My grip on her finger tightened as I glared at the cardinals on the other side of the screen door. She let out a clicking hiss and dropped her hand in pain. I spread my wings to keep my balance.
“Dammit, Sam. Your nails are like needles,” the Matriarch said. I loosened my grasp.
It was her fault. She kept forgetting to trim them. Up to that point, I’d always been proud of my small claws. It was impossible to take pride in them now: pink, scaled cockatiel feet with milky white nails growing at odd angles.
I looked back up at the Matriarch. She was hypnotized by the twitching tail-feathers shaking around in what she called a “birdbath.” Her eyes were red and watery.
She’d been up all night again, hunched over that machine, the one with the metal fingers that slapped sheets of paper until they bled black. Every now and then, it dinged like the microwave. Between all the paper and this new watering hole for low-lives, I figured I was replaced. Maybe she thought I was going to croak soon?
“See the birdies?” the Matriarch asked, her breath tickling the orange down over my left ear.
I twisted my neck back and forth, from the cardinals to her half-open mouth, wondering what made these cashew-brained pixies so appealing.
A heavy breath from the sky came in and the cardinals scattered. The wind pushed against my yellow crest. I wanted to embrace this provocative substance. I spread out my wings to capture it.
“Look at those big wings. We’ll have to trim those down soon, won’t we?” the Matriarch asked.
I nodded. With every bob of my head, the wind revealed different options. As the sheet went over my birdcage that night, I dreamed of leaving the Matriarch to her new life.
The next day, to put ideas of escape out of my head, at least long enough to come back to them with some sense, a calm state of mind, I went to the water bowl more often, batted at a rope toy, pecked at my mirror hung from a tarnished chain. I loved the way it rang against the bars.
The Matriarch was at the kitchen table with a friend, talking over what the Matriarch kept calling last night’s “massacre of pages,” passing them back and forth. I climbed the bars of my birdcage, mimicking their chatter and stopping between breaths to emulate the crackle of the paper. They both laughed at my impression.
The Matriarch leaned over and informed the guest my “mental acuity was equivalent to a five-year-old’s, or maybe a dolphin’s.” Shocked, I scaled down my bars and went back to my mirror. I stared at my eleven-year-old plumage, at the orange circles around my ears and the frazzled grays along my back. Maybe she wasn’t too far off the mark.
“Hey, Sam. Why don’t we let you get some exercise, huh?” the guest said to my back.
I turned to face her. She had deeper dimples than the Matriarch and wider gaps in her teeth.
The guest moved me to my multicolored jungle gym. I paced back and forth on the highest peg, knowing she would soon leave. The door would be wide open.
When the moment came, and the birdbath sat in the sun only several wing flaps away, I froze like a taxidermy chicken. The door closed and the years rushed in on me.
I squawked and hissed. I leaped off the jungle gym and into the air. The years I spent as a glorified, fluffy clown cracking preconceived jokes. I flew across the room and began flogging the bars of my birdcage from the outside. After a few seconds, I fluttered to the ground, out of breath. The Matriarch rushed over to investigate.
“You okay buddy? I guess you want back in.”
She put her finger to my stomach, the signal to climb on. Leaning to my right, I raised my left claw and obeyed. When she put me back behind the bars, I turned my back to her and hopped onto my bird-swing.
Three days later, the Matriarch was hosting a party, as she did every summer on that date. I could always define the special day by the arrival of her little relatives, armed with big eyes and chubby fingers. They loved poking at me through the bars. This year, one of the boys had grown tall enough and bold enough to open my birdcage and reach all the way in.
I would have sunk my beak into his sweaty palm, but a visitor in a rolling chair neared the back door. The Matriarch held the door aloft so the guest could pass. I launched into the air, shooting out over the shoulder of the chubby fingered boy. It was more reflex than courage.
The wind greeted me as the Matriarch shouted curses below. Her fingers snapped at my rising claws. I swerved into the path of a giant gray haired man carrying a plate of cooked cow loins. The stinking slabs of meat and brown sauce fell to the ground as he reached for me. I pulled my wings down with more force, and muscles I was unaware of flexed in my chest. I wrestled with my nausea and fought for altitude. I carried on.
I felt breezes mold and flex my white and yellow primary flight feathers for hours. Then nightfall came with glowing insects below me. Then stone pillars, paved streets, and songs blasting out of great dens of half-naked humans. I perched on the shoulder of a man frozen in copper and watched as everything grew too large. I left him for this tree. The lattice work of branches reminds me of the bars back home.
Behind these lines tangling up my view, red, white, and blue flares are painting murals across the night. I can hear sonic booms in the air. Perhaps a battalion of fighter jets scours the skies for me as I mouth words to myself in the dark.
I whistle my favorite song, because the explosions are softening and it’s getting too quiet.
“The Andy Griffith Show!” I say, ending the tune just like the Matriarch taught me.
There are no applause, no neck rubs, and no crunchy corn chips from my blank audience. The pigeons are staring at me like I’ve got three eyeballs.
I wonder if their Matriarchs threw search lights into the sky?
I wonder if they used to know songs?
I wonder how long it’ll take to forget mine. I whistle until the morning.
The morning comes and my throat aches. I watch humans jog below my branch with wires in their ears. Where in the world can I go and not be ignored?