June woke every morning to the sound of exquisite, soulful singing. As she lingered in that misty world between slumber and awareness, sometimes she forgot the voices belonged to the canaries and instead imagined her bedroom was filled with angels lifting their voices to the heavens. Then she would feel her husband stir beside her and his dry miner’s cough would remind her that there were no angels watching over them. The fragile birds with their powerful voices were the only protection for her family.
Hugh studied the large pen full of flutter and carefully selected the day’s rescuer. June watched him as he cradled the bird in his sturdy hand and placed it in the tiny cage he took with him into the mine. It bothered him when he lost a canary, but it was either that or lose his own life. The mine demanded its sacrifices and the canaries were the miners’ offerings.
“Hugh, how do you pick which one to take?” June had asked him this question before but had never come to understand his selection process.
“Well, I just look at each bird and try to find the one whose time has come. When it’s your time, it’s your time.” He gave her a tender kiss and headed for the door.
“Be safe,” June whispered. She fumbled with her apron while she watched his truck disappear down the dusty road.
June kept busy every day until Hugh came back down that same road. There was always a task at hand to keep her mind from conjuring up the image of Hugh deep inside the earth. And, of course, there were the canaries. Their poignant melodies accompanied her every move.
On this day, June cleaned the windows and made a pie. As she rolled out the dough, a fledgling canary slipped through the bars of the cage and flopped onto the floor. June carefully scooped up the baby bird and placed it back in the pen. She checked on the hatchlings nestled in the straw cup on the side of the cage and noticed one of them stood apart. While all the other canaries in the pen were the color of orange sherbet, this hatchling’s spiky feathers were coming in a brilliant yellow tint.
“One of the hatchlings is yellow,” June told her husband over dinner.
“Is that so?”
“Yes. Maybe we should keep him.”
“June, those birds are not pets. They’re part of my work. Don’t get attached.”
She knew Hugh was right, but as time passed June watched the hatchling’s development with keen interest. His downy baby fuzz was soon replaced with smooth feathers the color of sunshine. He learned to sing and took his place on the perch harmonizing with his brother and sister birds. June even took to calling him “Wolley.”
None of this escaped her husband’s notice. Still, the day came when Hugh selected Wolley to accompany him down into the mine. He shut the door on the tiny portable cage with a squeak and looked up to see his wife’s eyes brimming with tears.
“It’s okay,” she managed to murmer. “I guess it’s just his time.”
Hugh couldn’t stand to see his wife cry. Against his better judgment, he removed the little yellow canary from the cage and replaced it with one of the peach-colored birds.
“Be safe,” his wife whispered with the most beautiful smile he had ever seen.
June was busy pruning roses when she heard Hugh’s truck come up the road that evening. She looked up to greet her husband, but it wasn’t him after all. Hugh’s boss was standing in her garden with a grim look on his face.
“There was an accident… Hugh’s gone. I’m sorry.”
It seemed as though June had been expecting this moment her entire marriage. She opened her mouth to cry, like she always thought she would, but nothing came out. Hugh’s boss stood staring as she calmly turned around and went inside the house.
June came back out to the garden clutching something in her hands. She looked up to heaven, opened her arms and released a bright yellow bird up into the sky. Then, she went back inside and returned with the large canary pen. June handed the pen to Hugh’s boss and, standing in her garden surrounded by the flurry of tiny wings, succumbed to her tears. The air was thick with the angelic voice of the yellow canary singing over her with sweet hymns of comfort and peace.
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