Linda sprang up from her chair to reheat her food in the microwave yet again. "Ollie, if you don't let me eat, I'm going to brain you." She was talking to a little green parrot slightly larger than a parakeet. "I'm not shaking the pill bottle. We don't fight with the pill bottle at dinner. We eat our peas."
His squawking distracted me just long enough for my parrot Stanley Sue to twist the spoon from my hand, spilling mashed potatoes; the spoon clattered to the linoleum and sent her flying across the room in fright. The passage of Stanley Sue attracted the ire of Howard the dove, who considered the dining room airspace exclusively his own. From his perch on top of the refrigerator, he took off in pursuit of Stanley Sue, just as she chose the worst possible spot to make her landing, clinging like a thistle to the side of large Congo African grey parrot Dusty's cage.
I had no chance of reaching Stanley Sue before Dusty could bite her feet through the bars, so I snatched a place mat and hurled it toward the greys. Although the missile hit the parakeet cage
instead, it succeeded in launching Stanley Sue a second time. Dusty banged to the floor of his cage, Ollie sailed haplessly toward the window, and a panicky Howard shot into the living room, where black cat Agnes lay observing the melee from the back of the couch.
"Get Howard!" Linda hollered, but he wasn't in danger. Lighting on the coat rack out of reach of the bored cat, he flicked his wings and hooted his indignity at the inconvenience of it all. By the time I had extracted Howard's toes from Linda's scarf, Stanley Sue had waddled across the floor and climbed to the top of her cage, where she clucked in anticipation of the next spoonful of food as if nothing unusual had happened.
"Agnes!" Dusty called in a perfect yet somehow unflattering imitation of my voice. "Come here, Agnes." But he didn't fool the cat.
As I stepped back into the dining room cupping Howard in my hands, my big toe failed to clear the two-foot-high plywood board that theoretically bunny-proofed the rest of the house, knocking it to the floor with a familiar thwack. Linda bent down to maneuver it back into position, but not before tiny, donkey-colored Bertie charged the breach and disappeared into the living room. I plopped Howard into his cage, then joined Linda in the rabbit hunt.
"Oh, no, you didn't go there?" she groaned. "My back can't take this." But he had. Energized by his escape, Bertie had managed to scrabble over the TV tray that I had angled between a stereo speaker and the wall to prevent him from hiding behind the entertainment center — exactly where he had wedged himself.
Taking advantage of our absence, Agnes bounded over the board and into the dining room for a closer look at the birds. Scolding chirps advertised her presence. "I'm watching you," I informed her.
Kneeling in front of the almighty television, I flung open a cabinet door of the entertainment center, surprising Bertie just long enough for me to snatch him up with one hand and extend him toward Linda, who reached the dining room just as the board tipped over again in protest. Catching Linda's admonishing glare, Agnes fled down the stairs to the basement. I slammed the door shut behind her.
"Can we eat in peace now?" Linda asked the room as she replaced the board for what she hoped would be the last time that evening.
"I doubt it," I muttered darkly.
The weird sounds outside the window didn't penetrate the haze of my bad mood at first. Stanley Sue's bell was still clattering around inside my head. Three times she had rattled her bell since dinner, demanding a peanut. Three times, when I had lifted her cage cover, she had refused to take it. Finally, after I had cajoled her with baby talk, she had deigned to pluck the nut from my fingers, only to hurl it to the floor of her cage.
Immersed in gloom, I shut off the bathroom faucet, pouting because I hadn't wanted to watch a rerun of The Beverly Hillbillies featuring Jethro's sister, Jethrine. I had wanted to watch Monster House, a decorating show where people lose control of their homes without the involvement of a parrot. Grousing to myself about the shocked faces I'd missed seeing, I flung a wet washcloth toward the bathtub, then froze and cocked my head at the window and a noise like bubbling water.
I moved closer to the wall, careful to keep my skinny shadow from falling on the shade and frightening the visitor with the silhouette of a giant stick insect. As the warbling intensified, I decided that two animals were making the sounds. They were either conspiring against me in hushed tones right outside the house or, having just watched Monster House, whooping it up beyond the backyard fence down in the hollow.
I've heard this before, I thought. But not in our yard. I associated the sounds with the tropics, which didn't make a lot of sense, considering that I rarely got much nearer to the equator than northern Indiana.
"Linda," I whispered, poking my head around the door frame. "Come listen to this. Tell me what it is."
Lying flat on the living room floor in her usual spot, Linda closed an old issue of Good Old Days magazine, kicked off her afghan, and clambered to her feet. The unreliable disk between the fourth and fifth vertebrae in her lower back had gone out again as a result of the rabbit chase. I was reluctant to disturb her, but this struck me as a miraculous event.
I popped back into the bathroom, squeezed my eyes closed, and concentrated. I'd heard the vocalizations before on an episode of The Crocodile Hunter perhaps — or on the CD of rain-forest sounds I listened to during my pathetic attempts at meditation. But by the time Linda had clomped to my side at the window, the animals had clammed up. This was typical. I couldn't even count the number of times an incessant singer like a red-eyed vireo had shut its beak the instant she had stepped outdoors to hear it with me.
"What is it?"
I raised a finger to my lips. "Monkeys, it sounds like."
She flashed me an exasperated look.
"Or baboons," I told her. "I haven't quite gotten it yet. Listen. They'll do it again."
We stood quietly as air hissed through the furnace duct at the base of the sink. The bathtub drain gurgled right on cue.
"That?" she asked. I shook my head vehemently, frowning and wiggling my hand toward the window. "Something outdoors? An animal?" she quizzed me, as if we were playing charades. "It's probably just a couple of raccoons."
"Raccoons?" I followed her into the living room. "In February? They're hibernating."
"So are all the Michigan monkeys."
I threw a heavy jacket over my powder-blue pajama shirt, then stuffed my bare feet and green plaid pajama pants cuffs into a pair of boots. Rummaging through the back of the pet supplies closet, I fished out a flashlight that, quite unexpectedly, lit when my thumb clicked the switch. "I'd better take a peek at the ducks," I announced. "If those are raccoons, I want to make sure everybody's safe." As I pulled a stocking cap over my ears, I told her, "I know what raccoons sound like, and those things aren't raccoons."
I didn't worry excessively about our backyard birds. Barring a grizzly bear attack, they were secure in their pens — and I hadn't tangled with a grizzly since the Ice Age of 1967. Thinking back, I decided it had probably been a snarling Sister Rachel who had chased me underneath a desk in my Catholic Central High School English class. In those days, I'd paid scant attention to animals. But after I'd married Linda, ten years ago, we'd slowly started accumulating critters, and I had grown fond of even the most ill-tempered ones.
Much of the accumulating was inadvertent. Our first duck cropped up when my brother-in-law Jack rescued her from the parking lot of an auto-parts warehouse whose employees were peppering her with stones. We had bought another duck to keep her company and within a scant few years had also taken in orphaned geese, turkeys, and hens. Similar chaos had unfolded inside the house. We had naively begun with a belligerent pet bunny, added a canary, a dove, and a tyrannical parrot, and soon found ourselves providing a home for the winged and unwanted — including the abandoned baby songbirds that Linda raised and released each summer.
At first, the joys and jolts of caring for thirty-odd oddball animals had worn me down to a nubbin. Gradually, however, the relentless grind of countless cleanup chores, endless home veterinary tasks, and limitless feedings had become as easy as falling off a log and sustaining contusions from head to toe. My unusual life had ceased to strike me as extraordinary any longer. I longed for the unexpected, and that was always a mistake.
Excerpted from Fowl Weather Copyright 2007 by Bob Tarte.