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The little parrot learned to say `Mazel tov!'

TWO elderly ladies, God bless them, sisters and spinsters, filled their days befriending hapless creatures. They took into their house everything from a woebegone dog with tin cans tied to his tail by children, to a squirrel dazed by a brush with the wheel of a car. First they would soothe the creature as much as possible, feed, and clean it. They would let a wild creature go, and advertise a domestic one in the lost-and-found column of the paper. If no one claimed a creature, anyone who wanted it could have it, and for free. Myself, I came home one day with, of all things, a parakeet.

The story his befrienders told me was that the little parrot had been brought to them by a woman who'd found him perched on a clothesline, clinging there for dear life, too frightened even to fly. He had apparently escaped from his cage and ended up lost in freedom. Some feathers had been torn away, and there was a wild look in his eyes, a tense watching for danger. Not a sound came from him, no mimicry of human speech, no peep. He looked like a ragged vagabond whose tales of perils would so distress the world, he'd taken a vow of silence.

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I gave him the hopeful name of ``Chaim,'' which in Hebrew means ``life,'' and hung his new cage in the cheerfulest corner of my apartment.

Every day I fed him, changed his water, tended to him. I called him by his name. Sometimes I sang to him: ``Parakeet, parakeet,/ Sit in my hand,/ Sing me a song/ Of your far-off land.''

There was a reason I'd chosen him for a pet and was behaving so solicitously. Once, many years earlier, when I was living in an apartment in New York, I'd inherited from the previous tenant a larger edition, so to speak, of a parakeet.

The green of this bird's feathers had faded to the rumpled color of an old dollar bill. His beak wasn't proud and marbly, but meek and mushy, almost like a spoiled banana; his eyes not vivid and quick, but tarnished and dismal, like those rings hung slightly out of reach on merry-go-rounds.

The only words he ever uttered were ``Woe is me.'' And his look was sometimes so abject I wondered if all the lovingkindness in the world could undo it. Perhaps he'd been handed down by a number of tenants, and this was one abandonment too many.

One night I came home from work unusually tired, my spirit vexed by the tantrums of the traffic, my patience bitten to the quick. No sooner had I opened the door than the parrot, somehow having gotten out of his cage, began flapping around the apartment, from tabletop to counter to mantelpiece, knocking my knickknacks helter-skelter. I lost my temper.

I shouted at him, ``You ingrate, you fascist!'' words that seem to me now rather ludicrous but were hotly felt at the time. Frightened, the bird flew out the door, down the hall, and out a window into the night.

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Within moments I was overcome by shame. To have frightened an old parrot, to have driven out into heaven knows what perils a creature with which my kind had once shared the Ark, when his only crime was that he was unhappy - I despaired of myself.

He never returned, though I left a window open for him day and night for many weeks, risking burglary as a kind of punishment. I could only hope that he'd made it to Central Park, that nearest city-thing to a jungle, and was able to fend for himself.

With Chaim, his successor, I was trying to make up for anger with kindness; to remind myself that I'm only human, that I can make a mistake and try again. Chaim didn't know my motives, of course, but he did me the honor of accepting my friendship.

He even offered me his. The wild look went from his eyes, and trust came. He began to join in my songs; I wrote the lyrics and carried the tune, and he did variations, sometimes improvements. I taught him to say ``Mazel tov!'' - ``Congratulations!'' - proud that my name tended toward praise, not blame.

We were roommates for a long time. We had our bad as well as our good days. But we lived through them all, we struggled and survived, and in our separate and special needs we were never forsaken.

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