Listening to a mirror

It's hard to recognize your own voice. Maybe you've tried it on a tape playback or some beep-recorded phone call. Like everyone else, you've said, ''Is that what I sound like?'' A fair critique says your voice was probably pitched too high, your diction was not altogether clear, and your words somehow tumbled out too fast.

As a family, we all found this out. But not by using cassettes or videotapes. We learned what we sounded like from Jose. He came to us as a pet-shop present in a perforated shoe box, a baby hill mynah bird. He was small, spry, and jet black with a soft orange bill. When the box lid came off, he hopped out to investigate the kitchen floor on foot - no fluttering, no excited tries at flying. His was just a sort of making-friends approach. Jose, he became, because Lisa had been enchanted with some Mexican stories in eighth-grade reading.

Because Jose was young, he hadn't yet picked up any pet-shop talk - those parrot squawks or chirpings or shrill wolf whistles learned from occasional cage-lookers. In fact, according to the mynah care booklet, he was too young yet to become a good imitator. And, the book said, if we wanted a mynah that would pick up speech, we should put his cage in a central room of the house - one where he would identify family voices, doorbells, footsteps, telephone conversations - maybe even some sporadic TV.

We did that. And we were careful not to whistle at him. The book warned that this is the easiest imitation to pick up and that once mynahs become raucous whistlers (maybe they like their own accomplishments), they will avoid trying to learn speech or other sounds.

In a few months, we had real surprises. All at once there was Jose's melodic greeting - to neighbors, to delivery people, to the after-school gang - ''Hello, there, come in!'' It was a perfect imitation of Betty's maternal welcome, in the exact feminine register. Like many of Jose's phrases, we felt it was eventually repeated a little too often.

Jose would eat anytime and loved to pick juicy pieces of fresh fruit from your fingers. Grapes were his very favorite. It wasn't long before he was asking - in imitation of Lisa's elongated feeding question - ''Mooooore grapes?'' The repetition was that of a 13-year-old female voice. And perfect.

Our eight-year-old had perhaps the most direct fun from Jose's expanding vocabulary. It was Curt's family assignment to care for Chloe, our black standard poodle. The chores included feeding, brushing, exercising, and - we hoped - some improved training. Jose was usually close by when the daily poodle grooming was going on. So it wasn't too long before Curt's commands became Jose's property - with the eight-year-old's stern inflections: ''Chloe, come here!'' ''Chloe, sit - stay!'' ''Chloe, lie down!''

We didn't intend it. Trouble was, these boyish commands were salted away among Jose's other phrases to be used at random. And Chloe didn't understand why she heard these when Curt wasn't around. These mysterious, any-time commands (from nowhere) not only were confusing to that black poodle but raised something of a Chloe-Jose enmity. Eventually, though, Chloe discovered the words were coming from that cage, and she figured she was being duped. When Jose persisted with his talk, Chloe would sit in front of his cage by the hour, thinking who knows what dire thoughts.

And for me?

I guess I had the best voice lesson of all from Jose. Sometimes in the evenings, when the homework had been OK'ed and the bedroom stereos were quiet (and Curt and Lisa were ostensibly asleep), I'd hear myself speaking. There was the exact mimicry again - but masculine, sharp, gruff:

''Lisa, your homework!''

''Curt, go to bed!''

I told myself I really didn't think I sounded like that. Still, when any of us talked about it, we admitted - to be honest - that hearing Jose was like listening to a mirror.

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