story was originally published in The
The cockatoo came in wheezing. Its owner, a tall young woman with tired
eyes, scooped the bird from a plastic cat carrier and placed it on the table
before the vet. “He doesn’t act right,”
she said. “Since yesterday. Won’t eat or anything.”
The vet, Dr. Wendy Howard, slim, freckled,
and boyish, set her hands on her hips.
“Not feeling too good, huh?” she said to the bird, in the expressively
sympathetic voice most people reserved for mopey children.
the technician, waited at Wendy’s left shoulder like a pink-smocked soldier at
ease, ready in case she were needed.
Though trained in numerous technical tasks befitting her title, her
primary job, as it turned out, was to restrain the animals for the vet’s
examination. This one, an umbrella
cockatoo—a common variety the size of a small chicken—appeared too lethargic to
need restraint. Otherwise she would have
stepped to the table without being beckoned and taken hold, one thumb notched
into the crevice beneath the cockatoo’s nutcracker beak and the other hand pinning
the wings, leaving the sternum untouched so as not to interfere with
breathing. In a year of handling
exotics, she had learned to accomplish restraint so that Wendy almost never had
to speak a word of instruction, whatever manner of bird, mammal, or reptile
awaited her on the table.
watched now as Wendy slid the towel from the bottom of the bird’s carrier and
frowned at the droppings. The owner
yawned, pressing at the sockets of her eyes, where the skin was deeply tanned
and printed with the remains of yesterday’s mascara. She was maybe thirty, attractive, though she
had the sordid, much-handled look of a child’s favorite Barbie. Her ponytail, long and striped with peroxide,
looked less like a hairstyle than a convenient handle for dragging her
around. Cassandra imagined she must have
survived something, escaped and settled into a solitary life with this
name’s Oscar,” the owner added, while Wendy set her fingertips along both sides
of the bird’s jaw, as if to critically admire a beauty. The bird shifted its gray feet on the table
and settled back to torpor. Its eyes,
like the woman’s, opened only by half.