Spring custom

As is the custom,
all winter long the wild canary
in its cage inside the cellar
is fed and cared for.
It sings its buoyant song
as if still skybound,
till its notes quaver
and it sings no more
in the damp dark;
not even when the farmer
opens the wooden shutters
for a dose of daily cellular light.

Months later, before dawn,
an early stamp of boots
brings the man to his silent bird.
He lifts the cage, cloth still on top,
and walks towards the woods.
Shafts of moving light
and soil smells strong as coffee
slowly filter through the bars,
till, hooked high in a spreading chestnut
the uncovered cage sways like a lantern
among the buds and shoots
and blue sky feathering trees.

The bird hiccups, tests its unpadlocked voice,
and again, and then soars into song –
calling, we imagine, its lungs to free its wings.
And calling, as was planned, the new-born
and migrating birds of spring
to closer and exposed view.

In the chestnut, pert and curious,
a bird party sings
without shadow or memory,
perhaps exhorting the canary
to find a mate, or explain its habitat;
while it sings back,
a duet we project our longings into,
despite our forebodings
because: there, we say,
are the trees, spring, and the wild birds
and there, the caged one about to be freed
and the farmer sharing the sun beside it.

But the farmer lifts his gun
and shoots as many as he can,
their bodies mostly too small to eat
though large enough
to spasm in the sky
before they fall
and are collected in a bag
on this bright morning
when now we hear
other guns shooting other birds
across the glittering Tuscan hills.

The caged canary,
shocked rigid
by the sudden shots,
smelling its betrayal
in gunpowder,
stops singing
until the following spring.