There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.Ernest Hemingway
“Soon all this will be no more, and all shall be as it should.”
“Brother, I don’t understand. You should rest your voice.”
“I will not rest—not now, not ever,” I said through convulsive wheezing.
“Oh, Emmanuel. Why do you always have to be so difficult? Why do you always have to be so perfect?”
“Elon, I’m not perfect—I’m human just as you are.”
“Yeah? Well, it doesn’t seem like that,” said Elon, standing up from his chair beside my bed. “You’ve always been so kind, and life has always been clear for you. Look at me—I’m a mess. A stinking mess. Years spent as an accountant, working through the ranks, trying to do well to eventually become CFO—and then it all falls apart. That sonofabitch Judas. He’s always, always impressing everybody with his charm and handsomeness. But he doesn’t fool me for a minute. I know he’s a liar and a cheat! I just couldn’t take his awful presence any longer—I swear he makes my skin crawl. He kept calling me weak and cowardly—so I silenced him with my fists.”
“Now, now,” I said through a cough, “that doesn’t make you bad. But neither do his actions justify your response. Remember, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Elon paced around the bed, with the fading light from the star window partially illuminating his face. “Well, what do you know about frustration and ambition? You’re a writer after all, and you spend your time and money on others. You don’t have anything or want anything. It’s not fair.”
“That’s not true. I have all that I could possibly need, and what I want is to help others.”
“Yeah, well why not help me? Why help the homeless bastards—they’re just druggies who chose addiction over life and work.”
“I believe that we all deserve second chances—even the murderer or the addict. No one’s ever gone. And that’s why we’re here now, right? To help you reconnect and find your way?”
“No, we’re here on this weekend retreat to help you heal from your sickness and give you a break from San Francisco. That’s why we’re on this ‘Serene, Northern Coastal California Redwoods Getaway—’ to ‘Rediscover Your Zest for Life,’” replied Elon, slamming down the travel brochure on the nightstand and pausing. “It’s just…aren’t there some actions that are unforgivable?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s just that life hasn’t been easy for me after I got fired—all my hopes, dreams, and ambitions crushed in one fell swoop. And I haven’t exactly been taking it well—I’ve spent many late nights gambling and drinking to the point where I can no longer feel my pain, and I’ve gone through probably like three girlfriends in two weeks. I just don’t know what to do. I want to be good. I want things to be better.” Elon sat down in the chair beside my bed, and he put his head in his hands and cried.
“The strong Elon brought to tears. Come, come, do not be afraid. God forgives you, and so do I.”
“Re…really? You do?”
“Brother, you’re a good person at heart. I know you are. Take my hand. Good. Now listen—channel your strength to pick yourself up to fight another day. Try helping others—I find the greatest solace in aiding the less fortunate. Rest today, and go home tomorrow to help your community.”
“But what about you? You’re my brother, and I love you and I need to help you get better.”
“Hush, hush. I am fine. I will be home soon.” I entered another coughing fit, this time more severe.
“We need to get you to a hospital, right now. I’ll call an ambulance.”
“No. Water. Water.”
Elon got out of his chair and ran to the bathroom, where he came sprinting back with a clear glass of water in his hand. He propped my head up on my pillow and gently poured the soothing elixir down my aching throat. The sky was now a darkening, hazy orange, with the last vestiges of golden light falling through the window onto my brother’s pale face.
“Thank you. You are so kind. Look, do you see the faint full moon rising through the window?”
Elon kept his gaze fixed on me. “I do,” he said smiling.
“In the chest on the other side of the bed, you will find some of my poems and stories. I want you to give those to mother. I will see father soon, who watches down on us.”
“No! You’re going to stay right here. You’re not going to leave me!”
“The day is almost gone. Night and darkness are closing in. I will be your lamb, your agnus. I will always be with you.”
“No, no! Here, I’ll…I’ll make a fire to keep you warm. Don’t leave me!” Elon frantically tried to light the fire, but to no avail.
“Elon….Elon,” I whispered, as my brother turned around teary-eyed. “Do not worry. You are like me, a sparrow locked in his cage. But no more—after tonight, both of us are free.”
The room was now completely dark, except for a lone candle on the nightstand. Its flickering light danced like a sprite upon both of our faces.
“No! Don’t give up! Don’t abandon me! Please, brother, please….brother….”
Elon’s voice trailed off in an echo of cries as I was blinded by the whitest, purest flash. Then there was no sound. Nothing. Not even the whisper of a playful breeze upon a lazy field, or the lively gossip of the silent trees after dark, or the hum of a sweet river coursing over soft, gentle stones. Nothing. Not dark. Not light. Just nothing.
As soft raindrops dripped down the slanted wood shingles, the fresh morning light of the great Paschal sun came pouring in through the window and caressed my tender cheek, waking me. Elon was gone.
I walked to the door, and on the window sill I saw a plain clay pot with nothing inside but dry dirt and a small, bare, dogwood tree. Closing my eyes, I bent down and held the vessel in my hands. I could smell the earth and touch the potter’s hands; I could feel her toil at the wheel, yet also her care and love. As I opened my eyes, dormant buds blossomed into magnificent white cross-petaled flowers, each with four symmetric dents and sanguine drops flowing to the thorned crown in the center. In mere moments, the lonely brown branches were covered in a mixture of green and white. In awe, I paused at the threshold. I took a deep breath and opened the door.
I immediately felt a powerful rush of life—beating, breathing Life. The soft rain kissed my body, gently washing away my sweat, grime, and blood. I gazed down the garden path, past the end of the redwood forest and through the meadow to where a great oak stood. As I walked down the path paved with fallen leaves and dark earth, soft moss and gentle fungi sprang from the sides of old trees. Soon, the forest floor became an open grassland, filled with pockets of violet anemones waving in the breeze. The path intersected a winding river, and so I sauntered across, carrying the dogwood above the water. The cool crystal water soothed my body, and I felt the smooth sides of ichthyic forms brushing past me as if I was one of their own. I slowly arose from the other side dripping, but happy. I processed along the path, and I breathed a delicate mix of sugar rain, pollen, and salt spray—an air thick with possibility and change. When I opened my eyes, I saw the magnificent oak tree standing proudly like a bulwark of Life just feet away. I set the dogwood down and knelt. I rubbed the earth with my hands and covered my face. I wrapped my arms around the hardened oak and cried with overwhelming joy. Turning around, I stared back across the garden path and saw our crooked house melt perfectly into the forest, with ivy embracing the wood walls and redwoods growing to support the decaying roof. I heard a sweet chirping call, and as I looked above to the dry canopy, I saw hundreds of sparrows all radiating energy and hope. I smiled, and now gazed past the oak to where the land crumbled gracefully, and the river, suspended in a waterfall, scattered into the wind. Rain clouds parted, and a rainbow dipped beneath a rocky outcrop, which stood like Golgotha and jutted out into the sea.
A young sparrow flew down onto a small, twisted dogwood branch, and he paused to admire the flowers. He turned to soliloquize before he flew off, liberated in this world and beyond. I closed my eyes, and I became that sparrow—free like the mist to drift upon the interminable horizon and sing my sweet song to all Life.
I wrote this short story (in about a day—the day the contest ended) as my entry for the Central Coast Writers annual Short Story Contest for all juniors and seniors in the greater Monterey County area. The challenge was to create a story of no more than 1500 words using the image provided (the fantasy-looking cottage shown above). I won second place with this story out of 55 submissions, and so it will also be published on the Central Coast Writers website.
If you liked my story, I encourage you to watch the video below.
Here is also some (hopefully) interesting commentary regarding my short story:
A fundamental question underlies the entirety of this story, and its answer is crucial to one’s interpretation of the work: what is the sparrow’s cage? Is the cage something indefinite in form, yet definite in existence? Or is it something definite in form, yet indefinite in existence? Is it something grand or more trivial?
From this centerpiece, a Pandora’s Box of further questions springs. Did Emmanuel survive? Was death the cage he was freed from? Was life the cage he was freed from? Is his rebirth in life or in death? What happened to Elon? How much time passed from the first part to the second part? Was becoming the sparrow at the end just Emmanuel dreaming or a physical or spiritual rebirth?
Examining the text offers potential clues as to the aforementioned questions. The story begins in medias res during a conversation between two brothers, with an ambiguous opening line: “Soon all this will be no more, and all shall be as it should.” Over the course of the ensuing dialogue, one understands that the character Emmanuel, who narrates the story, said the first line and is sick; thus, “Soon all this will be no more” references the inevitability of the death of Emmanuel’s physical body. Emmanuel’s brother Elon is clearly stubborn and frustrated, as he starts divulging his angst over the obsequious Judas, whose name both references the Biblical traitor Judas Iscariot and also translates as “praised” in Hebrew. Elon’s “fall” in life alludes to the Christian belief in the fall of man, with temptation eroding purity to spawn evil—similar to the mythological tale of Pandora’s Box, in which Pandora, driven by inexorable curiosity, opens the box that Zeus deliberately forbade and in so doing releases all the forces of evil and suffering into the world. However, Pandora also discovers the warm, tinkling light of hope—a light of salvation embodied in Christianity by Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, in the story, Emmanuel represents Christ, and Elon humanity—sinful, but repentant and determined to expiate.
The characters’ actions and reactions bolster said argument. Their names and relationships are central to understanding their personalities. “Emmanuel” is the name given to Christ as the deliverer of Judah as prophesied by Isaiah; “Elon” means “oak tree” in Hebrew. Elon is far more emotionally volatile than Emmanuel is, and he begins the story irate, sinful, and despairing. Emmanuel borrows from Matthew 5:44 to console his brother: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” urging Elon love and forgiveness over the abyss of hatred and revenge. Furthermore, while Elon works a menial job as an accountant focusing solely on personal ambition, Emmanuel works as a writer—a humble carpenter of words—who spends his resources to assist the less fortunate. Elon continues his diatribe replete with swearing to highlight his cognitive dissonance, and he eventually breaks down and repents his misdeeds in a catharsis: “I just don’t know what to do. I want to be good. I want things to be better.” The kind and loving Emmanuel accepts his brother unconditionally: “God forgives you, and so do I.” Elon’s character then shifts from passionate self-centeredness to sensitive concern for his brother, and Emmanuel once again suggests care for and service to the community as the proper medicine to rectify his disjointed life. However, just as Elon repents and expresses staunch determination to atone for his sins, Emmanuel’s sickness intensifies. Destiny—Death—closes in on Emmanuel like the night on the fading day, “with the last vestiges of golden light falling through the window.” While Emmanuel stoically accepts fate, Elon attempts to save his brother, but to no avail. Elon is an emphatic existentialist, believing in the power of free will, whereas Emmanuel realizes that his body—much like our earth—has been pushed past its limit. Emmanuel’s opening line thus serves both as an acknowledgment of the certainty of his death and as a divine plan—the world shall be righted of its wrongs, and “all shall be as it should.”
As Elon’s sense of panic intensifies, Emmanuel calmly reassures his brother that “I will be your lamb, your agnus. I will always be with you,” again with Emmanuel establishing himself as the parallel to Christ, who, as Agnus Dei (the Lamb of God), will bring salvation to a world riddled with sin, with himself as the offering. As his physical form begins to slip away, Emmanuel does not protest violently; rather, the moment is peaceful and freeing, as all of his innermost thoughts so long restrained, as embodied by the writings inside the chest, are finally released. Emmanuel’s final words to his brother corroborate this liberated atmosphere: “You are like me, a sparrow locked in his cage. But no more—after tonight, both of us are free.” In a sense, Emmanuel is opening humanity’s cage by helping his brother to realize that his life is not defined by the narrow and oft-reified “success” of twenty-first century life.
The ending of the story is itself both definite and indefinite: there is a firm resolution of kindness, love, and redemption, but the exact circumstances of the ending remain ambiguous. A key question to understanding the conclusion deals with the passage of time from the beginning to the end. A hint lies in a seemingly cursory remark by Emmanuel: “Do you see the faint full moon rising through the window?” A further indication as to the connection between the beginning and the ending is in the first line of the second part: “the fresh morning light of the great Paschal sun came pouring in through the window.” The “great Paschal sun” is the powerful, warm, morning sun. The word “Paschal” is immensely important: Paschal refers to Easter, the date of which is the first Sunday after the Paschal moon—the first full moon to rise after the vernal equinox. The first part of the story thus occurs during the evening of the Holy Saturday in the Paschal Triduum, as it coincides with the Paschal moon and the following day is the next Sunday—this day involves the Easter Vigil in commemoration of the descent of Christ into Hell, in which Jesus brought salvation to all of the righteous deceased before dying himself. The lighting of the Paschal candle—in the case of the story, the rising of the sun—symbolizes the resurrection of Christ. In that sense, the jubilant second part occurs on Easter morning, with the world reborn in the warmth and light of new Life. A key example of this shift occurs when Emmanuel holds the pot with the dry dogwood tree, and the barren stick transforms into a beautiful flower. According to legend, the dogwood was once large, strong, and tall—grander than the oak. The wood from that tree was then used to form the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. Because of its role in Christ’s death, God cursed the tree to never grow as tall or as straight as it was before, so that its wood could never be fashioned into a crucifix again; nevertheless, God also blessed the dogwood with the gift of bountiful beautiful flowers every Easter. There are four specific characteristics of the dogwood flower outlined in the myth: four petals in the shape of a cross, nail dents on each of the petals, red accents on the edge of the petals to symbolize the blood of Christ spilled during the crucifixion, and a central cluster to resemble the crown of thorns. The legend behind the dogwood thus bolsters and furthers themes previously established.
The remainder of the story mainly focuses on Emmanuel’s procession down the garden path to the edge of the sea. The soft rain acts as a baptism, cleansing Emmanuel of his “sweat, grime, and blood”—with the blood representing the sins of humanity. As he continues, Emmanuel must cross a river, where “the smooth sides of ichthyic forms brush past me as if I was one of their own.” Ichthyic, deriving from the Greek ichthus, refers to the symbol of a fish, but also to Christianity. The letters of ichthus spell an interesting phrase: Iesous Christos, Theou Uios, Soter (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior). The phrase “brush past me as if I was one of their own” is also highly important because it signifies the meshing of Emmanuel’s spirit with the fabric of the natural world. The entirety of the scene blends together in one cohesive gestalt—the forest gives way to grassland with an intersecting river, and eventually the grassland gives way to the sea. However, the scene is not sterile and stationary—it is living, breathing, and moving as one organism. Even the atmosphere—“a delicate mix of sugar rain, pollen, and salt spray”—is dynamic, signaling “possibility and change.” Even the flowers are vivacious—anemones represent the end of the cold winter and the return of the sun; they herald the hope of tomorrow despite the darkness of today. When Emmanuel finally reaches the stalwart oak tree at the end of the path looking across the horizon, he cries and hugs the tree because it is the embodiment of his brother Elon—hardened and strengthened by time, but opened by new life. That oak tree also harbors a myriad of sparrows, each representing the stored potential within all of us that lingers just beneath the surface, ready to fly if we would only believe that it could.
Emmanuel’s transfiguration into a sparrow soaring far above the earth mirrors the ascent of Christ to Heaven, thus completing his rebirth and ending the story. Matthew 10:29 sheds light on the choice of the sparrow: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” The sparrow is something so worthless, yet loved and protected. We may all feel worthless like the sparrow, but we, like the sparrow, are not measured by our material value; we are measured by what we make of what we have. Thus, even the smallest and most humble of creatures can be sources of hope and change. Even the meek lamb or the insignificant sparrow can herald divine change and embody the light of hope amongst Pandora’s demons.
Returning to the fundamental question, is then the cage the burden of life? Or is it the fear of death? Is it something of ambiguous form, yet of definite existence? Or rather is the cage something of definite form, yet of perpetual nature? Could the image of the house, as provided by the contest, be the cage, confining us and our knowledge? The entirety of the first part of the story takes place within the physical confines of the house; however, the second half enables Emmanuel—and the sparrows and Elon—to be freed with “a powerful rush of life—beating, breathing Life.” As he opens the door, Emmanuel shifts the setting from the interior to the surroundings—from the artificial, rigid domain of man to the pure, liberated domain of nature. The tension and constant presence of time in the first part disappear in the second part, which, in comparison, feels timeless and peaceful. Furthermore, Emmanuel notes the asymmetry and imperfection of the house as juxtaposed with the surrounding nature—this observation highlights the superficiality of the artifice that constitutes our “cage.” Indeed, as Emmanuel stares back across the open meadow, the house “melt[s] perfectly into the forest, with ivy embracing the wood walls and redwoods growing to support the decaying roof.” The house thus appears to have never existed, absorbed by Life.
Similarly, the second half paints life—and death—as a continuous cycle rather than a linear peak. As Emmanuel “walk[s] down the path paved with fallen leaves and dark earth, soft moss and gentle fungi springs from the sides of old trees”—natural decay is as much a part of death as it is of life. Thus life is death, and death is life—they are each two intimate halves of existence. The physical scenery embodies that fluidity, with the waterfall a metaphor for flowing life—the water starts as collected rain, then courses over boulders, meanders through meadows, and scatters into the sea and air, suspended in a mist in full view of the morning sun. Unlike Prince Hamlet’s view of death as “an undiscoveréd country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns,” this story views life and death from a transcendent point of view, where each is integral in the other’s successful functioning. But why then do we fear death? What truly lies in the darkness beyond our consciousness?
Curiosity has pervaded the human spirit and shaped our destiny since the beginning of time. The balance of timidity and curiosity is what determines the trajectory humanity takes. Too much timidity, and we never spread, diversify, or grow. Too much curiosity, and we are consumed by ambition and abandon our homes without second thought. In “The Sparrow’s Cage,” Elon is always looking to the horizon, determined to find something better and achieve. His actions and certain attributes—in terms of his burning aspiration, toxic jealousy, latent violence, and woeful depression—represent the release of vice; however, the yin of vice is complemented by the yang of hope, as manifested in Emmanuel, the sparrow, and Christ. The ambiguity and complexity of Elon and Emmanuel and their circumstances reflect human nature—we are not purely good or evil; we are a mixture of both an extraordinary capacity for altruism and for iniquity, but we are good at heart and naturally seek answers to the questions plaguing our minds. The pursuit of knowledge, as exemplified by Pandora’s Box, brings about both destruction and hope. While Pandora’s unrestrained curiosity did release strife, sickness, toil, and myriad other maladies into the world, she did release the timid sprite of hope—the very same sprite represented by the flickering candle on the nightstand. Yet still, not all is warm and light; there is something holding us all back—a cage.
The cage is a universal human burden—whatever it may be. The cage has been with us since the dawn of the human conscious. We all carry our own prisons that ensnare us in our own artificial realities. It is, thus, our perpetual struggle—as the architects of our own incarceration—to free our minds from the rigid chains of reality in order to truly thrive as individuals and as a species. It matters not what a person’s cage is; it matters what a person does to overcome that cage. For some, that cage might be life. For others, that cage might be death. For all, it is the same—fear. Only do we lose when we succumb to our cage, when we forget, in the words of climate activist Greta Thunberg, that “no one is too small to make a difference”—when we forget who we are, when we let trepidation rule our lives, and when we confine our minds to the prison of ignorance. It is then when we are truly lost. But hope—the twinkling, jovial sprite—is there for us to light our paths when we think ourselves too blind to see beyond the darkness of today to the morning of tomorrow. Emmanuel overcame his cage and became a sparrow to sing the harmony of being; the strength of his spirit channeled pure hope. Notwithstanding sin, hope will live on. Will we? So long as Elpis’s cornucopia flows with warm honeyed light and the sweet milk of possibility and pockets of violet anemones carpet fertile plains—we will.
A special thanks to Jacob Fisher—a fellow PGHS student—for providing the cover image.