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?”
“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 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.