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The Parakeet Who Banished Satan

In 1969, I was five years old. I lived in the downstairs half of an old, rickety duplex in the small town of St. Marys, Ohio with my mother and my younger sister. My father, an Air Force sergeant, was serving his second tour of duty in Vietnam.

One fall afternoon, I was outside playing with my cousin and my sister. A pretty yellow bird was flying around and approaching us much more closely than birds normally do.

My cousin and sister, spooked by the bird’s behavior, shrieked and ran away. But I’ve always been an animal lover, so I was intrigued, even thrilled, by this friendly little guy. I stood still and began speaking to him in a soft, soothing voice.

I was dumbfounded when he landed on my shoulder and said, “Hi. I’m Jo-Jo. I’m a pretty boy!”

At this, my cousin and sister seemed to think the bird was possessed by Satan. (In all fairness, we’d been brought up in families that attended hellfire and brimstone Southern Baptist church services. Anything we didn’t understand was generally attributed to Satan.) They ran into the house, hysterically shouting at my mother that she needed to come outside NOW.

My mother, upon hearing their story, at first assumed that they’d gotten overly excited over a make-believe game we were playing. “Oh, there’s a talking bird who landed on Belinda’s shoulder?” she remarked, barely looking up from the dishes she was washing. “That’s nice.”

“It’s true!” my cousin Tim yelled.

I then walked into the kitchen with the bird still on my shoulder. As if on cue, the bird looked at my mother and wolf-whistled. “Hey, good looking!” he exclaimed.

My mother did not attribute the bird’s behavior to demonic influences but realized he was a parakeet who’d likely escaped from someone’s home. She placed an ad in the newspaper’s “Lost and Found” section (in 1969, of course, the Internet and lost pet finding services like “Home Again” did not exist), but nobody ever responded. So Jo-Jo became a member of our family.

My mother bought him a cage, but she always kept the door open, since Jo-Jo preferred flying around the house and hitching rides on our shoulders and heads. He became best buddies with our Chihuahua mix, Frisky. The two often napped together, with Jo-Jo roosting on Frisky’s haunches.

When you’re a kid, you assume that anything you experience is normal. After all, it’s normal for you. So I couldn’t understand why the neighborhood kids got so excited by our Jo-Jo situation. The reactions of Amy and Mary, our frequent sidekicks, upon seeing him for the first time were almost as extreme as the reactions by my sister and cousin.

“Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, OHMYGOSH!” Mary, the younger of the two, yelled while jumping up and down and pointing at Jo-Jo, who was perched on the back of the couch. “There’s a bird in your house! A bird got into your house!”

“That’s just Jo-Jo,” I explained calmly. “He’s our parakeet.”

It was Amy’s turn to jump up and down. “But he’s OUT OF HIS CAGE!” she squealed even more loudly than her sister. “And your dog is right there! You have to catch him and put him back in his cage before Frisky eats him!”

“No, I don’t.” I was beginning to lose patience. “They’re friends with each other.”

As if to prove as much, Jo-Jo flew from the couch and landed in front of Fisky, who was dozing on the living room rug. Frisky opened his eyes briefly, touched his nose to Jo-Jo’s beak, and went back to sleep.

You’d have thought Amy and Mary had witnessed a miracle. They screeched, giggled, jumped up and down, and hugged each other.

I couldn’t resist impressing them even further. “Jo-Jo can talk, too,” I bragged. Bending down so I was close to Jo-Jo, I asked, “Jo-Jo, are you a pretty boy? Are you a pretty boy, Jo-Jo?”

Jo-Jo obliged by answering, “I’m Jo-Jo. I’m a pretty boy.”

Amy and Mary were silent for a moment. Then Amy observed: “If he’s a boy, then he’s handsome. Not pretty.”

“Maybe he doesn’t know that,” Mary said, “since he’s a bird.”

Irritated by the fact that Jo-Jo’s less-than-perfect command of human language made him seem less cool to them, I questioned why I was even hanging around with these two clowns. “Birds don’t just talk automatically!” I explained angrily. “Somebody has to teach them. Whoever had Jo-Jo before we did TAUGHT him to say that.”

Amy and Mary thought about this. “So, then, he doesn’t even know what he’s saying?” Amy wondered.

“No,” I said. “I guess not.”

But there were times when I wasn’t so sure. After all, Jo-Jo told me his name the first time he’d landed on my shoulder, in effect introducing himself. And he wolf-whistled at my mom the first time he’d seen her--which I’d witnessed plenty of other guys do. (He never wolf-whistled at my Aunt Jeannette, a six-feet-tall, loud and terrifying woman who’d likely never been whistled at by anyone). We eventually learned that he could also imitate a bark--since this is what he did the first time he’d seen Frisky. And, in fact, Frisky was the only member of the family who Jo-Jo ever barked at.

Barking, wolf-whistling, and introducing himself seemed to be the only three language tricks in Jo-Jo’s repertoire. My sister and I tried teaching him to say a few more phrases, but as young as we were, we probably lacked the patience to repeat the lessons often enough for him to learn them.

There’s one incident I remember--or maybe I just think I remember--when Jo-Jo said something else.

My mother had begun coping with my father’s deployment by drinking too much, but at the age of five, I didn’t realize that. All I knew was, she was a pretty good mom most of the time; yet after dinner, and throughout most of the weekend, she was pure evil. In fact, my Southern Baptist, five-year-old self concocted the only explanation that made sense to me at the time: she was possessed. By the devil. So on the occasions when my mom started acting evil--screaming at me and Mary, sometimes even hitting us for no discernible reason--I’d hide in my room and pray for Jesus to make the devil in my mom go away. And, guess what? It always worked! The next day, my mother would be a little sick (but who wouldn’t be, after spending part of the previous evening with the devil inhabiting their body?), but she’d be nice and normal again.

I could never understand, though, why Jesus kept allowing the devil to come back.

One such evening, while I was hiding out in my room, praying for Jesus to make the devil go away--silently since my sister was also hiding out, working on one of her coloring books--Jo-Jo flew onto my knee. And looked right at me.

I finished my prayer and asked Jo-Jo, “Are you a pretty boy?” since hearing him talk never failed to cheer me up.

And, I swear, what I remember him saying is: “What a drunk!”

I was even more dumbfounded than the first time he’d landed on my shoulder. How had he learned this new phrase? I’d certainly never taught it to him. A sudden burst of clarity hit me like an explosion. I knew what drunks were from hearing my mother and aunt gossip about my uncle, who apparently met the criteria, and from seeing drunks on TV shows. And, yes, come to think of it, my mom only acted evil when she drank her smelly drinks of Seagram’s Seven and Coke.

I’d never put two and two together. My impression of drunks had been that they crashed their cars and got fired from their jobs, like my uncle, or that they danced on the furniture while wearing lampshades on their heads, like the ones on TV. These were things my mother had never done. But it all made sense to me now.

I felt more relieved than the time my dad explained to me that, contrary to rumors I’d heard, Santa Claus did, in fact, exist. I much preferred having a mother who acted mean because she was drunk to a mother who acted mean because of Satanic possession.

“You are a pretty bird, Jo-Jo,” I told him. “And a smart bird!”

He never uttered this phrase again, not even when I prompted him. To this day, I’m not sure whether he actually said it, or whether my subconscious mind had worked out what was happening and made me imagine the whole incident.

Jo-Jo died, probably of old age, the day before my father returned home from Vietnam. My mother later told me she believed he was an angel, sent to let us know that my dad would be home soon and that everything would be all right.

Maybe Jo-Jo was an angel. Or maybe he was an ordinary parakeet who, like most animals, knew a lot more than we humans give them credit for, and decided he’d do what he could to help someone who was hurting.

To be honest, I don’t think there’s any difference between the two.

Belinda Stoner lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with her four rescue dogs and two rescue chickens. Some of her recent works have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's MysteryMagazine, The Reader's Digest, and the anthology Transcendent: Dreams, Visions, Hallucinations, and Nightmares. In addition to writing and volunteering for a number of animal rescue and advocacy groups, she works as a real estate appraiser and landlord.

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What a beautiful story. Sometimes an animal’s presence or actions can seem so fortuitous or insightful that it does make me wonder if some are spirit animals in the flesh, or maybe even furry angels.

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Thank you, Amelia. I’m happy you enjoyed my piece!

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