Maxine Chernoff's new book of poems, World, was recently released by Salt Publications. "Snowflake, Come Home" is from Coming Apart and Together: New and Selected Stories, to be published in 2002.

Snowflake, Come Home

The poster shows a lost white and gray cockatiel, who "loves to sing and talk" and is "missed very much." I wish I could report having seen him, but then it wouldn't be fiction. It would be a phone call to Todd and Ashley.
     "Todd or Ashley," I'd say. "I've found your beloved bird. Yes, he's alive. He's sitting right here on my shoulder, and he's singing Indian Rhapsody. Yes, the male part. No, I didn't know that he can sing both. Shall I put him on?"
     In real life, the bird in your cat's mouth is limp as a rag. He has stopped speaking altogether.
     In real life, you're happy when your children come home alive from high school. You're happy when your daughter visits after a weekend of heartbreak. You're happy when your husband doesn't leave you.
     "She's nothing compared to me," you tell your friend.
     "They never are," he says sadly. A large gay man, his lovers have never been faithful.
     You have learned to live with imperfection, even to embrace it. Mostly, everything is funny for you now except the disappearance of Snowflake, whose existence seems like a center of reason in a world gone mad.
      Last night on television the Dalai Lama was interviewed. The irreverent interviewer asked him why the godlike man has to wear glasses.
     "Even the Buddha dies," the Dalai Lama smiles. Somehow this wisdom pertains to Snowflake for whom there is a large reward.
     On the Peninsula there is a California-style ranch house full of the Lost Boys of the Sudan, children who grew up homeless orphans, as a result of a bitter religious war in their homeland. At the age of twenty-one, they have been allowed to come to the United States, where Catholic Charities is looking after them. They are extremely tall and have wispy carvings on their foreheads, tribal markings, the helpful reporter explains. Within the course of the report, you also learn that Manute Bol, the seven foot six basketball powerhouse, is a member of this tribe. The Lost Boys are learning to use a rice cooker. They are learning to cross on the red light. An nun with an Irish accent has accompanied them to Target and provided them with a new wardrobe of preppy-style clothes. One is drinking a Doctor Pepper next to someone's Honda Accord. The camera follows one into the house. "This the first bed since I was a boy," he tells the reporter in slow, perfect English. His skin is very dark. He has accepted hunger and loss and probably death. There is no reward for his parents' killers.
     "I think I'll go to heaven when I die," you tell my husband, who looks amused. "Am I that unworthy?" you ask.
     "I just wanted to understand your reasons."
      "If anyone's ever loved you, you get to go to heaven," you say conclusively, making it up as you go along. Later you decide the criterion is too broad. Love must be defined by its value, and yes, some love is more valuable than others. Without quoting from Erich Fromm, you forge on. "Some love doesn't have value. Only if someone of value has loved you, " you tell your husband, later in the day. He looks amused.
     "You'll go to heaven too," you assure him, as he watches basketball on ESPN.
     "Todd or Ashley," you say into their machine. "My friends' thirteen year-old son died last month even though they fed him a macrobiotic diet and wrapped him in poultices. The beautiful pasture where the California live oaks are growing is infested by a fungus that will kill them, and the Dalai Lama must wear glasses."
     But just then you see a white and gray cockatiel sitting in the juniper tree outside your kitchen window next to a Stellar jay. The Stellar jay is yapping its head off at Snowflake. You don't believe it could happen, but here it has, and you're grateful.