He hoards secrets in them, does Uncle Sholert: a hundred or more boxes, crowded together on a shelf in the cellar above the carboys of homemade wine. The finest-joined ones are his, some of them old enough that the wood has gone dark. He’s given that work over to me now, to my keener eyes.
He gave over to me the feeding of the doves as soon as I arrived. I was only just off the train, smuts and cinders still pricking the corners of my eyes, my elbows bruised by the kit-bags of a hundred soldiers on their way to the front, my chest aching from the smoke; but Uncle Sholert did not give me so much as a glass of water or a wash-basin before leading me up to the dormer window.
“William,” he told me, “this work is my little legacy, and you shall be my heir until the day I sire a child.” And he laughed drily as he said this, for he was old and solitary, with his doves and myself his only companions. I did not know then what the doves were for. That first day, when I saw how they thronged to the window, I thought they were his pets: mourning doves, city doves, rose-grey over most of their bodies, wings dotted with soft charcoal. I thought it was fitting for an old man’s pastime. I watched him tease them close, tearing soft white bread between his fingers and tossing it ever nearer the sill until the birds stood and pecked next to his hand.
“You may try,” he said to me, and gave me the crust to crumble.
When I moved too quick they fluttered, but they stilled again, and fed again.
“They haven’t the trick of memory,” Uncle Sholert said, and laughed a little, a murmurous dry laugh scarcely louder than the doves’ wings. “Watch,” he said, and he snatched out quick as a cat, catching one by the neck.
He squeezed until its beak gaped, and clipped its tongue.
I shied away. Uncle Sholert let his bird go, and it whirred off like the clapper of a fire-bell, taking a few of its fellows with it in its panic.
“It will forget in a moment,” Uncle Sholert said.
And sure enough, the doves settled back, drawn by the crumbs of bread and our stillness. I had already lost sight of the one with the clipped tongue: was it fled, or had it already forgotten, and returned?
Sometimes, he said, he would catch one which had already had its tongue clipped, either by himself, or by some other magician. Such was their nature, that they would return again to the same ruse.
It was slow work even still, collecting enough to line a box, one at a time. At first I found it miserably so, waiting at Uncle Sholert’s shoulder with a plate covered in butcher’s paper, laying each tiny flesh-petal as it was harvested, then waiting for the next. But I grew accustomed, as one does to almost anything.
Most days, of course, no doves are needed; Uncle Sholert, though he is always ferreting, does not find a substantial secret often among the citizens of worthy Beaconsfield, probably because so many of the most dashing young men are off to the front. I feed the doves at dawn and twilight, and although Uncle Sholert maintains they have no memories, they seem to always haunt the eaves, looking toward my window, waiting for my hand to appear.
I do all manner of things for Uncle Sholert, beyond the feeding of doves. I carry in the coals for the stove; I fetch our victuals from the baker, the butcher and the farm market; I sweep the floors and wash the soot from the windows; I bring home the papers daily with news of the war; I beat the dust from the rugs.
Uncle Sholert studies, for the most part. Sometimes he reads books, ancient books on the hidden nature of the world. Sometimes he reads newspapers or private papers, stolen from where I don’t know, searching for the threads he can follow to a secret worth owning. He stays up long after I am abed, reading by lamplight. I can see the glow under my door. I can hear the rustle of turned pages. I can almost hear him lick his fingertip.
Sometimes he is still there in his chair when I rise at dawn to feed the birds. He does not lift his head from his book. I heat water and brew him bitter tea.
He comes to see me at the bank, sometimes, where my old tutor’s recommendation has secured me a position at a wage menial enough to ensure I will be living with Uncle Sholert until I too am old. He keeps a strongbox there. And if that were not enough, I have seen him more than once creeping away to add another roll of banknotes to the oilskin bag hidden within one of the full carboys.
Uncle Sholert does not greet me but lingers after he has finished his business, lingers until I have closed my ledgers for the day and locked them back in their safe. He awaits me outside the door and we walk together through Beaconsfield, past the grocer and the butcher and the baker.
He waits patiently enough as Lily O’Reilly, the baker’s lass, comes out from behind her counter and offers me a loaf of potato bread.
Lily O’Reilly wears tiny ruffles on the sleeves of her blouse under her baker’s apron. Lily O’Reilly hails me by name: “Mr Manning,” she says. “William. I have some fine tarts in the oven just now, if you want to stop back in a bit.”
Her hair is very pale, or maybe dusted with flour. Her eyes, too, and her face: touched faintly here and there with pink at the lips and nose, and grey at the eyes. When she speaks I can see into the cave of her mouth, where her teeth are white, but her tongue is dark as if she’s been eating berries.
I tell her I will return for the tarts. I can feel myself smiling.
When I glance back to Uncle Sholert, he is smiling at her too, even an old stick like him.
Lily O’Reilly walks with me, north through streets of row houses and brilliant maples. Sheets and petticoats flap from the laundry lines. Gold and carmine leaves ride the warm wind down.
I take her to the park, and lay a horse-blanket on the still-green grass. She sits in her tumbled skirts and feeds me scones, bite by bite, and the sun raises a flush on her face.
I take her to the library, and read to her from a book of fairy-stories with gold stamped on the cover.
I take her to the railway station to see a detachment of troops depart, all bright and brave, hailed with trumpets and paper streamers. I almost envy them their brotherhood and merriment; I did envy them, before the advent of Lily O’Reilly.
She takes me to visit her bosom friend, a plump little lady just delivered of a plump little son, and I find myself sanding smooth the rail of the new-built cradle while Lily makes tea and the baby watches me with huge eyes the colour of dusk.
Later, on a new-moon night, we take the blanket to the park again and lay it in the deepest shadow of a fragrant hedge. I can scarcely see Lily in the darkness, even so fair as she is, but she finds her way to my hand.
Uncle Sholert is not yet abed when I return home. I see the line of lamplight around his door; I hear the creak of his chair pushed over the floorboards and the hush of his slippered feet.
He stoops in the doorway in his nightshirt and cap, his shins bare; a sheaf of ill-gotten papers droops from his hand.
“A fine evening, William?” he says, raising his grey brow.
I am so alight with Lily O’Reilly. There has never been a finer evening.
“I am going to ask for her hand,” I blurt, my eyes welling with the wonder of it. “I think she will accept.”
She will accept; she must accept. She is my wife already in the eyes of the heavens, in the promise of her sweetness.
“I think she will have me,” I say, feeling all the force of my youth and love blazing forth. “We shall be penniless at first, and it matters not at all if only she will have me!”
Uncle Sholert does not look as happy for me as I might have wished; perhaps he feels his age just now, and his loneliness.
“Give me your blessing, Uncle,” I press, as if with the force of my joy I can lift him up and take him with me, take the whole city with me into the world I will make with Lily O’Reilly at my side.
Uncle Sholert sets down his papers, and comes forward to shake my hand.
The newest box sits neatly on the shelf above the carboys, leaving room for only one more before we start a new row. I touch the lid with my fingertip, slide it a tiny increment to the right; it gives me relief, just as when I line up the numbers in my ledger, uniform characters balanced in mounting columns. I feel the need of order today. An ill sleep has left me out of sorts, cloudy and stiff-necked; I dreamed of the war, I think.
We dry the tongues on butcher’s paper beside the stove. Once desiccated, they barely have a scent. Uncle Sholert has shown me how to arrange them like tiny shingles or scales, overlapping.
We fix them in place with a glue made from horses’ hooves, and then we seal the boxes with beeswax.
I have learned nearly all of it, now. I see many boxes of my own handiwork, amid Uncle Sholert’s: the differences are subtle, but when I touch them, my fingertips remember. This one is mine, and this one, but not that.
Uncle Sholert has been up to Dundas Street to visit the booksellers, and he carries a brown paper parcel with him today, several volumes thick. Some of his books are so old the leather rubs away to powder when I touch them. I do not touch them.
Uncle Sholert wears an old greatcoat and a grey muffler: how is the weather so cold already? On the grip of his cane, his fingertips are bare, but the rest of his hand is encased in a grey glove.
It is all old men in the bank now, but for me. All old men in whatever finery has survived their prime.
“Did you ever think about going for a soldier?” I ask Uncle Sholert.
He does not answer but fixes me with a heron-bright look of indignation: clearly not.
When I have finished locking up my ledger, I walk out with him, past the grocer and the butcher and the baker.
Uncle Sholert pauses at that last, asking me, “How are we fixed for bread, my dear William?” A girl comes out from the bakery, a woman rather, pale and flour-dusted, tiny ruffles at her sleeves.
“Mr Sholert,” she says. “William. I have a lovely mince pie just going in. You might want to stop back in a bit.”
“Thank you, miss,” I say. I cannot imagine how she knows my name. “But my uncle and I have no need of a mince pie today.”
“Well, Miss O’Reilly, you heard the lad,” Uncle Sholert says. “Though for my part I would not mind a sweet.”
She looks strange, I think. She whirls away in a flutter of skirts, eyes rolling white, without a single mannerly word.
Uncle Sholert and I walk home under the arching maples, bare now of their leaves. I hear the doves calling and calling as the twilight begins to come down, and I wonder if they still can call when their tongues have been clipped.
The doves are so used to me that they will fly down and cluster at the window if I so much as twitch the curtain. Their droppings whiten the sill. The mutter they make while they feed—musical, satisfied—threads through my dreams at night, and grows louder at dawn.
I take to sitting by the window, on days when I am not working at the bank and I do not have Uncle Sholert’s attention. I make my way through some of his books, the ones in English at least.
Everywhere I am, silence fills the space beneath the quiet rustles of bird-wings and paper-sheets. In the distance, streetcar bells clang, iron wheels ring on the tracks, and newsboys shout about the progress of war; but not here.
I take to listening for the newsboys’ calls. As my hearing grows stronger, I hear trains at Union Station, rifle drills at Fort York, freighters in the shipyards. Distance comes to be no obstacle, and with time I begin to hear all the way down the St Lawrence to the ocean, and the ports there, and the munitions ships filling their bellies full of powder-kegs.
The war is busy. The war is bright, and terrible, and loud. I dream of it more and more often, and the dreams leave my hands hungry for the grip of a gun. What would it be, to fire?
Uncle Sholert, sitting at the hearth one evening, turns to me with an air of unusual hesitance. “You would not, would you?” he says. “You are so well situated, here, with me, my dear William. You would not think of leaving.”
At this time it comes to me that I have never cut out a bird’s tongue myself, and that it is time to learn.
On my way home from the bank in chilly dusk I pass the bakery. The fair-haired young woman rushes after me, catching at my sleeve.
“William,” she says. “William. Why are you so cold to me? You will not even say my name. And now I am with—now I must—”
She bows her head, cold or shame pinking her white cheeks.
I have forgotten her name, if I ever knew it. “You are overwrought, miss,” I say. “Surely there is someone better to turn to than a near-stranger.” I tug my sleeve away, not roughly, but her eyes flood as if I had slapped her.
I watch her disappear indoors, hear the click of the latch. I walk on.
On my next day off I find two more boxes joining my own newest addition on the shelf above the carboys. One is so fresh the wax is still warm to my hand.
When I mount the stairs to ask Uncle Sholert about it, I find him gone; he has stoked the stove for me, though, a kindness he usually omits. I sit beside it to drink my tea.
Over and under the quiet fire, I hear the newsboys again, and the city groaning with the heavy trains at the stations and the heavy ships in port.
I have birds to catch. But I cannot summon the stillness I need. They flinch from my restless hands.
Impatient, I snatch at the nearest, and catch it too tight. Frail bones snap under my grip.
I wring its neck for mercy, cut its tongue for need, and toss its body out with the kitchen scraps.
Uncle Sholert returns at dusk, with a fresh loaf from the bakery and a look of triumph such as he usually wears when he has found an ancient book for his collection.
“Pour us a little glass,” he says, setting the loaf on the board. “Lily O’Reilly has agreed to marry me.”
“My felicitations,” I say. “I hope you will introduce me to Miss O’Reilly.”
“You may have seen her now and then at the bakery,” he says, wiping dust from a pair of long-stemmed glasses with bells no bigger than a child’s cupped palm.
I call to mind a blur of light hair and a troubled countenance.
“You will remain in the household, of course,” Uncle Sholert says. “I am sure we will all three do famously together.”
He looks very sharp, triumphant. I keep my own triumph from my face: what sense is there in protecting your secrets if you cannot refrain from using them to gloat? I thank him as warmly as I can manage, and drink my two mouthfuls of wine, and eat my two slices of fresh crisp-crusted bread, all the while thinking of the newest box upon the shelf belowstairs.
The day I come home for the last time is also the first snowfall. I watch the flakes crowd thick in the circles of lamplight: I am very late.
Uncle Sholert sits studying, but he rises when I open the door.
I set down my new canvas bag. I watch his eyes catch on the place where it is stamped with the coat of arms.
“What are you about?” he says.
I push past him, down the cellar stairs, my new boots loud on the treads. I find my own box on the coldroom shelf.
I carry it upstairs and stand before Uncle Sholert. I use my fingers to break the wax seal and lift the lid.
The dry tongues within begin to whisper. Their speech is not human speech. It is more true than that.
It tells Uncle Sholert what I have hidden from him this last month and more: that I am bound to the railway station and then up the river and over the sea.
“You are going for a soldier?” Uncle Sholert says. “I guessed it from your kit: but why you would do such a thing I can’t imagine.”
“There is a war,” I say. “You don’t follow such things, I know. But I do, and the government has asked for men.”
“For men,” Uncle Sholert says. “Working-men, they mean. Brutes like the butcher’s boy. If someone must stand before a cannon, let it be someone else. Not you, nephew. I have taught you...”
But he halts his speech as the tongues in the box continue theirs, rising from whisper to clamour. They sound almost as full and round as if they still ran with blood, and they tell him how much I want to go.
“Is this about Lily O’Reilly?” he says.
“The girl you are going to marry?” I say.
“She is with child,” he says.
“What is that to me?” I say. “Isn’t it yours?”
Something crosses his face then, terrible and bitter. “Of course it is mine,” he says. He closes his mouth trap-tight, and lays his palms flat on the table. “And so are you. You may not go.”
The voices of the severed tongues crescendo, and cease.
In the sudden quiet I hear, as I have heard for weeks now, the tread of feet on faraway ground, the thrum of engines, the bugles and shouts.
I shake my head. “You can forbid me. You can even make me obey. You can make anyone bow to your will, I think, for a time,” I say. “For a time.”
Uncle Sholert hesitates.
I pick up my new kit bag, and turn from him.
I leave on the table the opened box, with the tongues inside silent now, and dry.
On my way to the station I pass by the bakery, and knock at the door.
The baker himself answers, a florid man in a stretched-tight waistcoat.
“I have a message for Miss O’Reilly,” I tell him.
His face darkens further. “What business do you have with my daughter?”
“I wanted to tell her not to marry my uncle.”
“That’s rich, coming from you,” he says, and spits at my feet. “You haven’t showed your face here in months. And now she’s gone and done a foolish thing, and she must marry someone.”
“She won’t be happy with my uncle,” I say. “He only wants an heir. He only wants to rule the house.”
“At least he has a house,” the baker says coldly. “Now, off with you; I won’t have you trifling with my daughter’s chance at a decent match. What kind of nephew tries to scuttle his old uncle’s chance at happiness, anyway? You ought to be ashamed.”
And he shuts the door in my face.
I hesitate a moment. It seems cruel to leave any lady to that silent house, although she’s a stranger and her father seems a lout.
But she must like Uncle Sholert well enough, however odd it seems. She is carrying his child, after all.
I walk on, then, kit bag over my shoulder; Miss O’Reilly, whatever I had of her, already fading from my memory, and the sounds of war beating louder.
Return to Issue #216