Mildred from Nigeria came to America to stay with a family and they kept her like a pet, but she stayed because of the pleasant curve of their mouths.
She was an osprey, and ate creamed herring and crackers from the hands of Scandinavian immigrants in the vinyl-sided house along a polished neighborhood street. The family called her Perky or Spankie or Spooky or something of that sort. She could not tell them that her name was Mildred. She had a husband in the old world, and she really did miss him, but their tongues loosed blurred and boastful words that blocked a synapse in her brain.
Mildred was kept in the garage in a tall cage on casters, and that first afternoon a husky boy carrying lutefisk in a dish slinked through the doorway like a lynx. His slotted eyes flashed red, and he shook the cage while she pretended not to be hungry. The father came later. The garage trembled as the door scrolled upwards, and he straightened out of a low silver car and passed without salutation. And in the evening the tall mother draped a quilt overtop the cage and Mildred was overcome with drowsiness.
She thought like a frog in a pot, but it became apparent after many weeks that she was losing her memory in shades every time the quilt closed over the cage. She would wake in the morning to the white light of the garage, and while the tall mother stood folding the blanket into a neat square, her osprey husband’s hard scowl would come to her as less severe, his sharp eyes would soften.
In those days the wildlife rumbled under the streets. It pressed cracks in the asphalt and swelled up in the ovaries of the trees. The family taught Mildred to beg for her food and to be patient when it was placed on top of her beak. And they taught her how to open her cage, though they hadn’t meant for her to learn that. She grew wild with cultivation. “Sit up straight,” the boy said, and she obeyed. More herring and lutefisk came, and the garage door opened and closed, and the lynx boy and the tall mother and the father in the silver car became like beating wings. Months passed, and one day she saw herself a pet.
Mildred forgot her husband when the quilt lifted for the 317th time and the white light of the garage erased the last vestiges of her old memory. She was older now. Her feathers protruded at oblique angles. She sat perched like a stuffed animal, panting for food, shitting in a round dish full of rocks. The tall mother beamed with pride. The boy brought her crickets impaled on toothpicks, which she swallowed whole, wriggling.
When the neighborhood became a jungle, Mildred opened her cage, intoxicated. Tree limbs beat like palms on skin drums against the roof. Harsh calls beckoned from without that made her head throb. The wildlife rumbled up through the casters. She smoothed her feathers.
The silver car hurtled through the garage door and she leapt from her cage, heavier than before, plummeting to the concrete. She doddered past the steaming wreck. The father slumped over the steering wheel. Blood spurted from his forehead. She clambered over the crumpled metal of the garage door and winced in the late afternoon.
She saw mobs of drunken seagulls and packs of dogs whose hard glittering eyes produced within her a swarm of unidentifiable emotion. Vines broke through the asphalt, wet with afterbirth, and reached over houses and tore at their roofs. A cloud of starlings swarmed above.
She stared enraptured by the encircling birds. Her wings beat senselessly. The dogs snarled, hair standing from their pelts. She lost her footing and fell against the street rubble and twinkling glass. Her wings kept beating. The starlings threw rippled shadows against the burning ground. Her feet found their place and she rose into the air. The dogs and gulls gathered under her widening shadow. Houses shrank below. Polished streets became a black web ruptured by greenery and flame. Mildred rose still. Her eyes would not focus. She spiraled upward and soaked into the mass of starlings. The wreckage sprawled below, incorrigible, draining out of cul-de-sacs, trickling down main streets toward new neighborhoods.
The air thinned and dizzied. She thought she might belong, though her new memory was unfit to tell her why. The starlings gave her no greeting but veered away. She blinked dimly, cast a soft look back to the spot from where she had been claimed, then followed at a fair distance, no longer Mildred from Nigeria.