When Beth found him, he was pushing against a freestanding concrete wall. She watched him struggle a bit before she spoke.
“Last time I checked, pigeons don’t have super-strength,” she said.
Startled, Sam turned around. He immediately recovered himself, took the hands-on-hips pose, and said, “Hello, good citizen. What can I do for you?”
Sam was dressed in a pigeon costume.
Being that he was a pretty tall guy, he made for a very large pigeon.
The bird’s head sat on top of his own, with his face coming out of the pigeon’s neck. His arms were covered in feathers to the elbow, where they turned into the pink scaly lower legs of a pigeon, terminating in claws that flared around his wrists. Large wings—folded at the moment—emerged from his back.
“You can drink this lemonade,” Beth said, extending her arm toward him.
Sam’s real human hands were uncovered and free to take the drink.
They walked toward an empty table in a small patio area some distance away from all the lunch trunks gathered in an empty parking lot. It was a few streets away from the hotel where the convention was being held. It was the end of the last day, an early end. It was only mid-afternoon.
Beth set their bags of food down just as a couple approached them. “What were you doing anyway? Stretching?” she asked Sam.
“A ritual to appease the mountain,” he said quietly, with the particular crooked smile that meant that he didn’t expect her to know what he meant, and would not be explaining in that moment.
Beth recognized the couple from their school. One them, Heather, of course, asked if they could sit. The other one, Darren, sat down and glanced at Sam.
“Nice costume. Made it yourself?”
Sam opened his bag of loaded fries. “I did.”
“Yeah looks like it.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” Beth said, offering a smile and a stare. “Right on par with Sam’s usual highest quality creations.”
She turned to Heather, who was dressed in black, with a couple of Halloween-decoration crows sitting along her left arm. “Love your costume.”
Heather smiled brightly. “I made mine myself too. Actually, it was pretty—”
“She sewed this,” Darren said, picking up the cape or cloak he was wearing as part of his costume, some kind of superhero Beth didn’t recognize. He was wearing a chest piece with fake sculpted abdominals.
“Morrigan, right?” Sam said. “From Irish myth?”
Beth’s gaze flicked around the table. And she noted with pleasure that Heather smiled even more brightly, Sam blushed a little, and Darren started to glower.
Heather teased that Sam probably learned about the goddess who inspired her costume from some comics creator who used myth to inspire their stories.
Sam joked that he approved of Heather’s costume, because it honored birds, pointing to the space above his head, which was occupied by a pigeon head.
Beth tried to hold back her own smile and play it cool by stuffing a fry in her mouth.
“Birds are good at flying and pecking out eyes, I guess” Darren said. “But what else are they good for?”
Then he admitted that crows and ravens were at least smart. But he wasn’t sure why anyone should give a pigeon the time of day.
“They’re just flying rats.”
“I’ve heard good things about rats,” Heather said.
Beth saw Sam take a quick inhale and hold it in his chest. He pressed his lips together, and then, just released his breath and reached for another fry.
Maybe it was time for her to show her friend that she actually listened to what he said…sometimes.
“Actually,” Beth started. “I can answer that one.”
She sat up, wiping her hands on a napkin, and taking a sip of her lemonade. “Someone told me a story once, a myth…”
It was about a city that sat at the foot of a mountain. The mountain protected the city and helped to make it prosperous. But that prosperity made many of the people boastful, especially the city’s leaders.
One day, at a formal dinner, the city leaders made the mistake of insulting a visitor from a far off land that was known to be, in their pointed language, a “humble region.” Their guest seemed inclined to let the insult go. But before the night was over, their tongues were loosened by drink and by pride. They insulted their guest outright. What they didn’t know is that their guest was a traveler god. He left that dinner quite sober. And he quietly cursed the city to destruction, for their pride had led them to malice.
This god recognized that there may be good people living in the city, who did not deserve to suffer for the folly of their leaders. As he walked past the city borders, he saw a group of pigeons roosting in the eaves of a tavern. He sharpened some powers they already possessed that would let them see the doom that was coming. They could warn the people of the city. Any people who heeded the warnings of the gentle and peaceful birds would be saved. Those who didn’t need would be doomed.
Satisfied, the god left the city and walked a long, long way.
A storm approached the city.
“Let me guess,” Darren said. “The pigeons warned everyone about the storms. They listened and were saved, and built statues of pigeons everywhere, and worshiped them as gods.”
Heather lightly slapped Darren’s foam chest with the back of her hand. “I want to hear this.”
The pigeons heard the storm coming.
They would typically hide during storms, and this time they had prior warning. Some of the people in the city noticed how restless the birds had become, especially those people who communed with the birds. They learned from the pigeons that a storm was coming, but they did not understand what the pigeons meant when they cooed about a being who gave them powers.
People began to prepare for a storm in their usual ways. But in the coming days, the people noticed that the pigeons were not hiding, but fleeing from the city. They were flying away in flocks, cooing in warning as they went. Most people still did not worry. Some thought the pigeons fleeing was an omen. But most simply said it was the way of such “cowardly creatures.”
When the storm struck, it battered the city for several days. Rain, hail, winds, and floods, with no break, and no mercy. It drove everyone indoors, leaving many people stranded. Many were unable to give or receive aid. Even those who had prepared suffered some damage, but they at least made it through the storm alive.
Many died during the storm. And many died in the days after, from injuries and illnesses that couldn’t be healed.
But the city began to recover. When the pigeons returned, it was seen as a good omen that the storms had truly passed.
But that feeling did not last long.
The pigeons warned the people of the city that when they were away, they saw a giant boar heading toward the city.
“So, not only did they not help,” Darren said, “they brought bad news?”
Heather sighed loudly. She leaned forward. “What happened next?”
Terrified and furious, the city leaders blamed the pigeons for leading the giant boar to them. They guessed that the boar saw the flocks and flocks of pigeons and followed, hunting them for food. The leaders demanded that the pigeons fly back out and lead the giant boar away. When the pigeons refused, the leaders decreed that the people of the city should drive them away. Many opposed the decree, but enough heeded it that no pigeon could so much as land on a surface before they were pelted with pebbles and rocks.
Some people tried to stop the stoning. A little girl intervened and was struck. Her mother and father raged at the crowd who had unwittingly attacked her. They were right to rage, but it was reckless to face such a mob. They were lucky. The crowd was momentarily stunned by the shock and shame of having hurt the girl. They dispersed on their own. The girl was lucky too that it was only her elbow that was struck. The pigeon she was trying to defend flew away, but not before marking her face. The pigeon cooed and the family understood that they must prepare themselves for the giant boar’s arrival.
The pigeons again left the city. They had agreed among themselves that they would find no rest and no home in their city until they dealt with the giant boar.
A small group of people rode out to help the pigeons. Among them were the mother and father of the little girl who had defended a pigeon of her city. When the pigeons landed to rest, the small group gave them water and bread to eat. And those among the group who could commune with the pigeons learned that the pigeons were not flying without a bearing.
They had heard a great rustling every now and then in a valley some distance away. The pigeons knew it was the rustling of serpents whom the boar might hunt instead of hunting pigeons, or people. The small group continued to ride out with the pigeons. They broke off when they drew close to the wood where the pigeons had lured the giant boar. They saw the boar from a distance, as big as two houses, and tall as the trees.
The boar’s giant snout snuffled. He caught the scent of new and meatier prey, and ran past the flock of pigeons into the wood. When he was far enough away, the pigeons flew back to their city.
All seemed well, but the pigeons tried again to warn of the powerful being who had walked through the city, and seemed displeased, and granted them powers they did not possess before. Some of the people guessed that their city had angered a god, who had cursed them to suffer disasters.
But after the triumph of avoiding the disaster with the giant boar, the city leaders were feeling boastful again. They puffed themselves up for devising the idea of having the pigeons lead the boar away, though they did none of the work, and did not tell the pigeons where they should lead the boar to.
They did not heed the pigeons’ warnings. But others did. And they prepared themselves.
A year passed without disaster, however, and even those who supported the pigeons became doubtful.
Then came a day when the pigeons once again flocked and fluttered. And they warned that they could feel a thundering in the ground. The city leaders told them to fly out and find the danger. They feared another giant boar. But the pigeons said that the thundering was coming from the mountain above the city. They warned that it was the people who must flee this time.
The city leaders did not heed the warning.
They again grew angry with the pigeons, for disturbing the people. The leaders assured the people of the city that they had nothing to fear from the mountain. On the contrary, they decreed that all the people would take turns climbing some ways up the mountain and performing a ritual of thanks.
The people of the city began performing this new ritual, while the pigeons continued warning them. The mountain could not be appeased. It was not angry. It was simply waking. And its waking would doom the entire city.
People climbed up the mountain, and performed the ritual. And they climbed down. So the city leaders declared that all was well. And the pigeons continued to give warning, until one day, they did more than warn.
As some were climbing, one of the pigeons recognized the face of a young girl who had defended that pigeon. This pigeon swooped in front of the girl and her mother and father to stop them, and swooped back and forth to turn them back. Other pigeons started to do the same. And the people were driven back off the mountain.
The city leaders offered no bargains and no mercy. They ordered archers to bring the birds down and clear a path. Against this decree, there was much argument. But the archers were deployed. Reluctant to shoot the birds, the archers aimed wide, only trying to frighten the pigeons away. But one arrow found a mark, and a pigeon was killed.
After that, those who communed with the pigeons warned them to risk their lives no further. Some of the people who opposed the decree began to take the place of the pigeons, blocking the path each day, even though they feared that the city leaders would next turn the archers on them.
The pigeons heeded the warning, and they left their city in great flocks. They flew far and they flew high. They searched for the one who had cursed the city. They had given warning. Now they would give entreaty.
People began to empty the city too. The mountain was still quiet. There seemed to be no reason to fear. And the city leaders decreed that they would pay rewards to those who were loyal and who stayed. But it was not enough to stop the hundreds who packed provisions and poured down the many paths leading out of the city. They made for neighboring towns and even the wood, hoping they might shelter there until whatever disaster the pigeons warned of came and passed. Many reached safety in time. But many more were still walking when the mountain began to rumble and quake.
Fearing the mountain would crumble onto their city, the people who were already fleeing moved faster, and those who had decided to stay, changed their minds and prepared to leave.
Boulders tumbled down the mountainside, crushing the plush palaces that were perched on the lower slopes looking down on the city.
Then the mountain began to spew smoke and belch out glowing rivers of molten earth.
People left everything behind then. They fled. But it was too late. And they knew that it was.
Against the rumbling and cracking of the mountain, the fleeing people of the city did not hear the thundering that came from outside the city.
A flock of pigeons swooped overhead and then veered around. And into the city came a horde of giant boars. The people panicked and fled, back toward the deadly mountain. But the pigeons swooped before them, and they landed on the boars, cooing to the people, beckoning them.
By some magic, all who heard now understood the pigeons. They understood that they must ride upon the boars, and only so would they be saved. Many, but not all, were borne away by the boars. They had been sent by the very god who had cursed the city, so moved was he by the entreaty of the pigeons.
From far away, a little girl stood on a roof with her mother and father, and watched the mountain erupt and smother their city in smoke and ash, and drown their city in rivers of melted rock.
A flock of pigeons winged away from the mountain, having delivered their last message to the people of their city.
“Okay, so the pigeons didn’t do squat. It was the boars who saved the day. Makes sense.” With a shake of his head, Darren took a bite of his wrap.
“The boars were friends who owed the god a favor,” Beth said, tipping her head to Sam, who sat stunned that she remembered the story he’d told her. “But he was so impressed by the pigeons that he took them on as his symbol, and asked them if they would carry messages for him. They agreed, and he gave them the power to travel between realms.”
“Then they must have found him somewhere on earth when they went looking for him,” Heather said.
“Yeah, he was pretty far away. That’s part of what impressed him about them.” Beth gazed at Sam. “The perseverance of the pigeons.”
“Who told you that story, Beth?” Heather asked, her eyes on Sam.
Beth grinned. “Oh, I heard it from this stool pigeon I know.”
Copyright © 2023 Nila L. Patel