It began by accident. She was moving down the sidewalk and it fell headlong onto the cement walkway at her feet. A sparrow; soft and plump, radiating the warmth of life just extinguished. She leaned over and peered at its small body. No one else seemed to notice. When her back began to ache she became aware that she had been stooped over the small dead bird for some time. She stood up and determined to go, but minutes later she was still standing there. She stared down at the sidewalk; a few red ants strolled by. Then she decided. She picked up a small piece of cardboard and gently prodded the sparrow onto it and took it home to her cramped Brooklyn apartment. She laid the small corpse onto a sheet of white paper and photographed its lifeless body; first on its side, then on its stomach, then on its back. Satisfied, she put it into a Ziploc sandwich bag and placed it on the mantelpiece.
The next day she took the bird out of the bag, put it on the white sheet of paper and photographed it again. The sparrow seemed to have grown thinner overnight, but it was still limp and soft. When she finished, she returned it to its place on the mantelpiece. Within days, the sandwich bag exuded a sickly sweet odor that overtook the apartment. The bird looked sticky—a yellow ooze puddled at the bottom of the bag. When she opened it, the odor smacked her in the face. She shook the bird out onto the paper and watched a yellow stain spread onto the white sheet forming a halo around its thinning body. She leaned in with the camera. When finished, she rebagged its leaking body and placed it on the window sill. She opened the window a crack. It was several weeks before the odor fully dissipated.
Eventually the sparrow dried out; its body rail-thin and odorless. She could take its fragile form out of the bag and place it in the palm of her hand. She had seen an art exhibition years before by a French woman, hundreds of dried-out birds lying inside a glass vitrine. The artist had knit a little dress for each one. She thought about making an outfit for the sparrow. In the end, she put the naked bird back into the bag and returned it to the mantel.
Her ex-boyfriend's mother was a birder; she spent countless hours with binoculars watching birds eating, drinking, flying—doing what living birds do. His mother had a poster of Common Feeder Birds of Eastern North America attached to her refrigerator with big colorful magnets. The birds had names like Eastern Towhee, Dark-eyed Junco and Tufted Titmouse. She herself could not identify her birds by species; there was the yellow one, the brown one, the dark brown one with long legs. To her, anything that wasn't a pigeon was probably a sparrow.
Sandwich bags began to accumulate on the mantelpiece. She tried not to think too hard about the meaning of all the little desiccated bodies in her apartment, but it reminded her of something. At first, she watched intensely, as if she believed that each bird might suddenly come to life and fly around in the apartment; she would open the window and watch it take flight. That moment she longed to observe seemed so intangible, so fragile as to be nearly reversible. Then, after a time, she took pleasure in watching the certainty of life recede; warmth and roundness turning to dryness and stiffness.
In her teens, she spent a lot of time visiting sick relatives, sometimes very distant ill relatives or elderly family friends. She would stare at those poor puzzled people who would accept this intrusion into their few remaining months or days. She was dimly aware of hoping to see something in particular. But she never saw it. Her father died when she was nine. She understood what this meant in her nine-year-old mind, and that understanding had formed a chrysalis inside that had failed to mature with the rest of her. She had not been allowed to attend his funeral. Her two younger siblings were sent to a friend's home, she to another's.