When she awoke, it only took a moment to realize that she was much, much further from home than she had ever been. Her wing was still sore, but it didn’t feel broken. She stretched it experimentally … and bumped against a wall. She shifted in another direction — another wall. She was in a cage. Now Olivia began to panic. She had heard of cages before. It was said that old Granny Checker had been put in a cage once, though no one seemed to remember exactly how she had gotten out. Everyone agreed, though, that a cage was a terrible place to be. Ignoring the pain in her wing, Olivia rammed herself at the walls, searching for some weakness that would allow her to escape.
“You’ll heal up faster if you don’t flap so much, dear.”
Olivia stilled, startled by the lilting voice from across the room. It didn’t quite have the sound of her familiar city pigeons, or of her new friends from the farm, but it was easy enough to understand. Olivia peered out from the front of her cage.
“There now, isn’t that better?”
The kindly voice from before was coming from a cage just opposite Olivia’s.
“My name’s Paloma, dear. What’s yours?”
Olivia suddenly remembered her manners.
“H… hello, friend,” she mumbled quickly. “I’m Olivia.”
“Oh, such a polite little one!” Paloma sounded delighted.
“If it’s not too much–” Suddenly, Olivia stopped. She had f
inally gotten a good look at the bird across from her, and it was like seeing herself a still pool of water. The bird was small, sleek, and completely white — just like Olivia! She looked like she would be a fast flier, and strong, though her eyes seemed sad and her feathers drooped a bit.
“Forgive me,” said Olivia hurriedly, “but … what are you?”
“Oh,” cooed Paloma, “I’m a dove, of course.”
Olivia stared at the beautiful bird, amazed. “A dove,” she repeated. “No wonder it never seemed right, living with all those pigeons!”
Paloma tilted her head to peer more closely at Olivia.
“But, dear … you are a pigeon!”
Olivia’s wings drooped, her newfound joy gone as soon as it had come. “I’m … I’m not a dove like you? Are you sure?”
Paloma seemed to find this extremely funny.
“Well, of course you are! You’re a dove just like me. And I’m a pigeon just like you!” She cooed a silly little tune that reminded Olivia of one of Father Pigeon’s lullabies, though the words were different.
A dove’s a pigeon
A pigeon’s a dove
It’s all the same to me, my love
You’re like me
And I’m like you!
She seemed to notice that Olivia was confused, and continued in a more serious tone.
“They’re all just silly names, little Olivia. A white pigeon like us is a dove. But so is a gray one, or a purple one, or a brown one. Birds who aren’t pigeons can be doves too. It depends who you ask, really.” Paloma preened one wing, as if she didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Olivia was a little disappointed, but something else was bothering her more.
“Um, Paloma? Why are we in cages?”
Paloma looked around. “Cages? Right, yes, these. Well, I believe this is what they call a ‘quarantine.’ It’s where we go if we’re feeling a bit off, or if we’re new to the loft. You seem healthy enough; I suppose you must be a newcomer.”
Olivia was confused again.
“The Loft? Is that where your flock is? Are you here because you’re sick?”
At this last thought, Olivia peered nervously at Paloma. It was a dangerous thing for a bird to be sick, and you hardly ever admitted to it if you were. Was her sickness the reason Paloma seemed so calm about being trapped in a human cage?
“No, no, I’m well enough. Just a little down, that’s all. But of course the h
umans can’t understand a thing, poor creatures, so they decided I must be ill.”
This sounded a bit better to Olivia. Perhaps Paloma was sick — she did still seem a little droopy — but at least not so badly that she had given up trying to hide it. It wasn’t polite to ask too much about another pigeon’s health, so she tried to change the subject.
“Well, I’m sorry you’re feeling unhappy. There’s probably a storm coming.” Pigeons always blamed the weather for this sort of thing. Sometimes it was even true; thunderstorms certainly made Olivia want to fluff up her feathers and stay at home. To the younger pigeon’s surprise, though, Paloma didn’t politely agree and move on.
“Oh, no, that’s not it at all.” If anything, Paloma was even droopier now. “It’s my poor squab, you see. Poor darling Splash. They had to take him away as soon as his feathers came in, we hardly had a chance to teach him anything. I’m just so worried about him.”
This was certainly not what Olivia had expected. She moved closer to Paloma’s cage and tried to sound soothing, the way the adult pigeons had when her little Cousin Blue had never returned from his practice flight.
“I’m so sorry, Paloma. You said ‘they,'” she added gently; “Was it hawks, then?” A cat would have been alone, but even squabs knew that a prowling hawk often had a mate hunting nearby. Forgetting this could mean losing a flock member, or your own life.
“Oh! No, nothing as horrible as that,” cried Paloma, brightening for just a moment. “No, it was the humans. They didn’t kill him, I don’t think. They’re really very gentle beasts. They took him away because of the other pigeons, you see. My flock is like you and me — ‘doves,’ as you said. Splash’s feathers didn’t come in quite the same, though. Beautiful black speckles all over, like birch bark. Some of the others were certain something was wrong with him, that he’d go straight to quarantine. When he didn’t, they …”
Paloma stopped here, looking more ill than ever, and Olivia wasn’t sure she was going to continue. At last, though, she started again.
“Well, they said they’d give him a reason to be there. Injured birds get taken here too, you see. Pax and I tried to protect him, but they … they would have taken his eyes out, I think, if the humans hadn’t come by at just the right time….”
Olivia was horrified. Her flock had been confused and perhaps cruel, but she couldn’t imagine them trying to hurt her like that. But of course, Olivia had left them on her own. It sounded like Splash had been trapped somehow, or maybe too young to fly away. But all of that seemed like a question for another time. She waited patiently for Paloma to recover again and conclude her tale.
“So yes, they took him away, but it was to protect him. I thought maybe he’d be here, but … no, it’s good he isn’t. That means he’s well. He’s strong. I’m sure they’ve found another flock for him. Don’t you think so, dear?” Paloma shook out her feathers and eyed Olivia hopefully.
Olivia wasn’t sure what to say.