There’s a place called The Factory where they sell stuff.
Mili’s mum went there when she was a kid, but they screwed up her order and she got Mili instead. She always sighed nicely when she told this story, but it was obvious that the years of litigation had worn her down. Most people just took what they got without argument. You only get one trip to the Factory. They mark your order on a little card and say thank you and goodbye. And if you bothered to read the fine print on your receipt, you saw that they meant it. Mili always said there’s no way she’d ever go to the Factory. Except that once when she did.
When she got the bird home, it started a conversation Mili had been needing to have for a while.
You know you sort of look like a bird.
It wasn’t a rude bird, just the kind that called it as it saw it. They say that after a while people start to look like their pets, and Mili did have those hands that could never keep still. They fluttered about her body like a hummingbird looking for nectar. Her high forehead was the same shape as a parrot’s, probably made worse by the scraped back ponytail she always wore.
I mean, your nose isn’t that hawkish, but your nostrils do pinch in a bit and make the tip look sharper than it is.
The bird and Mili talked on a shabby balcony barely big enough for one person. Mili filled it with potted ferns and squat succulents so that stepping onto it she could pretend she was in a green elevator.
So you gonna kill me or what?
Mili wobbled atop the painted white rail of her balcony and almost lost her balance. She found the cage in an antique store that smelled like her aunt, it had thin gold bars, so dainty they transformed the cage into more of a beautiful jewelry box.
I mean, it’s not technically murder, but you’ll kill me for sure if you jump. I’ll starve.
The bird swung on the delicate perch like a trapeze artist. It twitched its beak at a few dusty feathers that Mili could never bring herself to remove. Mili shook her head. The seed bell alone would last the few days it would take for someone to notice she wasn’t at work. The man at the Factory with the beard promised her a week even. She didn’t usually take the advice of bearded men, but he had such kind eyes, and it was more of a goatee really.
The bird looked at the seed doubtfully.
I don’t wanna eat that crap for days. Why don’t you just let me go?
Mili remembered the pet store she went to before the Factory. The smiling Pet Guy went out the back to get a box and was gone for a long time. When he came back, his expression was different. Behind him was an older man she recognized.
-Good Morning, Miss, the older man said.
The word sounded mean directed at her.
Mili felt like a terrible prank was being played when he said he couldn’t let her take the Kakariki, a little parakeet from New Zealand with a real sweet trill.
At her expression, something snapped in the older Pet Guy and he spoke harshly like he was reading from a list.
-The Ringed Neck Parrot. An African Grey Parrot. The two Lovebirds. The Cockatiel. The Parakeet. Three Budgerigars. Have I forgotten anything?
She lowered her eyes and spoke to the floor, like a child being punished.
-Yes, of course. The Lorikeet. And what happened to him?
-He flew away.
The old Pet Guy sighed and said that it was his duty to make sure these animals went into safe homes.
Mili nodded, tearing up, backing away.
The young Pet Guy said that she doesn’t look like she was doing it on purpose, maybe she just needed some advice.
-Like when you clean their cages you should maybe do it inside…
But Mili was already on her way to the Factory.
Why did you let all the others go?
Mili looked down the thin strip of alleyway.
-I had to know if they would come back.
The bird hopped onto the cage bars, clutching the gold in its tiny talons.
Hey, they were jerks for not coming back, but that’s no reason to jump. Maybe a nice little aquarium would do the trick out here. And you’d get to see Beardy again. I think he likes you.
She shook her head and smiled a droopy smile that nearly broke the bird’s little heart.
-You don’t get to go back. And it’s not because they don’t come back, silly bird. It’s the look in their eyes… they look so free.
Her hair slipped out of the scraped back ponytail and framed her face. The bird thought, hey, she really is kind of pretty.
The bird hopped back on its perch and swung for a little while, quite put out. But it didn’t hear the thud of her body splattering on the pavement. And as it began to get dark, it began to think that maybe she’d flown away after all. As the bird nibbled on its seed bell, it thought that whatever had happened she was right about the look in those eyes.
“The Last Bird” originally appeared in print in the Melbourne literary journal fourW and online at the late, great Bananafish (which we still kinda miss.)
yt sumner likes words and people that write them. People that listen to them. People that read them. Eavesdroppers. Stutterers. Silvertongues. She was born in the UK, raised all over Australia and settled happily in Melbourne. Her short stories have appeared in various literary journals, anthologies and magazines and she’s currently coaxing a motley group of them into a collection. Visit her at lambeatswolf.wordpress.com and then send her a postcard.