SHELDON LEE COMPTON / MY SPIRIT ANIMAL IS THE TONGUE-CUT SPARROW
Of course the boy walked the woods alone. He searched for flat rocks, sandstone or shale. Rocks about the size of his fist, though some were much larger, and with moss; rocks near the base of trees, always shaded from the sunlight and tucked against the trunks of the trees, dark and waiting. Collecting them he would lift his shirt, find the place where his heartbeat was strongest, and press the chilled underside of each one against his skin, the mass of the unseen planet warming against his chest. While doing this one afternoon, the boy found what appeared to be a common sparrow lying in a clump of bluegrass. It was wounded in some way he couldn’t know, because each time he touched the bird it sprang up in a twisting of wings and legs only to fall motionless back into place. It made no sound.
The air was cataclysmic. Subtle notes of electricity and the clean fabric scent of water falling through a cold sky, dropping slowly, a drop, and then a few seconds, and then another drop. Hypnotic in that way. The clouds moved in slow gray plates. They made a sound, if listened to closely enough. A sound like time moving away from daylight into darkness. The air didn’t need a burial, but there was a burial anyway.
A mortician sang by request in a clear baritone, his ankles turned sideways on the hillside like everyone else’s, even if his voice stood somewhere with the angels. All along the ridgeline the evergreens cried in their own way, releasing that much more sap to mix with the small rain. And it was all in slow motion on the slant of the hillside. A hillside because level land was too valuable for farming to be used planting the dead with no return but grief.
My brother William lowered into the ground. Sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, all crying, strangers singing, the sky churning with that smell of ozone after a strike, the reconfigured oxygen fully strange from the one we’re used to when the power of God rips apart air molecules and puts them back in a different order. A lightning strike remapping a reality.
We arrived at a point while talking about the universe and the pliability of science when the idea of the expanding universe came up. The pliability of science being a new subject for the two of us, we stepped into it carefully. We had always leaned on science in mostly unscientific ways to find support for our confusion, particularly about religion and the unknown in general. Logic appeared to be the answer, but what did we know about logic?
Once realizing we took most of what was told to us from science on simple faith, the latch springs were tossed away and we could begin to think about all mythology, such as the idea of an expanding universe.
Premise: the universe exploded from a single something and this creationary explosion sent all matter flying outward and it had been flying outward since. The mightiest sea creature to every bird crossing the sky was a result of the shattering and reassembling of energy. Observing the navigational process of whales to the innate peacefulness of the birds at rest, we had to kept in mind at all times that this collection of atoms was once part of a churning and distilled point of mass suspended in nothing. Without the education to form our own ideas, we had to it take on pure faith that this was an absolute truth. Seeing logic doing this, making the leap from one plus one equals two to the universe was created in this exact way, seemed impossible. There was no doubt whatsoever that magic was at play. Maybe it could be found in the still blackness of a sparrow’s eye.
So much of it depended on the rain, a detonation of grief from a cloud as big as the sky. Some of us slipping and catching one another, others slipping and falling outright to slide down the cemetery hill and cut trenches through the mud the size of our bodies. It was this way without exaggeration, but there was also noise - squirrels stomping leaves on their way to the top of the mountain, a few laughs at those of us in the mud. And in that noise, those fast and guilty peels of laughter, I thought only of how silent the air surrounding William must be, how it had stilled itself in the private atmosphere of his coffin. How he was now part of the grandmotherly earth of the mountain, held in inverse infancy beneath the quiet.
I imagined my brother’s body lifting slowly from the coffin into the unknown, back arched and eyes fluttering, floating past rocky layers of sediment the color of wheat. The mortician’s airbrushed concealer would be flaking into his strangely combed hair. Then I thought of him going nowhere at all, rigid in the still air century after century, as underground life bursting through the seams of his vault and then the coffin lid itself, nesting and moving across him, living birthmarks in the dark. But I wanted to think of him awash in platinum and singing high praise for the entire universe to hear. His heart would beat outside his chest for everyone to witness and his name would be etched in a stone that never weathered. For all this imagining, though, he will always mostly be the marbled knots in the stomach and a cosmic ache.
But we agreed as teenagers to give each other a signal from the afterlife if there was an afterlife, to find a dead tree small enough to push over somewhere near the cemetery. I stepped carefully through the rain runoff and mud and listened for the splitting apart of dead wood. Here and there I paused to watch for a swift, toppling movement from the tree line. At the bottom of the hill near the vegetable garden I looked again into the woods beyond the cemetery. I studied and studied and studied the full body of the mountain from the mud-raked base to the top ridge, standing on even ground between rows of leaf lettuce and half-runners.
Our difficulty in understanding that logic explained the beginning of all things led to one of us, we’ve never really remembered who, asking what might lie just ahead of that expansion. It was like trying to explain the color of water in the place after we die when there was no promise of water to begin with. We gave an arbitrary number of feet to this imagined space outside the blast. Fourteen. What existed fourteen feet in front of the known universe? Admittedly, we had not yet read very much on the subject, not enough to confirm that an existing theory didn’t already exist to explain this. It likely does exist, this theory. But it’s merely guesswork. Faithfully, one plus one takes us beyond all things. And then what about real knowledge? As the philosopher said of death, what difference would knowing matter anyways. We agreed there was no way to really understand any of it for certain. There was only the trying.
The boy collected several of the cool rocks in a book bag he carried over his shoulder. It was heavy with all the weight so he sat down, took out a thick sandstone, and again considered the sparrow.
It would never fly again, even if it lived. The boy couldn’t be sure it was bleeding, but there seemed to be a lot more maroon coloration along the side of its head than was normal for other sparrows he had seen. He touched the stone to the side of the bird’s head and watched a deep splotch of red spread outward across the grainy surface. Again, he lowered the stone but this time when it touched the side of the bird’s head there was an intense flapping of wings followed by stillness. He placed the sandstone on top of the sparrow. He went to the backpack and brought out another flat rock. Slowly, with a kind of reverence, he stacked it on top of the other. This continued, one rock after another, until the stack stopped rattling and shifting. The boy, of course, wished he was the sparrow, and continued in this way until it was done.
Sheldon Lee Compton's work has appeared in Wigleaf, New World Writing, PANK, Vestal Review, People Holding, and elsewhere. He has been nominated for the Chaffin Award, cited in Best Small Fictions, and was a finalist for the Gertrude Stein Fiction Award. He lives in Kentucky.