You might think, who is this, and I might say, this is God
and what are you to do? Or I might say, a bird! Or I could tell
you, madame, monsieur, sir, madam, how this name was
given to me—I was christened Parrot because my hair was colored carrot,
because my skin was burned to feathers, and when I tumbled
down into the whaler, the coxswain yelled, Here’s a parrot, captain. So
it seems you have your answer, but you don’t.
I had been named Parrot as a child, when my skin was still pale and tender as a maiden’s breast, and I was still Parrot in 1793, when Olivier de Bah-bah Garmont was not even a twinkle in his father’s eye.
To belabor the point, sir, I was and am distinctly senior to that unborn child.
In 1793 the French were chopping off each other’s heads and I was already twelve years of age and my endodermis naturalus had become scrubbed and hardened by the wind and mists of Dartmoor, from whose vastness my da and I never strayed too far. I had tramped behind my darling da down muddy lanes and I was still called Parrot when he, Jack Larrit, carried me on his shoulder through Northgate at Totnes.
My daddy loved his Parrot. He would sit me on the bar of the Kingsbridge Inn, to let the punters hear what wonders came from my amazing mouth: Man is born free and is everywhere in chains.
If that ain’t worth sixpence what is?
My daddy was a journeyman printer, a lanky man with big knees and knubbly knuckled hands with which he would ruff up his red hair when looking for First Principles. Inside this bird’s nest it was a surprise to find his small white noggin, the precious engine of his bright gray eyes.
“Children remain tied to their father by nature only so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as this ends,” so wrote the great Rousseau, “the natural bond is dissolved. Once the children are freed from the obedience they owe their father and the father is freed from their responsibilities towards them, both parties equally regain their independence. If they continue to remain united, it is no longer nature but their own choice, which unites them; and the family as such is kept together only by agreement.”
More or less that’s it.
My daddy and I were two peas in a pod. The acquisition of knowledge was our occupation, but of my ma I knew nothing except that she had a tiny waist which would fit inside her husband’s hands. I missed her all my life.
I knew Adam Smith before I reached fractions. Then I was put to Latin which my father liked no more than I did, and this caused us considerable upset, both with ourselves and with each other. It was due to Latin that my father got in a state and clipped my lughole and I grabbed a half-burned bit of kindling and set to drawing on the floor. I had never seen a drawing in my life, and when I saw what I was doing, dear God, I thought I had invented it. And what rage, what fury, what a delicious humming wickedness I felt. All over the floor and who will clean it? I had seen my daddy’s hand reach for his belt buckle and I was, ipso facto, ready for the slap. Yet at this moment I entered a foreign jungle of the soul. I drew a man with a dirty long nose. A leaping trout. A donkey falling upside down.
But my daddy’s belt stayed in his trousers.
He stared at me. His hair stood up like taffy. He cocked his head. I permitted him to take my charcoal stick and kiss me on the head. Not a cross word, or a kind one. He led the Parrot downstairs where he ordered the landlord pour me a ginger beer. Then he sat and watched me drink, and what was he pondering, do you reckon?
Why, the benefits of having an engraver in the family.
Excerpted from Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey. Copyright © 2010 by Peter Carey. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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