Sister Lucy squinted hard at the starred ad in the pet section of the want ads. Her little “Hump” roused Mama from her morning drowse. “What you say there, Sister?” the old lady whined.
“Birds, Mama. Birds,” the younger woman replied, smacking her toothless gums together as she reread the ad. Brother had paid for a fine set f of teeth three years ago, but she’d never liked them, and as soon as he cleared out of the house after breakfast, out came the teeth. She was always careful to put them back in when she telephoned him, something she was preparing to do even as she answered Mama’s question.
“Says here, in the want ads, that someone’s got canaries for sale,” she told Mama, punctuating each word with a sweep of the dial.
“Sure now?” Mama asked, leaning forward in her chair with a rare show of interest.
Sister Lucy nodded her head, scratching at the gray frizz with her pencil at the same time. She popped to attention when the voice from the other end said, “Benevolent Insurance Society and Funeral Home, Brother MacEvoy speaking.”
“Brother? Brother, that you? Lucy here.” She always began each day’s call that way. Even after all these years, hearing him so business-like threw her for a moment.
“Yes, Sister. It’s me. What’s wrong now?” He always said that too.
“Nothing wrong, Brother.” Lucy beamed her toothy smile into the phone. “In fact, everythin’s fine. Remember how we was talkin about orderin a canary bird?”
“Mmhmm. . . .” His silence hung between them.
“Well we may not have to, Brother. It says right here in the classified ads, one with a star, ‘Canaries,’ she now read with authority, juggling the carefully folded paper and the receiver and adjusting her glasses at the same time. “‘Cagebred singers, all colors’ and the number to call ‘739-7072’ — that’s not long distance, is it Brother?”
“Hmmm? No. Not as I know. That’s down around Happy Hill, where the Carols live, remember?”
Lucy nodded and smiled into the receiver again. “Reckon I should give them a call then?”
“Why not, Sister,” the man answered. “Before you go now, you don’t need nothing but bread from the store, right?”
“That’s right, Brother, and eggs, cause I’m gonna make Mama some bread puddin tomorrow, and some milk and cinnamon, too, and. . . .”
“That’s enough for now, Sister. You go on and make that call. Find out all about it and tell me when I get home this evenin, hear?”
“Yes, Brother. Thank you.” She nodded at the receiver. “Bye now.” She hung up and simultaneously removed her teeth and set them on the chimney piece. “He says go on and call, Mama. Jest think, we maybe gonna get us a canary bird.”
The older woman didn’t reply. She dozed, hands folded corpse-like over her breast. Lucy tiptoed past her chair and turned down the TV set volume. Then she returned to the phone table. She circled the ad with a lead pencil. Should she put her teeth in or not? Never mind. She dialed with trembling finger. The phone rang, long rings, four to be exact, before a soft voice answered, “Hello?”
“A white woman,” Sister said to herself. “I’m callin about your ad in the paper for canaries?”
“Well, what can you tell me about them? How much do they cost?” She scowled into the receiver.
“Well, they’re cage-bred birds. This year’s hatch. They’re in full song, and I have variegated yellow, variegated orange, variegated peach, green, silver and one peach frost left. They start at 30 dollars and run to 50 dollars depending on song and color. The reds are the hardest to breed.”
“Sure now.” Sister Lucy was digesting the torrent of information. “I use to raise canaries,” she stated. “You just don’t find them anymore.”
“No ma’am. You can order them through a pet shop. They start around 50 dollars and run to 70 or more.”
“I know,” Sister Lucy answered, warming to the bird lady. “How come they run so high these days?”
“There was a ban on bringing canaries into the country about 10 years ago. They used to come in from the Orient,” the soft voice explained. “There were only a few breeders in this country — not enough to meet the market. I looked for years before I found my birds. I’ve been breeding birds some eight years now. Would you like to make an appointment to see the birds?”
Sister shook her head. “Where abouts you live?”
“Do you know where Bellingrath Gardens are?”
“Oh Lordy, that far out?” Lucy’s face fell. “I’ll have to talk it over with my brother an see if someone can get me out there. I — who am I talkin to?”
“Michel, the name is Michel.”
“No, Michel — Michael in French. M-I-C-H-E-L,” the voice spelled out carefully while Sister’s sausage fingers labored with the pencil at the top of the want-ad page.
“Miz Michel, I got that, right?”
“Yes.” The voice from the other end sounded tired.
“Good. Now I got your name and number. I’ll call you back. Bye now.”
“Well?” Mama’s quavering voice demanded of the form hunched over the paper. “She’s got birds, Mama. All colors — she says. And I could hear them singin in the house. Lordy Mama. Such songs. Remember your birds? And my birds, Mama? My goodness, almost 15, maybe 20 years ago. Remember Joe, the little yellow bird, and Ollie, the brown and yellow bird?”
The old woman pulled the blue bath towel that had been lying across her shoulders up over her head and face, shutting out daughter, memories and the terribly warm, immaculately clean room she couldn’t see anyway.
“I’m gonna run down to Yvonne for a minute, Mama. You be okay?”
The draped figure gave no evidence of hearing, so Sister Lucy slipped the lock and let herself out into the autumn morning freshness. “The house is really too warm,” she murmured to herself as she hobbled up the street.
Yvonne turned her one good eye toward Sister Lucy, taking in the state of her neighbor and best friend. She was taller, greyer and more regal than Sister Lucy ever dreamed of being. When Yvonne added her rich contralto voice to the Oakdale Baptist Church Choir, it was as if milk and honey were flowing together.
“Well, Sister, you be out early this mornin,” she puffed, leading the way to her spotless kitchen. “Get down now, Beau,” she scolded the little Papillon dog who bobbed about looking for a treat. “Come here you, come sit with Mama.” The bundle of fur bounded into her generous lap. “You got time to sit a spell? I’ll make coffee.”
“No, Yvonne. I can’t stay. I just wanted to tell you about the canaries.”
“Canaries?” Yvonne leaned forward. “You mean that brother of yours done gone and ordered one of them fancy pet store birds? They won’t have no strength, Sister.”
“No, no, Yvonne. I found a lady has some down near Happy Hill.”
“Do tell. What she askin?”
“Thirty to 50 dollars.” Lucy sat back and let Yvonne swallow that.
“You told your brother yet?”
“About the birds, yes. About the price, no. He said to go on and call. I’ll tell him tonight. I sure do want one. Remember when we had birds, years ago?”
Yvonne nodded. “Seems like it was someone else, not us.” Both old women nodded and stared at the kitchen wall as if it might suddenly throw back an image from their past.
“I’m pretty sure the price is okay with Brother. But how’m I gonna get down there to pick my bird up?”
“Maybe I could get my grandson to take us one Sunday,” Yvonne volunteered. “I wouldn’t mind to have one of those canaries myself.”
“They’ll do well here,” Lucy encouraged. “You got plenty of light, and it’s not too hot. We have to keep the place so hot for Mama.”
“How she doin today, Sister?”
“Middlin. She gets so cross. The TV’s too loud or not loud enough. Seems if I couldn’t see, I’d just as soon have the radio. But I gotta go. Mama may miss me.”
“Let me know what Brother says,” Yvonne said, following her friend to the door.
“I will. I’ll call you after supper. Bye now.”
“Bye yourself. You stay here Beau,” Yvonne snapped at the little dog. “I really am interested in one of those canaries,” she added again. “You call me.”
Mama was still under the towel but snoring loudly when Sister Lucy let herself back into the house. The warm room seemed huge in its shadowy stillness. From every corner she imagined her canary’s song softly rising and peaking, trilling off into its own echo. Where would she put the bird? They like lots of light. Maybe in the dining room. She could open the blinds there. Maybe they could turn Mama’s chair a little toward the south wall. Yes, that would do. The light couldn’t bother her. Lucy walked into the dining room and stared into the imaginary bird cage on its stand. Her canary swelled his little throat in song. The tiny beard moved up and down. She wiped her eyes on her apron and went to do the dishes.
That night Brother heard it all, every word and shading of the morning’s conversation. The only distraction was helping Mama with her dinner. While she picked at her dessert, Brother wiped his mouth and carefully refolded his napkin. Sister watched him with pride. He was always so neat, so precise. Then he pushed back his chair. “Now Sister, we talked about ordering a bird, I know.”
“Who gonna take care of it, huh?” Mama muttered, leaning close to her dish.
“I will, Mama.” Lucy dreaded Mama’s objections. “But Brother, all we got to do is go down, find a way to go, and jest pick one out.” She would beg if it was necessary.
“I ain’t goin nowhere but to the doctor or my funeral, hear Sister?” Mama whined.
“Now Mama, you ain’t dyin anytime soon. Besides, you used to love having a bird to sing for you. Just think how much nicer he’ll sound than that old TV.” She was afraid she might cry now.
“Sister,” Brother was continuing over Mama’s whining. “We can’t get that far anytime soon.” Her fat jolly face turned so sad. He felt terrible. Sister never asked for much. He smiled and continued. “But you could call the lady and see if she might deliver a bird.”
Sister Lucy was smiling again. She leaned over to scrape up the last of Mama’s dessert for her.
“And while you’re at it, see if she has any females. You could try raising some birds of your own. I bet Yvonne could help you.”
Lucy couldn’t seem to get to sleep that night, and after answering Mama’s little night bell, she lay in the cold circle of moonlight, hearing in her heart all the birds that had sung for her from her days as a teenager, through the lonely years of taking care of Mama.
Arch gave her the first canary for Easter. He was Yvonne’s only brother. Lucy never loved any other boy or man. He wanted her to marry him, but Mama was already starting to ail, and Arch couldn’t find steady work. She’d been afraid. The pretty yellow bird had sung heedless of the struggle that went on in the tidy room. It all ended when Roselle Jones from over Marine Street had smiled her smile and wiggled her hips. Arch stopped coming down to plead with Lucy. She rolled over and shed a few tears for the plump girl who had smiled at Arch’s wedding and then come home to sob her heart out in this bed, in this room. A night bird called, but Sister Lucy didn’t hear it. She finally slept.
Mama was fed and dressed, the dishes tucked away, but it was still too early to call the bird lady; a toy commercial or cereal ad from Captain Kangaroo reminded her of the time.
Sister decided she’d better go to the storage room and make sure she still had the bird cage left from Mama’s last canary. They’d given her the bird when they brought her home from the hospital, to keep her company. Her sight was all but gone then; still she’d taken pleasure in the song.
Sister laughed triumphantly when she found the cage behind the Christmas decorations and a barbecue grill they had long ago forgotten. And what else? Wonder of wonders, there wasn’t just one big cage, there was a small round green cage greying under years of dust. It was the cage Arch had brought her Easter canary in. She squatted, painfully, in the center of the storage room, surrounded by the discards of a lifetime, and gently ran her fingers over the bars of the old cage. That pretty yellow bird, she thought.
By the time she’d carried the cages back into the kitchen, and wiped off the worst of the dust, she was sure it was not too early to call the bird lady. She didn’t even stop to think about putting her teeth in, and her excitement when the woman answered made her hard to understand. “You deliver?” she asked somewhat brusquely.
“I can,” the lady replied, “if you think you’d rather do that than see the birds and make your own choice.”
“Well, I really want one, and Brother says there’s no way we can get down your way to pick one out right now. See, I take care of my mother,” Lucy explained.
“I see.” The voice softened with concern. “I can pick you out a nice bird. You have a cage?” “Yes ma’am. I’ll get it cleaned up.”
“Fine. And you want a 30-dollar bird, right?”
Lucy had forgotten the differences in pricing and color, and nodded like a puppet as all was re-explained to her. Finally she settled on a yellow and brown singer. Then there was the problem of explaining where she lived. Lucy never drove, and when she did get out, it was to the doctor with Mama, while Yvonne’s grandson drove, and of course to church. But the bird lady seemed to know approximately where she was.
“Glory be, Mama. We’re gonna get us a canary bird,” she cried out when she replaced the receiver. Mama only nodded and said, “Turn up the TV, Sister.”
Lucy had to tell someone. She called her brother at the funeral home. “Fine, Sister. That’s fine.” He sounded quietly pleased. “Did she have any hens?”
“Why no, Brother, I clean forgot to ask.”
“Well you might’s well ask her. That way you can try your hand at raisin them. We need something young around the house.”
“Oh Brother.” She was really excited now. “Hang up so’s I can call her now.” Her teeth were still in, and the bird lady didn’t connect Lucy with her first call right away. But she still had a few silver and green hens left. Sister Lucy allowed that she’d gladly take one of them, recalling that the darker birds were stronger somehow.
The bird lady asked Sister if she had a way to get seed. Going to the store with Yvonne was a rare outing for her, so she and the bird lady agreed that it would be best if the bird lady brought seed with the birds.
Even if she’d had the words, Sister Lucy couldn’t have told the bird lady that for the first time in time forgotten, her heart was soaring. Her hands were trembling when she hung up. But Mama had gotten her head all wrapped up in the towel and was mumbling about the bathroom. That brought her back to earth. She was still busy with Mama when Yvonne called from the front room. “I’m with Mama,” she hollered back. “I’ll be right there.”
Mama took forever, and when the two hobbled back up the hall, Yvonne was standing at the dining room table, dusting imaginary dust from the green bird cage. “Hello Mama, how you today?” her mellow alto crooned.
“Waitin for Jesus, Sister. That’s all,” the old woman croaked, leaning her birdlike frame heavily on her daughter. “I believe He’s forgotten me.”
“He’s just not ready for you yet, Mama.” Lucy envied the assurance in Yvonne’s velvety tone.
“I got me two birds comin, Yvonne,” Lucy told her as she settled Mama again. “Brother said go ahead and get a little hen too. So we’s gonna have some songs, some young and everything.” She beamed cherubically at her friend.
“That’s what I came to see you about, Sister,” Yvonne began. “I have an empty cage at home too. I’d kind of like to talk to your bird lady. When you goin to see her?”
“She’s comin here, Sister. Bringin me my birds and seed too. Isn’t it grand?”
“It sure is. I just hope she’s honest. But listen, I’d like to talk to her when she comes. You reckon she has any more birds?”
“You want me to call?” Lucy asked. It was rare in her memory, Yvonne doing anything through her. Yvonne usually met the world head on.
“If you don’t mind, seein you got her business cornered.”
“Well it isn’t that, Yvonne. I guess when you can make some money you just have to go where it takes you. Right?”
“Right.” Yvonne sounded relieved. “Well, I best get home and do some cleanin. You let me know what she says.”
“I will, Yvonne, I will.” She let Yvonne out the door. “I sure hope the bird lady don’t think I’m crazy,” Lucy muttered half to Mama and half to herself as she dialed the number she now knew by heart. “I hate to keep troublin you,” she began without bothering to identify herself.
“It’s no bother, Miz MacEvoy. What can I do for you?”
When Lucy hung up, Yvonne was committed to a red and brown singer. She proudly reported the results of her call to her friend. Then she set about cleaning her cages, fussing with perch arrangements and wondering where the pair would fare best. Even Mama’s childlike antics couldn’t blight the day for her.
That night Lucy put the money Brother had carefully counted out to her in a stocking purse under the bottom corner of her mattress. She knew that people who had money taken from under their mattresses generally hid it up at the head. Even so, all the next day she slipped into her room more frequently than usual, just to check that the purse was still safe.
Wednesday night was Lucy’s turn to go to Prayer Meeting while Brother sat with Mama. She dressed with the greatest of care. She knew Yvonne had mentioned the birds to several of the neighbors, and that meant all eyes would be on them tonight. She carefully rebraided her salt-and-pepper grey hair, smoothing the frizz at her forehead. Virginia, from across the street, who did hair, had called and twitted her about finding gold and wasting it on a “silly old bird.” “Why with that kind of money,” she’d drawled to Sister Lucy, “I could get me a new fall outfit for church.”
“Well, I’ll take fine birds and not the fancy feathers,” Lucy had quipped back, surprising herself with her sudden turn to wit. Even sightless Mama had peered round-eyed from under her towel at her daughter. Lucy had to smile about it as she smoothed her bulky front. Even in a girdle she was too fat, “Dumpy” her critical eyes told her. “Why couldn’t I have been a shade taller?” she demanded of herself. Then she might have carried her heaviness with the stalking majesty of Yvonne and some of the other matrons in the neighborhood.
Sister turned from her mirror. Now she had the birds to set her apart. Somehow, suddenly, because of them she was going to stand out from the rest of them, except Yvonne. “But Yvonne wouldn’t be getting her bird without me.” The thought was strange. Perhaps she had her own shadow, instead of just being Yvonne’s.
After the meeting people clustered on the church steps to visit before heading into the autumn evening coolness to homes where there would be coffee and talk. Sister Lucy hoped Yvonne would be ready to go home at once. She didn’t like Brother’s having to wait too long alone with Mama, although, she reflected, he was often better at managing her than anyone else was. She began guiding Yvonne along the fringes of the little clusters of finely dressed women. “Wait Sister, don’t hurry off.” It was pesky Virginia and her friend Dorothy from Gayle Street. “I was just tellin Dorothy about your fancy birds.”
“When you gonna get them, Sister?” Dorothy addressed Lucy.
“Sometime this week. Yvonne’s gettin one too.” She wanted to shed the unwelcome and unfamiliar limelight.
“Only one,” Yvonne stressed.
“It must be nice, bein so rich,” Gladys Pattway caroled, coming into the tiny group. “Imagine takin a chance with 50 dollars for a couple of tiny little birds.”
“They used to be only five dollars,” Virginia declared.
“That was before they stopped them from comin in from Japan and Korea,” Sister Lucy said quickly.
“Well,” Dorothy added, “my man wouldn’t let me take that kind of risk with his money. Suppose somethin happens to them. Then what do you have?”
“All of life’s a chance,” Sister Lucy replied calmly. Then she took Yvonne’s arm firmly. “Come Yvonne. I promised Brother we wouldn’t be too late.” The two figures bobbed into the darkness. “Don’t mind them,” she puffed into Yvonne’s ear as the two labored over the uneven sidewalks, “they’re just jealous.”
“They’ll all be around once the birds come,” Yvonne prophesied almost grimly.
The bird lady called her early Friday morning. “You will be home this morning, won’t you?” she asked, announcing her intention to arrive with Lucy’s pair and Yvonne’s singer before lunch.
How could she tell the bird lady she never went anywhere but church and sometimes the doctor’s? How could she explain to the woman the gauntlet of eyes behind sheer curtains that she would run to enter the house? Sister Lucy chewed on all these thoughts while she straightened what was already straight in the spotless house. “Never had no white ladies in here before, Mama,” she said, brushing the old woman’s remaining white hairs into a kind of glowing halo that she promptly destroyed by hiding under the bath towel she demanded be left over her shoulders.
“You got beautiful shawls, why not wear one of them today?” Sister argued trying to take the towel away.
“Don’t keep me as warm as this towel,” Mama whined. “Now let me be, Sister.”
Sister Lucy hoped Mama would behave. She hoped it hard while she did the dishes. She couldn’t even get lunch started because she ran to the window every time she thought she heard a car door over the racket from the TV set.
Morning dragged on. She thought of getting the money from under her mattress, but dismissed the idea. Folks were known to break into houses in broad daylight to steal, and everyone knew to the penny what the birds cost.
Brother added to the excitement by calling to ask if the birds had come yet. “He’s as excited as we are, Mama,” she exclaimed, trying to drag Mama into the excitement. Brother had caught her with her teeth out. She must remember to put them in before she answered the door or the phone.
Mama finally dozed, and Sister Lucy had accepted the idea of starting lunch when the doorbell rang. Her hands were shaking when she opened the door to a tiny white woman, kind of fluttery like her birds, Lucy later observed.
She handed Lucy her purse and bags containing seed. Then she dashed to her car to get the birds. Sister could hardly keep her fingers from the white sheet draping the small cages. The lady set them on the dining room table and pulled away the cover. “Well, there they are.”
Sister Lucy stared, round-eyed, at the two little birds who looked back at her from their cage floor. One was yellow with a dark cap and brown penciled wing feathers. The other, a muted olive veiled with a kind of silvery sheen, hopped about and called a plaintive single note.
“They’re beautiful,” Sister said, hunching over the cage for a closer look. “You come to sing for me, you pretty things,” she called too loudly to the tiny birds. They jumped and fluttered about their cages, the olive bird calling in her desperate single note.
“They’ve had a long ride, and they’re frightened,” the bird lady reassured her. “I’ll fix their cages and we can set them up,” she continued. “Have you any newspapers for the cage bottom?”
Lucy hurried to fetch some while the woman chatted on. “I always use newspaper for the cage bottoms. It’s cheap and the birds don’t get sore feet if you let it age.” She went on talking as she worked, her quick, almost birdlike movements fascinating Sister Lucy almost as much as the two new treasures.
When the bird lady exclaimed over the little round cage, Sister Lucy made her laugh, owning up to saving everything. “Sometimes,” the bird lady sighed, “I think we’re in the junk business instead of the life business.” Lucy was pleased to be included in the business of living things. Then the bird lady unpacked the seed, identifying each type as she sifted the shining seed through her fingers. Lucy wondered how she’d ever manage to keep it all straight.
The bird lady put all the seed and treat cups in place and gave Lucy the water container from her own travel cage. “Until you can get your own,” she offered.
“These birds are part roller and drink a lot of water.” “I’ll go get your money now,” Sister Lucy told the bird lady once the cages were set up. She needed an excuse not to watch the transfer of the tiny birds. What if one got away? Mama might rouse from under her towel and raise a fuss.
Once the money was carefully counted out, Sister Lucy remembered Brother’s stressing the importance of getting a guarantee. “The male will surely sing in 10 days,” the bird lady stressed as she wrote the receipt and guarantee. “Sometimes, where there are two birds in the house, they sing even sooner.” She explained that the colored bands on their legs bore the date of their hatch and her initials, just in case anything went wrong. Lucy took it all in, smacking her gums and nodding. Too late, she realized she’d forgotten her teeth. Absorbed in the bird lady’s information, she again forgot their absence. She had a million questions.
Finally the bird lady looked at her watch. “Goodness, I must hurry. I have to deliver a bird to Springhill. Is your friend still interested in her bird?” While Lucy went to call Yvonne, the bird lady gathered up the empty cages and fluttered quietly past Mama to fetch the other cage.
Lucy felt shy of her birds, and wished everyone, even the reassuring bird lady, were gone, so she could get acquainted with them in private. But Yvonne stalked in moments later and allowed herself to be introduced. The bird lady uncovered the square cage. A brown and red bird hopped about, and at once began calling to the pair already in the room. The second bird, a shade of peach veiled with frosty white, stared wildly at the three women, and panted in fear.
“Lord he’s beautiful,” Yvonne exclaimed, pointing at the panting bird. “But the dark one’s stronger. I remember from when I raised them. Darker is stronger.”
“You’ve made an excellent choice,” the bird lady agreed. “He’s an excellent singer.”
“I sure do want him. I sure do,” Yvonne replied, turning to Lucy. “Sister,” she said, “You got 30 dollars for me? He is 30 dollars?” She turned back to the bird lady, who nodded. “You got 30 dollars for me? It may be a month till I get it. It may not be.”
The three women stood silent for a moment. The bird lady wondered about her sale. Lucy and Yvonne wondered about the years of big fish little fish, queen and court. Lucy finally said she’d look. She knew that she had that much tucked in a jar of dried black-eyed peas.
“Thank you, Sister,” Yvonne crooned, as Sister Lucy came back into the room, and handed her the money. “I’ll be payin you back as soon’s I can.”
There was the flurry of receipt writing, and the bird lady’s fluttering departure, with her promise to return with more seed for both women in a week’s time.
“She was nice, wasn’t she?” Lucy said to Yvonne as they watched the little green car swing away into the quiet street.
“Next time she can stop at my house too,” Yvonne intoned, collecting her bird and share of the seed. “Well Sister, I guess I’d better get home and start lunch. Bet everyone on the street is watchin now.”
Sister Lucy nodded. What had she done, she wondered. What had she let them in for? “Bye now. Be careful.” She helped Yvonne maneuver herself and the bird cage out of the house.
“Thanks again, Sister.” Yvonne touched her arm. “You always been right here when we needed you.” She hobbled away.
“What are friends for?” Lucy called after Yvonne.
Mama had uncovered her head and sat upright, listening. The birds were hopping around their cages, making scratching sounds on the paper, calling single notes to each other. “When they gonna sing?” she demanded petulantly.
“Soon’s they feel at home, Mama,” Lucy replied, tearing herself away to the kitchen, and hoping that would be very soon.
Right after lunch people started dropping by. Virginia was first. “You got prettier ones than Yvonne. Her bird don’t sing none neither,” she hastened to add.
Dorothy came by from work, and Callie, the young girl from across the street, came by with her baby. The child grabbed the bars and frightened the birds. They flew about wildly and Lucy was certain they would hurt themselves.
She was exhausted and close to tears by the time Brother got home from work. “Dinner’s late,” she told him wearily. “Everybody from Oakdale Baptist Church has been by here I think. Poor little birds is so scared they can’t hardly peep.”
Brother sneaked a look at them and assured her they were just beautiful and would sing “bymbye.’ After dinner he opened the windows. The day had warmed unseasonably. A kind of still mugginess gripped the evening. Mama fussed and said she wasn’t going to bed yet. All the people stopping by about the birds had interrupted her routine. Lucy had hardly had a minute for her. “And them birds ain’t said ‘boo’ yet,” she snorted, flipping her towel over her face.
Laughter rang from the porch of Virginia’s house. Yvonne’s grandchildren were fooling with their cars. Somewhere up Virginia Street police sirens whined. Sister Lucy felt sorry for the poor little birds, taken from their brothers and sisters and quiet country home to this hot noisy city.
Her teeth hurt, and she longed for Brother to go out on the porch for his evening smoke so she could take them out. Finally, she could take no more. Almost defiantly she turned from the sink and removed the offending teeth, carrying them to their customary spot on the mantel. Then she went back to where the cages stood in the dining room. She turned on the light and took up her sewing. What did Brother do at the funeral home that was so hard on buttons? The birds rustled awake on their perches. “O Lordy,” she muttered. She’d forgotten to cover their cages. “Poor things. I’ll probably kill you before you ever get a chance to sing.”
She started to rise to go for covers. But the hen’s desperate call stopped her. The little male replied, a long answering note. Then the hen called again and hopped to the side of the cage facing him. She cocked her head and called. His reply was almost a reassurance. Then lifting his head, he began, softly at first, looking for the right notes, to sing. The song took on a pattern and grew stronger, fuller. The hen hopped about a little and called encouragement. He swelled his tiny throat and raised to his full height. The song filled every dark corner of the house and spilled through the open front door and windows.
Someone hushed a loud voice on Virginia’s porch. Even traffic seemed not to move. Brother came from the porch and stood looking into the room, smiling. He flashed Lucy a wink she did not see.
Mama uncovered her face and sat very still, listening. Her lips moved soundlessly. Tears filled her blind eyes and spilled down her leathery cheeks. Sister Lucy just sat, her hands quiet on her lap, her soul quiet for the first time since she’d been a girl.
Patricia D. Petit resides in Theodore, Alabama, and is founder of the South Alabama Cage Bird Society. She is author of Where Have All the Canaries Gone? and has guest lectured to creative writing classes at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham. (1982)