During that entire spring after coming home, Bartle sleeps most of the time, noting the hour of the day by the sounds of children getting on and off the school bus. Bartle’s only activity is to go buy a case of beer every afternoon at a local store, making sure that no one sees him. Bartle feels both ashamed and scared of being seen for who he truly is, as he feels degraded. He tries to make himself as discrete as possible in his mother’s house, drinking the beer in the kitchen and watching the woods through the window.
Bartle’s growing addiction to alcohol reveals his desire to forget everything and escape the oppression of his memories and this current life in which he does not fit in. His fear of being discovered for who he is suggests that he feels like an impostor, incapable of sharing his deepest fears or weaknesses with anyone, as well as his realistic experience of the war.
Bartle finds that everything he does reminds him of Iraq. Once, when his mother asks him to repair the fence, he hears a crow caw and, thinking that the sound signals mortars falling, tries to protect himself. Afterwards, he notices his mother at the window and waves at her. Overall, he feels as though he is at the edge of a cliff and wants to fall, thinking that he cannot bear another day, yet finding that he is breathing and must go on, unable to actually fall.
If Bartle felt that he had no control over his life during the war, he soon discovers that he is in a similar situation back home, where he might have agency over his actions but cannot keep unwanted memories from emerging. His efforts to pretend that all is well only increase his solitude, as he cannot share this burden with anyone.
Bartle sometimes wakes up wishing he did not have to live. Even though he does not actually want to kill himself, he knows that if people were to become aware of his state he would have to answer uncomfortable questions. One morning, his mother comes to him with the phone, telling him that his friend Luke is going to the river the next day with friends. Bartle asks her to tell him he is too tired to talk. His mother agrees to do so but insists that Bartle at least think about going, which causes Bartle to explode, saying that all he does is think.
In the same way that Murph’s emotions overwhelmed him in Iraq, leading him to death, Bartle’s lack of control over his mental life leads him to desire death. Paradoxically, his regained liberty only turns him into a prisoner, as he cannot escape the workings of his own mind. His solitude both reflects and accentuates this, as he does not allow himself to benefit from at least temporary distractions or comfort.
Bartle gets up from bed, feeling raw pain all over his body, and walks down to a pond by the house, where he finds a place he used to go to as a child. He sees the initials J.B. carved into the barks of many trees and concludes that they must be his, even though he does not remember making them. This makes him smile. He sits down for a while, but when the heat becomes too intense, decides to walk toward the city on the train tracks.
The mental pain Bartle feels becomes physical, emphasizing that he truly is suffering from war-related wounds, even if they might remain invisible. Bartle’s detachment from his childhood memories suggests that memories are unreliable indicators of identity, since they are so fleeting and uncontrollable, unable to provide an accurate representation of all moments of life.
Unable to keep thinking about Murph, Bartle walks back to his mother’s house, puts some belongings in a duffel bag, and leaves. Although he tries to concentrate on his memories of Murph, he finds that they are unreliable, as he succeeds in recovering some memories while others fade away. He remembers a story Murph told him about a dozen canaries his father bought. When the father opened up the cages, he was surprised to find that, after singing for a little while, the birds decided to return to them instead of flying away. Going through his memories of Murph, Bartle finds that his image of his friend is fading away and turning into a permanent absence which cannot be filled, even as he misses him dearly.
Paradoxically, Bartle is forced to endure the presence of memories he does not want, and incapable of summoning those he actually does want to recall. This suggests that his own life—past and present—is largely out of his control. Murph’s story about the canaries recalls this novel’s title. The paradox that birds who are given freedom return to their formation suggests that birds, like humans, might not always thrive in free environments. In the same way the birds return to their cage without realizing it, Bartle feels trapped in his mental life as a soldier without knowing how to appreciate his own liberty.
Taking the railway tracks toward the city, Bartle feels that he is walking aimlessly and finds that he has gone far, already reaching the river, and that the sun will soon set. When he feels a train approach, he slips down at watches it pass by, looking for a place to jump on but finding none. Bartle observes the trees and the city in the distance, finally falling asleep next to a fire he makes.
Bartle wants to escape his current circumstances at all costs. However, his belief that he could achieve this through mere physical displacement—by jumping on a train, for example—is largely naïve, since it is unlikely that moving would keep his memories from torturing him. His desire to be on his own, however, reveals his desperation.
Bartle wakes up in late morning. He hears music and noise nearby and sees Luke with a group of friends. Bartle washes off in the river and walks toward the city, then back toward the river, where he finds a recently deserted campsite. He takes off his clothes, starts a fire, and enters the water. When he sees how beautiful Luke and his friends look, he wants to hate them, feeling that he has become a “cripple,” unable to express himself.
Bartle’s hatred of Luke’s physical beauty and his self-comparison to a cripple show that he is transforming his mental difficulties into physical problems, as though his psychological stress affected his body. This serves to make his troubles more tangible, giving them a concrete manifestation instead of confining them to the invisible mental realm.
In an ironic tone, Bartle concludes that it would be impossible for him to tell his friends that he feels destroyed on the inside and that he cannot stand to tell people this because everyone is always congratulating him. He also cannot say that he wants to die because he has killed people, sometimes shooting them more times than necessary, and that these actions—which he knows are wrong and he will never find absolution for—are eating away at him, even though his own mother is proud of him.
This internal monologue finally brings to light all of Bartle’s thoughts, allowing the reader to understand what is going on in his mind beyond external expressions of unease. An important reason behind Bartle’s alienation is the contrast between morality and social acceptance: although Bartle feels that what he has done is morally wrong, people’s dogged belief that war is noble keeps him from confessing his true feelings.
Bartle adds that he failed to protect the one person he had promised to keep safe, and that he saw death so often that he became inured to it, to the point of only feeling sad for dead animals. By contrast, everyone is so happy to celebrate him, even though he is a murderer and should bear some responsibility for the horrors committed in Iraq. He feels that he wants to burn the country down and destroy all the yellow ribbons, even though he knows that joining the military was his own decision—one he made simply because he wanted to become a man, which will never happen now, because he has proven that he is a coward who only wants to die.
Bartle’s guilt about failing to protect Murph’s life shows that he is still trying to feel a sense of control over something that he cannot fully accept as inherently disordered and uncontrollable: war and death. It is the contrast between the elements over which he does have control (e.g., joining the military, promising to keep Murph safe) and his current state of unhappiness, based on what he could not control, that confuses him most. His illusion of control proves harmful and dangerous, because it makes him feel responsible for everything that happened and thus turns his hatred, confusion, and rage toward his own self.
Night falls. Walking in the river, Bartle starts to cry and lets himself float on the current, as he watches the moon and begins to fall asleep. He wakes up abruptly to the sound of people yelling to get him out and pushing on his chest for him to spit water out. Luke had called 911 when he saw Bartle floating on the river. When the police arrived, they did not make Bartle take a psychological test because of his military background. Instead, they take him home and try to give him encouraging words about getting better soon.
Bartle’s drift down the river recalls Murph’s dead body’s traveling down the Tigris in Iraq, thus associating Bartle’s current mind state with Murph’s tragic ending and suggesting that Bartle might feel suicidal. Luke’s concern for his friend reveals that Bartle is not as alone as he believes to be, and could perhaps rely on his friends more if he wanted to. The police’s failure to test Bartle psychologically reveals, once more, the lack of adequate professional care from which Bartle benefits, since his military past keeps him from expressing his mental troubles and receiving help.
When Bartle’s mother sees him walk through the door, she grabs his face, saying she thought she had lost him, to which Bartle replies that he is fine. She says she is worried about him and adds that she has been getting calls from a captain from the Criminal Investigation Division (C.I.D.). At these words, Bartle goes to his room and closes the door, hearing his mother ask him repeatedly what happened in Iraq. Bartle feels this is an unanswerable question, because there is no way to give meaning to what happened.
Bartle’s mother’s concern is both heartwarming and frustrating, since she does not actually understand what her son is going through—and Bartle does not want to explain anything. The C.I.D.’s criminal investigation, evaluating a specific deed, contrasts with Bartle’s feeling that the war in general is criminal, makes little rational sense, and that no one can ever be fully responsible for the horrors that it breeds.