Advisor, critic, mimic:
Themis, our companion and navigator for this road trip, is an African Grey parrot long experienced in traveling great American roadways. African Greys, roughly the size of a pigeon, are among the smartest birds on the planet.
My wife, Rebecca, named her after the Titan goddess of divine law, Themis, who enforced order and the rules of conduct established by the gods. Themis is the one with the scales, symbol for the profession of law, and Rebecca is an attorney. Our Themis has come to act more as presiding judge, mistress over the most ancient oracles, and of our household.
Over her 21 years with us, Themis has developed the species’ uncanny ability to speak, mimic any sound – from creaking doors and cell phone rings, police sirens, corks popping, country-western yodels, dog barks, suitcase zippers, dozens of bird whistles, digital clock alarms, nose-blowing and many other bodily emanations – anything that makes a sound. More, she knows when to use them at the precise moment; she speaks clearly, decisively, often intuitively, in a human voice and with the vocabulary of, roughly, a three year-old child. Over the years, her intuition has outstretched; someone coming inside on a hot day, perspiring and obviously fatigued, may inspire her to say, “Would you like a glass of water?” She will rarely speak on request around strangers; performing on command is beneath her; when asked to do so she will tilt her head and fix you with the look of an oldschool headmaster, as if to say, “I am not a dog.” But she loves telephones, and if anyone near is using one she will often demand to get in on the conversation (“Hello! Hello! What’s goin’ on?” Listen to me…).
On road trips, Themis travels in a spacious cage we have adapted as her car seat, strapped and secure on the seat behind the front passenger compartment. She is always on the watch, mostly for trouble. A semi, coming too close for her comfort, is likely to get a “Wowww!” or a long “phheeeww” of relief when it passes; or if she feels wronged by a motorist, we’ll hear the wail of a police siren, including the introductory whoop-whoop-whoops.
It’s likely she downloaded her first sirens long ago while attending one of Lindsborg’s parades, those that begin with the wails of police cars, fire trucks and ambulances. Television and movies also offer a variety of sirens, and she has missed none of them. Her ability to record and replay is astounding. It’s wise to pay attention when Themis is navigating; she can take in 360, or at least 270 degrees at a glance and can spot trouble in an instant. We may be on a leisurely drive, and from the back comes “Will you look at that!” In the distance, a prairie fire; no doubt she’d smelled or seen it before we had. Or it could be an accident, or road construction. A motorist who, say, cuts us off at a freeway exit ramp is likely to get a whoop-whoop, which we call a “ticket.” Beyond her travel chatter – a repertoire of whistling, singing (a lot of country-western, with yodeling), and imaginary visits with friends (Phone rings, then: “Hi, Ben, What’s goin’ on?” – pause – “Oh?… wow… Okay…See you later… Bye..” Then a ring-off beep). She’ll offer the barks of certain dog breeds, especially on seeing one, and an array of new noises and sounds she’s perfecting; we listen for the alerts: “Uh-oh,” or “Watch out,” or “Woww!” among others. In the morning, as we’re leaving a motel, she may say, “Here we go! Hang on!” In late afternoon, as we pull into another motel, she knows what’s happening: “Here we are!” At bedtime, she sets the cell phone wake-up alarm, a series of digital beeps and boops precisely as we will hear them.
About noon on day two of the trip to New Orleans, we had managed to survive a careening 40 minutes through that terrorladen gauntlet known as Dallas freeways; as the ride straightened out after our lurch onto I-20 East for Shreveport, Themis settled into her cup with a long “Pheeewww!”
New Orleans was a trove of new sounds for Themis. There were sirens, apparently of a different resonance, and in our hotel room near the French Quarter she was hard at work downloading the ceaseless vigilance of New Orleans police. (Those raspy horn-honks are a monumental challenge.) Nonetheless, she is ever watchful: As I reached for the microwave buttons to reheat coffee, Themis beeped the time-set as I began touching the squares. She had settled in.