In the afternoons when the bus dropped us at our stop, they were always there. Day after day they drew invisible circles across the sky—as much of a constant as our math teacher scratching geometry onto the blackboard, though the birds’ math was more beautiful. At dusk, the pigeons dove through tangled shadows and disappeared inside our neighbor’s coops for the night. Most were grayish blue, or maybe bluish gray, with dark bands across their wings and iridescent necks. They never landed any place but the coops and at night they were too far off for my brothers and I to hear them cooing. There were dozens of them and the air glowed like canyon walls as they swooped down through layers of sunset.
Recently I noticed the coops stood vacant and the paint had chipped away. I asked around and found out that the man who’d raised them for decades had died. It was only then that I realized I knew almost nothing about him. Not where he worked or how he’d died. Not what his favorite food was or what TV shows he watched or if he loved his wife. He may as well have been an axe murderer for all the attention us kids had paid him when we lived in the neighborhood. His grown-up children swooped in from out of town to sell the house and then flew out again before anybody had the chance to read his obituary. But the idea of the pigeons was strangely persistent. I kept remembering the way they’d circled the neighborhood, like silent sentinels keeping us from scattering. As if that loopy childhood cursive still held us inside it.
Once when I was in Venice I ran full speed at a crowd of pigeons just to watch them rise and fall back into place. They were overfed and the sheen of their feathers seemed too dull for flight but I sat on a bench and studied them anyway. They scratched hieroglyphics across the piazza as the tourists rushed past and I went on sitting there thinking about the past. That was before I understood you can drown in stone and sky as easily as you can in water. Before I learned survival is mostly about forgetting. Even so, I like to imagine my neighbor’s pigeons from time to time—I keep trying to decipher the messages. And I can’t help wondering if anybody will do the same for me after I go.
Lori Lamothe’s recent work has appeared in Cider Press Review, Hayden’s Ferry and Verse Daily. Her third book of poetry, Kirlian Effect, was published by FutureCycle in 2017.