Parrot by Barbara Franc; http://barbarafranc.co.uk
Tiffani Scott had a huge surprise for her military husband when he returned home after a year-long deployment to Afghanistan. Unable to speak any longer in anything but canned, rote phrases, Tiffani asked her mother-in-law, Becky, to tell us her story:
“My Jeff was always a bird guy. He used to joke he was raised by my pair of lovebirds, that in a lonely, only-child, working-mom single-parent home they were his only friends, his best companions, his model of a healthy relationship. After he was called up, Tiffani told me she wanted to give him this special gift. She wanted to welcome him home in a big way.”
Imagine his amazement when he was greeted at the door by a Greater Jardines Parrot, brilliant as a Christmas tree ornament!
“At first I didn’t realize. It was only when she cocked her head to one side and bobbed it up and down without breaking eye contact that I figured it out. ‘That’s my girl,’ I said to myself. ‘That’s my Tiff.'”
What Tiffani couldn’t have known was that from the beginning, birds had figured prominently in Jeff’s experience in the war-torn country on the other side of the world. Jeff’s primary assignment was heading up a patrol unit in Kabul’s bustling marketplace where he’d occasionally snatch a few moments of simple joy in the Bird Market, lowering his M-4 to insert a finger through the bent bars of stacked cages, many of them strung with colored beads, to invite the birds to tap his fingernail with their bills. He’d grappled with guilt for months over the fact that he was more devastated when a row of caged parrots–African Grays, Amazons, and, yes, a Jardine– was vaporized by a rogue mortar than by the destruction of his unit’s MRAP by an IED three weeks later, a tragedy that look the life of one friend and the leg and lower jaw of another.
It also did not escape his notice that at every opportunity wild birds, piping to one another in Pashto, set themselves with fierce determination to the task of destroying U.S. military vehicles: peeling away windshield wipers like ropes of licorice, pulling at plastic trim, pecking at loose headlights, gnawing through ignition wires. And once one flew as if with full intent into the windshield of a moving jeep, flustering the driver so badly that the vehicle flipped into a ditch, flinging its passengers into the dust, the bird, neck broken, instantly dead, landing on its back a few yards away.
‘All along,’ Jeff said, ‘the whole time I was there, and I’m a patriot, I’m proud to fight for my country, but I’m not sorry to say I kept thinkin’ those birds, well, they didn’t want us there. Innocent victims, you know, sabotage, little suicide bombers. I can’t help it,’ he finished, swallowing hard. ‘It changed me.’
Somehow, Tiffani knew…that special, psychic bond between people in love that keeps hope alive during difficult times, the triumph of the human spirit, the will and the wish to go on, to take a wild stab at a different kind of happiness.
Once she’d put her mind to it, Tiffani, who also changed her name to Tiffi (‘it just sounds more birdlike, don’t you think?’ Becky asks), didn’t find the process as difficult as she’d imagined. ‘You have to really want it, you know?’ Becky explained. ‘This is America. Jeff has committed his life to defending our freedom to believe it and achieve it. Men like him? He’s why we can be whatever we decide we want to be.’
Tiffi was able to hide her rapid shrinkage, sprouting pin feathers, cracked black bill and gray, thickened tongue by claiming her Skype link had crashed so that she and Jeff could only communicate by phone; then, once the words were gone, she passed the task on to Becky. ‘Won’t pretend wasn’t hard,’ she squawked, a phrase Becky taught her by offering her a Froot Loop for each word she mastered. But it was the itching, Becky says, running her hands lovingly over Tiffi’s now-glossy back, that was the worst part, and learning to open jars using only her feet. Formerly an accomplished cook, Tiffi has been forced to resort to take-out. She’s learned to accept Becky’s help when it’s time to switch out the newspaper in the bottom of her cage. ‘She never liked depending on others,’ Becky said, picking a nit from behind Tiffi’s head and crushing it between her fingers,’but you do what you have to do.’
But that was not the only surprise Tiffi had for Jeff when he returned, released after the requisite PTSD observation at the nearby VA. Lighting on his shoulder, reaching over and taking his camouflage collar in her beak and tugging, she led him across the room to the tall cage in the corner, in which she had prepared a nest with leftover strands from Becky’s yarn stash. She ruffled her feathers proudly. Jeff’s eyes filled. ‘But baby,’ he said. ‘You kept sayin’ you wanted to wait.’ In response, Tiffi rotated her head until it was completely upside down and offered him a fetching wink: I’m ready now.
But the happiest moment came when she spoke the handful of phrases she and Becky had practiced for weeks: ‘Love you,’ ‘Missed you,’ and, of course, ‘welcome home!’
‘I love you, baby,’ Jeff said to Tiffi, perched on his shoulder, claws digging into his shoulder through the thick fabric of his fatigues. Tears poured freely down his face. She bobbed her head, blinked, rested her vivid head against his wet cheek. He lifted his hand, ruffled her crest with a finger, cracked a smile. ‘Now, don’t you go poopin’ down my back!’
Needless to say, Jeff was incredibly impressed by how his wife had handled things during his absence.
©2016 Melinda Rooney