Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Canary Cage

Jim was a good storyteller. In three villages, no, in three hundred villages could not be found such a weaver of tales, a purveyor of dreams, a painter of colorful yarns.

Children and adults alike pursued him. Open evening campfires drew instant crowds when word got out that he was reviving his craft once again at the behest of every influential person in the town and at the insistence of every eager youth.

Once of these evenings began in a particularly pleasant way, which is often a sign of impending turbulence. One would not have guessed from the way it began that the night would end as it did.

A gentle breeze swayed the limbs of an ancient apple tree against the backdrop of a deep blue sky spaced with final sunset streaks shot between the night's first and boldest stars.

The words of the storyteller drifted out above the hush and the hickory smoke. The enthralled crowd hung on every word. Imagination lit every animated expression. Behind them a golden coach led by golden horses came to an abrupt stop. The insignia on the door was a star intertwining a crown. A young man, hardly more than a youth, strode out with a kingly gait and listened silently with fire in his eyes.

The weaver's tale came alive as though he were creating real and living worlds with the depth of his imagery. Every brushstroke of vocal intonation conveyed unrivaled passion and sincerity. Nobody breathed for fear of missing a single syllable.

Jim paused. His eyes opened widely. The crowd had parted to allow the stranger's approach, and they were shyly ducking their heads and looking away.  Some were bowing.

The stranger looked him in the eyes.

"Why do these people listen to you?" he said.

"Begging your pardon, Your Highness, but I seem to have a knack for spinning a tale," he replied with a modest blush.

"You're hired.  Come with me," said the prince.

"Begging His Highness's pardon again, but I have a shop to run, a home to tend, and a pet canary to feed..."

"Sed," called the monarch-to-be over his shoulder.  A muscular servant appeared from the direction of the coach.

"Sed," repeated the prince, "escort this golden tongued word weaver home to fetch his canary. Have them both at the palace by morning."

With a slightly arrogant parting glance the prince was gone, leaving a disappointed dispersing crowd and a stunned storytelling storekeeper.

"Why me?" moaned Jim. The servant rode a horse slowly beside him as he made his way down a graveled path.

"You'll be paid well," said Sedrick. "Good food, too."

Jim held his forehead and groaned.

The shop was set in order and locked. The storyteller packed a few clothes and removed a wicker canary cage from its hook. Its yellow occupant flittered excitedly inside it. He hooked up a cart to a brave little donkey and set off with the tall guard towering alongside on his steed.

It was extremely late when they reached the palace gates. Sentries let them in and took their conveyances to the stables. Jim was shown to a small room with a single window and a sofa with red velvet cushions.

"Have a good night," said Sedrick. "And don't try to leave," he added. "The doors are guarded, and so is your window."

The next morning dawned gray and foggy. Jim found himself wearing stiff new clothes and sitting in the billiard room among a crowd of nobles. Some were smoking enormous cigars. Some were feasting on pie and pastry. Some yawned and stared blankly out the window.

"Gentlemen," said the prince. Every eye looked his way.

"I have endeavored to bring you, at great expense to myself, some enlightening entertainment. This peasant, a mere shopkeeper, has the gift of a golden tongue. Let us listen."

He promptly seated himself on a rounded royal blue silk cushion and proceeded to help himself to a small portion of roasted corn.

Jim missed his home. He missed his freedom. He felt as trapped as a canary, with the exception that a tame canary could never fend for itself in the wild.

Neither could these nobles. Jim told himself that he had never seen people more lonely, more bored, and more completely helpless than these overfed, underworked, pompous men.

He fired his imagination to full steam and took them on a journey through forests, over valleys, past flowing rivers, across plains, into the midst of dragons and sword fights; and by the time he'd finished every mouth gaped in utter astonishment at his skill. They rose and applauded as the last phrase fell on grateful, enlivened ears.

Jim was paid good wages through the years. Generations of noble children learned both traditional tales and new ones. He was a walking library of literature, as beloved and respected a figure as ever had walked the halls before or since.

He kept many generations of canaries in his room, and they always reminded him of the life he'd lived before. He missed his freedom, but he recognized that by accepting his post as the "royal canary" and bringing life into the palace through his ideas and words, he was setting others free. The nobles, the children, and all servants within earshot were enabled to look forward to life with courage, kindness, and contentment. This in turn trickled down to all the rest of the people, who had a much easier lifetime under rulers that were well educated in things like morals and empathy for others.

When at last his stories were no more, and he awoke to the gracious freedom for which he'd always longed,  those left behind mourned respectfully and deeply, and buried him with honor among the graves of valiant knights. A large aviary was built for his canaries, with a servant assigned to attend to them. They live there to this day, and the notes of their songs still cheer and comfort the lonely and sore of heart who pause to listen and observe.