The Great Depression is nearing its end, and songbird Marie longs to fly free of her suffocating steel mill town.
But when news of a music school scholarship offers real hope of escape, someone will stand in her way.
Will it be Dorette, scheming daughter of the local mob boss, her rival for the prize? Will it be Mikhail, the arrogant but troubled pianist, the one she can’t get out of her head? Or will it be her own fear, of dangers outside this iron cage of her own making?
Coming in 2020: Book One of The Butterfly Myths, a family saga of wandering souls in search of their own hearts.
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The canary shrieked and flapped its wings, a blurred flurry of yellow arcing dotted strings of red up the wall, across the shelves, even onto the ceiling overhead.
And its terrified calls triggered a cacophonous response, of chirping, tweeting, and other animal cries, resounding through the pet shop.
“Stop! Stop it!” Frederick Gump yelled as he came running from the front. He pushed aside a shocked Marie, who’d stood paralyzed at the sight of the panicked bird and the teenage boy trying desperately to control it.
She stumbled, then glanced down to discover the blood that speckled her hands and forearms.
Gump seized him by one shoulder and spun him around. “Michael!” he yelled in his face. “What in the hell are you doing?”
The boy staggered backwards, and Marie recoiled from the violence.
Gump grabbed a clean, white towel from the shelf and wrapped it tightly around the bird, then released it just long enough to make a strange and angry gesture, swiping his flat hand across the top of a closed fist, as if to threaten the boy with decapitation.
“You’re fired!” the man yelled.
Unable to speak, the boy looked back and forth between the two of them and ran out the back door.
Now the shop owner focused his attention on the canary, pressing it against the table. He slowly unwrapped the towel to reveal crimson creeping through the thick nap of white cotton.
A little older than her father but disheveled, balding, and bigger around the middle, Gump nonetheless moved with a combination of intent and gravitas that soon had its affect on the bird. Desperate shrieks subsided into frightened peeps, and as the bird calmed, the other animals calmed with it. The pet shop grew quiet again.
He sighed and looked at her over his wire-rimmed glasses.
“And, young lady?” he said. “You didn’t see this.”
Gump spread one hand across the canary to splay the injured wing flat against the table, then retrieved from a shelf above him a yellow powder and sprinkled it over the red-tinged wingtip.
Marie shook her head. “But I did see it, Mr. Gump,” she said through a hand that still covered half her face. Only her dark, almond-shaped eyes showed below low bangs of thick, curly, black hair.
“I know you did, Marie. What I’m saying is you need to forget about it, okay? It won’t help my business for you to go blabbing it all over town. And what are you doing back here anyhow? It’s closing time. I thought you’d left a half hour ago.”
“Will she die?” she asked softly.
“Fifty fifty. Michael cut the blood feather, but I might be able to save it.” He growled. “I ought to cut something off him and see how he likes it.”
“But he couldn’t have meant to.” She looked down at the bird. “If you can save her, will she still be able to fly?”
“He. This is a male canary. Not a hen.”
“But will she–”
“Quiet, please,” Gump said.
His motions fell into a repetitive pattern, alternately pressing the cloth onto the wound, then gently daubing at it with cotton balls dipped in a liquid he’d poured from a brown glass bottle.
The canary opened and closed its mouth without a sound, as if gasping for breath, and Marie felt her own chest tighten. When Gump reached for a pair of needle-nose pliers, she pulled back.
He glanced over at her and sighed. “Miss Schioppo, forgive me for being so blunt, but if you ever hope to take home one of these pets for your own, you’re going to have to get ever this squeamishness–”
Without hesitation, he grasped the damaged feather and in one smooth motion pulled it from the canary’s wing. She turned her face away.
“–And in a moment like this, it does an animal no good whatsoever for the caretaker to be unsure.”
Plink. She winced at it, the sound of the feathered quill hitting the steel wastebasket at his feet. He rolled his eyes.
“Don’t look at me that way,” she said. “I’ve had lots of pets. Not just wild birds. I have three rabbits now, in hutches in the back yard. So I’m not either squeamish. My animals were hurt, and I saved them all.”
“All I know is I’ve watched you whenever you come in here. It doesn’t take something this serious to get to you. Anytime an animal appears in the slightest distress, you take it personally, as if it were you in that cage.”
“Why should a bird or an animal have to suffer if somebody can prevent it,” she said.
“Oh, I agree. But sometimes you can’t prevent it. And sometimes you even have to cause more pain if you’re going to save them. Let’s say I’d left that broken feather in place. As sure as you’re standing there, he would have bled to death.”
Never taking his eyes off the canary, he nodded toward the front door of the pet shot.
“You’ve seen these millworkers walking around out there with an arm gone, right? I suppose you think some machine just cut it off clean as a whistle. The truth is, it may have only gotten his hand. But crushed it. Mangled it. So they had to cut off a little extra to do the job right. Same thing.”
“Okay, okay,” she said, seized by a shiver. “I get your point.”
“Alright. I’ve said enough. But you’re what, Fifteen?”
“Sixteen,” she said.
“Then it’s time you learned life’s full of pain. The sooner you accept that the better.”
Marie took a deep breath and reached out toward the table. The shopkeeper moved his hand to let her place her own on top of the small yellow bird.
“Good. Keep him still,” he said, softer now. “And keep the wings closed.”
He rolled up his sleeves, wiped his hands clean, and adjusted his bow tie.
Now Marie could allow herself to cry.
Please,” he said, rolling his sleeves back down. “Let’s not get all melodramatic about this. It’s just a bird.”
The canary wriggled less now and only made faint chirps. The rapid tapping she first felt against her hand was slowing. She stood in silence for several minutes, pressing gently on the tiny bird.
“It’s okay. He’s just coming down. I think he’s going to survive. See his eyes? And again, this is a male bird, not a hen. We call him Jack. Jack Robin. Get the joke?”
“The Jazz Singer.” He looked at her. “You know, Jakie Rabinowitz. Al Jolson? Oh, never mind. You kids.”
He handed her a cloth.
“Now clean yourself up,” he said.
She curled her lip at the familiar smell of alcohol, then, holding her breath, wiped the red from her face and hands. He nodded and she handed it back to him.
“Why was he clipping her wings?” she asked. “Doesn’t that make it so they can never fly again?”
“Well, not never. Not if you watch what you’re doing,” the man said. “Michael got distracted. Or something.”
He examined the bird’s wound again.
“Yeah, I think he’s going to be okay. One thing’s for sure though,” he said, picking up and disposing of the debris. “I can’t keep him around anymore. It’ll be six months before he’ll be back to normal, if he ever is. And I probably won’t be able to sell him then. Not to anybody. This has happened before with these kids I hire. Family or not. They make a mistake, and I end up having to euthanize the thing.”
He watched the bird a moment and then turned to look at her.
“Unless–” he raised an eyebrow. “–Promise to keep quiet about all this and I’ll let you take him home right now. For what you have saved up, even-steven. Cage and all.”
“Gee, I don’t know.” She squeezed the wrinkled envelope in her hand.
“Look, I love animals as much as you do, Marie, just look around you. So I don’t want to upset you or anything, but when it comes down to it, this canary is inventory. Damaged inventory now. I’m a businessman, and I have to keep this place going. So if I can’t sell the bird, I have to dispose of it. But I’d much rather let you take him. You can have him for less than I paid. All I want is to recoup a little of my investment.”
“But what if she dies?”
“Marie, do you hear what I’m telling you? Euthanizing him means putting him away. Killing him. In other words, he could end up dying no matter what you decide. At least if you take him you might be able to save him, assuming you’re the Florence Nightingale you claim to be. And for God’s sake please stop saying she. You’ve heard him sing.”
“But if she can’t fly, maybe she is better off dead.”
He paused, looking stunned.
“Well that’s a reaction I didn’t expect,” he said.
“I just don’t think any animal would want to be cooped up in one of these cages. I wouldn’t. I’d rather be dead, and I think she would, too.”
He shook his head and turned his attention back to the bird.
“Actually, he’s looking pretty good right now,” he said as he lightened the pressure on the cloth and pulled it back to study the wingtip.
Marie leaned in to get a closer look.
“Yeah, you just want me to take her off your hands,” the girl said.
“Young lady, it doesn’t make any difference to me one way or the other how I deal with this little problem,” he said. “I just know how long you’ve been coming in here looking at the canaries, and I thought I could make you a good deal on one. Besides, with what you’ve got saved up there, it’s not like you’ll ever be able to afford the Scottish Champion or something.”
She unfolded the envelope and opened it to count the money inside.
“Yeah,” he said, glancing over at her. “Four dollars and seventy-eight cents. If I remember correctly.”
“Last chance,” he said. “Day after tomorrow is Labor Day. I can’t wait two more days for you to make up your mind. Come back in here Tuesday after school and he’ll be gone.”
She reached out one hand so she could gently stroke the canary’s head and lifted the cloth again to look closely at the damaged wing.
“Will she fly again?” Marie asked.
“Just put his food and water–again, his food and water–on the floor of the cage so he can get to it.”
“But will she?” Marie repeated. Fly, I mean?”
“What does it matter? He’ll be living out his days in a cage.”
“I thought you said she was looking pretty good.”
“You may have misunderstood me, Marie. Yes, there’s a good chance he’ll survive this trauma. But my point is even if he does, he has no business flying around, inside your house or anywhere else. He could go straight into a fan or try to fly through a mirror and break his neck. You got cats?”
“Felix, the mouser. But Mother won’t let him inside.”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Still, you let him fly around, even just indoors, something’s bound to happen. One day somebody’s going to leave a window open and next thing you know, he’s falcon food.”
“But just tell me. Will she ever be able to fly again?”
He let out an exasperated breath. “Marie Schioppo! Why do you keep at me with that question?”
“She’s a bird, Mr. Gump. And birds were meant to fly. If she can’t fly she might as well be dead.”
He rolled his eyes.
“Okay, you know what,” he said, wrapping the cloth snuggly around the bird once more. “You’ll have to excuse me, it’s been a difficult day here in animal land. This bird has serious problems. So, like I said, I’ll have to dispose of it. Which means yes, I can answer your question after all. I’m going to say it’s highly unlikely this bird will ever fly again. His fate is sealed. This bird’s not for sale. There. You got your answer. So I’m going to close up shop now. Nighty night. I’ll let you out the front.”
Still holding the bird in one hand, he started away from the table.
“I guess I’ll take my chances then,” Marie said. “Throw in a box of bird seed and you’ve got yourself a deal.”
“You’re not hearing me, young lady. And I’m running out of patience with you. We’re done now. Goodnight.”
“No, I understand,” she said. “You’re saying she won’t fly again. I’ll take her anyhow.”
She held out the envelope to him.
He took a deep breath and let his entire body sag. “Fine. You go right ahead and see for yourself. But not a word of this to anyone. You understand?”
He grabbed a small cardboard package off the shelf and threw it in a cage that sat next to him. She handed over the canary. Unwrapping the bird, he reached inside the cage and spread the pink and white cloth on the bottom, then rested the bird in the center of it.
She pushed the envelope at him and closed the door on the cage so he had to pull his hand free. The she grasped the wire handle on top.
“I’m going to name her Pinkie.”
“Pinkie?” he said. “Okay, I’ll bite. Why a yellow canary named Pinkie?”
“After Pinkie Wingate. In Listen, Darling.”
“I didn’t see it. Thankfully.”
“Oh, it was wonderful. Especially the singing. Judy Garland plays Pinkie.”
“Why did I not see that coming. Can we please not get started on Judy Garland again? Anyhow what’s your mother going to say when you bring home another animal?”
She lifted the cage from the table. “Thank you very much, Mr. Gump,” she said and walked away.
Halfway to the front door she stopped and turned around to face him. “And by the way, not only is she going to fly. She’s going to sing, too. You just watch.”