Katherine Mansfield, Dove’s Nest/The Canary
Death of the
of the Canary:
. . . You see that big nail to the right of the
front door? I can scarcely look at it even now and yet I could not
bear to take it out. I should like to think it was there always even
after my time. I sometimes hear the next people saying, "There must
have been a cage hanging from there." And it comforts me; I feel he
is not quite forgotten.
. . . You cannot imagine how wonderfully he sang. It
was not like the singing of other canaries. And that isn’t just my
fancy. Often from the window, I used to see people stop at my gate
and listen, or they would lean over the fence by the mock-orange for
quite a long time – carried away. I suppose it sounds absurd to you
– but it really seemed to me that he sang whole songs with a
beginning and an end to them.
For instance, when I’d finished the house in the
afternoon, and changed my blouse and brought my sewing on the
verandah here, he used to hop, hop, hop from one perch to another,
tap against the bars as if to attract my attention, sip a little
water just as a professional singer might, and then break into a
song so exquisite that I had to put my needle down to listen to him.
I can’t describe it; I wish I could. But it was always the same,
every afternoon, and I felt that I understood every note of it.
. . . I loved him. How I loved him! Perhaps it does
not matter so very much what it is one loves in this world. But love
something one must. Of course there was always my little house and
garden, but for some reason they never were enough. Flowers respond
wonderfully, but they don’t sympathize. Then I loved the evening
star. Does that sound foolish? I used to go into the backyard, after
sunset, and wait for it until it shone above the dark gum tree. I
used to whisper "There you are, my darling." And just in that first
moment it seemed to be shining for me alone. It seemed to understand
the . . . something which is like longing, and yet it is not
longing. Or regret – it is more like regret. And yet to regret for
what? I have much to be thankful for.
. . . But after he came into my life I forgot the
evening star; I did not need it any more. But it was strange. When
the Chinaman who came to the door with birds to sell held him up in
his tiny cage, and instead of fluttering, fluttering, like the poor
little goldfinches, he gave a faint, small chirp, I found myself
saying just as I had said to the star over the gum tree, "There you
are, my darling." From that moment he was mine.
. . . It surprises me even now to remember how he
and I shared each other’s lives. The moment I came down in the
morning and took the cloth off his cage he greeted me with a drowsy
little note. I knew what it meant "Missus! Missus!"
Then I hung him on the nail outside while I got my three young
men their breakfasts, and I never brought him until we had the house
to ourselves again. Then, when the washing-up was done, it was quite
a little entertainment. I spread a newspaper over a corner of the
table and when I put the cage on it he used to beat his wings
despairingly, as if he didn’t know what was coming. "You’re a
regular little actor," I used to scold him. I scraped the tray,
dusted it with fresh sand, filled his seed and water tins, tucked a
piece of chickweed and half a chili between the bars. And I am
perfectly certain he understood and appreciated every item of this
little performance. You see by nature he was exquisitely neat. There
was never a speck on his perch. And you’d only to see his enjoy his
bath to realize he had a real small passion for cleanliness. His
bath was put in last. And the moment it was in he positively leapt
into it. First he fluttered one wing, and then the other, then he
ducked his head and dabbled his breast feathers. Drops of water were
scattered all over the kitchen, but still he would not get out. I
used to say to him, " Now that’s quite enough. You’re only showing
off." And at last out he hopped and, standing on one leg, he began
to peck himself dry. Finally he gave a little shake, a flick, a
twitter and he lifted his throat – Oh, I was always cleaning the
knives at the time, And it almost seemed to me the knives sang too,
as I rubbed them bright on the board.
. . . Company, you see – that was what he was.
Perfect company. If you have lived alone you realize how precious
that is. Of course there were my three young men who came in to
supper every evening, and sometimes they stayed in the dining-room
afterwards reading the paper. But I could not expect them to be
interested in the little things that made my day. Why should they
be? I was nothing to them. In fact, I overheard them on evening
taking about me on the stairs as "the Scarecrow." No matter. It
doesn’t matter. Not in the least. I quite understand. They are
young. Why should I mind? But I remember feeling so especially
thankful that I was not quite alone that evening. I told him. After
they had gone out. I said, "Do you know what they call Missus?" And
he put his head on one side and looked at me with his little bright
eye until I could not help laughing. It seemed to amuse him.
. . . Have you kept birds? If you haven’t all this
must sound, perhaps, exaggerated. People have the idea that birds
are heartless, cold little creatures, not like dogs and cats. My
washerwoman used to say on Mondays when she wondered why I didn’t
keep "a nice fox terrier," "There’s no comfort, miss in a canary.
Untrue. Dreadfully untrue. I remember one night. I had had a very
awful dream – dreams can be dreadfully cruel – even after I had
woken up and could not get over it. So I put on my dressing-gown and
went down to the kitchen for a glass of water. It was a winter night
and raining hard. I suppose I was still half-asleep, but through the
kitchen window, that hadn’t a blind, it seemed to me the dark was
staring in, spying.
And suddenly I felt it was unbearable that I had no
one to whom I could say "I’ve had such a dreadful dream," or – or "
Hide me from the dark." I even covered my face for a minute. And
then there came a little "Sweet! Sweet!" His cage was on the table,
and the cloth had slipped so that a chink of light shone through.
"Sweet! Sweet!" and the darling little fellow again softly, as much
as to say, "I’m here, Missus! I’m here!" That was so beautifully
comforting that I nearly cried.
. . . And now he’s gone. I shall never have another
bird, another pet of any kind. How could I? When I found him, lying
on his back, with his eye dim and his claws wrung, when I realized
that never should I hear my darling sing, something seemed to die in
me. My heart felt hollow, as if it was his cage. I shall get over
it. Of course. I must. One can get over anything in time. And people
always say I have a cheerful disposition. They are quite right. I
thank my God I have.
. . . All the same, without being morbid, and giving way to – to
memories and so one, I must confess that there does seem to me
something sad in life. It is hard to say what it is. I don’t mean
the sorrow that we all know, like illness and poverty and death. No,
it is something different. It is there, deep down, deep down part of
one, like one’s breathing. However hard I work and tire myself I
have only to stop to know it is there, waiting. I often wonder if
everybody feels the same. One can never know. But isn’t it
extraordinary that under his sweet, joyful little singing it was
just this – sadness? – Ah, what is it? – that I heard.