by Carol Guess and Kelly Magee
My girl had a fever. My boy stayed cool, but my girl was burning. I kept watch while they slept, girl on the bottom bunk because I worried she’d fall. The bunk beds were my ex’s idea; my ex was gone, but the carpentry stayed. It was just the three of us, and an underwater mortgage. I explained to the kids that the bank owned the house.
“But the bank doesn’t live here,” Zachary frowned.
Zara said house and water and please.
Day three of sick, and she still had a fever. While Zack was in school I drove to the hospital. The doctor took one look at Zara and gestured me into the hall alone.
“Tell me the truth.”
He looked down at his clipboard.
“She’s been sick for three days.”
He coughed into his sleeve. “You do know Zara’s a parrot?”
It seemed so cruel of him, standing there all tall and human, language flying from his mouth, little colored lines I puzzled together. Everything loves, I thought; birds and plants and your stupid fucking golf ball tie.
He gave me the name of a veterinarian. I explained that Zara was closer to human than bird, that anything making her sick was a human disease, but he wouldn’t listen.
At the vet’s office they sent us back to the hospital. We’d gone back and forth like this before: stranded in the waiting room, red feathers and the chair on fire.
“There’s a doctor downtown,” the man beside me whispered. “Second and Cherry. Doctor Zulaski.” He opened his wallet and showed me a photo. “My first born, my parrot. My beautiful girl.”
The fever clung to Zara’s wings. She pulled out her feathers, nipped at her feet. Finally I mixed children’s aspirin in with her seeds. I didn’t know what else to do.
That night my ex came over for Family Dinner. We talked about the secret network that existed in whispers, gestures, glances at birdbaths. Then we fucked, which I knew we’d regret when it was cold in our separate beds across town.
Scientists still didn’t know what caused it. I blamed the organic eggs I’d eaten, the free-range chicken. It was an epidemic with a fancy scientific name, but everyone called it Zero Fever. One day Zara was an adorable human toddler, the next day, a bird with red and green wings. There was nothing gradual about the change. I remember hearing strange sounds from the nursery, opening the door, stepping into the flight path.
Sometimes baby birds turned back. Videos of transformations racked up hits on YouTube. Some were staged; a few looked real. I watched them over and over, the real ones. I had to believe my girl would return.
Scientists were working to cure it. Celebrities wore red and green bracelets, ran marathons to benefit non-profits.
Beneath the booming metropolis of illness was a conspiracy theory. Sometimes I went online and clicked the links. Talk of changelings and midnight abductions. Talk of stealing and exchange. After all, no one had ever seen their child turn into a parrot. In every instance, a parent opened the door to their child’s room; out flew a bewildered bird. No sign of the child, just feathers and glass. Zero Fever, perhaps. Or a ladder, perched against the house, and a bird left in place of a baby.
I fell in love with my parrot-child. I let her be Zara, until she was more real than Zara, until my human baby was only memory. Until I was consumed with bird.
I joined a group of activist parents, petitioning to let parrot children enroll in school.
I spoke out against the search for a cure, and spoke instead of embracing difference.
I didn’t tell anyone that sometimes I suspected there were two Zaras: my human child, stolen, and my talkative bird, loved now but missing from some faraway forest.
I tried not to think of words like sex trade or slave labor or illegal adoption. I had nightmares of my human girl calling for me in a parrot voice.
Zara had nightmares too. She woke with a rattle in her throat, saying baby and fly and dark. I crept to her side, felt for her chest. The musk of fever hung over the bed. Her heartbeat thudded against my fingers. “Zara?” I whispered.
Hot, she said.
I felt my way out of the room and left a message for my ex, then called Dr. Zulaski’s answering service. While I waited for him to call back, I returned to the kids’ room. Zack was sitting up on the top bunk, flashlight in hand.
“Who were you talking to?” he said.
“Shh,” I said. “The doctor. I’m worried about your sister.”
He leaned over the edge and shined the light on her before I could tell him not to wake her. She didn’t wake. She lay panting on her pillow, beak open, a wet spot on the sheet near her mouth.
“Whoa,” Zack said.
“Zara?” I slid a hand under her body, my phone buzzing in my pocket. “She’s unconscious,” I said, first to the room and then into my phone. Dr. Zulaski said he’d meet us there. I picked her up, my tiny, limp girl. A patch of feathers on the bedspread. Blue and green falling from my arms.
The thought didn’t escape me. In the car, hope ran parallel to fear.
Based on the YouTube videos and my own dreams, here’s what I thought would happen: her feathers would fall out. The skin underneath would be covered in downy hair, enough to constitute a pelt. Still animal, but closer now to mammal. She’d stretch and retract her wings, stretch and stretch, and from wings would come arms. From claws, toes. She wouldn’t shed her bird entirely, but the human would prevail.
Or maybe I’d open the door and she’d be returned, just as she was.
One of the great dangers, parents of so-called “cured” children wrote, was the recovered human-child’s obsession with heights.
Based on what actually happened, I no longer watch YouTube videos.
Dr. Zu had a feline way of moving, thick hands, eyes framed by golden eyebrows and bushy hair. He fixed his gaze on me in a way that was unsettling, but he seemed to know what he was doing. He took Zara’s vitals and scratched notes on a chart.
“Tylenol, you say?” He nudged a back door open with his foot and whistled into the hall. “How much?”
A tall nurse with big teeth and bedhead pushed a metal cart into the room. Dr. Zu handed her the chart, and she wheeled Zara out.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Not much. I didn’t know what else to do. No one would help me.”
Dr. Zu gave me the same heavy, golden stare. “It’s a shame. Animals are children, too.”
Zack had curled up on the bench seat in the exam room, and he lifted his head. Dr. Zu’s eyes flicked toward the movement; he hadn’t noticed Zack before.
The doctor visibly smoothed himself and smiled. “You have another.”
“This is my son, Zack,” I said.
“I took it away from her,” Zack said.
“Took what, honey?”
“The Tylenol.” He pursed his lips. “You should know better, Mom.”
Dr. Zu’s eyes darted between us. He seemed less like a man than an animal carrying human baggage.
“A mistake,” I faltered.
“To be clear,” Dr. Zu stood to leave, “Zara has not ingested anything unusual.”
I looked at Zack.
“She might’ve eaten some of it,” he said. “But I took the rest away.”
Dr. Zu wanted to keep Zara for observation, so he sent me home with Zack. My ex pulled into the parking lot as we exited. I gave him the short version and asked if he’d stay with Zara. Zack held onto my hand like he was prepared to fight for it.
My ex kissed my cheek and stayed.
Zack was quiet in the car. I tucked him into my bed, something he didn’t permit much anymore. As I turned out the light, he said, “Mom, Zara is a parrot.”
“And you are my boy,” I said.
“I mean,” he propped himself on his elbows. “If we’d bought her at the pet store, you wouldn’t have given her people medicine.”
I often suspected my kids understood everything – illness, adulthood, me – better than I did.
“You have to know that she’s a bird.” His voice wavered. “You have to know it.”
“Zara is a bird and your sister,” I said. “I need to remember that.”
He relaxed back onto his pillow. “Yes,” he said.
I listened to him fall asleep, felt the unraveling of his thought and attention and consciousness. I waited for the nightmare that I knew would come to him, and when it did, I put my hand on his forehead and smoothed it away.
I didn’t sleep. I texted my ex for news, but there wasn’t any for a long time, and he assured me that that was good. I opened my computer and dared myself to look them up, the YouTube videos. To repeat the search for “cured.” To open the photo file marked with her name. Too look for signs from the past that might predict the future.
I loved my parrot-child, and most of the time, there was enough love for both Zaras, the one I had and the one I mourned. But sometimes, in the middle of the night, I longed for my human-child. My baby. I wanted her in my arms, and there was no substitute for that.
Dr. Zu called with good news and bad. Zara was fine, he said. She responded well to the fluids and was up and about.
“And the bad news?” I said.
He didn’t mince words; I respected him for it. “She looks different.”
“The feather loss?”
“No.” Animal noises burst in and out behind him. “You’ll find that she’s quite changed. But she’s still the same Zara inside.”
I texted my ex: ?
He texted back: !
Transition, I thought. My baby, I thought. My heart leapt on the drive to the clinic, Zack scowling in the back seat. I lived an entire recovery in the course of that ride. Grief became a thing I used to feel. I arrived at the clinic a new person.
But then doubt set in. Dr. Zu called us back from a waiting room filled with sick animals. Parrots, lemurs, tamarins, frogs. I wondered how many of them were kids with Zero Fever. How many animals with real fevers. I looked at the faces of the parents, wondered if it mattered to them which was which. We lived in this world where animals might be babies and everyone acted accordingly, which was maybe good for the humans, but plenty bad for the animals. Everything grieves, I thought. Parrots and babies and empty waiting room chairs.
I held Zack’s hand and followed Dr. Zu down the hall. I couldn’t help hoping for human, just as I knew Zack was hoping for bird. Our sorrow, our hope, kept reinventing itself. My ex stood next to a door, his eyes shining. I couldn’t tell with what.
“She’s well,” Dr. Zu said, “and really, isn’t that all you can ask for?” He looked like he might pounce. He looked uncomfortable in his clothes, like maybe he wished to take them off and bask in the sun.
He looked at me with his golden eyes for a long time, and then he opened the door.