“Go out and play. Far from here.”
That’s what his mom had told him. She had been uncharacteristically stern with him.
“There’s nothing to do.” He complained to his mom.
So his mother had given him a pail and told him to pick blueberries. She told him not to come home until the pail was full. But he had carried this pail with him for quite a while now, and while he thought he had collected plenty of blueberries, the pail seemed less than a quarter full. For someone so young, the pail was becoming heavy.
It was a beautiful summer day, the sun bringing light and warmth to everything around him. Being young, he was curious. The island he lived on was all he ever really knew. While not very large, there were still parts of it he had never seen. He was in such a place now. He was far from the village, farther than he had ever been alone before. He was searching this new territory for all its mysteries, poking his head into a hole in a tree to see what was inside. He looked down on the ground to see a knot of grubs near one of the roots of the tree, sucking nourishment from the moss that grew there. From the massive tree with a swing attached, to the grass that moved slightly from a gentle breeze, everything around him was alive. Birds chirped and fluttered somewhere above him while the buzzing of insects could also be heard amidst the rustle of leaves.
His eyes to the ground, he beheld it. It was hidden in the grass so that he could not see what it was. At first he thought it was a rock, but then he thought he could see something moving. But it was not alive. It was a baby bird, but the life that it should have contained was replaced with something repulsive and black. It was not merely dead, it was death incarnate, a young boy’s first encounter with the dark truth of existence. Although he had no experience with it, an instinct older than his species knew what it was he saw and made him recoil from it. It was just a baby, a young bird not yet capable of flight. It laid there, its body twisted in an unnatural position from its fall from its nest in a branch far above.
What had been new life a short while ago was now this. He did not know if it were merely insects that had been feasting on its body or if something larger had been gnawing at it. But whatever it was, it had eaten through its skin, revealing the strange and nauseating sight of its internal organs to the young boy’s eyes. The sickening reality of existence that had been covered by soft downy feathers had been exposed. And it occurred to him that all he had ever known of life had been proven false because he had not known of the reality of death. In an instant, one horrible instant, this creature’s life had been extinguished because of some small event. Some slight misstep or an unusually harsh gust of wind had ended this life without chance for reprieve. And the boy knew, beneath his tanned but soft skin, he too was full of the same soupy mess that was now poking through this bird’s skin. And he knew that he too could be brought to the same end with merely an instant of misfortune. This creature that had been nurtured by its parents now lay abandoned and forgotten, left alone to rot and be eaten by the lowly things that crawl upon the earth and suck upon the underbelly of life. And he realized that he too was very small, that he too was very fragile. And he was alone. He never knew what alone meant until this moment. And even though his mother had sent him away and told him not to come back until dark, he found himself running back to the village, leaving his pail of blueberries behind. He knew he would never find answers to what he saw, knew that he could only try to forget about it, drown it out with other thoughts and experiences so that his mind would not have time to think about it. He would live in the village and surround himself with the life he used to know, before he became aware of death.
It was very quiet when he returned to the village, even more so than when he had left. In the morning, the people had been talking in whispers, when they felt the need to talk at all. Now, there were not even whispers. Even the place where the little death was had contained whispers.
He looked towards the center of the village, and there he saw the villagers, sitting at the tables where meals would be eaten in good weather. But there was no movement, no noise of any kind. The people were like statues, their faces twisted in sickening smiles of pained madness. He saw his mother there, but she did not look at him. Her gaze was fixed crookedly towards the sky, a cup still grasped in her hand. All of the people, his uncle, his cousin, all sat like photographs, frozen in the past. He was alone, completely alone, with his newfound awareness of death. But death was no longer lurking in the grass, it no longer needed to hide. It was all around him. Everyone he ever knew was staring at him with death in their eyes. He gazed at the faces of those around him, contorted from the pain that had been their last moments. Their mouths were shaped almost in the form of smiles. It was though they knew something about death, something he did not. They appeared not to be frightened. Perhaps he could learn from them, if he could only hear what it was he thought they were trying to tell him. After all, they were still his family and friends. And in his need, he began to think he could hear faint murmuring, as though the dead were willing to tell him their secrets.