Andrew was crouching by the window, painting scarlet and navy blue lines on the box. He took care to make the lines straight and even. Nana would want it this way; she used to like things to have shape and ceremony. It was bad enough that he couldn’t keep Pigeon breathing for more than a few hours after Nana had gone; now, at least, he would do the proper thing.
If Father weren’t coming home soon, he would sit here, in the gentle afternoon sun that filtered through the lace curtains, painting a whole jungle upon the box, a jungle deep enough to swallow both Pigeon and himself. He would sit here idling, as Nana used to say when she stopped in his door and found him staring, his homework forgotten under his elbows. Today he would do nothing that would have disconcerted her. He had been idling on the day, back in January, when Pigeon’s father had first appeared on his windowsill, motionless, all ruffled up in his feathers. It had been bitter cold outside. Nana had kept him home from school. A bit feverish and sluggish, wearing his favorite old flannel shirt, and with his painting set laid out, he had been listening with awe to the ferocious wind shaking his window. And when the pigeon appeared on the other side of the glass, he had immediately moved to open the window. He had opened it just a little, so the warmth of the escaping air might keep the bird from freezing. Nana had taught him that animals were people’s brothers, silent and dependable. The only time he had heard her yell was when the two of them had come upon a man hitting his horse in the frosty street, because his horse had balked at pulling the cart loaded high with dark, glistening coal.
Waiting for the scarlet and blue lines to dry, Andrew walked out on the terrace. Dry and parched, the soil of the orange tree was too hard; he would have trouble digging. Nana used to be very proud of her orange tree, surviving and thriving up in the north. Now Pigeon would sleep in its wooden container forever, and the roots of the orange tree would break through the shoebox to embrace his heart.
Back in the room, he began to paint a tree with long, blue leaves. He would paint a yellow bird on one of the branches. Pigeon’s father was steel-blue, with a bit of shiny green about his neck. Andrew had watched him by the open window for hours. He could almost see the warm air surrounding the bird like a woolen scarf. Nana had felt his forehead, but said nothing about the window. She had sat by his reading lamp to knit, humming softly. He had nestled into his favorite armchair, leaning his cheek against the faded green silk upholstery, and watched her taut, old face, luminous and wise in the yellow light. She knitted in a way that spoke to him and soothed him. In fact, her whole body used to know how to talk. Later she had patted his chest with fragrant rubbing alcohol. She had poured it on a white cloth from a tall, engraved glass bottle. “Your mother used to love to sniff at this bottle when she was expecting you,” Nana had smiled. “Women big with child are peculiar indeed . . . ” He didn’t remember Mother very well, but Nana’s frequent remarks about her had helped to put Mother back in smells, and shapes, and colors.
Even now, he chose lilac, because Nana had once shown him a photograph of Mother in a long, ruffled lilac gown. So next to the tree, he painted a bush studded with lilac clusters of flowers. He had painted a large lilac sun on the whitewashed wall over his bed. Father had been angry, but Nana had only smiled and called him a little heathen. Laying his brush aside, he walked to the kitchen and found a soup ladle to dig with. Out on the terrace, he knelt by the wooden container, scraping at the soil with the ladle. Perhaps if he hadn’t opened his window for Pigeon’s father, Pigeon would be alive now. But at the time he had thought the bird would freeze if he didn’t help him. One afternoon when black clouds with snow in their bellies had rolled over town, Andrew had lifted the window high enough for the bird to come inside. That night Nana had made him wear his thick brown sweater in bed, but she still hadn’t asked him to close the window. And during the coming days, his window had been left slightly open, and although the bird had occasionally flown off, he had always returned. He would be stationed on the lampshade by the time Andrew had come home from school. Pigeon’s father had enjoyed Andrew’s room, with the golden seeds carefully laid out in a tiny porcelain dish, fresh water shimmering next to it, and the fine view of the river beneath the pane of glass. Even as spring had come with its first warm winds, the bird had continued to spend his nights inside.
Andrew was scooping ladlefuls of soil from the pot of the orange tree. Father might spend more time at home now. Or he might hire someone to watch Andrew. Of course, he didn’t need anyone to take care of him; he was almost eight. He began building ditches in the pile of dirt he had ladled out. The grave seemed deep enough. Back in the room, he took out a handful of seeds from the bag beneath the window. He was planning to paint them lilac and paste them on the side of the coffin to spell “PIGEON.” The bag had been under the window ever since he had taken to feeding Pigeon’s father.
Pigeon’s father should never have married. If he had merely continued living with Andrew forever, nothing bad would have happened. But one day, the bird had arrived on the windowsill followed by another pigeon, slender and white, with just a few streaks of gray on her wings. Her entire body still with watchfulness, the slender pigeon had remained on the street side of the window. Andrew had had to leave to make it easier for her to come in. Nana had been dozing in the living room, the spring sunshine toying with her white curls and stumbling over the delicate wrinkles of her forehead. For a while he had watched her, holding back his breath, wanting the moment never to end. Then suddenly he had thrown his arms around her neck and pushed his face against her cheek. Nana used to smell of lavender. He had gently bit her right earlobe, the one from which he had ripped the coral earring when he was a baby. They had made sandwiches together, and later while he had been running about on the hillside, singing, Nana had laid back on the plaid blanket, her glance suspended on the tree branches overhead. She had looked very pale. He had told her of a magical country across the river, a gathering place of humming birds who danced in the air, their wings decorated with stripes of bright colors, with mighty eagles for protectors, eagles who fed on flowers, not other birds. They had forgotten to eat the sandwiches.
“I’m thinking about the past . . . ” Andrew sang, “I don’t know where I’m bound . . . ” He was making up words to the tune of the old Scottish work song Nana had often hummed when knitting or chopping vegetables in the kitchen: pale celery, or damp, orange carrots. A little like a wail, the song had an insistent rhythm. Sailors too sang chanties to make their work go more easily. Father would be back from the service soon: he had to finish by then. Just where Nana was now, he didn’t know. Father said she would be cremated. All ashes. He could imagine a lot of things — a country of humming birds and flowers growing out of Pigeon — but he couldn’t think of Nana as ashes. He walked to the fireplace and jerked the brass shield aside. He stuck his hand in the ashes. His fingers could move easily about. Nana was solid. Nana was marble and thick oak wood and the chewy meat in the stew. Nana was the fire, not the ashes. With his left hand pulling his pants pocket open, he filled it with handfuls of the gray dust and tiny pieces of charred wood.
He painted the edges of the coffin gold even though the soil would hide it all — the colorful stripes, the tree, and the yellow bird. “It’s more than enough if only you and I know that your ears have met with soap this morning,” Nana used to say when he complained that his hair hid his ears anyway. While the gold paint was drying, he gathered up the nest, some ribbons and straw, and threw it in the waste basket. Soon after Pigeon’s father had brought a wife, Andrew had noticed him tugging at the cord of the reading lamp, his slender wife standing by with her head tilted, watching. The birds had been trying to collect nest building materials. So Nana had given him the ribbons and the straw to spread about his carpet. It had never been much of a nest anyway. More like a misshapen circle, with the rug showing through in the middle.
Heavy silence hung in the room. The first time he had heard Pigeon’s voice, he and Nana had approached the cradle together. He had kept his palm pressed tightly against the dark sleeve of her dress as she lifted the top of the shoebox. Pigeon had been tiny, yet already bigger than the egg he had shed, with bare wings and tiny flesh-colored legs sprawled out, and his head, oddly large in comparison with the rest of his body, bobbing way ahead at the end of a long neck. He had been peeping helplessly, his body trembling. Pigeon was born on a chilly day, during the first thunderstorm of the year. Andrew had just crawled under his bed, pretending that the thunder was the exploding cannons of the besieging Tartar army, when from his vantage point he had suddenly noticed the two eggs in the nest under the wings of the slender white pigeon.
Nana had promised to tell him a story about whatever had become of Pigeon’s parents. Now he would never know. Perhaps they had joined the circus or taken to carrying letters across the ocean. One thing alone was certain: after several days of taking turns warming the eggs, the birds had disappeared. One afternoon Pigeon’s mother had left and never come back again. Sitting on the eggs, her mate had become more and more agitated. Although Andrew had pushed the waterdish and the seeds closer to the nest, so the bird could eat and drink while warming his children, a few hours later Pigeon’s father had simply walked away from the eggs. And when Andrew had tried to chase him back on the eggs, he had shaken his wings indignantly, jumped on the windowsill, and flown off. Nana had said that the warmth of the parents’ body would call forth the life lurking in the eggs, so when the parents had left, he and Nana had put the eggs in the shoebox lined with an old, soft cotton handkerchief, and kept them warm with a strong light bulb. Birds will rarely try to rear their young ones alone,” Nana had said as he had gazed at the darkened sky waiting in vain for Pigeon’s father, “I suspect they know that they can’t do a good job of it that way.”
Pigeon might have become steely black like his father, or perhaps delicately white with a few darker feathers at the tip of his wings like his mother. Andrew’s fingers were playing with the ashes in his pocket. Human fathers too found it difficult to raise their children alone, but they were not as honest as birds. In his pocket his finger turned into a family of moles, velvety and perfect in their molehood, working hard at their underground tunnels. Pigeon would have to have a wake. Grandfather’s wake, Nana had told him, was a slice of time filled with laughter, tears, and wine, and, of course, the stories everyone remembered about him. In the kitchen Andrew poured himself some raspberry juice, and back again by the coffin, looking at Pigeon lying in the corner, he lifted his glass in salutation, “To you, Pigeon.” A garland of juice settled on his upper lip. After the parent birds had disappeared, he had held up the two eggs, one after the other, against the lightbulb. Their shell was so thin that he could practically see through them. One of them had had just a tiny dark dot in it, but the other had been filled with thick networks of blood vessels, and a dark creature, almost filling up the space inside, moving every few seconds. That was the difference between life and death.
He placed the coffin on the carpet. The carpet turned into the sea, and the coffin into a floating barge. Nana had read to him about some long dead kings in a faraway land who had ships for coffins. “Just imagine what a fine rest that must be,” Nana had looked up from the book, “Floating without a care in the world.” Anything could happen to a ship at large in the sea, he thought. A wave could even sweep over the deck and rinse the eyes of the dead open. He reached into his pocket and transferred the ashes into the box. He smoothed the gray dust until it formed an even coating. The sun was almost down across the river. Slowly he lifted Pigeon from the corner where he lay on the carpet. Pigeon who used to be hot and moist felt cool and dry. He stroked Pigeon’s bare back. “Don’t be afraid,” he whispered, “You are going back into your cradle, not some strange place.” Pigeon’s eyes were open, but dull like the mirror in the living room. Nana had said the mirror was more than a hundred years old. All those long-since-dead human faces peering into it took its shimmer away, the reflections settling imperceptibly, one upon the other, layer by layer, onto the silvery glass. Nana had warned him that it might be difficult to keep Pigeon alive, as he really needed crop milk, a special mixture made in the parent birds’ stomachs. He tried to imagine bending over Father’s chest to drink some sweet milk spreading around his hairy nipples. But eating was a difficult, tricky business. Father could rarely make him eat; he’d urge his son on in a voice crackling with irritation while the food would swell in Andrew’s mouth and he chewed and chewed, tears blurring his eyes. Nana had prepared everything slowly, carefully, paying respect to food and eater, as she had said. For their afternoon teas she used to cut small cross-sections of a croissant, butter it and place a sliver of cheese or pink ham on top. They were soldiers, she used to say, marching to visit the famous Castle, Andrew’s stomach.
She could make Pigeon eat as well. In her hands, plain cottage cheese and crushed seeds must have turned into crop milk. He clearly remembered her left hand, frail and supported by indigo blue veins, cradling Pigeon, while her right hand held the rubber end of an eye dropper filled with food to his beak. And Pigeon had started to eat. Soon his crop had grown larger, the cottage cheese and seeds barely hidden by his skin. That first night Andrew had sung Pigeon to sleep, rocking back and forth by the window, “Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry, go to sleep you little baby . . . ”
“When you wake, you shall have all the pretty little horsies . . . ” he sang now again while he placed Pigeon in the coffin. The small body sank into the ashes. Andrew sprinkled a handful more on top of him and closed the box. With Nana gone, it had become his job to feed Pigeon. But Pigeon had refused the food from his hands. And then Father had wandered into his room, his glasses foggy, his cheeks hollow, “Forget it, you can’t save that bird by yourself, without her. You’d better throw it out right now. Let it die in peace.” Of course Andrew hadn’t thrown the baby out, but he couldn’t continue trying to feed him for a long time. Listening to Father’s unquiet footsteps he had counted four tugboats on the river by the time he could try feeding again, but by then it was too late.
He stepped out on the terrace holding the coffin gingerly, with both hands, in front of his chest. It was getting cooler. The coffin didn’t quite fit the hole; he had to enlarge it a bit. He was digging with ten nails now, suddenly fearful that Father might appear to interrupt him. The soil was chilly and damp. The dirt squeezing under his nails hurt some. The wind made a sweeping turn, grabbing off the cover of the coffin. He caught it before it flew off the terrace.
On the day Nana had disappeared, she had lain down right after breakfast, something she had never done before, her face ashen and moist with perspiration. He remembered feeling sick with fear. She had been breathing with difficulty, the air making a rasping sound in her throat. She sounded different — almost impolite. Sounds that used to mean Nana were the floating notes of her harpsichord, the soft rustle of the pages she turned in story books, songs half hummed half whispered, and the small clicking of her knitting needles. He had run to get Pigeon who had been sitting in his cradle, well fed and growing. Holding the baby in one hand, he had reached for Nana’s hand with the other. He could think of nothing else to do. He had thought she might want to feel through the baby’s skin, on the left side of the body, the gizzard churning wildly. Its rhythmical, determined movement had tickled his fingertips. “No, I can’t hold him any more, love,” she had whispered, barely audible. “And don’t be too disappointed if he should decide to follow me where I can hold him . . . ”
He began scooping the dark dirt back into the hole, onto the coffin. For a moment he could see Nana in a golden caftan galloping by on a superb black steed, her snow white hair curling against the sky, and Pigeon, bright-eyed and amused, sitting snugly in her left palm. He smiled. Then he had to push down with both hands, because the soil lumped out high above the surface. He picked up the tin watering can from behind the orange tree and poured some water on top. From now on he would water all of Nana’s plants. And one day he would become a gardener, the gardener of a king perhaps, with a vast garden of fig trees, and orange groves with birds clustered on every branch — red hummingbirds, green eagles, and lilac doves. He rubbed his palms against the legs of his pants. His nails were still black.
In the pale sky he could see some stars now, and the new moon, barely visible. The night before he had cried, because he had discovered a large, bright star in the sky, one that his star chart didn’t show. He wasn’t afraid now, because he could think of an explanation that made his belly warm with sudden relief. He quickly turned his back to the darkening sky, worried that this time he might fail to find the new star. He crouched by the orange pot, humming the lullaby softly, rocking back and forth on his heels. The leaves of the lower branches of the plant, trembling in the breeze, kept touching the back of his head, tapping gently, almost like a human hand.