by Daniel Roy Connelly
The shop had remained the same for decades, the only difference being where Old Warbler once climbed the wooden stepladder, these days Otto took care of the high stacking of bird whistles. Their fame cannot be over-celebrated. Warbler and Son had for fifty years commanded the interest of the grandmasters of birdsong who thronged to the Warbler Shrine of Chirp in the city’s deep south in order to play and purchase sweet airy sounds till they had taken their fill. Notwithstanding recent imports from China, a Warbler whistle remained the ne plus ultra of champion chirrupers.
The premises, perhaps the size of a small coach house, was filled wall-to-wall, shelf-upon-shelf, with boxed bird-whistles. Radically, when Otto took overall command of the steps, he re-arranged the boxes at floor level to house the deep whistles, such as that of the Common Raven or the downslurring Northern Cardinal, then moved up in space and pitch until on tiptoe at the top of the steps he placed the boxes containing the Tufted Titmouse and the Pacific-slope Flycatcher and the nip of the black-headed Grosbeak. The middle shelves were filled with less clear-cut pitches like that of the Bullock’s Oriole or the Hermit Thrush or Say’s Phoebe’s-burr which sounds like a complaint. But this was one of the chief reasons to visit. The shop was always full of jacketed men putting whistles to their lips and filling the tiny room with nature’s orchestra. Sometimes, though, it all sounded like a warming up of instruments, it could and often did get a bit chaotic.
One afternoon, an enthusiast presented herself for the first time to Old Warbler & Son. To say she was beautiful is almost pointless. Father, son and every jacketed client turned as one, whistles in mouths, as a slip of shimmering elegance and grace moved from the entrance to the counter, behind which sat Old Warbler next to the cash register. Her perfume was perfect. Otto’s ladder wobbled. Not a fake bird sounded. She might have been thirty, it really didn’t matter. Leaning over the counter she asked Old Warbler whether he had a Red-Breasted Nuthatch and for the first time in his life he was unable to answer. He just sat there gawping. Looking up to Otto, she said is that where you keep the Great-Horned Owl then, and Otto’s ladder shook again but like his dad, he was silent even though all had lit up in the forest of their minds.
The jacketed customers let loose a brief ripple, more a fugue of trill, but inadvertently. She was so intoxicating, so mesmeric, the clients fell into a human tableau, not a muscle moving, a roomful of mannequins around whom the arriviste sidled like a Siamese cat coming to realise its full potential in the world.
She breezed here and there until spotting what she’d been looking for all along in the mouth of a statue in a jacket by the door: a Warbler & Son Northern Mockingbird. She removed it from the dummy’s mouth, wiped it with a Wet One from her Gucci bag, re-boxed it, popped it back, fastened the expensive clasp and walked clean out of the store, not any store, but the world-famous-for-bird-whistles Warbler & Son which at that moment contained figurines as if in a tourist castle somewhere, male enthusiasts of birdsong stood shock still; for the first time in 50 years the room was filled with silence.
Outside, trailing away into the late afternoon, strains of the Northern Mockingbird. She’d tossed out the first two whistle requests on the spur of the moment and was inwardly astonished at their resonance. She didn’t need to name her true desire, nor to reveal her name. To think this never happened before Otto took control of the steps.
About the Author:
A former British diplomat, Daniel Roy Connelly is a theatre director, actor, writer and academic.
Image via Wikimedia Commons (cc).