To Breathe

JA Howe

                The king of pigeons once had a daughter who loved the humans.  "They are stupid, but they are beautiful," she said.  She liked to listen to their bobbing orchestras that thumped out from the grounds of the ballpark near her home.  She liked to watch the blobs coalesce and break apart as they fought.  "They are so animal.  They are just like the stories of the ancient creatures from far away, where the plains run on forever."

                 "They want to be non-animal," her brother snorted.  "Can't you tell they think they are better than we are?  They leave crumbs and bits of bread for us to nibble upon.  We are charity cases to their eyes, nothing more."

                 "I think you are wrong," she said.  "I want to be a human."

                 The entire flock knew the reason for this.  A certain young man would come to the park where they lived to play music, and it was for him that this princess of pigeons would give up her destiny.

                "It's true, he sings well, and this is a fine gift for any female," said her father.  "He could certainly protect you against the cold.  And he is large and strong-looking. All these are good things for a mate to posses.  But he is a human and you are not.  The ages of magic are done with in this part of the world; you are neither selkie nor werewolf."

                 "All the same, I would rather stay with him and never have young," she clucked passionately.

                 "Prove to me that he has something that no other can give you, and I will agree," her father finally said.

                 The winter was cold that year, but Oz Macafee did come to the park to play.  Looking at him, at first you'd find another ragged beatnik.  But his intense hazel eyes held women spellbound, and men who came by to listen absently to his tunes were stuck by something within them that was reminiscent of the song of the world at night.  Even gang members stopped their hot-dogging to listen.

                 Oz liked the park, where he lived most of the year, unless some girl really liked him.  He enjoyed the sharp chill of a winter breath in his lungs, the first sight of buds on the trees in the spring, lounging around a trashcan fire in summer.  He was thin but strong, homely but his eyes seemed to glitter.

                Oz liked birds most of all.  He'd read all he could about them at the public library, which wasn't far from the park, and he tramped miles around the large city to the zoo on free Saturdays or to catch sight of some peregrines who were said to be nesting in the eaves of some high-rise.  He thought pigeons were a mystery of some forgotten world.

                 "A bit cold out for you, isn't it?" he asked late in the winter as he threw some French fries.

                 "Not impressive," the pigeon king told his daughter, though he nibbled at the crumbs gratefully.  French fries were his favorite.

                 "Give him time," she said and went to dance to the music.

                 "You liked that, little bird?"  Oz eyed the pigeon closely, watching the iridescence come out in her feathers as she moved. Greens and blues shimmered together here; he saw a flash of gold near her neck.  "You are a pretty one.  I wish I could see what you see.  I know that you see more than I do."

                She preened herself joyously as he went back to playing for some more people. "He thinks I'm pretty!"

                 "You are pretty," her father grumbled.  "You should have been nesting with someone months ago. How many suitors have you turned away?"

                 "I love him."

                 It was spring when she saw him again.  The little pigeon princess spent many months in agony, not realizing the way of humans.  Oz had taken up with a girl and then gone downtown to squat in one of the abandoned buildings during some of the worst of the winter and the early spring.  Many of the flock died during that time, from exposure, and she was afraid that the same had happened to him, even as she huddled with her father and some others in the eaves of the courthouse.  One of her brothers had bribed a squirrel for space up there.

                 The princess grew thin and worn from the cold and malnourishment; they all did.  All that time, they feared attack by a falcon or the sparrows stealing what food they could scrounge up.  It was a hard time.

                 Still, seasons change, and so at last there was warmer weather.  The pigeons returned to the park to watch the ice melt and to feel the different hum of the awakening trees.  Soon there would be buds, even though snow still covered much of the ground.

                 One day, Oz returned to the park.  It was particularly sunny that day, and the ice was glittering in a million colors that made the pigeons dance.  The princess, overjoyed, wished she could share this with her love, but she knew he only saw flashing white.

                 "There you are, little bird -- or is that you after all?"  he squinted as he bent down to her tiny, thin self.  "Yes, I think it might be.  I brought you a present; I think you'll like it, even though it's not a real diamond of course."

                 She did not understand half of this chatter, but she stared in wonder at the little jewel that he pulled out of his pocket.  In the light of the sun that day, it glimmered with thousands of rainbows.  "You do like it, don't you?"  He smiled, wondering inside what she could possibly be seeing. "I wanted you to see it one time at least."

                Quick as a peregrine swooping down, then, he snapped her neck as she was hypnotized by the cubic zirconium.  The other pigeons nearby clucked and gobbled angrily, flapping at him, but he quickly put both jewel and bird into his pocket and dashed off, too ashamed to stay.  "I'm sorry, I was hungry," he muttered.

                 The flock mourned the loss of their pretty little princess, but Oz never returned to the park.  That particular park gained the curious reputation of having pigeons that never went near people; in fact, they were rarely seen.  That was because every hatching from that year forth was told the tale of the princess and the singer.

                As for Oz, he became famous eventually, and toured the country as a folk singer.  The papers said he had a sort of power over the listener, as if he could tell your secrets aloud, as if he knew the song of the stars.  Everywhere he went, no matter where it was, he always carried one talisman that no one could ever figure out and that he would never speak of:  a small wishbone, with a smaller cubic zirconium wrapped around it on a chain.



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