[I could have gone back but I was afraid.]
Once, I watched a bird die.
It was a dark little crow, perched delicately on a thin laundry clothesline that hung high above the pebbled ground below. It was ruffling its feathers as the soft summer wind swept under white sheets and a pink silk dress. I thought it had looked like some kind of hopeless romantic. I thought it had looked all worn around the edges, like a frayed black ribbon pulled too taut too many times. Its head was cocked curiously as it opened its beak and let out a shrill thrill, the notes brittle and tremulous. Then it gently rearranged its wings, tucking them in carefully, and shivered, as if the thin morning breeze was seeping into its feathers and dancing through its fragile ribcage. It leaned forward, just a little black blot of ink splattered against a backdrop of dull purples and rosy pinks tinting the sky. I was tired and sweaty, sitting on the curb in a lonely little village in China watching dust dance in streams of sunlight, when the crow teetered ever so slightly, and plummeted through the air, landing with a little poof on hard stone. It didn’t move.
I scrabbled to my feet, startled. The bird was a mess of rumpled feathers on the ground. I was frightened by that, and darted through a little alley until I reached my grandfather’s house, a dusty little nook with cracked wooden walls and kitchen lights that didn’t work.
I didn’t look back.
* * *
[Is it too late to apologize?]
You died when you were ten years old. Teetering on the edge of 11.
I’m sorry I didn’t say goodbye, but I loved you too much, and I was mad. I’m sorry that I was grateful that they shipped your ashes back to China so I wouldn’t have to see you. I’m sorry, but I’ve come this time, to try to make things right.
You’re buried on the side of a mountain, a rugged little one that tilts a bit to the left, and that’s home to some very thirsty mosquitos. Now, carefully treading down the crumbling steps carved into the side of mountain, I think about that pretty little crow, about why it might have killed itself when it could have gone anywhere, could have flown through the wispy bodies of clouds if it wanted to. I wonder why it didn’t open its wings. I brush aside thick branches and think harshly, maybe it didn’t die. Maybe it wanted to see what it was like to fall just once, wanted to feel the warmth of the ground against its cheek just once. I’m broken out of my reverie when my ankle twists a bit and I almost trip myself. I think that you would have found that hilarious: me, falling down the side of a mountain. The dragonflies float lazily near daffodils that struggle up from under some of the gravestones, their wings beating a thin symphony against the humid air. I finally find your stone; it’s tucked away behind a looming tree that has shed its leaves onto your grave. I sweep off the dirt and let out a breathless laugh, although nothing’s funny.
You know I’m like that.
I set up a metal bowl, placing some Chinese yuen into it, and light it up with a match. The inside of the bowl bursts into flames and I watch for a while as the paper money turns to ash. The smoke wafts up lazily, slowly dissipating as it intertwines around the branches of a thick maple tree. The sun blooms a little bit from behind the edge of the mountain, and thin golden strands start to unravel across the sky. It was supposed to rain. But the clouds have been chased away, and I feel a little more confident, standing in front of your grave like this, dirtied and sweaty and a wreck. Then I take a square of blue paper–your favorite shade of blue–and write.
Talking is hard for me.
But you know that already.
So I’ll write.
* * *
[Because it shouldn’t have gone like this–]
The hospital room is a quiet little space with polished floorboards that sometimes creak when stepped on. The dregs of afternoon sunlight filter in through the window shades, and I breath in and let the warmth taper in my lungs. You’re sitting by the window, fingers chasing the shadows that flicker occasionally across the bedspread. A little halo of dust dances around the tufts of your hair; it looks especially wispy and soft today, and I think that it looks a lot like the smooth sleek feathers of a raven. You tilt your head towards me, lips curling up into a sweet smile as you push yourself up against the pillows. I take a seat beside the bed and you press a milky white hand against mine. I lean forward and wrap my arms around you; you smell like lilacs and crisp innocence. You giggle into my embrace, and my throat clenches. Your hair tickles the bottom of my chin as you rest the crown of your head on my collarbone. I think you look real small, like I could fold you up and tuck you into my pocket if I really wanted to, think you look too fragile, like I could crumple you up if I really wanted to. Your eyelids flutter a little, and I stroke your cheek. You smile shyly up at my face, and say, “Haven’t visited me in a long time.” You pout a little, and I laugh, trailing my fingers up and down your wrist, thinking too skinny, too skinny.
There’s something about your eyes that’s always scared me, something about them that unhinges me, and makes my world careen just a little off its axis. You look at me sometimes, in a way that makes me feel too warm and makes me wonder, what are you thinking? “I’ve been busy,” I reply. “How’s the chemotherapy?”
“Busy with what?” you interrupt, and I stiffen a little, because your tone is detached and your fingers are very cold.
“Busy with school,” I reply, and I let you wear my mittens, because you love to curl your fingers inside them. You frown a little, but tilt your head away and both of us are silent for so long that I thought you had fallen asleep.
I’m just about to get up and leave when you mutter, “I’m lonely,” and I get all tight-knuckled and tight-throated. I lean over you and let your breaths tickle my collarbone. Then you go and look at me like that–god, what does that look mean–and you tell me, “Don’t be lonely. Even after I die.” My breath leaves me in a rush, because, god, you’re only 9, don’t think like that, don’t you dare think like that.
“John,” I say quietly. You doesn’t respond. Anger begins to thrum impatiently throughout my veins. “John.” I repeat. You look at me, and tilt your head curiously, as if you doesn’t understand why my voice is trembling, or why my fingers are tightening around the pools of fabric on the bed, and that makes me furious.
“John,” you repeat. “That’s an ordinary name. A lot of people have it. You’ll find another John.” You look down. “David says I’ll die,” you murmur softly, crying now, and I think of David, that little boy in the room down the hall from yours, who has Ewing’s sarcoma. I try to get you to look at me, but you’re fascinated by the pattern in my mittens, and I abruptly lift your head off my shoulder and lower you down on the pillows. You’re startled, and your mouth parts a little as I shove the chair back and stand up.
“I’ve got to go,” I say flatly, and you whimper a little. “I’ll tell your mom to come see you.” Your eyes catch mine, and the silence in the room is so thick it starts to suffocate me. I can’t breathe, and maybe tomorrow I’ll feel guilty, maybe tomorrow I’ll feel horrible, but for now, all I can concentrate on is getting out.
Maybe you were still crying. I wish I could have wiped those tears away.
* * *
[If only I had known–]
I didn’t visit again. Time whisked by, and soon I forgot about the little boy in that dusty hospital room with the little window and the groaning floorboards.
You died a year later. Broken snippets of your mother’s voice through the telephone: died…leukemia…wasn’t…alone when he…talk to me? No, I couldn’t talk, could barely even breathe. I couldn’t stop wondering what would have happened if I had stayed, had wiped away those hot tears, had stroked the soft curve of your cheek and folded your small hands, still wrapped in my mittens, between mine. I couldn’t face you even after you died; in fact,–I’m sorry–I was relieved when they told me you were going to be buried back in China beside your grandfather. I was 13 then, weakhearted and cowardly. I thought that you were never alone.
But being alone and being lonely are completely different things.
* * *
I think about that little black crow I saw all those years ago, on the ground with its feathers all rumpled and its head resting on a smooth gray pebble. I wondered, if I had gone back, would it have changed anything? Would it still be alive? Or had it already died? And then I think about you, you with your soft hair and shy smile. Maybe you would have still died, but I shouldn’t have left you like that. I couldn’t stop regretting. The flames are dying down now, the sparks jumping erratically around the edges of faintly charred metal. I’ve finished writing, and start to fold the square of paper into a little origami crane. I pause after I’m done, and cough. “I–I’m sorry, you know,” I start, feeling stupid, but I know my mother’s talking just a few rows over to her own father, so I try to continue. I can’t though, because my throat gets all funny and my hands twist themselves nervously, so finally, I just toss the crane into the flames and watch the fire eat it up. Wisps of white smoke curl up from the wings, and I watch them drift up into the sky until they’ve completely faded away.
I brush the dirt off my knees, caress the side of your gravestone, and walk away, taking a seat on the steps of the mountain and watch as the sun slips languidly behind the mountain.
Age 16, Grade 11
Hunter College High School