In my dad’s veterinary clinic we had a bird, a cockatoo, named Cotton. Unlike parrots, cockatoos don’t get culture-wide credit for being able to talk. But they can, and Cotton could. He lived in a steel cage on wheels. We would wheel him up front so that people could see him and talk to him. Then we would wheel him into the back once he become over-stimulated and would not stop screaming.
All of us children spent a lot of time talking to Cotton, standing around the heavy cage watching him. We kept whole peanuts, in their shells, to give to Cotton. You would hold one out to him, and he would stick his grey, skeletal claws out of the cage and take it from you, and you would pretend not to feel revolted at the exchange.
You were careful to hold the peanut so that Cotton would have to reach out of the cage. You did not want to put your hand into the cage. One of my younger brothers, Caspar, put his hand in Cotton’s cage, and received a ragged, fishhook shaped wound on his finger, down to the bone, when the bird bit him. Among other things, Cotton could say “Cotton’s a pretty bird” and “answer the phone” and “get off your ass and answer the phone”. These last two phrases he’d learned from his previous owners, both of whom, we deduced, were reluctant to take calls.
One day an odd new phrase surfaced in Cotton’s repertoire. “Jeffery is a sonofabitch,” Cotton asserted to me, through a mouthful of peanut, with my siblings gathered around the cage. My name is Jeffery. This stunned all of us children for a moment, and then we laughed. Keziah, my sister, said, “I agree”, which got a positive reaction and a renewed outburst of hilarity from the rest of the siblings. I smiled along. As the oldest, I felt I could stand to take this kind of heat.
He said it without inflection. Or without the standard inflection of an insult. If someone insults you, they tend to put a spin on the words, to help them cut deeper and get the point of the insult as close to the bone as possible. Cotton delivered his barb without rancor. He stated it as fact.
Cotton calling me a sonofabitch bothered me. Why would he say that to me? I knew that Cotton didn’t say anything to me in any meaningful sense, that he’d just consumed a collection of sounds and regurgitated it. But that meant that someone was teaching him how to do this. Who would spend the time necessary to teach the bird to insult me, and why would they do that? Even worse, maybe someone called me a sonofabitch offhandedly throughout the day so often that Cotton had picked it up without dedicated instruction.
A few weeks later, Cotton added another new phrase. “The moon will be turned to blood, Jeffrey,” he started to say. He said this in the same cadence in which he said “Cotton’s a pretty bird”—in an inconsequential lilt, with a twinge of mockery. The apocalyptic phrase would have been bothersome and eerie without including my name. But with my name it sounded like a threat.
I asked my dad if Roland had been talking to Cotton recently. Roland was a mentally ill man who visited the veterinary clinic often in order to talk to Cotton about the angel who lived in the clinic’s basement. My dad said that Roland had a falling out with Cotton—he claimed the bird was withholding information about the angel—and had not been by in nearly a month.
I began to resent Cotton. If I was at my dad’s clinic, I would walk past him without acknowledging him or handing him a peanut.
One day, after a few weeks of this, I was heading to the back to clean cages and passed Cotton. He tapped at the side of the cage with his claw. I looked at him. Cotton grasped one of the bars of his cage, stuck his head up to the bars, turned to look at me with one black eye. “Fear rules you, Jeffrey,” Cotton said. He turned his head to stare at me with his other eye. I kicked the cage hard. It spun on its wheels and slammed into the wall. Cotton screamed loudly. He appeared to be pulling at the bar of the cage. I stepped closer to see that when the cage made contact with the wall it had pinned one of Cotton’s claws there. I pulled the cage back and Cotton withdrew his leg, which quivered. There was no blood, but the knuckle of the claw had been damaged. The door to the back swished open and my dad charged through to see what was happening.
“I was spinning the cage and Cotton’s toe got smashed against the wall,” I said.
“Don’t do that,” my dad said.
“Okay,” I said.
Cotton did not talk after that. He became sullen and began to pull his own feathers out. He screeched constantly. You couldn’t keep a bird like that in a place of business. My dad gave him away. Roland eventually came back to talk to Cotton about the angel, to find that his conduit to the spirit world was gone. At first Roland seemed pleased that judgement had visited Cotton. But then I began finding notes around the clinic, allegedly signed by the angel. The notes said things like, “You have betrayed me, Jeffrey. Sincerely, Angel”. Or “The end of the world is coming, Jeffrey. March 12, 1996. Sincerely, Angel”. I found Roland placing one on the window air conditioning unit once.
A few weeks ago, my younger brother Caspar told me over whiskey that he’d taught Cotton to say things about me. It was a slow vengeance against Cotton for biting his finger. He still has the scar. He thought that the appeal of a talking bird would be diminished if the bird began to swear and issue vague threats. Caspar would accompany my dad to the clinic to watch basketball games (my dad had cable installed at the clinic for the purpose), and spend the entire time in the back, rehearsing lines with Cotton.
“Why did you direct them at me?” I asked.
Caspar didn’t answer at first. Then he took a breath.
“Because you’re an easy person to blame. I was mad at you a lot, anyway. But you’re easy to blame. I mean you were.”
Caspar changed the tense from “you are easy to blame” to “you were easy to blame” to make me feel better. But the fact that he corrected himself made it seem that the present tense was correct, like I was still easy to blame.
“You have a lot of opinions about me,” I said. “Do you still think that fear rules me?”
“I think that fear rules you,” Caspar said. “But I don’t know what you mean by ‘still’.”
“Well, you taught Cotton to say that to me when you were ten,” I said. “Fear rules you, Jeffrey.”
“I didn’t teach him to say that, but whoever did was observant,” he said.
Sometimes I have an unbidden image in my mind of the angel standing at the bird cage, whispering to the bird inside, and the bird turning its head this way and that, staring into the empty air and repeating the words in its creaking voice. Sometimes I think I heard the angel myself. Sometimes I think I hear it now.