The flu was enlightening. At the height of it, I was actually hallucinating, which reminded me of being young and taking all sorts of mind-bending drugs. I was trying out the holistic method, which is to let the illness burn itself out and as a byproduct kill off free radicals. By the time I stumbled over to the Motion Picture Clinic on Day 3, I was at 102 and felt considerably more lucid than the day before, when our old bird Manulita materialized and began talking to me. In my febrile state she was bright green with purple eyes, but I still knew it was Manulita.
My son named her; it was one of those charming made-up names children seize on. She was grey with little orange markings, a pointed head, and bright bright eyes. Her wings were clipped when we brought her home with special instructions on how to repeat the process (“it’s just like cutting your fingernails!” they said at the pet store, but none of us believed that line). We bought her a huge black cage that cost five times what she did, and parked her in one corner of the dining room.
I took her out first. And I remember this feeling of EEEK, it’s a claw curling around my finger, but soon it was okay. I’d stroke her little grey back and we would walk around the house together. My son, then maybe seven, did the same thing. She was quite responsive. She’d do this bird thing with her little head, bobbing it back and forth, and let out a crazy piercing shriek that seemed so big and important coming from such a tiny little thing that weighed in ounces not pounds.
A bird isn’t much of a pet, but a bird is better than no pet at all, and soon she was a member of the household.
We talked to her. We let her fly around the house. We took her back East with us one summer in a special little case we put under the seat, and there she lived in a second-hand cage we picked up at the dump.
Back in LA at the end of the summer, she began circling the horrible fixture (a combo of ye old lantern festooned with fake plastic crystals) that hung above the dining room table. My first week there, I removed the plastic crystals but when our landlord, old Bud Riley, spied on us (which he was always doing) he made me put them back.
Then, one evening, during a miraculous reprieve from the cutting room, while we were having a rare family dinner, she flew out of her cage and up to the lantern thing, and took a dump on the table below.
My son and I exchanged glances. Since I was the taller of the two back then, I got on a chair, reached up and urged the little grey creature on my finger, put her back in the cage, and shut the door.
My husband began muttering about psittacosis and other bird-transmitted plagues. But of course, as soon as my son would arrive home from school, he’d open Manulita’s cage door and once again she’d be flying around the house and shrieking.
My husband found some bird shit somewhere else.
Around this time, his mother came for her yearly visit. She left the front door open one sunny morning and Manulita flew away.
I have fond memories of my mother-in-law who was, in her way, quite a bird too. She felt, “perfectly ghastly” about leaving the door open, and offered to go with me to the pet store and get another grey thing with feathers before her grandson came home from school. I didn’t think that was such a good idea given the current power struggle. I was still hoping we were going to get out of there and find a place where we could get a dog.
We walked to the corner; my mother in law wanted some cash. When we drew closer to the machine, I heard a familiar cry. And there she was, Manulita, waiting for me at the cash machine on 20th and Wilshire. She hopped up on my finger and we walked home.
I thought this momentous finding of the bird must mean money. Why would she be waiting at the cash machine?
But as the days and weeks passed, the hoped-for windfall did not appear. What did appear was more bird shit.
It’s hard to live with a prisoner behind bars in your own house. But my husband had a point. Bird shit was unaesthetic—not to mention unhygienic—
We decided not to clip her wings but to keep her shut up in her cage. We bought her toys, we bought her snacks to hang on the side of the cage, but she didn’t like being shut up; she kept losing feathers, and she wasn’t shrieking her mad whacked-out bird cry. Clearly she was depressed.
My son turned nine. His feet were already bigger than my feet. He and my husband began to squabble in a way that was new.
One day when there was no school, after breakfast he went to Manulita’s cage, opened the door, put her on his finger and walked outside.
Manulita fluttered a little on his finger, but stayed there.
Fascinated, I stood at the open door and watched them. “You can go,” my son told her, “you have wings and you can fly away.”
She didn’t do anything at all except to flutter her wings a little. Finally he took her over to the bush in front of the living room window and put her in one of its branches.
I was afraid to go anywhere in case Manulita needed something. My son didn’t go anywhere either, but once in a while he’d go outside and check to see if she had left her perch in the bush.
Around dusk, a visiting delegation of birds arrived. One dozen, two dozen even. They seemed to know what they were doing when they surrounded Manulita and all flew away together.
My husband was really upset when he found out what happened. “How could you do that? You should have stopped him!”
Should I have?
Better free or behind bars?
Free! Definitely free. We were both outside and saw her fly away without a backward glance at Riley-ville, or at us.