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excerpt > Lawrence Lenhart > The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage

1 | The morning after the quake (magnitude 6.0), my first since moving to California, I call my mother, happy to break a cycle of redundant conversations about DMV, home owner’s insurance, and what percentage moved in we are.

As she gauges the completeness of our move-in (“I don’t know, seventy-five percent, should be closer to eighty tomorrow,” I say stupid things like this), I can tell she is actually gauging abstract phenomena like dishonesty (hadn’t I promised a homecoming?) and guilt (have I any?).

“It sounded like luggage wheels on a wooden floor,” I tell her. “Actually, it felt like luggage wheels. If that makes sense.”

Her response is lackluster, not as I imagined it would be. Just a few follow-up questions about aftershocks and How far is Napa again? as the crow flies and as it doesn’t.

“Your cousin had another seizure last night,” my mother says. It is her fifth this month. The doctors are still deciding on dosages. I ask my mother about the magnitude of this recent seizure, but she says she doesn’t think that’s how seizures work.

I know I am conflating earthquake and epilepsy, Richter pen and electrode, fault line and scalp. I am hopelessly essaying. We hang up. I spend the day unpacking.

At night, my girlfriend sleeps, and I roam through the new house, learning which boards squeak, which neighbors stay up late, which neighbors work late (i.e., deal drugs). I shave so quietly that between drags of the razor, I hear my own breath solo for the first time in months. I decide that I wear ear buds too often. I dry my hands on my girlfriend’s nightgown because it’s hanging on a towel hook. I eat baby carrots, chew softly. I read articles about Syria, celebutantes, and gaegogi (dog meat), wondering if my cousin is having another seizure now or maybe now. I read articles about seizures.

Then Arni, small and blue, my parrotlet (see “pocket parrot”), drops from his perch, flaps, and transforms into a strident alarm system, a bleating echo. My girlfriend wakes. We meet at the cage. She asks what is wrong with him, and what’s wrong with me, why am I up so late. She holds the kitten we’ve just adopted, a small tuxedo like Sylvester. I tell her Arni has only had a night terror once before. I don’t know what’s wrong.

She goes back to sleep, and I rotate Arni in my palm as if inspecting a feathered pinecone. I check his eyes for dilation, his wing for broken blood feathers. I roll away a small pin feather and feel his heart beat like a neuron caught between pinball bumpers. From the way he shrugs, I can tell his carpal joint is wounded. I start asking him questions, only some spoken aloud.

“What’s wrong Arni?

Did you feel an aftershock?

What is this place, buddy?

Huh?

What woke you up?

What caused your fright?

Did you hurt yourself?

Are you hurt?

Do you miss Arizona?

Do you miss the desert?

Do you, mister?

You haven’t adjusted yet, have you?

Is it the moths?

Is it the cat?”

After he settles into his hammock, sleeping with head revolved and eyes open, I insert ear buds and watch YouTube in the dark, an early episode of Canary Row, Tweety singing á la voice actor Mel Blanc’s affectation of a precious speech impediment: “I’m a tweet wittow biwd in a gilded cage; tweety’th my name but I don’t know my age. I don’t have to wuwy and dat is dat; I’m tafe in hewer from dat ol’ putty tat.”

2 | Arni can gulp, kiss, scuff, bounce, trickle, sneeze, cough, and belch. He can replicate most iPhone sounds (e.g., apex, beacon, bulletin, chimes, cosmic, crystals, presto, radar, etc.). I’ve taught Arni words too, but he’s mostly apathetic about lingual mimicry.

Whereas human speech is achieved through phonation, the effect of vocal folds (see "vocal cords") vibrating hundreds of times per second within the larynx (see "voice box"), bird song is achieved through a small organ unique to birds, the syrinx. Because of the syrinx, birdsong is composed almost purely of air (compare with humans: just 2 percent air), meaning Arni's voice is more like an enunciative whistle than it is my own.

The syrinx, which has been compared to a double-reeded oboe or French horn in its construction, derives its name from the Grecian nymph Syrinx. In Thomas Woolner’s Silenus (1884), Syrinx’s story is adapted into an erotic narrative poem: “Syrinx [is] chased by nimble Pan”—Pan the satyr, god of wild—“fl ushed with terror, plucked at by demon claws, [she] plunges”—(see “Pan-ic”)—“in the stream and her young spirit passes into the reeds.” Pan proceeds to cut the reeds at different lengths, fashions pipes (see “pan fl ute”), and his hostile breath generates a necrophilic song. . .


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Lawrence Lenhart is a lecturer of fiction and creative nonfiction at Northern Arizona University. His fiction and non-fiction have been widely published. He is an editor at DIAGRAM and a frequent writer for The Rumpus and Brazos Bookstore. Learn more about Lawrence and The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage.

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