The canary a modern folk.., p.1
The Canary: A Modern Folktale, p.1Benjamin Parsons
The Canary: a modern folktale
by Benjamin Parsons
Copyright 2012 Benjamin Parsons
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You know I love to tell you stories of love, and lovers, so I must mention that just off busy Hornsey High Street there is a little monument, neglected and weather-worn, to love.
The street is as urban and commercial as any other in North London I suppose, but is unusual in that it retains the ruins of an ancient church among the modernity. The tower stands yet to its full height, but all around it are merely low fragments, and an overgrown graveyard cluttered with the tumbledown tombs of the great and good of yesteryear. The ground is usually a wilderness of scrub and bramble, but many of the gravestones are still readable above the foliage, and one of them, slightly tucked away, is inscribed with the figure of a bird in flight, in shallow relief. This poor slab is the monument to love I refer to. Perhaps the bird was a dove when first carved, or a phoenix— but I like to think it was a canary, and I will tell you why.
Several years ago, and for several years together, this forlorn churchyard was haunted by the figure of a lone woman. She was no wraith— in fact she was very pretty in both face and figure— but something in her air and attitude merited the term ‘haunted’. She always appeared, just once annually, in the late wintertime, wrapped up against the icy weather as she picked her way through the undergrowth, which at that time of year would sparkle with hoarfrost beneath her feet. Her arms folded tight and her head bowed, she would linger a while in sweetly sad reverie; I saw her so myself many times, and wondered why she came, and what passed through her mind. Without doubt her musings were sad, and I speculated that the cause of this sadness was love, because she always materialised on the same date each year— a date that makes many lovers sad, if they have any cause to be: Saint Valentine’s day.
I became so interested in this solitary apparition that I made it a sort of duty to myself to pass Hornsey churchyard on each Valentine’s day to see if she kept her vigil; and the sight of her there— usually in the very early morning, spied from the road— fed my reflections with pleasant melancholy.
However, one year she did not come, and after that I never saw her again, which piqued my interest to know what had occurred to make her abandon her romantic routine. Well, well, you should know that some time later my curiosity was gratified, quite by accident, by a casual acquaintance who claimed to know the lady well; and now I shall gratify yours.
The despondent lady’s name was Damiah, and she lived on a street near the churchyard for many years, originally with her sister. As a young woman Damiah had no time for love. She did not scorn it, or resent it, but liked to keep her distance as much as possible— which was not easy, on account of her good looks and smiling temper. When the subject of love arose in reference to herself, that smile would turn shy, become a wry laugh and terminate in a polite decline.
Her sister could not understand it. She was forever in love, and no greater passion could be known to woman than her commitment to the next new man she was falling for— except the passion of despair if that man should disappoint her. Possibly it was witnessing her sister’s travails and helping to nurse her broken heart so often that led Damiah to abstain on her own account.
‘You don’t know what you’re missing,’ her sister claimed one day, having lost half an hour and her heart in conversation with a barman at the Maynard.
‘I do know, believe me! I’ve seen it all from the sidelines,’ Damiah laughed, ‘and I’m determined to defend myself.’
So then, you can guess what happened next. Damiah was taking a shortcut through the grounds of the ruined church one afternoon, when she met a handsome, chatty and engaging man who asked for directions, and made the most of them when he got them. In spite of her scruples, Damiah could not help feeling flattered by his attention. He seemed genuinely charismatic, and was certainly genuinely attractive. In short, it was her turn to lose half and hour, and at least half her heart to this stranger.
A curious point that kept them talking was that he appeared to want directions to Damiah’s own house, and it was amusing at first to be going the same way; but the amusement ceased on her part when she discovered that he was headed to visit her sister— and that he was the same barman from the Maynard.
When we have a favourite opinion, it is always a pleasure whenever something happens to endorse it, so Damiah tried to take a kind of triumph in her determination to steer clear of love. ‘You see! Here’s a case in point,’ she told herself. ‘I can’t trust myself so far as liking someone, let alone loving them, without provoking bad luck. Be careful, Damiah! That was quite enough flirtation for you.’
She was not so well defended as she told herself, however. As the weeks drew on, and she saw more and more of the man when he came to visit her sister, the more and more ‘liking’ developed into ‘loving’ in spite of herself. He did not encourage her— indeed, Damiah’s sister had rarely been so happy for so long— but he was so lovely, so considerate, so quick to smile, that he laid siege to Damiah’s resolve, and starved it out.
‘You’ve no business thinking about him so much!’ she scolded herself in the mirror. ‘You should make more of an effort to avoid him, you really should. Of course it doesn’t help that Issy talks about him constantly— but you have to ask, don’t you! It must stop.’ She bit her lip. ‘But Issy’s relationships never last very long— maybe— if this one doesn’t work out— I mean, maybe—. Maybe? Maybe what? Just listen to yourself, Damiah! You’re like a— a carrion crow, waiting to swoop down on the carcass! What about loyalty to your own sister, hmmm? What about that? I’m ashamed to look at you— and I am you! If this is what love does, you’re better off without it.’
But, dear me, do such mirror-rants ever do the trick? In Damiah’s case, she simply made herself more miserable. She could not continue long like this, though, before she needed some sort of outlet for her burgeoning feelings. So the next day she brought home a canary, and set it up in an elegant cage beside her bedroom window. The canary was all over golden yellow, sprightly and lithe— it was a delight to see, so bright and inspiring, and its songs were cheering, complex and musical. Damiah bought the bird to lift her spirits, and as an object of care on which to bestow her affection and distract her from dwelling on love; but she wanted a confidante too— and what could be safer than to tell her secret griefs to an innocent and oblivious canary?
The pet served her very well in this, and helped to create a sort of romantic pleasure out of her pain. Whenever some new pang of regret or thwarted affection assailed her, she would retreat upstairs to her room, close the door and open the window wide. As the fresh air breathed in, the canary would begin to sing, and under the trilling of its voice Damiah would quietly disclose the pressurised distress of her heart and mind, during which the confession and the canary’s lively notes together would invariably make her feel better.
But though this was a relief, it was no cure, and Damiah’s love increased the more she came to know her sister’s lover; and while their relationship continued to strengthen, so did Damiah’s inward disappointment and despair. The canary might lift her mood for an hour, but it had no power to purge the emotion that afflicted her, and by the time a year of this torment was through, she had come to associate her unhappiness so thoroughly with the canary that it could no longer cheer her. Instead, it became a source of dispirited anxiety: she imagined that it must want to fly free of its caged life, just as she longed to escape from the prison of her feelings, and therefore when the canary sang lustily to the open air, she thought its song must be a cry for liberty, yearning for the balmy skies of its homeland. When the bird was quiet, however, and merely hopped about its cage o
Now, Damiah did her best to avoid her beloved whenever she could, as I have said, to try to wean herself from him; but when they did happen to meet they were perfectly genial with each other— actually she was always afraid of seeming too genial, and betraying her true sentiments. But the way we appear to others, and the way we think we appear, are seldom the same. One day he met her in that same churchyard, and asked if she would speak to him for a moment, as he had something
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