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Small But Mighty

by Shelby Molyneaux

Aaron hated visiting his Uncle Bill’s house.  

Aaron’s uncle lived in an old brick bungalow on Ford Lane, and it was falling apart. The back deck creaked and bowed with every step, there had been a bright blue tarp over a small part of the roof for years now, and sometimes the cupboards in the kitchen would just open on their own. When he and his mom came to visit, Aaron always slept in the basement bedroom, which had a brown spot on the ceiling that got bigger with each trip out here. The house was small, and smelled of the cigarettes that filled the several ashtrays his uncle had placed all around it. The only way Aaron could deal with the smelly, old house was by spending most of his time outside, in the woods. 

All the houses on Ford Lane backed onto a large forested area, so the woods were filled with walking trails that Aaron loved getting lost in. His favourite trail he had found so far had a tree on either side of the path that someone had woven together into an archway at the head of the trail. As a kid, this always made Aaron feel like he was entering into a new, hidden world, or heading out on an exciting and mysterious journey. 

Aaron knew that taking a walk through the winding trails in the forest would calm him down, just like it had done many times before. So today, after an argument with his uncle about the smell in the house, he decided to try a new path. About half a kilometre into the woods, Aaron turned right where he had never gone right before. This trail was obviously used less than the others Aaron had discovered so far because he had to kick some fallen branches to the side, and the leaves from the surrounding plants were starting to grow into the path ahead of him. But he was determined to keep going, knowing that exploring this new trail would keep his mind from thinking about how he had yelled at his uncle.

Just as he was getting sucked into thoughts of the fight, Aaron saw something up ahead that made him stop for a second. There was something sitting at the bottom of a big pine tree just to the side of the path. It looked like a cage, but not made of metal or plastic like modern cages; This one looked like it was made of wood. He stood there for a few seconds, making sure the cage was empty before he approached. It was actually pretty small to be out here, Aaron thought. The cage was too small to fit even a rabbit, and Aaron couldn’t think of anything he might be afraid to go near that was smaller than a rabbit. So, curious about his newfound discovery, Aaron headed towards the cage. 

As Aaron approached the tree, he got a closer look at the cage, which he realized was missing a bottom. Inside there was a kind of trough on one side, a cup on the other, and two perches stretching across the cage between them. Aaron realized it must be some kind of bird cage, but it had to be really old. A couple of the pegs that acted like bars had fallen out of their holes, and a few others had been warped or snapped, either by weather or critters living in the woods. 

When he took a step back from examining the cage, Aaron realized there was a wooden plaque nailed to the tree just above it that had a message carved into it. It was a little tricky to read, but Aaron wiped it off with the sleeve of his sweater and was able to make out what it said:

This cage is placed here in memory of our brave and beloved canary, Grace Kelly. She saved the lives of 72 men in the Echo Hill coal mine by alerting them to the presence of Carbon Monoxide. She gave her life so others could live, and now she flies free.

1947-1951

Aaron had heard the name Grace Kelly somewhere before, but couldn’t think of where (though he was sure it hadn’t been the name of a bird that lived in a small Canadian town in the 1940s). Maybe she had been an old movie star, or a singer or something. He decided he would ask his mom when he got the cage home. 

Aaron went to remove the cage from its mossy pedestal, but he realized as soon as he began to lift that the wood was very fragile from being outside for who knows how long, and it started to bow almost as soon as he touched it. Wanting to show his mom, Aaron decided to bring her out here to the cage, rather than try and get it back to his uncle’s house in one piece. So, he made a mental note of which path he had taken to get here, and jogged back to the house.

“Hey mom,” Aaron shouted into the house before he had even made it all the way through the door, unable to contain his excitement. “Come see what I found in the woods!” 

Aaron’s mom, Laura, rolled her eyes, remembering the last thing Aaron found in the woods. “If it’s breathing or used to breathe, it doesn’t come in the house!” she shouted back as she finished the sentence she was on in her new James Patterson novel, then placed her bookmark between the pages. She could hear him running down the hall and added “No shoes in the house!”

Aaron stopped mid-stride, looked down at his feet, and started to back-track towards the front door. “Okay, but come see!” he yelled as he tried to kick away the dirt he had dragged in. 

Laura rounded the corner and could tell by the look on her son’s face that he was excited about what he’d found, but didn’t see anything in his hands. “Well, what is it?”

“I couldn’t bring it back; you have to come with me.” Aaron could see that look on his mom’s face that said she’d rather be reading, so he added, in his sweetest tone, “Please?”

“Oh, alright,” Laura said, sliding her shoes on. “Show me what you found.”

When they got a few feet away from the cage, Laura stopped abruptly and began to tear up, a long-forgotten memory floating to the surface of her mind. 

Aaron looked back at her from the cage when he realized she wasn’t right beside him. “Mom? What’s wrong?”

“Oh, nothing honey,” Laura replied as she wiped her eyes lightly with her thumb. “I just remembered I’ve been here before, when I was a little girl.”

“Really?” Aaron asked. 

“Yep. Your Uncle Bill and I used to explore these woods all the time when this was Grandpa’s house. Grandpa even made a fairy entrance for me on one of the other paths.”

At this, Aaron smiled, thinking that she must be talking about the entrance to his own favourite path. 

“So, do you know who Grace Kelly was?”

“Well, the real Grace Kelly was a famous actress who became a Princess. But Grace Kelly the bird used to belong to your great-great Grandpa Charles. My Grandma Christine made this plaque after Grace Kelly saved her dad and the men he worked with in the mine.”

Aaron was confused by this, asking how a bird could have possibly saved a bunch of guys down a mine shaft. 

“Well, canaries are really sensitive to certain types of gas that are really harmful to people. So, the miners used to carry a canary down the mineshaft in a cage like this, and if the bird started breathing funny or passed out, they knew it wasn’t safe and everyone would leave the mine.”

Aaron looked shocked. “So, they’d just kill a bird every time they went into a mine?”

Laura laughed a little, but stopped when she realized that Aaron was actually upset. “Oh, honey no. Most of the time there was no gas, and the canary was fine; the miners would sing to them, and talk to them, and feed them treats. And even if the bird did inhale some toxic gas, it could usually be revived and it’d be okay.” Laura looked at the plaque in front of her, remembering when her own mom told her this story. “Poor Grace Kelly just wasn’t as lucky. But look,” she said, pointing to the plaque. “She died a hero, and we’re still talking about her today. I think that’s pretty impressive for a bird.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s true,” Aaron answered. “And without her, we wouldn’t be here, right mom?”

“That’s right, honey,” Laura said, pulling her son into a hug. “You never know what a big effect something so small can have.”