I decided it would be easier if I took Bobby outside. "Let's go look at your pond," I suggested. My wife was busy consoling her sister and I was left to take care of her sister's son, Bobby. Sprawled next to his trucks on the rug, Bobby looked up quickly and smiled. "Okay," he said, stumbling to his feet, "I'll show you my fish."
"You have your own fish?" I asked, opening the door to a cool breeze. I wasn't really sure what to say to a four-year-old. I'd known him since he was born, but I felt awkward anyway.
"My daddy bought it for me," he replied, running through the door and jumping off the porch. I closed the back door and followed him into a spacious yard with several towering eucalyptus trees. The pond was an elongated bone shape, its nearest edge thirty feet off to the right from the porch. Its twenty-foot or so length stretched away toward the back fence. A path of shale steps led to the pond and around the far side.
I had visited Bobby's house before, my wife chatting with her sister and I talking intermittently with a brother-in-law I hardly knew. We didn't have much in common and had never really attempted to become acquainted with each other. He was a fireman; I'm an accountant. He was interested in fishing and hunting; I prefer golf and tennis. We usually just visited in the living room, so their backyard was foreign to me.
Nearing the edge of the pond the tinkling sound of the waterfall at the other end replaced the background noise of distant street traffic. The chirping of songbirds in the trees punctuated the waterfall's slapping, splashing song, creating a surprising oasis in the central Phoenix neighborhood. The smell of algae and damp plants along the pond's edge reminded me of my childhood when I searched for tadpoles in natural ponds.
"There he is," called out Bobby, eagerly pointing toward a swirl of fish gathering at the surface anticipating a feeding. He leaned with his hands on the knees of his miniature jeans watching the fish skim near the center of the pond.
I walked over to him. "Pretty nice pond."
"My daddy made it," he responded without looking away from the fish roiling the water, "He dug it and put in the plants and the fish and the rocks."
"Which fish is yours?" I could see about twenty orange comets sucking at the surface or skimming under lily pads.
Bobby pointed again at the swirl of fish. "The red one."
One bright blood-red fantail stood out from the orange fish. Its trailing dorsal fin and gauzy tripartite tail were trimmed in white. It was quite handsome.
"Pretty neat fish," I said. We watched them swim about for a few minutes, Bobby smiling intently as his fish swirled amidst the others.
Our attention was diverted by the flapping descent of a cardinal stopping to drink from the base of the waterfall across the pond from us. I followed as Bobby wandered slowly toward the far end of the pond, watching the bright red bird dipping its beak to the water, then rearing its head back to swallow.
The cardinal hopped into the air and alighted on the branch of a nearby tree, eyeing us with tiltings of its head. I didn't know cardinals lived in downtown Phoenix. A mockingbird scolded from higher in the tree, directed either at us or the cardinal.
Bobby squatted near the ground, looking up at the tree for the noisy mockingbird. The leaves of the tree shuddered in the breezes against a blue sky with only occasional wisps of clouds.
"Did you see our oranges?" asked Bobby, leaping upright.
"You've got oranges?" I asked. It would not be unusual, since the whole of Phoenix was once orange groves.
Bobby led me across the yard to a small clump of trees on the edge of their property. The leafy mounds were spotted with round yellowing green oranges. "You can't eat them yet," Bobby informed me. "They have to get orange colored first. "
"It looks like you'll have plenty to eat." I stepped to follow Bobby already walking, then running, to a swing nearby.
"Can you push me to get me started?" he asked. I pushed him from behind and he swung out in a long arc.
He was a cute kid, a skinny mix of flailing arms and legs that seemed to be in perpetual motion. We never had kids. The decision to start a family just wasn't something that ever seemed pertinent. We had three cats and often joked as if they were surrogates for kids, but there was a charm to Bobby that cats couldn't really provide.
I think the real reason was that our first cat was killed by a car. We both took it pretty hard, it was like losing a member of our incipient family. Unconsciously, I suspect, the fear of a child dying kept us from opening our lives to one.
Even a family cat dying was like tearing a limb from a psychological tree within us. To lose a limb opens a hole in the canopy of your psyche, leaving your life lopsided until adjacent foliage grows to replace it.
We made do with adult activities like golf and tennis and rarely were around children. Even when around children we tended to ignore them. Bobby was usually given some game or toy to play with and scooted aside when we visited.
"My daddy made me this swing," he said looking at me over his shoulder, "he built it out of boards from the store." The wood swing hung on chains from a weathered wood beam spanning two vertical posts fixed in the ground.
That was another difference between us. Bobby's father made things. I'm not that creative, if I want a swing, I shop around. Maybe it's the nature of my job: creative accounting is often considered a felony.
A big bird caught my attention as Bobby swung back and forth. Much larger than a pigeon, it swooped into the tree where the mockingbird had scolded earlier, then dropped down onto a rock protruding in the middle of the pond. I recognized it as a green heron.
"Look at that bird," I said to Bobby. He spotted the bird sitting boldly on top of the rock like a pelican on a piling. It had a long beak and tilted its head slowly while we watched.
"Way cool," Bobby replied. I turned back to the swing and was reaching to give him another push when I heard a loud splash from the pond. I looked quickly and saw the bird flapping in the pond next to the rock. It shook itself and then rose with spread wings to fly from the water.
"He's got my fish!" shrieked Bobby.
It was true. The heron landed on the far edge of the pond with a bright red fish struggling in its long beak. Bobby tumbled out of the swing, then stumbled up running toward the pond. The heron jerked its head to change its grip on the fish. It made several other jerks to get the fish head-first in its beak and then swallowed the fish whole before Bobby got to the near end of the pond.
By the time Bobby rounded the far edge, yelling at the bird about his fish, the heron simply spread its wings again and lifted into the air to a telephone wire on the property edge. It stretched its neck out and in, as if still swallowing its catch, swaying on the overhead wire.
Bobby stopped, looking up at the bird on the wire. He picked up a rock and threw it hard at the bird. The rock sailed harmlessly below the wire. The bird pretended not to notice.
"He ate my fish," screamed Bobby, half jumping, half stomping in anger. He turned to me as I rounded the end of the pond. "That bird ate my fish," an exclamation uttered in a grating whine. He pointed at the bird on the wire, looking at me expectantly. I could see tears in his eyes as I came closer. I didn't know what to say. Things were rapidly going from bad to worse.
He shuddered, crying louder. I don't know what he expected me to do to make the fish come back, maybe to rewind the event and change the ending. "That was my fish," was all he said between sobs. I squatted next to him and put a hand on his shoulder. Even squatting on my heels I was a head taller than he. The little guy was hurting, picking at his fingers and balling his fists.
"The bird was just hungry," I tried to explain.
"But that was my fish," he stammered.
I hugged him closer to me and looked up at the bird. "Did you see the yellow marks on the bird's mouth?" I asked. He turned toward the bird, looking up at the wire where it perched quietly. I pointed, "See the yellow at the corner of its mouth?" Bobby stared at the bird. "Those markings mean it's just a baby bird, he didn't know any better. He's just a hungry little baby bird."
Bobby looked back at me, his teary eyes inches from mine, "But it was my fish." It was clear all he cared about was his loss, a broken twig in his sapling psyche.
Bobby suddenly snapped alert and wiped his nose. "When my daddy gets home he's going to get his gun and shoot that bird,"
"Bobby," I interjected softly, "you can't shoot a baby bird who is just trying to stay alive. He's just a little guy like you. He thought this was a real pond. He didn't know it was your fish."
"I don't care," pouted Bobby. "I liked my fish. My daddy let me feed him. He was special."
"I know," I said, softly tousling his hair. "It's hard to understand when things die like that, but you can get another fish." The explanation chilled me. This wasn't going in the right direction. "Sometimes, bad things happen. But you have to be a big boy and just go on."
Bobby let it go at that. His head still hung down and his mouth pouted, but he wasn't crying. He glanced at the pond and then ran back to the swing. I stood up and followed him. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles don't tell you how to explain death to a four-year-old. I wasn't even sure I should be the one to explain it to him.
"My daddy says I'm a big boy," he said, getting into his swing again. I gave him a push from behind and the little guy swung out and back again. I wondered how it was going inside.
We had come over as soon as we'd heard. It was going to be hard enough on Bobby's mother. We didn't feel she needed the extra burden of explaining to Bobby that his father wasn't coming home.
Somehow I had to tell Bobby.