Excerpt from Sparrow
Euterpe mostly teaches me by telling me stories, and here is the first one I remember. It’s a story about the birds.
‘In the beginning,’ she says, her breath warm in my ear, ‘God gave each bird a choice. She could do one thing well, or she could have the ability to do many things, but not very well. Do you see that bird there?’
She lifts my hand to point at the scrawny, dirty-white fowl strutting on yellow feet between the rows of the garden, turning its angry yellow eye this way and that.
‘Chicken,’ I say.
‘Very good.’ She gives me a warm squeeze. ‘Now when God asked Chicken what she wanted to be able to do, Chicken said, “I want to be able to walk upon the ground, because that’s where the food is.” God granted her wish. And so Chicken walks upon the ground and eats all the worms and beetles she wants. Her choice was good, because she got what she asked for. But her choice is also bad, because she cannot fly. And so Chicken is enslaved by men, who steal her eggs every day and eat them. And she can’t escape the fox if he gets into the garden.’
I shift in her lap. I don’t know what a fox is, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be caught by one.
‘Don’t worry,’ Euterpe says. ‘You’re too big for a fox to eat. Now, do you see that bird way up high?’
We point together at another bird, with crescent wings and a split tail, darting to and fro against the hard blue of the sky, high above the red roof. ‘That’s a swift,’ she says. ‘Can you say “swift”?’
‘Swift.’ I follow it with my eyes as it streaks back and forth, up and down.
‘Very good.’ Another squeeze. ‘Now, when God asked Swift what she wanted to do better than anyone else, she said, “I want to be able to fly, so neither man nor the fox can ever catch me.” So God made Swift better at flying than any of the other birds.’ She lifts my hand again, and we sway together as we trace the darting flight of the swift. ‘Swift can never be enslaved, and she can never be caught by the fox.’
‘That’s good!’ I say.
‘But it’s also bad!’ Euterpe says. ‘Because Swift flies so well, she has no need of feet, and so she can’t walk upon the ground. And because she can’t walk upon the ground like Chicken, Swift can only eat what she can catch in the air. She must always be hunting. So Swift can fly, but she can never, ever rest.’
I look from the strutting chicken in the garden, a slave to men and prey to the fox, to the swift in the air, never able to catch her breath or sleep. It’s not much of a choice, and my lower lip trembles. Euterpe gives me another squeeze.
‘The story isn’t over, Pusus, there’s one more bird.’ She lifts my hand again. ‘Look.’ We point at a fat little bird atop the garden wall. It’s not as striking as the chicken or as fleet as the swift. It’s just a round, chestnut ball with another ball on top, with a short beak and a rusty red cap.
‘That’s Sparrow,’ she says. ‘Can you say his name?’
‘Good. Do you remember our story so far, Pusus?’
‘Chicken can walk but can’t fly. Swift can fly but can’t walk.’
‘Very good!’ Squeeze. ‘Now, what do you think Sparrow chose?’
I think it over. Unlike the strutting hen or the swooping swift, the sparrow just sits atop the wall and swivels his head. He rises slightly on his short legs, puffs out his chest, and lifts his blunt little beak. Then he settles, and he is once again a ball of feathers with a smaller ball on top. I look at Euterpe. She’s watching the sparrow with her bright brown eyes.
‘Remember,’ she says, ‘God told each bird she could choose to do one thing well, or she could choose to do many things, but none of them very well. Now luckily for Sparrow, he got to choose after Chicken and after Swift, and he learned from their mistakes. He learned that the best thing is to be able to fly and to walk.’
As if to prove her point, the sparrow rises up on his legs again and sidles one way along the wall and then the other. Then in a flash, he is aloft. He’s not as graceful as the looping swift, but in a flurry of wings, he has flown across the street and onto the peak of the red roof.
‘What’s the lesson?’ says Euterpe. ‘Can you guess?’
‘Sparrow can walk,’ I say, ‘and fly.’
‘Very good!’ Another squeeze. In my life so far, this is the best feeling I know.
‘Maybe Sparrow can’t walk as far as Chicken,’ Euterpe says, ‘but he can walk well enough to fill his belly. And maybe he can’t fly as quickly as Swift, but he can fly fast enough to escape the fox and keep from being enslaved by man.’
The chicken struts past us again. The swift streaks overhead. From the red roof beyond the wall, Sparrow looks down on them both, and on us.
‘Remember Sparrow, Little One,’ Euterpe murmurs in my ear. ‘He’s not excellent at anything, but just good enough at everything. It’s what the philosophers call the Golden Mean.’
‘What’s a phil . . . phil . . .?’
‘Is that another bird?’
Euterpe laughs. ‘A philosopher is not a bird, Little One. A philosopher is a person who helps other people learn by asking them questions.’
‘Are you a philosopher?’
Euterpe smiles. ‘Yes and no.’ She kisses the top of my head. ‘Remember the story of the birds.’ She touches her lips to my ear. ‘If you get to choose,’ she whispers, ‘be like Sparrow.’
Just like that, Sparrow became my secret namesake. Compact and self-contained, he perched atop the wall, he fluffed his feathers, he swiveled his head, he broke his short beak and chirped. In the days after Euterpe told me the story, I stopped sometimes to watch him from the garden, convinced that he was watching me back. I turned my own face from side to side the way he did, I looked at him with one eye and then the other, and I chirped at him in his own language, one Sparrow to another. Sometimes he just looked back, sometimes he chirped, but sometimes he replied by erupting into flight, his blurred wings beating the air as he rose, flying and flying and flying away from me, becoming a tiny outline of himself until he dissolved into the blue.
I’m a sparrow, too, I thought. Someday I’ll fly away.
Copyright © 2023 by James Hynes