Erin Entrada Kelly
Sparrow on the White Space
Timothy leaned over to his little sister, cupped his hand around his mouth so his mother couldn’t hear and said: “There’s a sparrow living in our cupboard.” Molly’s face lit up as it always did when she heard something extraordinary (that was her new favorite word, extraordinary; she never heard any other nine-year-olds use it, and her grandmother Nan always said a good vocabulary was the most basic form of intelligence—to which Molly replied, ‘I concur!’), but then her eyes dimmed and narrowed.
“I don’t believe you,” she said. She didn’t believe him at all, because he was always making things up. He had an ‘overactive imagination,’ their grandma used to say.
Across the table, Mother set down her fork with a rigid clink and said, “Are you telling lies again?” She talked like it was hard to form words. It’s how she always talked. Molly sometimes wondered if the gears that made her Mother work were tired or needed to be polished, because everything about her seemed an enormous effort, like her body operated under invisible weights. “You remember what the counselor said, right?” And then, even though everyone knew what the counselor said, she spelled it out for them once again: “It’s your defense mechanism ever since Nan died. It’s not healthy. It’s like you’re trying to escape reality.” She picked up her wide glass of wine and took a sip. Molly tried not to scrunch her nose. She’d secretly tasted her mother’s wine once and it was repulsive.
“Nan said there’s no harm in having an overactive imagination,” Timothy said. He shoved a spoonful of food in his mouth.
“Nan dropped dead at fifty-three,” Mother said. “She didn’t always know what she was talking about.”
The air around them swelled and thickened. Molly and Timothy sat still and silent, the way they always did when their Mother said too much. The gears inside Molly’s chest pushed on—heavy, taut and weighted. These were the times she missed Nan most. Nan would have served pork roast, corn, peas and mashed potatoes. Nan would have told them a story about how she fell off a fishing pier when she was twenty-three, or how she once met Tippi Hedren at the airport. Molly didn’t even know who Tippi Hedren was, but she liked the name. It sounded like the name of a bird that could fly away whenever it wanted.
“No one likes a liar. Even one that’s twelve years old,” Mother continued, not looking up from her plate. “That’s why you don’t have any friends.”
Timothy stared at his fork; his mother pushed back her chair. The grind of its legs against the wood floor was the loudest sound in the universe. After she left, they sat there, side-by-side, smothered by the openness of the room.
Finally, Molly said, “What does the sparrow look like? Will you draw it for me?” She loved to watch Timothy draw because she knew he was good at it. He liked to listen to her sing for the same reason. They were the only ones who knew each other’s talents, but one day—someday, they vowed—everyone would know.
“Yes,” Timothy said. Then he took a discarded pamphlet from the corner of the table, pulled a charcoal pencil from his pocket, and drew a sparrow on the white space.