Birdsong in the Key of Brain Injury
My parents keep mechanical birds caged in the dining room. These pets don’t sully the faded velvet beneath their perches. They don’t need to be fed. They sing on command and never interrupt conversations.
This kind of love is griefless. I can fly across the country in an artificial bird stuffed with humans and visit these dead winged creatures. Their last heartbeats pounded beneath their hollow bones in the nineteenth century. But they still sing for me.
Instead of guts, these birds have been stuffed with tiny, intricate brass parts, interconnected to make them swivel their heads and chirp realistic tunes. Desire doesn’t power them; human ingenuity does. When I ask my father to insert the brass key, wind the mechanism, and flip the switch, the tiny-beaked trillers cock their heads, snap their beaks, and welcome me home. The false ivy twined around the perches is more gray than green, there’s a furred layer of dust on the velvet cage liners, but the birds perform their marvels, same as always. I can’t describe what the heavy metal key feels like in your hand, or how it slides into place, its notch activating the proper gears, because I have never used that key. These automatons are on the do-not-touch list.
We—they—have four specimens, two yellow and two red, in two brass cages. I cannot say what kind of birds they are, besides dead. They sound and act like birds in the wild. They have beady bird eyes and no predators, save dust mites and gravity.
Recently I watched a video of an artificial bird with its feathers removed. I had imagined ours were killed with intent, then stuffed, examples of early taxidermy: the leathery shell of skin peeled away from muscle and goosebumped from how the feathers poked in, fell out, and regrew during its lifespan. But instead, in the video, much to my surprise, it’s all brass under there. A tiny bird-shaped body with pinions and gears and springs. Removable wings. I had not anticipated this degree of craftsmanship. Perhaps the eyes are not real; they might be beads. Perhaps the craftsmen gathered the feathers, like a bouquet, from their wives’ gardens.
The careless former owner of the specimen featured in the video—the de-feathered shell—had “repaired” it by gluing the feathers back on. The paste seeped into the brass, hardened, and wrecked the instrument. The restorer spent hours undoing the damage. Getting that little body to move again.
My dad caretakes my parents’ vast collection, which also includes music boxes, juke boxes, and street organs. He bends over his workbench, white hair curled as if due to the intensity of his effort. He unlocks frozen mechanisms, repairs cracked bellows, oils a stubborn crankshaft. This humble, self-taught work keeps the music playing. Right now, one of these two birdcage instruments—for that’s what they are, not pets, despite my years of pretending—needs its base cracked open on his workbench. Some eager visitor, at some point in the last year or so, overwound the box and jammed it. As long as my dad is alive these mechanical birds will run, because he can diagnose and fix them. But he’s 80. His fingers are slow to bend and he forgets things, although his doctor reports he still has the heart of a 44-year-old. When my dad winds down, I won’t know what to do.
I suspect these birds were confined, without much thought to joy, because their claws are overgrown. The leathery appendages make generous loops around the brass perches, as if they have intended all along to land here and stay for one century and then another. My parents made sure I had clean clothes and trimmed nails and the correct phrases for social situations, but they never removed my heart and replaced it with more efficient parts. They just told me how I should feel and I tried—I really tried—to behave, because if they ever tuned into the chords of my constant anxiety, they’d blame themselves.
As a child, I couldn’t handle the pressure of being around people. I banged my head on the cement preschool floor to make the sounds stop. My best friend Bess led me around by the arm so I could shield my eyes from our classmates. Only Bess could make me feel protected away from home.
Children pounced and screamed. They caught you. They somehow knew everything you didn’t know. Out in the open, Bess’s hand reaching for mine became a tether. Nobody understood why I needed one. I had a good life, happy parents, and already dead pets. Nothing to be afraid of, that’s what my parents said, except for when they explained how someone could steal me from a grocery store, or pluck me off the community tennis court, or find me on the sidewalk and push me into a waiting car. When my mom took me bra shopping for the first time, I worried about being left alone in the dressing room. Girls got taken from everywhere.
After Bess moved away, my parents hired an assertiveness coach, an old man with cheese legs, and every session I feared he might wear shorts again. At some point, it became clear that I should hide my fears and frustrations, because if my parents thought of me as predictable like their music boxes, they wouldn’t try so hard to fix me.
By middle school, while perfecting the straight-A, good-girl routine, I wrote a series of short stories in which unnamed beasts devoured the first-person narrator. My characters could be braver than me. I could send them anywhere, even into danger! As I smiled through my days, performing on command to my family’s delight, I killed myself on the page.
I didn’t mind the impossible tension of my first-person narrators dying. So what if the stories didn’t work? In my real life, I exceeded expectations, performed according to plan. It felt like relief: admitting that my okayness was a construct built from scraps of will, giving my anxiety fangs and tufted cat ears. The creatures appeared harmless at first until, I—the soon-to-be-imperiled narrator—felt safe enough to move closer.
I still feel this sometimes—the possibility of threat beneath the pretty surface. Back then, besides the constant fear of abduction, I worried about dying from razor blades in my Halloween candy, a bully shooting spitballs into my ear so hard that they damaged my brain, twisting my neck so fast that I paralyzed myself, burglars stabbing me with craft scissors. The soft-furred beasts in my fiction stood in for all possible iterations of doom.
In my late twenties, I relocated to the West Coast, suffocated my anxiety with a fast-paced journalism job, won awards for my work, got married to a local nice guy I met at the coffee shop, and wrote novels. I earned an agent with the first book and lost her with the next.
Birds kept winging their way into my fiction, not just flying through a scene or two, but huge swaths of them blacking the sky like winged smoke. I didn’t have control of the magic in my words yet because—like the unnamed beasts in my early work—I didn’t understand their power or exactly what I wanted to say. But I felt like something interesting was happening. So I enrolled in a weekly critique workshop. Kept writing.
Eventually I circled back to my native subject: mechanical music.
I had never told my parents much about my writing or let them read any pieces, because I worried the real me stuck out too much between the lines, even in fiction. But I needed help with this project, so I mentioned it to my mom. She started sending me articles to fuel my research. The word that activated the switch on my new book and shifted it into the past, though, came from an online glossary hosted by the Musical Box Society International, an organization my parents have belonged to for decades. Serinette. I liked the sound of it: French, whimsical, fabulous.
Under serinette, the glossary says, See bird organ. I clicked on the B tab and found bird organ sandwiched between biphone—a pipe register used in some of Carl Frei’s street organs—and bird whistle, a metal organ pipe that has one end submerged in oil or glycerine, which makes the sound waves vacillate in imitation of birdsong.
bird organ: A small hand-cranked organ with a small number of pewter or wooden pipes. It was developed in the 18th century to teach canaries to sing. The music is pinned on a wooden barrel.
–Musical Box Society International
To teach canaries to sing?
Wealthy American women bought serinettes and hired male servants to crank the same song over and over again to their songbirds. Eventually, after about six or seven months of repetition, the birds began repeating the light and airy force-fed notes for their owners’ entertainment. It felt defiant to examine serinettes and think about societal power, gender roles, and resilience through generations—especially as a new mother myself. To slice open the wow and explore the mechanics of making—some men spending their days building repeatable wonder and their wives’ roles in supporting the business of entertainment. Moreover, the end customers—wealthy women—had the money not only to buy instruments, but to hire men to do the laborious work of training. They had power because they had privilege, and the wives of the makers had neither.
In this particular way I made my parents’ passion—the rhythm of my childhood, the percussion of our family travels—part of my daily life. They have never owned a serinette, which gave me permission to be playful. These bird-training barrel organs became my obsession, not only the heart of my novel-in-progress, but the lens through which I could see my life. By trying to be a good daughter, and then a good wife and mother and neighbor and reporter and publisher, I had erased my natural innate wild cries, much like a canary that had been force-fed a pithy étude. If they knew me, people would only use the truth of myself against me, tell me why I was wrong, try—again—to fix me.
Then I broke myself, and neither my father nor the doctors could make me better.
In November 2014, seven years into the manuscript, I slipped on a fluke patch of unsalted ice at my daughter’s school. I imagine a screwdriver inserted into the seam of one of those nineteenth century brass birds, prying the two halves apart. Cruel, the motionless beak. The loss of the song. I didn’t even hit my head. It happened on a Thursday—Friday?—and I went down hard on my tailbone. A man helped me to my feet. I brushed off his concern with: I’m fine. I ushered my older daughter into class, carried the little one back down the hill, told my husband I had fallen, and went on with the day because that’s what mothers do. We carry on. We sing the choruses we have been taught by our mothers.
Also from that morning: a cobbled driveway, white carpet, two girls, a flag lot, loud. Playdate. Hard to back out afterwards, my joystick stuck. Not joystick. The thing in the car with the R on it. I hitched and turned and inched and hitched my way out of there. My ability to perceive distance: gone. My words: fuzzled. Somehow, safely, home.
The details fizz after that. Bubbles in a frosty glass.
I had cracked my head open as a kid, swinging into the tree in front of our house. The doctor knotted my hair over the wound to protect it. My cousin Ian imagined my brain rolling out of my skull on a little string like a yoyo. The truth disappointed him. Just a cut. Just a knot.
Add that accident to the head-pounding in preschool and later, in my teenage years, hitting my head on the wall to stop the thoughts, to stop the panic, and the mean corner in the rental house, that time I found the unfamiliar jut of shelf with the back of my skull. And when my firstborn cried all night, I banged my head against the wall again to stop the sound of her need. My husband slept through these awful duets or he might have known sooner to compare the bride in our wedding album to the wife he found himself living with.
I didn’t tell my doctor this history when I went in with severe headaches three days after slipping on the ice. All I told her was the now-familiar refrain: I didn’t hit my head. Clouds had settled on my neural pathways. Inside my brain, it was always raining. My husband drove me to the appointment because I couldn’t anticipate movement or judge spatial distance. The doctor flipped off the lights and let me sit in the dark: a relief. She marked down answers to questions on a piece of paper, then tallied the results. She diagnosed me with a concussion and sentenced me to bedrest—the standard protocol at the time.
My life tuned into silence. A bed with winter blankets. Trying to rhyme, just to prove I still could think. Dark baths because I couldn’t tolerate the overhead lights. No reading, doctor’s orders. My mechanism froze, like that singing bird from the video slowed by an ill-advised application of glue. I hunkered behind the door, listless and miserable through a long cold stretch of nothing, my brain a mushy scoop of gloop, my days punctuated by percussive headaches and telling my kids and my husband to shush, quiet, don’t slam doors, tiptoe, just go away.
Instead of activating my old coping mechanisms, I slept. My habitual ways of managing things fell off, one by one, like feathers. I couldn’t imagine what other people were thinking, let alone stand up and go fulfill their needs. They—my husband, my girls, my parents, my friends, my authors at the publishing house I founded—would have to wait for me. Even before the feathers fell off, I couldn’t fly. So what did it matter?
“Pretend I’m okay,” I wrote to one friend.
At my follow-up appointment, the doctor tested me again. I had spent all those days and nights thinking about pain levels and sensitivity to light and the frozen mechanism of my brain. That first appointment, I arrived dazed but sure of my resilience, but after weeks of fog and murk, I didn’t mask the pain. I couldn’t hide my condition. My scores tanked.
The doctor, alarmed, sentenced me to a concussion clinic, where I spent the next year relearning to balance, to see, to think.
In lieu of siblings, I shared my childhood bedroom with grinning automatons, several shelves of them sealed behind glass in a china cabinet that loomed beside my closet. A grinning gambler monkey rolled dice, plop plop, on green felt. Another crashed triumphant cymbals. A droopy dog with wiry hair raised a paw, barked, and closed one eye, then the other, commanded by depressed levers, each a little squeaky.
The automatons watched me while I slept, their hands and paws poised to perform. I never broke the rules and wound them up. I wouldn’t be able to hide any damage or fix it myself. Sometimes, though, I opened that cabinet and breathed deep: oil, metal, stuffed animal dust, mildew.
A parrot with a carpet-fuzz body and felt wings sang “Happy Birthday” to me every March 6. Except for the times it didn’t work. I worried those years: bad luck? When that happened, my father took the parrot away to open its belly on one of his workbenches, usually over the protests of my mother, who believed an inanimate object operation could wait, because she needed help getting ready for my party.
I became a specimen of the human sort, at the brain clinic, a fragile glass drinking bird who had lost her balance. I couldn’t stand for long periods or walk straight without bobbling or holding onto an arm. I couldn’t even get to my appointments without a driver.
Slip: an unintentional loss of balance; also to move quietly, without detection. One prevented me from being able to do the other. I found myself exposed and angry. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t pretend okayness. My cerebral files: ransacked. I stumbled through short conversations with words missing, making gestures or drawing pictures. Dinner came out of my mouth when I meant breakfast. I might have said, one syllable, man’s name, begins with N, not Nate, sounds like a hiccup.
Or the place we go to, when it’s hot? Not hot—late. Not late—afternoon.
Or sounds like percussion, starts with a C.
The frustration we felt, collectively, couldn’t be talked about, because I couldn’t even come up with Nick or Fulton Park or concussion and I kept saying dinner at the wrong time. My husband cooked for us because I couldn’t use knives with rhythm or remember a number I had just read in a recipe. My youngest daughter brought home scribbles from preschool, each labeled “Mommy’s Broken Brain” by a well-meaning teacher. When my husband canceled our long-anticipated trip to Florida, I yelled at him. I yelled at my mom over the phone, too, because she had agreed with him. I blamed them for the loss of our vacation—not my doctors, not my brain. Because any day, I would get out of bed and be fine. Like all my other illnesses. Like all my other injuries.
And in the meantime, I hated that my family—my parents, my husband, and my children—had front-row tickets to my failure.
The fall knocked out my photographic memory—the key to my academic and workplace achievement vanished, like an elf had sneaked into the piano and replaced all the sharps with slices of sourdough. As a result, I have lingering face blindness, losing a skill I have always relied on as a community builder, photographer, and journalist.
My pain levels and exhaustion require regular monitoring. Sometimes I sleep in the middle of the day. One of my doctors— begins with M, not the one with the mask, door on the left—likened it to a tree falling on my usual route to work. It takes longer to go around, but there’s a path. You just have to find it.
It took a few more years, but I found the way through the weeds of my novel and pruned, despite struggling with aphasia—the version of the condition where a word you know won’t materialize. For a writer and a public speaker, this can be devastating, but I learned to let an image float up instead, like a log spit out of a passionate, furiously churning river. The silt I sift through to get the word enriches the text, or whatever point I’m making in front of the class.
And I have my why. It’s been there all along, under the layers of programming, under the sweet little ditties of yes and sure and whatever you want! I even know what those beasts on the edge of my consciousness represent, the ones with claws and teeth, and they don’t fool me anymore. I am calling them out, one at a time.
If you don’t include the four unnamed ghost shrimp in the aquarium, my daughters have eight pets, now, all of them alive: one beta fish, one snail, one parakeet, and five guinea pigs. The parakeet has learned to wheek like its cavy pals, since they share a room. When we hear a ruckus from the basement, we can’t tell which creature needs us. So we greet them all by name, with food, with treats, with love, and they respond with cries of relief.
When your husband says, “I want you to be happy, like when we got married,” how do you explain that he fell in love with a bird trained to sing on command?
He doesn’t remember saying this, but it made such an impression on you.
Your anger—finally allowed to flap its nasty wings—is fresh and raw. This is good, you think. He has made it safe for you to express these feelings. This, you want him to know, is a compliment. It shows how far you both have come. But he only hears your frustration, the infuriating movement of air between words. He questions this present-day, middle-aged wife, her hair as mussed as if she has emerged from a nap under the broken branch of the apple tree.
Imagine me in another twenty years, you want to tell him. Already you are messy and wriggling and determined to survive; part worm, part beak. He doesn’t know whether to peck at you or sing.
Laura Stanfill amplifies voices as the publisher of Forest Avenue Press. Her industry work has earned her a Publishers Weekly Star Watch honoree designation, a scholarship to attend the Yale Publishing Course, and a Literary Arts publishing fellowship. The Oregon Symphony recently named her a Wave Maker for her service to the state literary community. “Birdsong in the Key of Brain Injury” is excerpted from her memoir. She believes in the power of storytelling and wishes on indie bookstores like stars. She tweets for her publishing house @ForestAvePress, and recently for herself @LHStanfill.