WHO KILLED COCK ROBIN?
First I ran past a shredded McDonald's bag, ketchup packets spattering the pavement.
Next came squirrel remains, also shredded but strangely bloodless. These I dodged.
Then, up ahead, there were two crows in the road. X marks the spot. At three paces, the crows flew, and I paused. A robin lay on its back, legs stiff and splayed, red breast speckled white where the crows had begun their plucking.
On the grassy curb next to it, there was a dollar.
A quarter of a mile farther on, another robin lay in the road. Dignity had not yet abandoned it. Surrounded by space and quiet, it was a fallen soldier. Its eyes were covered with felted lids. In short order, I thought, there will be crows. I considered scooping it up and putting it in my sweatshirt pocket, but thought better of it. I looked around for a dollar.
Who killed cock robin?
A band of marauding suburban boys with BB guns? Too early in the morning. Old age? The coincidence of both robins having died of natural causes would be uncanny. Lawn chemicals tainting the earthworms? Perhaps. This world is laced with death.
Later the same day, one that moralizing forecasters called "excessively hot," I was uptown walking the dog (she was panting in the excessive heat) and passed a man who was frantically rifling through his pockets and backpack. He seemed to be carrying all he owned, and he did not own much. Before long, he sprinted by me, startling the dog, who tugged me over to a dollar on the sidewalk. It was folded and faded. Had the backpacked man dropped it? Had he dropped another by poor cock robin earlier in the day? He paused near a planter ahead of us. I picked up the dollar and decided to ask him. Again, he was searching his pockets angrily, and then like Alice's rabbit, he sprinted several yards down the sidewalk, as if suddenly remembering he was late. Once more he stopped, so I did, too, to watch him. He seemed to be rearranging things compulsively, moving bits of this and that from one pocket to another and to his backpack. Although he was flustered, he had a system, hip pocket-backpack-shirt pocket, shaky and hurling forward and yet evidently in a loop. Predictably, he took off, this time around the bend.
Unable to catch him, unsure that I wanted to, I decided that the dollar, now in my pocket, should be donated to charity. It was not mine, after all. I should not spend it on coffee, for instance, and thereby feed my head on the backs of underpaid Latin American farm workers and my backpacked stranger. I should give it to a righteous cause.
Six weeks later the dollar was still with me, a reminder and a connection, mysteriously increasing in value the longer it lingered, like the question of how the robins died. It had become a pocket albatross. I could not seem to get rid of it. It might have been a tattoo for all its persistence on my person. Actually, neither of those metaphors—neither albatross nor tattoo—is adequate. For the dollar was inside, always hidden, unnoticed except by me, whom it nagged like a stitch or cramp. I intended it for one of those ASPCA jars that, until now, I seemed to find at every diner and deli counter. Had there been an up-tick in the humane treatment of stray cats and pit bulls? For all those jars seemed to have disappeared from our town. Meanwhile robins were dying in our streets, the collateral damage of our insistence on verdant lawns.
What better explanation than that for who killed cock robin—two of them, in fact?
I began to wonder if I had passed the same robin twice. Had I been going in circles, unwittingly? Reach into your waistcoat pocket and look at your watch. The seconds fall off along a circle that is also the straight line of time. All forward motion is circular, an ellipse fractured with ellipses, like the paths of my backpacked stranger. That could be comforting, moving forward but regularly revisiting familiar spaces, a delightful circularity, like a merry-go-round, the one you rode as a child, your mother disappearing and returning to sight, your point of origin and return. Imagine a plastic robin's nest, three seats, each a bright blue egg cracked open. You, your best friend, and an unidentified blonde girl who reminds you of the youngest Partridge family daughter are the nestlings. You are surrounded by mallards, swans, a toucan. There are no ponies or stallions on this carousel, for that is not our theme. Sparrows and pigeons bus the ground around the line of waiting children. Your mother waves each time you pass.
That is not the carnival ride of the backpacked stranger. In Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, a murderer is killed when a carousel spins out of control and crushes him. He is chasing down his partner, who had a change of heart about following through on his role in a homicidal pact. That black-and-white image of men creeping around the merry-go-round, the camera always angled so that we tip forward or backward, unsure of our footing and spinning quickly toward chaos: isn't that a closer analogy to my backpacked stranger's obsessive-compulsive rearrangements? In the moment that he stops and digs into his pockets, something is distressingly out of place. The lighter should be in the left pocket, the receipts in the shirt pocket behind the cigarettes, the good luck buckeye and crucifix glow if misplaced, they become hot, they'll burn through the zipped-up side pocket of the backpack because they do not belong there.
If a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, what is the value of one dead robin in a pocket (had I been so bold as to pick it up) versus two on the road for poets to contemplate and crows to sup on? It's sad to return to the first body, plucked and broken. I don't know how you died, and the question has become by turns crucial and comical, an absurd responsibility, like making sense of the day. Kneeling on the ground beside you, I am emptying my pockets, a clown, whose pockets never empty.
Writing about his travels on the Kona coast of Hawaii, Robert Louis Stevenson reported that the indigenous people were awed by pockets. Over a century earlier, Cook's men had experienced this, too. Their clothes were perceived to be part of their bodies. Reaching into a pocket, these explorers performed a bloodless evisceration, the harvesting of internal treasures to present to their newfound friends. This is not far-fetched. How attached am I to my wallet and keys? Nearly as viscerally as to my spleen, more so than to my appendix, which is, after all, redundant. Extend that sense of the essential to encompass all the contents of one's pockets, and consider what I have done to our backpacked man by pocketing his dollar: a veritable transplant from an unwilling donor. How could I imagine that re-gifting this vital organ to the ASPCA would break my connection and absolve me of my responsibility? At least the crows had the grace to harvest organs only after their robin was dead.
Six weeks passed, as I've said, with the dollar in my pocket—or more accurately moving from one trouser pocket to the next, along with my keys, an eraser, and the small creek stone I've carried for decades. It was handed to me at a baptism, I pocketed it, and there it has remained, symbolic of what? It cannot be tossed aside, so now it kept company with my stranger's dollar. One evening, before I went off to teach Jane Eyre, I needed coffee. The can in the office was empty. There was a café nearby, and I had two dollars, but one, as you know, was earmarked. Desperate for caffeine, I settled for tea. I lowered the pouches—two, for maximum strength—slowly into a cup of hot water and waited for all the tea to leach out. It was strangely quiet. The window of the office kitchenette was so air tight that the trees outside, gesturing ecstatically at the approaching storm, were soundless. Crows, a cloud of them, spilled from the wind above and around the trees. If they cawed, I could not hear them. I placed my ear to the cool glass. How thick must it be that not even a thunderhead of crows rattles it? Two of the birds broke off, black rain drops, and splashed onto the paved driveway beyond the trees. I pried up the sash.
"We've come for the robin," declared the largest.
"You're too late," I replied. "Another pair beat you to him."
"Then you'll kindly refund our deposit," the second said and opened his bill like a money clip.
Closing the window, I fumbled with the dollar, switched it from my right pocket to my left, and returned to Jane Eyre with my cup of tea.
The self-important, hypocritical Mr. Brocklehurst quizzes his prospective pupil, Jane, about the nature of humility. He brags that his daughter, Augusta, has visited his charity school and marveled at the girls, who are "quiet and plain...with their hair combed behind their ears, and their long pinafores, and those little Holland pockets outside their frocks..." At best, those pockets would hold the girls' piecework. Surely the pockets contain nothing personal, nothing that would create a bulge and signify ownership, possessiveness, wealth. Such an impregnated pocket could keep a girl from passing through the eye of a needle into the kingdom of heaven.
Jane fails the quiz, and we admire her failure because we know that she intimately understands humility, unlike her pompous instructor. She is an independent and fiery orphan, whose free hand for the least of these, despite her own neediness, is evident when she gives her breakfast roll to a robin. This happens just before the descent of Brocklehurst. At the window of her room, Jane has indifferently watched his carriage arrive, when she spies the hungry bird, "on the twigs of the leafless cherry-tree nailed against the wall near the casement." We watch Jane anxiously as she struggles to open the sash and rushes to feed the robin before her nurse catches her. We are to admire the imprudence of true charity.
Now is the moment for me to confess, reader, that I did not donate the dollar. That very night on the way to class, I spent it on coffee, the tea having (as I anticipated) nothing like the boost I needed to teach in the evening. Rationalizing, I could point out that I have subsequently given many other dollars to good causes, that one of those dollars could, in essence, be construed as having belonged to my backpacked stranger, assuming any dollar ever did. Be that as it may, the neatly folded dollar from the sidewalk, coupled with a second of my own, fed my habit, not a stranger or a robin or a crow.
What killed the robins?
These divagations: are they bringing us any closer to the answer? I have, as always, plunged my hands into my pockets and moved on quickly, only glancing at you as you insist that I come to the point. I turn the stone over and over in my hand for reassurance that something bright, sonorous, and worth noticing develops as more robins crowd the page. But perhaps that is an artful dodge, an excuse to make much of a small thing, or to make little of all this. I should take a pen from my pocket and scratch out an answer on the back of the dollar bill, had I not spent it. The backpacked stranger would leave his circuit and go off on a tangent toward a bus that would plunge him into invisibility, the city's heart. I would look you in the eye and say, "We go no further," and you would douse the torch that has dimly lit our way.
Fine. Then later, in the dark, a voice would say, "Who killed Cock Robin?"
"I," said the sparrow, "with my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin."
"Who saw him die?"
"I," said the Fly, "with my little eye, I saw him die."
So Fly was a witness. Fish, we soon learn, caught the blood, suggesting that the slaying was ritualistic. The rest of the animal kingdom participated in an elaborate funeral. Answer the following questions to demonstrate your comprehension of this English rhyme:
- Who made the shroud?
- Why might a Dove be an appropriate choice for a mourner?
- What is implied by the plural pronoun "We" in the Wren's response?
Bonus: The Linnet volunteers to fetch and carry the "link." What is a link in this context?
Since spending the dollar, I have seen my backpacked stranger again. An ellipse that takes in the uptown Trailways terminal is his halting merry-go-round. This time, and next, and the time after, he asked me for a light, because he has always misplaced not a dollar but a lighter. Bics and their disposable offspring, the whole Crayola rainbow like unfound plastic Easter eggs, nestle in the sickly grass along the sidewalks of our dirty city. Some were discarded when empty, tossed on the ground along with candy wrappers, soda lids, and crack pipes. Some fell out accidentally, fledglings, full of potential: the stranger's lighter during a round of rearrangement. Now he is forever without, though each time he turns a corner he forgets that the lighter has gone missing.
It found another use. The linnet, a poet's fowl (though not quite a nightingale or lark, the former being too elevated for "Who Killed Cock Robin," the latter rhyming his way into the position of clerk), made it his link, to light the poor robin's way to dusty death.
The crows spoke to me as the raven did to Poe, my kinsman.