Somebody clutched the sleeve of my coat and pulled down.
- Yes? – I said briskly, rudely awakened as if to an interrogation. But no, it was all right. This was only Jeremy.
- Daddy, where do birds die?
“Oh for God’s sake, Jeremy!” – I thought, examining my son’s face which radiated that silly thoughtfulness children can pull off so easily. Where did he get that one from?.. However, I knew from experience as well as from Joan’s words that there was no point in being annoyed. Instead, I tried to concentrate: “Daddy, where do birds die?” Well, come to think of it, that was a perfectly legitimate question for a 5-year old. And besides, it could have been so much worse. I closed my eyes for a second and tried to imagine just how much worse it could get. Poisonous insects? Joan’s tears? Something scatological?..
I looked into my son’s puzzled stare – as if trying to find the answer in the expression of his eyes.
To my shame, I was dumbfounded. Birds… Could be anything, really, it’s not as if you had these specially designated places, like ornithological morgues or owl cemeteries. For the moment I couldn’t think of anything. Which was no good, since Jeremy looked up to me and expected a clear-cut answer. Something he could impress his friends with. Obviously I couldn’t mumble – I had to be articulate.
- Well, Jeremy, why do you ask?
This was a lame trick no doubt, but at the moment it was the best one I had.
- There are just so many of them, but you never see them lying in the streets... Only sometimes. If there's a nasty driver. And also, Benjamin said today that birds don’t die at all, but that can’t be true – can it? Billy said Benjamin was telling a lie.
Benjamin. Who was this Benjamin anyway? It wasn’t the first time I heard of him, and it seemed like I badly wanted to see this guy. Why was William called ‘Billy’, but Benjamin was never shortened to ‘Ben’ and always stayed ‘Benjamin’? Who was this precocious genius going around frustrating and misinforming other kids? A month or two ago this Benjamin told Jeremy that his parents screamed every night. In their bedroom. Thank God it was Joan who had to explain that one. She told me later that Jeremy kept asking why we weren’t screaming at night. “Yeah, – I said. – Why not?” Joan didn’t take that lightly.
- Okay, Jeremy, – I said. – It’s actually rather simple.
What was simple? As far as I was concerned, there was nothing remotely simple about that. Looking around, spotting random birds, I was desperately trying to have my ludicrous, improvised brain storm: birds turn invisible when they get too old, birds drown in rivers and lakes, birds die in trees, birds fly into the sun, birds don’t die at all. I had to admit that that last one sounded good, and I would have gladly used it had Benjamin not taken it already.
But then again: I became aware of Jeremy’s minute but strangely imposing presence, and felt the grip on my arm tighten even more. Where could he get that much strength?..
- Simple, Jeremy.
But then Joan’s words came back to me, and I suddenly remembered. She said – no, she didn’t say – she insisted that it had to be done this week. And it didn’t take a news report or a mobile phone to tell me this was already Sunday. Well then: I had to do it today.
The words wouldn’t come, though. This time it wasn’t even about what to say – this time it was about how to say it. “Jeremy, Joan and I…” – my mouth so dry, my tongue so thick, these weren’t even my words. These were still my thoughts.
- Or do they just fly away? – suddenly asked Jeremy. – Do they, daddy?
- Yes! – I said, and was almost knocked off my feet with relief. – That’s it, Jeremy! You’re right. Birds… They just fly away. They do. They just…
I kept repeating that, again and again, but I don’t know how much Jeremy could hear or, indeed, understand. I tried, though, I really did. But it just seemed as if my words got drowned out, muffled by the feathery little bodies whooshing past the two of us at an enormous speed.