Alain hunched his shoulders against the late October wind. He had failed the science test. A first. But what did he expect? He was in seventh grade, now; he had to study to get good grades. Yet, he let it slide until the…
A rustle from a maple tree turned his head. He saw a flash of fluorescence behind the plume of red and dirty-gold foliage. It flew into a hedge near a parked Elantra. Alain was running before his eyes saw the hawk. Waving his arms, shouting. The Red-tailed Hawk followed the same trajectory as the fluorescent flash, arriving at the hedge a stride, or a flap, before Alain.
Alain was close enough to hit the Hawk – or have an eye gouged by a talon – when the great bird rose away from the hedge leaving his prize on the ground, wounded.
Alain knelt, his cupped hands mimicking a halo, surrounding the fallen bird. Then he scooped it as if it were made of water and would drain through his fingers if he wasn’t careful. He held a parakeet of tapering turquoise and blue luminescence. Dazed, sure. But the Hawk hadn’t left a…
When the parakeet opened its wings for an aborted flap Alain saw the puncture. The wing was bent, too. This side of panic, Alain hurried home, holding the bird in the hollow of his hands, shuffling instead of sprinting, knees bent, eliminating all up-and-down motion from his stride.
He banged open the kitchen door.
He heard his mother’s voice from upstairs. Taking two at a time he was at the landing and then burst into the master bedroom.
“Where are you!”
“I’m in the john. What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”
“I found a bird. I don’t want it to die!”
There was silence from the bathroom and Alain knew his mother had closed her eyes and was shaking her head.
Inside Pete’s Pets, Alain and his mother waited as the man himself studied the parakeet. Alain worked at the pet store Tuesdays and Thursdays after school and on Sunday afternoons. Pete first noticed Alain when he began stopping in for feeders and crickets for his water frogs, newts and toads. Since then, Alain’s menagerie had grown to include iguanas and bearded dragons.
He started as a volunteer and now at age thirteen had made himself something near indispensable as a whisperer. Alain excelled at befriending nervous arrivals, making them suitable pets: hamsters, guinea pigs, parrots, dogs.…No cantankerous animal was beyond the reach of his serenading touch. Pete said Alain could turn a snapping turtle into a mildly reproving turtle.
“We should’ve taken into the animal hospital, right?”
“We were never taking the bird to the vet, Alain.”
Pete smiled but avoided making eye contact with either Alain or his mother.
“Then you did the right thing by bringing him here.”
Pete touched Alain’s hands, directing him to rotate the bird this way and that.
“We can patch the wound; it’s not bleeding, badly.”
“But infection, right?”
“Yes, it could be infected.”
“I knew it. Can we clean it, now?”
“Yes. But the hawk’s talon could have – probably did have – germs all over it. They would be in his blood stream, now. We can’t do anything about that.”
“But a vet could. She can give him antibiotics.”
“Actually, Alain, I think we can do about as much as the vet.”
“See, that’s what I was telling you.”
Alain ignored his mother.
“Let’s get on with it, then. I mean, please?”
“The problem is after. We can bandage the puncture and kind-of splint the wing. But how are you going to get him to leave them alone?”
“Oh, he’ll leave them alone. I’ll see to that.”
“You understand, Pete, that the bird isn’t even ours. He obviously flew out of his rightful owner’s window.”
“But, Mom, we got to save his…We already talked about this in the car. Can we just get on with it, Mr. Connell?”
Back home, Alain set-up the parakeet cage in the corner of the dining room, which in their house was more of an everything-room. The cage was over three feet tall with two levels and two roofs, sloping at differing angles. Alain was not leaving the store with a cheap boxy jail cell. And he was not convinced that the bird had an owner. Its wings were not clipped.
“You think he’s wild? Parakeets are not native to Illinois,” said his mom as she watched him line the cage with butcher paper.
He knew that. But, still…The point was to save his life; all that other stuff could be sorted out, later.
“Then why do we need a sixty dollar cage for parakeet they can’t fly? When all we’re focused on is saving his life?”
Alain set to work at becoming friends. He did this by stroking the bird’s feathers and talking to him without cease. His name became Xenon, because Alain had totally tanked the test on the Noble Gases earlier in the day.
“You and me, Xenon…we’re going to conquer the world…fight crime…we’re gonna be on TV together…Xenon the wonder bird…Xenon the Mighty…”
Or he chattered about school and things he knew to be true. When it came time to remove Xenon’s dressing, dab povidone iodine on the wound and apply a new bandage, he did so while petting and talking to him. Xenon never suspected there was a bandage to worry at.
Next, Alain stroked Xenon’s splinted wing for half an hour, gradually lightening his touch until he barely brushed the farthest cilia of his feathers. Xenon couldn’t recall that his wing had ever been elsewise.
Two weeks later his mother asked Alain if he wanted Pete to check Zee’s wing (she also called him ZenMaster).
“No. It’s fine.”
She pursed her lips and frowned into the open cage.
“What about the vet? Would you like her to look at it?”
“No. I got it, Mom.”
A week later Alain removed the splint; the scab from the puncture wound having already sloughed away. Alain smoothed Xenon’s feathers, cooing at him, and then the bird opened his wings as if in flight and Alain inspected his work.
“A little out of tune, huh?”
Alain perched him on the rim of a high-backed dining room chair. Five seconds later Xenon took off. The one wing was akimbo, but it worked.
Xenon was his – the bird even knew his own name. To placate his mother Alain scanned the community board at Pete’s for notices of lost parakeets. There were none. And there would be none. By Thanksgiving, he stopped reading the board. By Christmas he had forgotten Xenon was ever not his. By Easter he had forgotten how much Xenon meant to him.
One Saturday in late April Alain sat in front of the TV.
“Alain, get off your butt and help your mother!”
It was the second time his father had called from the basement for Alain to carry groceries in from the garage.
But he waited until the commercial before rising. He smelt the spring blossoms wafting from the kitchen as he passed through the dining room. Then he felt the breeze. Someone had sprung-open the screen door. Alain stopped in the threshold, scowling into the fresh air. His head flushed in an instant. He unlatched the screen door, letting it recoil and close, and then he shut the heavy door, too. He ran back into the dining room and stared into Xenon’s empty cage. Whenever watching TV or doing homework while in the family room he left Xenon’s cage open. He needed to fly as much as possible.
Alain ran through each room, upstairs and down, calling his name. When he returned to the kitchen, he was crying.
His mother, having labored through both doors with her hands full, was about to light into her son. Instead, she sagged her shoulders and held out her arms for Alain.
“You left the door open! You know Xenon flies around the house. You let him fly away!”
His mother apologized and tried again to hold him, but he would not have it. His father emerged from the basement, looked at his wife’s drawn face and then his son’s tear-streaked face.
“She left the door open! Xenon’s gone!”
“No, she didn’t. I opened the door. Why didn’t you come when you were called? The door would’ve stayed shut, then. You lost the bird; not your mom. Anyway, it’ll be back. Never had it so easy.”
But Alain knew different. Xenon’s wings, although kinda crooked, weren’t clipped. And he knew about hawks, now. He wasn’t coming back.
by Brian Wapole