Fiction Literature Rachel Lalonde


When my older sister Mathilde was twelve, my mother told her she had to wait a year before getting a pet—to make sure she was responsible enough, or maybe just hoping she’d change her mind after a year. My sister, being an animal-loving preteen fuelled by stubbornness, waited the year and didn’t change her mind.

“A shelter,” our mother insisted, and Mathilde agreed to that one condition.

I tagged along, seven years old and already planning my trip to the shelter in six years—after all, if they gave in to Mathilde’s nagging, they couldn’t very well refuse me when my turn came.

A few hours later—at least it felt like it—we were on our way home, an eight-month-old mutt in a cage in the back seat, Mathilde sitting beside it, feeding it kibble through the wire grating. This meant I got to sit in the front, and I took advantage of the opportunity to swing my feet without worrying about her yelling at me for kicking her seat.

So then we had a dog. We got the necessary amenities—the food, the toys, the little scent-trapping bags, the bed that was never slept in because the dog decided early on it wanted to sleep in the pile of laundry on the floor of Mathilde’s room.

The dog shed. Its fur—brindled, so we thought there was maybe some Pit-bull or Boxer in the mix—was long and soft, dark at the tip and light at the base, so it showed up on any fabric no matter the shade. We added lint-rollers to the list of things we needed to buy every few weeks.

Maggy—that was the dog’s name—died at eight years old, delaying my trip to the shelter by two years.

“We can’t have two dogs in the house at a time, Anne,” my mother explained, vacuuming dog hair off the living room throw pillows.

Maggy apparently also had some Leonberger or Mastiff or something in her, because she’d grown to 110 pounds of fur and muscle by the time I was thirteen and ready to get my own pet.

“I won’t get a dog then.”

“Maggy doesn’t get along with cats, remember?”

“I won’t get a cat either, then!”

“Then what?”

“Take me to the shelter and I’ll know!”

I was sent for my room for using “a tone.”

Maggy’s funeral was held at our grandparents’ farm in Trois Pistoles, north of Rivière-du-Loup, which is north of Quebec City, which is north of Drummondville, where we lived. All that to say it was far, and we drove the whole way with a 110-pound dead dog in the trunk.

We came home, and after a respectful grieving period, went to a shelter and I chose my pet.

◊ ◊ ◊

Enter Kiwi.

Kiwi was talkative, lime green, and inquisitive. A half-moon Conure, the exotic pets specialist said. We adopted him, but were told to come pick him up in a couple days, after we’d bought a big enough cage and had bird-proofed the room he was being kept in.

Kiwi had come to the shelter as a two-year-old. I anticipated losing him before I went to university, judging by Mathilde’s dog’s lifespan.

Two weeks into owning Kiwi, I started flipping through the books on birdkeeping we’d picked up. Feed: fresh fruits, dark leafy greens, beans, seeds, pasta, popcorn…excellent, an excuse to get my parents to make me popcorn. Exercise: three to four hours outside of the cage every day…but the cage is huge! Sixteen cubic feet, the tag had said, the minimum size recommended by the shelter. Why should he need to leave it for exercise?

Lifespan in captivity: about 30 years.

I blinked a few times. I looked up at Kiwi splashing in a shallow water dish, blue-tipped wings splayed, then looked back at the page.

I started rethinking my college plans.

Mathilde never really warmed to Kiwi, and was vocal about how glad she was when she decided to move out for her last year of university the following year.

“It keeps me up at night, distracts me when I’m studying. Couldn’t you use like a hood or something to muzzle it?”

I considered saying that she was being much noisier than Kiwi had ever been. On reflection, I decided that wasn’t actually true; I could, at that very moment, hear him screeching from my bedroom.

◊ ◊ ◊

I moved out at the start of university, and brought Kiwi—now six years old—with me. The kitchen always had fresh fruits and veggies for him, but I’d sometimes spoil myself and have some.

Kiwi didn’t like moving to an apartment, and was noisier for the first week until he got used to it. I needed a roommate to make sure he didn’t get lonely during my long days, but wasn’t sure where to start looking.

I met Diane in one of my core courses, and learned three things about her within the first week: she was gay, she liked birds, and she was looking for an apartment.

She moved in five days later, and at Christmas I brought her home to meet my family. It wasn’t easy explaining to all my French Catholic relatives that Diane was more than just a “very good friend.”

◊ ◊ ◊

One evening, a few years into our relationship, the doorbell rang. A half-second later Kiwi screamed bloody murder. He had never lived somewhere with a doorbell, and was refusing to get used to it.

While Diane went to answer the door, I set down my book and went to coo at Kiwi from the other side of the cage—we’d upgraded him to a 24-cubic-foot cage after leaving the apartment, and had him set up in the living room, as far away from the noisiest parts of the house as we could.

Kiwi calmed, then clacked his beak and said “May-soofay,” which was as close as he could come to maïs soufflé, and was one of the only phrases we’d managed to teach him, having adopted him too late to train him properly. I gave him a piece of popcorn from the pre-popped bag kept out of reach of the cage.

“Anne?” Diane called back to me, coming into the living room with George ambling along behind her, his head hanging low and a stuffed-full Batman backpack on his shoulders.

George was Mathilde’s oldest son, and was at the age when threats to run away from home usually ended up with him two blocks down the street, lost and crying. Sometimes, however, he ended up across town at my place.

I took a deep breath and dialled my sister to come pick him up.

“Annediane,” he said it in one word, “Can I say hi to Kiwi?”

“No honey, he’s a little worked up right now, maybe later when—Mathilde? Yeah. Yeah, he’s—Okay, he’ll be ready.”

I was never sure how she felt about George coming to our house when he ran away. Why not his father’s sister’s place, which was closer anyway and wasn’t run by a pair of nasty—now, now, Anne, no need to think like that, I scolded myself.

Mathilde came by ten minutes later and picked up George. She didn’t look at Diane, but she nodded her thanks at me, as per usual.

“May-soofay?” Kiwi chirped from a back corner of the living room. “May-bo-ti-so. May-soo-bo-ti-fay.” He was twelve, and had recently learned that he was a beau p’tit oiseau.

◊ ◊ ◊

George came by to visit about three times a year, usually around the start of school, when he had the most reasons to think his parents were cruel and overbearing and dictatorial. He continued calling me “Annediane” even after Diane and I split—I think he thought he was saying “Auntie Anne,” but couldn’t get his consonants quite right, a lot like beau p’tit oiseau kept mixing his words like a high school English student mixing metaphors.

It stopped for three reasons: George, when he turned eight, decided he was too old to run away; I got a better job in Montreal and moved out of Drummondville for the first time since university; and Mathilde—upset that I hadn’t magically turned straight after Diane’s “corrupting” influence on my life had ended—seemed to be enforcing some sort of anti-contamination measures separating me from her family.

A cruel way to talk  about the ending of a thirteen-year relationship, I’d think to myself whenever she danced around the topic during family reunions, to which I was only grudgingly invited.

“Well,” she’d told me, when she first heard about it, “I guess this means you’ll finally be able to have children at least, doesn’t it?”

“We tried adopting,” I’d reminded her. “We were on the waiting list for two years.”

“Well, good thing you didn’t; how would you have handled the split? One gets the bird, the other gets the kid? How many parrots have you had by now anyway?”

“Still just the one.”

Mathilde had laughed. “Your parrot is more loyal to you than your partners are!”

Our cousins had laughed along with her, and I’d smiled. She’d actually called Diane my “partner,” not my “friend.”

I’d noticed that George was among those laughing. That had hurt more than anticipated.

◊ ◊ ◊

Kiwi hadn’t quieted down with age. His regular trips to the vet showed no illness, and he was still eager for his daily three-hour explorations around the spare bedroom, which was painted like a tropical island by the previous owners of the house, who’d used it as a playroom for their young son.

I set him out of the cage and on one of the empty bookshelves of the bedroom—bird-proofed and free of anything dangerous that he might try to chew on.

At 23, he was not likely to die for a few years yet, and I was still planning my every move around him, though I’d started to wonder about what I’d do when he was gone. Maybe get a cockatoo, if I felt lonely without his company.

Then I looked up cockatoos and learned that some of them live to 50 years. I thought of moving into a senior’s residence with a screeching cockatoo in a 64-cubic-foot cage.

I thought of dying in that senior’s residence, and of an elderly cockatoo, bonded to an owner now dead, sent to a shelter to be adopted by some kid who didn’t realize the commitment they were taking on.

George was seventeen. I saw on his Facebook that he had graduated high school that summer, and was accepted into a good CEGEP in a pre-university program. I was certain his mother was bragging at every opportunity about how sensible he was. Oh, look, I was right. She’d commented her congratulations on all his photos and liked everyone else’s congratulations, to let them know that they were right to praise her son.

I wondered if she would like my comment if I said something nice about George.

I wondered if George would.

◊ ◊ ◊

Twenty-two years after I’d adopted him, Kiwi fell ill. Not untreatably ill, but badly ill. I had to cajole some extra work hours out of my boss to help cover the cost of the checkups and the finicky medicine.

Birds, in case it’s not obvious, are not easy to give medicine to.

I didn’t know many other people who loved birds and wanted to babysit a sick Conure, and sometimes I felt guilty having to leave him alone in the house while I went to work. I couldn’t let him out of the cage with no one to make sure he didn’t eat something he wasn’t supposed to.

◊ ◊ ◊

Someone knocked at the door. Kiwi, mostly deaf by now, shuffled nervously at the half-heard sound and mumbled his name a few times in worry.

I soothed him with a soft “Hush, p’tit,” and went to the door.

George stood outside, twenty years old, head hanging, hair wet from the rain, a half-full suitcase and a rolled-up sleeping bag on the ground beside him.

He looked up at me, eyes tired. “I take it something happened?” I asked dryly, then silently rebuked myself and smiled at George. “No, you know what, don’t tell me. Come on in.”

Kiwi, aware of the presence of other people, began to act up, flitting around and chirping curiously.

George didn’t answer. I turned to look, and saw him standing awkwardly across the threshold, a stranger standing beside him—tall, clean-shaven, eyes darting and unsure.

The two were holding hands.

Ah. I see. And then a moment later: She’s gonna blame me for this.

This wasn’t a case of childish disagreement, or adolescent rebellion. I sighed. Finally, I had reached a point where my family didn’t just tolerate me, but this would reopen all the old wounds.

“Peach front?”

I turned at the words, confused and disoriented to be brought back to the here-and-now by such a non-sequitur. George and the stranger had entered the living room. George was baby-talking Kiwi quietly, bobbing his head slightly while Kiwi copied him. The stranger was looking at me, waiting for an answer.

“Huh? Oh, uh, close: he’s a half moon.”

“He’s lovely,” the stranger said, turning back to smile at the bird.

I watched the three of them for a moment longer. Aw, what the hell, I decided. “Let me set up the hide-a-bed.”

Rachel Lalonde is a master’s student in sociology. Raised in a small rural town, xe nurtures a strong connection to the land and the wilderness of southern Quebec even though school, work, and under-funded public transit keeps xem trapped in the city.