Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960


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in Western Literature

An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

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Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature


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Monique Truong, The Book of Salt, 2003


Death of Mother and Pigeon

Death of Mother and Bird:

Today I am watching a group of children playing on the stone steps leading up to where the cold has bolted me to this bench. I first notice them when a little girl with big eyes breaks from a circle of children and runs up the steps. She leaves the walkway and heads directly toward the trees. Once underneath, she begins to dig at the snow with her mittened hands. She dislodges a thin arm-length branch with one brown leaf still attached to it. She runs down the steps, and the ring of children splits open, their padded bodies forming the hemisphere in which the tragedy I had not anticipated would unfold.

The girl with the big eyes, now the only one obscuring my line of sight, breaks off the leaf and throws the branch to the side. She kneels down and begins to fan the leaf at something that I cannot see. My body leans forward, and my eyes focus on a sweep of gray, moving barely. A pigeon, an ordinary, city-gray pigeon, stumbles between the girl’s black boots and tries to spread its wings. The right one opens to its full span, a flourish of white. The left one collapses halfway, a crush of gray. The bird pitches forward and falls on this sloping left wing. It lies there while the children become excited. A boy is laughing and jutting his finger. The girl with the big eyes is still fanning but no longer kneeling. Children passing by are now stopping. Their nannies pull them away, scolding them for looking at something dying. The little audience fluctuates in size, but all who join keep a wide ring of stone between themselves and the bird. There must be space enough for such things, an instinct that they all possess, except the boy with the jutting finger and the girl with the big eyes. She continues to fan and is now on her knees again. Her face is down low, almost touching the pigeon’s head, a head that picks itself up and drops itself down, a visible jarring each time it hits the cold surface of stone. The boy with the jutting finger remembers the discarded branch and runs toward it. He brings it back and pokes the pigeon on the back of the neck. The girl stands back, deferring to something violent, deferring to something in herself. The bird responds by rolling itself back onto its feet. Head wobbling to a quiet song, it hops down one step and attempts again to spread its wings.

A flourish of white, a crush of gray.

A flourish of white, a crush of gray.

Adults are now stopping. The spectacle has become a matter of public interest. Death, a private thing, is making a limited appearance, a February sun. Faces, creased and concerned, peer down at the children and the pigeon. Nearby, a man and a woman exchange whispers. I imagine that they are not speaking French. Her shoes, after all, are too practical. No Parisian woman would stand so unadorned and close to the earth. The woman touches the shoulder of those before her until there are none, except for the boy with the jutting finger, a finger made grotesque by the branch that has extended its natural reach. The woman bends down next to the bird that has lost all memory of flight. Sitting on its folded feet, it warms an egg that can no longer understand is merely stone. The woman takes off her gloves. The gesture stops time. The world becomes small, and she and the bird are the only ones casting shadows on its spinning surfaces. I close my eyes but cannot keep them shut, another useless flutter on this winter’s day.

The woman cups the pigeon in her hands, a washerwoman’s mottled pink, and straightens her body. The expected resistance, the bird’s fight for freedom, never comes. She walks down the steps, the pigeon before her, raised like an offering to the snow beds down below. She places the bird on a patch of ground where the snow had melted clean. Her hands continue to cup its body, steadying it for what is to come, warming it like no sun can ever again. The assembly has followed the woman down the steps, and, from where I am sitting, I can see their bodies speaking with uncertainly. Backs turn away and then turn back again. Heads form small circles only to unfurl in wavy lines. Uncertain, I can see, about whether the woman’s cupped hand have delivered the last rites, whether they can now resume the day, reclaim the minutes lost to a little death. The girl with the big eyes still has the leaf in her hand, fanning the air before her. The boy with the jutting finger stands with two younger boys by his side. Lessons are being learned. Cruelty passes from one to the other, a not so secret handshake.

I see a sudden ripple of coats and hats. Children are being quickly led away, their small hands covering their mouths, larger hands covering their eyes. The ordinary, city-gray pigeon is again in my line of sight. It is attempting flight, creating a spectacle worse than death. With its breached left wing, it manages only to skim the snow. It flies toward a nearby hedge and hurls its body into a tangle of branches. Its feathers catch on thorns and other small curious growths and are lifted up, exposed in shameful ways. The pigeon flaps its wings with a force that shakes the hedge, makes it tremble, startles it with something akin to life. The bird falls back onto the snowy ground. Its refusal to die a soft, concerted death is an act thought willful and ungrateful by those assembled. They show their displeasure by pulling their attention away, a recoiling hand. The bird flies again into the branches, confused and exhausted.

I close my eyes, a useless flutter. I open them, and I see you half a world away. I hear fever parting your lip I feel you shivering, colorless geckos running down your spine. I smell the night sweat that has bathed you clean.

The woman with the pink mottled hands is the only one who has remained. No one wants to stand so close to desperation. It is too thick in the air. It is naturally invasive, has the dank odor of musty rooms and vacant houses, a distinct taste, tangy and burning on the tongue. The woman should know. She carries desperation with her, soiled in the seam of her skirt, sewn into the lining of her coat. She examines the bird and recognizes the signs, the secret markings of her tribe, and knows that this will take time. She picks up the pigeon, again a swift wrapping of pink, and walks it up the steps.  She walks it past me and lays the bird under the trees, near where the girl with the big eyes had dug up the branch. The woman looks over at me, and we exchange promises. Someone would do the same for me when my day comes, I imagine her saying. With no farewell words, she leaves me.

"Ca suffit!" I shout at the children who are regrouping on the top steps. "That’s enough! That’s enough! That’s enough!" My barely comprehensible French makes them laugh, makes them consider my sanity. The deliberation is brief. I am crazy, they decide. The run off, leaving me on this bench at the edge of a garden that is trying to tether a retreating sun. I hear the pigeon thrashing its body against a mound of snow. With each attempt, its wings become heavier, ice crystals fastening themselves, unwanted jewels, winter’s barnacles. The faint crunch of snow is making me cry. I will sit here until it stops.

I know you are in your best ao dai. You bought it when you were just eighteen. Gray is not a color for a young woman. Gray is the color you wanted because you were practical even then, knew that gray is a color you would grow into, still wear when your hair turned white. You snap yourself into this dress and cannot help but notice that it hangs from your body, nothing to cling to. Your breasts are smaller now than when he first saw them. Your belly bears the scars of your four sons and your one husband. You touch your face that way that no one else has since I have gone. You smile because you know that I am with you, understand your need to don this dress, a thing you can call your own. You know I am holding your hand, leading you out the front door of his house. You step out into the street, and you are a sudden crush of gray. Silk flows from your body, softness that he had taken away. In the city of my birth, you keep the promise that we made to each other. We swore not to die on the kitchen floor. We swore not to die under the eaves of his house.

…My mother has finally had the courage to leave him. I did not have to read it in the body of my brother’s letter to know. I have known for many days now. Anh Minh’s letter only confirmed the reason for my mother’s nightly visits. We said our good-byes in the Jardin du Luxenbourg. The city, as it did today, has covered itself in a mantle of white. She was dressed in her gray ao dai, and I was bundled into two of my sweaters and my only winter coat. We sat on a park bench and chatted about nothing in particular, like two people who have spent their entire lives together. The snow around us was just beginning to melt, and she shivered with cold. I sat with her until the rising sun took her away. The visits continued until one day I saw her, but I was wide-awake. In the hopes of easing my sorrow, she had taken the form of a pigeon, a city-worn bird who was passing away. Death, believe me, never comes to us first in words.

"God has given Ma wing," Anh Minh writes. Succinct as always, I think. What he means is that our mother was no longer afraid. After years of saying her rosary, she went to sleep one moonless night and saw heaven vivid on the horizon. She stepped out from under the eaves of his house with a resolve that is the truest of faith. Her husband, a false prophet, could never follow her to where she was going. Her four sons, well, that’s up to them. With that her final thought, her body became one with the earth, and her soul rose to heaven. A flourish of white.


Adrienne Nater, 2008

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