The Barber and the Black Canary

I’ve always known that the hotel was haunted, though not necessarily the neighborhood. Nevertheless, there it was, all laid out nice and neat in the snow, a very pretty death. We were two blocks from the hotel. At the long empty stretch where the dry goods store would be built in spring. Nothing in the lot but dead trees covered in vines, and beyond it, a marsh that spread out dark and bumpy all the way to Lake Michigan.

The doctor spotted it after me. “Hold up,” he said.

I shoved my fists deeper into my coat pockets and obeyed. Spirits in my place of employment didn’t bother me any (some are the spirits of my ancestors, and as such, they protect me). And just before dawn in Chicago, like anyone, I would rather be indoors than out in the bone-cracking cold.

“Intentional.” The doctor stooped closer, careful to stay on the boardwalk. “Look at the way it’s arranged symmetrically. No animal did that.” He waved a hand without looking up. “Light a match.”

Orders. I told myself, he’s a doctor, he treats everyone like this.

I stepped off the boardwalk and crunched two steps through snow-crusted grass to the edge of the street’s gaslight. I struck a match and held it so we could see every detail: a plucked and charred bird, wings evenly outstretched, throat slashed. Its dark eyes stared up at the fading full moon. Blue-gray feathers surrounded it, projecting outward. The icy blood sparkled.

“A pigeon,” I said. The match flickered out.

“A bad egg was messing about here.” The doctor wrenched his black hat down against the wind. “Someone all-possessed, like.”

I shrugged. Perhaps he was right, a human did it. There were some bad ones.

“What do the tracks mean?” The doctor gestured at boot prints in the frozen mud.

“Don’t know.”

“No, you can say.” A nicer tone. Maybe like I was his friend, not his barber.

“Don’t know.” I said it more firmly. The mud marks were impenetrable to me. The doctor had no way of knowing that, of course. I just trimmed his white sideburns once a week, after the doctor had checked on the slow death of Edgar Mulgrave, the hotel’s owner.

An eagle screamed. We jerked our heads up at the sound. The eagle flew low, as if it wanted us to see it, made a circle, and disappeared into a cloud.

That sign I understood. So, a man did this after all. And the spirits were angry.

The doctor glanced at me and chopped a hand at the dead pigeon. “Do something about it.”

That I would not do. I stepped back to the boardwalk.

The doctor clicked his tongue. Without a care or a prayer, he stepped onto the hard ground himself and mashed the bird under his boot. The breastbone snapped and I tried not to gag. The rest squished and blood leaked out like syrup. He messed up the feathers. He scraped the slime off his boot using the edge of the boardwalk. He did it all very slowly and casually, like he was teaching something to me.

“A dog’ll get it now,” I said. “Would’ve scared people.” Now I felt concerned. Maybe it would help if the spirits knew why the doctor had just done this.

“Maybe people should be scared.” The doctor rubbed his chin. “A hotel guest did it, perhaps. Someone from out East. Off his head, to do that to a bird.”

I frowned, first at the doctor and then at the hotel. The Royal Chicago loomed taller than any building on the avenue, a flesh and blood colored stone palace that Mulgrave’s almost-widow had opened last year. The wind kicked up stronger, into the kind that aches ears and spits rain. That is not what worried me. I took off toward the hotel with quick strides.

“Get back here,” the doctor called out. “You’re my windbreak, Nate.”

Employees weren’t supposed to use the front entrance but I ignored the rule. I could explain the situation to Mrs. Mulgrave, if need be. I took the hotel’s grand steps two at a time and strode through the lobby and main promenade. I pulled out a key and opened the door to the hotel’s barbershop.

My boots squeaked on the tile floor. The crystal chandeliers were dark and the red leather chairs stood empty. I went to a domed cage sitting on a pedestal and whisked off the cage’s black felt cover.

A single yellow canary sat inside on a carved wooden bar. It blinked, stretched its wings, and tweeted.

I exhaled. Don’t know how long I’d been holding my breath, but I felt a little dizzy and sweat popped out of my skin and trickled down my neck and back. “Good morning, little man,” I said. Sometimes my mother had called me that. It had been her birdcage. She had not been part of the tribe, but she’d loved birds and small creatures, as do I.

The canary flapped his wings and showed a few white streaks (I love those hidden feathers best) among the shades of bright yellow. The bird flew about his cage, fed, and returned to his perch.

A few minutes later, I’d made the shop bright and ready for business. I wore a black velvet topcoat, which is what we’re all supposed to wear. I idly stropped a blade and thought of the dead pigeon. The quick, metallic vreets of steel on leather was the only sound in the room.

The doctor had said the fellow was ‘off his head.’ I imagined a headless man drifting about the vacant lot and cold marsh. Naturally, I knew the fellow must have a head. A sick head and a stone heart. A man who felt delight at killing a bird.

I looked down at the barbershop floor and my heart beat quicker. The floor is marble, with silver eagle amulets embedded into the tiles. Fifty total, with gleaming beaks and turquoise eyes, all slick now from the scrape of boot soles. Mrs. Mulgrave had installed them, purely to compete with the hotel that had silver dollars in the floor of its barbershop. I did not think this was appropriate, everyone knew that Mr. Mulgrave and a man named Roy Tanner had stolen the amulets from a tepee during their army days, but I had grown accustomed to them. I felt like their protector.

The dawn eagle had flown low, and in a circle.

My hand holding the blade went a little wet. I crouched down and slid my fingers on a cool, smooth bird. Its single green-veined blue eye stared at me.

After some thinking, I went over to the cage. Poked the blade between the bars and rolled it. I knew that the canary liked to watch light dance off the metal.

“Listen,” I said. “I don’t want you to worry about a thing.” My mother had also said that to me.

The canary began to sing.

As usual, the son and heir Lionel Mulgrave was my first customer. Lionel had arrived three weeks ago from Paris with a silver-tipped walking stick and a trunk full of dolls. He did what he always did, he looked at the birdcage, shook his head, and wrinkled his nose.

After Lionel, a crush of drummers. The men selling candies, fancy shoes, clocks, pots and pans, and sewing machines jawed about sales, and sometimes a new play at the theater. I watched carefully, but as I knew, they were the types to ignore the bird completely. I liked the drummers. They were gentler sorts, about my age, too young to have battled in the South or put up forts out West. Other men, older ones, they had hard, quick eyes. Some call it strength.

It’s fear. I’m sure of that. Men back from war or the West with decorations, whether they’re for the lobby of a hotel or pretty medals for a shirtfront, they must know that spirits of the dead see everything.

Generally speaking, patrons dwell more on me, the head barber, than the bird. They read the silver plate outside the door: Barbershop Concession, Management by Nathaniel Tall Cloud. I know I’m a novelty, same as the peace pipe case in the lobby and the two thousand arrowheads on the western wall of the dining room. But the proper nameplate lends my position a permanency that I don’t mind, given the practicalities of living a life where you don’t quite fit in one place, or the other. Once I’d been written up in the newspaper. And last year, when someone had scratched the nameplate, a deliberate, deep slash right down the middle, Mrs. Mulgrave promptly got it replaced.

“I have a bone to pick with you.”

Charlie Dillinger’s voice boomed from the shop’s entrance like he was on stage at McVicker’s. I paused my blade at a customer’s throat. The actor dipped to eye level with the canary and wiggled gold-ringed fingers through the wrought iron bars.

“No bird should be prettier than me,” Dillinger said. He straightened up and grinned wide, showing a row of perfect white teeth. “I’ll wait until Mr. Tall Cloud is ready for me. I like my shave nice and close.”

The canary sang, a customer slapped Dillinger on the back, and another hollered a greeting from a chair. I resumed sweeping my blade.

That night, after I closed the shop, I cradled my bird.

“Mr. Dillinger acts like a cat that ate the canary,” I said. “But I don’t believe he’s off his head.”

I waited until the bird’s eyelids blinked slow before returning him to the cage.

A week later, just before closing, Gunner O’Brian swaggered in while I swept cigar butts and hair off the floor. O’Brian slung his arm around the neck of a departing politician, who laughed loud and left fast. Two associates arrived with O’Brian and stood by the door. One had dried, dark splatter on his silk waistcoat.

“You keep ‘em good and shiny,” O’Brian said. “Them eagles the Mulgraves put in.”

“Mr. Mulgrave found them in a medicine man’s things,” I said. “Skirmish during army service.”

The canary tweeted. O’Brian jabbed his elbow at the cage, rattled it hard, and the canary shrilled and flew in circles. Talk in the shop quieted. O’Brian took another long look at the floor.

I set the broom against the wall and nodded at an empty chair.

“Hell of an idea old Mulgrave had, to put in a Sioux-blood barber.” O’Brian settled in the seat. “This life is more bustle than you’re used to, I bet.”

“Better than the stockyards,” I said.

“You ain’t gonna get work waiting at the stockyards gate,” O’Brian said. “Not you.”

On the shortest day of the year, Roy Tanner limped in. He wore a navy army coat with one gold button dangling from it. Grime streaked his greasy white hair and beard. At the cage, Roy and snapped his pockmarked jaws together like a dog. The canary fluttered. Roy laughed rough like something was stuck in his throat. He limped forward.

And slipped hard on an eagle, falling backwards.

Roy swore and swore! A gentleman from New York helped him up.

Of course I thought, yes, another sign.

Even before the dead pigeon, I had wondered if the spirits wanted me to do anything about Roy. The man was so old and bitter, I figured that the red blood in his veins must really run all gritty and brown. It had been said that Mulgrave put up with Roy because Roy knew of things done out West, bad things, that Mulgrave didn’t want spread around. But I’d seen them together, before Mulgrave was dying, and Mulgrave never laughed like he did when he was with Roy.

“Mulgrave’s wife says someone got to trim me,” Roy said.

I nodded at another barber.

“That’s right, I ain’t gonna lose my scalp.” Roy spit a long stream of tobacco juice. It splattered across the floor, bubbled a bit on the tops of my shoes and a silver eagle, and spread out in runny, thin streams everywhere. He scratched at a boil on his neck that was bigger and shinier than a red marble.

The barbershop chatter quieted some. Talk revived once Roy got sat in a chair with a towel around his face. Roy left with another bite at the bird and a barking laugh. He stayed on his feet that time.

After closing, I tidied the walnut sideboard under the oil painting of a black steam train rolling through a green prairie. I wiped smears off the wall mirrors. I went to the cage. My canary’s dark eyes looked up at me.

“I’ll keep you safe,” I said.

I took out the canary and stroked his yellow head. I returned the bird to the wooden perch and draped the black cover over the cage.

Out of fairness, I decided to shadow all of the customers that, in my view, were most likely to be privately demented. This included a dentist from Omaha who had tweeted back at the canary like they were having a conversation in bird language. I tracked the dentist to Lincoln Park three icy evenings in a row, where all the man did was sit at the new, snowed-over baseball fields and smoke a pipe. I followed Lionel Mulgrave to a closed haberdashery that opened when he rapped at the door with his walking stick. I went all the way to a smoky South Side saloon and watched Gunner O’Brian’s associates run a numbers game for pennies.

It was Roy I caught in the act.

Most nights, Roy stayed in the hotel’s billiards room until it closed. Then he would lurk about the lobby until the night desk clerk told him to leave. Sometimes Roy would shuffle to another hotel lobby. Other times, Lincoln Park or an alley. I had to will my own heart to pump cold when following the limping old man. Watching him called to mind how alone Roy was. I don’t have much company myself, but Roy was different. He was a bone relic from a time of crushing death and taking, all over the place. Time turned, and spirits, the evil and the good, had picked up what they wanted. Now Roy was what was left. Sooner or later, they’d take him, too, and do what they wished.

At the last full moon of winter, a windless night, Roy never showed up to the hotel. I locked the shop, checked the vacant lot, and waited by a tree for a while, keeping as still as I could. I imagined that there were no buildings and no boardwalk. I was an ancient hunter on an empty plain, waiting for a night wolf.

Roy showed up, sure enough. He carried something in a small leather sack. It was still alive, the way it bounced some. I leaned closer to the tree.

Roy muttered to himself and left the avenue. He traipsed across the vacant lot and into the frozen marsh. I followed him. I can move pretty quiet for a big man. Roy stopped close to the lake and dropped the sack. Roy fumbled with it, and pretty soon, he had his hands closed around a pigeon. His bony fingers squeezed its neck. The pigeon squirmed.

“Let it go,” I said.

Roy’s head snapped up. His small eyes narrowed. Two words dripped out of his mouth: “You git.”

My boot struck Roy square under the chin. Roy’s hands released the bird. His body hurled backwards. I planned to pick Roy up and throw him against a tree, but the man made helpless spluttering sounds like he was choking on his own tobacco-soaked saliva. The red sore oozed yellow on his neck. Roy’s left eye twitched and I saw he had a new boil on his eyelid, weeping pus.

I stood over him. “Why’re you hurting birds?”

“I’ll find a copper.” Roy pointed a long finger with a dirty nail. “You’ll do a stretch!”

I grabbed Roy’s blue coat and heaved him upright. Brown fluid dripped down his beard.

“Why?” I lifted him off the ground. Light as a skeleton, he was.

Roy coughed warm flecks on my face. “You devil don’t know—”

I shook him hard.

Roy’s eye with the dripping boil blinked. His lips stretched back. “To cure the skin, sacrifice two pigeons, such as he can git.”

I threw him on the ground. “You stop now.”

I picked up the shivering gray bird. I tucked it close under my arm and headed toward the avenue.

“Two pigeons!” Roy squealed after me.

I got to the avenue. I found more birds strutting near a bakery and set the stolen pigeon down.

The walk gave me time to reflect on the encounter. Had I done right? All things considered, I felt satisfied by the morality of my actions and my restraint. I’d warned Roy. The man would find another hotel. He was dying, anyway. Rotting from the inside out.

Just the same, I spent the night in my shop, with my canary.

I felt no feeling of premonition. I saw no sign from any spirit. I still feel they should have warned me.

Roy hadn’t been to the hotel in months and I’d overheard the desk clerk and doorman mention Roy’s absence. The man was good and gone, and not missed. I thought, maybe he had died already.

A late spring freeze hit overnight. As I walked to work, I kept my head down against the cold and fell in with the doctor. I ignored the doctor’s chat and watched my breath frost and disappear, over and over. At the hotel, I strolled through the side entrance, unlocked the door to the shop and took my time stomping warmth back into my toes. I lit the gas chandeliers. I lifted the cage’s black felt cover.

The canary was gone.

I took a few quick strides across the room and grabbed a straight razor. The box crashed to the floor and blades clattered across the tile.

I headed to the same part of the marsh where I had caught Roy before. I felt dizzy, maybe from the exertion of moving fast but mostly from worry. Perhaps the canary was still alive, in Roy’s leather sack, staring into darkness. Fear could be the only thought in the bird’s tiny skull.

I saw a reed-thin figure crouched among the frosty cattails.

“No!” I looked up to the sky and said the word more to the spirits than to the man.

Roy raised his head. He creaked upright, threw out his arms, and spread dirty, bloodstained fingers. A wide smile split his face like it’d been carved there with a blade. The boil over his left eye dripped. He shuffled away, giving that barking laugh.

I squished a few more steps through muddy ground and forced myself to look.

My yellow canary lay dead. He was all open down the middle. I felt like I was empty in the middle myself, just looking at it. Never before had I felt like I had nothing inside but cold and hollowness. Now I think, it’s probably the way bad men feel all the time. The bird’s body looked smaller than it had ever seemed in his cage. A small knife, a stained kerchief, and the leather sack lay next to the tiny corpse. I know I groaned. Right then, I was madder at the spirits than Roy. Then I realized, somewhere, my bird had become a spirit itself. Smooth and happy and free, somewhere.

But still, something had to be done about Roy.

Roy’s laugh drifted along the still air. My hand tightened on the straight blade’s bone handle. I saw Roy heading to the avenue.

I went after him.

Roy turned his head at the sound of my steps. He cackled and opened his mouth wide. “Tweet, tweet!”

I closed the distance and yanked hard on the back of Roy’s coat. Roy’s arms wind-milled, his sleeves flapped, but his feet stayed under him. He was nimble like a skeleton come alive. Roy scrambled away and darted behind a tree. He grinned, feinted left and right, and took off again, this time toward the lake.

Then he slipped, but didn’t fall.

His breath got more ragged, and he slipped again. Roy steadied and frowned at the blade in my hand. “You won’t.” He spat into the snow. “They’ll hang you.”

Roy and I faced each other in the open marsh. Reeds poked out of cold mud. The dawn sky hung low and gray.

I stared at the gaps in Roy’s teeth and his oozing neck and eyelid. I felt like the same kind of ooze could be in my stomach, I felt so sick. My hand dropped the blade. Roy tilted his head.

“I don’t kill dogs,” I finally said.

Roy laughed and lifted his bearded chin. “Tweet, tweet.”


The ice splintered.

Roy slammed down hard. Really hard. I winced when I heard his elbow crack on the ice. Freezing water rushed up from the cracks, which spider-webbed bigger. Roy yelped at the touch of frigid water. His boots and hands went wild. The ice cracked wide open and Roy fell through.

I gingerly lifted a boot and eyed the ice beneath my own feet. It looked solid. We were still a distance from the lake. This was the marsh, yet. The water couldn’t be more than a few feet deep.

Roy’s boots and hands sloshed above the water. His head didn’t come up.

“Tweet, tweet,” I said softly. I imagined that the spirit of the yellow canary was somewhere close. Perhaps it was everywhere. “Roy’s having a terrible time getting his feet under him,” I said. “Maybe he can’t swim.”

I stood quietly. Picked up the blade and waited for some sign of what I should do. Sure enough, overhead, a solitary eagle circled, appearing and disappearing through the dark clouds. I took a deep breath, felt my shoulders go easy. My work was done, then.

Roy splashed.

I watched.

The water finally stilled. One fingertip broke the surface and disappeared again.

It started to rain, the kind with big, cold drops. I backed away and returned with the small leather sack. I held it carefully with both hands. I slid the blades inside, my own and Roy’s, and gently sank the sack with the canary into the water.

I headed back to the hotel through the rain. When I put a hand on the shop’s door, my mind went to the cage. I’d have to clean it out. May as well do that now. Perhaps give it to Mrs. Mulgrave.

I plodded pretty heavy into the room. My coat and boots dripped water on the tile.

I stopped cold.

A tiny bird sat on the bar in the cage. It was a canary, like my pet. But this one was dark. Its shiny feathers gleamed black.

I stared at the bird. I felt like all the air had left my body. I raised my hands to my cheeks and blinked and breathed until I was certain that the black canary was real. I shook my head and tried to accept it. The spirits took Roy and they did what they wanted to do. It had to be right.

The bird uttered a small tweet in greeting and flapped its wings. I walked slowly to the cage. I opened it and picked up the bird. I held him in my large hands, enjoying the feel of delicate bones. I felt his small heart beat against my fingertip. I raised him to my lips and kissed his silky head. The bird smelled faintly of tobacco.

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