Cassidy Russell, originally from Seattle, is in her last quarter in the MFA printmaking program at SCAD. She received a BFA in printmaking from the University of Notre Dame, where she was awarded the statewide Efromyson Emerging Artist Award. She has since worked for multiple design companies and letterpress shops – including Hatch Show Print in Nashville and Gilah Press + Design in Baltimore.
I am elbow-deep in moist newspaper and bird droppings, being bludgeoned repeatedly in the forearm with the head of a canary. He – I am making a base assumption on bird-gender – gets a tight grip on the wire of the cage and launches himself back at my arm, bird-head first, as though he has been shot out of a cannon. His partner is desperately attacking the back of my hand with her surprisingly sharp bird-claws and tiny but ruthless bird-beak. I am currently in the second hour of this hell, no doubt catching bird-diphtheria from these beautiful little jerks. The tiny feathered soldiers pause for a moment, bird-chests heaving rapidly, and then begin the attack with renewed vigor. My bleeding fingers accidentally knock over their water bowl, but victory is mine, little jerks! For in my human-hand, I hold what I have been sent for: a beautiful, molar-sized bird-egg.
I yank my arm from the cage and fasten any damn thing I can find to get the cage securely closed – one half of the last pair of tiny beasts managed to free itself from its awful little house and tangle one of its horrible bird-feet in my hair – and notice the disjointed melody of human-sobs and bird-shrieks. To clarify, my sobs against the canary’s shrieks. I have been in this janitor’s closet for the past two hours, stealing eggs from five different bird-couples. I’m sobbing and thinking about what a terrible human I am and thinking about how ugly I look. The fluorescent lighting in which I’m sobbing is almost shockingly unflattering. I know this because for some godforsaken reason, someone has installed a mirror in this closet. And I look like a swamp person.
The molar-sized bird-egg joins the other seven molar-sized bird-eggs in the Tupperware container I’ve been given. It’s a terrible joke, forcing me to put these eggs in this container normally reserved for food. Who is going to eat them – these tiny would-be canaries? Possibly the self-same person who installed the crying mirror in this hell closet. Behind my reflection, I can see the shelf with five cages lined up – ten pairs of enraged and despondent black bird-eyes glaring at me. I didn’t know that birds could glare, but there they are, bird-glaring at me. “This wasn’t my choice,” I murmur, but they remain unmerciful. The eleven of us stare into each other’s eyes – human to bird to bird to bird to bird to bird to bird to bird to bird to bird to bird – eleven chests heaving as one. Between us on the floor, a Tupperware full of would-be canaries.
This hell closet is located on the ground floor of Kelsey Creek Retirement Home, where I am working at my very first job – apparently as a bird murderer. Residents are allowed highly restricted pets – either a tank with one goldfish or a cage with two canaries. And it appears that the “two canaries and two canaries only” rule is to be taken very seriously – much like the “do not let Suzanne and Emma sit together at lunch because things will start out lovely but before dessert Suzanne will call Emma a bitch” rule. I stare at the Tupperware coffin. Diane, my platform sneaker wearing boss, enunciated all too clearly when she informed me that today I would be on “bird duty” – not only did she tell me to dispose of the eggs, but also how. By squishing them between my fingers.
Diane does not know how to joke. I can only assume that she was raised by a pack of well-meaning yet homeschooled farmers, who hated the idea of canaries being allowed to raise their young. This morning, with wide eyes, Diane informed me that if I did not stamp out every ounce of possible egg life, one of the eggs might hatch. And then, there would be new life in the retirement home. And from the sincere and vaguely vengeful tone in Diane’s voice, I could only assume that if I did not squash out any glint of egg life, she would make me strangle the life out of the resident who broke the rules and raised a canary family.
I pick up a tiny egg. I hold it between my pointer finger and thumb. Gently, ever so gently, I squeeze. Nope! This is not happening. I am no murderer of would-be canaries. I return the egg and stash the Tupperware of tiny someday canaries behind the toilet paper, above the denture rinse. I don’t know what I am going to do with the eggs, but I know that I am not going to squish them.
After vaguely corralling my swamp face, I maneuver down the hallway as quickly as I can without attracting attention – speed-walking with a bird cage under each arm. My stealth is undermined by the screeching of still murderous birds, and I realize that while I feel extremely protective of the bird eggs, I also feel extremely unprotective of the live birds. Over and over, I return cacophonic birds to catatonic humans, unable to forget the hidden Tupperware coffin.
I consider just leaving, letting someone else find the Tupperware when a bathroom runs out of toilet paper. But again and again, I find myself walking past the hell closet, convinced I hear tiny bird-babies whispering my name through the door. At the end of the day, I put on my navy peacoat, clock out, walk past Diane re-braiding her hip-long hair. The automatic doors slide open. I feel the breeze, smell the rain-soaked air. I can forget the Tupperware coffin. I didn’t squish the eggs. I’ve done all I can do. A chickadee flies past me. I spin, run through the hallways – skidding around corners in my Converse high tops. I fling open the door of the hell closet, knocking rolls of toilet paper to the floor. I remove my peacoat and wrap it around the Tupperware cradle, carefully packing it in my backpack, using my grey cardigan and scarf as padding. I put my backpack on and run towards the exit, toilet paper covered floor be damned. Diane makes a sign of the cross as I dash past her and out the door, my arms raised overhead like a gasping, panting, out-of-shape Olympic sprinter.
On the bus home, I victoriously remove the Tupperware cradle from my backpack. I, the conquering hero – I, the patron saint of unborn canaries – I will raise these bird-babies as my own. I will teach them right from wrong. I will send them to bird-college. I screw the lid off of the Tupperware, ready to gather my young in a motherly embrace. I look down. I must have grabbed the wrong Tupperware. Someone else must have stored a different Tupperware in the hell closet – behind the toilet paper, above the denture rinse. Because this Tupperware is not full of beautiful molar-sized bird eggs. It is full of raw scrambled eggs.
The realization hits me with a swift kick to the stomach. These scrambled eggs were my future! They were my children! They were, well, frankly, they were going to grow up to become canaries. And someday, if I didn’t remove their eggs from their future cages and squish them between my fingers, I would have more canaries. Hundreds of canaries. I would probably start letting them live free in my apartment, losing human friends and gaining more, more, more canaries. And someday, I would be found, weeks dead – not a decomposing corpse but rather a skeleton, picked clean by an army of vicious killer canaries.
Softly, I screw the lid back on. Silently, I pull the cord for the bus to stop. I walk up the aisle, down the stairs, out the door. I toss the Tupperware into a garbage can and walk on to freedom.