Take Me to the Island of Escaped Parrots

Flash fiction by Maya Dobjensky

Take Me to the Island of Escaped Parrots

Island of Escaped Parrots

When I was a girl I had a plethora of aunts – too many even to keep track of. I thought of them as one person, moving en masse toward the dreaded cheek pinch or a stern yet loving scolding, a cloud of cherry-scented cough drops following them. But my Aunt Mabel was the exception; she alone could stir an excitement akin to Santa’s arrival.

Aunt Mabel had been a great beauty years ago. She married a wealthy banker, and all the other aunts were jealous. One day Aunt Mabel’s husband locked the two of them in the bedroom and lit their house on fire. She escaped by jumping out the window after he passed out, but she was never the same again. Her left knee was shattered, and even after many surgeries she walked with a limp. She was covered in scars, little whorls of raw skin that crept like a vine from her fingers up her arms and neck. Her face was textured like the bark of a tree, her cheeks and scalp flushed red with the ghost of flames.

After the fire, Aunt Mabel got insurance money, plus the inheritance from her late husband. She sold the plot of burned land where her house once stood and bought a van that she fixed up herself. Aunt Mabel toured the whole country in that van, and even drove around Canada and Central America. We never knew when she’d come to visit; she herself didn’t seem to know until she appeared suddenly in our driveway, her gas tank nearly empty. My parents scuttled about the house picking up, but I threw open the door and ran barefoot to greet her.

Sometimes Aunt Mabel brought gifts from her travels: a keychain of the Empire State Building, a T-shirt that said, “I survived spelunking in Carlsbad Caverns.” Even more precious were the stories she told as she pulled me onto her lap and braided my hair. She told me of the ghost of a prospector she’d glimpsed in an abandoned mining town in California, of the northern lights that stretched across the sky in British Columbia, so bright and expansive that she thought, in her solitude, she’d imagined them. She told me of a man who tried to rob her on a Texas highway but instead cried to her about his failed musical career, and she told me how she rescued a fox from a trap in Washington, and in return, the fox brought her pups to nuzzle into Aunt Mabel’s palms. She was full of a hunger and awe for the world I’d never seen in adults. This awe protected her in ways I couldn’t fully understand – she could ask a stranger a personal question, and instead of taking offense, they’d divulge their whole life story, happy to finally be unburdened. The worst possible thing had already happened to her, and so she was completely unguarded. The world, seeing this, wanted to hold her in its embrace.

Of all Aunt Mabel’s stories, the one I requested the most was that of the island of escaped parrots. She was staying on Prince Edward Island one summer when she met an old man who was blind and could no longer use his boat, so he offered it to her while she was in town. She took it out for the first time on the solstice, when there were only a few hours of darkness. She ran aground on an island too small to be populated by people or homes. The island was thick with greenery that seemed to rise directly out of the gulf, but the vegetation wasn’t like the trees speckling the coast. Here, the vines and drooping trees looked more like those she’d seen in the Caribbean. She stepped into the sand and felt herself engulfed in a pocket of warm fog. She could see the wind currents stirring the water all around the edge of the island. But when the air reached the sand, it became stagnant and syrupy. 

Aunt Mabel took off her shoes and walked barefoot through the sand and loam, feeling spongy moss beneath her toes. By now it was nearly midnight, and the rays of sunlight were stretched across the sky like pulled taffy. She heard a noise like a child crying, and when she looked up, she saw them: hundreds of parrots tucked into their leafy nooks, peering down at her with bright eyes. Each feathered body shone with a unique pattern. When the setting sun illuminated their plumage, the ruby hues seemed to dance like flames shuddering in the breeze. 

Later, Aunt Mabel would ask the man with the boat about the parrots, and he would tell her the story of the bird salesman who, many years ago, traveled from South America up north, transporting the cargo he planned to sell. His colleagues warned him the birds wouldn’t survive the climate, but he wasn’t concerned with their fate after the sales. He died when his ship capsized in a storm, and no one thought twice about the cargo they assumed had also perished. It wasn’t for several years that someone discovered that the parrots had survived to roost in the branches of an island untouched by humans. Occasionally, a sailor would see a blur of emerald or tangerine streaking across the horizon. But the birds were notoriously aggressive, and few attempted to go too near them.

On the night of the solstice, Aunt Mabel didn’t yet know this story. She assumed the long hours of daylight and little sleep had pickled her brain, and the parrots were merely a trick of the strangely angular dusk. 

When she learned it wasn’t a hallucination, she searched for the island again. But she could never find it after that night. 

The first time Aunt Mabel told me this story, she presented me with one perfect feather. Its root was marigold, but its hue became more mango at the center and tip. I stroked each soft blade very gently with my index finger, then tucked it into a shoe box full of my most precious treasures to keep safe beneath my bed. 

Every day, I passed a pet store on my walk home from school. Usually the store only had a selection of fish and hamsters. But occasionally the store displayed a bird in its window, inviting passersby to enter. Once, I slid my fingers near the clasp of the lovebirds’ cage, itching to fling it open. I could picture them soaring through the open window, filling the cityscape with their lime-colored plumage, circling one another as they floated higher. At night they would fly to other pet stores, unclasping the metal hooks of cages with their sharp beaks, releasing animal after animal until the sky was iridescent with a false dawn. People would wake, stretch, ready to greet the day, only to see the sunrise shift and flurry – not clouds, but feathers quilting the heavens. Soon other pets would hear their caws; not just those waiting in shops, but those who had been living for decades in apartments, plucking their feathers out as they watched the seasons pass from the window. Macaws who had been bred to be pets would stir, remembering their wild ancestry. Their clipped wings would regrow, and they’d rise, fearless, tearing the window screens with their claws. The parrots would make a flock – mismatched like a carpet of wildflowers in a meadow. As it traveled across deserts and mountains, the flock would momentarily eclipse the sun with aquamarine tails. Migrating gaggles of geese and swans would hover, mid-stroke, to admire the uprising. Finally, the parrots would arrive at their island, exhausted and ready to nest. 

Aunt Mabel always left too soon, gone only a few days after arriving. I think it made her nervous to linger in one place too long. In between visits, I waited for her on the porch, watching the horizon for her limping van. Occasionally, just as the sun burrowed beneath the earth, the pearly swoop of a cockatoo careened past me to perch on the eaves of our house. I stood very still, willing the bird to flutter closer so I could lean into its sun-bright body and whisper secrets into its plumage. In the growing darkness, the pattern of its feathers swirled like Aunt Mabel’s scars. I closed my eyes when it took off, feeling the wind stir beneath its wings, imagining Aunt Mabel’s face as she received my message.

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