Fiction by Laura Stanfill
The widow Mrs. Percy Mallaby of Albany, New York, wouldn’t have been surprised if one of her neighbors accused her of being a ghost. She rather felt that way herself. When she woke each morning, pushing the covers back too vigorously brought no complaints. Her feet in their slippers made no objectionable sounds. With the mirrors all draped in black, if a spot of porridge congealed on her eyebrow during breakfast, it stayed there until the new cook thought to say something, and sometimes she didn’t. Not that Mrs. Percy Mallaby ate much porridge, or much of anything, these days. Her deceased husband had a great deal more skin than she did and plenty more fat, so she took to thinking of herself as a fish cohabitating with a whale. And now, with him gone and her mourning period in progress, it seemed she was shrinking further, as no one besides the new cook ever talked to her.
Besides the cook, who came and went throughout the day, a quiet canary named Buster was Mrs. Percy Mallaby’s sole companion. The widow enjoyed how the rounded drops of black-and-white excrement made his cage look like a well-iced cake, and she took some measure of comfort in the sound of Buster adjusting his wings. Still, it would have been nice if he sang, and one day she said as much to the cook.
“I know how to solve the problem,” the cook replied.
That afternoon, there sounded a knock on Mrs. Percy Mallaby’s sober black crepe draped door. Thinking the cook had forgotten her key again, she answered it, and was surprised to see a thin young man standing on her porch.
“Bonjour, Madame! I have a tiny organ!” he announced with a delightful French accent. “It is called a serinette, and I use it to teach canaries how to sing popular songs. Would you like me to train your bird?”
Mrs. Percy Mallaby was intrigued by the thought of this man’s tiny organ. Ignoring the curtain across the street, surely fluttered by that officious nose-poker Mrs. Ralph Randall, the widow ushered Henri into the parlor to meet Buster.
“I’m afraid he’s not a very fit canary,” she said. “He rarely chirps and only occasionally seet-seet-seets. I’ve never heard him sing a melody.”
“Your cook told me that, but I have a way with birds,” the man said, introducing himself as Henri Blanchard, son of the great serinette builder Georges Blanchard. “I have recently escaped from the moral cesspool.”
“New York City?” Mrs. Percy Mallaby thought to ask.
“Mais oui,” Henri said. “Five Points, the heart of the strumpetocracy. But let us not dwell on that. Pay me some coins, and in two fortnights, your canary will repeat two bars of music, if he is not too old to sing, and if he does not turn out to be a she.”
Mrs. Percy Mallaby agreed, stating that she would retire to her garden during the sessions. “I am still in mourning and do not want the neighbors to think I am being entertained by your tiny organ.”
After some consideration, Henri settled on teaching Buster the 1709 smash hit, “Marlbrough S’en Va-t-en Guerre,” a folk song about a wife being told her husband has died in battle, and known in America as “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”
Henri brought the birdcage into the kitchen for the acoustic value of the bare floors and countertops. He covered the cage with a length of thick beige material. As he cranked the serinette, resetting the tune to play over and over, Buster fell silent and cocked his little head behind the drape. When Henri’s fingers cramped on the sixth repetition, he quit mid-measure to stretch.
That’s when Buster tapped his wing on the bars, the way a conductor might tap his baton on a music stand. The bird proceeded to tweet one cheerful verse of “Marlbrough S’en Va-t-en Guerre.”
Henri removed the beige cloth and undid the cage latch so he could admire Buster – who was not much to look at, it must be said. Upon his release, the feathered fellow hopped onto the table and stretched both wings to their full nine-inch span, showing off matching golden spots underneath.
Blinking at his tutor, Buster began a much-improved version, keeping the melody intact beneath an obscene number of flourishes, not to mention a two-minute cadenza at the ticklish spot between the thirteenth and fourteenth verses.
Henri leaned against the kitchen counter, sticking his elbow in a spot of butter. He had discovered a virtuoso. This would surely keep him from returning to the moral cesspool.
Though it had begun to rain, Mrs. Percy Mallaby stood out in her garden among the vines, imploring her winter squash to take heart and grow.
“Is your session finished?”
“For today,” Henri said. “May I ask – how old is your bird?”
“I have no idea,” the widow said. “He came with the cage.”
Henri explained that he had never seen such a talent, not even among the most impressionable baby birds. “Please come inside and listen to your Buster. I know it is impossibly soon, but you will be amazed.”
Alas, Buster did not sing for his mistress, even when Henri let him out of his cage. Nor did he chirp or chuwheet chuweet or even seet-seet-seet. All he did was cock his tiny yellow head from one human to the other.
“You have agreed to two fortnights,” Henri told Mrs. Percy Mallaby, “and this is just the first day. Buster will prove himself to you, I am sure of it.”
“He better,” Mrs. Percy Mallaby said. “Though I enjoy having your tiny organ in the house, I shall have to dismiss you if this bird remains mute.”
Henri visited the widow’s house every day, and every day, Buster filled himself with plus de musique, and every day, during these sessions, Mrs. Percy Mallaby retreated to the garden, even in poor weather. She felt more substantial, and less like a ghost, when her black garments were slicked with rain.
Henri cranked the serinette’s twenty chansons until the bird knew all of them well enough to integrate his artistic yearnings with the western melodies and his surprisingly innate grasp of diatonic scales. But Buster still refused to sing for Mrs. Percy Mallaby, and so at the end of those thirty days, she sent Henri away to entertain another household with his tiny organ.
For three days thereafter, Buster sat in his cage, adjusting his wings, waiting for Mrs. Percy Mallaby to inspire him by playing music the way Henri had done. She did not. After the third day, at two o’clock in the morning, the mini-maestro changed strategies. He launched into his entire repertoire from the cage in the parlor, adding trills and improvisations whenever he could squeeze the extra air out. Mrs. Percy Mallaby awoke sucking on black air, the back of her throat clogged with a brine-soaked tongue, and it took several measures to realize her house was flooded not with seawater, but with fresh birdsong. She felt her way along the corridor, not bothering to light a candle, for she was sure she was dreaming until she parted the curtains and let the moon in. At this exact moment, Buster, thus spotlighted in silver, launched into “La Petite Chasse.” The notes sounded like her own fingers testing for ripeness. The small branch of grief she had been unable to swallow loosened in her throat.
The next morning, though it was several months too soon, Mrs. Percy Mallaby tore the black crepe from her door. She stuffed her mourning clothes under the bed and set about inviting her friends to a formal concert followed by dinner. On 4 October 1857, eight guests assembled in the parlor. When Mrs. Percy Mallaby announced Buster would be performing, everyone laughed, except for Mrs. Harding Walker, who was currently paying for the same talent to be drummed into her canary, though not by Henri, who had left to try his luck in Binghamton.
To prove himself, the tiny-beaked triller, despite being caged on the mantle to protect the attendees’ clothes, performed a minuet to great applause. Buster continued winding through his repertoire. It took some time. The audience shifted in their seats and yawned. Stomachs made unfortunate noises. Mr. Overton and his nephew began leaning against one another to keep upright. Buster, noting the decrease in applause, sped his tempo all the way up to vivacissmo, and sang “Marlbrough S’en Va-t-en Guerre” with such gusto he forgot to quit at the end of the fourteenth repeat and thus went round and round again.
With her bird thus stuck, Mrs. Percy Mallaby encouraged her guests to adjourn to the dining room to eat. Buster remained caged in the parlor, still singing his tiny heart out. After the soup course, Mr. Abraham Overton’s nephew excused himself to deal with the matter of the twittersome atmosphere. He returned and set the cage on the dining room table, then opened the latch. Buster wobbled out and found himself standing next to a platter of turkey. He quit singing. He breathed. And breathed. The window was open. The night was foggy dark and frog-full, with barely a moon. Buster thought about Henri, who taught him grandness. He thought about Mr. Percy Mallaby. He thought about the turkey.
This moment of silence was broken by Mrs. Percy Mallaby’s guests hollering, clapping, and whistling their approval of the long-overdue conclusion of the evening’s performance. Buster assumed this was a request for an encore. He rearranged his feathers, pecked a few more breaths out of the chill air. Despite his exhaustion, he flew to the windowsill and bowed. Then he delivered a full-blown canzone of his own composing, evoking the spirit of the 1851 premiere of Rigoletto in Venice, specifically, noted tenor Raffaele Mirate’s rendering of “La Donna e Mobile” in Act 3. But instead of building toward a thundering resolution, like Verdi’s version, an ill-timed shake of a handkerchief caused the bird to bleed one G into an F-sharp. The startle of white, still a surprise of color after months of his mistress wearing black, and the subsequent musical miscalculation, made Buster take a few thin-legged steps backwards, right off the windowsill. As he fell, the note continued dropping in pitch until landing in the bushes of an unceremonious B-flat. There followed a quasihemidemisemiquaver rest, during which Mrs. Percy Mallaby’s guests were treated to flapping sounds, rustling sounds and raccoon sounds. Buster chirruped a final misplaced F-sharp and this time, fell silent.
The next morning, the widow draped black crepe on her door. She retrieved her mourning clothes from under the bed. She did not bother to eat her porridge.
“For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” sung in a lento tempo and the haunting key of F-sharp minor, was a staple of local funeral processions for the next few generations, beginning with the last rites of Mrs. Percy Mallaby. Two months after the disastrous dinner party, while still in mourning, she tripped over an enormous root in the garden, only to discover it was in fact a leg attached to the torso of her former cook, who was there to steal winter vegetables, harvesting them from her old employer, who didn’t have much of an appetite, to please her new one. Mrs. Percy Mallaby was simply glad to bump into someone she knew. In fact, she thought it would be rather nice to invite her old cook inside for tea, but the shock of a human face among her beloved greens triggered an attack of the heart, and her tongue worked over syllables that never left her mouth. The widow fell to her knees, settled her head between two cauliflowers, and never rose out of her own finely tended rows.