It must have been around November of last year that I started feeding the pigeons. It was definitely winter and I remember feeling sorry for myself, that’s why I sat in the cold. And then, in the cold, I felt sorry for the birds. Most of them looked very thin, particularly the white one. They looked as if they were freezing.
My colleagues are rather unpleasant to me. They care about things like sports and movies and the previous and next nights of drinking while I rather spend my evenings quietly, maybe with friends and a bottle of wine or else alone with a good book.
No matter how sad or weird it might sound, the pigeons made me feel loved. Sharing my bread or couscous with them somehow seemed as if my existence and the dull days of spreadsheets and angry customer calls meant something. So since November, or maybe it was already October, I spent most of my lunch hours with them.
I got to know them and they got to know me. The park was small and particularly during the winter months it was rare that any other human sat on another of the four wooden benches. The benches, all with their tiny “In memory of…” insignia, were arranged around the rectangular square in the middle of the park. Two benches on each side and about two steps apart. In the middle nothing except dead leaves, at some point snow and, of course, the pigeons. All around us only the trees and two small paths that lead back to the street.
Pigeons have a character. I read somewhere that pigeon breeders can differentiate their birds just by the way they fly and land. I can differentiate them because each seems to have a different pattern of grey and white. Some darker, some lighter and of course the one that was completely white.
The white one was my favorite from the beginning. It had a talent for strutting up and down in front of me until I started feeding it. Pigeons are smart in that respect, they know how to make you feed them. And they can differentiate us humans.
In February for the first time I saw another pigeon feeder. An older lady that came, sat and one by one threw small handfuls of breadcrumbs towards the pigeons. She looked serene and happy. I’m not sure why she never came back.
There were a few others that came, particularly one younger woman. It was the fifth of April when she sat there, one day before my birthday. She held her book close to her face and ate her bread in a way that made me wonder whether she ate messy on purpose. The pigeons liked that so many crumbs fell on the floor. I liked the way she smiled whenever she turned a page.
After a while we learned to say hello to each other. I always wanted to say more but one or the other ridiculous excuse always stopped me. I didn’t want to disturb her. I had a sore throat and didn’t want her to hear me with a croaking voice. I thought I smelled bad.
Instead we just sat and I fed the pigeons and she fed the pigeons with her crumbling baguette.
She wasn’t there every day and in May I too was forced to skip a few lunches. Your colleague messes up. You are the only one nice enough to actually pick up the phone. The angry customer threatens to switch to your competitor. The boss says “no lunch.”
Three days in a row I missed lunch. Three days of hunger and screaming bosses and screaming customers and exhaustion.
You only learn to appreciate the small things in life when they are suddenly taken from you. The day that I finally got back to my pigeons I felt relief wash through my bones.
She sat there already, with the feet on her bench and a flock of pigeons around her. She waved. I waved back.
“You’ve been gone for long.”
“Just a few days.”
“Now I am.”
She smiled too.
We sat and after she told me that she was a receptionist at a nearby office building we found that we had not much to talk about. The relief in my bones was slowly washed away with a flush of nervous desperation.
“So, how were the pigeons while I was gone?”
“Fine. They didn’t complain.”
“I hoped they would miss me.”
“I’m sure they did. But somebody else was here so they had their food.”
Somebody else. Somebody else fed my pigeons. Somebody else in my spot.
“Some guy in a suit.”
What I wanted to ask was “Did you talk to him?”
Instead I just said “Oh.”
The next day my receptionist wasn’t in the park. But the man was. He sat in her spot. He threw bread towards the pigeons. It looked more as if he was throwing it on them rather than to them.
And he whispered to himself.
I started feeding too. Most pigeons returned to me, maybe because I had more bread or maybe because they were used to me. Still I felt a knot moving upwards in my throat.
The white one was still with him. It sat on the bench and he gave it larger portions than anybody else. It sat so close to him that I thought anytime soon the man would grab and strangle it.
At some point he got up and left. No word, no wave, he didn’t even look at me. I watched as the black hair and the black suit disappeared behind the trees.
The white one came back to me. It came closer than before. For the first time I noticed that it wasn’t completely white, there was a small black spot near its neck.
I fed more bread to the pigeons than I ate myself. I particularly fed the white one well. I wanted to bribe it to come to me rather than him. I didn’t want to be betrayed. And I didn’t want my receptionist to see that the white one preferred the man over me.
On Monday I was back in the park. I brought a whole baguette just for them. My receptionist was there. I sat next to her and she laughed about my second baguette.
Then the man came. He sat down on the bench where I usually sat.
The white one looked at him. I threw an extra large piece of bread to the white one but it ignored the bread. It just looked at the man. The man looked at the white one. He threw something on the floor that looked like sunflower seeds.
The white one slowly walked over to the man. It pecked the seeds rather than the bread. I was burning on the inside. The receptionist stayed quiet. She just looked at the man, then at me and moved away on the bench. Her eyes sank back into her book.
The man sat silently with his eyes on the pigeons. I tried to bait the pigeons back to me with larger pieces of bread but only some came back. The white one did not. I had the feeling the man only looked at the white one.
The rest of the week my receptionist didn’t come. The man did. He sat with his seeds and I with my bread and in a silent competition the pigeons walked from side to side. Only the white one stayed with him. And every day it came closer.
On Monday she was back. I had come early to avoid meeting the man. The white one sat on the ground next to my feet.
“Hey,” she said. “What happened to this one?”
“Look at the back.”
I don’t know why I didn’t see it before. The black spot had grown. A long black line now stretched down the back.
Quickly the white one walked away from us. No matter how much bread I threw, it didn’t come back.
The man came. The white pigeon flew straight onto his leg. He whispered and it pecked the food from his hand.
The receptionist buried her face back into her book.
“Weird,” she whispered. “As if it knows what we said.”
I watched the man. I threw more bread and the other pigeons ate. The white one stayed with him.
I left and my receptionist left together with me. She told me she wouldn’t be able to come during the next day. I walked her back to her building.
“Thanks,” she said. “And don’t think too much about your pigeons.”
I was early. It wasn’t even noon. But he sat there with the pigeon on his hand. He whispered and the pigeon pecked seeds. It looked nearly as if it was nodding.
I fed the other pigeons.
When I left he was still there. The white one was still on his hand.
I only made it back to the park on Friday. He sat there with his palms together as if he was scooping water from a pot of holy water. The pigeon sat in the center. It didn’t even eat. It just sat while he whispered.
The head was still white but the wings had begun to turn black.
I sat there for a full hour. The man kept whispering, else his body was still.
I tried to understand what he said but his words were blurred and he spoke fast. I also don’t think that he spoke English.
On Monday I sat back in the park. The man whispered. Most pigeons crowded around me but one sat in front of him on the ground. It didn’t move. It had a white head but completely black wings.
For half an hour we sat. I threw bread and the pigeons swarmed around me. But he sat still and so did his pigeon.
Then he stopped whispering.
The other pigeons all flew up and to the sides. They sat on the trees.
The one in front of him sat down instead.
There was a cracking noise, like faint fireworks.
The pigeon’s body swelled up.
The man smiled.
The pigeon shot up in the air.
From one moment to the next there stood a man. Old. Naked and wrinkly skin. With large black wings on his back.
The suited man got up. He walked towards one of the paths.
The naked man turned to me.
“It’s time to move on,” he said. “I need a new master.”
He followed the suited man down the path.
Then he turned. He smiled.
“Thanks,” he said. “For all the food.”
Sometimes we still meet in that park, my receptionist and I. We still feed the pigeons.
But only now i noticed that, no matter where i go, there are no white pigeons anymore.