I would like a __________ for Christmas.
With a grey marker – one of the narrow Crayola ones – I filled in the blank, before my parents could stop me, with the word Bird. They should have known it was coming. I had been obsessed with birds since I could talk. My first word might have been ‘Ky-a!’ – the name of our cat – but ‘Bird!’ probably came not too long after. My five-year-old brain, like my three-year-old brain and my seven-year-old brain, was utterly devoted to all things feathered.
The letter was duly posted to the North Pole, as I thought, and I forgot about it – Can the mind of a five-year-old really look forward to Christmas when there are jay-feathers and crow-feathers to be straightened in the here and now? Christmas morning, 1998, I didn’t even notice the absence of anything resembling a bird. There was a chunky plastic camera that would actually work if film were added, which it never was, because really, who cared? That was distracting enough. Engrossed, I turned my back on the room and the tree for a few moments – maybe more. When I turned back, there was a large rectangular object that had not been there before. It was loosely draped in a sheet of wrapping paper. And it was chirping.
I’ve probably never been more excited than I was that day. I named my new pet ‘Spotty,’ as I named everything at that time. He had a large, orange spot on each side of his yellow face – of course his name would be Spotty. One of the fish had spots too, as did the crippled monarch butterfly I had taken home. Everything, everything was named Spotty. Within hours, my arms and neck were covered in tiny white scratches from the bird’s rather sharp claws – why he didn’t simply fly away from me, his tormentor, I know not, but whatever the reason, it was months before the scratches ceased to be regularly replenished.
Eventually he ended up in one of the three bedrooms at my mother’s house, the one that would later become mine. I don’t know where he was until then; I really don’t. But eventually he had this one room all to himself. Why? Because nobody could stand the noise he made. Squeek, squeek, squeek, all the time. And we couldn’t let him within reach of the cat, either, just in case, although he had made an odd sort of peace with her (him? that cat was probably transgender) by biting her/his nose through the bars of his cage, after which point the cat never expressed any interest in what would have been its natural prey. Occasionally, when the cat was outside, we would let the bird fly around the house – but only occasionally, as it was devilishly difficult to get him back into his cage. Neglected and lonely, he became a supreme misanthropic grouch. He hated everybody, and most returned the feeling. I must have had some fondness for him, though, since my mother’s threat to give him away unless I shaped up my behavior at school was quite effective.
At some point I renamed him – Dunno. I had outgrown naming everything Spotty, and one evening I was playing with the word, Dunno, that I had just made up. Everything in the house was called Dunno just once, but it stuck, hard, to the bird previously known as Spotty. Years later, my cousin would ask me ‘Hey, didn’t you use to have another one of those, named… Spotty, or something?’ Apparently he didn’t remember about the name change – I can’t really blame him.
Everything changed not so very long after the cat died – at least, I think that must have been when. Dunno was flying about the house in one of his rare bouts of freedom, and my mother was coming in through the front door. Or possibly going out. In either case, she saw him coming and quickly slammed the door to prevent him from escaping into the wide world, where he would unquestionably die within days. Two moments later and that would have been his fate. One moment later and his head or body would have been crushed in the door and he would have died gruesomely. A moment earlier, and he might have lived out the rest of his days as unwanted, frustrated, and alone as he had been.
He spent all the next day at the veterinarian’s, and maybe the next day, too. His wing was broken – there had been blood everywhere when it had been smashed in the door, and he would have bled to death had it not been for my mother’s quick thought and quick action to slow the bleeding by applying cornstarch – and it was unclear whether it would need to be amputated. He returned from the hospital a changed bird, with both wings still attached to his body, but the broken one bound in a bright blue cast, never again to be used for flight. For as long as he wore the cast, we let him (as our only warm-blooded pet at the time) roam freely around the house. He was sooooo cute running around on the floor, chirping, with his wing all wrapped in blue, and, most amazingly, he liked us. He’d never liked anyone before, as far as I know, but once he lost the power of flight, he liked us – especially me. He usurped a human girl’s place as my best friend, he started to live in a cage with an open door, and I would kiss his little beak every night before lights-out.
As I grew up, the obsession faded, but the bond between us remained strong. My family got a dog, and Dunno moved into a closed cage and became almost like his old grouchy self, except toward me and my father. His loyalty to us (and, as always, to me especially) was unshakeable. If anyone ‘threatened’ me (though the supposed ‘threat’ was always either motherly or friendly affection), or even so much as entered the room, Dunno would attack with all his great ferocity and almost nonexistent might. But he demanded much in return: if I ignored him, or sometimes even if I paid him any attention less than holding him to my body and running my fingers through the feathers on the back of his neck, he would yell at me. As he aged, he grew ever more demanding. My brother never tried to hide his dislike for Dunno, and my mother made it fairly clear that she only tolerated him for my sake. But still, he was a part of the family and a part of me.
There were some signs that he was getting old. He was more demanding than ever, and there was that one unexplained incident when he seemed to lose control of his body. Subconsciously, I think I knew the end was nearing. I thought more often of his death, and with more dread. I thought ‘I can’t lose him’ like it was actually a possibility, which it had rarely been before. And when I returned home from vacation, on the night of New Year’s Eve, hours before 2010 became 2011, I entered the house with a sense of apprehension: the words running through my head as I approached my bedroom were ‘Horror or relief awaits me through this door.’ Still I was expecting relief, but was met with horror.
The evidence is that he had another of those mysterious attacks, this one fatal. He was on the floor, yes, but he could have gotten back to his cage. Other than a place on the other side of the room, on the lowest shelf of my bookcase, where some paper had been chewed and some feces deposited, there was no indication that he had spent any time away from his food and water supply – and even that could have happened at any time; the feces looked normal, not like those of a starving bird trying to subsist on the pages of books, and besides which, when he would up on the floor he would always go either to the door or to the rocking-chair, neither of which places had been visited. No, he had not starved. Much as I tried to blame myself, it was not my neglecting to put food and water on the floor that had killed him.
But those thoughts did not come until later. Just then, all I could do was whisper ‘No…. No….’ and pick up the little body, a few days dead, and hold it in my hands and sit on the edge of my bed and whisper ‘No…. No….’ and finally cry out, in a voice weak but unbroken, ‘Somebody. Somebody.’ My father came. He sat beside me. Only then did my lungs begin to shake and my eyes to fill with tears. And then I cried, long and hard, never letting go of the body.
The next day, my father and I made a box to hold the corpse, which would dry out and never need burial. One month later, we held a service, a ‘Powa,’ at the Buddhist prayer center my father attends. We printed some photos, including the one above, and framed them all in one frame. It sat on the altar, or the shrine, or what have you, with offerings of Cheerios, and the oaken box holding the dog-chewed remains wrapped in a shroud, and people who had never met Dunno prayed for him to be sent on to some Peaceful Land where the ground is strewn with flower-petals.
It was in about fourth grade that I had gotten it into my mind that I wanted to marry that bird. I waited, though, until I was ‘old enough’ – I figured twelve or thirteen was about old enough – and by that time I thought the idea was embarrassing and stupid. It was only more recently that I realized that I had married him, sort of, the moment I pulled back that sheet of wrapping paper. So strong was the bond, so deep the commitment. We would be together until death parted us. And so we were.
The Buddhists prayed for Dunno’s being to be sent to a blissful otherworld all too similar to Heaven, but not I. I know where bliss is for him, and it’s not in any perfect world. I held his spirit to me, to my bosom, with my fingers in the feathers at the back of his head. And there it stays, and will stay, forevermore.