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Captive, A Modern Fable
By Jennifer Alexander
Once upon a time, that is how these stories usually begin. A little bird was gliding on a warm summer breeze. She sang her salutations to the all creatures of the forest and they greeted her in kind. She had flown far ahead of the rest of her flock and decided to rest for a while in a woods nestled deep in the middle of a range of impassible mountains. The forest was ancient, full of gnarled trees as thick as elephants entwined with swaggering skeins of Spanish moss that danced like ghosts in the wind. This was a world untouched by the tarnishes of mankind, for the most part.
There were no roads or paths through this forest. No gift shops or gas stations to clutter the landscape. However, there was a cabin, just one. It stood on the left bank of the river right past the waterfall. A lovelier spot never existed. The river was always full of fish and the trees there offered berries so sweet they could be called ambrosia. The smell of wildflowers lingered on the air and birdsongs haunted the winds.
Old Hank had lived there for longer than even he knew. Time seemed irrelevant since he had come to the mountains. The family he had once loved was but a distant memory and loneliness was all that was left. He had grown old. His clean shaven face long ago became a tangled beard and now the beard had turned from black to gray. Crow’s feet lined the rims of his pale blue eyes and a long scar marked his left cheek. He walked with a wooden cane, limping slightly sometimes. His clothes were made of animal pelts as were his shoes. Virtually everything he owned he made himself: from the bow that sometimes hung off his arm to the belt that held up his pants. He prided himself for having conquered the wild and believed that mankind’s greatest gift was his ingenuity.
One day he was walking by some nearby trees full of succulent berries when he heard a squeaky little voice,
“These are the sweetest berries I have ever tasted.”
Hank looked around,
“Who said that?”
“I did,” the voice replied. Hank craned his head and turned to examine his surroundings but he did not see anyone. The only thing he saw was a small bird. He gazed at her,
“Did you say that?” Hank narrowed his eyes, focusing all his attention on the little creature. She wore plumes in bold shades of purple and scarlet as if she were related to some rare tropical flower.
“Yes, my name is Kona,” she chirped.
“You can talk,” Hank’s eyes widened.
“And you have a knack for stating the obvious,” she smiled.
“I have never talked to a bird before.”
“Yeah, I can tell.”
“Well no offense, but you’re not very good at it.”
“Forgive me it’s just been a long time since I spoke to anyone.”
“It is polite to introduce yourself,” the bird suggested.
“Oh, my name is Hank,” he said awkwardly.
“How did you come to be in this forest Hank?” Kona asked.
“It was decades ago. I had a fight with my wife. She told me that she wanted a divorce. I was so angry I walked out the door and I just kept walking. I don’t know what got into me. I felt like I wanted to fall off the face of the Earth. When I came to the mountains, I did not stop. I did not turn. I just kept going. I don’t know what I was thinking. Everyone knows these mountains are insurmountable. Anyway, I think I broke my hip falling down the side of that cliff over there. It was excruciating. Soon, I realized I was stuck. There was no way I could get back. I searched for years but this valley is really more like a canyon. If only I was a bird like you, I could fly out of here,” he forced a grin to disguise the tear blossoming in his eye.
“And you built this house with a broken hip?”
“No, that would have been impossible. I made a very crude tent like a teepee and lived there. Once my bones mended a bit, I began to work on the cabin. I did not have a saw or nails or anything a man would need to build a house. I had to be creative. I used stones and fire to cut my wood and clay from the earth to bind it in place. This is probably how Abraham Lincoln built his famous log cabin.”
“Who is Abraham Lincoln?” the bird asked.
“Never mind, tell me about yourself. Where is the most beautiful place you have ever been?” the man asked.
“I could never choose just one. Everywhere I have ever been was charming and all in different ways. I find beauty all around me all the time. Part of its allure is that it is fleeting. I will leave this forest just as I have left every other place I have ever visited and in its absence, I will find it even more enchanting than I do now,” she explained.
“So have you never had a home?”
“I do not need a structure to have a home. My home is the air beneath my wings.”
“Do you know how to sing?”
“Yes,” Kona’s beak parted to release a series of notes that reminded Hank of the rapturous tinkle of flutes. The song was soothing. It made him think of flying over mountains to distant lands that he had never even heard of. He imagined the feel of gliding on the wind. He heard the tone of freedom in the little bird’s voice and he longed for the same promise of release but it was out of his reach. When she stopped singing, he turned to Kona and asked,
“Will you help me gather some wood?”
“Yes,” she answered. She flew around picking up small sticks here and there and piled them into the basket. After they finished, Hank asked,
“Will you come to my cabin and favor me with your company?”
“Yes,” Kona answered. She had often wondered about what people did inside their houses.
Hank sat at the table and began to cut the pile of sticks they just collected. As he worked, Kona sang him another song. It was not like the twittering sounds of the birds that usually echoed through the forest, her songs sounded like real music. Again, Hank was swept away by the thrall of her melody. It reminded him of things like laughter and sunshine.
“You have a lovely voice,” he said as he began to bind the sticks across each other using the same kind of clay he used to build his house.
“Thank you, and you have a beautiful home,” said Kona.
“Yeah, this place is gorgeous. I could make a fortune if I built some condos here.”
“What are you doing with those sticks?” Kona asked watching the motions of his gnarled hands.
“I am making you a present.”
“What is it?”
“A surprise,” he smiled.
“Is it a helicopter?”
“Just be patient,” he said.
“Patience is a luxury only humans possess. What is it?”
“I’m not going to tell you.”
Kona was tempted to leave. She had rested long enough but curiosity got the better of her. As Hank continued to work, the little bird began to sing again. The sweet high notes of her song lulled him away from the things that his hands were doing. His mind was wandering outside the boundaries of this forest and away from the isolation he loathed. He remembered the crowded blocks of cities, the beauty of architecture, and the smell of gasoline. He missed civilization and all its comforts. He missed taking care of his wife and daughter. He missed watching ESPN late at night. He even missed his job. He used to work in construction. He was always mesmerized by the simple process of building. He often boasted that he could build a strip center the likes of which the world has never seen with a couple of two-by-fours and an empty field but Hank never paused to think that the field might be better left to the care of Nature, that every inch of this planet was not a domain waiting to be conquered, mutated, and populated.
As Kona’s song ended, Hank stood up the contraption he was making. It was finished.
“It looks like a little jail with a swing,” Kona commented but even then she did not realize the man’s intention. He flung a sprig of millet into the cage.
“Are you hungry?” he asked, with a broad smile.
Kona had no reason to distrust the man. She had never heard of the human custom of caging birds. She had seen many things in her wanderings but she was not very well versed on the ways of men. Had she bothered to notice, she would have realized that she was already trapped in the cabin. The shutters and doors were all closed and a roaring fire blazed in the hearth.
A blur of red and violet soared across the room and into cage. As she began to feast on the millet, Hank shut the door.
“Wait, what are you doing?” Kona objected her mouth full of tiny seeds.
“Don’t worry little bird, I will keep you safe and take care of you,” Hank reassured her. Kona opened her beak to protest, to explain that she wanted to take care of herself, but the man had already turned and was walking out the door.
Kona thought of soaring far above the forest. She thought of the places she was supposed to be seeing. The absence of them welled within her like sorrow and she began to weep. She did not pour tears from her eyes like a human would. Her cry was the wail of her song. The fluttering notes had turned to long slow breathes of sadness that resonated more like violins than flutes. By the time Hank returned, she had sung herself to sleep.
When he opened the shutters the next morning, Kona could hear the sounds of other birds chirping not far away. The sound made her feel lonely and she began to sing again. She joined her voice with theirs’, feeling that this would somehow connect her to them and she would not be so forlorn.
Hank noticed the difference in her song. It did not give him pleasure to listen to it. That is not to say it wasn’t beautiful, it was. The music was indeed just as lovely as before but it was polluted with melancholy. Instead of envisioning fields of green and clear blue waters, he thought of cold things like death and darkness. Still, he did not interrupt her.
He cooked a goose egg and spooned a small portion onto a plate of rock and slipped it between the bars of the cage.
“Do I look like a cannibal?” she asked, crooking her head and narrowing her black eyes.
“Well I’m not going to dig up worms for you.”
“Gross, I don’t eat worms either. Berries and millet will be fine.”
“Very well,” he removed the plate with the egg and replaced it with several plump berries.
“Thank you,” she said in a tone of forced civility. He lifted the cage, placed it in the window,
“I will be back before dark.”
Summer still hung on the air but Kona could smell the breath of autumn on the wind. Her instincts scolded her, reminding her that she should be miles away from here by now. Yet there she stood, staring at the same patch of land for hours. She had never examined a place so thoroughly. She had never been bound to the ground for so long. She wanted the scene to change but it remained constant. Birds twittered in the distance. She tried to call out to them but none responded.
The forest was full of other sounds: leaves rustling, rabbits hopping and a variety of different creatures scampering around the mysterious wilderness that waited on the other side of the bars. The sunshine streaming through the window did nothing to cheer her. The light was just a fragment of what it should have been, a sliver of the whole. Kona missed the full glare of the sun warming her body. She wondered what lay just around the corner in the part of the world she could not see from her prison. She closed her eyes and thought of all the places she had seen and all the places she had never been and longed to be anywhere but where she was.
When she opened her eyes again, the man had returned and the sky was a pale shade of gloomy gray. She thought of her flock. They were probably half way to Texas by now. She longed for the company of other birds. She craved the force of the wind beneath her wings, to stretch her cramped muscles and fly far away from this house and all the things of men.
“Sing for me,” Hank said.
Kona parted her beak and a wistful melody escaped. Hank stared at her. Her eyes did not turn to see him. She looked down at the floor as if he weren’t even there.
The roaring fire singed the already stagnant air. Kona wondered how humans could live like this, cooped up away from the wind, breathing the same stale breath over and over. Being a bird, she always followed the spring and summer but as the weeks past, it got cooler and the leaves began to turn from lush green to ruddy shades of amber. Kona admired this mysterious metamorphosis but soon it began to alarm her.
The leaves withered from the trees, drifting down like dying angels falling from heaven. Their barren branches seemed to shame them as if they were standing there naked, vulnerable. The vibrant glade lost all its color as the winds turned to ice and snow. Clouds blotted out the sun, chilling her with an intensity of bleakness that she never would have believed possible. Winter seemed eternal and she wondered if she would die this way, locked in a cage, bound to the Earth. Every night the man asked her to sing and though she did not notice, Hank wept at the doleful sounds of her songs.
“Eat as much as you can,” Hank said one morning in early March.
“Why? Are you going to cook me now?” she asked in a tone drenched with sarcasm.
“No, it’s warming up again and I thought you might like to leave today.”
“What?” she couldn’t believe her ears.
“I am sorry. I must explain myself. When you sang to me that day in the woods, I fell in love with the sound of your freedom. I thought if you were here with me I might own some part of it but in this cage, you have lost everything that I loved about you. After I caged you, I had to keep you over the winter. It would have been too cold outside for a little thing like you but spring has come again and it is time to return you to the winds. I will miss you friend,” he said as he opened the cage.
She flew out and he called after her,
“Just a moment, I have built you this house,” he pointed to a pole in his front yard that had a mini replica of his own cabin on top, “Please come back and visit me the next time that the wind calls you this way.”
Without an answer, Kona continued her flight up towards the tree tops and to the clouds beyond that beckoned to her like old friends welcoming her home. The sun shone whole on her, warming the chill of winter from her bones. The wind glided over her and under her, enveloping her and she sang once more for the man who had held her captive.
Hank stared at the bird from the ground. He heard her harmony on the air and again it brought tears to his eyes. Not because it was sad. Quite the opposite, it had returned to the same sonorous song that captivated him in the first place, the song that reminded him of freedom and flying. Forevermore, whenever he chanced to hear bird songs, he thought of Kona and remembered that some things are better left unconquered.
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