Back in the Cage
Ella lay in a warm place with her eyes closed and her body bandaged and her heart broken. She heard a low murmur of voices, and the clink of cutlery and porcelain plates.
“Tell me,” said a voice. “How did your plan work out?”
Ella opened her eyes. A bandage wrapped around her chest and under her wings. She lay in a small box lined with a tea towel.
I keep waking up in strange places, thought Ella.
“I’ve had a fine day,” said the voice. “No difficulty or despair here. I do seem to be getting a lot of visitors, but everything else is normal.”
Ella looked up. The small box was in the bottom of Harold’s cage. Harold sat above her on his perch.
“Has everything happened already?” said Harold. “Or are you still waiting for something?”
He looked down at Ella with his gray, droopy eyes and his hard, curled beak and he did not smile.
Ella coughed and sat up.
“I’m still waiting,” she said.
This is the inside of the birdcage, she thought.
“I wish you had stayed here with me,” said Harold. His voice trembled slightly.
Ella nodded. She felt the wound in her chest throb, and her eyes grew damp.
“I can’t fly,” she said.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
Ella stood and stumbled out of the box and over to the bars. Several customers sat in the Bird House and drank tea and ate cakes. A pleasant low hum of people at rest filled the room.
“The raven took my mother,” said Ella. “And she didn’t even want her—she wanted me, wanted to lure me there, and when she did she put a spell on me and now I can’t fly and everything is broken. It’s a sad story with a bad beginning and a worse middle and no end in sight. You probably don’t want to hear it.”
“No, I guess not,” said Harold.
“Are you sure?”
“Okay,” he said. “Tell me.”
Ella told him. She opened her mouth and opened her heart and the heavy words inside her grew light and floated up and rushed out. She told him about the Terrible Black Night and the long journey and the tattered jay and the dark entrance to the Tower. She told him about the collection of watches and the glittering gems and the shiny things and blue things and the writing instruments and the feathers. She told him about the caged birds and the raven’s cruel claw and the swinging watch and the rolling whispers and waking up and no longer knowing how to fly.
“But how did you escape if you can’t fly?” said Harold.
“I fell,” said Ella. “I leapt and I fell. It’s a long story. It involves a mouse named Hurricane and a high ledge and thin air and a man named Edward who caught me and a detective and a jail cell.”
“Wait—you were arrested?” said Harold.
“I wasn’t arrested,” said Ella. “Who would arrest a sparrow? The man was arrested. He’s innocent, of course.”
“You’ll have to excuse me,” said Harold. “I didn’t get enough sleep, and I’m hungry, and now I seem to have completely missed the point. What happened to your mother?”
“She’s gone,” said Ella. “She’s gone again. But I have a feeling, and I have a plan. I sang to her, and I know she’ll remember me and search for me, and when I return to the Tower—”
“Return to the Tower?” said Harold. “Why would you return to the Tower? That’s crazy talk. That’s the worst idea you’ve had yet.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Ella. “But I have a plan.”
“You have absolutely no idea what I’m thinking. Is your second plan as good as your first?”
“No, it’s much better,” said Ella. “It begins with you teaching me how to fly.”
“To flee?” said Harold.
“To fly,” corrected Ella.
“Flying, or fleeing,” said Harold. “It’s all the same to me.”
“You have to teach me,” said Ella.
“No,” said Harold. “I do not. I refuse.”
“I don’t fly,” said Harold, “because I don’t like to fly. Flying is a mistake that the wild birds make. I like to sit in this cage and eat my meals. I enjoy breakfast, lunch, dinner, and in-between snacks. I like to be warm and dry and not chased or hunted or swept up by tornados or struck by lightning or pinned down by ravens.”
“I told you what you would find out there, and you did,” said Harold.
“But I found more than that,” said Ella.
“I found my mother.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure.”
“And she recognized you? How do you know she’s your mother?”
“Of course she’s my mother!” said Ella. “Stop arguing with me. Are you going to teach me to fly or not?”
“No!” said Harold.
“Why not?” said Ella.
“Because,” said Harold. “I don’t want you to go.”
He turned his head and slid away from her on his perch and stared out the window and did not smile.
I love you, thought Harold.
At the table beneath Harold’s cage, the young apprentice sat and spoke with Madame Alouette.
“I had a very smart idea about towers,” said the young apprentice. “I realized they would be much easier to work with if they lay on their sides.”
“On their sides?” said Madame Alouette. “Prostrate? Recumbent? Lying down?”
“Isn’t that smart?” said the young apprentice.
“They wouldn’t be towers if they lay on their sides,” said Madame Alouette. “They would be sheds, or warehouses.”
“Oh,” said the young apprentice. “I suppose. But wouldn’t that be an improvement?”
“Maybe for you,” said Madame Alouette. “Eat your cake.”
“I’m too nervous to eat,” said the young apprentice. “I’ve decided to climb the Tower today.”
Madame Alouette shook her head. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” said the young apprentice. “Absolutely.”
No, said his heart.
“Better hurry,” said Madame Alouette. She laughed. “The day is nearly finished. Over and out. Goodbye. Auf Wiedersehen!
Wilhelmina Nightingale turned around at the next table and glanced at Alouette. She turned back and said to the musician, “That woman keeps repeating herself.”
“Don’t we all?” said the musician. “Do you want some cake?”
“Maybe,” said Wilhelmina. “But I’m supposed to meet some people here soon.”
The musician motioned to Zhao.
“Two cakes,” he said.
“Sayonara!” said Madame Alouette. “Adios! Au revoir!”
“I have to climb the Tower,” said the young apprentice. “If I don’t, I’ll never be able to face my mother.”
“Drink your tea,” said Madame Alouette.
“Do you know why they call it the Statue of the Lost Poet?” asked the musician. “You should try this cake.”
Wilhelmina looked at the musician. Crow’s feet fanned out around his eyes when he laughed and grinned, which was more or less all the time.
This man knows how to live, she thought. This man has lived.
She shook her head. “I thought it was a monument to the mystery of life,” she said.
“It is now,” said the musician, “but it once was something else entirely. The statue represents an actual poet—a sad and terrible poet who lived in this city one hundred fifty-odd years ago. Nobody liked his poems. People groaned audibly and painfully when he read them. And although he was a sad and terrible poet whose poems made people groan, fate and family and finances intertwined and made sure his statue ended up here in the Park.”
He took another bite of cake.
“It’s funny,” he said. “I haven’t thought about this for years.”
“Go on,” said Wilhelmina.
She fed a bit of cake to Mildred.
“One day long ago, a young man finished reading a collection of painfully bad poems written by this sad and terrible poet. The young man realized two things. The first was that this sad and terrible poet did not deserve a monument. The second was that this young man had the power to fix this. He decided that a monument to a Lost Poet would be far more poetic than anything this sad and terrible poet had actually written. In addition, he thought, almost everyone has a Lost Poet inside them, and people would be much happier if they remembered this.”
“Yes,” said Wilhelmina. She looked away. “What happened?”
“What happened?” said the musician. “The young man took out all the money he had from his bank account, and he found a shop on the far side of the river where he could have a new plaque made. He then stole into the Park in the dead of night and removed the old plaque and installed the new one in its place. And ever since then, people have called it the Statue of the Lost Poet, because that’s what it says on the plaque.”
“How do you know all this?” said Wilhelmina.
“I was the young man,” said the musician.
He winked at her.
“I still have the original plaque at home,” he said. “Would you like to see it?”
Wilhelmina took the last bit of cake and broke it in two, and gave half to Mildred. She nibbled the other half cautiously, and giggled.
“You’re a little bit wicked,” she said.
“Maybe,” said the musician. “I prefer to think of myself as an artist.”
The front door opened. A woman stepped in and stood in the entrance and scanned the room table by table. The woman had curly dark hair, shiny red shoes, and honey-colored eyes with a heart-trembling splash of gold flecks inside them. She carried a small bouquet of white roses.
“Are you looking for someone?” said Zhao.
“I’m looking for Edward,” said Frances. She blushed. “I think he sent me flowers.”
Zhao glanced at Madame Alouette.
Madame Alouette approached Frances and put her arm around her. She said, “I am trying to remember if I have ever seen anyone who needed a cup of tea more than you.”
Madame Alouette looked over at the young apprentice.
“I have, actually, but now it’s your turn,” she said.
She took Frances’s arm and guided her to a chair, and looked over her shoulder at Zhao.
“Maybe some cake first,” she said.
Like everyone, Madame Alouette disliked delivering bad news.
“Harold,” said Ella.
Harold ignored her.
“I don’t care,” he said.
“I don’t care! Stop being so stubborn.”
“Me?” said Ella.
“It’s no use insisting.”
“I’m not insisting.”
“You are, and if you won’t leave me alone I’ll have to show you.”
“Show me what?”
Harold hopped down from his perch next to Ella. She stepped back and out of his way. Harold opened the cage door with a twist of his claw and gave it a sharp kick. The door swung open.
“This,” he said.
He stepped out and pushed away from the cage.
Ella caught her breath and held it.
Harold is beautiful, she thought.
The great green parrot spread his wings and soared across the Teahouse. He turned and twisted to meet the air, and he arced and flapped and looped above the customers’ heads. The room fell silent. Zhao opened the kitchen door and watched, and Madame Alouette beamed. Everyone in the Teahouse suddenly and completely forgot all their worries, and for a long, delicious moment thought of nothing except the miracle of wings.
Harold swooped and landed on the young apprentice’s table.
“I’ve been listening to you all afternoon, and I want to tell you something,” said Harold.
The young apprentice stared down at the parrot with a blank expression.
“You’re an idiot,” said Harold. “You need to get a new job.”
Harold lifted again and soared up and dove back into his cage. He slammed the door shut and gave the latch a savage twist. The cage swung back and forth as he returned to his perch.
“There,” he said.
“That was amazing,” said Ella. “How did you do that?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t understand,” said Ella. “I can open my wings, but what happens then? If I leap from this cage I will only fall.”
“You mean you still don’t remember?” said Harold.
Ella shook her head.
“Don’t tell me that was all for nothing.”
“It wasn’t,” said Ella.
“I don’t know what else to do,” said Harold.
“There is one more thing,” said Ella. “Hurricane mentioned something about Zhao’s cake.”
“Cake?” said Harold. “Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?”
“You mean it could work?”
“I hope so,” said Harold. “This used to be a peaceful cage.”
He squawked loudly.
“Hold on,” he said to Ella.
He squawked again.
“Zhao!” he shouted. “Come here.”
“This might take a while,” said Harold. “Zhao, Zhao, Zhao!”
Zhao walked over.
“Yes, Harold?” he said.
“Harold wants cake,” said Harold.
He leaned down to Ella and whispered, “They only understand simple sentences.”
“Water?” said Zhao. “Does Harold want water?”
“No,” said Harold. “Harold does not want water. Harold obviously has water right here. Harold wants cake. C-A-K-E.”
The young apprentice stood and peered in the cage.
“Hello!” he said. “Pretty bird! Hello!”
“Water?” said Zhao. “Harold wants water?”
“These people are strange,” said Ella.
“You get used to it,” said Harold.
“Maybe he’s hungry,” called Madame Alouette.
“Is that the parrot?” said Frances.
“He’s a great talker,” said Madame Alouette. “Very friendly.”
“Cake?” said Zhao. “Harold wants cake?”
“Yes, Harold wants cake,” said Harold. “And hurry up.”
“Pretty bird!” said the apprentice.
“Go away,” said Harold.
“What did he say?” said the apprentice.
“What kind of cake?” said Zhao.
“Favorite kind,” said Harold.
“What kind?” said Zhao.
“I think he’s thirsty,” said the apprentice.
“You know what kind,” said Harold. “And get this idiot away from me.”
“Good boy!” said Zhao. “I’ll get you some cake.”
Zhao returned to the kitchen.
The apprentice leaned in and pursed his lips and made cooing noises.
“Polly want a cracker?” he said.
“Who’s Polly?” said Ella.
“I get this a lot,” said Harold. “It must be some other bird who looks like me.”
“What’s wrong with these people?” said Ella.
“This is nothing,” said Harold. “You should try having a conversation with that rich lady’s dog.”
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© 2018 Colin Lewis · Brought to you by Unlikely Objects