To Clip a Songbird’s Wings

I’m waiting again.

That’s all I do these days. Waiting. It’s the only thing I can do. Every day I wake up to the sun shining through my window as the birds sing outside, and I just sit there, staring at the four walls around me, until I fall asleep hours later, when the moon is high in the sky and there is only silent darkness. Then I wake up and do the same thing the next day, and the next, and the next, repeating my routine over and over again, all the while doing absolutely nothing else.

Well, I say I do nothing, but that isn’t strictly true, is it? I’m always doing something, even if only indirectly. I’m always breathing, living, existing. Even when I’m asleep, my body is still awake, still working away. You begin to notice all the little things you never used to pay much attention to, all the little things you take for granted, when you have so much free time on your hands.

If I’m honest, it’s not so bad. It could be a lot worse. A bit of room to move about in is better than no room at all – though it’s not like I do much moving.

At first I hated it, all this time spent staying still, but now I’m used to it. Now I can sit there and wait, for hours on end, doing nothing but feeling myself existing, as slow as the growing roots of a tree. My thoughts are the only company I have, but I’m used to that as well – nothing makes you more used to solitude than solitude itself. Of course, they bring me food and water every few days, so I do see other people (if you can call silent footsteps and gloved hands people). I tried to use their deliveries to track the time, but by now I don’t really care. Time is meaningless to me, since all I do is spend it waiting.

I couldn’t even begin to tell you how long I’ve been here for. That’s not to say I can’t remember my life before, not at all. But it was so long ago now that sometimes it almost feels like a dream. Half the time, my memories seem almost unreal, but I haven’t lost my mind – at least, I don’t think I have. I don’t talk to myself, for example, as they say mad people do. I never say a word. I could, but I don’t want to. I just sit here in silence.

My husband hated the silence. That’s not to say he loved talking – no, it was me who had to do all the speaking, whether it be to him, or to the servants, or to our guests. It was expected of me. It was what I was supposed to do, even though I love silence, even though I could have sat for hours without saying a single word. But it didn’t matter what I wanted. My opinion, desires, and feelings were not important – my mother assured me and my sister of that when we were children. “When you find husbands, you must be good wives,” she would say, her thin lips barely moving as she spoke in her shrill undertone. “You must not shame them. You must behave like proper young ladies. You must be polite, poised, and perfect.”

So that was what I did. I was polite, I was poised, and I was perfect. A proper young lady who behaved well. I did what I was told, as did my sister. She always loved our lessons on eloquence and grace, our days spent perfecting ourselves, and our evenings spent attending concerts or watching plays or dancing at balls, smiles perpetually on our faces.

That was how I found myself a husband – or rather how my parents found one for me. He was from a good family, and that was all that mattered. His father, a steel magnate, was growing older and frailer, and my husband had risen through the ranks of the family business, slowly taking over his father’s duties, lining his pockets with silver and gold in the process. That was how we afforded the mansion at the heart of the city, with gardens full of foreign flowers, and servants to cater for our every whim.

We had birds too, in our aviary; songbirds. Lots and lots of little songbirds. My husband collected them, exotic species from all over the world. Whenever we hosted dinner parties, once a week at least, he would always bring our guests into the aviary. They would stand outside the cage, laughing, glasses of wine in hand, and listen as my husband rapped his cane on the bars and made the birds sing. Our guests would gasp, clap, and cackle in screeching delight as the birds’ song filled the air, their chirps and tweets and trills as harmonious and melodic as any orchestra.

I would always stay behind for a while when the guests moved back into the house. I would stand outside the cage, hands on the bars, my face pressed close against them, and watch the birds within. When I was little, my governess would take me and my sister to the park in summer – we would hear the nightingales and thrushes sing as they flew through the air from tree to tree. But the birds in the cage didn’t sing, didn’t fly. They just sat there, on their perches, their wings clipped, silent in their cage, unless my husband made them sing.

He would make me sing as well, in front of our guests. I always told him how I didn’t like it, singing in front of other people, but he didn’t care. My voice was too good to be wasted. That was what he told me, and so I sang, in front of all our guests, night after night. I had to cut my hair too, and wear the dresses he bought for me. They were things I would never have worn myself, but he liked them, so I wore them. He bought me makeup and jewellery as well, and expected me to wear them. And I did. Whatever he wanted, I did it.

He always called me his little bird, his sweet, little songbird. But that was when he talked to me, and he only talked to me when he wanted things.

It was two years into our marriage when he first took her as his mistress. He didn’t even try hard to hide it – he didn’t parade her around, not at first. But I knew. For every night he spent at home, he spent ten away. I would catch the maids whispering in hushed tones, but when they saw me they would always fall quiet, and scuttle away. No one would talk to me. I had no friends, except the birds, but they didn’t speak either. They just watched me from their cage as I watched them from mine.

After a year, he grew bolder. He began bringing her to the weekly parties, showing her off. She was young, a blossoming flower, with dark hair and bright eyes, wearing clothes, jewels, and makeup finer than any of mine had ever been. The best accessory my husband could ever have, hanging onto his arm, his every word, his every breath, He introduced her to the guests, who smiled as they shook her hand, and then shared knowing smirks as my husband and his mistress moved on, to others, and then to me.

He introduced her to me as his secretary. Of course. Isn’t it always? I smiled, as was expected of me, and offered her my hand. When she shook it her smile dimmed a bit, and she didn’t meet my eyes.

I didn’t blame her for anything, you know. She was just a stupid young girl who thought she was important. But she couldn’t see what I saw. She couldn’t see my husband standing over her, pulling the strings, making her into what he wanted. Every time I saw her, she was different – her hair curlier, her makeup thicker, but her smile hollower, her eyes blanker. He even made her sing as well, in front of all our guests, with me. We stood together, two songbirds chirping away, as he rapped his cane on our cage, and showed us off to anyone who wanted to see.

I was his puppet. I can see that now. I existed only to serve his whims. I was whatever he wanted me to be. The mansion was my prison, my jewels my chains, from the very first day of our marriage. I had lived my whole life like that, serving others, existing only for them, and I was used to it. I was used to being their doll, their toy. I was used to feeling nothing.

It was only when I saw her with her first black eye that I felt something. Just like the ones he gave me when he came into my room at night, his breath burning with alcohol.

I said all this to him when I confronted him in our study, on our third anniversary. I didn’t like going into that room. The ceiling had dozens of marionettes hanging from it, twisted into different positions, their bright, painted, empty faces grinning down at me, their eyes unblinking. It was like looking back into a mirror. But he never understood why I didn’t like them. He never understood me. But like I say, I was used to that. So I didn’t bother trying to make him understand. I just had to tell him, just once, how I felt, so that I could be at peace.

Afterwards I went out into the garden. It was evening, and the air was still warm, the sky pink and orange and red as I went into the aviary. I had taken the keys from him – he always kept them on his person – and the songbirds, silent as ever, stared at me as I walked over to them and opened the cage.

They didn’t know what to do at first. They had been trapped in their prison all their lives, their wings pruned and clipped, just like mine. But I would show them. I would save them. I would help them to fly, to be free, to escape and never look back.

So I did. I opened the aviary door. I waited, and watched, as they began to emerge from their cage, hopping on their little legs out into the big, wide world. I watched as they hopped higher and higher, and then began to fly on shaking, wobbling wings, one by one, then all together, leaving the earth behind, rising towards the sky and leaving me behind.

They began to sing, their song filling the air, just as I heard a scream from the open window of my husband’s study. A maid must have found his body, bled out from the dozens of holes stabbed in his chest. I was still carrying the knife in my hand.

All of that was a long time ago. I don’t know how long, to be honest. It could have been ten years, or a hundred. I don’t keep track of time. I’ve been in prison since then, with nothing to do, no one to see, no role to play. I don’t have to wear makeup, I don’t have to wear fancy dresses, and I don’t have to sing and smile. I don’t have to do anything. I just sit here, chains clamped around my wrists, staring at the four walls around me and waiting in my cell, as the songbirds sing and fly outside my window.

Sometimes, I wish I could fly with them as well, out in the open air. But not always. My cage fits me just fine.

[Luke McWilliams]

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