This is a chapter from my new book, “Fire and Ice.” It tells of my flight from a mountain wildfire after I lost custody of my children to my abusive ex-husband and had to stay in a motel room alone. While the fire raged, a hawk attacked my parrot, and I almost lost him, too. Have you ever lost someone or something precious? What did you do?
The Parrot and the Hawk
I was sleeping in my little motel room when the fire began. A frantic knock upon the door awakened me, followed by a shout:
“There’s a fire on the mountain. Get out!”
That is an effective wake-up call. I jumped out of bed and lunged for the door. I had a lot of questions to ask the motel manager who had made the announcement, but as soon as I opened that door, I did not need to ask.
Smoke and flames towered high in the slopes across from the motel. Ashes floated on the wind like snowflakes all around me. I gasped at the burning smell and took a step back from my open doorway.
“My God!” I screamed. Fire truck sirens blared, and a yellow engine raced through the motel parking lot.
“I have no car!” I shouted at the back of the motel manager who was banging on doors further along the outside deck.
“You’ll have to find a ride with someone,” he yelled back. “I have no room for you. The man in Number Seventeen is a salesman with a truck. Perhaps he can give you a lift wherever he is going.”
I stared at the wall of flame fast approaching, far closer to me than that other fire had been. Of all elements in the universe, fire is the one I fear the most. The smell of smoke, so strong that I could taste its acid flavor in my mouth, irritated the lining of my nose and made my headache. I had burned my arm once as a child, trying to iron my dress, and I remembered the fiery pain igniting on my skin, inflaming it to red, and how I screamed and ran to thrust my arm beneath the flowing water of the kitchen faucet.
Only cold can ease the pain of fire, like water, snow, or ice.
I watched a fireman in the parking lot, fully clad in his turnouts, the heavy yellow overalls with helmet, boots, and vest, and wondered how he could bear the smell of smoke with no oxygen tank upon his back.
“Oh, God,” I prayed, “Do not let the fire consume me!”
I ran, in my nightgown, to Number Seventeen and knocked hard on the wooden door.
He answered right away, a young man with a pleasant face beneath brown hair that needed to be combed.
“Can you give me a ride out of here?” I asked.
“Of course,” he replied. “Go get your stuff. We have five minutes.”
Five minutes! I had all day to organize and pack the last time I evacuated from a mountain fire.
I raced back to my motel room, uncovered my sleepy parrot Penny, and threw a suitcase on the bed. My mind was making a quick list, and I tossed in each item: laptop computer, clothes, Bible, hairbrush, medicine . . .
I should have left the medicine. This is not the time to quit taking it, I argued with my better self. You need the strength to cope. Oh, the lies we try to make ourselves believe!
I put Penny in his little evacuation cage with a bowl of food and water, dressed quickly, and slung my jacket over my shoulder. It was October again, four years after the big fire that burned 100,000 acres, and a Santa Ana wind blew up from the desert, making the days hot but the nights a breezy cold.
“Are you ready?” the man from Number Seventeen asked as he peeked into my slightly open door.
“Yes,” I answered, grabbing Penny’s cage with one hand and my suitcase with the other.
“Good,” he replied, his voice more calm than mine had sounded. “The firemen say that we must leave immediately. The flames are spreading to the field across from the motel.”
“Oh, God,” I said. “Please get us safely out of here!”
As soon as I stepped back outside my door, onto the deck that wrapped around the motel, smoke choked away my breath, my heart beat hard against my chest, the blood rushed to my head, and I bent over in the face of an asthmatic anxiety attack.
“Here, this may help,” my unexpected rescuer handed me a handkerchief. I tied it over my nose and mouth, then grabbed my packages again and followed him down the wooden stairs to his white pick-up truck.
He threw my suitcase in the back with his, then helped me climb into the cab while holding Penny’s cage for me.
“Thank you,” I told him. “Thank you so much!”
He smiled, his eyes a comforting shade of green and blue, then got behind the steering wheel, started the engine, and drove out of the motel parking lot. I turned my head to see a wall of flames licking up the trunks of hundred-feet-tall pine trees. The needles, brown and dead because of draught and beetles, flickered as they burned, the golden sap within the bark and branches flared, and the pine cones exploded.
“Oh, the trees,” I lamented. “They are burning like giant torches!”
We passed the highway patrol evacuation checkpoint and headed east.
“There are only two evacuation routes,” my newfound friend explained as he drove past orange hazard cones, flares, and patrol cars. “Down the mountain to Redlands on the highway which burned four years ago and may be risky, as the fire is close to it again—or over the mountain, up the higher elevations, to Big Bear. That is where I’m going. I am a traveling salesman, and I have a motel where I get a discount there in Big Bear.”
“Big Bear is fine,” I agreed.
“Good. I can give you a coupon for that motel. I’m actually not staying there this time, but driving down the far side of the mountain to the desert where I have some sales appointments.”
“Oh,” I sounded less enthusiastic. I didn’t know a person in Big Bear, on the high side of our mountain by the ski slopes where I hardly ever went . . .
“Don’t worry,” he assured me. “You will be fine.”
You don’t know the history of my life, I felt like saying, but merely stared ahead at the other cars and trucks that were evacuating toward Big Bear along Rim of the World Highway.
He dropped me off at the motel, a nice collection of cabins in a wide valley by the lake. I was not used to seeing fields of grass, as Lake Arrowhead was criss-crossed by steep hills and winding roads bordered by tall evergreens.
The manager showed me to my room, and I put down my one suitcase and frightened parrot.
“Pretty bird,” I said, taking Penny out of the cage and letting him perch on top. He began preening his feathers, and I sat there and admired him. The top of his head was silver graduating to darker gray. His wings were neon green and olive, and his breast bore a deep “V” design of yellow that subtly changed to peach. His eyes were golden, glowing around the black pupil that often changed its size. Intelligence lived in those eyes, and he would talk to me and call me Mommy.
I stroked one wing, admiring the graduating shape of feathers from the small, soft, sticky puffs of down beneath to oval ones to long, sturdy ones for flight. They were edged with gray and shaped so perfectly, each as distinct as a human fingerprint, with little hooks connecting all the edges around a hollow shaft that was designed for flight. They glowed with iridescent, living color, and parrots, who have more color cones within their eyes than humans do, can see such play of shades together.
He jerked his wing away and grabbed my room key with his gray hooked beak, arching his wings over his stolen treasure, puffing out his feathers and warning me that I would not get my key back easily.
“O.K., keep it, then!” I laughed. He tried to bite the key in two, then abandoned it. I put him on my shoulder.
“Pretty bird,” he announced. He pulled at my hair with his beak and cuddled next to my cheek.
“Oh, let’s go for a walk,” I told him, restless, wondering about the fire. Was it spreading up toward Big Bear? The smoke up in the sky would tell me.
I cupped Penny under one hand but let him stay upon my shoulder. That was a big mistake. As soon as he saw something unfamiliar (a telescope), he startled off my shoulder and flew into the air.
“Penny!” I screamed. I could not see him. I wandered frantically beneath the tall pine trees around the cabins, looking up and calling out his name.
“Pretty bird!” I pleaded. “Come to Mommy.”
I heard him call out for me in that high, sharp sound he makes when he is scared.
“Where are you?” I asked, craning back my neck, searching the many boughs above me.
Oh, please, Lord, I asked, tears welling in my eyes. Don’t let me lose my parrot. He is all I have.
I searched for Penny for several minutes and did not know what else to do but turn back toward my cabin when I heard the screech of a hawk in the sky behind me, followed by the scream of a parrot. I whirled around and looked up. There, above the grassy field I saw a hawk holding Penny in his talons. Penny must have bitten him (the hawk did not expect a Senegal parrot with a big, hooked beak), for it let go in surprise, and Penny flew down toward a bush. I raced across the field toward it. The hawk, a California Redtail, swooped down ahead of me toward the bush, but clever Penny climbed deep into the branches, and the hawk missed its prey.
“Penny!” I exclaimed, reaching in and pulling him out with both hands. Tears blinded me for a moment, and at first I did not notice the wound in Penny’s breast. But then I saw the blood and the round hole where the hawk’s talon had pierced into Penny’s stomach. Penny was breathing hard, his beak open, panting for air. I wrapped him in my sweater and looked up at the hawk, perched silently atop a nearby pole, still waiting for a chance to finish his hard-earned meal.
“Not today,” I told him. “You will not get this parrot!”
As soon as I got Penny back to my room and examined him, I knew he must see the vet. The hole was deep.
“You will be OK,” I told my bird. “I will find a vet for you.”
I had no car. I had very little money. Oh, what to do? I had no friend to call!
I grabbed the Big Bear phone book and found the short list of veterinarians. Then I called a taxi company and waited on my steps, holding Penny, still wrapped in my sweater, firmly in both hands (not that he would fly away now).
The taxi dropped me off at the vet, and I went inside the upscale clinic, bearing my bleeding bird, and laid him on the counter.
“Please, you must help him,” I said to the assistant.
“We don’t see any patients without a $350 deposit,” she replied.
“I don’t have that much cash on me!” I yelled. “My bird will die without some treatment!”
“Put $350 down on the counter, and we will help,” the assistant said.
“You would let this parrot die?” I screamed, losing all composure. “He is all I have! I lost my children! I just evacuated from my second mountain fire, this one at the very door of my motel room, and you tell me you will not even look at my bird unless I place $350 cash down on your counter?”
“We also take credit cards,” she explained.
I wanted to rip the pen she held up toward me, right out of her well-manicured hand, and shove it up her snobby, powdered nose.
“Let me see the vet,” I insisted, my tone more controlled. “Vets must take an oath to save life, you know. A vet would not just let my parrot die. He was attacked by a Redtail hawk and lived!”
“The vet is seeing other patients,” the assistant stated.
“Well, I’m not leaving here until I see him,” I declared.
“Her. She is a woman.”
“Whatever. I will wait for her to finish with her other patients.”
“As you like,” the assistant mocked, straightening her well-fitting white jacket and putting one well-coiffed curl back in its place upon her forehead. I could only imagine what my wrinkled shirt–smeared with a little blood–and wild hair looked like, to match my red cheeks and wildly glowing eyes.
I waited for an hour. The vet, a woman much like her assistant, finally came out and glanced at Penny but told me that she would not treat the bird without advance payment. She did not wait around for me to argue, and simple turned upon her expensive heels and walked back to her office. I knew this fight would not be won, and I walked out to the front of the modern office building, sat down on a dusty step, and held my bleeding bird wrapped in my sweater.
And, suddenly, I knew I was the bird. I was the frightened, gasping, bleeding creature with folded wings and feathers broken.
“Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the Everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might
he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
And young men shall fall exhausted;
But they who wait for the Lord
shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.”
Read the rest of my story here: