Rebecca Clay Haynes
It was one of those spring mornings that made William especially glad to be alive. A warm breeze rustled through the cherry trees while pink petals from the dogwood danced and drifted outside the kitchen window under a solidly clear blue sky. The wrens, as they so often do when the weather improves, warbled to each other over the roof, calling out an invitation to mate perhaps or just directions to the nearest source for water. The lawn was immaculate. He had spent hours mowing it the day before, first with the rider mower followed by the push mower around the edges. When he listened to the air move softly outside and those everyday birds converse in their distinctive trill, William knew his world was stable, unchanging and predictable, just as it always should be.
He prepared his usual oatmeal, simmered not microwaved, then cut up fresh strawberries and bananas and added a cup and a half of low-fat milk. While the kettle came to a boil for his pot of black tea, he thought about the book he had been reading for the past week and how he hoped finally to finish it by lunch. He liked Schopenhauer, and agreed with most everything the man said, especially his negative views on marriage, which William had tried only once, but now he was getting just too dark and the book was going on too long, even for a bibliophile like William.
There was nothing William liked better than reading; he rarely accepted invitations to a play or even a movie or party because books were, frankly, so much more pleasant and manageable. He could pace himself as he liked, didn’t have to talk about things in which he had little interest, which were most of the political, economic and cultural topics that preoccupied people these days, and could take a break whenever the thought or feeling came over him. There was nothing he hated more than finding himself in a middle seat in a theater unable to escape or in the corner of a strange living room having to make conversation with someone he didn’t know and would, with luck, never see again. This was something she had never understood.
He propped the 700 pages of The World as Will and Representation (Cambridge Edition) against his late grandfather’s sturdy bookstand on the breakfast table and arranged his dishes and silverware in-between. As he read a section on the pain of unfulfilled desires, he finished his cereal and turned his attention to the tea, which was still hot but not too hot. He liked his brew warm at first then almost cold by the time he arrived at the bottom of the pot.
A short time later, William turned on the stereo and inserted a CD of études by Chopin before heading to his library where he planned, finally, to open the package he had sent himself from that used bookstore in New York. The light brown box contained a hardback of Montaigne’s complete essays which, somehow, he had never read.
“Today’s the day,” he said to the box, which had been waiting against the legs of his cherry library table since Christmas.
The book was a special gift to himself, and he had even had it gift-wrapped. As he sat down in his soft chair, with its frayed but still comfortable cushions, he contemplated opening the package with the same excitement he once felt as a child eyeing the largest gift under the tree and knowing his name was on it.
As he reached down to retrieve the box, he noticed that the screens on the library’s six tall and rectangular windows, the ones that provided a view of his massive oak tree on one side and a younger but still enormous magnolia on the other, were dirty, the way they always looked this time of year. One of his annual chores was to take them to the backyard for a good washing.
“A few more minutes won’t make a difference,” he said, deciding to forego the pleasures of his new book in order to take care of the screens. He liked to get things done when they needed to be done; that was how he kept his house in such good shape year after year.
He removed one screen at a time, sprayed it down with the hose and then waved it around to dry as quickly as possible. The gap left by the screen’s absence would always let in a few insects and while he didn’t mind the occasional bee or wasp in the house, the inevitable beating of their wings against the windows or ceiling was an unnecessary distraction from his reading and listening to music. He would then have to wet a napkin or towel to pick them up and set them free outside.
It was when he was returning to the library with the last screen that he thought he noticed a large winged creature dart in through the open window and vanish somewhere in the library. He left the screen against a bookshelf with the hope that if a bird had flown in it would be able to find its way right on out again. They usually did. He scanned the spines of his hundreds of books but couldn’t discern anything to suggest the form of a bird blending in against any of them.
“Funny,” William said as he fitted the screen back into the window frame and went back to the kitchen for a piece of toast and marmalade to eat with the last drops of tea.
When he returned to the library, he saw that he hadn’t been seeing things after all. There, on the edge of a lampshade that covered the light over his chair, its long blue tail draped down over the white silk, its tiny head cocked so that one golden eye peered directly at him, was the most exquisite bird William had seen in or out of a zoo or book. Its feathers were a bright but still soft blue and wrapped around from behind the bird’s head like the train of a fine evening gown painted by Sargent, always her favorite artist, and made all the more elegant by Chopin’s solo piano in the background. The bird’s chest appeared to be a delicate mix of white and amber down, the warmer hues repeated down and alongside the slender blue wings that had to be eight or even ten inches long.
He smiled at the bird. “Welcome, little thing,” he said. “Are you lost?”
He shifted his weight to see more of its wings but this sudden movement made the bird hop nervously around the lampshade’s rim. “I won’t hurt you,” he said.
The man and the bird stared at each other; William considering what to do and the bird, no doubt, wondering how to escape. William stood between the bird and the entrance through which it had found itself in these strange surroundings, not because he was trying to block its departure but because he was afraid that any more movement on his part might send it flying in a panic straight for a pane of glass. He had seen many small birds, usually the young and inexperienced, break their neck against his windows from the outside just this way. The cats would then quickly finish them off.
He decided then and there that he could not, in all good conscience, let the bird go back outside. For its own sake. It was clearly an exotic tropical species that had escaped from a pet store, though the closest was at least 10 miles away, or from a private home in the neighborhood. William knew no one who kept or might keep such a bird; but then, he hardly knew his neighbors at all. The closest house in either direction was beyond the woods and far out of sight.
“Wait here,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
He drove to the pet store fully intending to ask if anyone had reported a lost bird but on his arrival decided not say anything at all. Instead, he bought a bag of seed for parrots and looked over the few cages for sale. They were all so ugly. Square edges and plain wires and, really, they looked like little jail cells. He couldn’t bear to put that magnificent creature into such a plain and demeaning metal box.
He rode around until he located an antique store and parked in the empty lot out front. The place was crammed with old furniture and bookshelves -- he stopped to examine a few as his library at home was now spilling into the hallway. There was no sales clerk in sight. He wandered through the clutter, methodically searching so as not to miss anything. And there, in a distant corner, was what looked like a birdcage. Nicely rounded on top and about four feet tall and three feet wide. As he approached, he could see it was built on a wooden stand. A finial curled up from the center in the shape of a fine multi-tiered cake topped by a ring he guessed gave its long-ago owners the option of hanging it from a ceiling. When William touched the wires, gray dust came off on his fingers and sprinkled into the air. He rubbed the wire further and in the faint light of a single bulb overhead, saw what was surely a gleam of gold. He quickly wiped more of the wires down with his sleeve and saw that if it wasn’t gold, it was at least plate. On the floor lay a faded but still dark pink velvet cloth with gold tassels.
“You must be the cover,” he said and when he shook off the cloth and held it up to the cage, he saw that he was right.
He called out for help moving the thing up to the cash register and then to his car but no one answered. He looked around and out back but there were not even any cars parked in the sun behind the store. And no price tag anywhere. When he lifted it, he found the cage was light and though it took a few clumsy minutes to weave his way to the front, he managed to place it down gently by the door.
“Hello? Hello? I’d like to buy this.” He listened. “Anyone?”
The only sound was the soft ticking of a few old clocks behind a cluttered desk. William called and waited and called again until he took five twenty-dollar bills out of his wallet and put them down on the one cleared space with a pencil holder on top. He wrote on the back of an envelope that the money was to pay for what he called the “Victorian Cage” and left his phone number in case they wanted more for it. Then he loaded it into the back of his car and drove the perfect cage home.
The man spent the following days gazing at his delightful bird in its immaculate little house. She -- for he had decided it was a she -- had so lightly perched on his finger that he hardly felt her weight when guiding her through the now-gleaming gate and onto the richly brown mahogany dowel that hung between two golden chains from the gracefully wrought wires of its roof. Her tail was the last to enter and he gingerly lifted it into the cage behind her.
For hours each morning, she sang in a way he had never heard before, not even in the occasional aviary he had visited over the years. Her excited, lilting and sometimes melancholy phrases filled the house more completely than the music of any of his favorite composers and performers. He read far less than usual, sitting back instead in his chair, eyes closed, listening to her song for hours on end. She quieted down in the afternoon, her tunes tapering off until she became silent and almost meditative in the early evening. When the sun set, she dozed off and William placed the silk cover over the cage so the artificial lights wouldn’t bother her and she wouldn’t sing in the morning until he had removed the cloth.
On the fifth day, she began her daily melodies and then abruptly stopped in mid-trill. She went quiet, her head seeming to bob and even tremble. In mid-morning, as William was buttering toast in the kitchen, a loud crashing sound came from the library. He ran into the room and saw the bird now clutching the side of the cage and flapping its large wings against the wires. Several feathers lay in the sawdust and as he watched her continue to beat the cage with her wings, another flew into the air and floated to the floor.
William checked her food and water dispensers and saw that they were both full.
“What are you doing?” he said in a perplexed but gentle voice.
When she smacked the wires even more strongly this time, another feather dislodged and landed with the others.
“Stop that!” William said as if to a child having a temper tantrum. “You’ll hurt yourself,” he added. “Please stop.”
The bird, which he now called Dorothea after the tragic heroine of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, seemed to be watching his reaction before hopping back onto the dowel to preen her remaining feathers, tucking her yellow beak under each one, lifting it gently and letting it glide back into place. There were now a few slender gaps where the missing feathers had been but their lack did not significantly damage her beauty. William could only hope they would grow back and the whole unfortunate episode be forgotten.
The next morning, he watched helplessly as Dorothea again flailed against her cage and more feathers piled up. This went on for days until a third of her feathers lay motionless and dead, their color gradually soiled and fading beneath her as large gaps appeared on her upper back and neck. By then, the bird had stopped singing at all and when she wasn’t thrashing herself around sat sullenly on her perch, staring down at the feathers slowly rotting below. She was also using her beak to pick at her chest, plucking out the down, which then attached itself to the wires or landed on the cage’s floor. Some escaped between the wires and stuck to the table and even the back of William’s chair.
He considered removing the debris that now lay thick at the bottom of her cage but feared she would drop down and peck the back of his hand. He used a long metal spoon to scoop some out but she squawked as the utensil came through the door and darted around so frantically that he gave up.
Her food and water levels diminished little from one day to the next. “Please eat something, my darling,” he would say. “You can’t go on like this.”
Two weeks after his Dorothea had flown in that open window and made her home in her cage and his library, she had become haggard and weak. William, too, as he now slept badly and had, himself, begun to eat less and less, leaving half his oatmeal and pouring out stale tea from the pot at the end of the day. He had long since given up on Schopenhauer – the philosopher’s bleak view of the human condition and life in general would have been unbearable at this time – and no longer answered even his very few phone calls.
Rain had now been falling for what seemed like forever and the dogwood’s petals were almost completely gone, disintegrating in a brown mess at the base of the tree. The wrens had moved on and taken their lively interactions elsewhere. The lawn was halfway up to his knees and the hedge was growing into the driveway, scraping his car on the few occasions he left to buy groceries.
One morning, after lying awake most of the night, William went downstairs and found what he had surmised would be the inevitable. Dorothea was at the bottom of the cage on her bed of lost feathers. She lay on her side and her delicate claws were curled up in front of her. Her one visible eye was open and stared at the gold that still gleamed around her. There was no fluttering on her chest to suggest expanding lungs or a beating heart.
William opened the little door and lifted her up and out of the cage. He picked the debris from her feathers and let it drop to the floor. He took her outside and sat down with her on the stone steps of the backyard deck. The rain had stopped and there was the hint of a returning sun in the sky. He stroked her feathers and ran a finger from the top of her head down along her back to the tip of her tail. He turned her over and touched her motionless toes and felt the sharpness of her beak. A drop of water appeared on her breast and he wondered for a moment if the rain had returned.
As he placed a finger on the drop, he felt her quiver in his palm. One of her tiny feet spread open and closed. Her eyes blinked and became moist again. As she struggled to pull herself up, he shifted her from one hand to the other so she could stand while he held her up. She hopped first onto his knee and then, after spreading her wings with their paltry display of damaged feathers, lifted herself off and awkwardly glided from one perch to the next until alighting on a blooming red camellia on the far side of the lawn.
By then, the bird’s wings were again full of feathers and with a graceful, powerful lift, she rose high into the air, far above the apple trees and loblolly pines, and disappeared into the blue. William watched the sky for a sign of her but saw nothing except for circling turkey vultures and a hawk. He took himself back into the library where he noticed, leaning against the leg of his table, the unopened package that held Montaigne’s greatest work. When he unwrapped the book, its pages fell open to the thirty-ninth essay, “Of Solitude.”
And for the first time since his wife had left him, oh so many years ago, he saw what he had done. William lowered his head and wept.