In old fairy tales, a white bird signifies renewal and hope. A hero may go through gradations of trials in order to find the reward of a white bird, which denotes a treasure. And the treasure is oneself.
Madja’s uncle owned one of those birds—a cockatiel. Madja was my roommate at school. She always exhibited a cool, martial quality. Many young girls are soothed by meticulousness, authority, and rules. In Madja’s case, this identification did not fade as she grew older. Her clothing was simple and ironed, and her mahogany hair sloped into the shape of an elongated bowl. The clean angle of her chin mesmerized me.
Each year we were at school, Madja was assistant floor resident, her position apparently unassailable. One night, Madja told me about her Uncle Lee as we sat in the metal-framed dorm chairs. As I listened, I wanted to have been her, to have had, growing up, an uncle who owned a white bird, to have gone to the uncle’s house, to have eaten lunch there, to have slept on the couch as the TV blurred. Night would have filled up the bare windows at the rear of the house, and I would have looked down to the skyline on the river, where Midwestern office buildings grew starry inside with light. The uncle’s bird would hunker nearby, with its uncanny ability to speak our language. The mechanism of speech being maze-like and incomprehensible, inviolable as a jewel.
I remain convinced of nothing. But on the night Madja described her Uncle Lee, I became his niece. Flat and coin-like, I tumbled toward the family—the uncle, his bird, and also the brothers and youthful parents Madja had described. As I fell into the circuitry of their relationships, a current closed over me and I was theirs. I knew everything about the family. Before anything else could transpire, I clipped Madja out of the scenario and tossed her aside because I was the niece, not she.
I set up camp in Uncle Lee’s spacious TV room, with its whorled rock pattern on the linoleum floor. My uncle lay back in his recliner, watching Cardinals football, and next to him, the parrot inched atop its cage. Uncle Lee had magnificently thick, white hair. His rough, red hands’ texture recalled the bird’s chicken-like feet.
Uncle Lee had named the bird Alia. She had spoiled eyes. Loaded with pretty seeds, the bowls on Alia’s perch were fresh and tidy. She stretched one wing, then the other, showing off, for after all, Alia was loved, and she was proud. Her little body was puffy with a sense of security and belonging. The sound of Lee’s name was inside the bird’s. He carried Alia around all the time. She stirred my longing because she was not human, but even so, her self-confidence annoyed me.
The room was cool and darkish. I had grown younger. This was a calmer, slower era than the one from which I had come; there was no fear or mean-spiritedness emanating from the TV. Lying on the black vinyl couch, I was as warmly cocooned as a family member could be.
Steam from a simmering dinner eked down the hallway. Then a metallic banging, a cuss.
Uncle Lee and Aunt Laura fought all the time. That was the downside of visiting their home. I did not speak much to Aunt Laura. She was sour. Lee worked on and off for an airport car service; the lack of a more promising job enraged Aunt Laura and it seemed she could not dispel that feeling. It tore at her, and her face seemed to grow smaller over time.
In any case, it was the bird who was Uncle Lee’s bride. He pulled a wooden paddle from behind his chair so Alia could climb on it. He brought her new toys; he petted her; I watched them together. The man kissed her streaked gray beak; the bird smothered his forearm with her pebbly tongue. She whistled, the intensity of her birdy adoration focused on the older man. “Oh hey come on!” she said.
“Alia da queena!” Uncle Lee roared. Curled on the couch, I smiled.
“I didn’t know you could make yourself so small, kid,” Lee hollered at me, stalking from the room, Alia on his shoulder. Down the hall, he yelled that Aunt Laura had not visited his mother. Laura yelled back that it was a filthy chore to visit Lee’s mother, and if he wanted her to visit the woman so badly, then she, Laura, would quit making dinner and go out for a good drink besides. The stove fan stopped humming. I heard Laura’s shoes stamp the floor.
“Oh, you go right to hell, Laura!” Lee screamed alarmingly. He returned to the TV room, checking the game. Silhouetted in the TV light, Alia swung around my uncle’s fingers, whistling in pleasure, not seeming to notice the yelling. “Try some, you will,” the bird said. Alia often uttered fragments from TV advertising.
Aunt Laura appeared in the doorway, her stalky throat moving, swallowing. In her short skirt and blouse she held a teapot and set it on a TV tray in front of Lee. Her mouth was a pen line, and with an air of defiance, she poured the drink for us all.
We drank in the tea’s strong, leathery taste. Its astringency pulled our energy from the evening hours that lay ahead and into the immediate present. My heart whirred; the moment dilated. I realized a gigantic marital battle was about to ensue. Only Alia remained in a more normative present, unaffected by the fuel-like tea, bobbing her head, squeezing Lee’s arm with her feet. “Seven-two-one!” she said. Lee set the bird on the floor and she waddled across the linoleum, babbling.
Not even having begun, the fight already confused me. The horizon grew dusty. Perhaps the fight was overdue, and my aunt and uncle needed its spectacle for the distance and release it would bring. Maybe the nasty, divisive outcome of the fight would feel like destiny to Lee and Laura. I thought: this is preventable. Yet neither my aunt nor uncle cared to look into themselves or their marriage. People are not more than who they are, so in fact the fight was not preventable. The only truth was that Lee and Laura’s marriage produced poison.
And I was here with them, lucky to even know about the poison. When you have no one, even the most potent toxin is fresh water.
Lee threw a white glass ashtray on the floor. He asked Laura, yelling, why she had flirted with some third party at a shrimp-tasting exhibition. Laura scoffed—it was nearly a scream—and made her own accusation.
I raised myself from the couch, looking for my car key, realizing I owned no car, not now. But Uncle Lee had a car. I scooped Alia up on the wooden paddle and headed for the spare bedroom down the hall. The bird whistled in alarm.
“Where the hell you going with my bird, kid?” Lee gruffed at me. But his eyes were on the enemy, Laura.
“Good girl!” said Alia.
The fight powered on. “You simple, asinine, useless cripple,” Laura stated, as if reading from a shopping list. “You’ll shut your goddamn mouth when I finally kill you!”
“Oh, ohhh!” Lee mocked. I could not stomach the fight. I found a key ring heaped in a candy dish and ran out with the bird, trying to shield her with my left arm. In the deep autumn cold, the leaky garage window’s curtain was rigid with streaks of ice. I blasted the car heater. Alia squawked. She clung to the back of the car seat, shivering.
I would drive a long time, I knew. The car warmed up, and the rain was strong and gray on the neighborhood streets. Though I was younger than I had been, I felt much older; and in the future, we would all become unimaginably older, diminished, a thought that was hard to bear. The perimeters beyond my aunt and uncle’s home were gauzy, and I could not think why. I turned and saw Madja sitting beside me.
“You heinous bitch,” she said calmly. Her teeth glowed fluorescently in the rain-colored windshield, and I knew she had the strength to kill me.
“Madja,” I tried to say.
“Some things are not forgivable, believe me,” Madja said.
I don’t remember leaving the car, or speaking to her, and I don’t know what happened to the fluffy white bird who clung to the seat.
Much later, when I was still compromised every day, I learned that, through Madja, new children had been born into the family, two beautiful, white-haired children who, for many years, I believed were nearly mine. They might grow to understand themselves someday. I miss them all the time.