The Blackbird Cage
There is a cage in a sunlit room. A bird sleeps. A songless bird. In a cage covered with cotton.
The cage is round. There is no beginning, no end. This cage is a trap. This cage is a door. A trap door to freedom. Freedom wriggles and spirals and stretches like a child, for that is its nature.
In another room, breath is drawn. In this other room, dreams come fast and easy to those who sleep. The dreams are of rocks and shells, feathers and tongues, skies and wings. They are of the long ago and the yet to come. They are of bones and seeds, icicles and leaves, the Spirit Moon, Heartberry Moon, and a bear standing in the late snows of spring.
The silence will end when the dreamer awakes and the cage is opened.
I was sitting at my desk making plans to visit my sister and her newborn son when the phone rang.
‘Hi, Keesic.’ There was no lilt in her voice, just a simple statement of acknowledgment.
‘What’s wrong?’ My sister never called me by my full name unless she had something serious to discuss. And since we joked the most when all was well, serious tended not to be good.
‘What’s wrong?’ More frantic now, fear gathering in a lump in the throat.
‘Ma said I should call.’ She paused briefly. ‘Gran had another heart attack.’
There was a long pause, neither of us wanting the words to make our fears true.
The trip was a blur. No thoughts, no images are retrievable. Except one. One before the trip began. Except for the moment before leaving when I stood across from Robby, my supervisor. And the image of her face hangs clearly in my mind. A round face, blanching slightly, brown eyes floating, then lips moving. The sound of her voice, struggling to escape from its throat, cracking notes of assent.
Running through the halls of the hospital six hours later. Finding no one. Awash in a strange silence. Dread, unacknowledged, growing inside. Moving down corridors. Finally, my sister’s room. And my father sitting by the window reading the newspaper.
I stood staring in his direction and he looked from behind the paper, snapping and folding it in his lap.
‘I can’t find anyone. I can’t find….’
‘They’re at Aunt Lila’s. Mom too.’
‘But… Gran?’ knowing the answer but refusing to believe it, ignoring what I knew and asking the question with an odd innocence.
‘She’s gone.’ Just that—she’s gone—and picking up the paper. Just that and I am left standing, clutched in the steel grip of a monstrous grief, unable to move legs or arms or eyes or mouth. Just standing immobile, tears splashing through gravity like a salty river moving of its own accord down the banks of my face.
‘Go look for Darlene. Go look for your sister.’ His hands still holding the newspaper.
I moved instinctively, moving across surfaces, between walls, without thinking. As if a wire had become disconnected. I saw but didn’t recognize. Doors, walls, signs, elevators, nurses, people carrying flowers and pushing I.V.s down corridors. My feet knew where to walk and somewhere in my brain the signs were deciphered. Somehow I did not slam into walls or walk over people or trip on my own feet. But I could not have named one thing, not one item or one letter. I could not have looked down and thought “foot” or “shoe.” I saw and moved on instinct, not understanding.
And there I was at the glass window where the newborns are displayed.
Darlene came walking out the door from the room where the babies are fed. I turned to her, arms hanging as if my hands were weights, and she put her arm around my shoulder and walked me back to her room.
I had seen the latter stages of dying though I’d never witnessed death itself. My Great Aunt Kayla sprang straight up in bed, her mouth opening and closing uncontrollably, eyes wide open but seeing nothing in the room. And I knew I would never see her again.
The experience was poignant and brief and in some unaccountable way natural and life affirming. My father’s death was long and numbing. He never trusted doctors, hated hospitals, and refused to take any medications as prescribed. After he started coughing up blood, they found the cancer. Too late. Within two months he was a witness of who he had been. He was in and out of hospital. His hair fell out and eventually he was unable to walk upstairs unassisted. With all the desperation of medical science, they hacked him apart, and we watched him disappear bit by bit.
He spent the days and nights on a borrowed hospital bed in the living room. His temper, which had never been good, became a seesaw of saintliness and rage. Then, after one particularly painfilled and irksome evening, he suffered a stroke and one side of his face slipped loose. After that he refused to look at himself in a mirror. Saliva gathered and dripped from the left side of his mouth and his words were limp and slid together into a series of grunts and groans. He rarely slept. When he did, he dreamed of birds clawing their way out of his chest and he’d wake up screaming and moaning. In fits of frustration and anger, he began hurling anything within reach at anyone within range. That stopped soon enough though, when the pain worsened and we had to give him morphine to keep him from screaming night and day.
When he died I was in town buying groceries. When I returned, Darlene, Aunt Lila, and Mom were seated around his bed. Mom was holding his hand and an air of peaceful calm suffused the place. And I felt, I knew without asking, that the pain and suffering had ended for everyone in the room.
Dad’s eyes had been closed and, laying there surrounded by family, he looked relaxed and strangely healthy. I realized then how the pain had stretched a mask of disease across his face and now that it was lifted how terrible and solemn it had been. His spirit had attained freedom and in that freedom had shaken loose the body. Without the spirit the body ceased struggling. Without struggle the mask came unhinged and disappeared. As I stood touching my mother’s shoulder it occurred to me that the illness had been overcome after all: he was free at last.
Gerry is the only man I’ve ever loved.
We met at a dinner at his parents’ home one early spring evening. His mother had become a fast friend after coming to my aid at a poetry reading. Two Greedy Minds had been circling, quizzing me about life on the reserve, Native spirituality, the appropriation of Native stories, land claims, the rights of sports fishermen versus Native fishing rights…. I tried, politely at first, to extricate myself. Then I exuded an intense disinterest that bordered on deafness.
I openly daydreamed. Imagined myself becoming birdwoman, darting and circling to freedom.
To no avail. One persistent, brighteyed university student continued asking about sweat lodges and potlatches while regaling me with stories of her various brushes with spirituality. All with the kind of open faced wonder that could drive a pacifist to throw punches. She stared, hanging on my every word and gesture. My hand was a clenched fist.
Barking in my other ear like a dog chasing his own tail, was a plain, 50-something man with a greying beard and balding head. Like all the worst ones he started out chatting about this and that “Indian” friend of his before launching a tirade about tax breaks and gun-wielding warriors.
Caught between the two, I was about to step back and knock their heads together, very hard, when a woman grabbed me by the elbow, saying very sweetly as she hurried me towards the door, ‘we’d like to say it’s been a pleasure… but it hasn’t.’
We left, politely nodding and smiling right and left.
Outside, we walked without talking. The air was as cold as knives in our lungs and we slowed, pulling our scarves over our mouths. At the streetlight, she turned to me. ‘I’m Joan. Hi.’
‘No worse than most, I guess.’
‘Scary thought!’ We laughed together and I knew then that we would be friends.
Gerry came to the dinner late, with a young, slightly drunk woman hanging on his arm. He grinned and shook my hand warmly, saying a line from one of my poems as he did so. It made me laugh and we chatted amicably for a few minutes before the meal was served. Shortly afterward he and his friend shouted their goodbyes from the foyer and left, laughing and slamming the door behind.
I bumped into him several times during my visit, always sharing a smile and small talk. A kind of friendly disinterest characterized all of these meetings.
When I was a child of seven or eight, I found a blackbird injured at the foot of the glass doors of Gran’s sleeping cabin. And I borrowed Grannie’s old birdcage and placed the bird inside. Within a few hours the bird was sitting up, looking around curiously. But I was afraid he hadn’t fully recovered. I was afraid to release him in the dark, on such a cool night. Instead, I put a margarine dish of water and some sunflower seeds inside and covered the cage with a piece of white cotton. Then I went to bed happily, dreaming about how Bird would sing in the morning. And when he was completely healed, I would release him. He would circle around my head in thankfulness, he would dip and dive in his unfettered joy at being saved. And though he was free, Bird would stay with me from then on. He would sit on my bedroom windowsill chattering secrets in birdtalk.
Early the next morning, as sun streamed through the window, I anxiously lifted the cotton. Bird’s dead eyes stared up at me from the bottom of the shining chrome cage.
Gerry has eyes the colour of a late winter afternoon sky. A deep vibrant blue-black, warm and penetrating. My German father had blue eyes but they were implacable, like pools of cold water. And he could hide his emotion easily beneath their cool surface. Gerry’s eyes are filled with shadows and valleys, fierce storms and gentle rain, midnight skies and the soft hues of dawn. When I look into their changing colours it is as if I can see everything he is thinking and feeling. And the first time I kissed him it was his eyes that had drawn me in.
And from that moment, I fell into him with abandon.
A room, pale yellow and shining. Rows of sunlight through slats reflect on chrome. There is a disturbing lack of depth. Everything is flat, white, bright, antiseptic.
There is another room within the room. A place where dreams have space. A place for real living.
Whispers leak around the pale yellow room. Hissing, shifting, shuffling. Bodies under bright white cotton. There is no screaming that can be heard.
Our coming together was like glancing up and seeing a sky filled with falling stars. In a dark room with the tea kettle bubbling, we touched unexpectedly, accidently almost. And there was a moment when our eyes widened. As if to say, who are we? Who is this ‘we’ that two people become, who this ‘us?’ And I looked into his eyes and I kissed him full on the mouth, swallowing his words. Then tongues meeting, probing, loving, a new language was born. A language like all language and unlike any other, unlike any we had ever known. Tongues pressed against teeth, lips against lips, creating the sound of this language, the lilt and pattern of it, the glottals and sibilance. Together, with the kettle steaming and
shouting behind us, we became the grammar and expression of this language. And through us punctuation and diction arose. A lexicon was created. And spirit pervaded the language.
Gerry gave me gifts collected on the beach down the road from his mother’s home. Every night I would find a shell, a stone, a feather on my pillow and every morning I would awaken with new eyes, new ears, and a full heart. So it was that meaning was conveyed and understood and gained depth.
And his mother was a quiet observer to what we were becoming. Without intention, she became the ears to our mouths and tongues, the listener who realized the sound. Without her, it is possible we might have slipped into another world, the world of dreams and spirits, and forgotten our way back to the threshold. We might have slipped and never found life in this world of earth and sky. This world where babies suckle their mothers’ breasts and the forest hums the energy between trees. This world of our waking existence.
A screaming bird battering itself against gleaming bars. A blackbird crying in a cage of bloody, hacked off beaks.
I am sitting in the living room of our home. Gerry enters, cold and sweating. Before I can speak he collapses at my feet.
Since then I have seen his eyes, through a mask of pain, struggling to give expression to this thing. To find words for what cannot yet be understood. Since then I have held him through long nights in strange, cold rooms. And held his head, stroking his sweat-slicked hair, as he retched and shivered.
Sitting on plastic chairs, I have waited. I have waited. I have listened to the odd echo of heels clicking on tile, my ankles absorbing the coldness. I have seen images of bone. Images of heart and breath and stone. I have watched an image of heart and breath, rising and falling, rising and falling. The heartbeat an unsettling beep and silence, beep and silence. I have surrendered my dreams to a thin green line.
Between visits to this cold, bright place, we lived happily. But as this thing grew and Gerry weakened, a terror intensified. And the between folded back on itself. Then the cold place became home and home, the visiting place.
There is a figure of a man. A silhouette on snow. Snow and sun and a solitary man stumbling.
Snow blindness. Eyes burn and water. Blinding whiteness. Snow and sun and a solitary man stumbling.
The barrens. No beginning, no end in sight. A circle of white. Snow and sun and a solitary man stumbling.
I could not bear to look into Gerry’s eyes then. Could not bear it in the yellow room where more and more days and nights were spent. Could not bear it in the living room. Could not bear it in the bedroom. For the first time, I began to close my eyes when we kissed. And a silence rooted itself in our tongue.
So, for a time, a space grew and it was you and I, he and I again. And a new mask was fashioned for each. Gerry’s mask was a thin transparency that exposed and highlighted his eyes and mouth. Mine covered my eyes and ears. This is how we might have continued in freezing, quiet desperation.
Then one day, Gerry fell on the hard, white tile, knocking the masks loose. And in that instant I saw a blackbird standing in the corner of his eye.
There is a child waiting to be born. And Gerry and I weep together, our hands encircling my already swollen belly. We have remembered our reason for being and the tears are a language all their own. Translation is inept.
When our tears have said all that can be said, I whisper to Gerry in the language we have come to speak fluently. His eyes are a beautiful oratory of understanding. Now, again, Joan is our ears. Now, she has become paper upon which our words are written.
As prayers are recited, family gathers. So the ceremony begins and ends and continues in a circle of language.
I open the cage door.
The Blackbird Cage
is one of 14 short stories included in The Stone Collection, by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm. These storie takes on complex and dangerous emotions, exploring the gamut of modern Anishinaabe experience. Through unforgettable characters, these stories—about love and lust, suicide and survival, illness and wholeness—illuminate the strange workings of the human heart. The Stone Collection comes out on HighWater Press later this fall.