'Please don't go near it, Max.' I pleaded, as he started approaching it, a piece of driftwood in hand, with which to prod the poor thing. I tried explaining about bugs and diseases on a corpse, but trailed off. It felt too gruesome, especially as I think I even said the word 'corpse'. Both boys were briefly distracted by throwing sticks in the stream. As we left, though, we again passed the dead pelican, its wings tangled and bent back on itself. It was mangy and swollen.
'Why did the pelican die?' Max began to ask.
I offered a range of answers; old age, caught in a storm, drowned, bird flu. These answers weren't offered with a huge amount of conviction, and they were received with even less.
'But why did the bird die?'
We were climbing the steep, sandy steps at the back of the beach, trying to make it to the car before the rain started again. The sky had darkened. I offered the same answers and tried to hurry him along.
'But whhhhyyyyy? Why did it die?' Max began to whine.
I like talking with Max. I like the way he sees the world. I'm curious about the connections he makes. I really try to listen, and I try to give honest answers.
'But whhhy?' he moaned.
I confessed I didn't know.
'I'm cold' he said, followed quickly by 'Why did the pelican die?'
I read somewhere that a 3 year old sees death and divorce as reversible states which might explain why Max then asked me, 'What is the bird saying.'
'It's dead Max, it's not saying anything.' Brutal but honest.
'Why? Why is it dead?' The whining was getting more intense, more infuriating.
'Are you angry that I don't know or that the bird is dead?' I asked him.
We'd lost sight of the pelican but Max could easily have been dragging the thing - it's putrid smell and fetid feathers following us in the form of this endless whining.
In the end I promised Max that, when we got home, I would look up 'common causes of death in pelicans' and we could probably work out what had happened. We eventually got back to the car.
Toxic runoff was the answer to my internet search which, as you can imagine, involved another extended line of questioning.
***Then today I said, 'I know, shall we go to the library?'
'To get a book out about how birds die?' Max asked. It came out of nowhere. We hadn't touched the subject of dead birds for days, but it came back to him with all the vivid immediacy of an electric shock.
'How did the pelican die?' he asked me again with the freshness of an enthusiastic puppy. He must have heard my deep intake of breath. He rephrased it as best he could. 'Pelicans die. How?'