THE HOMING PIGEON
Once a homing pigeon lost its sense of direction. For a while, it could still manage to find the way home, but the return trip, which had always felt much shorter than the journey out, now seemed the reverse as the accustomed landmarks on which the pigeon relied had become steadily harder to find with age. Increasingly it wandered off course, sometimes by miles, and only succeeded in correcting its error through a hopeful guess at where to turn next. When others remarked on the 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. Especially given the great distances it had covered in its life. After decades on the wing, should there be any wonder the many passages it had made began crossing in its mind and led back to places that were unrecognizable? This excuse failed to account, though, for the most puzzling aspect of the pigeon’s lapses: the fact that it had no trouble at all remembering its early flights, some of which could be retraced in astonishing detail. It recalled the exact feel of the wind lifting it over its first stretch of water and the smell of inland fields many flowerings ago. Yet for all the certainty with which the pigeon could fix the peaks and valleys of its distant past, more recent years took on the shape of drifting clouds—while last week was already dissolving into mist and what had just happened might as well have happened to strangers. It was as if experience had ceased to cast shadows over the ground. Even repeating again and again to oneself the discoveries of a lifetime in hopes of keeping them as fresh as the day they occurred proved illusory. Instead of a reassuring calm, the attempt was more likely to bring gasps of pained surprise at what had once been taken for certain, then lost, then found again only by chance. And what was not recovered in this haphazard way vanished from the story of one’s life altogether, as if the pages removed had been declared a forgery and not worth mentioning. Could memory become a pitiless foe? An old friend who turned out to betray you, not with any hope of gain but out of stonehearted spite? One prepared to wait for just the moment of greatest need and then coldly, looking straight through you as if you weren’t even there, pretend not to have heard your plea. Nor were the pigeon’s mate and young, circling in patterns they hoped might point the way home, able to slow the steady wasting away of this life that had formed a pole for their own. How could they, when the pigeon’s retreat to its earliest years took away their own, the many childhood or adult joys and proofs of affection, leaving them helpless before questions of “Who are you?” and “Why are you here?” What reassurance could they offer that would be believed? What bearings to guide their beloved back across the darkening landscape before them all?
Copyright © 2003-2004, revised 2007, by Geoffrey Grosshans