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Common Cruelty

Under the canopy on the front porch at the house where I used to live, there was a handsome round bamboo cage that held a myna bird. More precisely, the cage held three birds; each died in turn over my two-month’s stay. I asked an uncle about the bird, and was told it was kept “for good luck.”

The good-luck bird was netted in wild and bought for a song at the market. The cage was not big enough for the creature to open its wings. It would hop from perch to perch, sometimes flap its wings from the bottom of the cage. They gave it white rice, banana, and a plastic lid of water. The bird never sang. Whenever a human came near the cage it would frenetically press itself against the bars. Inevitably, the poor thing would die and a new bird brought in to replace it. The birds weren’t named. Nor were they looked at or really given any attention at all.

At the flower market near the Royal Gardens in Siem Reap there are bird sellers. The birdcages are heaped one upon another like tenement housing. Mynas and finches, mostly small brown birds that peep and cheep and flutter in their close quarters. It creates a charming effect amongst the pink water lilies arranged for offerings at a nearby pagoda. The chirping birds, the fragrance of incense, the extraordinary pink lilies in early morning light blooms like a melody. Beautiful and sad at the same time. The sellers take money from tourists to set the birds free—but the birds are trained to come back to their masters. They fly around the block, then take the A Train back to Brooklyn.

One could rail against the practice of imprisoning birds, for what is the creature’s crime but to be a thing of beauty? Surely the crazy logic of one species garnering luck from cruel indifference over another does not add up. That is not considered, for the practice is merely custom. Or, one could simply shrug and say that’s how poor people can make a living in an indifferent world. It’s not unusual. It’s common cruelty.

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