We bought the bird with his big dusty plumage, looking much older than the one-year estimate the pet store owner gave. “A brilliant animal!” he said, which won my wife over. It was a massive white cockatoo, big as a lap dog, and it liked to fly around the house, swiping by your head and landing unexpectedly on the back of your chair or on your shoulder with that heavy death grip of its talons. It sat up in the trapezoid windows, clawing the molding and shitting, until I insisted it get its wings clipped. The bird watched me resentfully as I joked to my wife we could do it ourselves with a falconer’s hood and a pair of shears. It was Marta who took him—his name was “Stanley”—to the vet.
<p>SHORT FOR LIARS LEAGUE (creepy story for Halloween—800 wds</p>
Afterwards, Stanley sat picking at his impotent wings, or crawled pathetically down the side of his cage like a hobbled gymnast, making me feel guilty. My wife cried a little; she was an emotional woman, prone to sympathies with animals. I often thought it suggested a sadistic streak in her, the way she could get so riled up by suffering. She seemed most powerful when in its grip, and she was crying a lot these days. I didn’t care much for the bird, and when I went to pet it absent-mindedly, it nearly took off my finger.
I had a lot on my mind around then, and Marta was often home. It was she who taught the bird to lie down with its talons curling up like the wicked witches’ stocking feet. I didn’t know this, and one afternoon I walked into the living room to find the bird dead on the rug. Somewhat relieved, I got in closer to check, when it hopped upright and strutted over to the couch. Then, as if it were embarrassed being caught out at practice, it grabbed the newspaper with its beak and turned a page, pretending to read. A trick, maybe, but something about the bird unnerved me. I had a submerged wish to do it harm. I got up to leave, and that’s when it extended to its full wing span so I could see its hairless little armpits and the spray of feathers mangled by the recent clipping. It puffed out its chest, as if to intimidate me. I bust out laughing and said, “Calm down now, Stanley.”
He folded his wings in, did a sideways step, and said, “Claire.”
My heart froze. The bird cocked its mouth open again, wriggling that dry little black tongue, like a caterpillar carcass, and said again, “Claire. Claire.” He rotated his head to show me his profile and winked. “That whore.”
Filled with rage, I took a swipe at him, and he shuffled away, squawking in his garbled tongue, more unnatural and demonic than any human accent on the English language. He was saying terrible dirty things, filth poured from that hard calcified mouth. I fled and locked myself in the bedroom.
Was he repeating me? But I never said those things, only thought them. Or, to be honest, I did say it but only in the heat of the moment. She liked it! But how would Stanley know? This was insane. God forbid he started blabbing to Marta. What hellion bird was this?
Afterwards, I kept an eagle watch on that bird, but he was mostly silent, staring at me with his black menacing pupils like dots of lead. He was sitting on Marta’s shoulder, gently pulling locks of her hair with his beak, fussing and cleaning it the way monkeys do. It was revolting. “Why do you let Stanley do that?” I accused her. Both person and bird turned around to look at me, Stanley’s head swiveling almost a clear 180 degrees. “Claire,” he said again. Then he said, or I could swear it, “Yer’ a slut.” My mouth dropped open.
“It sounds like he’s saying ‘care,’ doesn’t it?” Marta stroked him with her chin, and the bird leaned in to her. “Who do you care for, boy?”
I was trembling, trying to keep calm. “That bird’s got a screw loose. It’s probably some leftover aural garbage from the pet shop days.”
He turned to me. “Bye,” he cawed, and I left the room.
I decided to kill him. There was an obvious need for stealth, as if I were planning the murder of a human, and I did my research where the bird couldn’t appear suddenly at my shoulder. That afternoon, I was standing in line at the garden store with the poison when fear gripped me around the throat like a cold hand. If you kill this bird, its soul will drive you insane. It sank in when I was out in the lot. The bird’s killing would chain me forever to my sins, with horrific consequences.
So I did nothing. This was frequently my result when faced with an intimidating task and myriad complications. I knew this about myself and wasn’t proud of it, but it actually seemed to bother those around me more than it did me. I’d stopped returning Claire’s phone calls, although I didn’t break off our affair. She became irate, leaving me messages. “You’re so weak. Your wife leads you around like a dog!” She accused Marta of brainwashing me and me of fabricating the story about the bird. Ha! But I wasn’t about to tell Claire the truth of what I now knew about Stanley.
The bird and I generally avoided each other. I asked Marta delicately if he spoke to her at all, and she said, no, not really. I was feeling a lot of guilt around this time about my sweet, intelligent, softly moving wife that I’d sold out for the cheap thrills of Claire, with her hard calves and her crass, but exciting, manner. What was she to me? She was now dating someone else. The bird, I had to admit, was right to punish me. Out of penance, and also fear of a verbal assault, I’d stopped going into the living room in the evenings, where his cage and my television was, and instead took work or reading to my study.
Things seemed on the way to being mended, until one evening when I decided to turn in a little early. There, in the bedroom, I saw my lovely naked wife bent over her night table, with her large-nippled breasts and shiny pubic down. In front of her was the bird, strutting cockily—his greedy beetle-like eyes on her and his beak slightly open, as if he were lightly panting. His yellow Mohawk was stiffly out, craning towards her like an erection.
I lost it and went raving like a lunatic, threatening to get out the gardening gloves and strangle him, talking in half-sentences and muddled confused thoughts, until my alarmed wife took Stanley on her naked arm into the other room, locked him up in his cage, and calmed me down.
I bided my time. Three days later when Marta was out, I went to fetch the bird, that wife-poacher. I struck the cage with a stick to threaten him. He bobbed his head, going back and forth on the perch. “I kilb you,” he said. His garbled pronunciation infuriated me.
I carried the cage into the alley. There I had set out two chairs facing each other. I sat in one and on the other I put Stanley’s cage. Even a demon bird has its ornithological weaknesses, and I’d been cultivating the attentions of the neighborhood tomcats with cans of tuna. Some were already milling about and the others came running when they spotted me. My heart raced, as in a bar fight before the first punch is thrown.
Stanley was trembling, smelling the cats hissing and nosing at the cans below. I pointed out the sound of the free birds, the crows and starlings and pigeons. How they had wings that worked. I cooed, imitating them. One of the cats hopped into my lap, and I shuddered at the filthy weight. The bird opened his mouth and said my name, hesitantly, almost pleading.
“Now, we’re getting somewhere!” I said. “What is it you want from me, you demon? I’ve already given up Claire!”
That’s when my wife appeared in the alley. “What are you doing!”
“Giving Stanley some fresh air.”
I took a quick glance at him to see if he would accuse me, but he was looking pleadingly at her. It was clear he’d fallen disgustingly in love.
As she took him away, he winked at me. Through the open window I could hear him released from his cage, going up and down the outer rungs with his heavy clicking.
That day Stanley stopped talking. A few days of his birdy routine, and I began to think maybe I had imagined the entire thing. I taunted him, describing sex with Marta the night before. He said nothing. Just ate his seed, picked his feathers, which were growing back in, and avoided looking at me. Still, I had the disquieting sense he was storing up energy for something devastatingly grand.
In my dream the bird was hanging upside down, like a bat, like Lucifer himself. I woke up suddenly, shivering. I’d kicked off my blankets and was lying face up, naked. My wife slept soundly beside me. I pulled up the covers and dozed. Again, I awoke with the blankets off. I rolled over and saw Stanley, two inches from my hip, head tilted, staring at my penis with a mixture of anger and longing. He walked the length of my body, studying me greedily. The sharp curve of his beak glinted in the streetlight from outside.
Hollering, I brought my knee up, knocking the bird over. I slapped at him like a woman, and he bit my hand, drawing blood. I pulled back in surprise, and then got a hold of his feathered neck and in a rush of revulsion and shame and glee, twisted it until I heard a crack. I hurled him against the wall and he fell on the floor, claws down, like a stuffed toy. I was sweaty and alarmed and bleeding. Behind me my wife was crying. A mournful sound rose up from deep within her and filled the corners of the room. Wailing. A terrible agonizing sorrow. It was worse than any sound I have ever heard her make. She was saying it was her fault, over and over. I tried to comfort her. How could she have known the bird would become obsessed with her?
I procrastinated burying Stanley, but nothing happened to me. I was free. Two days after his body was in the ground, Marta told me she wanted a divorce. She knew everything about the affair.
“Stanley told you?” I said. “When?”
She looked surprised and then nodded, dry-eyed. “Before that terrible night.”
She used the bird often against me, saying Stanley told her I’d try and be cheap at the finish. She didn’t need the theatrics. I gave her everything. I believed a generous admission of guilt was the only way to end the curse. Her lawyer drew up the papers. The day they were signed, I was nearly penniless but felt at peace for the first time since Stanley came into my life.
Marta’s and my things probably got jumbled when I was moving out of the house, but I like to think Stanley was watching out for me, man-to-man. He too had experienced the deceptiveness of women and been broken by it. It was in a shoebox of Marta’s, very similar to the one I had buried Stanley in, that I found her bird-training books and tapes, and all my e-mails with Claire, both dirty and loving, printed out months ago. It was the script my bird, my duped nemesis, had been trained to torment me with.
© Jessica Lott, 2008
Stanley was read by Alex Woodhall at the Liars' League Jekyll & Hyde event on Tuesday October 14th, 2008.
Jessica Lott's first book, the novella Osin, won the Low Fidelity Press Novella Award and was published last year. She holds two Master's degrees, in Literature and in Creative Writing. She is an arts editor and reviewer in New York City and is currently finishing her first novel.