“The flutter of blue pigeon’s wings, Under a river bridge, Hunting a clean dry arch, A corner for a sleep—, This flutters here in a woman’s hand.”
- Carl Sandburg
On the year anniversary of Nathaniel’s death, I opened the door to the loft and set his pigeons free. The old pigeons bustled out the door, springing into the air without hesitation, perhaps without thought, a few of their progeny following in trust, others lurking at the doorway peering into the unknown. I propped the door open and stood watching.
This shed of cooing conversation and whipping wings held a change of guard, a generation come and gone. I had done little more than feed them and give them fresh water, but the mechanisms of life in the loft ground on even without their pigeoner. Things had evolved in here, while outside my moments remained so raw that Nathaniel could have died yesterday, the cordless telephone still slick and fever warm with terrible conversations.
There were thirty-one birds in the loft; a dozen were young birds that had never tested their powerful wings against the breadth of the sky. There were six that had died of mysteries, perhaps old age and two others by the taloned reach of a starving young Cooper’s hawk, fishing desperately for morsels. In the failing feast that heralds the end of summer, the pressed predator could do little more than jam her foot between the bars of a tempting storehouse, withdrawing feathers, skin and blood, little more than a taste, a wish. I found the hawk dead in the yard, thin-keeled and stiff-legged. I buried her with the two pigeons that had been destroyed by her unsated hunger, uncertain which or who should claim the moment as their tragedy.
Shooing the shy dawdlers out the door, I entered the loft to top off their food and give them fresh water. I could have withheld their meal yesterday, drawn the experienced birds back in with the taut line of their hunger, but I wanted them to make up their own minds. I imagined the whirl of grey, white and brown wings spiraling upward, flashing out like sparks from the chimney, blown out and away for good. The idea that the pigeons could leave was potent and hopeful. Still, I raked the gravel, pulling piles of droppings out from under perches and into the well-fertilized flowerbeds edging the building, tidying up for their return.
The loft clean and prepped, buttoned up and mostly safe from predators, I opened the landing platform. Testing the bobs to see if they would give way under the weight of a pigeon, free of rust and resistance, I shoved my hand through the one-way entry. The metal curtain pushed in and plinked back against the frame of the platform, a muffled wind chime, a promise of a feather-evoked breeze.
He had only been gone two hours when the phone rang that afternoon. Who would have expected that crushing news could come so swiftly and to a person so angry? Even when the steady contralto asked to speak with Mrs. Joyner, my anger didn’t falter. No one referred to me as a married woman. Everyone who still spoke with me knew that Nathaniel and I were barely married, despite the four year mark of our vows. And even though I recognized the clipped and careful speech of authority, could visualize the uniform that had so often arrived on my doorstep, a harbinger of bad times, I clung to my rage.
He had done it. I had hit him first, but my nose had just stopped bleeding. I was sure he had broken it. I was certain I was going to press charges this time, not because he had struck me, not even because the pudgy brunette with the huge eyes who had shown up at the door had insisted he was divorcing me to marry her.
I had thrown a potted lily at her, called her a cow and an idiot to think she was the first. I had screamed at her with all the sound I could draw from the depths of my gut, yelling to get off of my property, that she would never have him even if he left me. This scene, the neighbors darting quick looks between blinds, the dogs next door howling along would have been enough to rectify my honor if it hadn’t been for Nathaniel’s solemn whisper to the woman.
“I told you she was unstable, darling. Why did you come?”
I had halted. The game had changed and I didn’t know how to play.
“Get out of here before she does something stupid, Ann. Let me take care of it,” he said. “Just a little bit longer.” The woman had fled and I had turned on Nathaniel, feral and spitting, my claws and words sharp.
It doesn’t make a difference what I said. I always knew what to say to push enough to make him push back. He had taught me well. He had never been faithful. He had never been kind. There was only passion and pain and the extremes of our relationship bound us tight and locked us in. I had always thought I would get out someday. I never thought it would be too much for him first, but now I wonder. Maybe he drank just enough tequila so that he wouldn’t tense and curl tight, protecting his fragile parts as the motorcycle flew over the guardrail and plunged away from the mountain, racing for the earth.
The pigeons expanded and contracted like a thought, their wings smacking together, feathers singing as they traced the boundaries of the property from the air. They were dropping their altitude, drifting like dislodged maple leaves. I had hated the loft, the hours Nathaniel spent smoking pot and daydreaming over birds. Now standing beneath them, imagining their escape, I had to admit they were fantastical in flight, a means of extending yourself above and then reeling your senses back in. I wished I was high.
Young birds had broken away, panting and perched in the pines, too overwhelmed to keep up, but following the progress of the falling flock with bobbing heads. It was them I found myself watching now. Their eyes were wide with disbelief, a lifetime of experiences blasted through tiny brains in one explosion of flight. Their parents were too fast and strong to catch up to and for the first time in their lives they were alone and unsteady. Yet I didn’t think to be afraid for them until we all startled under the shadow of a red-tailed hawk.
The adults plummeted, diving for safety and rushing though bobs into their cloistered loft, but the young birds had never ventured in and out. They had yet to learn that there was a way back in. They scattered, some in desperation, some for cover, and one in confusion. The juveniles heading for the horizon were never coming back and the one sitting on the rooftop had tempted fate.
The hawk, in a twist of red and the faint percussion of airy bodies struck, carrying the pigeon in silence up into a pine. On a sturdy branch, she settled in just moments and a gentle shower of feathers began to rain down on the yard as I caught my breath.
“I’m sorry,” I said, my eyes tracing the spinning fall of a grey tinged primary, but I felt no guilt.
I counted five pigeons still out and visible. Letting a few adults back out to hopefully lead them back in, I knew I would spend the rest of my afternoon waiting and watching, but that there was no guarantee.
I made myself a pot of coffee. I had given up booze when Nathaniel died and I had never like drugs. I had thought I should begin new, do better, honor his memory, but the best I could do was to stop drinking. Most nights I worked at Johnny Russo’s and imagined the spices I could add to the bland sauces if I owned the joint, coaxed the chefs into making something different for regulars. Mostly I worked, smiled and ignored the sad “isn’t she the one?” looks, came home to read another novel and started over again. Nathaniel had hated that I read classics and accused me of making him look like an idiot with my “fancy” words. He had said it was ridiculous to think I would own a restaurant. I had wanted things once, but I now I wasn’t so sure.
“Love is enough reason, Gram,” I said, certain that no seventeen year-old had ever needed more of a reason and that no adult had ever fully understood. I was turning eighteen in two days and I was going to California.
“If you leave with that man, don’t come back,” she said. “After all that I’ve done.” She added this as afterthought and I thought our conversation couldn’t be more scripted. How many times had this exact exchange flown across two generations? I imagined I was in a poorly written play.
“I didn’t ask her to leave me with you. I would have asked you to love me though, but there was never any hope of that, was there?” I said. I didn’t believe this, but was certain it was my line.
“Can’t you see?” she asked.
That he was five years older? That he had me crawling on my knees for his approval. That he was dangerous and I was in danger. Yes, I saw this. I rolled the suitcase down the hall and didn’t flinch when she slammed her bedroom door.
Giving the phone a considering look, I imagined calling my grandmother to tell her that Nathaniel was dead, that I was coming home. This was something had I imagined often in the last six months, but with five silent years past, it seemed pointless. I had left my friends, my gram, shut everyone out. Every new relationship had been sabotaged by the poisonous one that had my full attention through what had passed of my adult life. Occasionally some Samaritan tried to “save me” and suffered for their kindness. I had been too busy fighting and making up, nursing my pride and my desire to be any good to anyone else. Now I missed that, damn him.
I poured myself a cup of coffee, watching the five pigeons on the roof of the loft. A young bird considered the path of an older hen, perhaps its mother, putting herself away. Following, the bird with the thin body and wobbling wing beat, found the platform from which she had disappeared. It poked its head through the bobs, withdrew and then plunged back to the safety of home. I nodded in approval.
Of the twelve first-time pigeons I had released only six made it back inside their first trip, a week later I was down to four and had lost two of the more experienced birds. I never saw another one caught, but the red-tailed hawk that lived in the neighborhood began to make an appearance whenever I walked into the yard. She positioned herself in the tallest pine above my loft and waited for me to let out breakfast. I didn’t think red-tailed hawks were known for their bird hunting prowess. I thought they consumed clumsy earthbound creatures like rabbits and squirrels, but she seemed to be making a fine living on my flock. I started calling her “The Red Queen”, my admiration for her equal to my irritation even as I refused to lock my pigeons in.
I wasn’t giving up, not until there were no pigeons to fly. I was addicted to the rush of wings beating in the froth of early light. They got stronger, spiraled higher, whipped their wings faster every day. And I needed them to fly. Perhaps this was cruel.
Would Nathaniel have locked his pigeons in had the Red Queen arrived and begun the methodical thinning of his flock? I doubted it. I remember the loss of very few pigeons. How had he kept them safe? I shuddered and imagined him drowning cats and shooting hawks.
In two months the flock leveled out at twelve birds that refused to be caught and I felt a little sorry for the Red Queen. She would just have to wait for the next batch of inexperienced pigeons to shape and she wouldn’t have to wait long. They had begun courting. Then one pair laid eggs that in 17 days hatched into boneless naked impossibilities, instead of pigeons. Yet from the soft clay of a squab, they sharped and hardened into birds in a matter of weeks. They were just beginning to peer over the edge of their nest ledge when the black pigeon came back with my flock.
My racers were mottled, grizzled, blue bar and white. They looked like mutts because they were. Nathaniel was only as serious about his pigeons as he could be about anything else in his life. He didn’t breed to compete or to show. He simply possessed.
This black pigeon, tall with her regal head and sleek lines was a pedigree. Everything about her looked carefully planned, except for perhaps her destination. Someone around here had a loft. I imagined it had concrete floors and running water, each bird with a carefully notated record, hers matching the green numbered band on her right leg. She wasn’t mine and she didn’t belong behind the rotting wood of my unkempt loft, but I wanted her.
I let my pigeons back out, hoping she would follow them back in. Instead, a brown and white pigeon, with a short tail and bulging crop met her on the roof. He paced, pushed his chest in her direction, spun and sang. She sidled away, but not too far, looking away but leaning toward him. I understood then, that he had somehow found her, luring her down from the carefree and thoughtless heavens and I didn’t want to watch anymore.
“You’ll come then,” he asked.
I hadn’t answered, just smiled and took another sip of my Bacardi Breezer. He knew the answer. I toyed with the glass rose between my fingertips, the one he had impulsively plucked from the plastic cup next to the register at the gas station, adding it to the Doritos, six packs and the cigarettes. He had handed it to me with a flourish, down on one knee saying, “My lady.” I knew it was a cheap classless gift, but sometimes presentation was everything. The lady behind the counter had sighed.
“How’s that alcopop?” He raised an eyebrow at me and smirked. “I can’t wait until you’re old enough to drink the real stuff with me.” I rolled my eyes at him. Then he asked, “It really doesn’t bother you that I’m so much older?”
“Please,” I said. How many times had we had this conversation? Had he never met an eighteen year-old boy? I had a lot more to say to a twenty-three year old man. He and I could stay up all night talking about our dreams for ourselves, for each other, for the world. He looked younger with the olive skin and etched features of model flaunting a Rolex or maybe standing in front of a luxury car. And I looked older with my a-line blonde bob and long legs. We looked like we were the same age. We looked like we belonged together and it felt wrong when we weren’t. When he was forty and I was thirty-five, how much difference would it really make? We had the rest of lives to close that tiny gap of five years. And I couldn’t wait.
“As you wish,” he said, again with a flourish of his hand and a bow of his dark head.
I rolled my eyes again, but I didn’t mean it.
When the black pigeon began to sit on a nest, keeping the longer night shift and leaving afternoons to the male, I began wonder who she really was, what breed and from where. Another pigeon had stopped at my loft, tall and exotic like the black only bronze and capped with white. She wasn’t drawn in and she didn’t stay long. With the image of them both though, I was able to decipher that they were Persian high flyers and that someone nearby must have a flock. Who?
Did he spend solitary mornings, warming his hands with his breath as he watched his birds fly? Maybe they were his father’s birds and he flew them to remember. Could it be that he was wondering after the black hen? Maybe he shot the hawk he thought had eaten her. Beneath the morning flights I imagined my counterpart. I changed the gender or the age or the circumstance but always envisioning the pigeoner’s neck craned toward the sky.
Then one week at the feed store, a 50 pound bag of pigeon seed balanced on my shoulder, I started to ask Mr. Sampson, the owner, about my Persian high flyer. I said, “I was wondering,” but stopped. The cracking and rusty sound of my own voice startled me. In my imaginings the other pigeoners and I had begun to talk flock in the mornings, but in reality my voice had been untested that day.
The old man nodded, motioned for me to sling the bag on the counter and adjusted his glasses. His expression was kind. Sampson had been in this town for fifty years, his wife gone for five. His home was overrun with grandchildren, but he knew grief and was expecting it from me.
“My husband’s pigeons.” I pronounced the words carefully, expecting a jolt in my chest or a change of expression from Mr. Sampson, but neither happened. “They brought home a friend.”
He nodded his head like he approved of this discussion. “A roller?” he asked. I knew he asked this because rollers so often lost their way, but I didn’t know why I knew this. Something Nathaniel might have said.
“A Persian high flyer,” I said. “Persian high flyer, same thing. Do you know who has a flock around here?”
“No,” he said. “Beautiful birds.” Then he noticed my disappointment. “You’ve got some thief blood in your flock then. Maybe you can catch a couple more.”
“Never heard of Spanish thief pouters? Casanova of the pigeon breeds. They are selected for their ability to romance and draw a female in. It’s sport with that breed to capture the hens from another’s loft. All thief pouters can do it, but the originals come from Spain.”
“He tricked her?”
“Well, she came willingly, but she wouldn’t have come if he hadn’t of called and if he hadn’t have been good at it. He’ll likely bring you another or his sons will.”
“I see,” I replied and absently paid for my feed.
I had been home for over an hour before the flashing light on the answering machine caught my attention. I held my finger over the playback button and then pulled back. I found the handset and scrolled for the last caller. I recognized my childhood phone number.
Far in the back of the refrigerator there was a bottle of Newcastle and on top a bottle of tequila forgotten behind cereal boxes and bags of tortilla chips. It took some time to find the bottle opener buried deep beneath wooden spoons, tongs and wire whisks. I popped off the cap, poured myself a shot and pushed play.
There was a pause, my grandmother clearing her throat and then the short message. She said simply, “Come home.”
I swallowed the tequila and nodded, trying to convince myself, but I didn’t think I could.
The next morning, I watched my thieving pigeons take flight, apologizing for their bad blood and rough upbringing. Then just as they were winking out of sight, I saw a flashing of bronze and black wings crackling through my flock like fool’s gold.
Before it was light the following day, I slipped into the loft and grabbed the black hen. Her chicks, both young hens, were now feeding themselves. They were upright and feathered, and consumed the nest space. The hen was sitting on a perch off to the side. She didn’t grunt or coo when I snatched her from her roost and she barely struggled against my palms. I tucked her into a cardboard box and set it on the passenger seat of my car.
When the dawn began to break, I let my pigeons out at the usual time and then jumped in my Camry, which was already running. I crawled the car through sleeping neighborhoods, grinding gears and peering through the windshield past the trees. Twice I caught glimpses of pigeon’s wings, but both times they were other flocks, a flock of racers another of rollers. I found this heartening and unsettling. How many pigeoners were staring into the morning sky?
I kept driving a grid and hoping for the best, wondering if I would have to make this drive for weeks before I pinpointed the swirl of the Persian loft barreling in for their breakfast.
I had never really thought about how many houses, how many people even in our small neighborhood. My world had been not much bigger than my street and the drive to my job. This old neighborhood, some houses nearly a hundred years-old, each unique, a thousand hidden lives all different from mine. Who was this man with Persian pigeons? Was he very old? Maybe widowed like me? Were there other pigeons seduced into his loft as well, leaving him to ponder a world much bigger than and not nearly as inclusive as he imagined? What if he were looking for me? How would he find me?
I realized that if I were him, I would get up in the hills adjacent to our neighborhood, a quick drive, but high enough to glimpse a larger vision. So not far from where Nathaniel’s bike skipped over the guardrail, I parked the car and scanned the air above the pines, juniper and chimneys.
And then I spotted them.
It wasn’t a big flock, maybe twenty and they were gathering like an unorganized storm over a grey house with a tile roof. The colors of the birds wings were so uniform, their movements so precise, I was certain, my pulse quickening as I headed in their direction.
It wasn’t a grand house, kept up better than mine, but not fancy. It looked like it belonged to someone conscientious and proud. I pulled over two houses down and saw that there were three people in the driveway. I had imagined one person. I had wrestled out the beginnings of a one-on-one conversation in my mind, but to me this was a crowd. I left the engine on and felt my face flush.
Then the man with a coffee can that likely carried a scoop of seeds, shook out a promise and began to beckon in the birds. He stepped through a gate to the back and left a woman in a flowing wrap and a little girl in a sunflower yellow dress in the driveway. The little girl danced a circle around her mother, pointing at the sky and her mother lifted her so she could point higher.
The birds spiraled down into the loft behind the house, their color and heavy bodies making them obvious kin to the bird tucked in the box beside me. I reached for the keys to turn off the ignition and then let my hand drop. I had made up my mind. I pulled away from the curb, driving us back home.