Better than Fiction (creative non fiction)
by Evan Guilford-Blake
Gabriella has taken to staring out the window, with what I think of as a forlorn look on her face. She’s still “in recovery,” and she’s lonely. Although I hold her, stroke her, pay her much more attention than usual — much more than she’s used to, from me at least — she cries often, and it is up to me to offer her solace. It’s difficult: I still need solace myself.
Gabriella (we’ve never called her by a nickname) is a twelve-year-old, five-and-a-half ounce, brownish-gray ring-neck dove. Her partner for virtually all her life, Quill, a four-ounce white dove, died three months ago. I loved her, and I love Gabriella. Anyone who says people can’t really love pets, even pets that aren’t particularly sentient, has never had one. Appropriately or not, I think of Gabriella as my daughter. Quill was my daughter too.
Technically, I am Gabriella’s — what? — “Owner” is probably the commonly accepted designation, though it’s eminently debatable whether people own pets or the other way around. Roxanna, my wife, has long since referred to The Birds (and to Winnie Words, our small, anxiety-ridden-but-dear rescue mutt), only partly in jest, as our children. (We’ve never had any of the usual kind.) After all, we feed them, provide their medical care and toys and clean places to sleep, never mind that Gabriella’s intellect is just a feather’s weight greater than a butterfly’s and Winnie’s is probably on par with a well-trained hamster.
Until recently, I never thought of doves — surely not the most sentient or responsive birds God ever made — as having much in the way of memory, or of deep feeling. But they do. Doves bond, particularly to another of their species, and that — well, love — is as ingrained in their hearts and minds as it is in the hearts and minds of most of us who think ourselves human. Doves bond for life. And, it would seem, they never forget their partners.
The aviary from which we bought Gabriella assured us she was female, an important consideration: We wanted a partner for Quill, who had been part of the family for several months but still seemed lonely. (Okay, I may be anthropomorphizing. On the other hand, based on my almost twelve years of daily interaction with both of them, I may well not be.) Doves will bond male-to-female and female-to-female, but not male-to-male. Quill was a female as well, but we didn’t know that then: They are very hard to sex. Quill’s previous owner — Lee, a magician who used her in his act — told me she was a he. (We’d adopted her because I was still acting, this time in a play as a character who was called upon to do a magic trick with a dove. Lee offered Quill from among his many birds.) In any case, Quill and I bonded instantly. “He” sat on my shoulder while I worked — I’m a writer — and jumped onto my index finger every time it was offered. Docile, fragile and puzzled, he accepted me readily as his friend.
By the time the vet said it was safe to put them in the same cage, six weeks after we brought Gabriella home to be the “pining” Quill’s partner, they had long since discovered each other’s presence and were calling back and forth from the opposite ends of the apartment where we then lived. When we did put them together, it was love at first coo: We suspected they might both be female when they switched roles — daily — in the classic dove mating ritual. Suspicion became fact a few weeks later, when — on consecutive days — we found eggs in their nest: One day there were two; the next, four. (Doves lay eggs in pairs, usually at two to four-week intervals. Of course, none of the several hundred Quill and Gabriella laid over the years ever hatched, but they were dead-serious about sitting on them. Hope sprang eternal in their soft breasts. The thing with feathers.)
Before they had each other, they each bonded with us, but once they occupied the same cage each became the other’s whole world: They deigned to let us pet them now and then, but the truth was Roxanna and I quickly became superfluous except to keep their cage clean and their food and water cups filled.
So it went for eleven years. They preened each other — it’s the dove gesture of affection — they laid eggs and took turns sitting on them, they did the mating ritual regularly and laid more eggs, they cooed to each other and they slept side by side in the nest — a store-bought woven Easter basket with a paper towel-covered bottom. (Doves are notoriously bad nest-makers, like most of the rest of the pigeon family of which they are members.) Together, they energetically stripped the millet seeds from the sprays we gave them as treats. They lay in the apartment building’s yard in their travel cage, wings spread, absorbing the sunshine and relishing the water I sprayed on them with the hose. They had all they needed to make a perfect world, to live an idyllic life. Such bliss comes to few. They were in bird Nirvana.
I’d watch them, and smile, and love them — and that they were happy — in their uncomplicated existence. After all, I reasoned, the doves weren’t really much company for me. They were the kinetic statuary of the pet world: Lovely to look at, delightful to hold, and pretty much indifferent to anything that walked upright.
Reason, I’ve since discovered, is an undependable beast.
For these past three months Gabriella has needed my attention and affection, and — oddly, I suppose — I’ve needed hers. Before she came on the scene, Quill and I were close —much closer than I’d ever been able to get to Gabriella. I’d never imagined getting “close” to a dove, but we were, and despite her obsession with Gabriella she still showed me what I thought of as affection now and then — a few moments looking into my face with her warm claws wrapped around my finger (when doves are comfortable, their feet are warm. If they’re frightened, the feet are cold), a gentle peck on my wrist, climbing my arm to stand on my shoulder. She even let me caress her once every blue moon. And when she died, I was heartbroken — and that’s not a figure of speech. A pet is a pet is a pet, and eleven years is eleven years. But my heartbreak must pale in comparison with Gabriella’s.
In the house we’ve lived in the past eleven years, Gabriella shared a cage and a room with Quill. Their room — once a screened porch — is about twenty by ten feet; one of the long walls is half windows, but the room isn’t particularly sunny. It faces north and overlooks our backyard. Their cage is designed for a parrot; it could easily accommodate four doves. We bought it so The Birds could have room to move, but we usually left the cage door open so they could fly in and out at their pleasure; at least, we did until about a year ago when it became clear Quill was losing her mobility: Once she moved — more a drop than a fluttering down — from the cage to the carpet, she was unable to return. We closed its door. Gabriella complained — doves can also bark, and loudly — but she sat with Quill, on the cage floor or in the nest, and preened her. Sometimes she even brought seeds to the nest when Quill was unwilling, or unable, to leave. I made sure Quill had water accessible. She’d peck me when I stroked her head.
Now the room and the cage are Gabriella’s alone and she is again free to come and go. She sits on top of the cage or on one of the bookcases, unmoving, for hours. Still, she spends most of her time in the cage, on the highest perch where she has taken to sleeping and stares out the window. In Quill’s absence, the nest is no longer “home.” Neither does she lay eggs any more. That time is past too.
I visit her regularly. When I enter the room, she flies from wherever she’s perched toward the door, lands on the book-case that’s just inside it, then follows a routine: She watches me sit on the sofa. She sails to the top of the cage and stands, looking at me, ‘Where have you been?’ on her face. (I say “Pretty bird” and “Pretty Gabriella” and like to think she hears and understands. She does hear. I think.) She swoops to the carpet between the sofa and the cage. She paces, the ungainly march of her breed, jerking her head at, then away from, me. “You’re a pretty bird,” I tell her, feeling more than a little guilty that I’ve spent the day on other pursuits. She flies to the loveseat and looks at me. “Pretty Gabriella,” I say. She stares, then flies to the arm of the sofa, ignores my proffered finger and — finally forgiving me my trespasses — hops the few feet to my knee where she stands, facing the cage. She bends forward — the dove sign of acquiescence — and I stroke her back, ruffle her ruff, and repeat “Pretty bird.”
Evan Guilford-Blake’s work has appeared in 100 publications, and he has also published 38 plays, two novels and a story collection. His latest story is available on Litro.
She still cries sometimes, even as I pet her, though that seems to soothe her and, I think, gives her solace. It’s partly the actual, physical contact, but it’s more, I believe, a coming to terms with whatever memory she has of Quill. Eleven years is eleven years, and a partner is a partner. I’m a poor substitute, maybe, but I’m something that cares.
But the fact is, as much solace as I give her, it is far less than she gives me. When Quill died, I was devastated. She was the first pet I’d had since the ’60s, except for the dog who slept in my bed and was my constant childhood guardian (a sixty-pound shepherd-collie mix) and Lady was gentle as a lamb — unless someone she didn’t recognize approached me. Then she bared her teeth and let loose a heaven-help-you-interloper growl), Quill was almost as much a touchstone to my life as my wife, whom I’d known only a few years longer. Thus, I needed recovery. (It’s begun, but it’s a journey, a process. Sure, we all know that, but each of us discovers it anew every time we’re faced with making the trip. I am no exception.)
My wife was out of town for several days recently. (I’m very close to Roxanna, and I seriously miss her when she’s gone — even when she’s just at the gym for a few hours.) Still in mourning for Quill — three months isn’t long enough to begin to forget anyone or anything you love — and feeling very much alone, I decided to do something of which I’d been wary: introduce Winnie and Gabriella to each other.
Winnie is a gentle dog. She’s barely eleven pounds and, save for the dances of joy she’s wont to do when one or both of us comes home or she anticipates food is on the way, she spends most of her life asleep in one of her four beds — the dog beds in my office, Roxanna’s office and the living room, and the larger one she literally herds us into each night and graciously allows us to share with her.
She’s been with us going on four years. In that time, she’s seen Gabriella (and Quill), but only in passing: We’ve kept her out of their room to protect both her and The Birds, not knowing how they’d react to each other.
Winnie has only a few teeth — her previous owner left her chained in an abandoned house and she tried to chew her way free, which led to the surgical removal of almost half the teeth she had left — but she still has enough snap in her jaws to crush a dove’s fragile bones without meaning to. And doves have talon-like claws. They’re for balance, not protection, but they could easily seriously injure such a small dog.
But Gabriella was lonely. I could hear her crying in her room. And I was lonely. I wanted to spend time with her, though I didn’t want to leave Winnie by herself. Her abandonment has left her neurotic: She hates being alone. So I screwed my courage to the sticking place, picked Winnie up and carried her into Gabriella’s room, where she greeted me — as usual — by flying from the door of her cage to the bookcase just inside the entryway. Winnie looked at this stranger, a mix of curiosity, caution and fear in her eyes.
Gabriella followed her routine. I set Winnie on the carpet; she stood immobile and watched the scene warily. Then, as Gabriella settled herself on my knee, Winnie climbed slowly onto the sofa and approached us carefully, nose first. As dogs will do, she sniffed Gabriella’s butt. Gabriella didn’t flinch. Winnie looked up at me, and back at the dove. She took a step nearer to Gabriella and sniffed again. I put a gently restraining hand on her back. She sniffed once more. Then she curled up next to my thigh. Whatever her misgivings, there would be no conflict today.
We stayed there, the three of us, Winnie’s eyes closed in a waking dream, Gabriella and I looking out the windows into the dusk. The two old oaks swayed lightly in the summer breeze, the sounds of traffic from the semi-major artery, fifty feet away, slipped through the screens of the open windows.
I’ve often wondered what animals think. Roxanna has said what I’ve thought a thousand times: I’d love to be in Winnie’s, or Gabriella’s, brain, just for five minutes. What does the world look like to a dog? What passes through a dove’s mind when she sees, from outside it, the cage, the nest, she’s occupied most of her life? What meaning does it conjure?
Of course, the answer is probably “none.” We humans are prone to anthropomorphizing our pets, endowing them with those characteristics and thought processes we ourselves cannot help but have. But in a situation like the one we were sharing at that moment, I was thinking, trying to think, with Gabriella as well as for her.
I was remembering.
Memory is a path. It leads us from what was to what is and what will be; it’s bittersweet and it’s lovely, this frail tuck into which we sew our examinations of those moments we can’t escape. Even if we want to.
When Quill was our only child, she cooed comfortably when I lifted her from the cage, sat on my shoulder as I worked or watched movies, stood on my right palm and pecked seeds from my left. Sitting there on the sofa, my hand stroking and stroking Gabriella’s soft feathers, brought that back, brought me back to that place, I realized, I’d never wanted to leave: The past with Quill was Neverland. I petted Gabriella, thought about Quill and, silently, I started to cry.
It was transformative, it was cathartic, as crying often is. When I found Quill in her cage on that bright and warm April afternoon, I hadn’t cried. I’d screamed, I’d howled, so loud, long and pained Roxanna came running into the room. She tried to console me. I was inconsolable. Finally, I wrapped Quill carefully in tissue and plastic, placed her in a shoebox, and buried her in the sunniest spot in the backyard I could find. Roxanna planted a brace of snapdragons — my favorite flower — above her and, for three interminable months, I had looked out at them, walked to the small plot, stared at them and said whatever kind of tiny prayer one says in remembrance of a beloved little white bird.
The pain, the loss, had remained, but I hadn’t cried. That April afternoon, or since. Until I looked out into the fading light of a summer evening through which the small patch of snapdragons was barely visible. I didn’t cry loudly, I didn’t sob. I just teared — my eyes filled, and overflowed, and kept on overflowing.
With my left hand I was petting Gabriella. She reached her head over her shoulder, as she sometimes does, and pecked — preened — a finger. Then she looked at me and cooed, softly.
Dogs and cats, I’m told, can sense their owner’s mood. Okay. Dogs and cats are sentient and sensitive. But birds? Doves? Oh, come on now . . .
But I was solaced. And, each evening when I go into Gabriella’s room, sit, and run my hand gently along her back, she pecks my finger and coos, and I am solaced again.
I don’t believe in a lot of happenings my friends might, wide-eyed, believe in and call astounding and extraordinary, but I believe in this: I think she’s thanking me for caring about her loss, and trying to show me she cares about mine. It’s as though she’s offering solace.
Most of what’s above was written in July of 2015, when Gabriella and I were both trying to deal with our loss. On October 19th, Gabriella died. We buried her, beside Quill. Yes, I cried, and I still cry. I was, and I am, in mourning for her. The journey, renewed, continues.