The secret suicide of questions

On my tenth birthday I shot a sparrow that sat in a tree. I don’t know why. My father had promised that I could use his old air gun when I turned ten, and once I started shooting at things, it sort of just happened. The bird dropped from the branch and hit the lawn with a dull little thud. My father came from the house and looked at it.

“Come here,” he said.

He took the gun from me and knelt by the bird on the lawn.

“Come and hold it,” he told me.

I didn’t want to. The little bird was still breathing and there was a smear of blood on its chest where the pellet had penetrated.

“How can you shoot this bird and then refuse to touch it?” my father asked.

He carefully picked up the bird and held it out in his hand.

“Have some respect,” he said. “Killing is intimate. It’s not something you can just walk away from.”

I bit back tears and nodded.

“If you’re going to kill,” he said softly, seeing how I felt, “you need to know what it is to die.”

Even though I was just ten that day, I can still remember his exact words.

“What do you mean,” I asked, “know what it is to die?”

“Sit right here,” he said as he handed me the bird. “Stay with this bird until it’s dead. Stay with it until a part of you has died with it.”

Then he left me there and was gone for a long time.

I sat on the lawn, holding the sparrow, while the shadow of the tree it had fallen from edged across the yard. The little bird died slowly. It shuddered every few seconds, clenched its claws and stretched its little neck as though it was reaching for something. And then it stopped. Whatever magic it was that moved it simply slipped away. How could I know what it was to die? I had just seen it and yet I had no idea what it was like.

“Is it dead?” my father asked when he returned from the house.

He sat down on the lawn next to me and hugged his knees.

“I want you to think about something,” he said after a while, and cleared his throat. “This sparrow had a father.”

“I’m sorry—” I began.

“Maybe it’s also dead,” my father went on, ignoring me, “but once there must have been such a bird. And that bird had a father too, and so on, all the way back.”

With his words he showed me a long line of birds, strung between the spikes of known events, like a makeshift fence.

“On your birthday,” he said, “today, ten years ago, one of these father birds was alive. When I was born, another one was alive. This older one would have a son, and that son would have a son and so on, all the way to the sparrow alive at your birth, and then to this one you’re holding now—the one you’ve killed.”

I felt like crying but my father kept talking.

“And you,” he said, “you have a father too—me—and I had one, and so did he, and so on and on.”

As he did for the bird, he drew a long line in time.

“On this day, ten thousand years ago, one of these men was alive. On this day, ten million years ago, some male thing was alive in Africa who would be our grandfather somehow.”

I placed the sparrow on the grass between us.

“Were there dates back then?” I asked.

My father said something about calendars while he stroked the feathers of the little bird. Then he resumed.

“Here’s the thing that amazes me every time I think about it,” he said. “Are you ready?”

I nodded.

“Imagine flipping through pictures of you, me, my father, his father, and so on, one by one, men who look stranger and stranger as you go back in time, until they’re no longer human, until they’re no longer even mammals. Can you imagine that?”

I tried to imagine how brutish my ten-thousandth grandfather must have been.

“Now imagine,” my father said, “doing the same with this bird. First it’s just one bird after the other, and then they begin to change, until they become some sort of reptile, and so on.”

“I can see that,” I said, even though I couldn’t quite see the birds becoming brutish.

My father turned so he could look at me.

“Somewhere, as you do this, you’ll be looking at the same picture.”

At first I didn’t know what he meant.

“Somewhere,” he said, “around three hundred and twenty millions years ago, there lived a male animal who was the grandfather of both you and this bird. This animal had two sons. They must have been fairly similar, and yet something came between them—a mountain range or a spell of rain, who knows—and because of that the one son became you, and the other son became this sparrow.”

My father looked at nothing in particular while I thought this over.

“Isn’t that something?” he said at length.

The giant circle he’d drawn in time seemed unthinkable. It started out from two brothers hundreds of millions of years ago and came together with me killing my distant cousin today. And yet, I knew, it had to be so.

“But what separated them?” I asked. “It must have been important.”

“It doesn’t matter,” my father said. “Something did. The right question to ask is what separated you now.”

I glanced at the little bird.

“And when you ask the right question,” my father went on, “you don’t need to know the answer.”

He gently picked up the little bird and handed it to me.

“Do the right thing,” he said.

When he’d gone, I buried the sparrow in a flowerbed. I had held it to the end, like my father had asked me to do, but I still didn’t know what it was to die. Hiding the little bird in the ground left me feeling incomplete, as though I’d buried a part of myself with it, but I didn’t know what that part was. In the late spring, daisies flowered where the sparrow was buried. I hoped that they would somehow look different, that they would release the sparrow and make me whole again, but they didn’t. Many years later, the tree in which the little bird had sat was long gone and a pavement covered the place where the flowerbed had been. My father was dying of cancer and we sat together on the patio at the back of the house. I reminded him of his words that day.

“Did I say that?” he wondered.

He swallowed with difficulty and stared into the garden.

“I was younger that day than you are now,” he remarked. “I can’t remember what I said.”

“I can.”

“I don’t know what part I meant,” he replied and smiled wryly at his play on words.

He fumbled with the corner of the blanket my mother had put over him.

“Maybe that’s what it is to die,” he said once I’d helped him. “We die a bit every day. It’s how we live. Why shouldn’t we die that way?”

We sat together in silence until he fell asleep. My father had been right all along, I thought. Answers knew nothing about the secret suicide of questions.

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What you can do with a hundred million dollars

When I was a teenager and so covered in pimples that I knew everything, I argued with my mother about money.

“One day,” I announced, “I’m going to be rich.”

“What does that mean?” she asked.

“What do you mean, what does that mean?”

“What’s rich?” she asked.

“I’m going to have a hundred million dollars,” I declared.

“What can you do with a hundred million dollars?”

“What’s going on?” I asked. “What do you mean, what can I do? One hundred million dollars!”

My mother lit a cigarette and wrote something on the back of an envelope.

“Here,” she said.

She’d written $100,000,000.

“What’s this?” I asked and tossed the envelope onto the table.

“It’s a hundred million dollars,” she said.

“It’s not,” I sneered. “It’s a stupid envelope with a number on it.”

“Well,” my mother said as she sat down at the table, “if you had a hundred million dollars in the bank, it would look just like that. A stupid number on a piece of paper, or a screen.”

“I know—” I began.

“Just having that money is what’s stupid,” she went on. “If you don’t use it, you might as well not have it.”

It began to feel as though my mother was going to talk me out of my hundred million dollars.

“I know—” I said again.

“Why do you want it?” she added.

“So I can buy stuff.”

“Ah,” she mused, “stuff. What kind of stuff? Things, or experience?”


“A car is a thing,” my mother said, “just like money is a thing. A drive is an experience. What do you want?”

“I want my own car,” I said.

“To look at, or to drive?”

“To drive,” I conceded.

“See,” my mother said, “you don’t really want a car, just like you don’t really want a hundred million dollars. You want what you can do with those things, not the things themselves.”

“Somehow you’ve done away with the hundred million dollars,” I complained. “I don’t like that. I want a hundred million dollars.”

She got up and came around to my side of the table.

“You already have a hundred million dollars,” she said calmly.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes,” she said. “You just don’t know it. Would you like to see what I mean?”

“Can we just talk about being rich?” I groaned.

“Close your eyes,” my mother said.


“Just do it.”

I closed my eyes reluctantly. I could hear her move away from the table and open a drawer a little way off. Then she returned.

“Keep them shut,” she instructed.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m blindfolding you.”

She wrapped a strip of dark cloth around my head and secured it in place with something else. I couldn’t see anything.

“There,” my mother said when she’d finished. “Now you’re blind.”


“And here’s a hundred million dollars.”

She retrieved the envelope from the table and placed it in my hand.

“You’ve been struck blind,” she said, “in exchange for a hundred million dollars.”

“It’s just an envelope,” I said.

“Imagine, OK?”

She moved away and lit a cigarette. The flick of her lighter sounded metallic now that I could only hear it.

“What now?” I asked.

“Now we wait,” she said.

“What for?”

But she didn’t answer me.

“Where are you going?” I wanted to know as she began to walk away.

“I’m going downstairs to work,” she said. “You don’t have to. You’re rich, remember?”

When she’d gone I sat at the table and tried to imagine that I’d closed my eyes on purpose because I was concentrating on a problem. My father had once pointed at the clock on the wall when it was exactly noon and asked me what the time would be when next the hour and minute hand were on top of one another. I thought about this until I got to the point where I knew I had to divide twelve by eleven, but I wanted to make a drawing to see exactly why. After a few minutes I tried to move about but it felt as though unseen spikes would pierce my eyes. I kept going toward the stairs, but I couldn’t do so without covering my blindfolded eyes with one hand, leaving me only one hand to feel around with. I found my way back to the table and sat down again. Even though I’d known this kitchen my entire life, it was now a place of strange sounds and narrow spaces. There were red-breasted weavers in the tree outside the window. I listened to their chirping and tried to imagine that I could see out the window, right through the blindfold, but it was hard and I couldn’t keep an image in focus for more than a fleeting moment. I wondered what the colour red sounded like. I could hear the traffic in the street behind our house, and a dog barking for a moment, far away. To sit at this table without the blindfold is to be a part of these things, but blindness had crystalised me as something separate. I desperately wanted the blindfold off, but that would’ve given in to my mother, and so I just waited.

“Being rich isn’t so great, is it?” she said when she returned. “Even for twenty minutes.”

It had felt like an hour.

“Would you like to see again?” she asked.

I mumbled that I’d like to. She carefully took off the blindfold and for a few moments I blinked in the dazzling light.

“The hundred million dollars,” she said and held out her hand.

I gave her the envelope.

“By tonight—” she remarked as she lit a cigarette, “or tomorrow—you’d have happily paid a hundred million dollars just to see again. A hundred million dollars just to have what you’ve had all along.”

I felt shallow and ungrateful and so I said nothing.

“And?” my mother asked after a few moments.

“I see,” I said.

She smiled to herself.

That’s what you can do with a hundred million dollars.”

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A wall across time

You can’t sit by the river of time, my father used to say. He always said this casually, as though he was merely pointing out that it could not be done, whenever he found me staring into space instead of doing my homework or something else he considered useful. When I didn’t react, he got more animated.

“Things won’t just fall into your lap from the sky,” he’d say in exasperation, pointing at the sky. To impress on me what he meant, he’d add, as a kind of visual emphasis, “like wet sacks of shit.”

What these things were that would not befall me like wet sacks of shit was never specified. My father made no sense when he was exasperated, and he was exasperated often. I stared into space a lot, sitting by the river of time, as he put it.

“When are you planning to wake up?” he interrupted my reverie one Saturday morning when we were building a terrace wall at our beach house.

He’d insisted that I help him, but I didn’t feel like it and was staring into space.

“You know,” he said as he leaned on his spade, “rounded to the nearest decade?”

“I’m awake,” I mumbled.

He shook his head, wiped his brow with the back of his gardening glove and adjusted his glasses.

“You wouldn’t look awake if I put a thousand Volts through you,” he remarked.

“I’m awake when I do my own things,” I retorted.

“What did that teacher say?” my father asked. “The one who looks like a Hampshire pig?”


“That’s the one.”

I swallowed. Mr Killian was a near-spherical psycho who had taken a particular dislike in me.

“He said all I had to do was keel over and stink.”

My father wiped his brow again and smiled to himself.

“Wouldn’t you like to look at this wall one day,” he asked, changing the topic, “and know that you helped your father build it?”

“I guess,” I said and looked at the wall. “But you make me hold things and it’s boring.”

“I make you hold things,” my father replied, “so you won’t run away.”

He had a point. I once drifted off and left him crawling around inside the roof where he tapped various metal pipes for hours, hoping to hear me call out from the scullery that he’d found the one containing its electric wiring.

While it was natural for my father to think me lazy, it was rather that I wanted to be someone else, elsewhere, elsewhen. I imagined myself as a minor messiah, speaking in parables and understanding animals. I daydreamed of being picked up by passing aliens. Most of all, I wished to travel back in time to hurt Mr Killian when he was a boy. As I dreamed of all this, I talked to myself and had vigorous disagreements with invisible people. I never knew what I was actually supposed to be doing. Maybe I was a little lazy too. Nonetheless, my father’s warning against inaction had the opposite effect to what he’d intended. It sounded to me as though I could indeed sit by the river of time but that it was forbidden to do so. This added an extra dimension of pleasure to staring into space and doing nothing—it wasn’t merely wasteful; it was illegal.

“Why do you look so fucking smug?” my father once asked after he’d delivered what felt like an hour-long speech about the nature of fulfillment and how little of it I would attain if I continued down the road to indolence. “Work is a form of love,” he went on. “Things won’t just fall into your lap from the sky—”

“Yeah, I know,” I dismissed him, “like wet sacks of shit.”

But, of course, he was right. All I’d seen of the river of time were the waterfalls and rapids that are childhood and puberty. I didn’t yet know how helplessly adrift I actually was, dragged along in the stream, one second every second, one day per day. Then, as the years went by, the river left the mountains and things slowed down. The days became more alike. People came and went. I realised that work had better be a form of love, like my father had said, because I seemed to be doing little else. My investment in daydreaming also paid off. Things began to fall into my lap like wet sacks of shit. At last I understood what my father had meant all those years before—the sort of things that fell into your lap were not the sort of things you really wanted. They were OK, as things went, but they were not the greatness you had dreamt of.

Now, years later still, the river is nearing the sea. My father is long gone and his grandson stands before me, the very embodiment of absence. JD is ten. He looks like my father but he acts like me. We’re at the beach house where my father built a terrace wall one Saturday morning so many years ago. JD and I have come outside so that I can interrogate him.

“What the hell were you thinking?” I ask.

JD stares into the distance and tries to stand on one foot.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” I say in an effort to control myself.

He looks at me and furrows his brow to concentrate.

“And?” I ask.


“What were you thinking!?”

“It was a light saber,” he says and does a Darth Vader sound.

“It was a neon tube,” I correct him with strangled restraint. “You know, the sort that breaks.”

“Well,” he mumbles and looks past me again, “it felt like a light saber.”

“You didn’t think,” I say, “that’s what. When are you planning to start?”

“Start what?”

“Thinking, dammit!”

“I think!” JD shouts. “I think about all the things I’m going to put in my movie.”

Ever since he was six he has claimed to be the world’s best director, frustrated in his calling by his nagging family and the silly requirements of school.

“Your movie won’t get made if you don’t start thinking about other things too.”

He looks past me and it’s clear that he’s elsewhere already. With a pang I see myself, as my father must have, standing in the same spot JD now does.

“Can I go?” JD asks and scratches his knee.

As he walks back to the house, I look again at the wall. It has stood here for most of my life, day in and day out, while a giant fig tree has grown to overshadow it. I’d give anything now to have my childhood wish come true and travel back in time, not to hurt Mr Killian, but to help my father one Saturday when I’m fourteen and wanted to be elsewhere. When we take a break from our work, I’ll walk back to the house, like my son now does, and have a cool drink on the patio while my father smokes a cigarette. My mother will come to argue with my father about her plan for the wall, but I’ll carry on working without him. At sunset we’ll go outside to look at our wall together. My mother will be there and she’ll tell us how this is still wrong, and that, and my father will say that I mustn’t mind her and that he’s glad we did this today.

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The balance of things

My father always insisted that there was no such thing as justice. There was only balance. According to him, everything was in precise balance, locked into some larger, often invisible pattern. Each thing—each tile in the pattern—fit precisely with everything the pattern demanded of it. That was how it got to be there in the first place.

I remember an argument between my father and a dinner guest when I was a kid. We were allowed to stay up late when there were guests, as long as we kept quiet.

The argument was between my father and the husband of one of his colleagues. The man was a lawyer but kept using a pseudo-scientific vocabulary to make his points. Then he held forth on the state of the world, on how humans had messed everything up.

“Only two percent of people work the land these days,” the man said, swirling his wine, “while ninety-eight percent of us actually should. It’s not right. There’s no balance in that.”

“What do you mean, no balance?” my father asked.

“The numbers aren’t balanced—two percent rural, ninety-eight urban.”

“But that’s exactly right,” my father said.

“Only two percent?”

My father got up and fetched an empty wine glass from the table. He held it out at arm’s length.

“Is this glass in balance?” he asked.

The man looked puzzled.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“Yes or no?” my father insisted. “You know, like you’d ask in court.”


“Watch carefully,” my father said and dropped the glass.

There was complete silence in our living room. My father ignored the pieces of glass on the floor.

“Was that in balance?” he asked.

“No,” the man stammered, “of course not. What are you doing?”

My father started to collect the larger pieces off the floor.

“I’m showing you what balance is,” he said. “The glass was in perfect balance when I held it, weighing down on my hand exactly as much as I was pushing it up.”

He straightened and took a brush and scoop my mother held out for him.

“Then,” he continued, “as it fell, it was balanced exactly with the demands of gravity.”

“So—?” the man said.

“So,” my father went on, “the fact that only two percent of people work the land is in exact balance with the desire to live in the cities. The moment food becomes scarce enough, or cities too crowded, fewer will do so.”

“That doesn’t make it right,” the man insisted.

“To you and me it wasn’t right that the glass fell either, but the glass did the only right thing there was, the only balanced thing.”

The man laughed uncertainly. He wasn’t in his own house and couldn’t start dropping glasses to make his point. To better my father he’d have to kick in a window, at least, and so he was stuck.

“You’re unbalanced,” he said.

Many years later, when my father and I took what was to be our last walk together, he mentioned balance again. We walked along the beach and talked about his illness, about the nature of time and the meaning of our lives. When he got tired we sat down to watch the waves smear themselves into the sand. There was a half-buried piece of plastic that moved with the water.

“It pleases me to know,” my father said, “that this piece of plastic is here as the result of an infinity of other things working together—the currents, the hands that made it, the hand that tossed it overboard, the last wave that carried it to this place.”

He lit a cigarette. Now that he was dying he’d given up on the idea of quitting.

“Seen like that,” he went on, “it isn’t bad that it’s here. It could be nowhere else.”

The water washed over the plastic and poured itself into the line it negotiated with the dry sand.

“There’s great beauty in that,” my father said. “This piece of litter complies precisely with all the things that impose on it. It moves with them effortlessly, like the clouds move, unaware of the wind.”

We sat in silence while he lit another cigarette. Then we talked about the connections between things and how you could choose to see the reflection of one thing in any other.

“It’s a mirror,” my father said, “all of this. One giant, invisible mirror. If you haven’t yet seen that it’s so, you’re like someone who’s never seen the sea. There’s a large and beautiful thing you know nothing about.”

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