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found poem: bestiary

Good luck.

Dear MomWhat might have temporarily removed me from parakeet-feeding duty at age 8 is anyone’s guess; perhaps I was at camp. Blueboy was my friend and companion, but, more urgently, my responsibility — another way in which I might prove or fail.

With careful loops and links, I test newly learned script, forego “Mommy” for what I intuited was the more mature and less needy “Mom” and sign my name in reverse order — Yduj — not mirror-writing, but a turnaround that offered the possibility of a secret identity. I remember, at the dinner table, my father sounding out our “other” name — Grebnielk — with a kind of gutteral messiness that made me laugh.

It’s unlikely my mother would have forgotten to feed Blueboy, but she had no affection for the bird and I wasn’t taking any chances. Already, the written word was talisman against such failure.

Hamlet, my tragic hero

baby_desert_cottontail_by_sataikasiaI was perhaps 8 or 9 when my father came home from work carrying a large cardboard carton with his old red flannel shirt jumbled in the bottom. The box hardly weighed more than the shirt itself, and he indicated, without words, that I should set it down and look inside.

I was thinking “squirrel” when I caught the first glimpse of fur, but lifting away the folds I uncovered a tiny bunny, no more than three inches long: perfect little ears folded flat against its back, impossibly soft fur, twitching nose at one end and a white poof of tail at the other. Hamlet.

He was a wild rabbit, a cottontail, and my father had found him on a job site. Hamlet moved into a cage in my bedroom and I fed him with an eye-dropper until he could eat the alfalfa-fragrant feed and carrot tops and the clumps of grass I pulled up from around the house. Set on the floor, he’d hop along the carpeted hallway, every few hops depositing a hard round pellet, a tidy little poop dispenser.

In spite of my diligent attention to cleanup, my mother grew tired of this, used the “underfoot” word repeatedly, and a decision was made that Hamlet would be relocated to our unfinished daylight basement, where he would have the run of the entire house.

In this new environment, Hamlet quickly lost any domestic tendencies. I would sit on the bare dirt next to his food and water bowls, a lettuce leaf or a slice of turnip in my outstretched palm, and wait. Sometimes he would come and accept my offering, but he’d no longer allow me to pick him up or lay more than a single finger on his soft back. I had terrible dreams that I had forgotten to feed him.

Hamlet had lived with us for about three years when my parents announced that we were going to “let him go.” Our back yard adjoined a huge cemetery, where I had often seen rabbits, and my parents assured me that Hamlet would be happier there. I was devastated, but I was a kid and couldn’t yet envision the fate of a semi-domesticated animal set free in the wild — even the wild of a mowed and manicured cemetery.

The underlying reason for this change was that my mother had discovered some pest in the house and had engaged an exterminator to spray, including Hamlet’s below-house realm.

So, dutifully, I left Hamlet’s last official meal in the usual place, left the basement door standing wide open and walked away, sobbing. The exterminator came and went. Each day, just in case, I’d fill the little bowls with alfalfa pellets and water.

Perhaps four or five days later, my father came up from the basement, excited. He had been taking some logs off the woodpile that lined one wall of the basement and Hamlet had hopped out from among the logs and right out the open door. I tried to imagine whether he had never left, or left and returned, and whether he would come back again. But the basement door was now firmly closed, the bowls banished, and much as I might examine the shrubs and the hillside and the green expanse of the cemetery, I never saw Hamlet again.
. . . . .
photo by sataikasia


parakeet drawingMy parents allowed one house-pet at a time. Mostly we had dogs with food names (Taffy, Coco, Taco), and in between, an assortment of smaller creatures — a tiny turtle, a hamster, a rabbit, a bird. Never a cat. Conversations about cats went unfailingly to my mother’s story about the cat and the refrigerator and then ended abruptly.

A pale blue parakeet with dark cheek spots, Blueboy lived in a cage in my bedroom. His wings were clipped, and since they looked normal I didn’t quite understand what was involved with this, but his flights were short and low. He rode around on my shoulder or on the top of my head and made little snuffles and snicks from under the towel when I covered his cage at night.

Sitting in the cage on his perch, he ignored a tiny mirror but pecked at the white cuttlebone, which only decades later I learned was not some kind of rock, but an internal part of a cuttlefish. He ate gravel along with prodigious quantities of messy seed and I remember blowing the seed husks off the top of the little dish before I cleaned the cage and refilled the dish.

Together, over and over, we listened to a 45-rpm record called “How to Teach Your Parakeet to Talk” and I would repeat the careful syllables: “Pret-ty bird. Pret-ty bird.” He would sit on my finger and cock his head back and forth and say nothing. But eventually he learned to imitate the bluejays that populated our back yard and I learned to imitate his parakeet squawks.

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