The Pigeon Army by: Kit Tenmruczek
Short story by: Kit Tenmruczek
Astrid heard about the war, and about the war before that one. But until she met Lisa, she never thought real hard about it, probably because she lived in a mansion in Maspeth, New York, and had all she needed and wanted. When Astrid and her family, which then-consisted of Mother, Father, James and Tigger, were on a trip, they found Lisa cowering under a bench, wrapped in a pile of rags she called a blanket. That moment was enough for Astrid to decide to help the war effort.
So, her family started breeding and donating pigeons to the army. Astrid liked pigeons because they were calm and often purred, like Tigger. Taking care of them was easy and even though when they hatched they were ugly, looking like they were covered in puss and had naked, wrinkly skin, they soon grew thick, long multi-colored feathers and learned to fly.
When Astrid was little she thought of her house as big and fancy, but as she grew older she realized that it was indeed big, but even though the inside was grand, pristine and filled with tapestries, red carpets, sandalwood furniture, gold-rimmed doorknobs and velvet curtains, the outside was rectangular and the brick walls that rose four stories high were nowhere near as grand as the ones of Château de Chenonceau or the White House where Franklin D. Roosevelt currently resided.
Anyway, Astrid’s favorite pigeon was silver with gradient feather tones, darker plumage on top of its wings, and slightly lighter towards the legs, which were salmon toned. The bird’s eyes were pale and green-like. Astrid decided to name her Plum, because when she was a chick, it was the only thing the pigeon would eat. One night, when Tigger transformed into Panther and his normally-amber eyes flashed white, he decided to go hunting in the pigeon coop. When Father came into the coop the next morning, Plum had hatched and her mother’s stiff body lay on the hay strewn floor. Astrid raised her and they became inseparable. A lock was also placed on the coop and since then, the family hadn’t seen Tigger’s Panther side.
Astrid’s brother, James, was sent to Scotland as a soldier to fight in the war, despite Father’s arguments. It was almost a year ago, which was before they found Lisa, so Astrid honestly didn’t care. But now, she knew that her brother had been sent to Great Britian to fight the Nazis. He wrote to her a few weeks ago. He said that he is good, but he did not elaborate much.
- 🕊 -
Right now Astrid has nothing to do, and ever since their servants left to help with the war they had to do all their chores. Lisa taught them how to cook because before the Soviets and then Nazis raided her village, she and her mother had a small bread shop. Astrid learned to clean, weed and wash dishes. She believes that the war had a great outcome on her, and taught her that being raised wealthy is not everything.
Which is true.
Plum though, is preening her gray feathers. She seems interested in the mouse gathering the straw off the floor of the coop and warily eyes the flame-colored tom through the glass.
She doesn’t anticipate the great turn in her near future.
Right now James is drinking a bland-tasting soup in a ditch and wondering how soon he will end up shot, like his best friend. He hasn’t changed in weeks and is tired of the sleepless nights, the horrifying airplane motors and the dark clouds, making everyone believe that it was constantly night. He does not even really know where he is anymore, he’s just following his officer. He thinks that going to war was a great mistake and that being a soldier is not as exciting or happy as he used to think. He thinks about his caprice sister. She’s probably eating sweetened roast ribs and oiled olives and thick buttered bread with raspberry juice. Her servants will clean after her. He wonders if he was ever that spoiled. It doesn’t matter now, James will remember the smell of war for the rest of his life. It will haunt him.
Mother, whose actual name is Antonia, can't stop thinking about James. The world is moving; war, no war, and her family is not affected too much. She actually feels very guilty. The truth is, on that trip where Antonia saw that copper haired girl with light eyes, she thought, the government should get rid of scum like that. Instantly she regretted the thought as Astrid slid out of the carriage and ran towards the girl under the bench. Astrid was always homeschooled and never had much interactions with kids her age, so this girl was clearly important to her. Antonia adopted Lisa only because she would need another child for help with sustaining the home when Jim died in war.
- 🕊 -
Now, Astrid has no idea that her Father is on a stationary phone with the man who is incharge of training carrier pigeons, the one that they send the birds to.
“I need the best, if any happen to fail, people will die,” barks the voice from across the state.
“I have a few specimens. A white one, a few dappled blacks and a cinnamon patched one,” Astrid’s Father proposes, “do you need more?”
“I need the most reliable one!”
Father swallows, this choice could change a lot of things, “I have a gray one, the most reliable pigeon, and fastest I’ve ever bred.”
“Ship all of them tomorrow, there’s no time to waste,” commands the pigeon trainer.
Father slams the phone down so hard that the table rattles.
What had he done?
If Astrid was there and he had voiced that thought out loud, she would have said, “Something very typical for a man.”
But he knew it would be so much worse. And he’s correct. Maybe that’s the reason that when Astrid came to the pigeon coop to feed the birds the next morning she found it empty.
Here’s what happened.
That gray bird Astrid’s Father mentioned when he was talking to the pigeon trainer? That was Plum. Once Father hung up he went down to the coop and packed the seven pigeons into crates and found someone willing to drive them to get shipped. A young man picked them up and dropped them off, earning quite a bit of money from that exchange. So, the pigeons boarded a plane which was moving across the ocean to England. Once it lands, someone will unpack the pigeons and use them to send messages to spies and troops. Plum will be one of the 250,000 carrier pigeons that the United Kingdom will send during the war.
Astrid was of course angry. So was Lisa and even Tigger, mewed at night in front of the coop for so long and so loud that Father had to get out, yank him by the scruff and throw him out on the street.
Astrid, who was usually buzzing as if filled with energy and had abnormal amounts of attitude, was now sullen. It was one thing that her brother thought the war was a game and decided to sign up, but wholly another that her beloved bird was snatched away from her. But if she knew how many lives Plum will save though, she would have shipped the pigeons herself.
And so, the weeks went by and months passed. Then one day a postman rang the doorbell, sending light chimes and bell ring acoustics through the house. The man handed Astrid the sealed envelope as she opened the doors to the mansion. She took it from him and turned, shutting the door behind her. She walked on the carpet barefoot through the hallway, tearing the seal with her teeth. Lisa peered through the doorway of one of the numerous rooms located on the four floors. She trots towards Astrid and watches, silently, as she takes the crisp letter and reads it. Lisa gasps as her eyes read the page.
“I am so sorry,” she says, her green eyes shimmering with sympathy.
Astrid was too, but she did not tell her so. She ran to the kitchen and tossed the letter onto the stove, cranking the heat up. Astrid watched as the fire engulfed it. It’s a dream. She repeated over and over, but until she burned her hand trying to take the paper out of the fire after realizing that she had scorched it, and that her parents would have wanted to see the death certificate printed on it, she thought it was a dream. Of course once she felt her skin, from the beginning of her thumb to her wrist, blistering and bleeding covered in a shiny goo, she knew it was reality.
James was dead.
Or rather, ‘lost on the battle front.’ But Astrid knew that he was as good as dead. She had to tell her parents. They would be most certainly angry about the letter being burned by her, but then they would be anguished once they heard the news, sitting by the fireplace, looking into the distance. She couldn’t do it. She looked at Lisa, and they understood. Things were never the same after a war.
- 🐈 -
Years later, a short time after World War II had passed and everyone was still rebuilding their houses, families and lives, Astrid went to the port because she received a letter informing her that there was something waiting for her. She saddled her chestnut mare and set off to receive the package. Father had died a few months earlier from a heart attack, as the doctor said, but Astrid knew it was because of grief. Mother was somewhere in the mansion, wandering around, trying to find things to do. Lisa found out that her mother was still alive, so she thanked Astrid and after changing her name to Ktarzyna Nowak, so the Soviet Union wouldn’t track her down, she started a new life, but she never forgot about the kindness Astrid’s family displayed for her.
Astrid cleared her head, she passed a young man loading two giant black and white blazed shires onto the ship with tags attached to them. Those horses, like Lisa, were going to Poland.
“Are you Ms. Astrid?” An audible voice asked. Astrid looked down from her mare. The voice belonged to a tall girl with large amber eyes, a round face with light freckles and sleek dark hair cropped to her shoulders, a style not fashionable, or common in New York.
“If you are, follow us,” This time a girl standing next to the first one spoke. She had light, clear eyes, blonde hair cut in jagged lines and dark eyebrows, which were now scrunched together, making her frown. She tapped her soft leather shoe on the cobblestone impatiently.
Astrid slid off the chestnut and held the reins with her right hand as she followed the two girls to the dock. The shorter girl came onto a ship and after a few minutes returned with a wooden crate in her hands. She handed the crate to Astrid.
“These are two veteran pigeons that were supposedly belonging to you, before they got sent to Britain, then France,” she said.
“They are yours now,” said the taller girl. Then they both turned and disappeared into the crowd. Astrid sighed. Now she would have more to take care of. She opened the crate and saw a silver and a dappled white pigeon. They stared at her from the box, which was covered in hay and looked up at her, one had light green eyes and the other had orange eyes. It was Plum and another pigeon that Father had raised. Astrid smiled as Plum cooed when she touched her. Her pigeon was finally home. Astrid closed and tied the crate to the tack with straps and sat up in the saddle. She turned her horse and rode back home.
Plum and the white and black dappled pigeon - now named Yack - fit in the family now. Even the old cat, Tigger, didn’t try to hunt them like he did when he was younger. But, after months of flying and delivering messages they did no’t want to stay in the unused coop, so Astrid created them a covered nest on the roof of the house, so they could come and go. A few weeks later Astrid heard chirping in the nest. This is what she wanted. What would happen to the building? And the pigeons? Astrid decided not to worry about that right then, but in her testament, she wrote that she would want to designate her mansion as a school for elementary children to attend, and her pigeons to roam Maspeth, as a thanks to their ancestors and the lives they saved during the war.
Many years later that mansion became an elementary school and then, a middle school. The one we attend.
And the pigeons, they form a pigeon army. One that celebrates their forebears. Correction, their forebirds.
- 🕊 -