Brass Canaries Gwendolyn Clare
We perch next to the glass, where window shoppers can press their flushed faces against the panes and ooh and aah at us. It is shopping season. We know because they cover their hands in cloth, and the sky falls white and fluffy around their feet.
They hurry by in twos and threes, carrying bags and boxes clutched close to their bodies. Sometimes a large one leads a line of smaller ones, like our Maker the year he built ducklings. The smaller ones linger by our window and stare.
We also know it is shopping season because some of us are sold. Maker takes one of us from the window perch, carries it to the counter, and wraps it in bright red tissue paper. “Sold” means you go away and do not come back. The brass grackles squawk jealously every time our Maker rustles the tissue for another bird; we have asked them why, but they won’t tell. After closing time, our Maker says goodnight to every bird, cooing about the pleasures of being sold. We suspect the grackles know no more of it than we do.
The mockingbirds used to live next to us in the window display. Their favorite songs are the whoosh-whoosh of the street cleaner and the bee-yoo bee-yoo of emergency sirens. They did not sell well, and our Maker moved them to the back room. We miss them. They were interesting conversationalists.
Last year we fluttered our polished wings and cocked our heads at all the passersby, enticing them to pause for a closer look. But now we stare out the glass, or hop around on our perch to face away. Maybe, if we ignore them, we too will sell poorly and our Maker will move us to the back room with the mockingbirds.
A woman enters the shop one morning, the old silver jay cawing her arrival from his perch atop the doorframe. Our Maker shuffles out of the back room to help her. The woman looms over him, imposing and tall, swathed in furs and golden jewelry that gleams like our polished brass plumage. On the high shelf behind the counter, the brass owl lets out a single hoot, a low note of warning. It has an excellent instinct for customers. Our Maker ignores it.
“How may I help you, madam?” he says.
The woman sweeps her gaze around the crowded shop, and with hardly a moment’s pause, she points to us and says, “I’ll take one of those.”
“Ah, the brass canaries. They’re delicate, very fragile,” our Maker warns. “Only recommended for the most discerning and dedicated hobbyists.”
“Is that so?” She raises a stern eyebrow.
“Well, they are a fine choice, my most life-like yet; that’s why they need such care. Just as with real canaries, their health suffers from the slightest neglect. Very sensitive birds.”
A big red ladder truck whizzes by in the street, singing bee-yoo bee-yoo, and in the back room, the mockingbirds take up the song. Bee-yoo, bee-yoo, bee-yoo.
The woman smoothes the cloth on her hands and frowns. “I was not planning to stick it down a mine shaft, sir. I’m simply looking for a toy for my son.”
“Perhaps you’d be interested in the brass bats, then? They can fly,” he said, leaning in as if sharing a confidence. Hanging from the rafters, the bats squeak nervously and fan their wings; our Maker may not heed the owl’s warnings, but we all do.
“No, I think I’d rather a songbird. Last year, I bought him a brass kitten from LaGrange down on Main Street, and it scampered off not three days after Christmas. Never saw the bloody thing again. This time, I want something in a cage.”
We chittered amongst ourselves; a bloody brass kitten was news, indeed. Owl, we ask, what is blood?
Owl is the wisest of us all. He says, blood is what people have in their hearts.
And what is a heart, owl?
A heart is a mainspring, but for people.
The woman and our Maker are arguing about the number written on the little sign below our perch. We wonder: if people wind our springs, then who winds their hearts?
In the end, the woman agrees to purchase a pair of us at a reduced price, and she wanders to the other end of the store to select a cage. Our Maker plucks two of us from the perch and wraps them carefully, lovingly. The grackles squawk, and we exchange knowing glances out of the corners of our beady eyes. “Sold” means you go away and do not come back.
Our Maker gives her a list of instructions for our care and reminds the woman that we must be wound once a day. The shop is not responsible for birds broken as a result of neglect. Warranty valid for thirty days with proof of care. Not for use in coal mines.
“Thirty days?” the woman reads, and laughs. “You really expect a child to pay attention to the same toy for thirty consecutive days?”
“As I told you,” our Maker says, tight-lipped, “your canaries are quite fragile and require frequent care.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” She turns to go. “Happy Christmas.”
The silver jay chirps when she leaves, and our Maker lets out a weary sigh. Above him on the shelf, the owl shifts from one foot to the other, disquieted on our behalf. But we are not upset, we do not worry for our brethren. We know it is only the work of time and fate.
All the brass birds have a purpose. The mockingbirds were built to sing a siren chorus, the owl to be a keeper of knowledge, the bats to fly, and even the old silver jay has his job as the doorman of the shop. We, too, have a purpose. Our Maker would never tell us — he is too soft-hearted — but now we understand:
We were built to die.
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