The Cage - James Michael Starr

The Cage

 

THE CANARY SHRIEKED AND FLAPPED ITS WINGS in a blurred flurry of yellow, slinging blood up the wall, across the shelves, and onto the white sleeves of the teenage boy who struggled desperately to control it.

“Stop! Stop it!” the shop owner yelled as he came running from the front. “What in the hell are you doing?”

He hurried to the table, pushed the boy aside, and grabbing a clean white towel from the shelf, wrapped it tightly around the bird.

“You’re fired, young man,” he shouted. “Get the hell out of here!”

The boy staggered back and looked at Marie, who stood by helplessly, one hand over her mouth.

“NOW!” the man bellowed at him.

He turned and ran out the back door of the shop, but the girl was frozen in place and could only watch as crimson crept through the thick cotton. Blood was splattered across her face.

The bird’s shrill cries had launched a cacophony of chirping and tweeting from the cages lining the aisles behind her, and Marie wanted to run. But as the shop owner held it snuggly in the pink-blotched cloth, the bird slowly calmed, and Marie with it. Gradually its desperate shrieking subsided into frightened peeps, and the pet shop grew quiet again.

“And, young lady? You didn’t see this,” he snapped.

He carefully unwrapped the canary, spread one hand across it to splay the injured wing flat against the table, and poured a yellow powder over the bleeding tip.

“What are you doing back here anyhow?” he demanded. “I closed shop a half hour ago. I thought you already left.”

“What did he do?” she asked softly, her hand still covering half of her face, only her dark eyes showing below the low bangs of thick, curly, black hair.

“He cut the blood feather. I should have cut off one of his hands to see how he’d like it.”

“Will she die?” she asked.

“He. He’s a male. And yes, he very well might,” he replied. “I’ll know soon enough.”

“Is there anything–”

“Quiet, please,” he said.

He attended quickly to the bloody wing, first pressing down with the cloth, next daubing gently at the damaged tip. He repeated the process, rewetting the cloth with a liquid he poured from a brown glass bottle. When he reached for a pair of needle-nose pliers, Marie wanted to look the other away but couldn’t. She could only stand and watch as, without hesitation, he grasped the damaged feather and with one smooth motion pulled it from the canary’s wing. She gasped.

“Listen, Miss Schioppo,” he said. “Forgive me for being so blunt, but if you’re going to have a pet of your own some day, you’re going to have to stop being so squeamish.”

With one hand he held the cloth against the bird and with the other dropped the bloody feather into a steel wastebasket beside the table. Marie winced at the metallic plink it made when it landed inside.

“I’m not either squeamish,” she protested.

“Oh? I’ve watched you whenever you come in here. And it doesn’t even take something like blood to get to you. Anytime an animal appears in the slightest distress, you take it personally, like it was you there in the pen. You can’t save the world, you know.”

“Why should 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 additional suffering like this if you’re going to save one of them.”

She remained silent, as if not to encourage further discussion, but he went on.

“Look, I think I can safely say this bird is in the worst distress of its life. But if I had thought twice about causing it further pain just now, he’d have no hope of survival. He would have bled to death if I’d left that broken feather in place.”

Never taking his eyes off the canary, he nodded his head toward the front door of the pet shop.

“You’ve seen these millworkers walking around town with missing fingers, or part of an arm gone, right?”

“Do we have to talk about this?” she murmured.

“You think some big machine just cut it off nice and tidy, don’t you? No. If you see a guy with part of his arm gone, he mighta had a half-ton chunk of steel fall on his hand. Just his hand. Now, they can’t leave that thing just hanging there, or all kinds of problems could come of it. They have to amputate. And sometimes they even have to take off a little extra. Sometimes they have to cut off some that wasn’t even damaged.”

“Okay, I get your point,” she said looking away.

“Alright. I’ve said enough.”

He finally looked up at Marie.

“But you’re what, fourteen?”

“Fifteen,” she said.

“Even more so then. I’m just trying to say it’s time you learned that life’s full of pain. The sooner you accept it 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 whispered. “And keep the wings closed.”

Finally she could allow herself to cry.

“Please, let’s not get all melodramatic about this,” he said as he wiped his hands clean. “It’s just a bird.”

The canary wriggled less now, only making faint chirping noises. Marie could feel the rapid tapping of its heartbeat against her hand and stood in silence for several minutes, pressing gently on the tiny bird while the shopkeeper waited. Suddenly she realized it wasn’t struggling anymore. It only lay with its mouth agape, occasionally blinking.

“Oh no,” Marie’s voice cracked. “She stopped moving.”

“It’s okay. He’s finally calming down. I think he’s going to survive. See his eyes?” he said. “And again, this is a male bird, not a hen. We call him Jack. Jack Robin.”

He handed her a cloth.

“Here, some of it got on your cheek,” he said.

She picked up the sweet, familiar smell of alcohol and, holding her breath, wiped the red from her face and hands. He nodded and she handed it back to him.

“Why did he have to clip her wings? Doesn’t that make it so they can’t fly anymore?” she asked.

“Not if you know what you’re doing,” the man said. “Damn idiot.”

He examined the bird’s wound again.

“Yeah, he’ll probably be okay. Fifty fifty, at least. One thing’s for sure though,” he said, watching the bird’s eyes. “I can’t keep him around here anymore. It’ll be six months before he’ll be back to normal, if he ever is. And then I won’t be able to sell him. Not to anybody. This has happened before with these dumb kids that don’t pay attention, and then I end up having to euthanize the thing.”

He watched the bird a moment and then quickly turned his face to look at Marie.

“Unless–” he paused. “–if you’ll promise to keep quiet about all this, I’ll let you take him home right now for what you have saved up, even-steven. Cage and all. Just go out the back.”

“Gee, I don’t know,” Marie hesitated, looking down at the wrinkled envelope she held in her other hand.

“Look, I don’t want to upset you or anything, but I’m a businessman, and I have to keep this place going. Obviously, I love animals as much as you do, just look around. But folks aren’t knocking down my door looking for another mouth to feed, and as far as I know, Sir Franklin Delano isn’t coming out with some big government program to save pet shops. The cold hard truth is this bird is inventory. And now it’s damaged inventory. If I can’t sell it, I have to dispose of it. I’d much rather let you take him than kill him. And for less than I paid, I might add, so I can at least recoup some of my investment.”

“But what if she dies?”

“Do you hear what I’m telling you? Euthanizing him means putting him away. Killing him. So he could end up dying no matter what you decide. At least if you take him you might be able to save him. And stop saying ‘she.’ You’ve heard him sing.”

“But if she can’t fly, maybe she’s better off dead.”

He paused, looking stunned.

“Well that’s a reaction I didn’t expect out of you,” he said, returning his attention to the bird. “Maybe you ought to think about where he stands on the issue.”

“I don’t think birds have opinions,” Marie said. “But if they did, I for sure don’t think they’d vote 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 at her.

“Actually, he’s looking pretty good right now,” he said as he lightened the pressure on the bird and pulled back the cloth 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.

“It doesn’t make a difference to me one way or the other how I deal with this little problem, young lady,” he said with exasperation. “I just know how long you’ve been coming in here looking at the canaries, and I’m only trying to make you a good deal on one. Besides, for the little bit you’ve got saved up there, you can’t afford the Scottish Champion or anything.”

She unfolded the envelope and opened it to count the money inside one more time.

“Four dollars and seventy-eight cents,” he said, glancing at her. “Am I correct?”

She nodded.

“And just think,” he went on. “You won’t have to keep setting back the money you make baby-sitting for another year”

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–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? You’re going to keep him in a cage.”

“I thought you said she was looking pretty good. A bird is hardly a bird if it can’t fly. So, will she?”

“I think you may have misunderstood, Miss Schioppo. Setting aside the fact that he’s just been through a terrible shock, only time will tell if he’ll ever fly again. There’s a good chance he’ll survive this trauma, but my point is even if he does, he doesn’t have any 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?”

“No, we don’t.”

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 he’ll be gone. Next thing you know, he’s falcon food.”

“But just tell me. Will she ever be able to fly again?”

He looked at her and sighed.

“Why do you keep at me with that question?” he said with bulging eyes. “And why do you insist the bird is a female? Female canaries don’t sing. I thought you at least knew that much by now.”

“I’m a girl. She’s a girl. A girl can tell,” she replied.

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. The truth is…Yep. I’ve decided 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, putting one hand out in front of him. “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’m hearing you,” she said. “You’re saying she won’t fly again. I understand. I’ll take her anyhow.”

She held out the envelope to him.

“That’s not what I’m–” he began, then stopped, took a deep breath, and let his entire body sag. “Fine.You go right ahead and see for yourself.”

He grabbed a small cardboard package off the shelf and threw it in a cage that sat nearby. Unwrapping the canary, he reached inside the cage with the pink and white cloth and spread it on the bottom, then rested the bird in the center of it.

His hand still resting atop the bird, he turned and looked Marie in the eye.

“Just one last thing,” he said to her. “Why is it so goddamn important to you if he ever flies again, for Christ’s sake?”

She pushed the envelope into his hand and took the wire handle atop the cage.

“Thank you very much, Mr. Gump,” she said and, lifting the cage from the table, turned and left the shop.

 

Ein Jäger mit Jagdbeute und drei Finken im Käfig
(A huntsman with the spoils of the chase and three finches
in a birdcage, a landscape with a castle beyond)
Kessler, Stephan (1622–1700)

 

  

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