Prisoner the Pigeon
We trained the pigeons for many years. It wasn’t easy to get them to fly out into such a seeming emptiness. At first, they would return quickly, just skirt the coast. Some would fly more daring circles than others, but would return just the same. When they eventually flew further, our friend Ahmed, who worked for the police, would joke that they are breaking the law.
For a few weeks the old men in our street were engaged in a good-natured debate about the nationality of our pigeons. Some developed a serious interest in the matter but they eventually settled on declaring them Italian which satisfied everyone except for a toothless septuagenarian who insisted that they were African and should be arrested for breaking the law. He got so worked up about the matter that – in order to calm and appease him – Ahmed took one of our pigeons to a prison cell and kept it there for three days. When he brought it back, he said that he had fed it well and that his colleagues had tried to cross-examine it on a boring afternoon. It had confessed nothing and been thoroughly reprimanded for shitting on the floor instead.
We took the suspect out the day he returned and sent him flying. He crossed the strait.
Perhaps his time in jail had convinced him.
He was gone for fifteen days and we were convinced that he was not coming back. When he came back, he did not carry an olive twig but a necklace of small coloured stones and cowrie shells.
Who had taken him in and given him a necklace? We did not know. When we let him fly again, he did not try to cross the sea again but circled with the other less adventurous pigeons. It seemed to be an aberration, a one time thing.
But word of his adventure spread. People had taken to calling him Prisoner after Ahmed had brought him back. Now some of them came – in secret – to bring him tiny gifts. They thought that he would carry them across the sea. These were simple gifts and fortunately all of them had the wits to keep them light. We picked some of them out and tied them to Prisoner’s feet or his necklace.
The first thing we picked was a scroll from the Qu’Ran. We aren’t pious but we loved the calligraphy. The words were like wings and like fire.
Prisoner crossed the strait again when we put the scroll around his leg. The woman who had given it to us said that it was a sign. We were not so sure.
This time, however, we were quite sure that he would return. There was bad weather for three days. None of the pigeons flew. The following night one of our birds was caught and killed by a cat.
We did not believe in signs and we were right. Prisoner returned in the evening of the day after the killing. The scroll on his foot had been replaced with another scroll. We did not like the calligraphy because we could not read the words. But because we could not read them, we became fascinated by them. Who had written them? We asked Prisoner but he pecked his food and said not a word.
We took the scroll down to the harbour and asked some of the sailors who had said they had crossed the strait and stood on the other side. Some shook their heads and others said they knew, but they must have lied for their words made no sense.
We could not make sense of these signs even though we believed in them. When night fell, my sister sat down next to the small fire in our room and made a small figure of straw. She made it to look like me and she made it light enough to carry.
We tied the straw man to the necklace that Prisoner wore and made sure that it would not stop him from flying. When we saw that it did not, we sent him off once more.
The following morning a group of people were waiting in front of our door. One of the sailors we had shown the foreign scroll had been telling people about our worrisome witchcraft. Some women implored my sister, telling her about the harm it might bring upon our house. Others were shrill, warning her of the monsters that might come from those unknown signs when they lay unobserved in the dark. Three men carried heavy sticks. Some told me that they had brought them to fight the monsters in case they were already here and others said they would use them to convince me if words failed to do the trick.
We said little to them. Only gave those who wanted some tea, bread and olives. When they left we did not worry if they would return.
Prisoner returned before any of them did. He brought us a figure of straw. The letters had been crude but the straw figure was so much finer than the one my sister had made. It was the figure of a young girl with a strange dress. My sister smiled at the way the figure-girl’s hair had been knotted. We laughed as we tried to convince ourselves that the figure would come alive at night and scare the pious souls to death.
So this was Prisoner’s new friend? We showed the straw-girl to him and he picked her tenderly and flapped his wings as if to fan her.
My sister put the straw girl on the table in the middle of our house and we looked at her as intensely as if we could look at her and see the real girl. We spoke as if we could talk to her and by doing so talk to the real girl.
Would she speak like an animal? We unrolled the scroll – her first message – and tried to imagine how she would speak these words.
At first it was play and silliness but soon our play acquired a form of magic. In the dark of our house we did see the girl and we heard her language.
We were so caught up in our magic play that an idea took hold of us. We took the straw-girl, some food, asked a neighbour to feed the birds for us, put Prisoner in a birdcage and left our home to look for Grandfather. He lived in a village further away from the coast and it took us several days to get there.
He sat in front of his little house and smiled as if he had expected us. We ate with him and told him the story as it had happened so far.
Grandfather looked at the bird, the scroll and the straw girl and he told us about a man who had crossed the sea a long time ago and who had learned to speak as we do.
He was called Madir and Grandfather knew him from a long time ago. He wrote a message to his old friend and gave it to us.
We went back to the coast and realized that our town is bigger than we knew. It took us a while to find Madir because he kept himself a secret and because people were aware of us now and not everyone was at peace with what they thought we did.
We found Madir. He was a tall man with light brown skin. His face was strange but his eyes spoke a language that we knew. We gave him the message. He read it, thought for a while then let us inside his house.
We showed him everything we carried. When he looked at the message his eyes changed and for a moment we could not read them.
However he could read the message. It was a quote from the Qu’Ran – or very close to being one.
We thanked him but did not know if we should be disappointed or not. We knew the content of the message but there was no magic in it anymore. Was this a pious girl from the other end of the world that had written to us? Suddenly we were full of doubt.
On the way back to our house we wondered if there was not a strange world out there but simply one that was like our own, full of the same frustrations, full of the same people who came to your house with clubs because they could not understand what it was you were doing.
But as we came home, the familiar smells of our home were lovely to us. We climbed the roof and saw a beautiful sun set over the sea. We thought that, perhaps, the world out there is everywhere just as beautiful as this and just as familiar if you know the right people.
We wrote another message. It was simple and handwritten and it said our names as well as Prisoner’s name and that we would give him to the girl and that, even though he was a gift, we would be happy to have him come and visit us and that it did not matter if he brought a gift or not.