There's No Place Like Menagerie

The holidays are past, but I am still living in a strange, quirky version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas": 12 varied fish, nine assorted birds, two turtles and a dove (who lives outside), a ferret, and a sweetheart of a shar-pei. If you sing it right, it fits the second half of the refrain.

How this aviary and critter refuge came to be my home is simple: An old friend at work, out of kindness, offered to rent me a room, a bath, and a space in the driveway.

You'd have to know this friend to understand why I didn't say "yes" right away. Having moved back to Boston after a 10-year absence, I had faint memories of the house in question. A small bungalow, innocent enough in appearance, on a normal, leave-it-to-Beaver street. A house that from the outside only hinted at the dimensions within.

As I closed my eyes, dusty corners of memory began presenting images. Victorian, yes. Eccentric, definitely. Bohemian, uh-huh. More images came. Scenes of a jungle-possessed, sequestered backyard with an oval, mosaic-tiled swimming pool, greenhouse (complete with telephone), gazebo-style dove house, mystical wind chimes, and pink flamingos permanently perched on the lawn.

Intriguing memories. Hazy enough to warrant thoughtful consideration. But then there were practical matters to consider. The house was only 17 minutes from work and would meet my need for short-term housing. So I decided to take a look.

I ARRIVED announced, but no one was home. The house looked different than I remembered. The color certainly had been changed. I opened the wrought-iron gate and closed it behind me. Several things caught my eye: A fox weather vane, perched high on a roof gable, sniffed the wind. Miniature statues gazed up from behind bushes. A small round window over the front door eyed my approach. From a cornice, a gargoyle peered down intently, as if to ascertain my intent. And then there was the new color of the house. It had become completely unreserved, a surer sign of what lay within. It was now a squint-your-eyes, vibratingly bright, lilac purple. Distinctly, the mood was set.

Upon entering, what I first experienced was not visual. It was surroundingly auditory. Costa Rican jungles come to mind. Though I'd never been in one, the owner had, and would never again be satisfied without a daily dose of chatter, whistles, and wry remarks from creatures of colorful and generous dispositions.

What I experienced next was a rush of memory confirmed: huge bird cages resting on Persian carpets, the monkey chandelier, the grand piano, fringed satin draped over objets d'art from every part of the world (ancient-looking Buddhas, gilded mirrors, chunks of architecture) clustered in every nook and cranny. And I don't use "every" casually.

A little dust. OK, a lot of dust. How on earth would you begin to dust? I quickly dismissed this impossible consideration and began responding to the creatures speaking to me in half-a-dozen rain-forest dialects.

The loomingly large, mostly red macaw (Crayola) offered hellos from high in her cage. Then she consulted with the African gray parrot (as well as the Jendaya conure, black-headed caique, red-rumped Australian grass parakeet, and the cockatiels) before asking the dog if she'd like to go out.

This seemed a logical progression, except that the dog, indifferent to my presence, ignored the offer and sulked in the corner. Attempts at friendship with her were futile. Trying to make myself heard over the banter and chorus of nine large birds, I earnestly explained how I'd rescued dozens of her soul mates from highways, freezing weather, and abandonment. With a purr of a growl she dismissed my grandstanding. I was crushed.

I poked around the house, giving this non-puppy (Patty Cake) a wide berth. Cautiously, I ventured into the basement. Imagining myself smaller in size, so as to fit through the narrow corridor of hanging items, I descended the narrow, turning staircase and found myself in a medieval setting.

Were the floors made of earth? Couldn't tell. A single bulb shone dimly, revealing a ceiling hanging low over every prop needed for a well-appointed dungeon. The only visible sign of the modern era was a washing machine hidden behind a swath of clothes, apparently flung out to dry.

Back up to the first floor, I ventured into "my" room - painted a deep, luxurious purple with gold trim. Several plaster angels (Byzantine, Baroque, Gothic) fluttered from the walls. A goose head (in wicker, thank goodness) emerged from a trash can. A framed poster informed me that a group of rhinoceroses is called a "crash," and that a bunch of ferrets is a "business," at which point I remembered there was one in the greenhouse. Not the greenhouse in the backyard, but another accessed from the dining room through a sliding door.

I heard the greenhouse before I saw it (a gurgling stream of water arced through the air from the mouth of a fish). I peeked in a hanging basket and found a blanketed bundle minding her own business: Ferret Fawcett, the mouse catcher.

I poked about and considered. The claw-foot, gold-leafed bathtub is nice, I thought. The black wallpaper in the hall with white, glow-in-the-dark leopard eyes is entertaining. Maybe I could even re-learn that one piece I used to play on the piano.

Sitting in the bedroom, I soaked it all in. Then, out of the blue, came a clear, harmonic voice from the dining room. "I love you," it said, slowly. I walked out to Polly Ester, the African gray parrot. She intelligently considered my eyes.

"I love you," she said again.

Momentarily, it seemed quiet in the room. I smiled and knew. This could be home.

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