Short Story: Life With Bird

Fine. It was fine.

It was fine when Mark was awakened by kissy noises — the sound of lips pursed and relaxed rapidly several times, followed by one long drawn-out inhale, a sort of raspberry in reverse — even though the sounds were made with no lips at all. But it wasn’t fine when he cracked open one eye to see another eye, round, lidless, a black hole in a white disc, hovering inches from his own: so close it seemed no more than a spot of dirt on his lens, as if he could blink and clear that nightmarish darkness from his vision.

The kissy noises repeated, like the sound of eggs being whisked, and then the outstretched one — pulling milkshake through a straw — this time culminated in a low two-note whistle, and then a noise that Mark had always described as a scrawk, which sounded a little like the onset of an old man’s laugh and a little like a chair being dragged across a linoleum floor. The noises came from just to the left of the eye floating in his sleep-blurred vision, the eye without expression, without emotion, without humanity.

Mark closed his eye and turned his head sideways on the pillow.

A sharp pinch skewered his earlobe, stabbing through to his brain, bursting the bubble of sleep. “Ow!” Mark hollered, his tongue heavy, his face half-smothered in pillow and sleep. “Geddoff! Ow!” He managed to drag one hand out of the quicksand of slumber and flail it once over his head, covering his offended ear with his arm.

There was a flapping noise and then clawed feet stepped up his wrist to his forearm, perching triumphantly on his bent elbow, currently the highest point on his body. Another pinch, lighter this time, on the less-sensitive skin of his upper arm; another scrawk.

Sleep fled at last. Mark opened his eyes, blinked, sighed, smacked his lips and swallowed. The kissy noises once again, and the two-note whistle: and now Mark smiled. He lifted his arm slowly, contorting his shoulder as he swung the limb without rotating his elbow downward; he could reach just far enough that if he craned his head back and around, he could see all of the large white bird that gripped his arm with its dark blue talons.

“G’morning, Merlin,” he said; he tried to whistle — failed — licked his lips with a dry tongue and managed half a note that turned to a hiss. Merlin bobbed his head up and down, his yellow crest lifting, and whistled the opening bars of “The Old Grey Mare,” his favorite tune. He walked up Mark’s arm to his shoulder, where the bird normally spent most of his day; but with Mark reclining, Merlin could not find purchase; so he continued up onto Mark’s head. Another whistle, more kissing, and then Merlin bit Mark’s ear again.

“Ow, goddammit, bird,” Mark shouted hoarsely and sat up quickly, trying to dislodge the bird from his head. Merlin flapped his wings as he lost his balance and then clutched with his talons; he hung on despite Mark’s sudden movement. Then he took a grip on Mark’s ear with his beak: like a grandmother threatening a disobedient child. Mark froze. “All right, okay, calm down,” he said, patting the air with one hand, his voice and movements slow, placating. He tilted his head slowly to the side, his non-hostage ear flat on his shoulder, so that Merlin would have a place to stand; then Mark swiveled his legs off the side of the bed and stood slowly. His neck was cramping and his scalp itched fiercely under the heavy talons, but he cleared his throat, wet his lips, and whistled the theme from The X-Files: one of Merlin’s preferred melodies.

It worked. Merlin let go of Mark’s earlobe, whistling the same six notes back to Mark. Then he crab-walked down Mark’s neck to his shoulder. Mark lifted his head with a grunt, and put his left hand on his right shoulder; Merlin stepped onto the back of his hand, and Mark lifted him and held him where he could glare at the bird through narrowed eyes.

“We’re going to have to practice your wake-up call manners.”

Merlin clicked and whistled a tune that only he knew, ending with a loud scrawk. He walked up Mark’s arm to his shoulder again. Mark sighed. “Right, got it. I’m not allowed to lecture you. Fine.” He turned and headed to the bathroom, Merlin riding on his shoulder as he stood before the toilet and peed. He left the door open; there was no one else in the apartment, after all.

***

Mark sipped his well-sugared coffee, savoring the hot sweetness on his tongue, then blowing air out in a sigh. Merlin hissed, his crest rising; he didn’t like that noise. “Right, sorry,” Mark said. He reached up with his finger curled, offering to scratch the back of Merlin’s neck. Merlin bit him. “Ow. Okay, fine, no scritchy.” Mark took another sip of coffee and then breathed out through his nose.

“What shall we have for breakfast?” He gathered a plate of food for Merlin — nuts, some slices of fruit, a pile of oil-black sunflower seeds, some leaves of Romaine lettuce washed, dried, and julienned so Merlin could eat them easily — and then he threw two slices of bread in the toaster for himself. He held bits of food up to Merlin as he prepared the plate, arranging the elements neatly, adding a dish of fresh water in the middle, and then carried Merlin and his breakfast to the table, setting him down at the head. He buttered his toast, and then sat at the foot — he had to sit at a distance, or Merlin would take his toast right out of his hand. Out of Mark’s mouth, if he could reach.

“So what are we going to do today, bird o’ mine?” Mark asked. Merlin grabbed a piece of apple and chewed through the meat, then dropped it and dug into the sunflower seeds, scattering them across the plate. The lettuce was ignored after a desultory inspection and despite Mark’s admonishment that he needed to eat more greens. Merlin turned his head to the side and fixed his gaze on Mark as he cracked black sunflower seeds with his black beak.

Mark considered his audience. “Well, I don’t have that much work to do, but I should still check in.. We can go to the cafe for that.” Merlin’s crest rose and he bobbed his head; the internet cafe was approved. “Oh,” Mark said as he remembered, “I need to do laundry, too.”

Merlin dropped the seed that was in his beak. He rose up, his feathers ruffling and his crest standing straight up. “No!” the bird said clearly, his voice like Mark’s but an octave higher. He tossed his head to one side and then the other, his beak snapping shut; Mark was absurdly reminded of movie-cliche gangbangers with their guns held sideways. “No!” the bird said again.

Mark put down his coffee cup. “I know, I know — you don’t like the noises in the laundromat. But I have to do — I’m running out of clothes and –”

Merlin cut him off with a loud scrawk; he unfurled his wings and flapped sharply three times, budging not an inch from the tabletop, throwing air in Mark’s face. “No!” he said a third time, and clacked his beak shut.

“Merlin,” Mark started to say.

Merlin lowered his head, his beak open, and with his wings held out to the sides, he advanced on Mark, crossing the table in a rapid but clumsy waddle. Mark sat back in his chair, holding his hands up in surrender — and to keep his fingers far away from that snapping beak, which could splinter a two-by-four. Or a fingerbone. “Okay, okay — no laundromat. No laundry. You win, Merlin.”

Merlin stood tall on Mark’s plate, one foot atop the last crust of toast. He flapped his wings, the feathers brushing across Mark’s face; Mark turned away, closing his eyes. The cockatoo squawked loudly once more as Mark ducked, holding his wings spread wide, his crest bristled. Mark peeked up through one eye, his head held low. “Sorry,” he said quietly. The bird folded his wings and lowered his crest. Mark slowly extended his hand, and Merlin stepped onto it, digging in momentarily with his talons. “Let’s go take a shower,” Mark said, rising. “Then we’ll go to the cafe.”

Merlin whistled and made a kissy noise.

***

Mark ran his face under the shower spray one last time, and then shut off the water. He rubbed one eye clear, opened it and looked up to where Merlin was sitting on the shower curtain rod; he carefully slid the curtain halfway open without disturbing the bird’s perch and reached for a towel. Merlin’s whistling alternated between random notes and snatches of his favorite tunes — a few notes of The Addams Family theme led to a chorus of “La Cucaracha” into “My Darling Clementine” — he really loved the “Oh my Darling” part. Mark rubbed the towel vigorously over his head, frizzing his hair out; when he looked up, Merlin shook his feathers out to match. Mark reached up, took the bird onto his hand, and transferred him to the vanity. Then he filled the basin to shave, while Merlin preened beside him. The bird’s crest popped up as Mark filled his hand with shaving cream; he dabbed a gobbet on the countertop, and Merlin toyed with it while Mark shaved around his smile.

When they were finished with the shaving cream, he walked in his boxers into the closet and came out with two shirts. He moved to the bathroom doorway and presented the options to both the mirror and the much harsher judge beside it. “Which one?” he asked. The first, a comfortable plaid, seemed too drab; but the second, a silk-blend bowling shirt with electric blue dragons across the front and back, brought a scrawk. “No?” he asked, turning to Merlin, his tone disappointed. The bird lowered his head and turned to the side, flapping his wings twice. He reached out with one foot, talons outstretched like a black-lacquered starfish.

Mark looked down at the shirt held against his chest. “Really? We don’t like this one?” He frowned at the mirror, and at the bird beside it. Merlin shook his head again, clicked his beak and his talons against the countertop, one-two, one-two.

“Ah!” Mark rolled his eyes up with a nod. “Right — I forgot.” He turned and went back to the closet, where he hung the blue dragon shirt back on the bar. He pulled the plaid off its hanger, pulled it up his arms and buttoned it. He pulled the silk shirt to him, running the material between thumb and forefinger. “I forgot you have trouble holding onto this silk.” He pulled the shirt out farther, looked at the dragons. “I should just get rid of this.” He ran his hand down the shirt, over the dragons; he pushed it back into line with the others. He straightened the plaid, buttoned the cuffs, and went to get Merlin.

“Let’s go, buddy.”

Merlin shook his feathers out once more, tightened his grip on Mark’s plaid shoulder, and started whistling “Side By Side.” Mark joined in as he grabbed his laptop, keys, and wallet.

Oh, we ain’t got a barrel of money,
Maybe we’re ragged and funny,
But we travel along, singin’ a song,
Side by side!

***

“Hi,” Mark returned the coffee clerk’s greeting with a smile, ignoring the look of glazed semi-panic in the man’s eyes as Merlin stood tall and stretched up his feathery crown. “I’d like a — a Cafe Americano, please.” If this had been a workday, he would have ordered something more high-octane than a single shot of espresso in hot water, but it was Saturday, and he was here mostly for the outing. It would be bad if he and Merlin stayed shut up inside all the time, buried indoors as if underground; he sometimes felt like he was growing roots and bark, subsiding into his couch, his bed, the walls of his apartment. Perhaps he would stay so still he would crystallize, he thought; the atoms and molecules of his body aligning perfectly and freezing in place, ordered, structured, permanent.

Yeah: he needed to get out more.

“And a scone, please,” he added. Merlin scrawked, lifted a foot and hooked one black talon — gently, for now — in the cup of Mark’s ear. “Right — sorry, Merl, sorry — scone with almonds, please. Lots of almonds.” The clerk changed his target, reaching for a scone coated with pearl-colored slivers. He put it on a plate on top of the glass counter, and the talon was removed from Mark’s ear. Mark breathed a sigh of relief, and Merlin cluck-chuckled — a positive sign. Mark slid his credit card through the reader and picked up Merlin’s scone. He glanced to his side, and saw that Merlin was grooming the talon that had just been in Mark’s ear; watching him, Mark was reminded of a muscled bully kissing his own biceps. “Nice guns,” he said drily. “Here’s your scone. Your almond scone.” Merlin met his gaze, fluffed his feathers and gripped Mark’s shoulder. Mark made his way to the table by the window and sat, facing out so Merlin could see the street outside. He opened his laptop, and Merlin walked down his arm to the tabletop and went to work on the almond scone. The waitress brought Mark’s Americano, and Mark thanked her absentmindedly as he logged on to his webmail. Merlin also said, “Thanks!” and the waitress blinked and then left without a word.

Three emails-and-responses later, Mark heard a voice say, “Oh, what a pretty bird!” He and Merlin both looked up, Merlin’s crest rising. Mark felt the blood rising to his cheeks when he saw the woman standing by the table; he had an absurd moment when he wanted to say, “No, you’re the pretty bird,” but thankfully, he bit the words off of his tongue, chewed them up, and spat out only, “Thanks.”

The woman — who was a very pretty bird — smiled and reached out a hand to Merlin, moving too quickly for Mark to say, “Be careful, he bites,” or “Please don’t touch his wings, they are delicate.” Or even, “Will you please keep your hands off of my bird? Why does everyone think they have the right to pick him up, or pet him or poke him? Because he’s small? Because he’s soft? Damned arrogant humans.” He watched, opening his mouth to speak and then closing it again, as the woman did — just the right thing: she held her hand out, palm down, fingers curled in; you could hold out a single finger to a smaller bird, but a parrot Merlin’s size wouldn’t see a perch, he’d see a chew-toy. Then the woman made a kissy noise, and Merlin tilted his head and then offered his usual greeting, a scrawk followed by a two-note whistle. Mark had taught it to him, along with his name, when he and Merlin first started living together; the scrawk-whistle was the standard parrot noise from the old Looney Tunes and the like, and Mark thought it sounded piratey. And parroty.

Then he had stopped teaching Merlin tricks. A parrot like Merlin has the intelligence of a four- or five-year-old human child; you don’t teach children tricks. You talk to them, and then listen to what they have to say.

The woman laughed when she heard Merlin’s scrawk-whistle. Mark and Merlin both drew back slightly: it was a terrible laugh, loud and high and false, as if she had decided to simply say the words “Ha! Ha!” Too bad, Mark thought. She is pretty. But then he decided she should have another chance; maybe she was nervous. Walking up to a stranger in a cafe, I would be, he thought. So he said, “Go on, Merlin.” Merlin glanced to him, then reached up a foot and stepped onto the woman’s hand, walking up to her wrist.

“Wow, he’s so light!” she said. She lifted her hand and Merlin to the level of her head, but slowly, so Merlin didn’t get startled; and she didn’t put her face within biting range. Mark was impressed. “Does he talk?” she asked.

Mark opened his mouth to give his usual answer — Only if he has something to say — when the woman, who had been doing so well, took a running start and leapt off the cliff. She bugged her eyes out, pooched out her lips, and said, “Does pitty-bird-ums talkie-talkie? Does oo wike to talk? Yes you do! Yes you do!” This last was delivered with a side-to-side head wiggle, her nose thrust right up to Merlin’s beak; and she lifted her other hand and ruffled it through Merlin’s crest, bending the proud golden feathers as if they were fur.

Merlin reacted the only way he could, the way anybody would in similar circumstances. He bit the ruffling hand, and shat on the perching hand.

Thankfully, Merlin hadn’t broken the skin, and so Mark wouldn’t have to pay for an emergency room visit; merely for the round of free coffee he offered the other patrons as apology after the shrieking woman had launched the large white-and-gold parrot off of her hand and into the air, said parrot then completing three full circuits of the room, flying inelegantly but determinedly, before coming to a landing on the shoulder of a petrified grandmotherly woman who sat stock still, head turned just enough to lock gazes with Merlin, who kept fluffing his feathers, flexing his talons, and flapping his wings while he eyeballed his elderly perch. She stared right back, neither of them blinking, the woman appearing not to breathe. But she also wasn’t screaming, as was the baby-talk woman behind him, so that was an improvement. Mark, hurrying over to rescue — well, one of them, anyway — filled in the dialogue mentally, giving Merlin (who usually sounded a bit like Sir Ian McKellen’s Gandalf in Mark’s mind) a touch of Travis Bickle: You lookin’ at me? You wanna start somethin’? You make the move, Grandma. It’s your move.

“Come here, tough guy,” Mark said, reaching out a hand for Merlin to step onto. “Just hold still and he won’t bite,” Mark said to the woman, followed by “Sorry about this.” Mark would say that several more times in the next few minutes. Merlin wouldn’t say it once. Neither would Ms. Babytalk.

“Oh, not at all,” the woman said, her mouth the only part of her to move. “I just hope she didn’t hurt Merlin’s lovely head-feathers.”

Mark’s gaze whipped from bird to woman; she glanced back at him and smiled. Behind Mark, the shrieks continued, alternating between disgust and shock as the babytalk woman examined one hand for blood and the other for remaining smears of birdshit.

“I come here quite often,” Merlin’s perch said to Mark. “As often as the two of you. I have frequently admired Merlin — and your relationship with him. Much more than a master and his pet.” She turned her head slightly, facing Merlin more squarely; Merlin was calming, now, though he would lift his crest and open his beak each time the shrieking woman hit her high note of “Oh my GOD!” above middle C. The elderly woman smiled at the parrot. “In fact,” she said, with another quick glance at Mark, “Why don’t we just let Merlin collect himself here with me, while you handle that train wreck over there?”

Relief swept over Mark. He had been thinking he could take the bird and run, since he couldn’t go back to soothe the shrieking woman while Merlin sat on his shoulder, hissing and clacking his beak; nor could he leave Merlin alone, as the outraged parrot would show the woman what real shrieking sounded like, were Mark to ignore him in his moment of need: humans could neither compete with nor comprehend the volume and piercing tone that an affronted parrot could reach, and then sustain indefinitely. Mark had been trying to decide if he could sacrifice his laptop in the name of just getting out of there: the door was close by, and he could find another cafe.

But now, another option. Merlin was definitely calming; as Mark drew his hand back slowly, Merlin fluffed his feathers once more, and then commenced grooming. Mark sighed in relief. He smiled at the kind woman. “That would be wonderful. Thank you. Just don’t — ”

“Touch him. I know,” the woman finished. Then she spoke to Merlin. “We’ll just sit here and groom, all right? I’m sorry I don’t have any food for you. Such a handsome bird.” She spoke in her normal tone, perhaps a little softer and lower, soothing the recently jangled parrot. The woman’s gaze flicked back to Mark. “Go on. Make her be quiet. Please.”

“Thanks,” Mark whispered, and then turned to deal with Merlin’s victim. He always carried antiseptic wet wipes, naturally, and the woman deigned to accept his sincere-sounding apology, allowing Mark to clean and inspect her hands before she flounced off to the ladies’ room to wash once more. Mark apologized to all of the disturbed patrons and handed his credit card to the clerk, saying, “Another round for everyone, on me.” He grabbed up his laptop and the rest of Merlin’s scone, downing the last of his own Americano in three hurried gulps.

When he returned to Merlin and Merlin’s new friend, he reached out once more for the bird; again the woman stopped him, this time with a shake of her head. “You can’t leave yet. You’re going to need to apologize again, and give her your business card and offer to pay for anything she needs. Keep it vague; don’t give her ideas. I doubt she’ll have any of her own.”

“But he didn’t even break the skin!” Mark said in outrage.

The woman fixed her gaze on him. “If you don’t offer, she will decide you owe it to her, and she will come after you. Offer it, and it will be charity: beneath her dignity to accept.”

Mark blinked, and blinked again, and then put down the laptop and the scone. The woman said. “Ah!” and reached slowly across the table for the scone, which she slid close to Merlin; she put her hand on the table near the plate, and Merlin took his cue: he shuffled down her arm to the tabletop, shook himself vigorously, and then started nibbling almonds.

“Thank you. Again. I don’t know what I can do to –”

The woman waved her hand, shook her head. “It’s all right. I’m a grandmother, I know. It takes a village, they say.”

“Can I buy you more coffee? For the next month or so?”

She shook her head at the offer. “No, that’s fine. But,” her eyes sparkled, and when she smiled, Mark saw a dimple. “I have a daughter. Who is a single mother. How do you feel about human children?”

Mark blinked. Then he smiled.

Then he turned to apologize profusely and give his business card to the pretty woman, now turned into sour-faced-outraged woman. Fortunately, she thought he was trying to pick up on her, and she laughed her terrible laugh and threw the card back at him before storming out of the cafe. Remembering what Merlin’s new friend — and Mark’s new matchmaker? — had said, he picked the card up and brought it to the clerk, trading it for his credit card (which somehow seemed lighter, now) and murmuring that the woman should contact him if she came back for any reason. Then he hurried back to his friend, and their new acquaintance.

***

“Merlin! I’m home!”

From the living room came the “Rawwwk!” and the two-tone whistle, followed by Merlin himself, waddling his ungainly way across the floor; when he saw Mark, he raised his crest and tossed his head, the bird-greeting that always reminded Mark of bros saying “‘Sup, bro? ‘Sup?” Mark often thought that he should teach Merlin to say “What’s up, Doc?” but he knew that once he taught it to the bird, that was that: it would never be forgotten, it would be frequently repeated at odd times, it would be repeated over and over and over again. And Merlin could expect to live as long as Mark did. A parrot’s speech was a dangerous weapon.

But all that mattered now was that he was home, and Merlin was glad to see him. He shoved the door shut with his heel, dropped his keys on the counter, and bent down to pick Merlin up. Merlin stepped onto his hand as soon as it was in reach, and made kissy noises as Mark lifted him up to his shoulder and deposited him there. “Okay — let’s get a tray and see what’s on.”

Soon Mark was ensconced on his couch with a beer in one hand and the remote in the other, food spread on an oversized TV tray in front of him — oversized to give room for Merlin to stand on the edge, eying Mark’s food. Mark settled on a Simpsons repeat as Merlin ducked his head and tasted the main course.

“Oh, Merl, you gotta hear this,” Mark began with relish. “So I go into the Boston Market, right? And there was nobody in line, so I go straight up to the counter and order.” Mark paused, cut a forkful of food away from the rest and scooped it into his mouth; he continued talking as he chewed and swallowed, while he maneuvered a green bean onto his fork and offered it to Merlin. The bird took it with his beak and then held it with one foot while nibbling delicately at the end. “And since I didn’t have time to think about it, I just rattled of the usual — quarter chicken dinner with sides and cornbread.”

Mark took another bite, then wiped his mouth and put down his fork so he could concentrate on his story. Merlin listened attentively, one eye locked on Mark, snacking on his green bean. “So the clerk is this Millennial dude, right? I mean, Bieber-hair, gauges in his ears, skinny jeans, the whole bit. And when I order the chicken, he kind of stares at me, and then he goes,” Mark dropped his voice, speaking slow and low through his nose, as if speech were a terrible burden; his eyes closed half-way and his shoulders slumped under the weight of inertia: “‘Heyyy, aren’t you the guy who, like, carries around that bird or whatever?'”

Merlin’s crest went up, he scrawked, and then he shook his head.

“I know!” Mark crowed with a laugh. “You’re a whatever, Merl!” He scratched the bird on the breast, Merlin gently biting his fingers in reciprocation. Then he continued the story. “So I said, ‘Yeah, that’s me — Merlin’s waiting at home, and he’s hungry!’ Here, give me that — take this.” He eased the stub of green bean out of Merlin’s grip and replaced it with a corner broken off of the square of cornbread. Merlin said, “Mmmm!” like someone who smells dinner cooking and attacked the cornbread, scattering crumbs everywhere, getting perhaps one in four down his throat.

“And the kid flares his eyes at me, right? Like he’s shocked that I don’t see the point he hasn’t even come close to making. So I just wait, and finally he says, ‘You can’t eat chicken in front of a bird. That’s, like, cannibalism or something.'” Mark paused, widening his eyes at Merlin for effect. Merlin put down his foot, now empty of all but a few crumbs sticking to his talons, and tipped his head to one side, exactly as if he were saying, “Are you kidding me?”

“I know!” Mark laughed again. “So listen, so I wait a beat, right? Just kind of hoping that the light will dawn on Marblehead and he’ll recognize the idiocy of that statement. But nothing. I mean he doesn’t move at all, just stands there with his eyes all outraged and his mouth hanging open like a Neanderthal with Bieber hair and ear gauges. So finally I say, ‘Well, you’re half right: I can’t just eat chicken in front of him.’ Then I lean close and whisper, ‘I have to share.'”

Mark burst out laughing, slapping the TV tray with an open palm. Merlin joined in, cackling like a cross between Mark and the Wicked Witch of the West. The noise made Mark laugh harder, and Merlin began to bob his head, yo-yoing it up and down farther than would seem possible, an action which always broke Mark up. Soon Mark was snorting in between giggles, which might have been Merlin’s goal: because the bird imitated the noise perfectly, which kept Mark laughing until tears rolled down his cheeks.

When he was in control of himself again, he tore off the drumstick and handed it to Merlin, after stealing a healthy bite for himself. Merlin grabbed it avidly and began tearing off bites and swallowing them; this — one of his favorite foods — he ate neatly. “Sorry I didn’t get it no-salt. Ah, it’ll be fine, right? We’ll eat in for a couple of nights. Oatmeal.”

Merlin raised his head and his crest and stared at Mark.

Marl laughed. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding. Enjoy your chicken. Cannibal.”

***

Mark lay his arm across the back of the sofa. His gaze traveled in the direction of the TV screen, and through and beyond, into the dark, twisting maze of the future.

“What do you think, Merlin? Should I call this woman, the daughter of that nice lady in the cafe?”

Merlin dipped his head, rolled the chicken bone against the tray, dug at a bit of meat he might have missed: but his gaze stayed on Mark.

The man pursed his lips, took a sip of beer. “It would be nice to have some company. Especially of the feminine persuasion.”

The bird scrawked softly, then walked over to the plate and flipped through the remaining scraps of food with his beak. Finding nothing — and having no contribution to make to the man’s ponderings — he lifted a wing and began to clean his feathers.

“Naomi. It’s a nice name.” Mark’s gaze came back from the far reaches, and roamed over his world: the apartment, small and dark and cozy and filled with his life; his companion, with his bright and unpredictable mind, his magical ability to communicate: what Merlin said was so clear, if only one listened. Could he bring another person into that world? This particular person was also a mother — so two people. “How do we feel about kids? Do you even like kids, Merlin?”

Merlin, curled into himself and away from the world, did not respond.

Mark would have to think about it. Romance, if it could come from this, would be wonderful — but really, he wasn’t lonely. He wasn’t alone.

So maybe there was no rush. Mark finished his beer and stood, picking up the dinner dishes in his other hand, leaving the tray for Merlin to perch on while he groomed.

***

When the Simpsons episode ended, Mark flipped channels until he landed on a Bollywood musical which made Merlin’s crest shoot upright: the cockatoo loved pageantry and melodrama, and singing and dancing. They had a treat: Bailey’s in milk for Mark, a millet spray for Merlin. Then, when it was time for bed, Mark set up Merlin’s perch, right by his side of the queen-sized bed, and reached out a tender hand to scratch under Merlin’s feathers while Merlin cooed and clucked softly, nipping at Mark’s hand as he tossed his head this way and that, moving the scratching to the left and right and everywhere he could, his eyes closed in bliss.

“Good night, you little feathered weirdo.” Mark lay back on his pillow and turned out the light; though he kept a small nightlight on so it wouldn’t be pitch black — Merlin was afraid of the dark.

From the perch by his side, a small voice said, “Good night.”

Mark fell asleep with a smile.

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