Can Pigeons Be Heros?

Ruth L. Schwartz

A brave pigeon named President Wilson saved the lives of hundreds of American soldiers during World War I... by carrying a message 25 miles through fog and machine gun fire, wounded in the breast, with one leg shot away... from "Can Pigeons Be Heroes?," a public art exhibit paired with "Do Pigeons Fall in Love?"

...And do pigeons fall in love?
It's their otherness I admire,
their rust-colored eyes, like those of the best china dolls,
which have real lids, and open and shut.
Their bobbing heads, emerald and amethyst-ruffed necks,
scaly red feet which could carry them anywhere,
delicate, impermeable,
and how they live and breed in our landscape, ignoring
or sometimes using us
for their own, purely pigeon ends;
and how like us they finally are,
aggressive, obsequious,
marked by lust...
Yet there is also the way an entire flock
can rise as one bird
in some unspoken, instantaneous agreement
which seems to me much more subtle
and far-reaching than love,
with its clanking of one awkward heart
beside another.
Today, next to the people perched on benches
as if this were Paris, or someplace equally romantic,
the pigeons look sick, unkempt,
ill-cared-for. Of course,
no one cares for them,
it's every bird for himself in this city;
there are greasy, bedraggled feathers,
a limp, an oozing eye;
there's one with a bald tumor, sprung
from its green bright neck
-- but the bird still wants to live,
it's carefully fitting its beak between each cracked brick
for any fallen bread.
Meanwhile there are two human lovers
putting lips to each other's ears,
head to a shoulder, hand to hand, as if practicing,
a young man in a baseball cap
wearing stereo headphones and reading,
rocking a little back and forth,
a trio of teenagers with pierced lips and eyebrows
and boldly dyed hair,
a young bike messenger on break
who throws away half a cigarette, still lit,
so the plume of smoke rises up between the pigeons
for minutes afterward like a secret signal.
Now a woman throws crumbs,
delight on her face
as the birds jostle and squirm;
she shifts on the bench, moving closer and closer,
and when the bread is gone she talks
to the pigeons, shows them her empty hands ---
then yawns,
as if after love.
Now the lovers are replaced
by a man who looks as if the green
duffel bag he carries might be everything he has.
He's checking the left-behind coffee cups,
then drinking from them,
and watching him, I want to finish eating my sandwich
and loop the straps of my bag around my arm.
That's it. That's it exactly.
The way we turn away from each other,
running and flapping, making a knot
of ourselves --
so that I wonder about heroes, human and pigeon both,
what force there is beyond instinct
or hunger, in any one of us,
flying against machine gun fire
in our singular bodies

Copyright ©1998 Ruth L. Schwartz. All rights reserved.

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