THOMAS EDISON’S BLUE BIRD
Thomas Edison wanted people to live in concrete houses with concrete furniture (including pianos) and decided to get the ball rolling himself, along with pocket-watch magnate Charles Ingersoll. 12 houses were constructed. No one much liked them.
Thomas Edison looked up at the scaffolding, air heavy with ill spent time. The whole world seemed gray and it made Edison’s head hurt. He was thankful, as he was every day, for his mishandled ears. The boxing they took in his twelfth year of life allowed only the deepest of sounds to invade his brain now. It had enough in it already, Edison thought, depositing more information everyday. His eyes jumped to the house before him, boomeranging from the roof, to the windows, the front door and back again. It was a glorious sight, and no one knew it but him.
It had been such a wonderful idea. A way to ease his mind of the guilt he always felt when he passed those grimy little tenement buildings, trash coating the streets like dirty snow, washing crisscrossing as if vulgar spiders were setting up traps. Edison was going to change all that, revolutionize modern-housing with affordable fireproof, insect proof and dirt proof dwellings. A single pour concrete house any color one could desire, a gift to the world. But Edison had been repaid with silence and more silence. He only wanted something beautiful. Now he had twelve beautiful things, and not a soul living in them. He looked down at the ground and sighed.
A tiny blue bird alighted on the tree branch over his head and Edison didn’t know. It had been fifty-two years since he’d heard a bird sing. The light shifted, making shadows in the dirt, one hopping back and forth, back and forth. Edison turned his eyes up, blinking at the bird. He saw its deep, pure color and imagined what blue sounded like. Was it a flute, whistling in the air like school children playing? Or a melancholy violin, a trembling drawn out note, some dark fish moving through water? Edison allowed himself these musing when he was outdoors. Something had to make up for the chaotic silence, that flutter of sound always in his ears amounting to nothing. The bird looked back at the man, head tilted. The man’s head tilted. He smiled. School children playing. He was sure of it.
“I am sorry about all this, Tom. I didn’t know.”
Edison turned towards the blur of words. “Sorry?”
Edison shook his head at Charles Ingersoll. “I meant I didn’t catch—” He shook his head again. “You’re sorry?”
Ingersoll moved closer, chin nearly touching Edison’s ear. “It was such a beautiful idea. I thought the world would believe it, too.”
Edison nodded, looking up. “Where did the bird go?”
Ingersoll held his hand against the pale glow of the sky. “A particular one, Charles?”
“Oh, yes. Not just any bird would do.”
They watched the clouds. Ingersoll clapped Edison on the shoulder. “Might as well go inside, old man. It’s all set up.”
“The piano as well?”
“Of course. I could play something—Well,” he laughed, embarrassed. “We’ll take a look around.”
The cool, concrete walls of the parlor were a rich burgundy, spaces for pictures built in, the dark rectangles of emptiness awaiting fireplaces. Ingersoll left him for the upstairs and Edison slowly moved his feet towards the piano.
He sat on the cool smooth bench, staring down at the keys. Raising a blue veined hand, he picked out that jumble of letters, the tune his mother always played, the one he never knew he’d miss. Had he any inkling, those notes would have been imprinted on his brain before any formula or equation. His brain located the memory and set the song ringing in his ears but Edison couldn’t be sure what he remembered was ever what he had really heard. Some things just got lost.
He pressed the keys down again, but felt no familiar vibration, the one he waited for as a child sitting cross-legged on the floor, his beautiful mother’s beautiful fingers singing and smiling at him. The music was trapped up inside the concrete, Edison thought. The cold, impersonal rock that never breathed. Edison’s mouth set in a line and he collided his foot with the base of the piano, once, twice, relishing the shock of pain coursing through his legs, his chest, his heart.
“To be fair, a wooden piano would have stubbed your toe as well.” Charles Ingersoll crossed his arms, head suddenly next to Edison’s. “To be fair.”
“That is fair,” Edison nodded, holding his foot in the palm of his hand. His elbow brushed a key and leaning forward, he put his dead ear against the concrete. His mother was always blue in his mind, a trembling, dark note moving through water. “It is fair indeed, Charles.” Edison depressed the key again, fallible memories flooding through him and his silent brain, his silent world. “So little is,” he blinked, eyes deep. “So little is.”
NIKOLA TESLA’S WHITE PIGEON
Nikola Tesla was obsessed with pigeons all his life and a decade before his death, claimed to be visited by a specific white pigeon daily. He viewed the inevitable death of the pigeon as the end of himself and his work.
Nikola Tesla said pigeons spoke to him. Not all pigeons, really. Just one. One in particular. A white pigeon that visited the 33rd floor window of room 3327 in The New Yorker Hotel.
Nikola Tesla had to do everything in threes, see. Threes or numbers divisible by three, and that included the floors and rooms of hotels and everything else. He would circle a block three times, tap his fingers on his breast pocket three times, shake a hand up and down three times. When he shook hands and he never shook hands. He stroked that particular white pigeon’s wings three times, or patted its beak three times or said goodbye, goodbye, goodbye as it flew away. Because he was always so sad when it flew away. Watching that white pigeon fly away put Nikola Tesla in the dumps. Big time.
See, the pigeon, that particular pigeon, told him things. Secrets. It told him secrets like the meaning of life. Or how mothers knew their baby’s cry from all other baby’s cries. Why good things happened to bad people, why there was pain. That pigeon even gave him the key to the universe, all wrapped up in its white pigeon wings. It answered any and all the questions Nikola Tesla had. All the ones he’d been saving up since he was a little boy. Why he had visions, why his father died, why he never forgot anything and had to relive every moment over again in his sleep. He asked the pigeon to recite the Serbian poems Nikola’s mother had memorized by ear and asked it why she had never learned to read. He even asked why he, Nikola Tesla, had decided in his twenties to abandon his parents and brother and sisters and travel to Marburg, where he had never been happy. He asked questions from his recent past too, like why Thomas Edison betrayed him and why people believed Albert Einstein's every word and why Mark Twain was Tesla’s friend when no one else would be. He asked who really invented radio, he or Marconi and Nikola loved the pigeon for knowing. He asked and he asked and he asked and that pigeon told him why every time. And Nikola nodded and believed because the white pigeon was his Albert Einstein. He asked it three questions every day for nine years and got three answers every day for nine years until one day the pigeon did not appear. He looked and he looked and he looked, but the white pigeon was not there. And Nikola spent the afternoon drawing diagrams in his head, just waiting and waiting and waiting.
He waited three days. Waited and waited and waited. Three days and three nights and on the fourth day he knew. He knew. The pigeon was dead. Nikola Tesla knew deep down in his heart, in the folds of muscle that protected his soul, knew the white pigeon was dead and would never, ever, ever return. And Nikola was so sad. Sadder than he had ever been. Sadder than when he was told the meaning of life, and why his father died and why Nikola had abandoned his family. Sadder than when he held the key to the universe and knew why Mark Twain was his friend when no one else would be. Nikola Tesla was so sad he forgot to do things in threes. He sat in his chair by the window, the one he would wait in for his white pigeon to come, he sat down in that chair three inches from the wall and cried for hours and hours and when he finally looked at the clock he blinked. Once, just once. He rubbed his eyes once. Just once. He looked out the window and watched the sky and as far as Nikola was concerned it held nothing. The blue sky and the white sun and pale pink clouds, the tops of green trees, the glow of the world was nothing because he was alone with only answers. With all the answers he had ever wanted in the short time he’d existed, and now... Now there was a new question. A new question that buzzed in his brain and erased all he had wondered before and Nikola was so sad. He folded his hands and looked out at the nothing of the world, up, up, up, up at the nothing going on forever and ever and ever and ever. “Why,” he said to the nothing. “Why did you go away, now when I needed you most?” And nothing answered.
Kate LaDew received her BA in Studio Art from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She resides in Graham, NC with her cat, Charlie Chaplin.