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Nothing is more easy than to tame an animal and few things are more difficult than to get it to breed freely in confinement, even in the many cases when the male and female unite.
— Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species
On the roof of the East Wing of the American Naturalist Museum wasa greenhouse, blocked from public view by turrets and facades. The skylights could be opened with a brass pole. Every third pane was a window. In midmorning, and sometimes in the afternoon, Roddy Phelps went up the spiral staircase to the finch room of the greenhouse and took a nap.
It was the middle of March, and Roddy was feeling slightly but constantly chilled. The weather made no sense to his body, although he knew it was supposed to be cold before the beginning of spring. Even on the coldest, rainiest days, the greenhouse was warm and faintly tropic. Birdcages were arranged on rows of pine tables, and on an empty table in the farthest row, by the window, Roddy took his naps. He had stashed a car pillow under a shelf in a paper bag.
The greenhouse was filled with potted ferns, palms, and heather. Ivy hung from crossbeams in mossy wire baskets. Each species of bird had its own room. Drifting off to sleep, Roddy was soothed by the diminutive, random noises the birds made — twitters, clacks, and cheeps, which he thought of as auditory litter. Once in a while, he brought a transistor radio with him and listened to the birds counterpointing Mozart.
The year before, Roddy's wife, Garlin, had lefthim, taking their child, Sara Justina, and retired to the country. At Thanksgiving, New Year's, and Easter, Roddy drove to Templeton, New Hampshire, and collected Sara Justina, who spent these holidays and a part of the summer with Roddy and his parents in Westchester. The rest of the time, silence was generally maintained between NewYork and Templeton, except for legal occasions when separation, alimony, divorce, and child-support papers passed between Roddy and Garlin. These entailed long conversations with the lawyers for both sides, and expensive, jagged long-distance calls from New York to New Hampshire.
The last week in March there was a brief hot spell, and Roddy's chill became more acute. Dampness settled in his bones. He began to think that he was suffering from eyestrain and spent dizzy, unfocused, and dislocated days feeling as if he were hung over. The naps in the finch room sometimes helped, but often they made his unfocused condition worse and he staggered off the table while the room went black, yellow, and dazzling gray in front of his eyes.
After Garlin's departure, Roddy had gone into a work spurt that produced two papers on the social behavior of caged finches — one for Scientific American and one for American Birds. The uncorrected galleys of both had been lying on his desk for several months. Then he started on the breeding and nesting patterns of the African finch in captivity. He had been studying this aspect of the finch since December but had run into trouble, as his finches seemed unwilling to breed in their large Victorian cages and appeared uninterested in building nests out of the pampas grass, string, and clover he provided for them.
Roddy had a corner office on the sixth floor of the museum, which housed the Department of Animal Behavior. He kept two pairs of finches there — Aggie and Bert, Gem and Russell — pets, not experimental birds, who had been left by a colleague departing for the Galápagos. When Roddy arrived in the morning, he let them out of their cage, and in the evening he spent an hour getting them back in.
The finch room was his exclusively. There was a greenhouse caretaker, José Jacinto Flores, whose job it was to clean the cages and feed the birds, but, by friendly edict, in the finch room Roddy took care of this himself. José Jacinto had appropriated a back room where he kept a tank of tropical fish and a pair of lovebirds who warbled tenderly to each other. He was a wiry, squat man, the color of cherry wood, and Roddy often saw him smoking a cheroot with the windows open, speaking softly in Spanish to his birds.
The table Roddy napped on was the last in a series of four. He was blocked by cages of birds and pots of palm and heather that shut him off from view, he thought, since he could never see anything through them.
On the last Thursday in March, Roddy left his office and went up to the greenhouse. He had not slept well the night before, tossing and brooding about his experiments, settling finally into a brief, unrefreshing sleep. A few minutes before in his office, the telephone rang and it was Garlin to tell him that Sara Justina had bronchitis.
"Did you call just to tell me that?" Roddy asked. Garlin almost never called him when Sara Justina was sick.
"Bronchitis isn't a cold," said Garlin.
"What am I supposed to do? Do you want me to come up to Templeton?"
"I thought you should know she's sick, and, by the way, did your lawyer call mine about the final papers?"
"I have to check," said Roddy.
"It's your life," Garlin said.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means that you should have checked a month ago. You have no idea what's serious and what isn't. Your marriage is being disbanded and you haven't even bothered to call your lawyer."
"I've been working very hard, Garlin, and I think this whole thing is unpleasant enough without remarks like that."
"That's why your marriage is being disbanded," said Garlin, and she hung up.
The finches peered from the curtain rod. Aggie, his favorite, flew down and sat on his dictionary...