Holding a damaged sparrow down in bucket of cold water, while he struggled against me to survive, is one on the more traumatising memories of my rather eventful youth. There is a cruel savagery in the memory that haunted my childhood, only exorcized some years later, by killing rabbits with a spanner.
I was about six years old and we lived in a working class estate in Dublin. They were more innocent times, but children were more exposed to harsh realities than they are today. Now we protect our children often to their and our detriment, from any harshness that life has to offer. Children are meant to learn from mistakes, from losing and from falls. If we protect them too much then they never learn. But sometimes, I could have done with a little more protecting and sometimes, it would have been nicer to learn certain things in a gentler fashion.
The sparrow in question was caught by our pet dog in the back garden of our house on a beautiful sunny summer’s day. It wasn’t the dog’s fault. He reacted quickly to the carelessness of the bird, who decided to take a drink from his bowl without checking first. Rex hadn’t a clue. He snapped, but when he caught the bird he almost instantly released it, uncertain of what to do. I nearly freaked out. The bird was badly damaged and spinning on the ground. When our neighbour’s son peered over the wall, he offered the comfort of an older person who should know what to do.
He told me not to worry, that he’d sort it. Philip was in his late teens, old to me, so in effect an adult. We did what adults told us back then, so when he told me to pick the bird up and climb the wall into his garden, I didn’t hesitate. When I got there, he had filled a bucket with water and he told me that I would have to drown the bird to save it from suffering. I was six years old. I wanted to puke. I wanted to run away and cry.
When I refused, he said the bird would die in horrible agony unless I did what he told me and that it was my fault that the bird was injured,because it was my dog that had attacked it. He said little boys could go to hell for such cruelty and the only way to put it right, was to drown the bird. It seemed I had no choice.
I remember the bird calmed in my hands and I began to cry. It wasn’t a loud tempestuous cry. Instead, reluctant, salty tears, slowly and silently made their way down my uncertain cheeks, as I knelt down to do as I was told. I closed my eyes and plunged both hands into the bucket. There was no expectation from me; I truly didn’t know what would happen next. When the bird fought back, I was horrified. What started as a hopeful act of mercy, became a cold, callous attempt at murder and my whole being reacted in revulsion. I couldn’t do it and I pulled my hands back out.
To my horror, Philip roared at me, insisting I kill the bird. But I simply couldn’t do it. I placed it gently on the grass and ran away, scurrying up onto the wall to escape. I know Philip kept shouting at me, but I can’t recall what he said. In fear I ran inside and upstairs to my bedroom where I exploded into a frenzy of tears. I never knew, but only presumed what Philip did with that bird and I never spoke to him again. I never told my parents or siblings and I choked on the guilt for years. I couldn’t figure out which was worse, what I had done, or what I had failed to do.
But when I was thirteen, salvation came to me in the strangest and most savage way. I was camping with two friends on farmland belonging to my friend’s uncle, when we were invited to help cut the hay. It was 1970’s Ireland and the tractor he used was an old, open top Massey Fergusson with no roll bars and a row of cutting blades extending out on one side of the tractor. We didn’t know what we were supposed to do until the first rabbit appeared.
The field was in fact infested with rabbits and every now and then, they would freeze in the face of the oncoming onslaught of snapping blades. When they did, the most common result was that they would lose a leg or two and it was then that we were told, it was our job to catch them and put them out of their misery. But this was not my cruel neighbour issuing the instruction. This was a man of the land who genuinely did not want the creatures to suffer. We were three city boys who hadn’t a clue, so he demonstrated what was needed. When he clipped the first rabbit, he produced a big, thick spanner and caught the slow moving rabbit with ease. The poor creature had only bloody stumps for legs. He showed us the damage to make the point that we couldn’t let it suffer and then proceeded to grip its head in a way that left the back of the skull exposed. With a single sharp swift blow, he released the creature from its pain.
We were all horrified but he needed us to help he said, as he couldn’t drive the tractor and watch out for rabbits at the same time. To a rural boy it would no doubt be nothing, but we were gobsmacked. His intention was not obvious at the time, but he shocked us into seeing the importance of clearing the rabbits from his path and we knew we didn’t want to have to kill another rabbit. We tried to clear them from his path and were mostly successful until eventually one poor little bunny, ran across the blades and his rear legs were sliced off. We were all instantly culpable by our failure to clear him out of the path of the tractor. He was easy to catch, but neither of my friends could even touch it. I picked it up and gripped his neck the way I had been shown. The memory of the sparrow filled my mind. I couldn’t face the same trauma again. With a swift determined blow, the rabbit was dispatched and I knew that in that moment, in those circumstances, I had done the right thing.
That day I put more than one rabbit to its final sleep. We saved many from the blades, but I knew whenever I had to do the thing I most dreaded, that I was the best person for the job. I knew this because I only wanted to free the creatures from pain and my motivation was pure. I remembered my uncertainty with the sparrow and I knew I was the only one who understood the importance of the task. Each time, my stomach churned, each time I said a small prayer that the rabbit might go to heaven and each time, I prayed it would be my last time.
When that day ended, I was sadder than I could remember. I understood the necessity of my actions, knew that despite the killing, I had been pure of heart and for the first time came to terms with what had happened to that sparrow nine years earlier. I recognised the difference between necessity and cruelty, I understood there was a darkness in the world that I did not belong to and never wanted to understand and while sorrow filled my heart, my soul was set free.
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