“Small Talk”

Paulie decided, as a joke, to buy a gorgeous, formerly handfed Scarlet Macaw. She put the parrot in a tall gilt birdcage in the corner of her living room, where it could be seen from the front window, provided that the drapes were open.

She invited her friends over for drinks. They poked their fingers in between the bars of the cage until the parrot fanned its tail feathers.

“Say Paulie,” Paulie said.

The bird said nothing.

“Maybe he’s a mute,” one of her friends said teasingly, and the others laughed.

Paulie’s cheeks began to burn.

After they had left, and for months afterward, Paulie stood next to the cage and repeated her name, but no matter how she tried to goad the bird into speaking, it would not.

She invited her friends over for a dinner party.

As a housewarming gift, her parents had bought her an antique dining room table, dishes, linen napkins, and every kind of drinking glass imaginable. She set the table with flowers and tall tapered candles. She unlocked the front door.

All afternoon, she had felt weak, parched, as though she were shriveling into a small dry husk.

In the corner, the bird was plucking its feathers. Its dish was empty again.

If it was hungry enough, Paulie thought, maybe it would do a trick.

This had not worked in the past, but nevertheless, she held out her hand, offering the bird a bit of seed.

Instead of taking the seed, it bit her finger, snapping it off and swallowing it in one quick gulp. Paulie watched in horror as the bird slipped its beak back out and bit down on what was left of her hand, then her arm.

By the time her friends arrived, she was caught in the bird’s throat. They placed their bottles of wine on the sideboard and admired Paulie’s table setting.

Her friends gathered in the living room, waiting for the food to be delivered.

She tried to get their attention. “Paulie,” she croaked.

Someone laughed delightedly and said, “It learned how to talk!” Paulie heard footsteps. She could only manage to rasp out her own name, though, over and over. The friend who had approached the cage soon lost interest and drifted back to the group.

One of the women had misunderstood the invitation and brought her boyfriend. They arrived late, with a six-pack, and let themselves in.

The boyfriend nodded as he was introduced around. He felt out of place. When he thought no one would notice, he escaped. Standing at the kitchen counter, he drank three beers, then wandered into the living room again.

The women had already moved over to the dining table and sat down, pushing the plates and napkins aside. They were drinking white wine and talking about going to Italy on a group vacation.

Now that Paulie’s friends were no longer in the way, the boyfriend noticed the macaw, standing motionless in the birdcage in the corner of the living room. Paulie had pulled the drapes in preparation for the party, and he couldn’t make it out very well. He walked closer.

“Hey birdie,” he said.

It didn’t move.

“I’m talking to you, bird,” he said. “Say something.”

When it did not, he rattled the cage. “Come on. Talk.”

The parrot shifted slightly on its perch.

“Say, ‘I’m a stupid parrot,’” the man said. He tucked his arms up in a rough imitation of wings. “Say, ‘I’m a bird and I can’t even fly.’ Say it.”

Behind him, he could hear faint conversation and a woman’s laughter.

He leaned toward the cage and wrapped his fingers around the bars. “If you were my bird, I would make you talk,” he said.

The parrot watched, silent, its little eyes glittering in the low light.

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Leah Browning

About Leah Browning

Leah Browning is the author of three nonfiction books for teens and pre-teens and three chapbooks. Her most recent chapbook, In the Chair Museum, was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2013. Browning’s fiction, poetry, essays, and articles have previously appeared in publications including Queen’s Quarterly, 42opus, The Saint Ann’s Review, Blood Orange Review, Brink Magazine, Halfway Down the Stairs, Bluestem Magazine, Cape Fear Review, Storyscape Journal, 300 Days of Sun, Wigleaf, The Citron Review, Fiction365, Salome Magazine, and Per Contra, as well as on a broadside from Broadsided Press, on postcards and bookmarks from the program Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf, with audio and video recordings in The Poetry Storehouse, and in several anthologies. Her fourth chapbook, Out of Body, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. In addition to writing, Browning serves as editor of the Apple Valley Review. Her personal website is located at www.leahbrowning.com.