portion of the artwork for Jon Rosen's fiction

The Pigeon
Jon Rosen

She stood there like a heroin addict. She had the same vacant, stunned, collapsing look. Occasionally, she would totter on her feet and her head would begin to shakily fall, whereupon she would, as though self-consciously, snap it up again. The Little Italy feast of San Gennaro swarmed about her: at her sides stood cotton candy, caramel apple and cannoli stands; across from her hummed a battery of game booths and a carousel outfitted with wooden horses and giraffes. It was still early, just after noon, but it was a Saturday and the first weekend of the festival, so in no time the crowds would descend on her like a tempest on a tugboat.

“What’s the matter with her?”

I turned to see a small Chinese boy staring at the suffering creature.

“Hard to tell,” replied the man at his side. “Wing no look broke.”

The boy stepped up to the pigeon and sprinkled cracker crumbs at her feet. As the bird bent down for the crumbs her head began to wobble, then her body teetered, but just as she seemed about to fall she regained her balance and pulled her head back up.

“Maybe nerve damage,” offered the man. “They put poison on streets at night.“ He stepped closer to the bird and bent over to get a better view. “She young,” he said. “A baby.”

“How can you tell?“ I asked.

“I raise birds.”

We stood a moment longer, staring at the bird, at its small, dark-gray body with black wings.

I asked if he thought it would die.

“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe not.”

Then the two of them walked away.

But I couldn’t walk away. There was something in the presence of this bird, separated from the rest of its species; something in its stunned, sad, injured posture, so susceptible to a careless or predatory boot, or to any number of potential festival-related hazards; there was something in her isolation, in her smallness, in the fact that, despite her wishes, she could not remove herself from her precarious position; something in the gray light that surrounded her, in her eyes blinking open again and again as though hoping with each effort to discover that her miserable condition was only momentary, an illusion, a nightmare—but only to find, again and again, that nothing had changed; there was something in this creature’s vulnerable position that grabbed hold of my heart. No, I couldn’t walk away.

But what, if anything, did I think I was going to do? As I looked down at the injured bird who had shifted a bit more closely to a packed onion crate; as I watched her attempt once again to bend down for the cracker crumbs only to suffer the same cycle of shaking and tottering and recovery; as I observed her pink eyes blinking on and off again like a pair of dysfunctional headlights and I remembered the Chinese man’s words: “It’s a baby”; as I stood there, beginning to worry that my own uncertain, custodial position might begin to arouse suspicion and direct more unwholesome attention toward the suffering creature, this question: “What can I do?” began to throb in my mind.

How does one approach, handle, transport an injured bird? Do you—can you—is it possible to—lay your hands upon it as you would a ball? But what if the bird were to suffer, to panic, to burst out, to fall and stumble into the middle of the street, perhaps further injuring itself? How ridiculous would I feel, would I look? What would people think? Could I catch a disease? Could I catch West Nile virus from a pigeon? Furthermore, assuming I were to pick the bird up, what then would I do with it? Where would I take it, and what then? Hold on! I thought, suddenly coming to my senses: what was I thinking? Why was I getting so worked up? I’d eaten thousands of birds without blinking an eye. I’d probably eat another one—a turkey, a chicken—chopped, diced, and lumped between two pieces of bread—later that afternoon. Furthermore, this was just a pigeon—a rat, as they are popularly considered, of the bird race. Shouldn’t I just get on with my day?

But I wasn’t able to. As the crowds continued to swell, this bizarre sense of responsibility grew even more commanding. Maybe I could just get the bird away from the crowds, away from this madness, to a safe place, where she could more quietly recover or at least die in peace. But this once again introduced the nettlesome question of just how to approach, handle, and transport the bird. I looked quickly around the food and game stands, hoping to find an empty carton or box of some kind, but couldn’t find anything. So I started out for the Pearl River Emporium on Broome Street.

I bought a green plastic bucket, a pair of rubber gloves, and a dustpan. Then, heading back to Hester Street, I hoped—indeed, I practically prayed— that in the meantime either the poor bird had miraculously recovered and flown away, or that some animal-savvy passerby had taken matters into his or her own hands. But no luck. There she stood, still with the shell-shocked, helpless expression, perhaps a bit closer to the onion crate, as though she were seeking refuge. The carnival music had grown louder, a band was setting up its instruments and testing microphones, and children were beginning to gather around the whining carousel.

Well, I thought, as I removed the bucket from its plastic bag and stretched on the rubber gloves, if I’m going to do this I might as well at least give the impression of authority. And so I set the green tub down beside the bird, I took a breath, stretched out my yellow-gloved hands, set my hands upon the bird’s back—its feathers expanding accordion-like in my palms, its head twisting about in surprise—; I dropped the bird in the bucket, draped a sheet of newspaper over its head, then turned and started walking up Centre Street.

I had no particular destination in mind: I just hoped to find a place that was sufficiently removed from the San Gennaro chaos. I found one beside John Jovino’s Gun Shop, its stoop bordered by a small, unkempt garden. Sitting on the stoop, I set down the pigeon’s tub, peeled back the newspaper, and looked in. The pigeon had shifted right up against the wall of the tub and was standing there with a Bartleby stillness. Thinking she might be hungry I went to a bodega across the street, bought a bottle of spring water and a loaf of bread, then piled some bits of bread in the tub and poured in some water. The bird didn’t respond. I sprinkled some drops of water on the pigeon’s head. She tossed her head about and ruffled her feathers but then returned to her state of stillness, pushing her head into a dark corner of the tub.

Suddenly a door beside the gun shop opened and out stepped a Latino man in a tight green t-shirt. He stood over me and looked down at the bird.

“A pigeon?”

“There’s something wrong with it.” I pulled away the paper so he could get a better look.

The man squatted beside the tub. He outstretched his hands, picked the pigeon up, and began turning her around and examining her from many angles. He turned her upside down and inspected her orange-pink legs. He turned the bird right side up again and tugged at her head. “The neck’s not broken,” he said. The neck might not have been broken but as he turned the pigeon in a circle the head turned with the body to such an extent that by the time he had straightened the bird out again the head had twisted 180 degrees and was shaking.

“It could be poison,” he said, setting the bird back in the tub.

“That’s what I thought.”

The sun had grown hotter, burning my cheek. I draped the paper a bit further over the pigeon.

“It’s good you do this,” the man said. “You may save the bird. And even if you don’t it’s good you spread your goodness. If you left her in the street people would kick her. They say pigeons are polluted, but most times it’s people that are polluted. They have evil, selfish, strange thoughts.”

As the man spoke he set his right hand over the pigeon’s head and tilted it from side to side as though he was trying to fit an invisible helmet.

“The bird has a green aura,” he said. “Can you see these things?”

I looked close. I wasn’t really sure where or even how to look for an aura so I looked at the space between the man’s hand and the bird. I thought I could see a slight green glow, but this glow could just as easily have been a reflection of the green plastic bucket.

“I don’t know why so many people can’t see these things,” he said. He held his hand up to his eyes and gazed at it in a strange way. Then, still staring at his hand, he said:

“I am a mathematician. I have explanations people are very afraid of. I know for example that Jesus Christ is here in this city. He is in his early forties. He is sitting in a bar drinking. He is very beautiful, but very simple. His thoughts are his own thoughts, not because he’s original, just because he can think no one else’s thoughts. He’s just himself and he is very beautiful and so intensely happy that no one can understand him.”

Under ordinary circumstances I would have indulged the man, as I have always enjoyed exploring the nooks and crannies of eccentric minds. But these weren’t ordinary circumstances.

“What about the pigeon?” I asked, hoping to refocus his paranormal attention on the bird.

Again the man held his hand above the bird’s head.

“I think she will leave,” he said. “She has become still and melancholy, and this is how things become before they leave their body.”

“She seems to have energy,” I said hopefully, as the pigeon kept ruffling her feathers and attempting to lift her head.

“You should kill it,” a deep voice blurted. “Put it out of its misery.”

We turned to see a refrigerator-sized elderly Italian man in a black three-piece suit. He had the squinting, half-menacing, half-comedic face of a classic Hollywood mobster. He was smoking a cigar, tilting slightly forward on his toes and peering down at the pigeon.

“Put it out of its misery,” he barked. “It’s not a sin. It’s old. It’s suffering. Believe me, I know. I used to raise pigeons. They know when it’s their time. Pigeons are intelligent. I’ve seen them commit suicide. I’m not kidding. They run right out in the traffic. You’ve done good. You took it out of the street. But that bird’s gonna die. Put it out of its misery. It’s not a sin.“ The man leaned back on the balls of his feet and took another puff off his cigar.

“Are you sure it’s old?” I asked, remembering the Chinese man’s words.

The Italian bent over and peered down at the bird. “Oh, yeah,” he said,”it’s old.”

“Are you sure it’s going to die?”

“It looks like it. But it may not.” He shrugged. “If you want, take it home.”

The three of us stared down at the pigeon, which had tucked its head into a shaded corner of the box. Occasionally she would shift her weight or ruffle her feathers.

“I used to own this street,” the Italian said, waving his cigar. “I used to own this whole block.” He pointed across the street to the gray back of a building. “That used to be an old police station. There’s tunnels under it. People used to have gunfights in the tunnels. I know everyone who lives in these buildings. Everyone on Mulberry Street knows me.”

“You know my father?” the Latino man asked.

“Ah? Who’s your father?”

“He owns the gun shop.”

“Yeah?” The Italian’s eyes narrowed into skeptical slits. “Your real father or—?”

“My real father.”

“Huh.” The Italian puffed his cigar, nodding slightly. Then he waved his hand, as though brushing away a fly. “Well,” he said to me, “good luck. You’re doing a good thing.” And he walked off toward the festival.

“These Italians talk like they’re big shots,” the Latino scoffed once the Italian had gone. “They’ve seen too many mobster movies. I’ve lived in this building for ten years. No pot smokers. No homosexuals.”

“You live with your father?”


“Your father … you said he owned the—?”

“Oh!” The Latino burst out in laughter. He slapped his thigh. “When I say my father, I mean God! God owns the gun shop! God owns everything! God makes the gun shop and God can take it away!” He set his hand on my shoulder, got to his feet and pointed to a button by the door. “I’m Carlos,” he said. “You ever want to spend time, drink beer, hang out, just ring.” He pulled open the door and glanced back into the tub. “You’ve done good,” he said. Then he said: “The bird will live if you have faith. If you have strong faith the bird will live. But he may leave,” he said, and then he disappeared behind the door.

I was alone again with the injured bird. It had been well over an hour since I’d found her and her condition had shown no improvement. She had rejected the food and water. She continued to stand, her chest pulsing slowly with her breaths, her talons occasionally scraping the plastic tub-floor. Was I going to sit with the bird all afternoon? And what if she still hadn’t recovered? Would I find myself a caretaker of an injured bird? If so, where would I keep her? In my apartment? Who was I kidding? Why had this particular pigeon aroused such pity in me? Was the sentiment genuine, or was it just some sort of contrived poetic idea? I had recently been reading the letters of Vincent van Gogh, and I remembered a passage in which Vincent explained to his brother, Theo, his reason for sheltering a prostitute. He’d written: “As to my opinion how far one may go in a case of helping a poor, forsaken, sick creature, I can only repeat what I told you already: infinitely.”

Did I think I was van Gogh?

“I’m not taking that one.”

I looked up to see a middle-aged man with a bright, round, pitted face. He was wearing paint-speckled shorts and carried a canvas under his left arm.

“I used to take them off the street,” he said. “I knew a vet who’d see them for ten dollars. But I don’t have him anymore. A real vet will cost you seventy to one hundred dollars.”

“What do you think’s the matter with her?” I asked.

The man picked the bird up and began turning her in circles like Carlos had. “It’s young,” he said. “You can tell because all the feathers haven’t grown out of the neck.” He set the pigeon back in the bowl. Then he picked up a piece of bread, pried open the pigeon’s mouth, and tried to shove the bread down with his fingers. But the bird wouldn’t swallow; the bread fluffed out of her mouth and fell to the floor of the tub. “She doesn’t want to eat,” he said. “And you’ve got to be careful. Sometimes you can push it down the wrong tube. They can choke and die. That’s happened to me before. But they have to eat.”

He stroked the bird’s head with his index finger. Then he said:

“Pigeons are special creatures. They mate for life. One time I saved this pigeon and let it go. After every storm, she’d come back with her mate. They’d tap on the window and I’d let them in. I’m a painter and while I painted one of them would sit on top of the easel. But then, after one really awful storm, they didn’t come back. And I never saw them again.”

“What about diseases?” I asked.

“I never got anything from a pigeon. Just wash your hands after you touch it.”

“Well, what kind of box—?” I started, amazed that I was even considering taking the bird home.

“Any ventilated cardboard box will do. Put in a bowl of water and some bread. When you’re sure the bird’s healthy, let it fly around in your apartment. Then bring it to a park and set it in the flock. It’ll take a minute or so, but it’ll be accepted.”

“And if it dies?”

“I used to bury ’em under bridges.” He took another close look, bending over the tub and stroking the bird’s head with his finger. “I gotta tell you, I wouldn’t get your hopes up. I don’t think she’s gonna make it.” He straightened and shook my hand. “My name’s Jim.” He handed me a business card. “Gimme a call and lemme know how it works out. Good luck,” he said. And then he left.

It had grown darker and shadows had passed almost completely over the pigeon’s tub. The festival crowds had thickened and rowdy throngs were churning up Centre Street. I sat there thinking about Jim’s words, about the pigeon he’d saved who’d return with his mate. Maybe I too could be a pigeon rescuer. Maybe I could nurse this pigeon back to health and she and I could become companions. The more I thought about it, the less outlandish it seemed. And so finally I picked up a waxy cardboard vegetable box from beside a Chinese produce stand, I set the bird inside, and started home.

* * *

For six years my girlfriend, Ruth, and I had lived in a small fifth-floor two-bedroom walk-up on the corner of Mulberry and Hester. The apartment boasted its share of what is often referred to as “old-world charm”: exposed brick, a telephone-booth-shaped shower propped beside the kitchen sink, and a Porta Potty–sized toilet compartment opposite the oven. Things were constantly breaking down. We often went without gas, heat or a working phone, and were utterly dependent on the whim of the leaden-eyed, wise-guy super, and the availability of his “extended family members” who’d blow in unannounced like palmetto bugs and usually leave the place in worse condition than they’d found it.

We’d been trying to move for years, but hadn’t been able to find an affordable two-bedroom anywhere else in the city. We’d considered renting a one-bedroom, but for a number of reasons, not the least of which were my untidiness and chronic sleep-talking, we’d realized that we both needed our own rooms. So the years had run on: two turned into four, four into six, and each of us began to wonder if we were fated to follow in the footsteps of the apartment’s previous lifetime tenant, who’d ultimately lost her mind and was found one day wandering aimlessly around the building halls, bumping into walls, and muttering to herself.

Entering the apartment, I knew at once that my room—not the kitchen, living room or Ruth’s room—would be most appropriate for the pigeon. So I cleared some space on my desk and set down the pigeon’s box. Following Jim’s suggestion, I put in some torn-up bread and a dish of water. I lit a white candle and, to help drown out the racket of the surrounding carnival, I set my CD player beside the box and put on Chopin’s Nocturnes.

Then came the matter of informing Ruth of our new houseguest. I expected she wouldn’t be thrilled at the prospect of harboring the sick bird, but at the same time I didn’t think she’d outright veto the idea. After all, Ruth had always shown a special sympathy for suffering animals, sometimes insisting we pull over to help a stray dog, or suggesting we adopt one of the Little Italy wildcats that lived in a nearby parking lot. Then again, Ruth’s sympathies had never extended to what she regarded as “dirty” and “disease-carrying” city pigeons.

“You may not like this,” I told her over the phone, and then related the whole story, how I’d first found the pigeon standing across from the carousel, and then bought the tub, and talked to Carlos, the Italian, and Jim. I told her Jim’s story about the pigeon who’d come back with his mate after the storms, and shared his encouraging words about pigeons and diseases.

“Just as long as you keep it in your room,” she said, and told me she’d be home soon.

* * *

As much as I wanted to witness Ruth’s response to the pigeon, I’d made plans to attend an open mike event that evening with friends. I considered canceling, but it seemed unreasonable on account of the bird. After all, the pigeon still appeared far from recovery, and there was nothing more I could do in the meantime. In any case, I needed some cheering up. So I started out for Surf Reality in the Lower East Side.

I’d always been a fan of open mikes but this venue was by far my favorite. The show was hosted by a bald, androgynous man named Faceboy who’d started the open mike in honor of a Native American tribe that had cured his father of spinal meningitis. The tribe practiced a communal “talking-stick” ritual where, as each speaker took hold of a ceremonial stick, he received the deferential attention of all in attendance. Now, in this intimate theatrical setting, the microphone served as the talking-stick, and when a performer stood before it, all audience members were required to listen in silence.

That evening we were treated to a special performance. Halfway through the show, Faceboy introduced a young woman and told us she had a rare talent: she could repeat any sentence in reverse. “Go on!” he called out. “Give her a sentence! Any sentence!”

“I like cats!“ Someone offered. She shot back: “stac ekil I.”

There was a thoughtful silence; then everyone burst out in applause.

Someone shouted,”President Bush is a jerk!” She replied: “krej a si hsuB tnediserP!”

Hoping to stump her, I tossed out: “I play the xylophone frequently.” She took a moment, then volleyed back: “yltneuqerf enohpolyx eht yalp I.” The crowd erupted in applause, and as I looked out at the hands clapping all around me, I remembered the injured bird and imagined her fully recovered, her wings flapping joyously around the apartment.

* * *

When I got home, the lights were out and Ruth was sleeping. She’d left a note on the kitchen table referring to me as a “pigeon saver,” but telling me that the bird hadn’t shown much improvement.

I went to my bedroom, lifted the tape from the bird’s box, and peered in. The pigeon was standing much in the same position, her food uneaten, the water sitting still, and trails of greenish droppings scattered over the floor of the box. Well, I thought, at least she was still alive. There was still hope. I relit the white candle, restarted the Chopin, and got in bed.

And it was a strange thing lying in bed knowing that twelve inches beside my head sat a cardboard box sheltering a maimed live bird, a city beast—her wings filthy with city dirt, her gray body pulsing with each breath—a wild thing, separated from the rest of its kind, sitting not in nature but in this waxy Chinese vegetable box, in this artificial shelter I had created. It was a strange thing to be lying there in my room in my bed, to be occupying this common space, this common time, two spheres of consciousness, one human, one animal; one dimly aware of its eventual death, the other likely wrestling in the grips of death itself.

How could I shut my eyes? How could I relax? How, when, with the mere thought of the bird, as though in response, a sound, a scratch, a rustle, a sign of life or pain would throb from the dark box? “There’s nothing more to do,” I told myself. “Your wakefulness is pointless. Anyhow, you’ll have a full day tomorrow; you can’t deprive yourself of a night’s sleep.” And yet, with another scratch or a rustling of feathers, I’d be up again, shining the lamplight into the box, searching for a sign of new vitality, but finding none.

I had just started to nod off when a new sound shuddered me awake—a beating, the movement and crash of a body against the cardboard—the strongest sign yet that some new, promising vitality had entered the bird. I leapt out of bed, tore off the tape and looked down into the box. The pigeon was trying to get to her feet; she was heaving her body up, wobbling and crashing into the cardboard walls, then making a renewed effort, trying to push out her feathers for balance and hoisting herself up, only to stumble and crash once again. I couldn’t see the bird’s head, and for a moment wondered if somehow it had fallen off, and if the still-living body was performing a terrible dance of rigor mortis. And yet then I did see her head, but it was slung low, tucked into its feathers.

The violence continued. The sounds tore into me, they churned my guts, there was simply no way I could endure it, let alone sleep through it. And then suddenly Carlos’s words came back to me:

“If you have strong faith, the bird will live.”

As crazy as the remark had first sounded, as I listened to the pigeon thrashing in its box, I couldn’t help but wonder. Could there possibly be a connection between the strength of my “faith“ and the probability of the bird’s survival? Did I even have faith—and, if so, could I somehow use it to help the bird? I had long given up on the seriousness of prayer—no longer believed I could appeal to, or bargain with, a deity. Nor did I believe that a Providential Hand could plunge through the causal chains of our law-governed universe. But perhaps I could use my faith in a different way. I remembered, seven years earlier, when our cat had been diagnosed with feline leukemia and Ruth, following her intuitions, had administered a treatment of steam baths and herbal remedies, and thereby, against all probability, nursed the cat back to health. But when I consulted the Magic 8 Ball of my intuitions, nothing came up. In fact, as I heard the bird crash once again into the wall of her box I wondered if above all what the pigeon wanted was to be left alone. Perhaps at this moment she wished to be in the cold open air, with the stars above her head, as opposed to this stuffy, closed cardboard container in this strange human room. Perhaps, as the Italian had suggested, the bird had known her life was ending and had hoped to get trampled by the carnival crowds. Perhaps, contrary to what Carlos and the Italian had said, I wasn’t “spreading my goodness,” after all, but was merely imposing my flawed, anthropomorphic will on a creature that would have been better off left alone. But, then again, who knew? Maybe, as Jim had suggested, the warmth of the box, the food and water, would revive her.

In any case, as the bird continued thrashing about in her box, I realized I could tolerate it no longer. I considered climbing in bed with Ruth, but, given my restlessness, I thought better of it. So I took my pillow and a blanket, went into the living room, and spread out on the couch.

* * *

I awoke the next morning with the recognition that against all expectation I had slept well. The living room was quiet. A shaft of light slanted through the white curtain, painting a yellow square on the hardwood floor. I could hear the murmurings of San Gennaro voices in the streets and the occasional peep of a cricket carried in by the carnival trailers. Then my thoughts drifted to the bird. I took a breath and returned to my room into which the sun was brightly streaming. The pigeon’s box stood quietly on my desk.

I opened it and looked in.

She was lying there, her feet splayed out, eyes closed. I reached in and touched her gray back. She didn’t budge. I shut the box up again and sat on the edge of my bed. The ordeal was over.

“The bird didn’t make it,” I told Ruth, entering her room. I lay down beside her. “It was a brutal night.”

“I’m sorry,” Ruth said, setting her hand on my chest. “What are you going to do with her?”

“That guy Jim I talked to used to bury them.”

“Why don’t you do that?”

I thought a moment.

“Do birds bury birds?”

Ruth said nothing.

We lay there for a while, listening to the noises in the street. Then I went to my room, got dressed, picked up the box, and went outside. The Sunday sun was up, the sky was clear, and a raw light shone on the awakening festival. Many of the San Gennaro stalls had yet to open but the crackle, the steam, and the smell of frying sausages and onions already permeated the morning air. I carried the cardboard hearse past the merry-go-round, its wooden horses and giraffes still in the early sun. Then I headed up Centre Street. The street was empty and I was glad for that because for whatever reason I didn’t want anyone to see what I was going to do. When I got to John Jovino’s Gun Shop, I went to the garden, turned over the box, and watched the bird tumble out and land in some withered daisies. For a long moment I looked at the bird lying shut-eyed among the dead flowers and the trash. Then I tossed away the box and headed into my earthbound day, into my earthbound life. I could hear the tolling of church bells—so lofty, bright, and resounding. But never had they sounded more distant.

Jon Rosen’s Comments

One of my favorite authors, Flannery O’Connor, wrote: “Fiction is the concrete expression of mystery—mystery that is lived.”  This story is true, but no less mysterious, and I have tried to express this mystery concretely. Something about the “three wise men” and the open mike gig with the girl repeating the sentences backwards, and the carnival, and that aching night—the whole experience was so haunting and resonant.  I have a number of these stories in various stages of development. They all deal, I suppose, with themes of hardship and a search for (some form of) redemption.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 34 | Fall 2011