On the way home from the funeral, Diego lets his wife drive. He’s gone numb from the sight of his mother, devoured by a dusty oak coffin, descending into the earth while bowed heads shed tears into the rain. Camila studies the hollow, unblinking eyes in the rearview mirror and knows this is something far beyond her abilities. She suspects a double helping of chicken tamales, his usual foray into decadence this time of year, would be equally powerless.
“Sweetness,” she signals with a smile once they’ve pulled into their driveway and the engine has faded away, “we’re home.”
The only response she gets is the drumming of raindrops against the windshield, loud and persistent in the freshly-bloomed silence. Para para para, they chant before scurrying down the glass and puffing out of existence. A million tiny deaths, quiet and inevitable. But it only took one for Diego to drown.
Camila sighs. One woman has left her husband’s life, and one remains. She’ll have to be as resilient as two women if she is to pull him out of all the dark places he’ll wander into before the holidays.
When did I get here? wonders Diego as he absently takes in the haggard face staring back from the bathroom mirror. Life has come to him in short bursts lately; one moment he’s watching a slice of charred meat peel off a fork to land in his salsa, and the next he’s curled in bed while Camila whispers sweet consolations into his neck. In between these is a blinding haze, thick as mud, and he is forced to direct his attention inwards, towards memories that have never shone so bright before.
Who wants a taste? Mama would announce, her shimmering voice echoing in Diego’s skull.
I do, I do, he and Stef would chirp as they bounded into the cramped but glowing kitchen, grins leaping off their faces.
Have patience, dear, Mama would say when Stef used his bulk to push ahead of Diego. You’re older than Gogo. Let him have a taste first, okay?
Stef would pout until it’s his turn to drain the ladle.
Stef, who had been the recipient of the recipe, and had switched roles with Mama to ladle serving after serving into her wrinkling mouth, up until she lost the will to fight and withered away in bed at the age of seventy-two.
The thought of being strapped down in a stuffy ward while nurses with plastic smiles shoved tubes down every orifice terrified Mama, so Stef had remained at home as her caretaker ever since the diagnosis. It had been folk remedies and fresh air instead, and it was working… until it wasn’t. Meanwhile, Diego had moved out, found love, filled his pockets with green. He had lived where Stef had done his duty as eldest sibling, the thing that has remained unchanged between them since tender mornings spent begging for a taste of Mama’s soup.
Diego had visited every weekend, bearing gifts that would earn him increasingly weak kisses from Mama. He and Stef would share a knowing glance, and there would be no trace of envy between the brothers; only respect, an acknowledgment of duty, and perhaps even silent reverence coming from Diego’s end. Their roles were set, predetermined since birth; Stef, whose bulk always seemed more suited to a stationary existence, and Diego, whose nimble frame encouraged him to rove from one whim to the next.
When Diego showed up one Saturday morning with Camila curled around his arm, Mama’s eyes sprang to life and she seemed to grow two decades younger, if only for a few precious weeks. It had melted Diego’s heart to know he’d filled that part of Mama’s.
Camila had been the one to suggest a pet. A companion to inject some colorful gaiety into the silence when Stef would make the two-hour drive to get medical supplies, or when he’d be cooped up typing his articles in the bedroom he used to share with Diego.
“It’s so good to see you, Gogo,” Mama would say every weekend when Diego arrived in her bedroom, voice tender as if her son was still a scruffy, barefoot nine-year-old in shorts.
“It’s so good to see you, Gogo,” the parrot would recite, without missing a beat, from its perpetual bedside perch. Then it would shriek at the top of its tiny avian lungs: “RAAAAAK,” and the room would flood with laughter.
Mama adored the little troublemaker; it was a child she could dote on all over again, especially in the way she’d talk to it like it understood her, and the dozens of seed packets exhausted every week. It was what the family needed.
But it wasn’t enough.
There had been a grim sense of finality in attending the procession. The passing itself had knocked the wind out of him and brought him to his knees, but watching a layer of dirt sealing her into the planet, a step closer to being forgotten… it had done things to him that nothing else could. His boss let him have the early vacation, but Diego would have closed the blinds over the world regardless.
Mama’s voice rings in his head, reaching out from someplace dark.
And then it’s followed by, “RAAAAAK.”
It’s enough to jerk Diego back to reality, where he’s surprised to find that sometime after moping around in the bathroom he’s managed to hobble into the living room and drape his hollow bones over an armchair.
“Angel didn’t mean to spook you,” reassures Camila at his side. “He’s just glad to see you.”
Diego takes a moment to absorb the wooden perch, five feet tall with the stand, and the set of talons curled around it. There’s no mistaking Mama’s parrot with its bright blue cape, yellow body feathers, and mischievous glint in one eye.
“It’s so good to see you, Gogo,” it squawks, tilting its head as if to inspect Diego.
Diego, who winces at the uncanny imitation. “Honey, why…?”
Camila shrugs. “Well, why not? He’ll feel more at home with people he’s familiar with.”
“Can’t Stef take care of it?”
“It has a name, sweetness. And it was Stef that insisted we keep him.”
Diego sighs. He glares daggers at the bird, whose boisterous, colorful presence feels indescribably alien in this house.
“Nuts!” it yells. “Go easy on the sugar, dearest. RAAAAAK.”
Camila giggles. “I think Angel is hungry. Here, I’ll show you...” She reaches into a cloth bag on the end table beside Diego and retrieves a thumb-sized nut. The parrot clasps it in between the two halves of its beak, as if they were fingers, and begins to silently work away at the shell.
“Now, you try it.”
Diego waits until the bird is done. “Ow!”
“HA-HA HAAAAAA,” it guffaws, clearly pleased by the sight of blood on Diego’s thumb.
“Honey,” he sighs, locking his impatience behind gritted teeth, “I don’t think this is the time.”
“And I don’t think you can give up because of a tiny little booboo. This was her parrot, for goodness’ sake.”
“There was nothing in the will about the parrot!”
“Do you need a will to tell you this is what she would’ve wanted?”
Diego’s shoulders slump even further into his soul. He knew he’d concede at some point, if not for his wife, then for Mama. “Fine. I’ll try to take care of it. I mean, him. Angel.”
Camila smiles, and it takes some of the sting away from Diego’s finger. “That’s the spirit. I’ll go get a bandaid.”
As soon as she disappears, Diego jabs a finger at his nemesis. “Let’s get one thing straight, birdbrain: we’re not friends. Now that Mama’s gone, you’re nothing but meat, and I’m only putting up with your feathery brand of horseplay because of her. Got that?”
“Oh, that’s a lovely story, dearest,” replies Angel.
“Will you stop that?”
“Sweetness, what’s all this shouting for?” asks Camila.
“Sorry. It’s just… this is going to take some getting used to.”
While Diego’s wife tends to his thumb, he squints at Angel, who returns the look with a mischievous glint in one eye.
Diego thought that, given enough time, he’d grow accustomed to the sudden episodes of shrieking and manic flapping of wings as the poor creature tried to take off.
He’s never been so wrong.
“You should talk to him,” insists Camila one day as she refills the food basin with a mind-bogglingly intricate mix of fruits and nuts and other things that would look infinitely better in a bowl of porridge.
“Well, that’s what your mother did. And who’s to say all this noise he’s making isn’t a cry for attention, hm?”
She’s treating that thing like it’s our son, realizes Diego.
Camila frees Angel from his cage and deposits him on the perch beside Diego’s armchair, which he’d found more and more difficult to leave as the grey days trudged on.
Diego fumbles for words. “Uh… how’s life, Angel?”
“What a lovely little present,” echoes the bird. “I’m so glad to have raised such a kind and thoughtful young man.”
Something red and noxious unfurls inside Diego. “Have some respect, you dumb animal. Mama is gone, and all you can do is make fun of her?”
“Dumb animal!” spits Angel right back. “Have some respect! RAAAAAK!”
“I’ll kill you, you little—”
“Diego,” cries Camila as she hauls the perch away before Diego can strangle its occupant. “Shame on you. He’s your mother’s parrot.”
“That’s the problem, can’t you see? I can’t go a day without feeling like she’s still around, even though she isn’t. And it’s driving me crazy.”
For a heartbeat, it looks like Camila might shatter under the mistake she’s made. Wordlessly, she shuts Angel in his cage and leaves the two animals to steep in each other’s presence.
One thing Diego can’t deny is that the haze has been easier to peer through lately. It’s nigh impossible to brood when the equivalent of a miniature, feathered child is filling the house with the screams of the damned every waking hour. Maybe this was Camila’s plan all along. To drag him out of his stupor by force.
The festivities flit by like winged termites; starting with Diego’s father, who had been excised from his life when he was barely a year old, his relatives had dropped one by one until he, Stef and Mama had been the ones to fill the uncomfortable silence during family gatherings. This year it’s a modest, sombre affair, taken up by business acquaintances and Camila’s folks. The house breathes a sigh of relief when the last person drives away.
Stef stays behind for a few hours, and he sparkles like a polished gemstone where Diego has been rusting away. “He looks alright,” he says, stroking Angel under the chin.
The armchair has an intoxicating grip on Diego. “I should’ve been there for her. But no, I did what I felt like, thinking that’s what the both of you wanted.”
“We’ve been over this. She was proud of you. We both were.”
So why is Diego still shackled to the cold earth while Camila and Stef roam freely?
“Look, Stef, if you like the bird so much, you can take him with you. The house must be dead quiet now that you’re the only one left.”
“You need him more than I do. Trust me on this.”
“It’s so good to see you, Gogo,” remarks Angel.
“See?” chuckles Stef. “Look how glad he is to be with you.”
“He hears things and repeats them. Copy paste. Like a machine. It’s what they do.”
Stef shakes his head. “They’re highly intelligent creatures. You’ll see.”
All Diego sees is responsibility, and a fine, taut line that’s this close to snapping, which must be his patience.
The last straw happens when Camila is out buying groceries. Diego has the simple task of refilling the food basin while she’s out; Angel seizes the chance to, quite literally, bite the hand that feeds him. But it’s the things he spouts afterwards, sacrilegious to every memory Diego holds dear, that drives him over the edge.
Camila didn’t take the car, so Diego bundles the bird inside and steps on the gas. He’s not sure what the law has to say about stabbing parrots to death, and he isn’t too keen on finding out. At the same time, giving it away feels too tame. In the heat of the moment all Diego wants is to see the bird punished in some way, an irrational attempt at snatching back what dignity he has left.
He parks outside the vet, lets the engine die. Camila might shed tears, but she’d understand. So would Stef. People in mourning can get away like that.
“Any last words, birdbrain?”
The animal cocks its head from the passenger seat. “I love you too, dearest.”
Diego has only pushed the door open when he hears a sharp cry of “NO!”
He hesitates. “What do you mean, ‘no’?”
“Don’t,” Angel continues, in a tone that strikes fear into Diego’s heart. “Stef, dearest, please don’t. Please. I love you. I have only ever loved you. STEFANO, PLEASE.”
When the bird is done, a deathly silence falls across the world, thicker than the snow blanketing the streets. Diego can only stare, mouth agape, as the dots connect themselves.
He slams the door and speeds off to Mama’s house.
On the way home from the trial, Diego lets his wife drive. He’s gone numb from the sight of his older brother, who he once thought noble and pure, clapped in irons as he was marched off by two burly officers.
Stef had seemed calm, even expectant, when Diego had burst into their childhood home, rage dripping from every word. Even with the confession, Diego had been hanging on to the hope that he would wake up any second and the world would be right again. But there’s a strange sense of comfort in knowing the grim reality of things: the years of envy, the sense of being left behind, the sudden impulse that led to Stef holding a pillow down over the source of all his troubles. A water balloon, bursting from too much pressure.
He’d turned himself in, as if he’d been waiting for an excuse the entire time, the guilt visible around his shoulders like a cape of thorns.
“Sweetness,” says Camila into the silence, “we’re home.”
Diego nods, so she exits the car and leaves him to his own devices. Angel had, perhaps unsurprisingly, been integral to today’s testimony as the only witness. Now he silently studies Diego from the backseat when he glances over his shoulder. No screaming, or rude remarks. Only silence.
“You miss her too, don’t you?” asks Diego.
The bird cocks its head, as if carefully choosing a response. “I’m proud of you, Gogo.”
He lets the tears descend then, the way they should have at the funeral. Maybe all Diego had needed was some company, another soul to hold onto his in the stifling gloom. And Maybe Angel needs the same thing.
He smiles at the bird, and the glint in its eye is soft, sincere. He’ll take care of Angel if its the last thing he does.