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The Winter Canary
4 secret ingredients assigned to incorporate into a story: A yellow canary, an old lady, a library, a salad
It was one of those cold wintery days when everything was covered in a blanket of white as far as the eye could see. Every branch on the bare trees and every rooftop was powdered from the ten inches of snowfall the few days before. The sun shone, but could do nothing to make the temperature rise. The snow was comfortable to remain where it was, and Gladys was quite content for it to stay that way a few more days.
She picked at her salad, wondering to herself why she didn't make soup for lunch today. She felt like something warm to sooth her stomach would be better, and the greens were rather course and tasteless.
"How do they get greens here in the middle of winter anyway?" she wondered. Yes, she was used to all the conveniences of modern society and food when you want it, even out of season. She knew about trucks and freight trains for produce traveling from the south to the far reaches of North Dakota, but she was still so astonished by the way it all worked. Her parents used to always reminded her of what life was like during the depression and how little they got by on. She was just a child then, but didn't know any different. She had seen so many things change over her 88 years.
Well, so many things, but hardly much at all with the library. It was rather fixed in time. She closed the lid on the remainder of her salad, only half eaten. "Perhaps Eli or Dalton will want it when they go on their lunch break," she thought looking at the clock which read 12:40. She still had twenty minutes before expected to make herself useful, but it wasn't as if she was going to be busy or needed to get the most out of every minute on a day like this.
The library was rarely busy these days anyway, especially on a day where few people even dared to leave their homes. Gladys probably wouldn't have herself, but her niece seemed to like having her around even if she made little contribution to the overall operations of the county library.
"You just like me here because unlike 99% of the world I actually know how the Dewey Decimal system works," Gladys would say practically every week to Eli as they sorted books together. Eli would smile and respond, "Of course, and you're as old as it. What, did you think I liked your smile?"
They had that sort of predictable and pleasant teasing banter about them all their life. Rose was the real comedian of the family, but the last time anyone had a laugh that shook their belly as she was prone to deliver, was the Christmas day ten years ago when Rose forgot to take the pig out of the oven and burned it to a crisp. It took a few weeks to figure out she was losing the battle with Alzheimer's, and the laughter somehow stopped.
"Why not me?" Gladys would ask on a regular basis, "Why my sister? Her family needs her, I'm the expendable one God, why not me?"
But Gladys managed to find ways to make herself a valuable asset in her own right. No children of her own, but a practical grandmother to all who entered through the library doors. Gladys was like comfort food, a welcome sight wandering through the six airy rooms of the public library. A relic of time, but a familiar and friendly one that everybody knew by name and was missed if not seen during their rare sojourn to the land of physical books, In fact, Eli was sure since the invention of the internet, nobody really came to the library to read as much as they did just to be in a physical place with real people. Gladys knew every library patron by name too, but simply had no idea of her true value in the institution or life. None, whatsoever, until the moment she saw the yellow canary shivering on the snowy ledge of the windowsill.
"What on Earth are you doing there?" she said aloud as she scurried to the break room window, "How does some little thing like you manage to get out there?" She struggled to remove the winter seals so she could crank open the window. "My oh my, shouldn't you be in somebody's care? Did you slip out of a cage? Didn't you know it was only seven degrees outside? Oh how you are shiverin' dear little one. I'm coming don't you worry."
A blast of steam appeared before her as the chilled air did battle with the heated room. The wind roared as Gladys stole its victim into her winkled hands and continued to howl in defeat as she sealed the window once again. The little yellow fluff ball shivered in her hands, but the snowflakes that frosted her body soon melted away into a little puddle in Gladys' palm.
"There, there little one, Gladys has you now. Everything's going to be ok." But the bird, still shivering, eyes shut, beak chattering, legs twitching, seemed to be in its final moments. Gladys didn't quite know what to do, but she wasn't going to give up on the delicate creature. "If nothing else," she figured, "I'm going to make sure this little one leaves this world feeling warm and loved." She began to massage the body of the bird with her fingers, the fine yellow plumage unlike anything she'd really known before in her lifetime. She gently rubbed her fingers along the birds wings, in hopes to circulate the blood through its body, but she really had no idea what to do. The bird was, in truth, on its last legs, but Gladys was determined.
She decided to sing. Actually, she didn't really decide, it just happened. She's not sure why even, but canary's are known to chirp out songs, so perhaps Gladys' subconscious mind opted to try giving it something familiar. Gladys' wasn't a singer; she didn't even open her mouth in an attempt to pretend to sing along in church service. But this poor creature dying in her hands seemed to warrant a try, and besides nobody else was around to hear it. Nobody could mock her for raspy chords or a tone-deaf ear like the kids in school used to in her childhood one room schoolhouse. Nobody could blame her for a sentimental heart. This was a private moment. Eli and Dalton, the only two even likely to come into the room, were busy cataloging some donations on the other side of the building and shoveling snow off the sidewalk respectively.
Gladys just sang away, not even aware what she was singing, if they were words or not. She was just making sounds. Nothing else mattered, just the sickly bird in her hands. And in a few moments, the bird stopped shivering.
It just stopped. And nothing else. So Gladys stopped. The little yellow body was still in her hands. Gladys couldn't move either, transfixed in the moment as if time had stopped altogether as well. Finally she glanced up at the clock again…but it was too blurry for her to make out through the water built up in her eyes. She thought it best to set the bird down and grab up a tissue, but found she couldn't. "Ok Gladys, enough is enough, the little one's time came and that's it. Best to get up…" but she couldn't move. She realized her whole body was shaking. There was a strange tightening in her chest, and…"Oh my, here we go, I guess the little one won't be alone after all."
Gladys was prepared to go. But as she sat there, seemingly paralyzed and dying, the little ball of feathers began to move. "I must be hallucinating, or maybe seeing the spirit of the little creature," she thought, "She couldn't possibly be…" But it was. The little bird cranked its head and opened its eyes. The beak let out a few meager chirps, and then suddenly began to warble confidently. Gladys was sure it seemed grateful, as if it was thanking her. "Well, that's nice," she thought, "One last act I could do before…" The pressure in her chest tightened. The last sight Gladys caught glimpse of before her head slouched over was the yellow canary popping up from her hands and hopping around. "I'm just pleased to know I could do something."
Gladys could still hear the bird chirping away as if it was now sharing its own song with her. Gladys couldn't feel much of her body, but she could hear the bird fluttering around the room. "Oh good, the little one can still fly. She's a lucky little one. Hopefully plenty of life left in her."
The song of the bird could be heard moving about the room. "Probably trying to find a way out," she thought. The bird's chirps seemed to grow louder and louder. "It's ok little one, you're safe inside this room, don't you worry, don't you worry…"
Gladys became aware of something on her forehead. It was stroking her skin and brushing itself through her hair. She couldn't tell what it was, then realized it was her hand. Her head had managed to slump itself forward and was now resting in her wrinkled palms. Her hands seemed to work on their own, caressing the old woman during her final moments.
The bird continued chirping away, and was almost the last thing Gladys would hear, but she heard the familiar creek of the break room door opening and Eli's soft voice inquiring, "What in the world is that noise? Aunt Gladys? Gladys!"
The rest of everything is really hard to recall. For all that Gladys truly cares to remember from that point on is the way the chirping of her yellow canary, Little One, changed from alarm to something like the sound of angels. Yes, angels, Gladys was sure of it. That and the feeling of her own fingers through her hair took on a new form in that moment, that they were the hands of someone warm and tender, like that of a mother.
It didn't take much to convince Eli that the library would be the home for her new canary with free reign to roam. Whenever anyone commented on the sight of Little One perched on a bookshelf or hopping around the tables as they were reading, Gladys herself was happy to oblige them with the explanation for the odd sight. It actually gave people one more reason to peel themselves from the computer screens at home and visit their local library. It made sense, for a library was the home for stories, and how Gladys saved the mysterious yellow canary and how it saved her was among its visitors' favorite one of all.