A Composer and His Parakeets

BEFORE DEPARTING for Thailand with her film crew, Supriya left in Fanlin’s care the parakeet she had inherited from a friend. Fanlin had never asked his girlfriend from whom, but he was sure that Bori, the bird, used to belong to a man. Supriya must have had a number of boyfriends prior to himself. A pretty Indian actress, she always attracted admiring stares. Whenever she was away from New York, Fanlin couldn’t help but fear she might hit it off with another man.

He had hinted several times that he might propose to her, but she would either dodge the subject or say her career would end before she was thirty-four and she must seize the five years left to make more movies. In fact, she had never gotten a leading part, always taking a supporting role. If only she hadn’t been able to get any part at all, then she might have accepted the role of a wife and prospective mother.

Fanlin wasn’t very familiar with Bori, a small pinkish parakeet with a white tail, and he had never let the bird enter his music studio. Supriya used to leave Bori at Animal Haven when she was away, though if a trip lasted just two or three days, she’d simply lock him in the cage with enough food and water. But this time she was going to stay abroad for three months, so she asked Fanlin to take care of the bird.

Unlike some other parrots, Bori couldn’t talk; he was so quiet Fanlin often wondered if he was dumb. At night the bird slept near the window, in a cage held by a stand, like a colossal floor lamp. During the day he sat on the windowsill or on top of the cage, basking in the sunlight, which seemed to have bleached his feathers.

Fanlin knew Bori liked millet; having no idea where a pet store was in Flushing, he went to Hong Kong Supermarket down the street and bought a bag. At times he’d give the parakeet what he himself ate: boiled rice, bread, apples, watermelon, grapes. Bori enjoyed this food. Whenever Fanlin placed his own meal on the dining table, the bird would hover beside him, waiting for a bite. With Supriya away, Fanlin could eat more Chinese food—the only advantage of her absence.

“You want Cheerios too?” Fanlin asked Bori one morning as he was eating breakfast.

The bird gazed at him with a white-ringed eye. Fanlin picked a saucer, put a few pieces of the cereal in it, and placed it before Bori. He added, “Your mother has dumped you, and you’re stuck with me.” Bori pecked at the Cheerios, his eyelids flapping. Somehow Fanlin felt for the bird today, so he found a tiny wine cup and poured a bit of milk for Bori too.

After breakfast, he let Bori into his studio for the first time. Fanlin composed on a synthesizer, having no room for a piano. The bird sat still on the edge of his desk, watching him, as if able to understand the musical notes he was inscribing. Then, as Fanlin tested a tune on the keyboard, Bori began fluttering his wings and swaying his head. “You like my work?” Fanlin asked Bori.

The bird didn’t respond.

As Fanlin revised some notes, Bori alighted on the keys and stomped out a few feeble notes, which encouraged him to play more. “Get lost!” Fanlin said. “Don’t be in my way.”

The bird flew back to the desk, again motionlessly watching the man making little black squiggles on paper.

Around eleven o’clock, as Fanlin stretched his arms and leaned back in his chair, he noticed two whitish spots beside Bori, one bigger than the other. “Damn you, don’t poop on my desk!” he screamed.

At those words the parakeet darted out of the room. His escape calmed Fanlin a little. He told himself he ought to be patient with Bori, who was no different from a newborn. He got up and wiped off the mess with a paper towel.

Three times a week he gave music lessons to a group of five students. The tuition they paid was his regular income. They would come to his apartment on Thirty-seventh Avenue in the evening and stay two hours. One of the students, Wona Kernan, an angular woman of twenty-two, became quite fond of Bori and often held out her index finger to him, saying, “Come here, come here.” The parakeet never responded to her coaxing, instead sitting on Fanlin’s lap as if also attending the class. Wona once scooped up the bird and put him on her head, but Bori returned to Fanlin immediately. She muttered, “Stupid budgie, only know how to suck up to your boss.”

Fanlin was collaborating with a local theater group on an opera based on the legendary folk musician Ah Bing. In his early years, Ah Bing, like his father, was a monk; then he lost his eyesight and was forced to leave his temple. He began to compose music, which he played on the streets to eke out a living.

Fanlin didn’t like the libretto, which emphasized the chance nature of artistic creation. The hero of the opera, Ah Bing, was to claim, “Greatness in art is merely an accident.” To Fanlin, that kind of logic did not explain the great symphonies of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, which could not have existed without artistic theory, vision, or purpose. No art should be accidental.

Nevertheless, Fanlin worked hard on the music for The Blind Musician. According to his contract, he would get a six-thousand-dollar advance, to be paid in two installments, and twelve percent of the opera’s earnings. These days he was so preoccupied with the composition that he seldom cooked. He would compose from seven a.m. to two p.m., then go out for lunch, often taking Bori along. The bird perched on his shoulder, and Fanlin would feel Bori’s claws scratching his skin as he walked.

One afternoon at the Taipan Café on Roosevelt Avenue, after paying at the counter for lunch, Fanlin returned to his seat to finish his tea. He put a dollar tip on the table, which Bori picked up and dropped back in Fanlin’s hand.

“Wow, he knows money!” a bulging-eyed waitress cried. “Don’t steal my money, little thief!”

That night on the phone, Fanlin told Supriya about Bori’s feat. She replied, “I never thought you’d like him. He wouldn’t get money for me, that’s for sure.”

“I’m just his caretaker. He’s yours,” Fanlin said. He had expected she’d be more enthusiastic, but her voice sounded as usual, mezzo-soprano and a little sleepy. He refrained from telling her that he missed her, often touching her clothes in the closet.

•    •    •

It was a rainy morning. Outside, the drizzle swayed in the wind like endless tangled threads; traffic rumbled in the west. Lying in bed with a sheet crumpled over his belly, Fanlin was thinking of Supriya. She always dreamed of having children, and her parents in Calcutta had urged her to marry. Still, Fanlin felt he might be just her safety net—a fallback in case she couldn’t find a more suitable man. He tried not to think too many negative thoughts and recalled those passionate nights that had thrilled and exhausted both of them. He missed her, a lot, but he knew that love was like another person’s favor: one might fall out of it at any time.

Suddenly a high note broke from his studio—Bori on the synthesizer. “Stop it!” Fanlin shouted to the bird. But the note kept tinkling. He got out of bed and made for the studio.

Passing through the living room, its window somehow open and its floor scattered with sheets of paper fluttering in a draft, he heard another noise, then caught sight of a shadow slipping into the kitchen. He hurried in pursuit and saw a teenage boy crawling out the window. Fanlin, not fast enough to catch him, leaned over the sill and yelled at the burglar bolting down the fire escape, “If you come again, I’ll have you arrested. Damn you!”

The boy jumped to the pavement below, his legs buckling, but he picked himself up. The seat of his jeans was dark-wet. In a flash he veered into the street and disappeared.

When Fanlin returned to the living room, Bori whizzed over and landed on his chest. The bird looked frightened, his wings quivering. With both hands Fanlin held the parakeet up and kissed him. “Thank you,” he whispered. “Are you scared?”

•    •    •

Bori usually relieved himself in the cage, the door of which remained open day and night. Every two or three days Fanlin would change the newspaper on the bottom to keep the tiny aviary clean. In fact, the whole apartment had become an aviary of sorts, since Bori was allowed to go anywhere, including the studio. When he wasn’t sleeping, the bird seldom stayed in the cage, inside which stretched a plastic perch. Even at night he avoided the perch, sleeping with his claws clutching the side of the cage, his body suspended in the air. Isn’t it tiring to sleep like that? Fanlin thought. No wonder Bori often looks torpid in the daytime.

One afternoon as the parakeet nestled on his elbow, Fanlin noticed that one of Bori’s feet was thicker than the other. He turned the bird over. To his surprise, he saw a blister on Bori’s left foot in the shape of half a soybean. He wondered if the plastic perch was too slippery for the parakeet to hold, and if the wire cage the bird gripped instead while sleeping had blistered his foot. Maybe he should get a new cage for Bori. He flipped through the yellow pages to locate a pet store.

That evening as he was strolling in the Queens Botanical Garden, he ran into Elbert Chang, the director of the opera project. Elbert had been jogging, and as he stopped to chat with Fanlin, Bori took off for an immense cypress tree, flitting into its straggly crown before landing on a branch.

“Come down,” Fanlin called, but the bird wouldn’t budge. He just clasped the declining branch and looked at the men.

“That little parrot is so homely,” observed Elbert. He blew his nose, brushed his sweatpants with his fingers, and jogged away, the flesh on his nape trembling a little. Beyond him a young couple walked a dachshund on a long leash.

Fanlin turned as if he were leaving, and Bori swooped down and alighted on his head. Fanlin settled the bird on his arm. “Afraid I’m going to leave you behind, eh?” he asked. “If you don’t listen to me, I won’t take you out again, understood?” He patted Bori’s head.

The parakeet just blinked at him.

Fanlin realized that Bori must like the feel of the wooden perch. He looked around and found a branch under a tall oak and brought it home. He dismantled the plastic bar, whittled a new perch out of the branch, cut a groove on either end, and fixed it in the cage. From then on, Bori slept on the branch every night.

Proudly Fanlin told Supriya about the new perch, but she was too preoccupied to get excited. She sounded tired and merely said, “I’m glad I left him with you.” She didn’t even thank him. He had planned to ask her about the progress of the filming, but refrained.

The composition for the opera was going well. When Fanlin handed in the first half of the music score—132 pages in total—Elbert Chang was elated, saying he had worried whether Fanlin had embarked on the project. Now Elbert could relax—everything was coming together. Several singers had signed up. It looked like they could stage the opera the next summer.

Puffing on a cigar in his office, Elbert gave a nervous grin and told Fanlin, “I’m afraid I cannot pay you the first half of the advance now.”

“Why not? Our contract states that you must.”

“I know, but we just don’t have the cash on hand. I’ll pay you early next month when we get the money.”

Fanlin’s face fell, his mothy eyebrows tilting upward. He was too deep into the project to back out, yet he feared he might have more difficulty getting paid in the future. He had never worked for Elbert Chang before.

“The bird looks uglier today,” Elbert said, pointing his cigar at Bori, who was standing on the desk, between Fanlin’s hands.

At those words, the parakeet whooshed up and landed on Elbert’s shoulder. “Hey, hey, he likes me!” cried the man. He took Bori down, and the bird fled back to Fanlin in a panic.

Fanlin noticed a greenish splotch on Elbert’s jacket, on the shoulder. He stifled the laughter rising in his throat.

“Don’t worry about the payment,” Elbert assured him, his fingers drumming on the desktop. “You have a contract and can sue me if I don’t pay you. This time is just an exception. The money is already committed by the donors. I promise this won’t happen again.”

Feeling better, Fanlin shook hands with the man and stepped out of the office.

Upon signing the contract for The Blind Musician three months earlier, the librettist, an exiled poet living on Staten Island, had insisted that the composer mustn’t change a single word of the libretto. The writer, Benyong, didn’t understand that, unlike poetry, opera depends on collaborative efforts. Elbert Chang liked the libretto so much he conceded to the terms the author demanded. This became a problem for Fanlin, who had in mind a musical structure that didn’t always agree with the verbal text. Furthermore, some words were unsingable, such as “smoothest” and “feudalism.” He had to replace them, ideally with words ending with open vowels.

One morning Fanlin set out for Staten Island to see Benyong, intending to get permission to change some words. He didn’t plan to take Bori along, but the second he stepped out of his apartment, he heard the bird bump against the door repeatedly, scratching the wood. He unlocked the door and said, “Want to come with me?” The parakeet leapt to his chest, clutching his T-shirt and uttering tinny chirps. Fanlin caressed Bori and together they headed for the train station.

It was a fine summer day, the sky washed clean by a shower the previous night. On the ferryboat Fanlin stayed on the deck all the way, watching seabirds wheel around. Some strutted or scurried on the bow, where two small girls were tossing bits of bread at them. Bori joined the other birds, picking up food but not eating any. Fanlin knew the parakeet was doing that just for fun, yet no matter how he called, the bird wouldn’t come back to him. So he stood by, watching Bori walking excitedly among gulls, terns, petrels. He was amazed that Bori wasn’t afraid of the bigger birds and wondered if the parakeet was lonely at home.

Benyong received Fanlin warmly, as if they were friends. In fact, they’d met only twice, on both occasions for business. Fanlin liked this man who, already forty-three, hadn’t lost the child in him and often threw his head back and laughed aloud.

Sitting on a sofa in the living room, Fanlin sang some lines to demonstrate the cumbersomeness of the original words. He had an ordinary voice, a bit hoarse, yet whenever he sang his own compositions, he was confident and expressive, with a vivid face and vigorous gestures, as if he were oblivious of anyone else’s presence.

While he was singing, Bori frolicked on the coffee table, flapping his wings and wagging his head, his hooked bill opening and closing and emitting happy but unintelligible cries. Then the bird paused to tap his feet as if beating time, which delighted the poet.

“Can he talk?” Benyong asked Fanlin.

“No, he can’t, but he’s smart and even knows money.”

“You should teach him how to talk. Come here, little fellow.” Benyong beckoned to the bird, who ignored his outstretched hand.

Without difficulty, Fanlin got the librettist’s agreement, on the condition that they exchange views before Fanlin made any changes. For lunch they went to a small restaurant nearby and shared a Hawaiian pizza. Dabbing his mouth with a red napkin, Benyong said, “I love this place. I have lunch here five days a week. Sometimes I work on my poems in here. Cheers.” He lifted his beer mug and clinked it with Fanlin’s water glass.

Fanlin was amazed by what the poet said. Benyong didn’t hold a regular job and could hardly have made any money from his writing; few people in his situation would dine out five times a week. In addition, he enjoyed movies and popular music; two tall shelves in his apartment were loaded with CDs, more with DVDs. Evidently the writer was well kept by his wife, a nurse. Fanlin was touched by the woman’s generosity. She must love poetry.

After lunch they strolled along the beach of white sand, carrying their shoes and walking barefoot. The air smelled fishy, tinged with the stink of seaweed washed ashore. Bori liked the ocean and kept flying away, skipping along the brink of the surf, pecking at the sand.

“Ah, this sea breeze is so invigorating,” Benyong said as he watched Bori. “Whenever I walk here, the view of the ocean makes me think a lot. Before this immense body of water, even life and death become unimportant, irrelevant.”

“What’s important to you, then?”

“Art. Only art is immortal.”

“That’s why you’ve been writing full-time all along?”

“Yes, I’ve been making full use of artistic freedom.”

Fanlin said no more, unable to suppress the image of Benyong’s self-sacrificing wife. A photo in their study showed her to be quite pretty, with a wide but handsome face. The wind increased, and dark clouds were gathering on the sea in the distance.

As the ferryboat cast off, rain clouds were billowing over Brooklyn, soundless lightning zigzagging across the sky. On deck, a man, skinny and gray-bearded, was ranting about the evildoing of big corporations. Eyes shut, he cried, “Brothers and sisters, think about who gets all the money that’s yours, think about who puts all the drugs on streets to kill our kids. I know them, I see them sinning against our Lord every day. What this country needs is a revolution, so we can put every crook behind bars or ship them all to Cuba—” Fanlin was fascinated by the way words were pouring out of the man’s mouth, as if the fellow were possessed by a demon, his eyes radiating a steely light. Few other passengers paid him any mind.

While Fanlin focused his attention on the man, Bori left Fanlin’s shoulder and fluttered away toward the waves. “Come back, come back,” Fanlin called, but the bird went on flying alongside the boat.

Suddenly a gust of wind caught Bori and swept him into the tumbling water. “Bori! Bori!” Fanlin cried, rushing toward the stern, his eyes fastened on the bird bobbing in the tumult.

He kicked off his sandals, plunged into the water, and swam toward Bori, still calling his name. A wave crashed into Fanlin’s face and filled his mouth with seawater. He coughed and lost sight of the bird. “Bori, Bori, where are you?” he called, looking around frantically. Then he saw the parakeet lying supine on the slope of a swell about thirty yards away. With all his might he plunged toward the bird.

Behind him, the boat slowed and a crowd gathered on the deck. A man shouted through a bullhorn, “Don’t panic! We’re coming to help you!”

At last Fanlin grabbed hold of Bori, who was already motionless, his bill open. Tears gushed out of Fanlin’s salt-stung eyes as he held the parakeet and looked into his face, turning him upside down to let water drain out of his crop. Meanwhile, the boat circled back and chugged toward Fanlin.

A ladder dropped from the boat. Holding Bori between his lips, Fanlin hauled himself out of the water. When he reached the deck, the gray-bearded madman stepped over and handed Fanlin his sandals without a word. People crowded around as Fanlin laid the bird on the steel deck and gently pressed Bori’s chest with two fingers to pump water from his body.

Thunder rumbled in the distance and lightning cracked the city’s skyline, but patches of sunlight still fell on the ocean. As the boat picked up speed heading north, the bird’s knotted feet opened, then clawed the air. “He’s come to!” a man exclaimed.

Sluggishly Bori opened his eyes. Cheerful cries broke out on the deck while Fanlin sobbed gratefully. A middle-aged woman took two photos of Fanlin and the parakeet, saying, “This is extraordinary.”

Two days later, a short article appeared in the Metro section of The New York Times, reporting on the rescue of the bird. It described how Fanlin had plunged into the ocean without a second thought and patiently resuscitated Bori. The piece was brief, under two hundred words, but it created some buzz in the local community. Within a week a small Chinese-language newspaper, The North American Tribune, printed a long article on Fanlin and his parakeet, with a photo of them together.

Elbert Chang came one afternoon to deliver the half of the advance he’d promised. He had read about the rescue and said to Fanlin, “This little parrot is really something. He doesn’t look smart but is full of tricks.” He held out his hand to Bori, his fingers wiggling. “Come here,” he coaxed. “You forgot crapping on me?”

Fanlin laughed. Bori still didn’t stir, his eyes half shut as if he were sleepy.

Elbert then asked about the progress of the composition, to which Fanlin hadn’t attended since the bird’s accident. The director reassured him that the opera would be performed as planned. Fanlin promised to return to his work with redoubled effort.

Despite the attention, Bori continued to wither. He didn’t eat much or move around. During the day he sat on the windowsill, hiccuping frequently. Fanlin wondered if Bori had a cold or was simply getting old. He asked Supriya about his age. She had no idea but said, “He must already be senile.”

“What do you mean? Like in his seventies or eighties?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Can you ask his former owner?”

“How can I do that in Thailand?”

He didn’t press her further, unhappy about her lack of interest in Bori. He couldn’t believe that she wasn’t in contact with the bird’s former owner.

One morning Fanlin looked into Bori’s cage and to his horror found the parakeet lying still. He picked Bori up, the lifeless body still warm. Fanlin couldn’t hold back his tears while stroking the bird’s feathers; he had failed to save his friend.

He laid the tiny corpse on the dining table and observed it for a long time. The parakeet looked peaceful and must have passed in sleep. Fanlin consoled himself with the thought that Bori hadn’t suffered a miserable old age.

He buried the bird under a ginkgo in the backyard. The whole day he couldn’t do anything but sit absentmindedly in his studio. His students arrived that evening, but he didn’t do much teaching. After they left, he phoned Supriya, who sounded harried. With a sob in his throat he told her, “Bori died early this morning.”

“Gosh, you sound like you just lost a sibling.”

“I feel terrible.”

“I’m sorry, but don’t be silly, and don’t be too hard on yourself. If you really miss the budgie, you can buy another one at a pet shop.”

“He was your bird.”

“I know. I don’t blame you. I can’t talk anymore now, sweetie. I need to go.”

Fanlin wasn’t able to sleep until the early-morning hours. He kept reviewing his conversation with Supriya, reproaching her as if she were responsible for Bori’s death. What rankled was her casual attitude. She must have put the bird out of her mind long ago. He wondered if he should volunteer to break up with her upon her return the following month, since it would be just a matter of time before they parted.

For days Fanlin canceled his class and worked intensely on the opera. The music flowed from his pen with ease, the melodies so fluent and fresh that he paused to wonder whether he had unconsciously copied them from master composers. No, every note he had put down was original.

His neglect of teaching worried his students. One afternoon they came with a small cage containing a bright yellow parakeet. “We got this for you,” Wona told Fanlin.

While certain that no bird could replace Bori, Fanlin appreciated the gesture and allowed them to put the new parakeet in Bori’s cage. He told them to return for class that evening.

The parakeet already had a name, Devin. Every day Fanlin left him alone, saying nothing to him, though the bird let out all kinds of words, including obscenities. He even called Wona “hooker;” that made Fanlin wonder if Devin’s former owner had sold him because of his filthy mouth. At mealtimes Fanlin would put a bit of whatever he ate in Bori’s saucer for Devin, yet he often kept the transom open in the hope that the bird would fly away.

The second half of the music for the opera was complete. After Elbert Chang had read the score, he phoned Fanlin and asked to see him. Fanlin went to Elbert’s office the next morning, unsure what the director wanted to discuss.

The moment Fanlin sat down, Elbert shook his head and smiled. “I’m puzzled—this half is so different from the first.”

“You mean better or worse?”

“That I can’t say, but the second half seems to have more feelings. Sing a couple passages. Let’s see what it sounds like.”

Fanlin sang one passage after another, as if the music were gushing from the depths of his being. He felt the blind musician, the hero of the opera, lamenting through him the loss of his beloved, a local beauty forced by her parents to marry a general, to be his concubine. Fanlin’s voice trembled with grief, which had never happened before in his demonstrations.

“Ah, it’s so sad,” said Elbert’s assistant. “It makes me want to cry.”

Somehow the woman’s words cooled Fanlin some. Then he sang a few passages from the first half of the score, which sounded elegant and lighthearted, especially the beautiful refrain that would recur five times in the opera.

Elbert said, “I’m pretty sure the second half is emotionally right. It has more soul—sorrow without anger, affectionate but not soft. I’m impressed.”

“That’s true,” the woman chimed in.

“What should I do?” sighed Fanlin.

“Make the whole piece more consistent,” Elbert suggested.

“That will take a few weeks.”

“We have time.”

Fanlin set about revising the score; in fact, he overhauled the first half. He worked so hard that after a week he collapsed and had to stay in bed. Even with his eyes closed, he could not suppress the music ringing in his head. The next day he resumed his writing. Despite the fatigue, he was happy, even rapturous in this composing frenzy. He ignored Devin entirely except to feed him. The parakeet came to his side from time to time, but Fanlin was too busy to pay him any attention.

One afternoon, after working for hours, he was lying in bed to rest. Devin landed beside him. The bird tossed his long blue-tipped tail, then jumped on Fanlin’s chest, fixing a beady eye on him. “Ha wa ya?” the parakeet squawked. At first Fanlin didn’t understand the sharp-edged words, pronounced as if Devin were short of breath. “Ha wa ya?” the bird repeated.

“Fine. I’m all right.” Fanlin smiled, his eyes filling.

Devin flew away and alighted on the half-open window. The white curtain swayed in the breeze, as if about to dance; outside, sycamore leaves were rustling.

“Come back!” Fanlin called.