As of late, I have been pondering the difference between “accident” and “mistake.” Accidents are not purposeful errors. Mistakes, as it would seem, can be the same way. But I’ve been thinking, and a mistake can also be a choice someone makes, and then regrets later on.
I’ve made a mistake. A big one.
It doesn’t matter that I have children; because I do. It doesn’t matter that I have grandchildren; because I do. But they will never really be mine, on account of the mistake I made. On visiting days at our county jail, nobody visits me. In reality, nobody hardly visits anybody. It’s just the way it is.
I’m one of the only women here, but that’s not what sets me apart. I’m sorry. The rest of them, if they had a chance to be free, they’d go again and do the very thing they had been jailed for. Me? I’d try to find my way home.
But where is home? With my kids and grandkids? The house I shared with my dead husband? More likely than these two things, my home would be the streets. No one wants me, a cold-blooded snake of a woman. Besides, I’m on probation until I die.
Yep, it was that bad. And nothing I can do can atone for it, even if I’m sorry. “Sorry” doesn’t fix anything.
Each prisoner is given one handheld mirror, so long as they’re cleared for it. The dude on my left didn’t get one, and the guy on my right instantly smashed his against the cement wall. I’ve kept mine in good condition, though, staring at my ragged reflection now and again.
I’m a short, squat woman, with flaming red hair in a long braid down my back that thumps while I walk. Well, it used to be flaming red. It’s a dirty, rusty color now with streaks of gray. When I smile, I’m missing several teeth, and it’s the kind of leering grin that kiddies would run away from. Underneath my ugly orange prison jumpsuit, I have three tattoos. One of a butterfly. One of a beer bottle. And one of a lotus flower.
I want to get one of a mockingbird because of the little bird that always suns itself on my barred window. And I know it’s a mockingbird because I asked Jaymes, the smart, pick-locking criminal to my left. Which is why he didn’t get a mirror.
It sings to me sometimes, but I wonder if it’s actually mocking me. Either way, I’ve lost taste in fine music, so anything will do. It’s a pretty bird, if you ask me, and it comes faithfully everyday.
I’m like a child, waiting hopefully for the little things. It comes at all different times. In the morning, when the sun is just peeking up over the horizon. At night, when the sky is dark and the stars are twinkling. In the long hours of the afternoon, when the sun is high in the sky and baking in warmth.
Today, it comes in the late evening, just when I was expecting it wouldn’t. It opens its beak and begins to sing. Or maybe to mock me. It’s free and I am not. It’s beautiful and I am not. It’s young and I am not.
I can hear the guard banging on cell doors as he walks past, inspecting each prisoner with careful eyes. Evening inspection, they call it. When Pete comes to my cell, the mockingbird flits away, and I’m left with an empty, hollow feeling in my chest. Pete nods at me and continues on, but he’s scared away my tiny friend.
...Six years later…
They say I was supposed to be released from prison and into strict probation two years ago, but I’m still here. Milling around aimlessly in the exercise yard. Eating food that tastes like rotten tomatoes and moldy potatoes. And watching my mockingbird.
“Jaymes?” I ask one day, shoveling down this watery goop they call oatmeal. “Do you know how long mockingbirds live?”
Jaymes wipes his mouth with a napkin and adjusts his glasses. “Well, on average, I believe they live up to eight years,” he tells me. “But captive ones have been known to live twenty.”
“Twenty?” the guy on my right, the mirror-smasher who we just call Bone, scoffs. “Ain’t that a long time?” He pats his protruding belly. “Heck, that’s nearly as long as I’ve been in this dump!” He closes his fist around his fork, accidentally bending it into a shapeless lump.
Bone suffers from anger issues. If you didn’t notice.
“I suppose my little guy’s going to bite the dust then, soon?” I say.
Jaymes shrugs. “It’s likely, depending on how old it was when it started to visit you.” He sighs. “I’d really like a mockingbird visitor, wouldn’t you Bone?”
“Oh, yes,” Bone replies. “Say, I used to hunt pigeons when I was just a little’un. I’d steal my daddy’s rifle and tromp back to the woods behind our house. I’d practice with the clay ones, so when the real ones came—BAM! BAM! BAM!”
The mockingbird comes less frequently. Not an everyday thing but perhaps a couple times a week. It sings less loudly and rests more in the sun. I wish I could touch it sometimes, but the barred window is far too high for me to reach.
Today, it flaps unsteadily and lands on unsure feet. It pauses to catch its breath and lets out a faint whistle. It takes a deep, shuddering breath, it’s frail body shaking. It looks straight at me, its beady black eyes twinkling. And I swear: it smiles.
And then it spreads its wings, and plummets to the ground at my feet. Dead.
I nudge it with my shoe very gently. It doesn’t move.
Pete is going to think I killed it. I carefully pick it up, smoothing its soft, delicate wings. The warmth has already left its body, and for some dumb reason, I begin to cry. Tears trickling down my face, dripping down onto the limp feathers that once felt the sun. It’s been so long since I’ve let myself cry.
And I realize then that I’m not just crying over my little friend’s death, but for everything that has gone wrong in my life, for every mistake I’ve made.
I remember. It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.