Excerpt from a novel in progress
Every so often, my father and I’d sit down to breakfast, and find that another of grandmother’s finches had died during the night.
Grandmother would take the little dead bird out of its cage, cradle it in her palms and weep inconsolably. Rigid twig-like legs poked out between her fingers as she enclosed the small, feathered body in her aging hands. She sobbed as if it was the worst tragedy to ever befall her.
My father would calmly eat his breakfast meat, butter his bread and say, “Why do you carry on so? You never cried as much when Father died.”
“Don’t you have any feelings?” she’d say through her tears.
To which he’d reply, “You’re a fine one to talk about feelings. I’m trying to eat my breakfast and you’re giving me indigestion over a daft bird. You know Mr. Sparrow will give you another one, so shut your bone box.”
“I can’t believe I spawned such a cruel and selfish son.”
“Keeping those birds is what’s cruel and selfish. The poor bastards are always dying, yet that won’t stop you from getting another.”
My father had a point. No sooner had Grandmother tossed out the dead bird than she’d take me by the wrist and call on Mr. Sparrow.
Mr. Sparrow was birdcage maker to King George II and traded at a shop in the Strand. His store was replete with all manner of dwellings for all species of birds. He offered cages made of bent bamboo in the shapes of coaches and pagodas, others of golden wire, were constructed to look like miniature palaces, while some were heavy wrought-iron fabrications that sat ponderously upon the floor and towered like pavilions, such as the one Grandmother had for her parrot, Mr. Smudge.
Mr. Sparrow was also an avid bird collector and had scores of these winged creatures locked in his filigreed prisons. Throughout his shop, were tropical birds from America, jungle birds from deep Africa, cockatoos from faraway New Holland in blues and yellows, and buntings and finches so unnaturally colored they looked as though painted by an artist. Every corner of the shop fluttered and chirped with the music of birds. For a time, I believed it to be the most exotic shop in the world and looked forward to the deaths of Grandmother’s finches, as it foretold an afternoon in Mr. Sparrow’s shop.
My grandmother’s need for a new finch always seemed to coincide with Mrs. Sparrow’s visits to a sister in Bath. In order to curtail any scandal or gossip that might arise from a private call between a widow and a married man, Grandmother was sure to bring me. I was, however, never invited to join them but had to remain downstairs in the shop with Mr. Sparrow’s ancient assistant, Jack Robbins.
“I’ll be dining with Mrs. Redpole, upstairs, in the parlor. Please see to it, Jack, that we’re not disturbed,” Mr. Sparrow would say.
I couldn’t figure out why Jack Robbins was kept from enjoying a meal upstairs with the other adults. I suspected it was because where I was too young to enter their company, he was too old. Nonetheless, we did our best to entertain each other.
“We’ll make our own spot of tea, then, won’t we Master Redpole?” Mr. Robbins would say and I’d follow him into the back room and watch as he put his blackened kettle on a small flame and cut us a scrap of cold beef.
After our small meal he’d let me climb atop the chairs so I could get a better look at the birds, and on occasion, he’d even let me feed some of the creatures a gooseberry or fill their little bowls with seeds and walnuts.
Mr. Robbins moved slowly and deliberately and had a great deal to do about the shop. He seemed never without his feather duster, for seed and husks were perpetually raining down from the suspended cages. With his spectacles balanced on the hump of his drooping nose, he’d brush a little here and a little there, knocking everything to the ground. Like most old people, his dress was quite out of fashion. His peruke was of a much older unpowdered variety and chronically full of birdseed.
In truth, Mr. Robbins was agreeable enough, but his breath was rank and he talked incessantly about the birds and where they came from and who purchased what, and what new exotic pheasant King George desired, and that Mr. Sparrow acquired a flock of Indian peafowl for the Prince of Wales, and how a French woman came in the other day and wanted to know if she could purchase a cage large enough to hold a person. “Can you imagine that?” said Mr. Robbins. “She probably wanted it for her husband. French men never stay at home, you know.” Apparently, Mr. Robbins didn’t know my father. He was rarely home and hadn’t a drop of French in him.
Toward the end of the afternoon, Mr. Robbins would take up his long broom and try his best to clean the floors but his poor eyesight led him to quit the task early, thinking it complete. I would then take his broom and sweep all the corners and shadows while Mr. Robbins poured himself a glass of sherry and rested a bit. By the time Grandmother had descended with Mr. Sparrow and picked out a new bullfinch or canary, Mr. Robbins’ breath had fogged up the entire store. What a relief it was when Mr. Sparrow unlocked the door and let us out.
One particular visit to Sparrow’s shop stands out above all the others. It was summer. I remember it being quite hot and uncomfortably humid. When we arrived, Mr. Sparrow locked the shop door, as was his usual practice. The odor was vile and the heat only made it all the more pungent. I asked Grandmother if she’d be long because it smelled like a chicken coop and I didn’t think I could stand it.
“Behave yourself, child,” Grandmother said slapping my head, “unless you want a thrashing.” The back of my skull stung and began to feel hot. I most certainly did not want a thrashing. The last time, my father beat me so soundly I was forced to sleep on my stomach and had a difficult time sitting in the schoolroom the next day. “Stay put and mind Mr. Robbins. I’ll be down when I’ll be down.” With that, Grandmother and Mr. Sparrow ascended the staircase. Before Grandmother was lost to my sight she bellowed from above, “And remember to stay off the steps, I don’t want to catch you spying on me or there’ll be so much trouble for you, you’d wish you’d never been born.”
“No need to worry, Mrs. Redpole, I’ll make sure he behaves himself,” old Robbins assured.
“And more than that, Jack,” Mr. Sparrow interjected. “You’ve been neglecting the cleaning lately and I daresay the boy’s right, it’s starting to stink something awful down there. If you’re too old to stay on top of it all, I’ll have to find someone who’s a bit more youthful and industrious.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Sparrow, sir. We’ll get the job done, you’ll see.”
“Let’s hope so, for both our sakes.”
I remember Mr. Robbins was moving especially slow that day. The August heat must have fatigued him but I gave it little thought at the time. My attention was drawn to the fine covering of seed husks blanketing every surface. Robbins’ feather duster had grown idle. The mucousy, greenish droppings of these fancy chickens had spattered over the already dried chalky-white excrement of previous eliminations—it decorated the walls, floor and just about everything else. As long as I looked overhead, it was a room of brightly colored beaks and exotic plumage, but if I looked down, it seemed a filthy hole and was reeking without the help of Mr. Robbins’ exhalations.
The more visits I had made to Sparrow’s shop, the more familiar it had become. By now, the feathered creatures no longer intrigued me the way they once had. Though Mr. Robbins still did his best to amuse me. He brought out a small novelty—a Chinese cricket cage—yet, I was surprised to see that it held a minuscule bird with shiny emerald feathers that shimmered like the scales of a fish. Mr. Robbins fed it a solution of sugar water from a pipette. A tobacco merchant had brought the creature back from Virginia and Mr. Sparrow was hoping to sell it for a fortune to a German Prince, if the miniature creature didn’t die first. Apparently, they are quite delicate and have weak hearts.
Mr. Robbins then made a great effort brushing all the drifts and dunes of seed from the furniture to the floor. Trying to be helpful, I fetched the broom and began sweeping while Robbins filled a bucket with soapy water. The poor man tired himself out so completely that he dropped his stiff brush into the pail, poured a sherry and stretched out in his chair. Before taking a second draught he had fallen asleep.
Once I had the sweepings in a tight little pyramid in the center of the room, I tried to rouse Mr. Robbins, but he would have none of it; the poor man had over exerted himself. I didn’t want Mr. Robbins to loose his job so I cleaned up the heap of dirt and tried again to wake him but found this time that he was dead. He slumped peacefully in his chair looking as though he were still napping. Only to feel his cold hand was the truth known.
My immediate inclination was to alert Mr. Sparrow to my discovery but aborted this act once I set a foot upon the staircase. I remembered my grandmother’s warnings and I was no fool to disobey her. If only the shop door had not been locked I could have run home. I decided to open a window and make my escape that way, but found that every last one was nailed shut. A precaution, I suppose, lest Sparrow’s treasures fly off.
As it was, I sat against the door with Mr. Robbins’ dead body in the adjoining room and waited. And waited. I began to feel unduly confined. I had explored the shop often enough until I knew it as well as Sparrow himself. I knew where the seed was stored, I knew in what drawer he kept his ledgers and even where he hid his coin box, which by the way, was always locked. I had explored every recess of it before while Mr. Robbins napped. But he eventually woke up and that was not going to happen now. The summer heat made the temperature in the shop quite unbearable. I wanted to leave desperately and I did not know why my grandmother was so long in coming down.
The birds’ interminable whistlings also began to annoy me. I felt more a prisoner than those exotic creatures. The humidity in the shop might’ve suited them but I found it stifling. In frustration I cursed my grandmother aloud and tried covering my ears to keep out the maddening peeps and coos. If my recollections are correct, I believe I began to cry.
Lying there upon the floor, I stared up at the ceiling and was soon seized by a tremendous thought. If I was to be prisoner, there was no reason why the birds must suffer the same fate. I deemed it a grand idea to let the birds out of their cages. I was sure they would be grateful and at the very least, perhaps, they would be quieter. Our Mr. Smudge was never caged during the day, but free to strut along our shop counter or perch on Grandmother’s shoulder, only the finches were forever shut behind bars. Perhaps it was melancholia that cut their lives short.
I pulled a sagging cane chair to as many cages as I could reach and set the feathered inmates free. Mr. Sparrow’s shop soon became an aviary wild with fluttering creatures. The birds were delighted with their newfound freedom—or so I thought; a chance to exercise their wings and take flight the way Nature had intended. I held out my arm and soon had a yellow-crested cockatoo clutching me with gray lizard feet. Birds flapped about everywhere. I had just increased their universe a thousand fold and felt very pleased.
I turned nervously when I heard a crack at the window. A tiny, purple finch spasmed on the floor. It twitched again, then fluttered off. Another flew head on into the glass as I watched. It fell to the floor and lay still; its frail yellow neck obviously broken. This set me on edge but not more than the several loud cries I heard overhead. I ducked just in time to avoid two of the larger birds as they flew by fighting with one another. They lighted upon the banister and resembled strange fencers thrusting and parrying with their sword-like beaks. Again, a bird flew into the window, cracking the small pane. Another toppled a glass vase to the floor. Perhaps, what I’d done was not a total success. Few of the birds were getting on and for the first time I wondered how I was going to return them all to their cages.
Regretting my actions, I was moved to panic when I noticed a flamboyantly colored bird with spidery feet and a great long neck gracefully step upon the staircase. I had also not taken into account that these birds might explore the upper floors. I could not imagine Mr. Sparrow being pleased with his creatures migrating to the parlor. At this point, I recalled my grandmother’s threats and thought of the consequences I stood to suffer.
I raced to the staircase ready to intercept the advancing bird before its bobbing crest rose above the top step. I would’ve done anything to keep it from ascending. I certainly hadn’t considered that my fast approach would alarm the creature and give him cause to hasten up the steps all the more quickly. I scrambled up after him, stretching to grab hold of a thin blue leg. The bird fluttered out of my grasp and landed deep within the parlor, frightfully close to my grandmother and Mr. Sparrow. The exotic bird pranced about thrusting is head forward with each step as calmly as though it had returned to the forest of its native continent.
An ivory silk drapery was drawn over the windows, muting the harsh summer light into a dream-like haze that created a soothing peaceful atmosphere. I was astonished that neither Grandmother nor Mr. Sparrow noticed the bird in their midst and even more astonished to find that Grandmother and Mr. Sparrow were not sipping tea.
Grandmother was sprawled upon the couch in a heap of black crinoline; her shockingly white legs were raised in the air. Mr. Sparrow supported himself in a very precarious position and did not look the least bit comfortable but was busy grinding his privates into Grandmother’s, much like a mortar and pestle. Both were undisturbed by the bird’s movements.
I was immobile, completely stone still. I daresay, I was as entranced by what I witnessed as I was fearful of being discovered. Indeed, I quite forgot about the bird until I saw it step up to the couch and stretch its long neck toward my grandmother’s hair. Still, neither of them were aware they were being observed. Sparrow continued thrusting away. His face was red and his features bunched tightly. He sent a groping hand down her black dress and produced a china-white breast, which he began to fondle clumsily.
The bird spotted something in the swirl of my grandmother’s gray hair, a pearl-topped hairpin. The creature extended its neck and delicately began pecking at my grandmother’s coiffure, trying to snatch up the bauble with its slender bill. It pecked with great finesse because Grandmother blindly brushed away what she perhaps thought was nothing more than an annoying fly. The bird snaked its neck and withdrew its head. Just then, several chirping parakeets found their way up the staircase and circled about the ceiling of the room. Grandmother twisted her head around and stared into the eye of the exotic bird that was now inches from her face. She was also able to see me peering over the top of the staircase. Like Actæon stumbling upon the goddess Diana bathing in the woods, I too came upon a forbidden sight and knew I would be doomed for witnessing it.
Grandmother let out a scream and jumped to her feet. Her skirts unfurled to the floor, only her ashen looking breast sagged over her décolletage. Sparrow was pushed aside revealing his excited state.
According to mythology, Diana had Actæon ripped to shreds by his own hounds for his inadvertent transgression. I couldn’t imagine my sentence would be any lighter. A queasy feeling spread through my body and I fled down the staircase at once. Grandmother rapidly followed, screeching with fury, her wiry hair streamed out behind her. There was nowhere to run. The door was locked, the windows sealed. Like a cornered fox I crouched behind Mr. Sparrow’s desk.
“You little, bastard!” She screamed, stuffing her bosom back into her dress.
Mr. Sparrow finally pattered down the stairs, his shirttails flailing, “Jack Robbins! Come here this instant. Are you drunk again? Jack, where are you?”
Grandmother caught hold of my arm and wrenched me from the floor with a great tug that nearly caused my shoulder to pop out of its socket. Grandmother continued screaming, “What have you done? You nasty little imp, I’ll cane your bottom raw; it’ll look like a cut of beef at the butcher’s.” She then raised her other hand to strike me.
“Mr. Robbins is dead,” I blurted out, before she could hit me. I started to cry. The tears were more out of fear for the punishment I would receive than they were for poor Jack Robbins. Indeed, as I was peering into the parlor, I had forgotten all about Mr. Robbins.
PAUL GREGORY HIMMELEIN co-author of Bohemian Manifesto, A Field Guide To Living on the Edge (Bulfinch, 2004), is a recipient of a Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation grant and a Hawthornden Fellowship for fiction. He is completing a historical novel set in the late eighteenth century, which uses only vocabulary presented in Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) and Francis Grose’s Dictionary of Slang, The Vulgar Tongue (1785).