Last Wednesday, the morning after I handed in my resignation, Schmutzie shook me by the shoulder as I lay dozing in bed. I have sad news, she said. Elliott died. She gave my shoulder another squeeze, put a kiss on my forehead and left for work.
She'd woken me from a vivid and complex dream of meeting an old friend in a park, so it took me a moment to understand.
There's not a great deal I can say about Elliott beyond Schmutzie's photo-eulogy. While beautiful, the photos do not do justice to Elliott's bizarre bumbling speed and headlong grace. For the first few years of our marriage, our chief entertainment, besides each other, was this stupid bird. Along with George, a cranky brown finch who bit the pet store employee, the veterinarian, and us (he had a knack for nipping the soft flesh between forefinger and thumb), Elliott was the first living thing that we decided to bring home. They felt - at least to me - more like guests than pets, little creatures that we had invited over for life.
The guides we consulted told us not to take the fattest or ugliest birds, but we were high on pity and espresso that day. George was uglier and older than every other finch in the cage, hunched under a little moptop cap of feathers and attempting to bite anything that came near. Schmutzie figured she could change him. Elliott had a roly-poly body and a tone-deaf squawk that sounded like Woody Woodpecker. We took them home on the bus, sitting between the bored Hong Kong university student and the puffy-cheeked kid with the Slipknot shirt.
When we let them into their cage, George thumped to the bottom and flew into the corner, no less grumpy for having been stuffed into a cardboard carrier for an hour. Elliott was a different story. He spilled out of the box onto his back, left wing askew and flinging a spatter of dark blood across the plastic base. We looked in the box and found more speckles of blood; somewhere between the store and our apartment he'd been injured. We figured that the saleswoman had grabbed him too hastily and cracked a bone in his wing.
The broken wing never quite healed. It messed up Elliott's equilibrium just enough to make him smack his head into the perches every so often, but it never seemed to phase him. To get an idea of what it was like, imaging running headfirst into a tree, falling over on your ass, jumping up immediately and running into the tree again. And then belting out a Woody Woodpecker laugh. Now imagine doing that several times daily for five years, and you'll have a pretty good idea of our bird's life.
If it was just a bit hilarious to watch him smack his head repeatedly, it was also amazing to watch his successful flights and his mad leaps at the side of the cage, where he would whip his body around in mid-flight and grab the vertical bars for a moment before springing to another quadrant. Sometimes he would continue his hold on the bars and slide down to the base of the cage. Then he'd fly headfirst into the feeder and George would fly down and try to bite him (or mount him, we were never sure).
One of the stranger aspects of marriage is the unspoken division of tasks. I knew when I got out of bed that Schmutzie had left without touching Eliott, had left his body in the cage, and that I would need to deal with it. I knew that that his little death was too much for her to reach in and handle. So, naked and cramped from sleep, I went to the spare room and saw Elliott for myself, a little bundle of feathers and beak in the corner of the cage. I wrapped him in paper towel, tied him up in a plastic bag and waited for Schmutzie to get home. We laid him down outside at the base of a tree by our front walk, where we figured an animal, probably a local cat, would take him away.
He stayed under the tree for three days. Even though he was dead, it felt strangely comforting to enter and exit our building and see our bird there, a little splash of white in the spring soil. We would stop and see how his feathers looked, remark on the healthy colour of his beak, ruminate a bit on his closed sunken eyes. It felt as if he hadn't really died, but were just waiting patiently for a train to come.
On the fourth day he vanished altogether, as if he had just gotten up and flown headfirst into a tree branch. And then flown away.