by Raydon L. Reyes
WHENEVER I repeated a word my master said, I got a cracker. This was how things worked for me ever since I started living in my master’s house. I never liked the taste of crackers. Dried-up bark would probably taste better. But ever since I was placed in a cage, I didn’t really have much of a choice anymore when it came to the food I eat. Before, I was free to search for my own food, usually the nectar, pollen, or fruits in the forest.
And so, whenever my master would wave a cracker to my face and say a word, I would try my best to copy what he would say so I could eat it. After all, it was better than starving to death.
I remember when things were a little better. During my first days in this house, I would get a piece of fruit for every word I repeated. My master’s stubble-ridden face would light up every time I squawked a word.
Once, he waved a piece of grape in front of me and I had to say the name of the fruit to get it.
He would smile, clap his hands, and give me the juicy purple fruit. Sometimes, it was a piece of banana or some other fruit whose name I had to pronounce before I could get a taste. My master’s eyes would disappear when he smiled at me after I did my trick, as if his cheeks were trying to fill up those sockets. There was only one person to whom he smiled that way: a woman who often came inside his office to bring him something, usually a cup filled with black liquid. Master once pointed to her and made me say the word “wife.”
But my master’s excitement upon hearing me repeat his words seemed to die down after a while. His face would rarely light up like it used to whenever I would do the trick he taught me. The words he would have me say became longer and harder and my reward for each one was reduced from sweet fruits to the tasteless crackers. It didn’t take long before he was hardly giving me a second glance. He would just pass me by and give me a cracker before going to his desk. I didn’t even have to say anything anymore as all I had to do was stay still and be fed. In fact, making a sound seemed to irritate him, especially if there was a big pile of paper in front of him. Once, he bellowed at me in anger after I said the word “work.” I squawked and kept flapping my wings for minutes before I calmed down.
I remember the time when he finally took me out of his office. I had already gotten used to living in that room that I almost forgot what it was like outside. He carried my cage into the living room and placed me where there were a lot of people. All their eyes turned to me.
* * *
The first thing I saw besides the people was the table filled with food. There were grapes, melons, bananas, and other fruits I liked so much. There were also some things there that smelled burnt which made me feel a little uneasy. Children began walking toward me, waving their hands to catch my attention. Each of them had a word for me to say and every time I said one, they would laugh and clap their hands.
As I was repeating the word “party” for the boy, a woman came, cutting between the people surrounding me who, upon seeing her, greeted her as she passed them by. She was beautiful. The color of her skin was like milk and the black dress she was wearing made her skin glow more. She was not any taller than any of the women in the room but the way she walked, with her back and shoulders straight, seemed to increase her height. Her steps were light, as if her feet landed on clouds every time she took a step. Her smile illuminated the people around her. I recognized her immediately as my master’s wife.
The woman made her way toward my cage and waved something red in front of me. I recognized it as “strawberry,” which my master gave me once. I was about to say the word so she would feed it to me but before I could, she opened my cage and placed her hand inside. I was startled for a while, squawking and flapping my wings so she would go away. But then I saw that she was giving the strawberry to me. I stopped panicking, took the fruit in my mouth and ate it, with some of its juice spilling from my beak. After I finished eating, she reached out for me and stroked my head with her hand. Her eyes made me think that she was far from happy. Her lips, as red as the strawberry I had just eaten, curved downward as she continued looking at me, tears welling in her eyes. She took a cloth from her pocket and wiped her tears with it. When she saw my master across the room, she closed the door of my cage and hurriedly went to him.
The woman seemed to change completely. Her gracefulness disappeared as she walked awkwardly toward my master. He was talking with other men, all of them holding bottles filled with bubbly liquid. She walked toward the table, filled a plate with food, walked to my master, and gave it to him. My master took the food and placed his arm around the woman. She just stood there like a statue, occasionally laughing with the other men. She looked like she didn’t know what to do.
While he was talking, he spilled some of his drink. The woman immediately took the cloth that she used to wipe her tears with. She bent down and wiped the floor with it. It seemed like a waste to use the cloth for cleaning the floor.
“Honey, you don’t have to do that. Call one of the maids and let them clean that up,” master said, looking down at his wife.
“No, it’s nothing. I’m here anyway,” she replied.
“That’s a nice handkerchief! You’ve ruined it.”
“I’ll wash it.”
“Are you crazy? Throw that away. I’ll buy you a new one,” my master said, his face frowning with disgust.
The woman nodded and went inside the kitchen. When she came out, she was holding a full bottle of what my master was drinking. She handed it to master but he put up his hand and shook his head. The afternoon went on like this. The woman was always following master around, not sure of what to do, although it was no different from any other day in this house. My master looked like he didn’t know what to do with her either.
I sometimes wondered why master’s wife was trying so hard. Was she a pet like me? Was it a trick my master taught her, just like the one he taught me? Did she also get a cracker afterwards?
She wanted to please him, just like I did. I had my reasons. All I wanted were the fruits he used to give me, but I also wanted to make my master laugh. His laughter made me enjoy eating all the more. If I were free, I would try to impress him by flying like I used to. I would make him look at me as I reach for the clouds and chase the sun up in the sky. I wondered if I could. I was not even sure if I could remember how to fly anymore. All I could recall was the trick my master taught me a long time ago. I wondered if it was the same for her.
* * *
When the people left, I saw the wife cleaning up the mess. Two women, both of them wearing the same clothes, were helping her.
The wife looked at my master while he had his back turned. She looked as if she was waiting for something. Master turned around and saw her.
“Thank you,” he said.
“No, it’s nothing. Happy birthday,” she replied.
Master gave her a faint smile. For a moment, his eyes disappeared, something that happened only when he was happy. The wife bowed her head and continued cleaning. She, too, was smiling. I knew just how she felt.
Master took my cage and placed it back where it was before the party began. He gave me a cracker and I took it in my beak before he left the room.
I looked outside the window and I saw that the sky had turned red. The sun was setting. I thought about flying out of my cage and chasing the sun before it went away again and left me in the dark. I flapped my wings as hard as I could but they kept hitting the metal rails of my cage. I wasn’t going anywhere.
I noticed that I was still holding the cracker in my mouth. At that instant, I remembered my master and the smile he gave his wife. I wanted to make him smile too. I took one last look at the sun before it disappeared completely. I put down my wings, tore the cracker up with my beak, and swallowed.
This short story was originally published in The Varsitarian, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 12