A Sparrow Falls
The first “voice” I heard was a sparrow’s. So I’ll begin my story with a sparrow falling—with the murder of a friend.
I was nine years old, growing up in the town of Magdala, where Mount Arbel casts its shadow onto Lake Gennesaret. When I was a young girl, Herod Antipas had been ruler of Galilee for many years. My family, though, had been in the sardine-packing business for generations. We were known for high-quality salted fish long before Antipas’s father, Herod the Great, became king of Greater Judea, and even long before the Roman armies tramped into our land.
My name was Mariamne, which is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Miryam, and my family called me Mari. I lived with my father, Tobias; my mother, Tabitha; my widowed grandmother, Abigail; my older brother, Alexandros; and my younger sister, Chloe. We had our own house, but we shared the walled courtyard with my uncle and his family. As my grandmother’s elder son, my father was head of the family group.
One morning, as the sun was coming up across the lake and my father was saying morning prayers on the roof terrace, I took grain to the courtyard to feed the chickens. It was important to give them just the right amount of grain. If we didn’t give them enough, they’d try to escape to find food somewhere else. If we gave them too much, they wouldn’t search for the bugs we wanted them to eat.
I tried to give each chicken its fair share, although that wasn’t easy. There was one hen that the others pushed aside, for no reason that I could see. There was a sore on her neck where the others had pecked her. After I gave the flock their grain, I dropped a handful right in front of the pecked hen.
As the chickens gathered clucking around my feet, a sparrow flew into the courtyard. He stayed just out of reach of the chickens, several times his size. He was a neat, pert little bird, and his bold stare made me smile. Give me some, too, he seemed to say. I’m hungry. I threw a few seeds his way, and he gobbled them up before the chickens could run over to them. Many thanks! he seemed to say.
“You’re welcome, sparrow,” I said. I was so charmed by the little fellow that I didn’t notice my brother, Alexandros, on the stairs behind me with his slingshot. I heard a whirr, then a sickening thump as a pebble struck the sparrow. The pebble clattered on the courtyard flagstones, and my sparrow fell lifeless.
“Got him, the little thief!” exclaimed my brother.
I screamed at him; I ran to Imma, our mother, with the sparrow’s broken body. “Look what Alexandros did! On purpose! He’s a murderer.”
Alexandros ran after me to tell his side of the story. “But Mari was feeding the chickens’ grain to the sparrows!”
Of course, our mother took Alexandros’s side. She scolded me for giving good food to a wild bird, and she told me it was ridiculous to call the death of a sparrow murder. “If we grieved every time a sparrow falls,” she said sternly, “we’d be in sackcloth all the time.”
I saw that it was no use, and I hated Alexandros so much, I couldn’t stand to look at him. So I went back to the courtyard.
Later that day, I talked Yael, our serving woman, into taking me down to the shore. On the rocky beach, I made a sort of tomb out of stones and laid the sparrow in it. “That’s quite a fine sepulcher for a bird,” Yael remarked. “In fact, it’s finer than the one they’ll lay me in.”
“Really?” I asked. Forgetting my own sorrow for the moment, I gazed up at her glum face. I was shocked at the idea that no one cared as much for Yael as I cared about my sparrow, but maybe it was true.
“You’re too young to know what a miserable world this is,” said Yael. “But you’ll find out soon enough.”
How could Yael think that about the world? It was glorious. The world was full of wonders, from the artful design of a sparrow’s feathers, to the snug feeling of my sister’s back against mine in our cot at night, to the plump sweetness of an apricot from our orchard. In the synagogue, the scripture readings often mentioned all the things the Lord created. Sometimes I imagined the One sitting at his heavenly workbench, smiling with pleasure as he turned out sparrows and warm bodies and apricots for us to enjoy. It made me sad that Yael didn’t see this.
The very next morning, while I was feeding the chickens as usual, a sparrow perched on the courtyard wall. “Go away! Shoo!” I told him. I was terrified that my brother would kill this one, too.
Don’t worry. I’ll stay out of range of the slingshot, said the bird.
I don’t mean that he seemed to say it; he spoke just like a person, only in a chirping kind of voice.
Here’s what to do, the sparrow went on. Save some of your bread from breakfast. When no one’s looking, put the crumbs on top of the wall, right here. He hopped sideways in one direction, then the other, to mark his words.
I knew that sparrows couldn’t talk, so I must have been making this up myself. Still, I did as the sparrow told me. Later, when no one else was watching, I saw him come back to eat the crumbs.
The next time I had a chance to talk to Abba, my father, alone, I told him the whole story of the sparrows. He listened with his arm around me, his eyes serious above his gray-streaked brown beard. When I finished, he kissed the top of my head and said, “That second sparrow is wise beyond its years! It’s true that you shouldn’t give the chickens’ food to wild birds. But if you want to share your own bread with them, that’s your right.” He added, as if to himself, “Alexandros shouldn’t be slinging stones inside the courtyard; someone might get hurt. I’ll talk to him.”
After that, my father began taking Alexandros to work with him every day. I was glad to have him out of the house, although I think my mother missed him. I kept on leaving bread for Tsippor, or Birdie, as I called the sparrow. Whenever I was upset about something, I would sit on the stairs and talk it over with Tsippor while he pecked the crumbs.
One Sabbath, sitting in synagogue, I listened to a psalm that made me think of Tsippor: “For your name’s sake lead and guide me, take me out of the net which is hidden for me. . . .” Those lines brought such a vivid picture to my mind: of the One tenderly untangling a terrified bird from the hunter’s net. Later, I overheard Alexandros stumbling as he tried to recite the same psalm for Abba. How could he have trouble memorizing such unforgettable words?
I didn’t tell my younger sister, Chloe, about my sparrow friend, but one day she overheard me talking to him. I asked her if she heard the sparrow answer me, but the idea seemed to frighten her, so I said it was just a game. During the next year or so, I talked to Tsippor less and less, although I still fed him.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Poisoned Honey by Beatrice Gormley. Copyright © 2010 by Beatrice Gormley. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.