little too far with its game. I should have known what that dead bird meant, clenched tight in the fingers of the young Miss Bird: trouble.
"My mom makes them better," She assured me when I asked what on Earth a little girl is doing carrying a dead bird around. I smiled at the idea of a girl's mother sparing her child's innocence by pretending to heal dead animals. I should not have smiled, because that is as much what she meant as when a politician says he is going to make taxes better. Oh, he means it. He just doesn't mean what you wish he meant.
One overcast day, Miss Bird came and sat next to me and showed me her bird again. A little different, this one. "This one's all better," She said. Why it didn't click in my mind right there and then is a wonder. At the time, I was too overcome by curiosity. How was it that she thought a dead bird could be better? Kids have the strangest ways to think about things, and it's always been a bit of a fascination. When is dead 'better'? I ought to have been in a career that got me talking with kids more often. I might have guessed.
She asked me if I wanted to see her mom make it better. I declined the first day. Had to get back to work, you know. No time for childish games. But the next week she had a different bird again. "All better!"
My curiosity was starting to boil up, so I told the office I'd be taking a late lunch Sunday and they grumbled back enough lenience to let me follow Miss Bird's cheerful lead to her mother.
Mother Bird was not very talkative. Not very warm. Very still. See, Mother Bird was Janet Rightson, 1963-2009, may she rest in peace, and Little Miss Bird was happily leading me through rows of headstones and epitaphs to her grave, where all the sinister magic took place.
My uneasy questions were met with smiles and giggles. "Don't worry, she'll really like you," she said to ease what she thought was the worry behind my uneasy glances. My thoughts, however, were far from worrying about making a good impression on this woman. What must this look like, I wondered anxiously, a 34-year-old man being led through a graveyard by a little girl? But no one was around, and if they were I could have made some excuse about visiting the deceased with my niece. And, I continued reassuring myself, at this rate, I would be doing the girl a favour reporting any unsavoury behaviour to her caregivers. What kind of kid navigates a graveyard with a smile?
"Hi mom," she smiled, "I brought a friend today!" She waited for me to introduce myself to the stone's inscription. "He wanted to see you make my bird better. So! Please make my little bird better!" She then placed the lifeless, brown, speckle feathered husk in front of the grave, clapped her hands twice, and seemed to say a little prayer.
After that, she said we could just check up on the bird next weekend and it should be all better. She cheerfully waved me off and left me to return to the office. I spent the remainder of the day thinking how rough some kids have it.