a fairy tale about caged birds and human bondage

illustration by Nicole Franco

illustration by Nicole Franco


Once upon a time...

Once upon a time, there was a Birdhouse. The Birdhouse was a warehouse filled with birds. Mister was the master of the Birdhouse, and Mama was his mistress. Sister was just a little girl when Mister clipped her wings, and my Maggie was a silent phoenix in a golden cage. And I? Who was I? I wasn’t really me. I was no one. I was nothing but an instrument that Mister sharpened to his liking. I was just a tool that he kept in a box, something he took out at his convenience, a device that he used to trap birds, build cages and pick locks. Mister is still world-famous for his cages. Durable and lightweight, they were the strongest cages in the world. He made them from the best wire and mesh. He made them from wicker and willow, from hardwood and metals. He fit the frames with filigree bars and decorated them with gold leaf and gems. He carved doors fastened with delicate springs and with hinges. He made latticework, padlocks, and latches. The secret to his mastery of cages was that Mister made the cage to fit the bird. He knew that every bird is different, so Mister learned each bird. He learned her moods and movements. He learned where she nested, when she slept, how she sang, and why she cried. Once he knew her inside out, he knew how best to hold her. There was no locksmith in the world skilled enough to pick one of Mister’s legendary locks, and no bird ever did escape his famous cages. There was only one door into the Birdhouse, and there was no way out.

In the Birdhouse, there was every kind of bird: blackbirds, yellow birds, and green birds. Mister found them everywhere and brought them to the Birdhouse: drab birds, bluebirds, tiny fuchsia buzzing birds. There were large birds, small birds, songbirds, webfoot birds, and birds of prey. There were whooping cranes and ibis, white-rumped vultures, sooty falcons, red-legged kittiwakes and warblers. In the Birdhouse, there was every kind of bird from everywhere. First Mister caught a girl-bird in a cage; then he would put a boy-bird as her mate. In the Birdhouse there were many, many marriages of birds. Mister aimed to cage a mated pair of every kind of bird in all the world. I know the Birdhouse is ended. I know that it is over, but sometimes when I close my eyes, I am back inside the Birdhouse. I lived there such a long time, sometimes I forget and I go back there in my mind. I know that I should put the past behind me. I know that I should not question fate, the Lord, or the order of the stars, but still sometimes I wonder. Who ordained Mister to be king of everything? What dark substance was he made of? Where does such corruption come from? When was the beginning? Why and how do such things happen? When I ask these questions, but I do not know the answers, time stops, and I am back inside the Birdhouse.

My job was to keep order in the Birdhouse. My job was to walk the lines and look into the cages. The cages stood in long, straight lines. I put the water in the bottles. I put the bottles in the cages upside down. I put the pellets in the food-dish. My job was to water all the cages. My job was do not skip a cage and do not skip a line. I scraped the traps and cleaned the dirty cages as Mister ripped out pages from the newspaper, from the Bible and the dictionary. He taught me how to line the bottom of the cages with these papers. So I spread clean pages in the cages and later cleaned away dirty papers. Then I put this dirty refuse down the chute. The refuse chute was at the end of the last line. All I had to do was pull the trapdoor open and put the refuse down the chute. The refuse in the chute was mostly made of bird drops. The refuse was made of bird food, dirty papers, bird drops. It was made of soggy pellets and of woodchips. Sometimes it was also made of feathers, blood and bird bones. When I closed the chute, I listened as it swallowed all the refuse. I could hear the refuse falling down the gullet. I could hear the refuse falling, falling, but it never hit the bottom. The chute made a constant, insatiable grumble.

In the Birdhouse, tomorrow was the same as yesterday. Every day I worked. My job was to find the eggs and bring the eggs to Mama. Mama said that Mister liked her in a special way, so she went to live with Mister as his mate. In the Birdhouse, Mama worked the Nursery. She sat all day in the Nursery beside the incubator, listening to silence. She waited for the silent, heated eggs to tremble. When an egg began to tremble, then the egg became a bird. Then Mama took the baby birds and handed them to Mister. Mister sold the baby birds at auction. He bought and sold and bartered with the eggs. He sold them to collectors and to farmers. He sold them as curiosities and trinkets. He gloated as he counted up his treasures, A pretty feather makes a pretty penny.

Mister mated all the birds to serve his purpose, but one bird in the Birdhouse lived alone. My Maggie was snow-white feathers and a bone-white beak. A pointed tail and coiled crest. My quiet bird, my good bird in the corner. Maggie is what Mister called a rare bird. He always said that there was no bird so rare as Maggie in this world except me. But Mister also said that one day he would find a rare bird like my Maggie. He was always looking in his papers for her mate. Someday, he said. Someday Maggie will have to have a mate. But until that day came, Maggie would be a lone bird in the corner. A white bird in a golden cage.

Mister liked everything to go his way. He watched everything like a hawk. He kept all his ducks in a row. Nothing could disturb the working order of the Birdhouse. I walked the lines, and Mama waited. Mister lorded over everything, and Sister went to school. It served Mister’s purpose to have a smart girl like my sister as his emissary in the world. She looked like a normal girl as she walked back and forth from Birdhouse to school. The villagers saw only her good marks and good looks and gold chain. They watched her go to school every morning but did not know that every night she came home to the Birdhouse, where she too was shackled and caged.

Sister had the saddest job. Sister’s job was to take the scissors to the wings on Sunday mornings. Every Sunday morning, Sister cut the birds. She sliced their feathers. She clipped their wings. Thus Mister sacrificed her flight.

Every day was sacrifice. Every day began when Mister said, Good morning! Then Mister would unlock the night and flip the morning-switch. Daylight in the Birdhouse was a harsh, white light. Nighttime in the Birdhouse was pitch-black night. There was no half-light in the Birdhouse. There was no soft light between the day and night. The Birdhouse was an endless day that revolved around one long, cold night.

At night, Mister locked the gate that led up to the Birdhouse. Then Mister locked the door with three great locks. Then he locked the Feed Room. Then he locked the Sick Room. Then he locked the Store Room and the Nursery. Then he locked me in my own room near the Nursery. Then he climbed the stairs. Upstairs was a house with bookends and with mirrors and with curtains on the windows, but the Birdhouse had no curtains because the Birdhouse had no windows. Windows let in the wind and sun and sounds of sleet and rain. Windows let the outside in and let the inside out, but Mister liked the Birdhouse to be sealed up tight as a tomb. Upstairs was a house, but downstairs was the Birdhouse. Mister lived upstairs with Mama and Sister, but I lived downstairs with the birds. I did not go up there. At the top of the stairs, Mister called, Goodnight! to me and all the birds. Mister called, Goodnight! And then he flipped the switch and it went dark. In the dark, I heard the door open and close as Mister locked me in the night. Then the sudden black of night would rob me of my sight.

Back then, I could not see beyond the confines of the Birdhouse, but still sometimes my mind would wander. My mind would wander down a road I almost can’t recall. At the end of the road, there was a little house, and I would walk that walkway and push the front door open with my mind. In the kitchen, there were jars of colored jellies and bread crumbs on the counters. There was a fire in the woodstove and a pile of old clothes. My mind would climb the ladder to an attic room, where there was a bed and a quilt and a little frosted window. I would climb into the bed, pull the quilt up to my eyes, and dream before I woke up on the dark floor of the Birdhouse.

illustration by Nicole Franco

illustration by Nicole Franco

copyright 2017 | Christine Gardiner | All Rights Reserved