When the girl and her grandfather climb the seven flights of stairs to reach the rooftop, they hear the pigeons coo at their footsteps in anticipation. Her grandfather gathers the cans of millet, soybeans, corn, and cracked eggshells. If the pigeons are lucky, there will be sunflower seeds too. On the roof stands a coop built with uneven planks of wood and metal mesh, one side shielded from the sun with an overhang, the other stacked with wood boxes in cubby-like compartments, each box holding several freshly hatched, thumb-sized eggs. The girl watches as her grandfather unlocks the latch to the coop and hangs the key on the door hook. He grabs the paint scraper leaning against the wall, crouches down, and begins to scrape at the collage of feathers and poop stuck to the floor. The birds coo coo, hesitantly hopping out and walking by her feet. He stands; they take to the air. She feels their wings’ beating, their initial flaps leaving a breathless wind against her cheeks. She watches them disappear into the sky, only clouds and smog once again.
Some days, her grandfather shakes the can of sunflower seeds, lets the seeds echo and rattle against the metal, lets her shake a can as well and she shakes it fiercely, her arms waving up and down like she’s trying to summon the rain. Her grandfather says the birds can hear the difference between the cans of seed and grains, the tasty and the mediocre. And she sees the pigeons, specks against a yellow sky growing into wing silhouettes into hungry birds on their way home.
Some days, she waits empty-handed as her grandfather sets up feeders on the floor. She places her hand on the warm eggs that her grandfather collected, moves one close to her ear, wonders if she should be able to hear a heartbeat. She presses the egg to her lightly purple cheek and wonders why the knuckles of a human hand don’t feel this warm. And a bit later, the white pigeon lands first, then the black and blue, the ash-red, until they are all bobbing their heads up and down, pecking at the feed until it’s gone.
Her grandfather says pigeons are smart, they always return home.
Her grandfather says even from the next neighborhood, the gated complex with a garden of trees and plum blossoms you have to drive through before reaching the fancy apartments, the pigeons know how to return home.
At home, on the vinyl tablecloth: an unfinished math problem scrawled on scratch paper in flaky, timid strokes of graphite and marked over in blotchy streaks of red ink, and her father waiting there, knuckles ready to knock some sense into her head if she lands on the wrong solution again.
When they finish feeding the pigeons, her grandfather locks the coop and she seals the lids to the cans and notices all the leftover eggshells scattered on the ground–too sharp, too tasteless, too painful to force down a human esophagus, even if it is a good source of calcium. If she were a pigeon, she’d peck the shells clean. She is sensible and cares about her long-term health: calcium strengthens bones–bones to withstand the knocking. She is also smart, and after they descend the stairs, she returns home.
Lucy Zhang is a writer, software engineer, and anime fan. Her work has appeared in Litro, Maudlin House, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. She is an editor for Heavy Feather Review and assistant fiction editor for Pithead Chapel. Find her at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.
Photograph by Al Kratz.
The NFFR and Lucy Zhang Interview
It’s obviously been an insanely rough year. What’s been your
favorite artistic escape either book, music, or tv?
Anime and manga have always been my escape from the world. I’m looking forward to the upcoming seasons of anime, especially season 2 of The Promised Neverland and the final season of Attack on Titan, which has some of the most compelling world building and best fight sequences and animation that I’ve seen lately. Also, the 2D is incredibly removed from reality (visually, philosophically, psychologically), which makes it an immersive and satisfying form of escape–a medium I can completely buy into and interpret as “real” without compromising the actual definition of my reality.
We’ve been thinking about the elusive definition of Flash Fiction.
What’s your working definition of it?
Writing below 1000 words, maybe 1500 words if I’m feeling adventurous. And there has to be some kind of story, I think. Although honestly, I’m not sure. I’ve seen that if there isn’t a “story”, people will consider the piece more prose poetry than flash fiction. I’ve also seen prose poems and other experimental pieces that I’d consider flash fiction. 🤷♀️
What was the inspiration for this story?
My grandparents used to own a pigeon coup in Fuzhou. I loved feeding the pigeons, collecting their eggs, holding the babies that couldn’t fly yet. When I was a kid, I always thought they looked kind of stupid, so I was shocked to learn the pigeons knew how to return to their coup. My grandparents eventually moved to a new apartment due to old age and had to give up the pigeons, so I wanted to incorporate those memories into a story.