Somewhere far above, where ancient Rapunzel-without-hair was lost in her tower, a single feather fell and touched the air:

“… yes?”

A mouse sighed in the dark rafters:

“… come in.”

I pushed the inner door wider. It gave with a great, grinding shriek. I had a feeling that it had been left unoiled so that anyone entering unannounced would be given away by rusty hinges.

A moth tapped at a dead lightbulb in the upper hall.

“… up here. . . .”

I stepped up toward twilight at noon, past mirrors that were turned to the wall. No glass could see me coming. No glass would see me go. . . .

“… yes?” A whisper.

I hesitated by the door at the top of the stairs. Perhaps I expected to look in and find a giant canary, stretched out on a carpet of dust, songless, capable only of heart murmurs for talk.

I stepped in.

I heard a gasp.

In the middle of an empty room stood a bed on which, eyes shut, mouth faintly breathing, lay an old woman.

Archaeopteryx, I thought.

I did. I really did.

I had seen such bones in a museum, the fragile reptilian wings of that lost and extinct bird, the shape of it touched on sandstone in etchings that might have been made by some Egyptian priest.

This bed, and its contents, was like the silt of a river that runs shallow. Traced now in its quiet flow was a jackstraw litter of chaff and thin skeleton.

She lay flat and strewn out so delicately I could not believe it was a living creature, but only a fossil undisturbed by eternity’s tread.

“Yes?” The tiny yellowed head just above the coverlet opened its eyes. Tiny shards of light blinked at me.

“Canaries?” I heard myself say. “The sign in your window? The birds?”

“Oh,” the old woman sighed. “… Dear.”

She had forgotten. Perhaps she hadn’t been downstairs in years. And I was the first, perhaps, to come upstairs in a thousand days.

“Oh,” she whispered, “that was long ago. Canaries. Yes. I had some lovely ones.”

“1920,” again in the whisper. “1930, 1931…” Her voice faded. The years stopped there.

Just the other morn. Just the other noon.

“They used to sing, my lands, how they sang. But no one ever came to buy. Why? I never sold one.”

I glanced around. There was a birdcage in the far north corner of the room, and two more half-hidden in a closet.

“Sorry,” she murmured. “I must have forgotten to take that sign out of my window. . . .”

I moved toward the cages. My hunch was right.

At the bottom of the first cage I saw papyrus from the Los Angeles Times, December 25, 1926.


The young monarch, twenty-seven, this afternoon . . .

I moved to the next cage and blinked. Memories of high school days flooded me with their fears.


Mussolini claims triumph. Haile Selassie protests. . . .

I shut my eyes and turned from that lost year. That long ago the feathers had stopped rustling and the warblers had ceased. I stood by the bed and the withered discard there. I heard myself say:

“You ever listen Sunday mornings to the ‘Rocky Mountain Canary-Seed Hour’…?”

“With an organist that played and a studio full of canaries that sang along!” the old woman cried with a delight that rejuvenated her flesh and reared her head. Her eyes flickered like broken glass. ” ‘When It’s Springtime in the Rockies’!”

” ‘Sweet Sue.’ ‘My Blue Heaven,’ ” I said.

“Oh, weren’t the birds find?”

“Fine.” I had been nine then and tried to figure how in hell the birds could follow the music so well. “I once told my mom the birdcages must have been lined with dime-store song-sheets.”

“You sound like a sensitive child.” The old woman’s head sank, exhausted, and she shut her eyes. “They don’t make them that way any more.”

They never did, I thought.

“But,” she whispered, “you didn’t really come see me about the canaries…?”

“No,” I admitted. “It’s about that old man who rents from you…”

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Categories: Bradbury, Ray