The Parrots

by Robyn Perros

A mother, her three daughters, and their grandmother sit on a bench at the Umgeni River Bird Park in Durban. Behind them is a cage filled with dozens of bright green parrots gnawing on the wire. The sign on the cage says that the parrots are rose-ringed parakeets. Native to central Africa and Asia but adaptable to almost any climate, even cold Europe. They have bright green plumage, rose-red beaks, and a rose-red ring around their necks. They can also imitate the sounds of humans and since the 1900s in South Africa have been popular household pets. But none of the women in this story would know this as they have not bothered to read the sign.

The five women are preparing to have another picture taken together on this outing. This time, the photographer is a fellow visitor to the bird park who has been roped into the scene. He lifts his Ray Bans onto his head, wipes his hands on his rugby shorts, and takes the grandmother’s phone. The eldest teen daughter fixes her greasy hair by pulling two long strands from the top of her forehead down the sides of her cheeks. The preteen daughter pulls a peace sign and sticks her hip out. The youngest daughter fidgets with something heavy in her pockets. The mother places her hand on her teenage daughter’s knee, then retracts it. The grandmother sucks her belly in. They all do.

There are about three thousand rose-ringed parakeets, feral ones, that live on the outskirts of Durban city. In the evenings, their luminous green bodies can be seen and heard flying through the smog, congregating to sleep in the black trees. It is said that many of these colonies were started by escapee pets. Like South Africa’s mynas, crows, and starlings, the rose-ringed parakeets are increasingly described as invasive, alien – a problem. But unlike the mynas, crows, and starlings, people don’t want the parakeets eradicated because they are pretty. This is the trouble with pretty things: they are either protected for their prettiness or punished for it, living in constant uncertainty of which it’ll be, and when.

The women hold still for the photo while the parrots continue to squeak and flap and claw and shit prettily in the cage behind them. The man squints into the phone screen and begins counting down between the noise. “Okay. One! Two!” he shouts. But before reaching the “Three!” he lowers the phone and points at the youngest daughter. “Is the little one all right there?” he asks.

The two older daughters, the mother, and the grandmother tweak their postures to look at ‘the little one’ who is sitting stiff and unblinking on the bench. Her mouth has been scrunched tight into a dried piece of fruit. Her cheeks, a disturbing shade of green. The grandmother leans over and smacks the little one on the thigh. “Have you forgotten how to smile?” she mocks. The girl nods, unsure whether to betray the family photograph or the handful of birdseed the parrots told her to shove in her mouth.

Robyn Perros is a South African writer and multimedia maker. She holds a Master of Creative Writing from Rhodes University where she is currently a Ph.D. scholar and part-time instructor in the School of Journalism & Media Studies. Her writing has been published in South Africa’s 2023 Fluid Anthology, New Contrast, Isele, Alchemy Spoon, Rat World, Decolonial Passage, and Ons Klyntji, among others. Her novella manuscript Choosing an Outfit for the End of the World was longlisted for the 2023 Island Prize for debut African fiction. She lives in Makhanda.