Within a thick fur of trees, a single sharp black dart punctures the gray sky. A hollow shot sounds throughout fields and mountains, echoes as if from an oil drum’s bottom. A minute dot busy scuffing clouds abruptly snaps and falls like ice breaking branches. This frosted morning the pigeons no longer made a sound. In 1918, Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died. It took a hundred years to kill millions of birds.
In Manchester, New Hampshire, the lean clouds like a sheet of water envelopes the cityscape. The wind picks up rain and tosses it into perpendicular directions, writing its water language. Overhead, pigeons stoop on the parking garage’s dense cement. They cluster like bits of currants, leaning low and expanding their feathers. They stay, somehow knowing that the sun still hovers over the clouds.
One pigeon flew over 7,200 miles to his home in Saigon after being transplanted in France . During both World Wars, a carrier pigeon would need a week to acquaint itself to a new area. Even after the birds were relocated inside windowless carriers, they inexplicably returned to home base. Pigeons are constantly within their centers and inner declination. Each pigeon is a magnet toward the center of the earth and the center of their birth.
I blame my urge to explore. Beneath myself, I could feel how headlights arouse dormant poles and signs somewhere miles away. At night, the headlights glow on. Two false suns drinking up dark. Through blackness it hunted me, hungering for an observer and documenter for itself—the world. I began walking farther down local roads each day. Beneath a sun-setting cloud, the electric steeple pole crackled the flecked house lights. I searched deeper into the charcoal pigmented night. Then the humid sun rose and blushed bright distilled colors, and fogged trees masked out building corners. Here, I knew it was time to leave.
On October 4th, 1918, the American war pigeon, Cher Ami, flew a message over formidable territory. Germans cornered an American division, the Lost Battalion, with no operating equipment. By that time another American division had attacked the Germans and unknowingly began killing the Lost Battalion. Their last chance was to send their messenger pigeon, Cher Ami, out into the chaos. Cher Ami burst out of his cage—each pant devoured the air, gripping the grave message within an aluminum tube strapped onto his foot. He took high into the air and watched the metallic pulses near the ground. Finally, disrupting the bitter smell, German bullets struck his feathers. Cher Ami continued twenty-five miles over France, transporting the container as it clung to what remained of his sheared muscle. Cher Ami watched the distance out of one eye; the other was bloody and blind. He saved the 194 men of the 77th Infantry Division .
Underneath the shifting sun, he stares with unquestionable understanding and reads a face while sifting through food. With a tilt of his head he confronts me. Tangerine-ringed eyes like Cher Ami’s question his disposal, a new placement in an adjusting future. I follow his tracks in the snow. Delicate perpendiculars cross lightly through the whiteness like soft twigs attempting to mark some silence. How did I happen upon this park under tumbling cold? Five years ago I battled against boiling southern heat, snow rarely visited. Lumbering evergreens replace palmetto trees; thin accents of bleached albino birch substitute the thick oak bark that I used to trace with my eyes. I no longer seem familiar with this landscape, yet occasionally a rush calls back. It emerges beneath an ember tinted sun on a drowning, humid afternoon.
Babbette, sent by an American spy, infiltrated German lines because her white feathers were painted black . Camouflaged like a crow, she escaped past nipping bullets. The paint loosened and grayed while her wings knifed the air. As the black shell continually chipped, the danger of a German’s accurate aim increased. She continued, unable to differentiate between natural clouds or clouds created by warfare gas. Every second, her wings wandered over dense, ripped trees, scattered buildings, and open farmland. Her message stopped a surprise German attack on the Meuse River during World War I.
My father rushed to the front porch talking on the phone. He reached out his arm in a remark. I rushed inside, and fear dispatched throughout. My sister, unable to talk, struggled on the couch. A metal dinner fork had slipped and caught inside her throat. She resisted coughing with feral and bloodshot eyes. The ambulance was coming. My sister was placed quickly, yet gently, in the stretcher as she choked, close to death. As she laid on the stretcher reaching the ambulance, several pigeons projected overhead and nicked their brooding patterns into the sky. Their evening shadows etched into her thin figure and accentuated her bones. After seeing the pattern, her limp thinness, I knew she was marked.
On September 19, 1944, William of Orange flew more than 250 miles over an explosive landscape to transport information. Caustic powder buried deep into his feathers from the sooted air. He sliced harder and higher to avoid miles of cut-open earth. Below him, men’s throaty yells pushed him farther, as other calls were suffocated from bombs and silvery, agitated ammunition. As a pigeon of the British Secret Service, he delivered a message that saved nearly two thousand solders at the Battle of Arnhem .
The clouds now tighten. Ranges of sunsets shorten like a child’s breath, then chill. The pigeons firmly close together, no longer pushing at each other and cooing; the cold has cut short their brief invisible territory marks. Soon many will leave during the day, travel for food, then return unnoticed in evening. They sleep through frostbitten temperatures that nudge near their home. The pigeons darken along with night and temporarily vanish within concealed buildings.
The carrier pigeon Mary of Exeter was wounded three times during World War II . While in service she was shot, partially gutted by a hawk, and severely injured by shrapnel. Like the land exposed to war, each time her reopened body bled from exhaustion. She recovered willingly and thoughtfully; stitched again, she was born to new missions. Her cage opened hundreds of times, and continually she darted, reaching into the chaos, disregarding old injuries, persistent and intent on delivering her messages home.
When I return home, particular roads and houses unclothe themselves and present my overlooked world. What have I misremembered? Does the turn on the road’s fork still hold the pothole, is the brick house still veiled by ivy? A hundred years ago, each passenger pigeon traveled over roads that leaned toward the navel opening of their life. Like pigeons, we leave and return to home, or what may be considered like it: entering into a house where you stretched short child arms in the warming sunlight, where you first carved strange letters to form a name, where you heard the branches of arguments crack, or remembered the place to return to after exploring the woods. I memorized every road located nine hundred miles south. Each narrow turn etched a veined blueprint into my memory. People are haunted by the displacement between their home and a new settling. It lies buried in some evasive memory, a remembrance of home that tilts slightly from the other thoughts—an axis.
Near the stretched lights that hit building surfaces, pigeons of sundry sizes span the sidewalks. In New York City, they hover over curbstones and gather like Russian dolls closing in on themselves. There are many patterned variables of pigeons—spots, pooling oil in a florescent mica glow, and albinos with burning ember eyes. Each pattern contains a different degree, a thumb print, for each one was born in a different location. Above, the pigeons emerge, born in slanted nests off of roofs, under deteriorating branches, and inside pipes. Pigeons are orphans. They only spend the first two months of their lives with their eternally mated parents. Possibly that memory haunts them and forces the return to their birthplace. So the location of their birth becomes their stability. A few swoop down like pilots in the pitches of high altitudes, and their wind disturbs my blonde hair.
Passing through any evening, ambulances wailed by. My ear chased after the sound, and pigeons shot up from the pavement and settled deep into a skeletal radio tower. Their silhouettes mimicked construction paper cutouts that I once sliced in childhood. Abruptly, I felt the entire landscape twisted toward and out; I watched myself. I saw from the pigeon’s eyes my own face concussed against the fastening wind. My face thinned. It attempted to withhold wrinkles, beckoned, and longed to forget.
The same memories that magnetize me towards home sincerely repel: certain events of lint-rolling funeral clothes, the hollowing of a mouth to yell, and coughing in the wet heat. These remembrances sway me away from certain objects, rooms, or seasons because they remind me of loss and how it endures. Then there are specifics that rewind these thoughts: my grandmother’s once distinct laugh, the clamoring of dishes at six o’clock, the endless woods surrounding every imagination, the want to one day leave and spit out at the world. Somehow, it is here where, like the pigeon, my axis is located. Its determinism irregularly surfaces, carrying a message, and forces my return.
In Central Park, through layered, fogged breath I see my sister once again. She emerges slowly because of her wan gauntness, with skin nearing her marrow. Avoiding my gestures she walks onto the sidewalk and doesn’t return my calling. The pigeons pace back and forth beneath my feet and dispatch as I turn towards a taxi. Angles and compositions evolve as a bird coos on a level light pole while others scurry and peek within shrubbery; most are thin, manipulated from harsh conditions—some are weary, stumbling, with others missing feet or eyes. However, the pigeon, devoted, never leaves.
Twenty-eight-hundred racing pigeons were released over the levels of burnished flat fields. As each one sped through the Ohio landscape, through trees, darting harvesting equipment, over small crushed farm houses, they became further intent on arriving and ratcheted their wings harder. Suddenly, a bright sound burned inside their heads. A solar flare had hit. The pigeons, disoriented, dove into branches. Not a single one returned.
1. Henry Morton Robinson, “Fly Away Home,” The Rotarian, Jan 1939: 27-30.
2. “Cher Ami: The Carrier Pigeon Who Saved 200 Men,” The Home of Heroes, N.p., 2007, 6 October 2009 <http://www.homeofheroes.com/wings/part1/3b_cherami.html>.
3.“They Winged Their Way Through Skies of Steel,” The American Legion Weekly 29 Aug. 1919: 16-19. 6 October 2009 <http://www.oldmagazinearticles.com/pdf/WW_I_Carrier_Pigeon.pdf>.
4. Henry Morton Robinson, “Fly Away Home,” The Rotarian Jan. 1939: 27-30.
5. Freddy Thienpont, “Pigeons in the War,” Wings West, 2008, 6 October 2009