When Hilda Krimphorn opened the door to her apartment on the Upper West Side one Saturday afternoon in June, Caroline, her twenty-one-year-old granddaughter, rushed in carrying a shiny pink package topped with a big red bow. She headed straight for the dining room table, and there she deposited her grandmother’s birthday present.
“Go on, open it, Grandma,” Caroline said, kissing Hilda on her cheek and pulling her grandmother closer to the table.
Hilda ripped the paper from the top and peeled down the sides, eager to see what her granddaughter had given her.
There it was, a small, yellow-green bird sitting in a birdcage, a present for her seventy-fifth year.
Hilda gasped. “Oh my!”
“It’s a parakeet, Grandma.”
“Yes, Caroline. I know. You couldn’t have given me a blouse or a bouquet of flowers? What am I going to do with a bird?”
“This is a Budgerigar, Grandma. You’re going to love it! It’s a domestic bird. Bred here in the U.S., but in the wild, it’s found in Australia. I know how much you like waking to the birds chirping in the trees. Besides, maybe this bird will spice up your life. I don’t want you getting old on me.”
Hilda looked quizzically at Caroline. “Not me, Caroline. I’m not getting old,” she said, peering at the bird who was now pecking at a seed-covered bell. “I’m not old, am I, little bird?” The bird stopped pecking and stared at her with his black, round eyes. Then, he cocked his yellow head from side to side as if trying to figure her out. Hilda laughed softly.
“See the blue skin around his nostrils?” Caroline asked.
“It tells you the bird is a male. Females have white or brown.”
Hilda turned to Caroline. “What do I say to a bird?”
“Ask it what stock you should invest in,” Caroline said.
Hilda laughed. “I hope you kept the receipt, Caroline, because I’m not sure about this.”
At seven o’clock the next morning, even before she made coffee, Hilda went into the dining room. She opened the floral drapes, stood in front of the large window, and stared out onto the street. There was a special calmness at this time of day that Hilda found comforting, almost spiritual. She gazed at the many cars parked one behind the other and watched as the three bus drivers clustered at the traffic circle greeted each other and climbed into their vehicles. When the motors were turned on and the engines revved up, one by one, the city busses rolled down the street, and Hilda watched until they were out of sight.
Then, she walked to the table in the middle of the room, removed the navy-blue bath towel she had used to cover the birdcage at night, and glanced inside.
“Good morning, little bird,” Hilda said. “I hope you slept well.”
Awakened by the light, the bird shuffled his sleepy body towards the center of his cage, opened his eyes, fluttered his feathers, and exuded a shrill peep.
Hilda echoed him. “I’ll bring some fresh water,” she said, opening the cage door and removing the little plastic dish.
In the kitchen, Hilda took down an orange bowl from a cabinet above the sink for her cereal, filled it with oatmeal and cinnamon, added water, and put the bowl in the microwave. When the bell went off, Hilda carried the cereal and a mug of black coffee to the dining room table. Then, she filled the bird’s dish with water and brought it to the cage.
“Here you go, little bird,” she said, opening the door and placing the dish on the floor of the cage.
The bird took several sips and then chirped loudly.
“You’re welcome,” Hilda said, and sat down at the table. As she had breakfast, she studied the bird who was now chirping and flapping his wings.
“I hope you like it here in your new home,” Hilda said. “Apparently, Caroline thinks we’ll get along.”
The bird chirped more loudly now and flapped his wings vigorously.
“You sure have a lot of energy,” Hilda said, walking to the cage, sticking her finger inside, and poking at the swing.
“Get on, little bird. You’ll like it.”
The parakeet jumped on the seat and began swinging.
“I loved going to the park and swinging for hours when I was young. Always
thought if I could get just a little higher, I’d be able to touch the leaves on the trees with my feet.”
Hilda went back to her breakfast and skimmed the supermarket circular.
“Little bird, brisket is on sale this week, and so are the pink grapefruits I like so much,” she said, compiling a list. At the bottom of the paper, she jotted “parakeet,” as a reminder to get something—perhaps carrots or an apple—for the bird, too.
Hilda made her bed and dressed quickly in mauve pants, a floral blouse, pearl necklace, matching earrings, and fashionable, black sandals. She checked herself in the hall mirror and gave a playful kick behind her. Huh! I don’t look a day past fifty. “Goodbye, little bird,” she said, shutting the apartment door behind her.
When she returned, her apartment phone was ringing. Hilda quickly dropped her packages on the kitchen counter and picked up the phone.
“I guess he’s fine, Caroline. Chirps all the time. This morning while I was having breakfast, he was swinging.”
“How sweet. I’m sure he loves flying about in your apartment.”
“What do you mean? I don’t let him out of his cage, Caroline.”
“You can’t keep the bird cooped up in that little cage all day. Parakeets have a lot of energy, and they need to release it. You’ll have to train him before you let him out. Start by getting him to sit on your finger. You can coax him with a piece of apple or a nut.”
“How long does he need to be out? This bird poops all the time. I don’t want to find his droppings all over my apartment.”
“Whenever you’re home, let him stay out for several hours. Keep the cage door open. He’ll return to it when he’s had enough exercise. Make sure the screens are in when your windows are open. You don’t want him to escape.”
“What about the poops?”
“Don’t worry, Grandma. Pick them up with a paper towel. The dry ones, just sweep up or vacuum them.”
“I didn’t know you know so much about parakeets.”
“I researched them, Grandma. I knew you’d have questions.”
That evening, after Hilda finished her supper and washed the dishes, she read the newspaper. Whenever she glanced up, the parakeet was looking at her.
“I’m glad you find me so fascinating. You’re quite interesting yourself,” Hilda said. The bird chirped. When Hilda finished reading the stories that interested her, she skimmed the sports section, out of respect for her late husband of thirty-five years, Richard, a die-hard sports fan. Hilda and Richard had enjoyed a loving and happy marriage. Together, they visited museums, the theater, and the opera and dined with friends on Saturday evenings. Since Richard’s death ten years ago, Hilda’s social life had dwindled. She no longer went out with their friends, and only occasionally meets Phyllis, a friend from the neighborhood, for lunch.
* * *
As the weeks passed, Hilda began to take a strong interest in her little bird and came to call him Petey. At home, she’d open the door on the birdcage and stick out her finger as Caroline had advised. Petey would jump on it and then fly to the top of a ceiling light fixture, sit a bit, come back down and sit on a bookcase, lampshade, or other item, then fly back up to the light fixture. When she called him, Petey came to her, perched himself on her finger, said ‘Petey here,’ and waited for his treat.
Whenever Hilda turned on the television, Petey sat on the arm of the couch and watched whatever was on, cocking his head from side to side when a different voice spoke and perking up when a loud voice caught his attention. When a nature program was on and Petey heard birds chirping, he became highly loquacious and chirped incessantly. Lately, when Caroline called, Hilda often had something new to tell her.
“He has a delightfully mellifluous voice, and his words are clear. He says ‘Petey,’ ‘love
you,’ ‘bye, bye,’ and six other words, and when I take the towel off his cage in the morning, that
bird says, ‘Good morning.’”
“That’s great,” Caroline said during a recent conversation. “You’ve grown attached.”
“Oh yes, Caroline. Petey’s a treasure. A wonderful companion.”
* * *
One afternoon, Hilda was sitting on the couch reading, and Petey was flying about. When she stopped hearing the flapping of his wings, she raised her head and looked towards the windowsill where Petey had landed. She saw that he was watching a pigeon walking back and forth on top of her air conditioner and wondered if he wished he could fly outside with the other birds.
* * *
“Enjoy the day, little bird. See you later.”
Hilda watched as Petey flew to a low branch on the elm tree, and seconds later, fluttered to a higher branch. After two hours, she saw him perched on a lilac bush down the street and called to him. Petey flew through the open window to his cage. ‘Petey here,’ he said, then nibbled at the apple pieces Hilda had set out for him.
“Very good boy,” Hilda said. “I’ll let you out again, tomorrow.” Such a smart bird! Must
be terrible to be cooped up in this apartment all day. I’m sorry I didn’t think to do this sooner.
* * *
The next morning after breakfast, Hilda again released Petey outside. She stayed inside the entire day doing laundry, paying bills, and reading, and going to the window from time to check on Petey. For much of the morning, she saw him sitting on a branch in old elm tree, but later in the afternoon when she went to check on him, he wasn’t there. From her window, she looked up and down the street, in the trees, on the tops of the buildings, the lampposts and the mailbox, but there was no sign of the parakeet anywhere. Where could he be? she wondered, concerned about whether he would return when she called him.
In the kitchen, Hilda removed a cup with apple pieces from the refrigerator and took it to the window. She called Petey’s name in a loud voice. No bird. Again, she called. Still, no Petey. The third time, Petey flew to the windowsill and into the apartment, landing on top of his cage.
“Petey here,” he chirped, then flew to the cup of apples and nibbled.
“That’s my boy,” Hilda said softly.
Petey cocked his head and looked up, seeming to understand Hilda’s fear and
trying in his own way, to comfort her.
“Next time, you must come immediately when I call. You had me so worried.”
* * *
When Caroline called the next day, Hilda told her about Petey’s excursions outside.
“The first day he returned promptly when I called him, but yesterday, I didn’t see him. It took three loud calls for that boy to come back.”
“Oh, Grandma, you mustn’t let Petey outside. It’s dangerous. A parakeet is a domesticated bird. It has no idea how to survive in nature. He’s an easy target for predators like eagles, hawks, squirrels, and dogs and cats. Runs the risk of catching diseases from wild birds.”
“Oh my. I hadn’t thought of that, Caroline. I’ll keep him inside then.”
* * *
During the upcoming weeks, Petey continued to amaze Hilda with the things he did, and when he’d fly from one end of the apartment to the other and occasionally knock down a trinket from a bookshelf, Hilda didn’t fuss. When she set the table for dinner each evening, she filled a little green condiment dish with bird seed and placed it on the table directly opposite her setting. And as she prepared her salad, Hilda chopped up a small piece of carrot and a broccoli floret and put them in the dish with Petey’s birdseed.
When she returned in the late afternoons from a doctor’s appointment, lunch with Phyllis, or from shopping, Hilda enjoyed listening to talk programs on the radio, or to the songs of Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. Petey, too, liked listening to Frank Sinatra, and whenever Hilda played one of his records, he’d jump on the arm of the record player, tuck his head down, and sit there watching the record label go round and round as if he were watching a singer at a live concert.
Although Petey enjoyed flying about the apartment, Hilda noticed that each day, as soon as she released him from his cage, he flew to the living room window and watched the sparrows, robins, and blue jays outside. As much as she loved him and didn’t want him to get hurt, Hilda grappled with the idea that, despite what Caroline said, another venture outside might not be so terrible. After all, he did return to me, both times. Surely, Petey will come home. He knows here is where he’ll get food, shelter, and affection.
* * *
The following morning, after breakfast, Hilda stood at the living room window and watched the children in the playground. Young girls gyrating their hips tried to keep brightly colored Hula Hoops in motion, and a father was teaching his young son how to throw a football. All the while, Petey sat on the windowsill and watched the birds in the elm tree.
“Caroline said I should never let you out again, but I know you want to be outside. When you hear me call you, you must return immediately. Understand?”
Petey chirped and chirped and fluttered his wings.
Hilda raised the window and watched as Petey flew to the elm tree and landed on a branch where a mourning dove was sitting. She remained at the window and watched him stare at the other birds. After a few minutes, Petey flew to another branch.
* * *
That afternoon, Hilda turned off her television, walked to her living room window. “Okay, Petey, time to come home,” she called. “Petey, Petey.” She put a dish of apple pieces on the ledge. “Petey, come home. Petey.” Three minutes passed and Hilda called again. Then seven minutes later, she called for Petey a third time. She looked up and down the street, but there was no sign of the parakeet. Hilda began to worry. She called her neighbors at the end of the hall and obtained permission to look out their windows for Petey. From their apartment, she could see to the next block. Then, she phoned the neighborhood watch and informed them that Petey had disappeared. They promised to be on the lookout for him. Hilda called the police, too, and inquired if anyone had reported seeing a parakeet in the neighborhood. No one had.
Later, she called Caroline and told her about Petey.
“You never should have let him out.”
“I remember what you said, Caroline, but it pained me to see him a prisoner in my home. I had to let him go. I’m not a jailer. I thought he’d come back just the way he did the other times.”
“He may still come back. It’s possible he got lost or flew into another apartment. I’m sure the police and your neighborhood watch will contact you as soon as they know something.”
“Yes, I know. Thank you, Caroline.”
* * *
That evening, as the daylight slowly disappeared and dusk began to descend, Hilda went to her living room window and again looked for Petey. She searched the treetops and the windowsills and called for him.
“Soon it will be dark, Petey. You’ve never been outside at night. Please come home. I’ll leave the window open.”
At dinner, Hilda missed Petey. She missed the sounds he made when he cracked open the seeds in his dish and the shells he left on the table when he was through, and she missed the way Petey fluttered his winds and chirped loudly when he finished eating as if he was expressing his gratitude for a delicious and satisfying meal.
* * *
After a month passed and Petey did not come back, Hilda lost hope that her beloved companion would ever return.
When Caroline came for lunch one Saturday afternoon, Hilda spoke of her remorse.
“I miss Petey so much, Caroline. He was such a delight. But when I saw him watching the wild birds outside my window, I immediately thought he’d love being with them. That’s when I opened the window.”
“But I told you Petey was raised to be a pet.”
“I know this may sound hard to believe, but I momentarily forgot Petey was not one of the wild birds on the other side of the glass. I just forgot.” Hilda shrugged. “I gave in to both our needs for freedom. You know, Caroline, we animals need it. I hate to think that because of what I did, Petey’s gone forever.”
Caroline was silent. She could think of nothing to say.