The white pigeon: A short story

November 15, 2015

She said he was driving her crazy

The white pigeon: A short story

She said he was driving her crazy, people thought her a bit unhinged, especially people at work who collected her each morning in a small van with plastic curtains and saw her run out of the house followed overhead by a pearly white pigeon. She kept turning to look at where he was hovering and tried distractedly to make out what he said because he kept coming closer, talking to her, speaking urgently about something that needed her attention.

He stopped when she climbed into the vehicle and the door slid shut. She tried not to look back. All day at work, nothing really bothered her. Not the extra work on her desk, not the promotions others were being considered for, not how people banded together over the lunch break, nor how late she was asked to stay back -- she would take it up later with her superiors -- but for now her day was clear and she often looked out the office window to note how blue the sky was.

When she called home that evening and told her parents she was being followed by a pigeon, they were perturbed by how her loneliness had started playing tricks on her mind. She had always been a strange child -- as wilful as she was fragile, as kind as she was distant -- always mixing her dream world with her waking life.

When she returned from work, he was waiting for her at the terrace of the one-room apartment on the roof. He perked up when he saw her and fluttered and cooed, but sat motionless till she had caught her breath, changed, washed up. When she went into the kitchen, he sat in the window. When she moved back into her room, he sat on a perch from where he kept vigil all night.

It unnerved her, this attentiveness, but she noted his thoughtful expression, cocking his head from side to side as though not quite sure about something. What troubled him? Was he hurt in some way? She remembered reading somewhere that pigeons bonded for life. Had he lost his mate? Was she in distress somewhere and he came to her seeking help?

The first few days together were hard and she counted up how many birds of a flock circled the skies without drawing any nearer. Were they family or foe? She considered taking him to a bird doctor to see if he were injured in some way or had suffered some trauma but then, was he friend or foe? She waited and watched him closely.

One day, a female alighted near him but he moved two steps to the left and then two to the right. His eyes lost their thoughtfulness, she thought, and mirrored panic. He stopped eating and flew about restlessly from perch to perch. The female pigeon left after two days, rejecting him as a possible mate. Once the flock overhead had moved away, he began going about more freely, sometimes flying high and circumambulating her room till he descended merrily to his perch outside her window.

She began leaving food for him in a clean earthen dish -- sometimes daal chawal that she had cooked for herself, at other times a honey-laced paratha shredded into small bits -- and also changed his water each day, sharing the mineral water she purchased from town and hauled all the way up to her kitchen. She placed his food and drink in a shaded alcove out of the heat of the sun and the intermittent monsoon showers.

Was he a renegade of some sort, she wondered, or had he been excommunicated from the flock for some breach of code of conduct. Pigeons were flock animals, not loners like him.

One weekend, she returned early from work and as she walked up the path, he spotted her from a distance and flew in ecstatically, pirouetting around her and drawing so close to her mouth she suspected he wished for a kiss. While she began her weekly ritual of cleaning and clearing and hosing down the terrace, he began splashing in the water, making a mess that she did not resent at all because she enjoyed his lighter moments. Next week, she knew she would be taking off to the village where her family lived. How would she explain that to him, inform him how long she would be away and why?

The possibility of taking him along with her crossed her mind but she was afraid of offending him by trying to put him in a cage and establishing a relationship of power over him. She would make her preparations deliberately, she thought, packing her small case with clothes and gifts for her siblings, clearing out the kitchen, making arrangements with the neighbour to change his water and leave food for him in a clean dish. She tried not to think about the future, the what-if when he left her.

She had not given it a name, the pigeon or what they had between them, superstitious as she was about naming because sometimes that ended things. Besides, white pigeons were considered to be good omens and were sometimes captured and released in a bizarre ceremony to invite beneficence. Often in her walks through the old city, she would spot a man with a number of bird cages, selling birds just so they could be released. It was supposed to bring barakah to the person who released the white pigeon or the speckled sparrows, but it made her wonder about the fate of the person who caught them for such slavery. She was not into ceremonies -- especially those related to capture and release -- only grateful for such exquisite companionship, freely given.

She did not even call it hope, the hope that he would stay, because that too signified some sort of greed related to the future. The way most people hoped for heaven like a gilded supermarket of desires really appalled her sensibility. She wanted nothing of hope. She felt nervous, as close to him as her own fluttering heart. When she slept that night before her journey, he too was still and he did not begin cooing till she opened the door to her room the next morning.

She was sad for him. He had left his companions, a female had recently left him, and now this. His circular eyes and tilted head betrayed a gravitas only achieved through suffering. No air of victimhood did he carry about him but a proud liberty gained through being left alone.

As she sat contemplating her breakfast in a platter, he drew nearer, wanting to eat out of her hands. She was tentative, reticent, solicitous. She recognised what they had in common was precious but she was not ready, it was too soon to demand this reciprocity, they were different species, after all. She could not cross the final frontier and accept they were both sentient beings, separated by the accident of birth.

Tormented by doubt, she fell silent before him and failed to respond. She was awed by the despair she often caught in the eyes of insects, birds, small animals when they encountered the human. So impudent and arrogant humans must seem to other species, gratuitously aggressive and instinct-injured as they were, unable and unwilling to look around them. People who could not keep silent, not even when they appeared to be calm, and their chattering minds seldom let them hear anyone else. They walked the earth blind and deaf and stiffened with hubris, immersed in ideas about some other place and time they thought was important, never quite content with where they were. How far was she from playing out her species, her genus, her gender, nationality, religion and pedigree? What was her nature?

She feared this intimacy with a pigeon would make her incapable of being near people, ever.

The pigeon moved away. He looked at her too. He looked at her washed face framed by wet hair that made her resemble a pigeon so closely. He looked at her dazzling plumage that she changed each day and sometimes repeated. He looked at her bare feet, pink, with five digits, just like his.

She could not fly, so he decided to stay with her.

The white pigeon: A short story