For the last week or so, Dora has been waking earlier than usual – around 6.15 or 6.30. We’re used to her getting up at 7, and that half hour is making a difference. This morning, I was woken by her bellowing, ‘Look, there’s a robin, a robin,’ over and over again. Assuming this was not actually true, I trudged up the stairs, bleary with sleep, to see what the fuss was all about. ‘Look, daddy,’ she said.
There was a robin on the floor.
At first glance, I thought he was dead, but when I stooped to pick him up, I realised he was still alive, paralysed with shock or injury. As gently as I could, I gathered him up. He was warm in my hands. His pulse beat madly, a thrum of terror, a flutter in my palm. He made weak movements, but made no effort to escape. I went downstairs and into the garden, walking from one end to the other, wondering what to do. I didn’t know if he needed the space to recover, or whether he was in pain and I should twist his neck. The neighbourhood was shrouded in fog. For long minutes, I stood in the garden in my dressing gown, struggling with sadness and indecision, making soothing noises. The robin began to die. He convulsed and straightened in my hands, spasming quickly, quickly, then slower, slower. His twig legs grasped at nothing. After a last kick, he fell entirely limp. His eyelids, stubbled with tiny white feathers, rolled up, and those beautiful, shiny beetle eyes closed for the last time. For a moment, I thought he was still alive, still moving, but then I realised my hands were shaking. He died in my hands.
I dug a hole beneath the willow and buried him. It was indescribably sad to lay him down and shovel black mud across his redbreast. When I went back inside, Dora asked me where the robin had gone. She said she wanted to make him feel better. She wanted to give him a sticky plaster. I wish the world was as simple at thirty-three years old as it is at two.
I love our cats, but I can barely look at them today. It’s really shaken me. I’m trying to tell myself that at least the robin didn’t die alone. I was there, and I talked to him, and maybe that’s something. If it hadn’t been our cats, death would have found him in another form, as it finds us all. But that’s the closest I’ve been to the threshold of death. Watching the robin slide away from life was hard. He did not go easy. He fought it, kicking to his last, until the thrumming of his tiny heart faded to a sigh.
I have a dozen pieces of admin to do, and wood to cut, and essays to mark, and stories to write. But right now I feel like all I can do is stare at the screen and fail to write about a robin.