by Krishna Ramanujan
Fever gripped the boy. He lay in bed with a washcloth on his head. The cook, Rajinder Singh, a tall man with a big Adam's apple, carried in a cage that held two green parrots. The boy shoved the wet cloth off his brow. He sat up.
His mother walked in with a few black hairpins in her teeth, and she fixed her hair into a bun. She wore a shiny sari, red bindi and lipstick.
"Mama, birds," the boy said pointing to the cage. "I love them."
"I bought them to keep you company," she said. "I'm late to teach my night class."
The boy frowned.
"Please don't go," he pleaded.
"We've talked about this," his mother said. "I have to work."
She looked in the mirror at her hair.
"Any mail today?" the boy asked.
"Nothing," she answered.
"I've written Dad so many letters," the boy said. A car honked outside.
"There's my ride. If you need anything, Rajinder is here," she said of the cook who lived in a small room behind the kitchen.
"Get to know the birds," she said, and she kissed him and left.
A smell of guano and gamy feathers hung in the room. The boy's chest rattled and his head ached, but he tottered to the cage. The parrots wrapped their talons around the wood perches. One gnawed at the wire with a curved green bill. In better times, the boy and his mother had visited the market, and they stopped to chat when they saw men carrying birds in cages tied to a long pole. One bird seller explained how he caught wild birds with nets.
In his room, the boy sat on the cool stone floor next to the cage.
"Hello," he said. "Hell-ooo." He held up objects and repeated their names. "Pencil. Ball. Hat."
The smaller parrot settled on its perch and puffed its breast feathers and closed its eyes. But the boy had the deep belief that the bigger parrot was listening. It paced back and forth, nodded up and down and cooed wistfully. The boy told the parrot how he used to live in America, but his parents argued and shouted and one day his mother started packing. He told the parrot how he last saw his father at the airport in Chicago a year ago, but it snowed outside, and when they came inside the terminal, his dad's glasses fogged up and he couldn't see his eyes, but his face was red. He told the parrot how since arriving in India, his tonsils got infected and then he caught pneumonia. The big parrot bobbed its head eagerly. The boy was in love.
The boy talked late in the dark and only then did he notice himself shivering. He crawled into bed. Under the sheets, his teeth chattered.
He dreamt that his mother, still wearing her sari, dipped a cloth in a bowl of rubbing alcohol and wrung it, but when the cool cloth jarred his hot skin, he knew he wasn't dreaming. "I made a mistake by bringing you here," he thought his mother said, but he couldn't be sure.
The boy awoke in the gray dawn to a ruckus from the cage. Outside, the mango and eucalyptus trees appeared through a thick fog in dark outlines. The parrots squawked and flapped. The boy scurried over to find the birds wrestling. The big one tore at the little one, whose wings were spread across the cage floor.
"Stop it, stop it," the boy said. He shook the cage and the big parrot let go, and they both jumped to perches. Green feathers littered the newspaper. The boy folded his arms and stared at the parrots for a long time. He remembered the woeful birds in the market peering out of their prisons. He wished them a better life. Outside, the sky lightened and hundreds of crows and sparrows and parakeets and mynas chirped and called. The big parrot clucked. The boy heaved the cage to the windowsill. He swung the door open, but they both stayed still.
"Go on," the boy whispered. He waved out the window. "You are free now." The smaller bird hopped to the cage door and flew off. The big parrot stepped onto the sill. It stopped and tilted a black eye to the boy. Then, it leapt out the window and soared away, wings spread wide. The boy stretched his arms out at his sides. "Like an aeroplane," he said. He imagined himself flying into the mist.
The boy coughed and hobbled to bed and gazed out the window past the lifeless room. He pulled the sheet to his chin. He hoped the big parrot learnt enough language to talk. Maybe, one day soon, it would tell his story to someone, or at least, to another parrot.
Krishna Ramanujan is a fiction writer and science journalist. His fiction has appeared in St. Petersburg Review and Springhouse. Also, betweenstories.xyz is the new home for his fiction podcast, featuring original tales that explore themes of identity and loss of culture. He lives in Ithaca, New York.