The man who identified himself as Mr. Foley, looked at me from across the table. “The only responsibility you’ll have is to take care of my mother’s pet birds.”
“That seems simple enough”, I said.
“Well, it isn’t.” Foley’s voice had taken on an edge. Then he sighed. “Look, there are some things you need to know if you’re going to work here”. He paused. It looked like he was trying to carefully pick his words. “My mother is…not well. She has a bad heart condition, and the doctors’ give her only a couple of more months, at best. I’m just trying to make sure that her last days are as comfortable as possible.”
“I’m not a professional caregiver,” I said cautiously. “You might want to consider someone else for this job.”
“She already has professional caregivers coming by regularly. You’d only have to take care of her birds.”
By the hesitancy in his voice I could sense some red flags popping up. The job seemed way too simple for what Foley was offering to pay me. “What kind of birds are we talking about?” I asked. “I don’t have any background handling exotic birds either.” I was envisioning macaws, mynahs, even hawks.
Foley grimaced impatiently. “You sure seem hell bent on finding excuses for not taking this job I’m offering you.” He leaned back in his chair and returned my gaze evenly. “The birds are standard pet shop varieties: parakeets, finches, love birds. Nothing more exotic than that.”
This was all very confusing. “Just exactly how many birds are we talking about?” I asked.
Foley cleared his throat. Okay, I thought. Here’s come the catch. “I don’t know exactly,” he answered. “Over a hundred. Maybe around hundred and fifty”. He paused to let this sink in. He saw my expression and gave a wry smile. “Don’t worry. The story gets a lot crazier.”
I didn’t say anything but just sat there, waiting.
“Do you know the Greek myth about Pandora’s box?” Foley asked.
Well, I didn’t see that question coming. Foley seemed to take some slight amusement at my startled look. “No,” I said cautiously. “I don’t know anything about myths.”
“Pandora was sent by the gods to mankind along with a giant unlocked chest,” Foley said, his voice in story-telling mode, “With firm instructions that these stories go, Pandora was consumed with curiosity about what was in the chest. Finally she couldn’t stand it any longer, and she gave in and opened it. And every conceivable horror that now plagues mankind flew out of the chest, through the window and into the world at large. Every suffering that humanity has to endure today is because of Pandora’s obsessive curiosity and disobedience .” He stopped and looked at me, gauging my reaction.
“Um, why are you telling me this, Mr. Foley?” I asked.
Foley let a good twenty seconds go by before he spoke. “Well,” he said. “Beside her heart condition, my mother also suffers from dementia.” He sighed. “She thinks she’s Pandora’s reincarnation. And her job is to undo the harm that the first Pandora did.” Without meaning to, I gave a startled laugh. “Yes,” Foley said sardonically. “I suppose this all does sound funny.”
“How is she going to set things straight?” I asked. I was embarrassed that I had laughed. Foley obviously did not consider this a laughing matter.
“She buys and cages birds, and assigns a particular evil to each one. ‘Greed’, ‘Pestilence’, ‘Cruelty,’ and so on. She believes that as long as these birds are caged, she’s sparing the world from everything ugly. And she keeps on telling me to buy more birds, every time she thinks of some new nasty thing to protect humanity from. So, I buy the birds. It keeps her happy.” He gave a wry smile. “She named the last two birds I bought ‘Indigestion’ and ‘Genital Warts’”.
“Okaaay,” I say. “And just would my job be?”
Foley’s expression grew exasperated. “Just take care of those damn birds,” he said. “Change the cage linings daily. Make sure they all have enough food and water.” He shook his head. “Her place stinks like a giant aviary. At least try to keep the odor down to a minimum.” His eyes opened wider. “And for God’s sake, don’t ever let a bird escape from its cage. All hell will break loose if you do.” He gave me a smile with precious little amusement in it. “So, do you want the job?”
I thought about the generous pay that Foley was offering. “Okay,” I shrugged. “I think I can handle that.”
Foley nodded. “Good.” We stood up and shook hands . “You start tomorrow,” he said. As I opened the door, he called out, “She wants to be addressed as ‘Miss Pandora’, by the way.”
Because of what Foley had said, I was prepared for the smell when I entered Miss Pandora’s house. But not the noise. Foley and I were greeted by a cacophony of chirps and trills, which would have been cute if uttered only by two or three birds. But with this menagerie, it was harsh and deafening. Foley, speaking loudly over the noise, introduced me to his mother. Miss Pandora said nothing, but gave me a long, hard stare. To describe her as “birdlike” would just be too glib, but she did have the sharp glower and jerky head movements of some bird of prey. She carried about her the fierce aura of a warrior hell bent on saving the world, whether it wanted to be saved or not. At least her intentions are noble, I thought.
Her house was not big, and there were stacks of bird cages, several rows deep, all along the walls of her living room. I could see more cages through her open bedroom door. After Foley left, I waited for Miss Pandora to say something. She eyed me suspiciously, but was silent. “Well, I said, putting a hopefully friendly smile on my face, “I might as well get to work.”
I spent the rest of the day going through Miss Pandora’s house, room by room, changing the bird cage liners, and refilling the water and seed containers. There were at least three and often as many as six birds per cage, and a card was taped to each cage identifying its inhabitants. Not only the seven deadly sins were represented, but smaller and more particular evils as well: “Cavities”, “Bruises”, “Line cutting”, “Belching”, “Talking too loud”, and so forth. There was a green and yellow lovebird identified as “Rape”, a pure yellow canary called “Genocide”, and a sky blue parakeet tagged as “Running Sores”. I winced at the harsh names given to these small, pretty birds, but they seemed happy enough and well-fed. The birds fluttered around, chirping and squawking, whenever I stuck my hand in the cages, performing my tasks. “Careful!” Miss Pandora called out once, sharply, as I was struggling with one of the larger cages. That was the only thing she said to me that day.
I did this work for several weeks. Once, Miss Pandora had me run an errand to a pet shop nearby. She had a running account there, and the sales clerk greeted me with a friendly smile when I identified Miss Pandora as my employer. Per her instructions, I bought a finch and two parakeets. When I returned, Miss Pandora pointed out the empty cage she wanted me to put them in. After that, she assigned each of them a name, which I dutifully wrote down on an index card and taped to the cage: “Allergies” and “Sullenness” for the two parakeets, and “Anal Leakage” for the poor finch.
A little over five weeks into the job, I got a called from Foley telling me that Miss Pandora had died last night in her sleep. His voice gave nothing away, but I imagined that he was more relieved than grief-stricken. “I need you to come by this morning,” he said. “For one last chore.”
When I got to the house the door was wide open, as were all the windows. Foley was in the center of the living room, opening up the cages and shaking the birds out. They fluttered frantically around the room before finally, one by one or in pairs, finding an open window and flying out. Foley raised his head and looked at me. “Start opening cages,” he ordered gruffly, “And help me get these fucking birds out of here.” While he was talking, I watched as “War”, “Brutality”, “Athlete’s Foot” and “Farts” flew out to freedom and disappear into the distance. We spent the rest of the day releasing all the rest of mankind’s ills and sorrows onto an unsuspecting world.
Written By: Clint Seiter
About the Author: Clint Seiter, a longtime inhabitant of San Francisco, is now retired and loving every minute of it. He has been a prolific writer, with seven anthologies of his stories published under his former pen name Bob Vickery. He is also an avid gardener, a passionate reader and a perpetual student.
Visual Art “Geary” By: Meredith Brown