Benjamin Barker lifted his daughter from her crib and carried her to the open window. He could not help thinking how much she looked like an angel child, in her little white nightgown, as the morning sun touched her golden hair. Birds were gossiping in the tree near their window; a few rosy-tinged clouds lingered above the rooftops; Mrs. Lovett was singing to herself while she watered flowers in the garden below; and Johanna was taking it all in with those sky-blue eyes. "Do you hear the birdies singing, Johanna?" Benjamin asked, "Hear the birdies? They're singing just for you."
The branches off the nearby tree rustled; a small brown bird burst through the canopy of leaves and perched on the windowsill. Both father and daughter stared at the little creature, which cocked its head to one side and peered back at them with curious black eyes. Johanna reached her tiny hand toward it. "Birdy!" she said. Benjamin looked down in amazement. He expected the bird to fly away at her outburst, but it gave a friendly chirp, and hopped closer to the little girl. "Lucy!" he called, "Lucy, come here, you've got to see this!" The bird startled, and quickly fluttered away into the morning air, just as Lucy came into the room. "What is it, dear?" she asked. "Birdy!" cried Johanna, clapping her hands, "Birdy! Birdy!" Lucy gasped. "Did she just…?"
"Yes!" said Benjamin, "We were listening to the birds sing, and one them came up right close to her, and she said––"
"Birdy!" said Johanna. Lucy laughed; she took Johanna in her arms and cuddled her. "Our baby's first word," she said, smiling up at her husband.
Johanna yawned and opened her eyes. Once again she had fallen asleep with her head buried under the covers, curled up in a protective little knot. But it was morning now. There was nothing to be afraid of. She poked her head out from under the duvet. She could hear a strange sound; a chirping, chattering noise, that she could not remember hearing before, yet it seemed somehow familiar. It seemed to be coming from just outside her window. She climbed out of bed and ran over to her window, scrambling up onto the window-seat. A man was walking down the street, carrying a long pole with several cages hanging from it. In each of the cages, a bird, or in some cases two, was fluttering its wings and singing with all its might. Johanna's small fingers managed to undo the lock on window, and it swung open.
The man with the birdcages looked up, and tipped his hat to her. "'Mornin', little Missy," he said. "Want to see the birdies?"
"Yes please!" said Johanna. The man raised the pole hand over hand, until the birdcages dangled just outside the window. "Hello, birdies," said Johanna. The birds chirped back at her, their songs blending together in a cheerful racket. Johanna poked her finger between the bars of the nearest cage and stroked the feathers of the bird inside. "What's your name?" she asked.
"That's a greenfinch," said the man. "The one next to 'im's a linnet. And underneath 'em's a nightingale."
"They're so pretty," said Johanna.
"And wot's your name, Missy?" asked the man holding up the cages.
"Johanna," said the little girl. "Pleasure to meet you, Miss Johanna," the man said, bobbing his head and shoulders in a little bow, "Me name's Michael. I've got to be on me way now, but I'll come back tomorrow. Would you like that?"
"Oh yes!" said Johanna. "Goodbye, birdies!" she called as Michael lowered the cages. "Thank you for letting me see them!" she added. Michael nodded and waved to her. Johanna pulled the window shut. The room was silent again. She was alone.
A light breeze rustled through the poplar tree. The branches brushed against Johanna's window. The girl sat in the window-seat, her brow furrowed in thought. When the window was open, she could fairly easily reach the closest branch, dangling over the top of the window-frame. There was another, stronger branch below that; if she could stretch her leg out, with one foot on the windowsill, she might just be able to reach it…
She was so engaged in her calculations that at first she did not hear the familiar medley of birdsongs, until a distinctly human whistle cut through the hubbub. She hastily undid the lock and swung the window open. "Hello, Michael," she said. The bird-seller waved at her. "Hullo, Miss Johanna!" he said. "I brought your friends for a visit." He raised the cluster of cages toward her window. "How are they today?" Johanna asked. "They're 'ungry as always," said Michael. "Well, they're lucky I was able to sneak this away at tea-time." Johanna slipped a handkerchief out of her pocket and unwrapped half of a scone. She broke off a small piece and slipped the crumbs through the bars of the cages into the chirping mouths.
"Michael," Johanna said, "Do you ever let them out of their cages?"
"Can't do that, Miss," said Michael, "They're bred in captivity."
"What's that mean?" asked Johanna.
"It means they're brought up in cages. From the time they're 'atched till they're big enough to sell."
"So they spend their whole lives shut up behind bars?"
"That's right. They grows accustomed to it, you know? Little things wouldn't know what to do with themselves if we was to let 'em out." He did not have the heart to tell her the birds were blinded and their wings clipped.
"I suppose you're right," said Johanna. "I suppose they're better off safe in their cages. But if I was one of them, just once I'd want to stretch my wings and fly over the city and see all of London, and then settle down in the branches of some great tree…" An impatient blackbird had found her finger and was pecking at it; she hastily broke off another bit of scone and stuffed it into the hungry bird's beak. Michael could not help noticing she looked a bit too pale and sickly for a girl of twelve. Not that he would dare to argue with the judge, but he did wonder if a walk or even a drive out in the fresh air now and again might do her good.
"I better go, Miss Johanna," he said, "But we'll be back again to see you tomorrow."
"Goodbye!" called Johanna as he shouldered his pole of cages and walked off down the street.
Two days later she awoke to the sound of splintering wood. She peeked through the curtains, and saw the tree outside her window being cut down.
The bedroom door opened with a soft click. Johanna awoke; she heard footsteps creaking across the floor. She tucked her head underneath her duvet and tried to stay perfectly still. Her heart was pounding in her ears. She heard a jingling noise, something scraping slightly on the floor. The footsteps seemed to be coming closer. She held her breath, desperately wishing them away. For a long moment, there was silence. Then she heard the creak of floorboards under shifting weight; the footsteps retreated and the door softly shut.
Johanna ran to the window and hurriedly opened it. "Michael!" she called. The bird-seller looked up at her and waved. "'Appy Birthday, Miss Johanna!" he said.
"How did you know?"
"'Twas 'is honor wot told me when 'e come to buy your present. 'Ow d'you like 'er?"
Johanna held up a small round cage, where a light-brown bird perched on a tiny swing and observed the world through solemn black eyes. "She's beautiful," said Johanna. "But…is she quite alright? She won't sing. I've talked to her and fed her and stroked her feathers, but I haven't heard a chirp out of her all morning."
"That's the way with larks, Miss Johanna. They won't sing when they're in a cage. Don't 'ave the 'eart for it, some'ow."
Johanna sighed. She peered through the bars of the cage in her hands. "I know how that feels," she whispered. The lark stared silently back at her.
"The others, though, they're 'ungry as always," said Michael, "They'll sing for you if she won't." He raised the other cages with their noisy occupants up to her window. Johanna hung the lark's cage back on its stand and took up a saucer of cake crumbs to feed her noisy little guests. "Green finch and linnet bird, nightingale, blackbird," she sighed, calling each one by name, "How is it you sing?"