Friday, August 19, 2011
He was born in an Arizona incubator, came rolling out of an egg that had been taken from his parents. Which, right off the bat, doesn’t seem right. He was bred of captive parents for captivity, but he was never domesticated, and his kind never can be.
He was shipped at a tender age to a bird broker in Connecticut who put an ad in the paper, which was spotted by a 31-year-old woman who had recently lost Edie, her best-ever white budgie.
Who wanted a new baby bird who would live a long, long time. Who probably should have been planning for a human baby about then, but that’s moot now, beside the point.
She got what she wanted, and a whole lot more. She put Charlie in a big cage that took up almost her whole tiny living room in a cabin in the woods in Connecticut. Charlie learned to call her boyfriend’s name: “ROB?!” and he called Rob for the next two decades, even after the young woman left and
moved to Maryland, and then to Ohio.
Charlie bit Julie's new boyfriend Bill until the bird figured out that he wouldn’t get any more beer if he kept doing that.
Bill and Julie got married and built Charlie his own room with glass doors and a sunny window and a big countertop to play on. Charlie could keep Julie company in the studio, and he did, very well indeed.
Along came a little girl, Phoebe, in 1996, and Charlie was fascinated and fell in love with the little girl.
They played for hours all around the house, in closets and halls, hiding and chuckling and sharing secrets together.
Phoebe could do anything with Charlie. She could wrap him in her blue blankie and carry him like a baby.
When Liam was born in 1999, Charlie fell in love all over again, and suggested to Phoebe that she should probably learn to fly off and find her own territory. That never happened, so they all learned to get along.
Charlie was 17 when a little black and white puppy came to live on Indigo Hill. He bit the pup once on the nose and was the Boss forever after. Chet and Charlie played lots of games, but Charlie wasn’t much for sharing toys or seats or beds. He just took them and bossed Chet around.
All along, Charlie kept his best friend Julie company as she worked on her writing and painting. He loved to watch a bird take shape under her hand. He liked to check to see if their shiny eyes might come off the paper.
For her part, Julie loved his warm doeskin-soft cheeks, his kisses, his crazy sense of humor, and the sweet familiar weight of Charlie on her shoulder as she worked and thought.
She did not love the endless messes he made, but she took the good with the bad. She often said that there is no dirtier animal than a macaw, and she sounded like she meant it. “A hundred times more work than a dog! A hundred times!”
Phone bill? What phone bill?
Sometimes papers went missing. Bills, things like that. Books were notched, stationery was confettified, and cabinets were emptied, especially when Julie was otherwise occupied.
Really, the safest place for Charlie was on Julie's shoulder, supervising the bird painting.
There were warm summer evenings and lawn games;
there were chases and screams and Sungold tomatoes.
There was mashed sweet potato from a spoon. And cheesy eggy grits. Everything good.
And then in late summer 2011 Charlie started to act strangely. He fell silent and began looking for a corner where he could build a nest. He wanted to tear up the wall of his own special room, but Julie gave him newspapers and thick art catalogues instead. He could reduce them to confetti in a single day. He chewed and chewed.
July 15, 2011
Charlie began pulling his tail forward and making odd roaring squawks. He rushed at anyone who entered his room. He hardly paused to eat. And then there was a rattle in Charlie’s breath, and Julie became very alarmed. She called his best veterinarian, Bob from Connecticut. Bob listened to Julie’s story, and the first question he asked was, “Are you sure Charlie is a male?”
The bird dealer had assured Julie that Charlie had been surgically sexed and was a male. Charlie had been mating with Julie’s sock foot for years (whether she liked it or not). Julie thought Charlie was a boy…but maybe someone had lied, someone who was trying to sell a macaw quickly. If only the dealer could have known what that lie would do. It would have been good to know Charlie's sex for certain. It would have explained a lot.
Summer 1990. Photo by Michael Stern
On a Monday night in August, Charlie’s biggest secret became clear. She was trying to lay an egg, an enormous egg, and it would not come out. The egg was so big it had collapsed Charlie's air sacs, causing the rattle in her breath. Julie held her little hen macaw in her arms past midnight, then got up at 4 AM to rush her to Columbus on Tuesday morning. All the way, Julie cradled Charlie’s cheek in her hand, stroking her sweet sea-blue head. But the egg wouldn’t come, and no amount of work by a bird veterinarian could remove it all. Charlie was terribly sick and fading fast. When the doctor let Julie in to see her, Charlie was in an incubator once again. Which didn’t seem right at all.
And when Charlie heard Julie’s voice, her eyes flew open and she struggled to the front of the plastic cube to be closer to her best-ever friend.
Winter 1989. Photo by Michael Stern.
And that was the last they ever saw of each other. Which still doesn’t seem right.
But there’s nothing to be done about it but to go on, in a studio that is now much too quiet.
August 19, 1988
August 9, 2011