“Sol, I have a question.”
Sol tilted his head mischievously. “Listening.”
“Could you … would you mind letting us out of these cages? You seem very good at it,” she added quickly, in case a little flattery was needed.
As it turned out, it was not. Sol let out a string of sounds that Olivia had never heard from a bird before, but she got the distinct impression he was laughing.
“Days, days, days, Paloma not ask! Funny little birds.”
Olivia looked at him suspiciously.
“So … can you help us?”
Still chuckling, Sol shuffled to the other side of the cage and began to pull at a small metal bar.
“Wouldn’t the wood be easier, Sol? You don’t want to hurt your–”
Suddenly there was a soft click, and the front of the cage swung away. Sol remained hanging on the wire, chattering gleefully in what Olivia assumed was Parakeet.
“How … how did you do that?”
Sol stopped swinging back and forth on the contraption long enough to stare at her.
“Door. Open, close, lock. No doors in city?”
He chattered again. Now Olivia felt like Sol might be making fun of her, but she still didn’t quite understand. Paloma, however, spoke up sternly:
“Don’t be so hard on her, dear. Not all city pigeons live on buildings, you know. Maybe she’s from a park, or a bridge.”
“Yes, that’s right! My flock lives Under the Bridge. It’s kind of wet, but it’s nice in the summer. The park is where we find our food. And I’ve seen doors before, Sol — they’re what humans use to protect the entrances to their nests, right? I just didn’t realize cages work the same way. I’ve never been in a cage before, you know.”
Olivia realized she was sounding a bit defensive, but she didn’t like the idea of being rescued and made fun of by this annoyingly-clever parakeet all at once.
“Okay, okay. Out! Now!”
If Sol wanted to change the subject, Olivia was fine with that. She was about to leap to freedom when she felt a sharp pain in her left wing.
“Ow! Oh … oh, no.”
Paloma cooed sympathetically.
“Are you sure you’re able to fly, Olivia dear?”
Olivia dropped her wings to her sides. Of course! How had she already forgotten? She couldn’t possibly fly far enough to escape this human place, let alone find her family and Paloma’s. She would just have to stay in this cage in Quarantine until she could escape again, or try to hide from the humans while her wing healed. How long would that be? She had never hurt a wing before; would it ever feel the same again?
“Wing-hurt? Sorry, sorry.”
Sol hopped and fluttered until he was perched on the front edge of Olivia’s open cage. Olivia noticed, now, that Sol had not flown at all since she first saw him.
“Did someone hurt your wing too, Sol? Will I be this way for a long time?”
“No, not like Sol. Feathers gone.”
Sol stretched his wings out to show off the tips. Where Paloma’s and Olivia’s wing feathers were long and came to a graceful point, Sol’s were short and flat-looking, as if they had grown halfway and given up. Olivia couldn’t imagine flying far with wings like that.
“Good at climbing. Good at hiding. Not need to fly.”
Sol didn’t seem ready to say more than that, so Olivia didn’t ask if this was the “problem” Paloma had mentioned, the one that had brought him to the Quarantine in the first place. She was about to ask if he knew how long it would take her own wing to heal, when Sol leapt onto the door, pushed it back against the front of the cage, and slipped the lock back into place.
“Sol! Wait, I didn’t–”
This was Paloma. Olivia stopped, surprised. But as she quieted, she realized what had startled the other two birds. It was a strange whistling sound — not smooth and clear like a grown song-bird’s, but slow and labored, like a fledgling just learning the notes.
It wasn’t a bird, though. Even Olivia had heard this call often enough to recognize the source. Olivia, Paloma and Sol softly spoke its name together.
NOTE: sorry it took so long to get this out here! I’ve had an awful cold and my internet was out for days, but I should be back in business now.
THE RUNTY PIGEON, cont.
Finally, she simply replied the only way she could.
“I hope he’s well, Paloma. If I made it all the way here, I’m sure he found his way somewhere safe.”
Paloma peered hopefully at Olivia.
“Have you seen any pigeons like him, dear? In your city, or along the way? Forgive me for assuming you’re a city pigeon, but you do have the sound of one. He might look a little different now, but oh, I’m sure you’d know him anywhere. He’s such a unique little squab. Have you seen my Splash?”
Olivia’s feathers fell.
“No, I’m sorry. I don’t think I have.”
“Oh,” said Paloma softly. “Well no, of course not.” She brightened again. “After all, if your wing is hurt then the humans must have brought you here, and you wouldn’t have seen any pigeons along the way.” She gave her wings a quick flap, as if to say that was all there was to say about that.
Olivia wanted to say more, or at least to learn more about these humans that Paloma seemed to know so well. But she was interrupted by one of the strangest sounds she had ever heard.
At least, she thought that was what it had said. It was loud, louder than the biggest pigeon, and was followed by a piercing shriek like a crow’s. Olivia quickly dropped to the floor of her cage and scurried into the darkest corner. Paloma, on the other hand, stretched out her neck and cooed happily.
“Hello, Sol! Managed to sneak away again, did you? She won’t be happy you were in here, but I do appreciate the company. Oh, and speaking of company, have you met our new friend Olivia? Olivia, come out of there dear, it’s only Sol.”
“Oli-va? Hello, friend!”
Olivia cautiously shuffled to the front of the cage. When she looked out, she nearly fell over in surprise. A brilliantly orange bird with a sharp, curved beak was perched on her cage door, watching Olivia with dark, glittering eyes.
“A- a- … HAWK!” cried Olivia, beating her wings frantically against the cage walls. He was like no hawk she had seen, but that cruel beak and those long talons were all she had to see. Since there seemed to be no way out of the cage, she puffed up her feathers so he’d know she was ready for a fight.
“No, no, no. Seeds. Seed-bird. Okay, okay.”
Olivia paused, puzzled. The fearsome orange bird kept cooing the words soothingly to Olivia, as if she were a nervous hatchling. Olivia had never heard of a hawk that could speak, and certainly not one that tried to reassure its dinner before eating it. She glanced at Paloma to see what she made of all this.
“He didn’t mean to frighten you, Olivia! He’s only a parakeet, though I suppose he does look like a hawk if you’ve never met him before.”
“Oh,” said Olivia. “Is a parakeet…” — she looked doubtfully at Sol’s sharp beak again — “Is a parakeet related to pigeons? I can understand some of what he says.”
“No, no, I don’t think so,” cooed Paloma. “He’s just picked up a bit from being around us so long. He used to live here in Quarantine; some problem with his feathers that lasted a very long time, as far as I can tell. But he seems to have lost his flock, so now he lives here with Mar — that’s the human who looks after us when we’re ill. It sounds dreadful, I know, living with humans instead of family; but as you’ve noticed, he’s very good with languages. He can speak to the humans as well, and he says Mar has even picked up a few Parakeet words. He’s pretty sure she’s just mimicking, though.”
Sol sat quietly through Paloma’s introduction, occasionally snapping his beak or fluffing his feathers in agreement. Now that she had a chance to look at him properly, Olivia realized he wasn’t such a frightening-looking bird. He was only Paloma’s size, really, with dazzling yellow-and-orange feathers fading to a cool, shady green on his wings and tail. She still wasn’t sure about the beak and claws, though. If he was telling the truth about eating seeds, why did he need such fearsome tools for the job? Sol cocked his head and looked knowingly at Olivia, following her gaze.
“Big seeds. Hard to crack”
Olivia cooed aloud in surprise. Of course, Sol had probably gotten this question from many birds before. He seemed more amused than offended, though. Olivia ruffled her feathers in relief, feeling better about this flashy stranger already. There was only one more question to answer.
“So, if he — sorry, Sol, if you — don’t live in Quarantine anymore, then why are you here? Paloma said something about the humans being unhappy if they knew you were here?”
Sol bobbed his head, which seemed to mean Yes. His eyes seemed to glitter a little brighter.
“Good with climbing. Good with cages. Sol can go anywhere.”
He puffed up with pride at this, but Olivia had a feeling he was only bragging a little. He was still hanging effortlessly from the front of her cage like a woodpecker, and his beak looked as though it could tear through the wooden walls with ease.
Olivia looked again at the cage.
She looked at Paloma’s cage.
She thought about her home and family, and about poor Splash, who had lost both.
Olivia had an idea.
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.
Bobby and Jess were not especially cruel children, and they did not especially dislike pigeons. They did, however, like throwing rocks, as children do. And so it was their job to keep the pigeons from getting too comfortable on their family’s grain silo each evening. The idea, of course, was to keep the birds from making a mess and eating the corn. But the pigeons had quickly learned that both Bobby and Jess had terrible aim. Now, the chore was more of an excuse for Bobby and Jess to throw rocks without earning themselves a scolding.
But the twins had not counted on Olivia simply sitting, terrified, as gravel rained down on her. “Fly, Olivia!” cried Rocky from behind the silo. “They’re like crows with a hawk!” called another; “Just flap off a ways and they’ll leave you be!” Even as the pigeons shouted encouragement, the storm began to clear; the twins were having no fun throwing rocks when it looked like they might actually hit one of the poor birds.
They thought they should at least make a show of scaring off the last pigeon, though. Bobby aimed left and Jess aimed right, and both threw one last stone at the silo. The bits of rock should have bounced harmlessly to the side. Unfortunately, the twins were as bad at missing their target on purpose as they were at hitting it. They had not aimed at Olivia, and Olivia had finally decided to get out of the way — but all three realized that their plans had gone wrong when they heard the terrible soft thud of a stone hitting a bird’s wing. Terrified, Olivia took to the air.
She heard the twins shouting meaningless human sounds —
“Is it dead?”
“It’s breathing! Get Dad!”
A gruffer voice then, joined again by the children:
“Look at that, white all over.”
“From a magician?”
“Yeah right. Probably from the lady who does weddings.”
“Doesn’t matter right now, kids, let’s get her to Mar.”
There was a shuffling as, stunned from her fall, Olivia felt herself picked up and wrapped in something soft and warm. Then she was somewhere small and cramped, and then something was placed over that, and Olivia was in darkness again. She could feel herself being carried very quickly, and she thought in a fuzzy sort of way that she should probably be trying to escape. But she was so tired, and the faint, soothing murmurs from the humans outside reminded her of pigeon sounds. Olivia closed her eyes and imagined that she was still safe in her eggshell, with her brother beside her, and her parents cooing soft lullabies from above.
Olivia flew and flew, until her wings were tired and the light was nearly gone. She knew that she would have to stop soon — but where? Everything seemed so flat and open, now that she had left the warm safety of the city. Clumps of trees huddled here and there between the fields, but Olivia did not trust trees. They shivered in the slightest breeze, swayed in the wind, and toppled in storms. No, Olivia wanted a sturdy building or a stout bridge.
Olivia wanted to go home.
But even home was far off now, much further off than nightfall. She decided that she would land in the next tree she found, swaying or not. It would be better, at least, than sleeping on the ground in one of these flat, flat fields.
Sure enough, she saw a tall shape up ahead. But it did not look quite like a tree. It looked less and less like a tree as she got closer. Finally, she realized it must be human-made. Nearby were smaller human things — a white house, a red car, a sagging gray shed. And although she did not recognize the tall building, she recognized something else as she flew closer. Pigeons! Beautiful fat gray pigeons. A small flock clustered together along the edge, murmuring quietly to each other as they readied for sunset. Olivia coasted down and landed carefully beside them, trying not to bump into anyone on the narrow ledge.
“Hello, friends!” called Olivia. This was the polite way to introduce yourself a new flock of pigeons, according to Mother Pigeon and Father Pigeon. Olivia had also been taught that a polite reply would follow, usually from the oldest or most-respected member of the flock. These pigeons, however, simply stared at Olivia as if she had said nothing at all.
Just in case, she tried again, more slowly and clearly. “Hello, friends! I am Olivia, from Under the Bridge in the human city. What is this place called? Do … do you understand me?” Olivia was beginning to think they did not. She had already noticed that the sparrows sang different songs out here; perhaps the pigeons had a different language as well?
But at last, the fattest and grayest pigeon fluffed his feathers and shuffled over to where Olivia perched. “Hello, little one. My name is Rocky, and I suppose this is the Silo. We pigeons all just call it the Birdfeeder, though.” He cooed happily, a sort of pigeon chuckle, and the others joined in. They did sound a bit different from Olivia’s flock, but she could understand them easily enough. Rocky stretched his wings sleepily and went on. “We don’t mean to be rude, Miss Olivia, but … what are you? And what brings you out here to us pigeons?”
It seemed the rest of the flock had been waiting for him to ask, because now they all started up at once, heads tilting and necks stretching to look at the newcomer. The older pigeons mostly stared, but the younger ones chattered away.
“She sounds like a pigeon!”
“Doesn’t look like a pigeon.”
“Could be a ghost.”
“Can’t be a ghost, you silly squab!”
“Are you a ghost, miss?”
Olivia quickly backed away from the noisy birds, not sure who she was supposed to answer first or whether she was expected to reply at all. But she had to do something, so at last she stretched out her neck and cried as loudly as she could, “I AM A PIGEON!” She thought about this for a moment. “At least, I think I am,” she added quietly. The flock fell silent again, peering more closely at her in the fading light.
“Well,” said Rocky after a moment, “If she says she’s a pigeon, I suppose she must be.” He settled down against the cool railing of the silo. “Stay as long as you like, little Olivia. Oh, watch out for the Twins though.” As one, all the pigeons suddenly fluttered away to the other side of the silo, leaving Olivia standing alone and feeling very confused.
“What are the Twins?,” she called, but she was drowned out by a loud zing! from something flying by her head. Suddenly they were falling all around her like hailstones, bouncing off the metal and landing at her feet. Terrified, Olivia huddled as close as she could to the railing and waited for the storm to end.
If it had been a hailstorm, and Olivia had been snug and safe under her bridge, this might have been a good choice. Unfortunately, she was not beneath the bridge and these stones were not falling from the sky. They were being thrown by Bobby and Jess, the twins who lived in the little white farmhouse; and they were aimed straight at Olivia.
Olivia was a little pigeon with a big problem. While no pigeon Under the Bridge was exactly like the other (pigeons can always tell each other apart, even if it’s not so easy for humans like you and me), Olivia was more unlike the others than most.
She was a little smaller than any of the other pigeons her age, and she was very much smaller than her brother Columbus. She was what you might call the runt of the litter, if pigeons had such things as litters. As it was, she was just a very small pigeon. But being small can be helpful for a pigeon. A small pigeon can do some things that a large pigeon cannot, and all the pigeons Under the Bridge knew this. No, being a very small pigeon was not really Olivia’s problem. Olivia’s problem was that, while her brother’s feathers had grown in the same shiny gray as everyone else’s, Olivia’s feathers, when they finally replaced her prickly-looking baby fluff, had grown in completely white.
Right away, the other pigeons had begun to whisper about Olivia.
“She’s so small!”
“Not a bit of gray on her!”
“Do you think she’s even a pigeon?”
“She’ll only draw attention; she shouldn’t be here!”
Olivia was pretty sure she was a pigeon. Her mother and father were pigeons, after all. Her brother was a pigeon. She felt like a pigeon. But the other birds were older and wiser, and maybe they were right. This worried Olivia. If she wasn’t a pigeon, what was she? Where did she belong?
“You belong here,” Mother Pigeon said stoutly.
“Don’t listen to those scrawny old birds,” huffed Columbus (who was immediately scolded by Mother and Father for being rude).
“Your brother has one part right though,” admitted Father Pigeon. “You don’t need any other bird to tell you where you belong; that’s for your own wings to know.”
Mother Pigeon and Columbus cooed in agreement. This was one thing that none of the pigeons Under the Bridge could deny, a reassuring lullaby cooed to soothe young squabs afraid to leave the nest. A pigeon always knows where home is; so long as she can fly, a pigeon’s wings will take her there.
Every day, though, Olivia’s wings felt a little less sure. Maybe she wasn’t really a pigeon. Maybe she didn’t really belong Under the Bridge after all. Maybe there was some place out there with other birds like her, a place where she wouldn’t cause so much trouble. A place where she would blend in. She wonde
red, and worried, and doubted, and dreamed, and one day — after a day of foraging and drinking at the Old Fountain, as the sun lowered and her flock readied to fly home — Olivia did not follow. She was old enough now to know the way back to the bridge, and could have found it easily on her own. But today, Olivia simply watched the flock disappear in the darkening sky to the east. Olivia watched. Olivia waited.
Olivia flew west.