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The Lark

Martha Henriques

The captive was mature when it arrived, its juvenile fluff shed for mottled brown and black plumage.[1] The lark had a whitish-yellow breast that complemented the flowers it ate from the children’s palms, drawing almost hypnotic attention. Emily, the eldest, stayed up to sketch the bird while her younger brother Mackworth straggled more daisies through the bars.

Mackworth ran to and fro in the garden with glee at receiving his new pet. His favourite caterpillars and wasp nests thrived on this diversion as he collected spiders and picked at plants to try the lark on. Emily was unimpressed, and distracted herself with a new botanical discovery.[2] In the warm, wet climates of the south of the United States of America there were carnivorous plants that could snap up Mackworth’s insects. Venus fly traps could clamp shut their jaws on dead flies or even strips of dried meat, slowly digesting their meal over a course of days. [3] Probably his fingers too, she considered, as he ran past again.

Mackworth’s morbid excitement at the caged animal repulsed Emily, but the bird seemed placid enough. It moved slowly about the bottom of its cage, now littered with a selection of Mackworth’s garden offerings. Emily made a point of avoiding the room where he sat to pester the lark into the night. She opened a compendium on caged birds. There were more than thirty-three types of lark native to the British Isles, she read.[4] She pushed a curled gold strand behind her ear. Mr Tebbut hadn’t said which kind this was. None of the images immediately stood out to her. The bird had had a modest crest, she remembered, but from that alone she couldn’t be sure which of several breeds it was. Mackworth’s cackles filtered down to the hearth. The pleasure the boy gained from the animal’s confinement was nauseating. She turned more pages. Perhaps she could go to identify the bird and minimise his persecutions at the same time.

She followed the boy’s shrieks to the aviary and entered, calming Mackworth with a few questions. She sat down before the cage and looked through the entries. The bird preened, and Mackworth quietened down, watching. She stopped. “Bill brownish-black, with the base of the lower mandible ochreous-yellow.”[5] She looked up over the pages at the bird. It really was beautiful. She entreated Mackworth to fetch her sketch pad and pencils. To her surprise he did. “Above the eye is a yellowish-white streak. Cheeks pale yellowish-brown. Breast pale wood-brown, spotted with brownish-black; the middle white, with a reddish-brown tinge.” She stopped reading. It was a sky lark. The pad and pencils were in her hands and Mackworth settled behind her shoulder. She began to sketch. The bird hopped from the cage floor to its perch, displaying to Emily the plumage of each of its wings and its crest in turn, and returning to the water basin to hook its toes on the edge, bend down, and tilt its head over the water without drinking. She wondered what the natural territory range was for a lark. She glanced to the book in Mackworth’s lap and saw he was looking at a page on linnets. She snapped shut her notebook and left him propped against the wall beneath the window. The house would be full of cages soon.

Thick fog early the next morning obscured Emily’s hope for rambles in the garden.[6] The dawn chorus seemed correspondingly muffled anyway. She dawdled her way back to the bird room. Mackworth had already let both lark and goldfinch out of their cages. Offended by the audacious newcomer, the tiny finch had fluffed out his feathers with bravado and screamed his indignation.[7] The lark tried to avoid its outrage, flying over the children’s heads to a corner of the high, dark ceiling. The unremitting defender of the aviary bickered with insistence until the lark retaliated. The larger bird attempted to beat off its small and ferocious enemy. It failed and quickly retreated further into its corner of the room, struggling to find a perch anywhere on the walls, settling for the frame of a portrait. Mackworth cackled, and Emily sided with the more timid bird, gaping and screeching at the goldfinch from its relative safety.[8]

The defending champion fluffed its feathers a little more and invaded the lark’s empty cage, dipping its short beak in its water. Heady with success, the goldfinch plundered his enemy’s hempseed and failing to appreciate the lark’s own stealthy revenge in response, as it flew down to enter the other empty cage to peck at the unguarded seed.[9] Emily stayed quiet while Mackworth jeered at the birds, but the show was too good not to watch to the end. The birds seemed to forget about each other eventually after seeming to reach a stalemate, safe in one another’s abodes.

Settling into the house over the next few days, the lark was welcomed into the breakfast room to forage for crumbs.[10] The children purposefully brushed them onto the floor by their chairs for it; none more than Mackworth, whom the lark nonetheless chose to avoid. Visitors to the lark’s room in turn were greeted with a wide open beak, soon closed with resentment if there was no offering of a fly. The lark chirped and perched close to anyone there, except Mackworth, whose initial affection for the lark was quickly subsiding into crueller curiosity and provocation. Emily scolded him for teasing the bird with flies out of reach beyond the cage. Regardless, she would be followed down the corridor from the aviary by her brother’s giggles and the increasingly familiar screech of warring birds.

Wet but less foggy mornings approached, and Emily continually scolded herself for lying in bed until five, missing most of the birdsong by the time she was out.[11] On these occasions she wandered once again to the bird room. The first time the lark landed on her hand its round, puffed body was impossibly, deceptively light. One could appreciate even up close the movements of its head were almost too quick to see, appearing to change from one instant to another between attitudes. Emily encouraged the bird from one hand to the wrist of the other, while she reached for the notebook. Her pencil scratched the paper propped on her bent knee. Minutes passed and the bird didn’t leave her wrist, though she shifted it every now and then to let the delicate claws rest on a different patch of skin.

After three weeks in the house the lark was becoming less manageable. It would fly at its tormentor if he entered the room, berating him, pecking at his fingers, and pursuing the boy out of the room with screams.[12] Even Emily was subject to pecking fits if Mackworth was in the room. The moment he scampered from the aviary the lark would return to her, become dainty and polite, and eat quietly out of her hand. Mackworth monitored his pet’s mutinous allegiance to his sister. He took increasing satisfaction in unleashing the goldfinch in her absence.

By the June of its confinement the lark had developed an unignorable series of eccentricities, becoming an increasingly exacting house guest. Certain frocks of Emily’s were no longer acceptable. If she didn’t wear its preferred dress, or if she arrived with dirty hands from gardening, or if she brought the wrong kind of fly, the bird would fly around the room to perch elsewhere and gape and screech at her, avoiding her fingers and outstretched hands.[13]

While Mackworth now boycotted the room entirely for his own safety, Emily decided to wait out the bird’s wrath. Besides, she had read that “the lark during the summer months is decidedly unsocial.”[14] She tried to explain to Mackworth, whose offence mingled openly with hurt and jealousy. “For though we may meet with two or three pairs in the same field, we seldom find their nests near each other. They are not quarrelsome and pugnacious, like the red-breasts, but they seem to prefer a secluded spot to a crowded neighbourhood.” Perhaps with a little more peace the bird would be happier, she suggested. “The young larks, after leaving the nest, seem equally unsocial, and do not, like most nestlings, keep together in a band; but prefer to wander about the field by themselves, though this must increase the trouble of their parents in bringing them food.” Not for our pampered visitor, she thought. “Yet these seemingly unsocial birds, as soon as the breeding season is fully over, flock together in numbers almost incredible, and have then been caught for the table in most countries of Europe from the earliest times—” She stopped reading. Perhaps the bird’s mood was seasonal, and might stand a chance of passing if the creature forgot Mackworth.

Able to take a hint, he ostentatiously turned his interest back to his old amusements in the garden. While he lay sullenly on his front examining a slow and unstimulating caterpillar outside there was another’s voice in the garden, its enthusiasm rendering no need for a partner. Emily stage-whispered to herself as she investigated the undergrowth.[15] The bushes by the border sheltered all kinds of weeds that the bird might yet like to try. She had just finished reading Hamlet and she recited as she gathered, picking rosemary for remembrance, pansies for thought.[16] The grass was damp. Emily stooped and a cough rose up in her chest. The summer had been wet and cool so far and the herbs had grown surprisingly well.[17] She picked a brittle stalk and added it to her bundle.

She was done, ready to take the feast to the cage. She stopped her whispering when she thought she heard someone calling to her. A cough came over her again as she ran into the house and up the stairs and she supported herself on the shiny surface of the thick, dark wooden bannister.[18] She wiped curls from her eyes and checked the prize bundle was still intact before entering the room. Mackworth wasn’t there. The bird was moving from one perch in its cage to another repeating a measured rocking motion at each of the furthest points of the cage. Emily arranged her flowers and approached while the bird accelerated its motion, keeping to precisely the same pattern and dipping its head with each repetition. Emily hadn’t noted this behaviour before and hesitated at the bars, watching for a while. It showed no signs of stopping. She decided to alleviate the poor bird of what must have been its anticipation for the feast in her hands. She opened the cage door to offer a small sprig of rosemary and interrupt its dance.

The force with which the bird clamped down its slightly serrated beak drew down hard on the end of her finger, catching the soft part before the bed of the nail.[19] The rosemary fell from her hands. There was no blood but the skin was blue-white from the brief pressure, and soon flashed red and became swollen. Tiny flaps of skin were raised from the beak’s ridges. The rest of the flowers scattered around Emily’s feet.


[1] Gates, B. (ed), Journal of Emily Shore, Virginia: University Press of Virginia (1991) p. 51

[2] Gates, B. (ed), (1991) p. 51

[3] Gates, B. (ed), (1991) p. 51

[4] Bolton, J. (1830) pp. 16

[5] These and the immediately following excerpts are from Prideaux, J. S., Land Birds, Edinburgh: W H Lizars, (1825) p. 275

[6] Gates, B. (ed), (1991) p. 51

[7] Gates, B. (ed), (1991) p. 57

[8] Gates, B. (ed), (1991) p. 52, 57-58

[9] Gates, B. (ed), (1991) p. 57-58

[10] Gates, B. (ed), (1991) p. 57

[11] Gates, B. (ed), (1991) p. 53

[12] Gates, B. (ed), (1991) p. 59

[13] Gates, B. (ed), (1991) p. 59

[14] These and the immediately following extracts are from Rennie, J. The Domestic Habits of Birds, London: Charles Knight (1833) pp. 65

[15] Gates, B. (ed), (1991) p. 59

[16] Gates, B. (ed), (1991) p. 22, 59, 223

[17] Gates, B. (ed), (1991) p. 43

[18] Gates, B. (ed), (1991) p. 28, 59

[19] Gates, B. (ed), (1991) p. 57-58

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