My earliest memory is of being trapped in a box.
It was a large cardboard shoebox with a few holes punched into the side for air. Light glowed through the holes, but I couldn’t see through them; I could only feel myself sliding from side to side as the box was tossed around. I didn’t understand what was going on, and I was terrified.
Then, I remember, the movement suddenly stopped. The lid of the box was lifted and I was bathed in blinding light. I blinked. I fluttered my almost featherless little wings. I squeaked pitifully.
Then I saw her. I suppose for a human she was a little girl, but to me she was gigantic. Still, I wasn’t afraid. She looked so gentle. I stared into her deep brown eyes and squeaked again.
Her face, a dark tan color, broke into a delighted smile. “A bird?” she said. “For me?”
“Happy seventh birthday, Catalina,” said one of the huge people surrounding me. “This loro, this parrot, marks the one year we have been living in America.”
“Como se llama?” the girl asked. “What is his name?”
“We thought you could be naming it yourself. Is your bird,” said someone. “Mr. Allen, nice man next door, he gives him to you for free, because his big parrots is having too many little parrots. He says this is boy bird.”
“Let’s put him in his cage,” said someone else. “He still is baby, Catalina, so you need to be feeding him special food with a spoon.”
Suddenly I felt myself being lifted out of the box. I felt warm hands cupped around me. At first I struggled, but Catalina’s hands were so gentle I soon nestled against them.
“I will call him Paco,” she said.
“Why Paco?” asked one of the others. Catalina shrugged. “I like the name Paco. Is good name for loro.”
Another person, a large man, beamed at Catalina. “Now let us celebrate! Today is Catalina’s birthday, and one year since we have come here from Cuba!”
Everybody cheered. Catalina stroked my head, and I knew I was safe with her.
* * *
Months passed. S00n I was an almost fully grown scarlet macaw, with glossy, bright red feathers; red, yellow, and blue wings that were strong for flying; an enormous sharp beak for cracking nuts and chewing wood; and a long tail of pointed red feathers. I would fly free around the house, singing along with the radio, inspecting the food in the kitchen, and chewing everything I could get my beak on.
Catalina fed me and talked to me in a soft voice and cuddled me in her hands, so as I grew I learned to trust and love humans. This was a good thing, for there were many humans in the house.
There was Mama, Catalina’s mother, who always had something delicious in the kitchen, though I was not always allowed to sample it.
There was Papa, Catalina’s father, who bought me my food and toys. He played music on the radio that I enjoyed singing along with.
Arturo was Catalina’s brother, sixteen years old; he was noisy and a little bit frightening to me. He also played music on the radio, but I didn’t like it as much as Papa’s music.
Then there was Mariana, Catalina’s sister. She was nineteen years old and did not pay very much attention to me; she was usually in her room or with her boyfriend. But she was very beautiful, and I always wanted to chew her long black hair, or pull off her shiny gold earrings. Unfortunately, she didn’t let me do either.
This was Catalina’s family, and everyone was mostly kind to me; but I always liked Catalina best of all. She was my mother, my sister, my best friend, and everything else to me. We did everything together. I thought we would be together forever.
Then came hurricane season.
We had had hurricane seasons before, living in Florida as we did. But this one was more severe than most. From what I understood, a huge hurricane was in South America and coming our way. Hurricane Andrew, it was called.
Catalina’s mother was clearly nervous, frequently listening to the radio and saying things like, “I hope the hurricane is to be staying in Panama. We are having already enough of troubles.” Or, “Arturo, please keep inside the house today. The sky is too many clouds.” She would often glance out the window and then return to her work with a sigh of relief. I didn’t understand why she was so afraid, but I was beginning to get nervous, too.
Then something else happened to make the tension in the house double: Mariana became pregnant.
Of course everyone was happy that she would have a baby. It would be the first member of the family born in America. But there were some huge problems. Catalina’s family was definitely not rich; they had a hard enough time already with five people and a bird in the house. A baby would cost more money than Papa could earn as a cook in a local restaurant. There was talk of Mama, Mariana, and Arturo getting jobs. They considered selling some furniture, though there wasn’t much to sell. There was no room or money for a baby, and though Mama and Papa said we should move, everyone knew we did not have enough money.
So with the hurricane and the baby, there was a lot of fear in the household.
Then, one wet, cloudy, windy day, I heard the music on the radio stop with a long, shrill beeping sound, and a voice said, “Hurricane Andrew has taken a surprise turn to the west. Now predicted to pass through the Keys, up north to Fort Lauderdale. Do not attempt to leave your home for any reason until further notice. Repeat: Hurricane Andrew . . .”
“Catalina,” said Mama in a tight, breathless voice, “take Paco to the basement and stay there. I go to get Arturo and Mariana. Do not be leaving from the basement!”
“Si, Mama.” Catalina picked me up onto her shoulder and was about to enter the basement, when she ran back to the kitchen. “Pero, Mama—but, Mama—Papa is at work. What about Papa?”
A shadow crossed Mama’s face. She said in a low voice, “Let us be praying his restaurant has basement.”
Catalina began to tremble.
“Vayate, Catalina! Go away! The hurricane is coming!”
Without another word, Catalina and I went downstairs.
* * *
The next few hours were pure terror for me. It was so dark in the basement that I could barely see, but I could certainly hear and feel the wind, ripping and tearing at the house. I think I would have died of fear if Catalina had not been there, holding me tight in her arms. Snuggling close to each other, Arturo, Mariana, Mama, Catalina, and I listened to the howling, shrieking wind, the crashing and shattering of furniture upstairs, the cracking and rustling of falling trees, until the hurricane was over.
Even then, no one went upstairs for almost an hour. We were all too afraid of what we would see. We huddled together as if a monster lurked upstairs, until Mariana finally said, “We have to go upstairs. We cannot be staying here forever. My baby is not to be born in basement.”
So we all began to walk upstairs, Catalina holding me on her arm as if she was afraid I’d disappear if she let go. Arturo opened the door.
I thought we were in another house. Everything was completely gone. The house was filled up with water. The roof had been blown off. The walls had collapsed and were more air space than plaster. All the furniture, including my cage, was in pieces that were floating around. Several palm trees and other plants were lying across the floor.
Mama stared desolately at the wreckage. Finally she said in a choked voice, “We have no insurance.”
Though I didn’t understand her words, I knew we were in a very serious situation. We all just stood there, staring at what had once been our home.
Suddenly Arturo whispered, “Papa! Still he is at the restaurant. We have to go and get him!”
Eager to leave the mess, everyone began to run to the restaurant. I gripped Catalina’s shoulder with all my strength as she raced across the ruined streets. The restaurant was not too far away from the house, and so we arrived in a few minutes.
The restaurant was in a similar condition to our house, and Papa was nowhere in sight. But before anyone had time to be really afraid, he came running up behind us.
“Papa!” squealed Catalina. Everyone ran to him, and there was much rejoicing as we all discovered each other alive. He told us his manager had noticed the hurricane coming long before it happened, and generously invited Papa and the other workers to stay with him in his basement until the storm was over.
“Well, at least we all are alive,” said Mama matter-of-factly. “We can live in basement until . . .”
Her voice trailed off. Until what? Until the house could be rebuilt? That would take years. Until we could buy a new one? The restaurant was ruined, so Papa couldn’t work there anymore. We had no money. Until what?
But nobody thought about it. We were all too glad to be alive.
And so we spent the next few days sleeping on spare blankets in the basement. I had no cage, so I slept in a cardboard box with air holes. I was afraid of the dark, noisy basement, and wished I had my cage back.
Then, on the fourth day, Catalina’s parents called everyone over for an important discussion.
“We is having big problem,” Papa began. “The restaurant is gone, and so I cannot be working there anymore.”
“Our house is gone, too,” Mama continued, “and we are having no insurance. And now Mariana is going to have a baby. We have only one thing left to sell—but it will be bringing us much money.”
Everyone was silent. Slowly, everyone’s head turned to Catalina and me. Suddenly understanding, Catalina leaped to her feet.
“No!” she cried. “Not Paco! Please, please not Paco! Please, you cannot be selling him, he is part of the family, is mi amigo—my friend!”
“We are having no choice, Catalina,” said Papa gently. “Mr. Allen gave us Paco for free, but good parrot like him will be giving us ten thousand dollars, maybe more.”
“Of course we will be missing him,” added Mama, “but we have to do this, or we die.”
“No,” whispered Catalina, sobbing into my feathers. “No, no, no.”
* * *
So that was how I found myself once again in a box, only this time a much bigger wooden box, being taken away from Catalina. I was bewildered. Why were they doing this? Why was Catalina crying so hard as Papa forced me into the box? Would I ever see any of them again?
I walked to the air hole in the box and peered out. Through the pouring rain, I could just barely see Catalina, running barefoot through the muddy street. I heard her screaming, “Paco! Paco! Papa, please, please bring him back!” I saw Mama chase after her and pull her back. Catalina buried her head in her mother’s shoulder and sobbed.
And then I saw no more, for now my box was being taken into another house. I couldn’t get a good look, but I could hear dozens of birds—screeching, chirping, singing, even talking. I heard Papa ask for the manager of Simbad’s Bird Shop.
“This is big parrot I am selling to you on the phone,” I heard him say to the manager. “You remember? Big, friendly bird, is very healthy and nice. Good bird. How much you give me for him?”
The lid was lifted and a man’s unfamiliar face loomed over me. I felt as helpless and frightened as I had the last time I was in a box, so long ago.
“What a lovely bird! A scarlet macaw, I believe. This one’s got to be worth at least fifteen thousand dollars. Blah blah blah. . .”
I stopped listening then. I knew, somehow, that I was being taken away from Catalina forever. I couldn’t believe it. I thought they loved me. Why were they getting rid of me?
Suddenly a gloved hand swooped down on me like a hawk and snatched me up. I screamed and bit frantically, but I couldn’t escape. These hands were nothing like the gentle hands of Catalina—they were big and rough, squeezing me around the wings. They threw me into a large black cage that wasn’t mine and locked the door.
“Aahhrckk!” I screamed in agony. “Aaahhwwkk!” I watched in despair as Catalina’s father took the money and walked out the door. Oh, please, take me back! I thought.
I saw Papa look back. With my keen parrot ears, I heard him whisper, “Adios, Paco. I am so sorry.” And I could have been mistaken, but I thought I saw a single tear in his eye. But no matter how much I shrieked, he did not return. I was abandoned. And alone.
* * *
I don’t know how long I lived in that bird store, but it was a very long time. I was too depressed to eat much and tried to bite anyone who put his or her hands in my cage. I began to pluck my feathers, yanking them off with my beak and watching listlessly as they drifted to the floor. Large bald patches started to appear on my once-glossy wings.
The staff decided I was sick and moved me to a dark, isolated room in the corner of the shop. So then my days were spent in silence and darkness among the empty cages of birds who had been sick and not made it. I could only watch the action through a little window in the wall. I slowly began to lose all hope of ever seeing Catalina again.
Then, one day, a young man walked into the store. I watched without interest as he inspected all the most splendid birds in the store—huge macaws, fancy cockatoos, wildly colored lories. But he left them all every time he saw their price.
Then he passed me. As soon as he caught sight of me through my window, he called an employee over right away. “Hey, you,” he said, “how much for this one?”
The employee glanced at me through the window and said, “You don’t want this one. He’s sick.”
“Oh, I don’t care,” said the man. “It’s not for me, see. I just want to show off a flashy bird to my friends—I’ll get rid of it in a week or two. So since it’s sick, is it cheaper than the others?”
The employee took one look at me and said, “I’ll let you have him for two thousand. He doesn’t look like he’ll live much longer anyway.”
“Deal!” The man paid for me and then took me in my cage out of the store. It had been ages since I’d been in the fresh air, and though I was afraid, I enjoyed the warm breeze on my feathers. I disliked this man already. I knew he wouldn’t love me the way Catalina had. But at least I was out of the store.
I had my eyes closed, enjoying the wind, when I heard my new owner shout, “Hey, little Cuban brat, get out of my way!”
And then another voice, “Sorry! I am leaving now, you see?”
I knew that voice. I would have known it anywhere.
Slowly, afraid to believe it, I opened my eyes. But the man was standing in the way of the girl, so I couldn’t see who it was.
He laughed and mimicked, “Sorry! I am leaving now, you see?’ Well, little Cuban, you’re not leaving fast enough, you see?” I saw his leg fly out and kick the girl in the stomach. She crumpled to the ground.
And for the tiniest fraction of a second, I saw her face.
The man threw my cage onto the ground and began to step on Catalina—for that was who it was, even if she was a year or two older—and kick dirt onto her. He was yelling, “Go back to where you came from, you little brat! We don’t need any more communists in Florida!”
My cage was rolling down the sidewalk and I couldn’t stop it. I screamed, but Catalina couldn’t help me.
Then the cage hit a parking meter and stopped rolling. Dazed, I tried to get up—and that was when I noticed the cage door had been knocked open!
I scrambled out onto the sidewalk. Free at last, I flew over to the man with a rage I had never known before. I descended on the back of his neck and sank my beak, which could crush wood to sawdust, into his skin.
He yelled in pain and ran. I followed him, screeching and biting him wherever I could see bare flesh, until he was far down the street, bleeding all over and definitely not coming back.
Then I flew over to Catalina, who was still collapsed on the sidewalk. I stepped onto her back and gently pulled her silky black hair with my beak. I walked in a circle around her and anxiously nuzzled her cheek.
Slowly, she came to and looked at me. She blinked. Her mouth dropped open.
“P- . . . Paco?” she whispered incredulously.
I gave a soft purr of affection and hopped onto her shoulder.
“Paco!” she cried joyfully and hugged me close. “You have come back! You saved me, you scared that man away! You are back! Oh, Paco, I am so happy!”
For a few minutes we sat together on the sidewalk, rejoicing. Neither of us could believe we were reunited once more, when so much time had passed.
After a while she took me back to her house. It was a new house, a lovely Spanish-style house near the ocean. Catalina explained to me that the money I had brought, in addition to earnings from various jobs, had bought a much nicer house. She said that since they had sold me, Papa had gotten a new job at a better restaurant, so they had more money for Mariana’s baby, Manuelito, and now for me.
We entered through a screen door into a bright, sunny kitchen. Instantly I heard water boiling, music on the radio, and all the sounds of home.
I also heard a new sound—a baby crying. I heard Mariana talk softly to the baby, and the cry became a happy gurgle.
“Mama! Papa!” shouted Catalina. “Paco is back! Paco is back!”
Mama and Papa were so astonished to see me, they couldn’t even speak. Catalina took advantage of that to tell the whole story of what had happened—how a man had bought me, how the man beat her up, how I escaped and drove the man away, and how we found each other at last.
Mama and Papa looked as if they were about to tell Catalina to return me to the store, but when they heard that I had saved Catalina, they fell upon me with gratitude.
“Gracias, Paco! Thank you, Paco! You saved our ninita, our little girl! Gracias, gracias! Si, Catalina, of course he can stay!”
* * *
It’s a hot summer day in Florida. Catalina and I are sitting on the beach, just enjoying each other’s company. The wind blows back Catalina’s hair and ruffles my feathers. I pull her hair back behind her ear with my beak, and she strokes my wings. I’m so happy to finally be back with Catalina.
“Gracias again, Paco,” she whispers. “We are together again. You are back home, Paco, and you will never, ever have to leave.”