The pigeons arrive in the spring. She watches him try to shoo them away – first with the clapping of hands, with the stomping of feet on the wooden deck, then finally with a garden hose. ‘Stop,’ she tells him finally. ‘Leave them alone.’
She’s grown to like their incessant cooing, their low murmur a lullaby.
The birds roost on the wooden beam just under the roof, side by side, staring into the Spanish fir across the street, like two people sitting side by side at a bar in front of a baseball game.
Flying rats, he calls them. Or, rats with wings.
How does a bird get a reputation like that? she wonders. As a pest – when pigeons are really quite beautiful, with the blues and purples feathering their necks, their curious faces, their bobbing heads.
Anything can be a pest; it’s just a matter of perspective. She watches parents at grocery stores, snapping at their children, yanking at their hands and arms, everything an annoyance.
A ghost writer for a popular young adult series, she is immersed in the world of the young and their teenage problems. She’s working on new novel in which one of the high school girls has a pregnancy ‘scare’. Ironic, she thinks, how hard you try to avoid pregnancy at one age and try so hard to achieve it at another.
She logs forty hours a week, she decorates the page with dialogue, and in the end she gets a nice paycheck. Yet she’s only a surrogate; when she goes to the bookstore, it’s someone else’s name on the covers of all her books.
One egg falls, then the next. The birds disappear.
Whitish yellow yolk smears the deck’s wooden boards like blood.
Baby clothes keep arriving – ‘gifts’ from her in-laws. Onesies in greens and yellows, little shirts and leggings, even tiny socks. All gender neutral.
Sometimes she looks at him, imagining him as a father. He’s got hair longer than hers, a scruffy face, a barbed-wire tattoo around his bicep – leftovers from his twenties, like the passport stamps he’d collected during his years in the Peace Corps. Now he runs software for HVAC systems. He’s changed, physically and otherwise: the tan faded from his skin, the light from his hair; his straight-toothed smile now seems plain instead of perfect. Still intense, yet quieter, he’s become more comfortable facing a computer screen than a human being. When he looks at her, she wonders if he sees skin and eyes, or just pixels and a blinking cursor.
She comes home one day to find a stranger in the kitchen. She stares at the man’s back as he roots through the fridge.
Only when he turns does she realise it’s him.
He’d cut his hair.
He smiles and turns his head from side to side. He’s clean shaven, ponytail gone, his hair in a short, neat cut that frames his face in a way she’s never seen before. She steps forward and runs a hand over his head.
In bed, she misses the feel of his hair sweeping her face, the way she could lose her hands in it. She touches the back of his neck, his bare shoulders.
‘It’ll grow out,’ he murmurs.
‘Should I have asked you first?’
‘No,’ she says. She rolls onto her back, manoeuvring a pillow under her hips. She remembers reading something, somewhere, that said this would help.
Researching a new storyline at the library, she comes across an article on the passenger pigeon, extinct for a hundred years – a bird whose numbers were once in the billions. It disappeared because of humans: hunting, loss of habitat.
The world’s last passenger pigeon was named Martha. She died on September 1st, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo. Like herself, the bird was twenty-nine years old. Like her, Martha had never once produced a fertile egg.
In the spring, the pigeons return. She watches as the male pigeon collects twigs and sticks and leaves, bringing them in his beak to his mate.
That night, she positions the pillow under her hips again.
The next day, she checks the nest for eggs. The pigeons eye her warily.
MIDGE RAYMOND's short story collection, Forgetting English, received the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Her writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, the Los Angeles Times magazine, and Poets & Writers, among others. Her debut novel, My Last Continent, is forthcoming next summer from Scribner.