The front door swung open as if blown by a strong wind, and Grandma barged in, lugging a steel cage the size of her torso. Inside, a yellow cockatiel with orange-spotted cheeks and gray plumage stood on a wooden rod. Setting the cage on the kitchen table, Grandma cooed at it.
She had been acting strangely for months. Just last week, I was surprised by a stray dog sniffing at the refrigerator. For some inexplicable reason, Grandma had let it in, and I was the one who had to coax it out the front door.
Grandma called out in Chinese, “Look at the present I got you.”
Unable to feign disinterest, I walked over to examine the bird.
“What’s it for?”
“I thought you needed a pet. You look so bored.”
The bird squeaked, and I bent down to look at it through the bars. It was the size of a lemon and twitched at me with confused eyes.
From her shopping bag, Grandma pulled out a bag of birdseed and tossed it to me. I fumbled with it as if receiving an unwanted prize from a claw machine.
“Feed this to him every day and put fresh newspapers on the bottom of his cage so he doesn’t die.”
I would have rather had a new phone. Or a new bicycle. Or a bar of soap. But as I watched Grandma clap the dust off her shoes, I envisioned her journey from the conglomerate pet shop that smelled like sawdust to the bus stop with the dropping-covered bench. I imagined her awkward descent down the steep bus-steps and her trek through crowded intersections and past the barking bulldog in Mr. Miller’s yard on the way back to the neighborhood. Could I refuse such dedication?
Carrying the cage to my room, I passed by an oil painting of Mount Lu entrenched in white clouds, a towering reminder of Grandma’s childhood. It was one of the few things she brought over from her old Nanjing apartment, where the paint flaked off the walls. I set the cage on my desk, which overlooked the generic suburban neighborhood. I could fit the bird onto my bookshelf, but my science fiction books and treasured volleyball trophies would have to be removed.
I gave him toys: colorful wiffle balls and some Lego pieces. I gingerly offered him the birdseed. He plunged his beak into the hill of nourishment and nibbled. I named him Yu for euphoria because he squawked all evening.
A few weeks later, I came home from school and found Yu out of his cage, roosting on Grandma’s lap. Some balled-up tissues lay on the sofa, and a documentary on China displayed on the flatscreen. An open container of Haw Flakes lay on the coffee table along with an unfinished Sudoku puzzle. Our TV was twice as wide as Grandma’s old-style television in her tiny apartment back in Nanjing. The camera panned over the mystifying Shilin Stone Forest. I was about to make a remark when I heard raspy breathing. Grandma’s cheeks were watery and her eyes red.
“Are you sick? Is everything okay?” That sounded like what an adult was supposed to ask.
Grandma replied, “Ni ke yi ba niao fang zhou ma?” Can you put the bird away?
She placed Yu onto my fingers, and I carried him into my room. Seeing her cry was bizarre, as if I were watching her soul slipping down her face. I placed Yu inside the cage and listened until the crying had stopped.
That evening, Yu squawked continually in my room. Somewhere in my neighborhood, a kid was taking up the flute, and their unearthly screeches combined with Yu’s shrieking to create an ear-aching symphony. I tried to focus on my calculus homework, but the screaming noise was an auditory wound.
I stopped my pen. It was one of the queer things I didn’t normally notice: the sounds in my house. Before Grandma came, I’d blast my classical music on the Bluetooth speaker or watch old TV shows. But now I gave Grandma full reign of the television and wore headphones so she could nap undisturbed. During those days, noise came from my computer and Grandma’s television. Aside from the barest of communication for necessities, there was little organic sound besides that coming from Yu.
Unable to concentrate on homework, I carried Yu on my fingers to the backyard. The clouds had dissipated, and the dying orange sunset reflected off the windows. Standing in the shady spot next to the magnolia tree, I listened as Yu chirped incessantly just as he did on the first night. His food was provided for him, his shelter was given to him, his protection from predators was assured, and his only job was to sing.
Grandma’s window was open, but the flowery curtains were drawn. A phone rang, and Grandma’s voice sounded. I barely listened: “Alex loves the bird …. It chirps all day,” but she soon digressed into her aching joints, the lack of stinky tofu in San Jose, and the cost of noodles at Ranch 99.
“It’s too calm and quiet here. Back home, I could hear the cars, the motorcycles, and the noisy people. If I walk to the park and sit, I maybe see one, two cars, and one person walking a dog. It’s like being on an island waiting to die. Every day, I get up, watch TV, eat, and sleep.”
I knew she was a different person in Nanjing. She liked the country and fishing barefoot for freshwater eels. Now, she was a foreigner dropped into my living room. I almost felt guilty for her life like a prison inmate.
Just then, Yu leapt off my hand and flew through the two palm trees and into the sky. “Yu!” I called, while my mind scrambled to figure out how I had forgotten that birds’ wings grow back. He soared the updrafts and disappeared over the suburban houses. I dashed out the gate and out of my cul-de-sac until I reached the road, where the rush hour traffic flowed like the impassable Yellow River. My last sight of Yu was the setting sun glinting off his gray tail feathers as he flew over the six-lane road. It was the time of the year when it was still winter but close to spring. He could wither in the cold, unable to find food or shelter. Or he’d be eaten by some cat, I was sure.
When I told Grandma that Yu flew off, she scolded me, “Birds have wings! Did you think it would just sit there on your hand?! It protected you from bad luck, and now your luck has flown away.”
I stood there, not knowing whether to accuse her of wonky superstition or to apologize.
She handed me three twenty-dollar bills and said, “Buy a new bird on your own. But wait until you’re older, more responsible. It’ll bring your luck back.”
“Okay,” I said. I didn’t tell her that I didn’t want another bird, but I accepted the money, knowing I’d probably spend it on a used basketball hoop.
That night, Grandma caused a huge uproar with my parents.
“Who’s going to take care of you in China? Did we spend months getting you a Green Card just so you could tour America and go back home?” my mom bellowed.
They had had the same argument many times before. And on each occasion, I would pretend to continue my homework at my desk, or peruse a novel on the couch, staring at the black letters, but not reading.
I interjected suddenly, without the wave of boldness that I had been hoping for, “You get home every night, and you only see her sleeping, but don’t you know how bored she is? Could you watch TV on a couch every single day until you die?”
With grudging support from my parents, Grandma left the following month. She was received at the airport by relatives and returned to her old life in China.
A few years later, Grandma passed away in my aunt’s apartment in Nanjing. I often thought about her after she left, imagining she had settled back into her pleasant past life, talking to local market owners, going eel fishing with her neighbor, and falling asleep in a familiar bed in a familiar country.
The evening after we burned spirit money for Grandma, I was playing basketball in my driveway when I thought I saw Yu sitting in a tree across the street. It probably wasn’t him. The bird was plumper with shiny black eyes and smooth plumage. But the same orange spots dotted his cheeks. I cautiously approached him, but by the time I got to the tree, he had flown away. His chirping stayed with me as I went inside.
That night, I left my window open and thought about Grandma. I wondered if she received our money and what she would do with it.
Alex Zhang is a sixteen-year-old who lives in San Jose and attends Lynbrook High School. He loves reading novels, manga, poetry, and just about any piece of writing. Someday he hopes to write a novel about an alcoholic man trapped in a post-apocalyptic world struggling to find meaning in his life (it’s a work in progress).