"A bird's company"
Absentmindedly, Hazel stroked her parrot's ruffled grey chest, breathing in the sweet, dusty smell of him. Bird had been with her for most of her life, she realized—since before memory, a squawking, feathered familiar. Counting backwards, Hazel decided that Bird was 54, she 58. Dad, who had been Bird's first love, was dead.
Earlier that year, Hazel's father had handed her Bird's plastic travel cage. Fearing more for the bird than for himself, he had gotten the African Gray's affairs in order not long after his cancer diagnosis. "Good Bird," he had said, his gruffness hiding threatening tears. "Hazel will mind you."
In the intervening months, Bird and Hazel had doctored one another's loneliness. Just thirty days after Bird had moved into Hazel's third floor condominium, their patriarch had died a slow, quiet, softened-by-morphine death. Kindred in their grief, Bird and Hazel had both worn gray to the funeral, only a red scarf and tail feather breaking the cement-hued scene.
Loneliness had brought Hazel and Bird closer, since, and they spoke for hours of their hopes, of their histories, and of the man who had been the only family to them both. "Mother left before you came," Hazel told Bird. "Naughty naughty!," Bird scolded in reply.
Over the course of one winter, Bird and Hazel bonded like they never had during childhood. Pestering Hazel with his mundane cries of "Pretty Bird!" and "Wanna cracker?," Bird drove Hazel to teach him a more diverse vocabulary. "Quivering clamshells!," he learned to squawk. "Rosy red rhinoceroses!" Soon, Bird had a vocabulary to rival the Oxford English Dictionary.
Throughout that winter, when Hazel thought she was teaching Bird, he was teaching her, too. Unwind by singing every evening. Vent your frustrations. Wash your face before breakfast.
"Xerxes of Persia!," the parrot screamed when Hazel covered his cage at bedtime. "You yammering yak!"
"Zip it," Hazel would sigh, smiling, before climbing under the covers, touching a bedside photo of her father, and drifting off to a dreamless sleep.