A girl learns a lesson about life and death.
Elena stood with her arms raised in front of me. Her little fists were loosely closed, palms down. Her red t-shirt was stained with mud, and her dark hair was falling free of her ponytail. She stood there dumbly, waiting for me to offer my own hands in response.
"What do you have, Elena?" I asked, in as motherly a tone as I could manage. She was not my daughter--I was hardly fit to be a mother at all--but the little girl was in my charge.
Elena's lips parted into a grin, but she didn't speak.
"What is it?" I asked again. "I won't take it until you tell me what it it is."
Elana hesitated, the sounds of laughter on the swing set enticing her. She was only four years old, and with a four-year-old's impatience, she was unable to maintain her secret for very long.
"It's a present for you," she said, her grin widening to reveal all of her tiny teeth.
"Let's see it," I said, still refusing her my hands.
With a great sigh, her chest caved in, her eyes rolled back, and she slumped in defeat. She turned over her palms and, one by one, opened the fingers of her left hand. She revealed her first gift. It was a tarnished penny, the kind that only hints at the outline of a top hat or a beard. As filthy as it was, I took it from her, sticky and sweaty, and put it down on the bench beside me.
"What's the other one?" I asked.
"It's a present for Mommy," she smiled. She turned away from me, peering into her hand to look at it in secret. Something in the way she stood, with her shoulders hugging the base of her skull, echoed the wrongs she was harboring. A fear grew in my stomach, like the onset of a poison, of what she was hiding.
"What if your mommy doesn't like it?" I said. "You should let me look at it."
I stood to see what she was hiding, but she clapped her free hand over the little thing. From what I could tell, it was not a penny. It was alive.
"Let me see it, Elena," I said, more forcefully. She turned from me once more, and I grabbed her arm. I pulled it with more violence than I had intended, and she screamed. Her dirty hand sprang open. The little creature fell limply to the grass. I leaned close to the tiny, beating thing. It was naked and pink, with bulging eyes and a protruding beak.
"Where did you get this?" I asked her, not letting go of her wriggling arm.
"You're hurting me," she whined.
"I am not. Where did you get this?"
She shrugged her shoulders and pulled away with all of her weight.
"I won't let you go until you tell me. Where did you find it?"
She sniffed at a partially risen tear, and pointed toward the bushes that bordered the far edge of the park. I let her go.
"Elena, you can't take a baby bird out of its nest. It's mother won't recognize it anymore after you touch it. It will die.'
Her mouth dropped open in horror. She immediately slumped to the ground, tears falling freely.
"I just wanted to bring it for Mommy," she cried. "I didn't mean to kill it. I just wanted her to see it."