I n April, we run bloody fingers under sink-water, and tape over our broken skin.
We hold him in oven mitts, in mittens, in anything we can find. We hide our hands and feet under sweatshirts and socks. So he bites our necks instead. He latches onto my lip, my nose. He draws blood from my earlobe.
Ghost looks up at us. The floor is his domain, and we fear him. He’s only a few inches tall. He has a short, soft body and brown, lambent eyes. In this moment, he looks like a small, green leaf. He is only a parakeet. But for two weeks, he has kept us under his control in a terrible, fearsome, bloody reign.
Nico and I met in England, but we live in Nashville now. We had three parakeets in the UK, and before COVID hit, we were in the process of shipping them to the US. But in March, international air travel shut down. The parakeets were stuck with his parents, and we began talking about what would happen in the meantime. They were self-sufficient, our English budgies, and wouldn’t miss us. They had a good life in the UK. But Nico thought of another bird here: one we could raise to be a companion.
Nico was often on the road for work, and I was in the process of rehearsing for a major show with an aerial dance company. The show felt like the culmination of years of hard work: debuting my own piece, and a solo on aerial silks. I was busy, and I was strong. I spent most days flying in the air. He spent two-thirds of his time traveling. We both knew being stuck at home wouldn’t be easy.
With lockdown approaching, we also knew there would never again be a time when we could spend so much time at our apartment, with little else to do. So we agreed: we would start looking for a new bird. And he was set on finding a lineolated parakeet: a slow, quiet bird from South America, with a croaking song and a love for apples.
Nico’s last work trip had sent him to an island in South Korea for a few weeks, where he first saw lineolated parakeets at a bird cafe called LIP Parrot. The other birds at the cafe were loud and spirited. Linnies mostly slept and took polite nibbles from pieces of dried fruit. They looked like inquisitive pears. He loved them immediately. Linnies are rare, he discovered when he returned home and began making calls. Most breeders had a waiting list. But just outside of Dickson, Tennessee, we found one.
In the afternoon, we arrived at a yellow, concrete building next to a Dollar General and a farm supply store, an hour outside of Nashville. The showroom was busy: jumping cockatiels, screaming macaws, and wide-eyed purple finches. Sweet canary-winged parakeets stared at us from baby button eyes, and a silent Amazon parrot sat in a too-small cage. We smiled at them all, taking in the chatter.
The breeder was a woman named Betty, who greeted us at the door. She was trailed by an assistant with thick glasses and a vague air of confusion. In the corner, a man sat on a white plastic chair. He did not acknowledge us. There was a randomness to the scene I recognized from growing up in the country. It was impossible to tell the role or relationship of anyone in the room; it was as if we had all been thrown into a one-act play without our knowledge. Betty, her assistant, and the man in the corner looked startled to see us, and even more startled to hear we were interested in buying a linnie. Nico reminded Betty that they’d spoken on the phone.
“I don’t think you want him,” Betty said. “Not a good bird. We have lots of others.”
But we had driven all this way, Nico said.
He was a breeder bird, Betty explained. “He’s not a nice bird. I don’t think you’d like him. Some birds just aren’t meant to be family pets,” she said. “Lord knows we’ve tried,” she mumbled to herself.
But we were determined, we insisted. Betty’s assistant gave her a gentle push into a door behind the register.
A few minutes later, she returned clutching a plastic butterfly net. At first, I just heard the squeaking. But then I saw him. Inside the net, there was a green feathered blur scratching, biting, screaming.
“He’s not a tame bird…” Betty began.
He hardly looked like a bird at all.
Betty explained that he had been sent to them by accident with a shipment of other parrots they’d ordered. But he was fearful and shy, so they gave up taming him. I looked around the room and saw the small, dirty cages with new eyes. These were temporary set-ups, meant to get parrots in and out, not to accommodate them long-term. But this bird had been there for at least two years. In the two years he had lived with them, he had never known anything but the stale air of Betty’s back room, where she kept the birds they deemed unsellable. He had never flown, had probably never heard a kind word. He had been isolated, stuck. Alone.
Betty flipped him belly-up and grabbed his wings, pinning them to the counter.
Before we could protest, Betty took the bird’s wings and cut them roughly with blue kitchen scissors. We told her to stop. “We like our birds to be able to fly,” Nico said. “You don’t need to do that, we’d actually prefer him to keep his wings…” I began.
“It has to be done,” she said.
He struggled beneath her hand, but she held him fast.
“See? A mean bird.” I could feel Nico tense as the bird continued to scream. Betty pointed to the two Canary-Winged parakeets in the other room. “Now they’re sweet. Would you want to take them home instead?”
At that moment, the bird took a terrific, fleshy chomp of her hand, jumped off the table, and ran underneath a heater.
Betty yelped. Nico knelt by the heater and spoke softly to the linnie. He cupped his hands and gently picked the bird up. The linnie gave Nico a wide-eyed stare. “Look at him,” Nico said quietly to me. I looked into his hands.
The bird was round and very small, with bright green feathers and black spots. It hid under Nico’s fingers. When I looked closer, I saw something in its eyes. Not trust, and not anger. Intelligence. “Hey little guy,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”
The next day, I rode in the passenger seat of our car on I-40 East, a new bird cage in my lap with the parakeet inside. We didn’t know if he’d make it through the night. We’d discovered that he had an infection, which Betty had left so long untreated it took half of his nose, leaving a gaping hole in his beak. He was quiet, watchful. We agreed that even if he only lived a week, we would make it a good week: good food, toys, music for him to sing to. We named him Ghost.
Ghost did nothing for a few days. But slowly, things got better. He climbed. He walked. He’d only had a single perch for the first two years of his life, we figured. It would take him some time to learn even basic movements.
We were relearning too, as COVID hit Nashville in earnest that week. Dance rehearsals became online classes. I went from a spacious rehearsal hall and sixteen-foot aerial silks to a pull-up bar in the doorway.
At night, I read to Ghost from Wolf Hall, a long and beautiful historical novel. We played him the soundtrack from The Lord of the Rings. He quietly sang along. Sometimes after dark, we’d lie awake listening to him sing the sounds of Betty’s store: the calls of caiques and senegals, of macaws and cockatiels. He sang the soundscape of his past.
Ghost survived the first week, and soon we could coax him out of the cage with treats. His progress provided the only momentum as our lives ground to a halt. We tried not to focus on the news. I tried to take a walk every day. Nico endured bite after bite.
The sight of human hands still sent Ghost into a frenzy. I didn’t blame him, given what we’d seen on that glass countertop. A quick movement would send him running underneath the dresser or make him freeze for minutes at a time. But we kept trying. We took him out to our patio and watched him climb the Crape Myrtle tree in our yard. We gave him lots of sunshine. We waited.
Before I was swept up in the dream of becoming a dancer, I wanted to be an ornithologist. I had three parakeets as a kid, and I told my mom that I wanted to go to the rainforest and save military macaws from habitat threats. After that, I said, I wanted to open a bird shelter in my house.
As I grew older, I still dreamed of having a rescue bird, but it was a private dream, superseded by more urgent, outward-facing dreams. I lived a rich, meaningful, busy life before COVID, full of expression and excitement. But I also recognize now that I was lonely.
When Nico suggested we find a bird, I felt relieved. My days were full, but I felt invisible long before the pandemic started. I felt useful to the people around me, but not often seen. Nico was on the road a lot, and I came home most nights to an empty apartment.
“We agreed that even if he only lived a week, we would make it a good week: good food, toys, music for him to sing to.”
I could say that the absence of so much else—of commutes and get-togethers, of public accomplishment and end-of-the-day return home—threw our progress with Ghost into sharper, more dramatic relief. But the first time he climbed onto my arm and fell asleep on my shoulder, it felt significant in a way I hadn’t experienced before. It wasn’t just the lockdown, or the crushing boredom. It was that I knew, unequivocally, that I had shown a living thing what love was.
In July, Nico went back to Korea, leaving me and Ghost alone in the apartment. He had begun to trust me, but we were still near-strangers: roommates, thrown together by circumstance.
Still, the lockdown wore on. The days were a gift, the days were a void. All those hours. How did I ever fill them before?
I began to read parrot behavior training forums online, where I found a wealth of videos. I taught Ghost to stand on my finger. To turn in a circle. To go to where I tapped with my fingertip. To shake my hand with one of his little feet. Like most intelligent animals, parrots want to know the rules. So the tricks were more than tricks. They were teaching him that the world was full of actions and measured consequences. That his life was understandable and regular.
Ghost held me to the rules of this strange new arrangement, too. In the morning, I had to feed him, or he would bite me. Every afternoon, we trained. We were locked in a desperate battle to create regularity from hours of nothingness.
The rest of my life continued to unravel. I mourned our lost performance. I mourned the strength and capability of my body. I mourned so many things that I took for granted: commuting, groceries, running into people in town.
I would sometimes feel acute moments of sadness, and sit on my bed staring at the wall. When this happened, Ghost did not offer comfort like a dog or a cat would. He simply looked up at me, inquisitive, from his brown eyes.
We kept training. As he learned tricks, I understood his body language more and more: I could tell when he wanted to play and when he’d rather be left alone. In May, he cautiously let me scratch his head. He became more adept at balancing on my shoulder. I took him on the patio and he screamed greetings to our local mockingbird and cardinals. It made me wonder if he needed another bird for company.
But linnies, I’d learned, were in short supply. Ghost seemed to be the only one in the state, and even he came here by mistake. Besides, I reasoned, how much more companionship could he need? I was home nearly twenty-four hours a day.
Life at our apartment complex had a new rhythm, one I had never noticed before. Every day, I saw a woman walking her gentle, elderly dog across the parking lot. On the way back, she always carried the dog in her arms. In the afternoons, two black cats watched me from a patio overflowing with flowers.By the summer, Ghost spent much of his time next to me as I worked, wrote, sat, watched TV. He nipped at my feet when I did home workouts. He screamed along to the movies we watched. “You’ll hardly recognize him,” I told Nico on the phone. And it was true: he no longer feared my fingers. He sought out my company. He felt safe.
One morning, he climbed into bed and fell asleep on my chest, like a baby.
Things got easier that summer. Ghost could roam the apartment freely. I began that new phase of reluctant acceptance alongside so much of the world.
My dance company began rehearsing outdoors. I saved up for an aerial rig and an aerial hoop to practice on at home. When the hoop arrived, Ghost perched on it as I set it on the floor. The first time I went back into the air and hung upside down, tears in my eyes mingled with the outdoor sweat.
This new happiness felt like momentum in a new, unknown direction. And sure enough, later that week, I saw a strange message on a Tennessee parrot forum.
There’s a yellow parrot on my fence, the post read. It’s been here for about a week. Does it belong to anyone? I don’t know anything about birds or I’d catch it myself. I studied the blurry photo of a bird. It was like a yellow beacon against the dark fence. Lots of hawks around here. I’m worried it’ll be eaten if someone doesn’t come catch it.
A few hours later, I was en route to Liz’s house, the woman who had posted the bird. The summer air was mild. I could smell magnolia flowers through the open windows. I felt a strange, giddy sense of anticipation.
When I arrived, Liz led me behind her house to a fenced-in chicken coop.
We peered inside. There he was, between two chickens: a pet-store budgie, just as she’d described. It looked like one of those kids’ books where you spot the missing object.
“Like most intelligent animals, parrots want to know the rules.”
The little bird stood there, doing his best chicken impression. As I studied him more closely, he seemed less like an ordinary budgie. He was comical and unearthly, with a too-long tail and two different-colored eyes. It seemed as if he’d snuck through a crack in normal life from an alien dimension.
I had brought a bag stuffed with millet. “Hold on,” I said. “I have a recording of other budgies on my phone.” Liz held the cage door to the coop, and the yellow bird edged towards the chatter. He took a bit of millet from my outstretched hand gingerly, suspiciously. I tried to stay absolutely still, terrified he would fly away.
I moved the millet farther and farther, until he walked far enough into the cage that I could shut the door.
Liz and I, perfect strangers just minutes ago, stared at each other with the new intimacy of having shared an uncanny experience. We stared at the budgie. The budgie stared at us. I remembered a line of Elizabeth Bishop:
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?
It was silly, ridiculous, heroic. I felt a strange bond to Liz, as I walked the cage to my car. “Thank you for doing this,” she said. “You’ve done a real good thing.”
I planned on giving the budgie to a shelter. But when I called Nico, he didn’t mention any of the reasons we didn’t need another bird. Instead, he asked “is he cute?”
We searched hard for the owners, but none materialized. All signs pointed to an abandoned pet. Budgies are cheap, loud, and easy to come by. Every summer, many people release them into the wild. Most don’t survive.
“Don’t name him!” my mom said. “Then you’ll never let him go.”
We didn’t expect the budgie and Ghost to get along. But that first night, I took Ghost over to meet the new bird, who leapt toward us when we approached with keen interest in his sharp little eyes. He faced Ghost, clinging to the side of the cage, and made a perfect, inquisitive chicken cluck.
We named him Inko, a Japanese word for parrot.
Inko had brought the summertime indoors. He was wild, he was strange. One of his eyes was deep purple, and he had an air of mystery and wisdom. He flew circles around our living room and landed on my knee, my arm, my head.
Inko sang songs without meaning or pattern, all day long. He sang the mockingbird’s call, the chickadee, the Carolina wren. He sang the microwave beep, the iPad lock sound, and the harsh ch-ch-ch of his own kind.
Inko was glued to Ghost from the moment they met. And Ghost surprised us. He loved Inko easily and quickly. Though I offered them separate spaces, they slept huddled together in the dark.
Something had shifted with Inko’s introduction. Our home felt complete. And in the dead of night, when Inko sleep-talked, we sometimes heard a muffled chicken cluck alongside Ghost’s now-familiar songs.
In the end, Ghost and Inko were not some metaphor for our lives during the pandemic. They were not a lesson to be uncovered or learned, to neatly wrap up a frustrating and confusing year. Instead, they were themselves: parrots. Confusing, intelligent, surprising. They had as little choice over their strange circumstances as we did. Before he goes to bed, Inko often sits on my pointer finger, closes his eyes, and sings a soft song. He tamed quickly, grateful to be in a safe home.
Ghost spends most of his days running through the apartment, stealing any noodles and popcorn he can find, sleeping snuggled into my neck. He knows that an outstretched hand means a ride to his favorite spot, or a satisfying head scratch.
The birds offered something other than comfort to me, because comfort wasn’t what I needed. I needed direction and momentum, and I needed company. I feel immensely lucky. In a year of so much loss and uncertainty, something unexpected happened to me, and it was actually good.
It’s late December and the morning is warm and lazy. Nico and I sit in our living room, sipping on our coffee. There’s Inko, on his usual flight from the bedroom to the kitchen. It’s a short flight, one he does every day.
But behind him, there is a buzzing, determined green blur, trying, flapping with all his might, three feet off the ground.
Ghost, out of nowhere, is flying. Flying across our dining room, skidding to a stop in the kitchen. Running around the corner, whistling gleefully.
There he is, on our living room floor. Now, he turns his head. Now, he looks at me knowingly, from his small brown eyes.
I see Ghost. He is there, in Nico’s cupped hands. He is there, as we watch hours of TV together. He is there, as he learns to climb a ladder, as I unwrap my aerial rig, as he meets the new yellow budgie. He is here, ours, something unequivocally good.