THE HOMING PIGEON
Once an elderly homing pigeon began to lose its sense of direction. It could still manage to find the way back to its roost, but the return trip, which had always felt shorter than the journey out, now seemed the reverse, and the accustomed landmarks on which the pigeon relied had become harder to find with advancing years. Increasingly, it wandered off course, sometimes by miles, and only succeeded in righting its way through hopeful guesses at where to turn next. When others began to remark on the homing pigeon’s difficulty, it tried to laugh the matter off. So long as it fluttered back into view eventually, was there any reason for alarm? Lapses were bound to happen now and then. After decades on the wing, should there be any wonder the many passages it had made might become crossed in its mind and lead back to places it hadn’t expected? This explanation failed to account, though, for the most puzzling aspect of the drift in the pigeon’s bearings: the fact that it had no trouble at all remembering its early flights, some of which could be mentally retraced in astonishing detail. It also recalled the exact smell of inland plains many harvests ago and the feel of the wind lifting it over the first wide stretch of water it had ever crossed. Yet for all the certainty with which the pigeon could navigate its distant past, more recent years took on the drift of clouds, while last week was already dissolving into mist and what had just happened might as well have happened to strangers. Experience had ceased to cast its guiding shadow over the ground. Even repeating again and again to oneself the recollections of a lifetime in hopes of keeping them as clear as the day they’d been fixed in the pigeon’s mind proved misleading. Instead of reassurance, the attempt often brought gasps of pained surprise at what had once been taken for certain, then lost, then encountered again only by chance. And what was not recovered in this haphazard way vanished from the pigeon’s life story altogether, as if the missing pages had been declared a forgery and not worthy of note. Could memory become such a pitiless foe? This lifelong friend that turned out to betray one: a stranger now, prepared to wait for the moment of one’s greatest need of reassurance and then coldly pretend not to have heard the heart’s plea at all? Nor were the pigeon’s loving mate and young, circling in patterns they hoped might point the way home, able to slow the steady wasting away of a soul that had guided their own affections for so long. Leaving them helpless before dazed questions of “Who are you?” and “Why are you here?” What reassurance could they offer the struggling homing pigeon that would ever bring it back across the fading terrain once familiar to them all?
Copyright © 2020 by Geoffrey Grosshans