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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya

Jane Kelley

Square Fish



An alarm buzzed. A phone rang. Theme music from a news program played. A clock chimed ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen times. The alarm buzzed again louder and louder. And louder. No one turned it off. No one got up and put food in the shiny aluminum bowl that was, alas, completely empty.
The source of all these sounds rapped his beak on top of the bookcase. The house was silent for a moment, as if everything in it, even the walls of leather-bound books, hoped for a response. There was none. So the alarm buzzed, the phone rang, the music played, the clock chimed, the alarm buzzed, and a raucous voice proclaimed, "Zeno wants!"
Zeno was an African grey parrot. He could imitate sixty-three sounds and speak 127 words. Since those two were by far his favorites, he repeated them again, "Zeno wants!"
He flapped his gray wings and spread his tail that was as scarlet as the lining of a magician's cape. Then he flew over to the shiny aluminum bowl. He cocked his head to one side to see if his servant had filled it with food. There were no nuts, no fruits, no greens—nothing except Zeno's own reflection. He admired his sleek gray head and the sharp curve of his dark beak. Then he carefully lifted his left foot, grasped the rim of the bowl with his long gray toes, and flipped the bowl onto the floor. The metal clattered so delightfully on the hard wood that Zeno repeated the sound himself.
Then he paused, waiting to be praised and rewarded. No one said, "Brilliant bird." No one gave him an apple chunk. No one recorded the sound and the date in the notebook. No one said, "That makes sixty-four distinct sounds." And no one started a discussion of whether words should count as sounds. What was the difference between a sound and a word? Sounds had meanings, too. Didn't the buzz of the alarm mean "wake up"?
"Zeno wants," Zeno muttered mournfully. He flew over to perch on the desk so he could look down at his servant.
Dr. Agard was still sleeping on the floor. Zeno didn't understand this. Dr. Agard was a man of regular habits. He had never lain down on the floor for even a moment in the twenty years that he had been Zeno's servant. He had certainly never slept there.
The real phone rang. Zeno cocked his head and glared at the black rectangle. It rang seventeen times. Dr. Agard didn't get up to answer it.
Zeno made the sound of the buzzing alarm again. This was always very effective at waking up Dr. Agard, even when it was the middle of the night. However, nothing was as it should be.
Dr. Agard hadn't even put away his papers before taking his nap. He was always careful to keep them where Zeno couldn't get them. Several stacks were on the desk, including one that Dr. Agard had described as final exams. You see, in addition to being Zeno's servant, Dr. Agard was also a professor of Greek literature at Brooklyn College. He had named Zeno after a Greek philosopher. He often quoted the human Zeno to the parrot Zeno.
"Extravagance is its own destroyer," Zeno squawked. He waited for Dr. Agard to reward him for saying what the human Zeno said. There was no response. Surely it was extravagant of Dr. Agard to lie on the floor instead of feeding Zeno.
"Pfft," Zeno muttered. He put his foot on the stack of final exams and used his beak to tear a long strip off the top paper. This was one of Zeno's favorite things to do. He loved the feel of the paper in his mouth, loved the little bit of resistance from the paper, and then the soft sighing sound as the paper abandoned itself to Zeno's will. Rip, rip, rip, rip. What could be more satisfying than to turn a flat white sheet into a muddle of curls?
Zeno glanced at Dr. Agard again. He still hadn't moved. Zeno didn't understand this. Usually Dr. Agard would rush over at the first little rip, waving his hands and shouting, "Those are my papers, Zeno. Mine."
Well, perhaps they were Dr. Agard's. However, Zeno didn't see why he wanted them. He never did anything interesting with them. He just held them in his hand. Occasionally he made marks like bird tracks with that short stick, which Zeno wasn't supposed to gnaw, either. What was enjoyable about that? Nothing. In fact, Dr. Agard often moaned as he was marking the papers. Sometimes he would say things like, "You could have written a better essay than this, Zeno." And Zeno would nod his head several times yes yes yes. Even though he couldn't really claim to know the words "essay" or "written," he did know that he could have done a better job at whatever it was because he was, of course, Zeno.
Finally all the papers had been shredded. Dr. Agard hadn't rescued a single one.
"Mine?" Zeno said.
He turned his head upside down to stare at Dr. Agard. Then he turned his head the other way to ponder the situation from that point of view. What was Dr. Agard doing down there? Dr. Agard often told Zeno that Zeno had to control his emotions if he wanted to achieve wisdom. This was called being stoic. The human Zeno was supposed to be very good at that and at accepting his fate. The parrot Zeno wondered if that was why Dr. Agard was lying there? Had he found wisdom by not being angry at Zeno?
"Pfffft," Zeno muttered.
If that were true, being stoic didn't seem like a good thing. Of course Zeno was delighted that Dr. Agard wasn't angry. However, Dr. Agard didn't seem happy, either. And Dr. Agard seemed to have forgotten all about sharing their Sunday morning treat.
Unlike his human namesake, Zeno the bird never suffered in silence. "Zeno wants!" he squawked.
And what did Zeno want? Since you are no doubt much better at understanding your feelings than poor Zeno, you know that Zeno wanted Dr. Agard to get up. He wanted the life they had shared for twenty years to continue. He wanted not to feel alone in the house. He wanted to be rid of that little throbbing knot of fear and dread in his stomach. He wanted …
"Banana nut!" Zeno squawked.
Well, he wasn't the only one who thought everything would be all right if he could just eat his favorite food.
Sharing banana-nut muffins was one of their rituals. Unfortunately Dr. Agard had decided to take a nap on the floor like a stoic instead of going out to get their special Sunday treat.
Zeno flapped down and stood right next to Dr. Agard's head.
Dr. Agard didn't move.
"Banana nut?" Zeno muttered mournfully.
The phone rang again.
Dr. Agard didn't move.
Zeno rubbed the side of his beak against Dr. Agard's finger—the one Dr. Agard used to scratch the top of Zeno's head, right in the dark gray patch of feathers, between the pale gray circles that surrounded his yellow eyes. Dr. Agard always stroked Zeno's head as he said that Zeno was the most beautiful, brilliant bird in all of Brooklyn.
"Booful, briyant bird," Zeno muttered.
The doorbell rang—the real one. Then someone knocked on the door. "Dr. Agard? Dr. Agard?"
The knocking turned to banging.
"Dr. Agard!"
Zeno recognized the voice of Dr. Agard's assistant. There had been many over the years. Zeno never liked them. They didn't seem to understand that since Dr. Agard was Zeno's servant, the servants of Dr. Agard must be Zeno's servants, too. The current assistant frequently referred to Zeno as "that bird." He had yelled at Zeno in a most un-stoic-like fashion just because Zeno had ripped open the assistant's backpack to help himself to a packet of mixed nuts.
"Dr. Agard? I'm opening the door."
The locks turned. The door opened. Zeno flapped his wings and flashed his scarlet tail feathers. "BRAWWWK!" Zeno squawked, ready to defend Dr. Agard against these intruders.
The assistant and two other men in blue clothes rushed into the room.
"Get that bird out of here," the assistant shouted.
That bird? The assistant should have learned Zeno's name by now. Dr. Agard had told the assistant often enough.
"Zeno," Zeno squawked. "Booful, briyant Zeno."
The humans weren't listening. One actually shoved Zeno away from Dr. Agard. Zeno was so shocked by this rough treatment that he flew up to the bookshelf. He pulled a book of Greek tragedies off the top shelf and dropped it to the floor. Plop. He kept pulling books until he had cleared the entire shelf. Plop, plop, plop, plop.
The men in blue knelt by Dr. Agard. They loosened his clothes, poked him with needles, stuck tubes in his arms, and covered his face with a mask.
And still Dr. Agard didn't move.
After several frantic moments, the men in blue stopped what they were doing and became almost as motionless as Dr. Agard. "That's all we can do," one said.
The assistant nodded and hid his mouth behind his hand.
The men in blue gently lifted Dr. Agard onto a little cot, covered him with a white cloth, and wheeled him out the front door.
Zeno was shocked. Where were they taking Dr. Agard?
"Mine!" he squawked, because of course Dr. Agard was his servant. He flew out the front door after them and perched on the lowest branch of an oak tree.
The assistant hovered close by as the men in blue put Dr. Agard in the back of a white van. They slammed the doors shut. Bang.
Zeno watched the van drive up the street and disappear around the corner. He looked at the door to the house. Should he go back inside? What for? His dishes were empty. The papers were shredded. And Dr. Agard, his devoted servant, had gone.
"Zeno want?" Zeno muttered.
No one responded to him. So Zeno flew off to make his own way in the great wide world.

Copyright © 2013 by Jane Kelley