I am with my new friend Karen from school. She hung out with the not very popular girls. If I’d taken a minute to think about it, and shamefully, furtively, I did, I knew that the class divide ran along money lines. We lived in a suburb and the self-assured ones were rich. I was never quite sure where my family stood, where I stood, because we did not discuss money at home. To make matters worse, our home stood in a no-man’s land of a few houses, neither here nor there, but close to the bus stop where everyone congregated. Because of that uncertainty, I hung out with everybody. The popular ones were nice and friendly, but their easy familiarity made me cringe. The bulk of us were regular friendly. We had our gripes and our loud laughs. We did not try to be proper. The third group was flotsam, held together by chance and currents. They seemed rather sad, rather shy, a little bit slow and dull. They wore hand-me-downs from a long line of siblings. One girl always tried to look perky. She wore new clothes from a discount store, and accessorized but was not a full member of the middle group. I don’t remember the boys. They were just an unkempt, dusty, noisy mass with its own divisions. In class, we worked together, the bright and slow, the boys and girls, in teams of three that varied by subject. The teacher broke down our carefully constructed order to create teams of equal strengths. Nobody objected. We didn’t know we were allowed. We tested the waters, made do with the new friendships, the boys not that bad, the outcasts a good lot too.

I head out to Karen’s after class one day, to do an assignment there. She lives on a side street on which I’ve never set foot before, in a three-storey apartment building I didn’t know existed. The apartment has its own smell, as dwellings do, but my nose does not recognize what makes it different from ours. I am ushered in the family room and introduced to the adult there, an aunt, surely not the mother, as mothers are active and working. I don’t have a stay-at-home mom, but I do know that stay-at-home moms offer us kids freshly-baked cookies or healthy carrot sticks. I look around the tight space, cluttered ceiling-high with porcelain figures in coy positions. They are funny-looking, none of those high society ladies with pretty dresses. No, these are unfamiliar models, dwarf-like in their desire not to take up too much room. I stare at them curiously, wrack my brains to find something pleasant to say, come up with a lame “I love their colours,” which seems to do the trick. They’re all shiny, clearly loved, and I respect their status in the family. Knick knacks are not welcome in my home. “They gather dust,” says my mother dismissively. That’s not true, of course, only if you don’t love them.

On top of the massive television, an older model encased in wood, sits a bird cage and a bird called Tiki. Before she married, Karen’s mom was a waitress at a snazzy downtown bar called the Kon Tiki. “We served the best Mai Tai in town,” she says. I nod, suitably impressed, though I have never seen a live Mai Tai. “It’s an exotic drink, with an umbrella stick.” I smile and nod, feeling like a fool. “That’s where I met her father.” Her voice trails off. I’m not sure if the story is finished. I turn back to Tiki. We watch him jump from perch to perch, in a dizzying dance. Maybe I am making him nervous, my voice too loud, my smell offensive, my thoughts foreign. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I certainly feel I don’t belong, looking in from outside, navigating an unfamiliar terrain mined with unknowns. I don’t know how to be myself, so I resort to being polite which also feels wrong but safe. I look at Karen, who beams back at me. “Isn’t he funny, jumping like that?” she asks. “Does he do that often?” “Only when Tiger wants to play with him.” Tiger is a tabby. He’s lying on a frilly pillow, tail twitching, eyes unblinking. His ears perk up when he hears his name and he lets out a meow. I think the bird is sensing my unease as I watch it trapped in its cage. It’s a real cage, with bars, a small mirror, toys, a feeder with hulls swimming on the surface. The water may not have been changed recently, as debris mar the surface. Tiki is molting but I don’t know that. I see feathers littering the bottom of the cage, and half feathers poking through the bird’s plumage. Tiki seems to be pecking his wings as though he’s mad, like those girls who cut themselves. Or perhaps there used to be two birds and only feathers remain. I shudder at the thought.

I look for their bookshelf so we can swap stories but I see none and I suddenly suspect there is something deeply wrong with this place.

On my walk back, I can’t get the bird out of my mind. My friend laughed when I suggested we open the door. “Tiki doesn’t want to leave its cage, not with Tiger around. When we clean the cage, he grips our finger and never lets go. Poor Tiki bird! His wings are clipped so he won’t fly away.” I dream of Tiki, free, singing from joy, with other birds for company, doing what birds do. Instead, his best friend is his reflection in a mirror, his universe his toys inside, the cat outside. There is a rock in my stomach, and it weighs heavily on me.

Clipped Wings

Tethered to the ground
Hopping madly from place to place
Protesting, adapting, fumbling, still

I want to soar
And explore the skies
Carried by the wind

Clipping is a painless procedure
Humanely performed
It has to be repeated

Our primary feathers
Stubbornly grow back
Blood feathers

I no longer submit to the painless procedure
I want to feel up close
The sting of the sun

As I fly again
Ungainly at first
And breathe freedom

Like an eagle, only different

He soared. He found a column of hot air and rose with it as on top of a geyser. The air supported him without him having to flap his wings. He banked sharply to the left and sped down, his wings loosely tucked close to his body. Soon his brother Jaja had joined him and they started playing chicken. But a movement caught his eye and he forgot about the childish game. Jaja sensed his shift in focus but he was too late. The prey was already squirming in his brother’s claws and he was left to his own devices. Jaja sat on the branches of a dead tree, surveying the ground for movement. He was distracted by his brother’s loud munching and the ripping of flesh. He twitched impatiently and tried to focus over his stomach’s growls. He lacked his brother’s single-mindedness, and often went hungry. He had a thirst for knowledge that would surely spell his doom.
When he did catch a prey, Jaja might let it go if the poor thing could teach him a new word. In that way, the inhabitants of the woods spent time learning new concepts. Soon, a new generation of learned mice took over. They gathered new foods for him to try in the hopes they would be spared. From a pure carnivore, Jaja became omnivorous. His diet was more varied and his intellectual life richer.
He developed a longing for travels after a long discussion with a Chinese bird who had escaped from his cage. They became friends as he had finally found a stimulating companion. They hunted together, teaching each other tricks of the trade. They both had varied diets and progressively moved out of their habitat. One day, Jaja and Song saw a gaggle of humans with binoculars. A few days later, they were captured, drugged, tagged and released. Try as they may, they could not remove the tag from their bodies.
They got used to the extra weight. The tag actually afforded them some protection against poachers as their whereabouts were monitored. They eventually parted ways in South America, where they were enticed by colourful females. Jaja reminisced in old age about his eventful life up North but his kin thought those were the ravings of an old bird. Nobody had ever heard anything as outrageous as learned mice and Chinese birds.
His brilliant tag had tarnished over time. It gave him a distinctive air. With his fine mind, he went on to teach promising youth who hunted on his behalf. He had always been kind, and was cherished until the end. He planted the migratory seed in young minds, and is credited with the discovery of faraway lands and the introduction of new foods that gave his people an edge. The species diverged as it adapted to new environments and resisted well to climate change. It also spawned the finest philosophers of its day.