Fiction: The Lifespan of Sparrows

Read More: A brief Q&A with Genevieve Abravanel

I have a secret, curled inside me like a jelly bird in eggshell. I don’t like to use it, but sometimes I do.

Sometimes I have to.

I was out in the backyard with Dad when he fell and I used it. The secret. The bad secret.

I can take from one and give to another.

Dad was on the ground. Bertie ran to get the phone and that’s when I did it. I didn’t use Bertie, just the worms in the grass and the birds that fell dead from the oak tree. All the birds like apples dropping into the yellow leaves.

Dad’s eyes blinked open as dead birds fell on him. His mouth opened strangely and he was breathing and then sitting up and when the ambulance came he was able to walk. He just walked over and climbed onto the stretcher.

Go to Mrs. Collin’s house, he said and his voice was high and fine, sort of a wheeze, and I knew he had time. I’d given him the lifespan of worms and sparrows. At the hospital, they’d have to do the rest.

When he came back, Dad was different. Smaller like they had shrunk him except his clothes fit. He was the same size but he wasn’t. Because he still tasted the tang of earth. Because his flight ended falling. Birds shouldn’t die in the air. They crouch in secret places. They hide. That’s what feels right. I should know.

He wasn’t the same.

But I had to do it. It was necessary to buy him that time. The ambulance only comes so fast and I’d done it before, when we were alone in the house and I’d already called and the ambulance was coming. It was worse because it was Jemmy.

He was out of his crate. Brown thick hairs, silky like a person’s and they always smelled damp, a strong funk, even after a bath, and he limped over to Dad and nosed his shoe. Worked his blind way up Dad’s leg. My best friend since I could remember, now balding on his tender belly. Chuffing as he reached Dad’s armpit and nuzzled there. As if I’d placed him, arranged him like a poultice beside Dad’s heart.

Dad lives now on borrowed life. Like batteries that run down, he’s running off them into the dim night. He’s living off them and some part of him knows and recoils from himself.

I wonder if my secret will go away when I bleed. They say thirteen is a magic age when your body takes everything it has and sleeps and turns inward and blood comes and legs lengthen and grow hairs. I wonder if I’ll need every ounce of my secret to grow myself.

In a year and half I will turn that age. Right now, I’m everything holding this family together. Holding on. I’ve convinced my father to buy goldfish and we have two tanks now, brilliant long-tailed shimmering jewels. They don’t stay the same color as they swim, amber or rust inside the faded milk of light. It seems they change. We cultivate them, me and Bertie, though he doesn’t know my secret.

Of everyone, I love Dad the best. Bertie takes my stuff and loses it. Bertie pinches and kicks me in the backseat. He hugs me too hard and he tells jokes about farts and that frightens me more than anything because I know who I’d choose in the darkness.

If I had to save a life, if I had to give and take, and goldfish weren’t enough. As I imagine it, my father remade with my brother’s spirit, remade from Bertie, I can see it happen. Bertie lies dead in the living room on the burgundy oriental rug, his eyes vacant, lying like Jemmy did except Bertie is not old, not feeble. He’s eight. I’m eleven. Old enough to know you don’t snuff out a life for a little thing.

But without Dad.

Me and Bertie alone without him.

Sometimes because I know what I would do, I don’t stay home with the two of them. I go out into the yard and practice my secret. A grasshopper for an ant. A moth for a moth. A squirrel that looked me the wrong way, the energy coiled in my belly, a burning lump searing my guts, stored for my private winter.


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Genevieve Abravanel’s short fiction is available or forthcoming in Indiana Review, Lunch Ticket, and elsewhere. She has published an academic book with Oxford University Press (Chinese translation with The Commercial Press of Beijing) and teaches English in Lancaster, PA, where she lives with her family. 

Read More: A brief Q&A with Genevieve Abravanel