Every day after morning chores, after kissing his mother goodbye, after leaving his little brother and sister to sleep comfortably and dream a little longer, Felix swallows a cold dipper of water from the well and trudges the long miles with his father in darkness — and silence. His father lugs pick-axe and shovel and Felix tries to keep pace with strides double his own. Black masses of mountains against an even blacker sky. All his days beginning and ending in moonlight, three days since he last saw the sun.
Inside a hole carved into the earth they arrive at the canary and separate, no words spoken. The boy watches his father enter the shaft cage and descend into darkness such as before creation. The mine manager grudgingly dips his head at Felix’s father. He allots Felix no such courtesy.
Felix holds his hand just outside the bird cage. His index finger, pinched to his thumb, bears a freshly pink scar. Unpolished golden bars allow just enough space for his fingers to fit. He crosses into the delineated territory of the bird with care, the pad of his finger extended to caress the canary’s yellow head. A punctuation dot of an eye regards him warily. Sometimes the bird allows Felix to pet him. Sometimes the bird bites his finger. Most of the time the bird bites his finger.
Bells chime for work to begin. Felix digs into the pocket of his coveralls and removes what he hides there — a corn seed, hard as one of his recently lost baby teeth. He wastes no time slipping his fingers between the bars of the cage. The canary cocks its head and snaps up the corn, working it with its sharp beak until the seed is gone. Felix names the canary, ignoring his father’s warning against such childish things, guarding the name as carefully as he guarded the smuggled seed of corn.
Veins of tracks run car loads of coal from the mine’s bowels where Felix’s father toils amongst other hard men. Fourteen hours Felix tends the reluctant metal doors with the other trapper boys, allowing loads of coal to run the track, or sealing off the mine in rare lulls.
At the end of the day he does not visit the bird. It feels wrong to approach the canary empty handed. The bird’s bright yellow feathers not deserving of the sooty crescent moons of his fingernails. He follows his father home in silence and completes evening chores, stacking wood his father splits. He helps his father butcher one of the pigs by lantern light, animals he learned long ago to forgo naming, the canary’s name secreted in his heart. He washes off the blood and viscera and drinks from the well. At dinner his mother says grace, and he eats stew of potatoes and carrots. A small plate of pork for Felix and his brother and sister. His parents’ bowls empty. He kisses his mother goodnight, and drifts heavily to sleep, dreaming of a burning arrowhead of yellow canaries streaking across the sky.
The next morning Felix wakes early and sets to morning chores with his father. His stomach turns from the want and revulsion of bacon. His father eats only rolls soaked in fat. Felix kisses his mother goodbye, and quickly snatches a piece of corn seed from the pig feed, fearing his father’s heavy hands. He tucks the seed into the pocket of his coverall as his father hefts the tools. Long miles in the dark.
Father and son separate at the canary’s cage. Felix reaches into his pocket, his finger poking through a hole that tickles the bare skin of his stomach. The canary watches him indifferently.
The shift bells chime once. The mine manager bellows at Felix to get to work.
A large hand grips Felix’s shoulder, and he prepares himself for a cuff on the ear. Instead, a palm cups two golden corn seeds before him. Felix looks up and his father nods his blessing and puts on his cap and walks into the shaft cage and descends into the mine.
Felix feeds the canary and it trills incessantly long after he goes to work.
Felix sets to opening one of the doors to allow a load of coal to pass when the bells chime, long and hard, never-ending, and too soon, much too soon. The mine manager roars orders. Felix holds the door, against the pushing of the other trapper boys, against the mine manager who adds his weight. On the seventh toll of the bells Felix’s strength leaves him, the mine sealed, and he scrambles out of the tunnel with the other boys, the coal painted features of his face a reflection of those around him scrabbling for surface and daylight, dozens of half-orphans in utero.
He passes the canary’s cage and the bird does not sing or stir. Sleep that is not sleep.
Sun blinded boys wait for their fathers.
Night comes and Felix walks the miles home in silence. The house dark. He takes up his father’s axe and splits wood and tends a fire. His brother and sister eat scraps of pork. His bowl empty. He no longer kisses his mother goodnight. Dreams of creatures that eat canaries, feathers and beak and bone.
In a week, Felix returns to the mine with tools of his own. A green canary in a cage chirps at his passing but he does not hear it. The mine manager grudgingly dips his head at Felix as he enters the shaft cage and the shift bells chime.
Mario Aliberto III lives in Tampa, Florida, and worships at the altar of Cormac McCarthy and Stan Lee.