It was a day like the day before and the day after. The wind wrapped itself around the sod cabin in gusting moans as the pioneer family within carried out their tasks pretending not to hear. They heard the wind, however. It had been their constant companion on the open plains since their journey from Philadelphia two years before in the spring of 1865. Following the covered wagon train of ten, the wind had lifted the drab landscape into billows of dust falling on everyone and everything until there seemed but one color and one sound.
Now Rachel sat on the bed hand-stitching a quilt while her mother hunched over a sewing machine across the room rocking her feet backwards and forwards on a foot treadle that turned the shaft that moved the needle. The thumping counter pointed the wind outside. Laughter and giggling erupted from Rachel's younger brother and sister playing jacks on the floor and it brought a smile to their sister's face, but when she glanced back at their mother she stopped smiling.
Rachel felt that her parents worked too hard. They rarely had fun or relaxation like they had enjoyed in Philadelphia. Now her father was always in the fields. Her mother prepared meals on a wood-stoked stove, did the laundry on a washboard, baked flatbread and sewed clothes to trade for goods in town. Rachel remembered her mother singing and telling stories at one time but that was before she had begun complaining about the wind and the dirt and the mud. Eventually she had stopped complaining, but she had stopped singing, too.
The door swung open and it was Rachel's father. Entering in a puff of dust, he coughed and wiped his forehead. "Mighty hot day out there."
"Well, I've got ale for you and flatbread too," replied his wife. She rose from the sewing machine and began setting the table as her husband eased himself into a chair.
"I know. I could smell it from outside. Smelled so good I came in early. What else have you all been up to while I was clearing rows with Molly and Bell?"
"Rachel's done with her quilt."
"Oh?" Rachel's father turned to look as his older daughter proudly showed off her masterpiece. It was a cheerful blooming of color with stitches outlining the squares.
"That's a mighty fine piece of work." He nodded. "How 'bout us going into town this Saturday. You can show off your quilt, your mother can take her flatbread, and I've got a bushel of onions ready."
The young children whooped excitedly and Michael, the boy, began dancing around the room, lifting his knees and clapping. There was reason for jubilation. The 20-mile trip to t
own in the buckboard was a once-a-month affair to which everyone in the family looked forward.
The town of Wausa, Nebraska was not unlike other little towns that had sprung up to welcome the pioneers. It was a mix of old and new buildings with wood plank sidewalks and a wide main street of dirt to accommodate trains of oxen. In one of the newer buildings was the general store. Guarding the door was a wooden Indian and next to it hung a bird cage. The family stopped for a moment to look at the yellow bird inside.
When they stepped into the store it was a universe all its own. There was the scent of wood and soap and spice. The walls were lined with racks of crates and mason jars, and along the aisles were bushel barrels of potatoes and apples. In the back neatly propped against the wall were bolts of fabric. While her brother and sister explored the store and her parents spoke with the grocer about their bread and onions, Rachel wandered back outside to look at the bird.
So bright a yellow it was a miniature piece of the sun in that dusty place. It hopped from perch to perch rarely standing still and as it hopped it kept its eyes on Rachel. Suddenly a shadow passed over the girl and startled, she looked up to see a Sioux Indian brave. Her heart beat faster. Indians sometimes came to town to barter although it was discouraged by the shopkeepers. Such a history of warfare existed between Indians and white settlers that no one felt safe. But this Indian was as fascinated by the bird as Rachel. He stared intently and then said something she couldn't understand. Seeing her puzzled face he repeated in English, "It listens to the wind."
Before Rachel could think about what he had said, the Indian turned and walked away. Her parents appeared a moment later, having seen him through the window.
"Are you all right?" asked her father.
Rachel nodded. "He w
as just looking at the canary."
At that moment the little bird lifted its head, swelled its chest, and sang out a joyous trill. Rachel saw her mother's face light up with delight.
Rachel traded her quilt for the canary and never regretted it because the little bird entertained them endlessly. Sir Gallant, they called him because he did battle with the wind. The louder the wind the more loudly he sang, competition so fierce that sometimes everyone burst out laughing. Sir Gallant lifted their spirits turning dust days back into sunshine days.
Rachel thought about what the Indian had said. She'd heard the wind but unlike the canary she'd never listened to it. Now when she tried she could hear music in the moaning. Of course the music was faint and hidden in the background and she needed her imagination, but it was there if she truly listened. She began humming the sounds she heard. "That's a pretty tune" her mother commented one day, "what song is that?" Rachel didn't reply, unsure how to explain, and her mother didn't press the question. Soon she, too, began humming.
Occasionally bachelor cowpokes stopped by the cabin to buy flatbread or to have their clothes mended. They were always welcomed, not for the money in their pocket but for their company. With no neighbors for twenty miles, it was lonely on the plains. The family and guests traded news, shared a meal, and were serenaded by Sir Gallant who was often the center of conversation.
One afternoon the younger daughter Mary noticed the canary sitting motionless on his perch. "Is Sir Gallant sick?" she asked in alarm.
"No. It's just a dark day outside," her mother reassured her. "It'll be raining soon and he probably doesn't feel like singing."
The younger children accepted this explanation but not Rachel. She knew that while Sir Gallant stopped singing from time to time, he had always hopped about his cage. She went to the door and looked outside. It was deathly quiet, no wind or sounds of birds or prairie dogs. She saw the outline of her father with the two oxen in the north field and at the same time she saw black thunderclouds stacked high into the sky. There was a heaviness to the air and a prickly feeling.
The Indian's words echoed in her mind. "It listens to the wind."
Rachel thought about Sir Gallant's odd behavior and the angry thunderclouds and how strange it felt. Straining to hear, she caught a faint rumbling and it was the sound of thunder.
Suddenly Rachel knew. She absolutely knew they were in danger. "Mom," she shouted. "It's a tornado!"
Immediately Mary and Michael began screaming as their mother gathered them up and, along with Sir Gallant, rushed outside. The safest place was the root cellar at the side of the house. Throwing open the cellar doors, the mother yelled to Rachel t
o warn her father.
Rachel took off running across the field shouting and waving her arms, but not until she was halfway across did she get his attention.
"What's wrong?" he yelled.
It was another moment before she reached him. "Tornado."
His eyes searched the horizon. "I don't see anything, but I can bring in Molly and Bell anyway. I'll come back to the house."
"No! There's no time. Listen!" Rachel was close to hysterical and because she never lied or played tricks, he did as she asked. Finally able to hear the rumbling he jumped to action. Releasing the yoke from the harnesses on the oxen he turned them free and then grabbed Rachel's arm and they began to run. By the time they reached the sod cabin, the tornado was visible, rain drenched their bodies and a thunderous roaring pounded the air.
The tornado lasted only minutes although it felt like hours. When the family emerged from their shelter they were relieved to find their sod cabin intact. Fortunately the oxen, too, had escaped although the scarred earth proved the north field had been in the center of t
he tornado's path. The loss of crops would make things more difficult, but they felt blessed to be alive. They also felt divine intervention had come in the form of a little yellow bird.
The woman stood in the door of the attic and sighed. Gray and dusty in the half light, the room was filled with old furniture, boxes and a thousand forgotten memories. She had inherited its contents from her grandmother and now faced the chore of deciding the fate of each piece. Attracted to an old sewing machine, so old that it had a foot treadle, she opened the top drawer. Amidst the buttons and needles and scissors was a tiny bundle of lace neatly tied with ribbon. Curious she picked it up and unwrapped it. To her surprise she found she was unfolding the burial cloth of a canary, its body long ago dried up but carefully preserved. Holding it in her right hand she stared, perplexed, and quite unconsciously put her left hand over her heart.
This story was inspired by an article I read in a magazine years ago. Inheriting her grandmother's sewing machine (who had been a pioneer in one of the plains states), the author of that article found the wrapped body of a canary in one of its drawers. Intrigued she had done research, discovering just how much the pioneers had loved these little birds. The article included the photograph of a prairie cabin with three cages of canaries hanging from