brief (2)If we’re to believe the neuroscientist Professor Marcus Pembrey, from University College London, who concluded that “Behaviour can be affected by events in previous generations which have been passed on through a form of genetic memory…phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders… [even] sensitivity to [a] cherry blossom scent…” then the pigeon knows of its ancestors’ lives as Genghis Khan’s messengers, as carriers of Tipu Sultan’s poetry, silk plantation blueprints, and schematics for the advancement of rocket artillery.

The pigeon knows that it was once used to announce the winners of the Olympics, the beginnings and the ends of wars; that Paul Reuter, founder of the Reuters press agency, compelled its progenitors to transport information about stock prices from one telegraph line terminus to another. That apothecaries depended on them for the delivery of medicine. That rival armies trained hawks to eviscerate the pigeons of their enemies, causing a communication breakdown. That we’ve given to them our voices, that we’ve made of their bodies the earliest and most organic of radio waves; that when we place our faith in the tenacity of the carrier pigeon, our lives and our loves and our heartaches and our deaths can float above us, and the most important parts of our self-narratives are on-air.

I nose deeply into the feathers of my pillow, know that a feather stripped of barbs is bone. The code of the body. The positioning system in the synapses, the electric impulses, the capillaries, the heart. My wife takes another pain pill and says something about trying again in the new year, that some couples—like her sister-in-law and brother—successfully conceive only after losing a half-dozen, and when they’re—like us—in their low forties. Like all of us, the pigeon roosting in our eaves knows something but does not know how it knows it. The bird does not even coo. The bird, in fact, shows no outward signs of pleasure, or affection, at all.

The carrier pigeon’s life is one of servitude, and thereby, mutilation. Of flight girdled. Trainers have designed tiny backpacks, fitted to the pigeon’s bodies, and filled with anything from confidential blueprints for spacecraft meant to land on Mars, to heroin meant for prison inmates, to declarations of love and war, to blood samples, to heart tissue, to diamonds—anything we secretly desire, or desire to keep secret. Our underbellies, our interior lives, our fetishes, our wishes—some clandestine network mapping, ethnographically, the diagrams and fluctuations of our ids, tied to bird-backs and bird-feet, twining the air above us—the air we’re so busy trying to dominate, bring down to our level. Perhaps it’s not God or god who has the answers to our seemingly unanswerable questions about ourselves, but the loaded-up pigeons, some of whom, in a crisis of weight, will randomly land, offer us a clue into the circulatory map of all the things we wish to hide from the rest of our race.

The pigeons slither along shafts of air, shafts within shafts. Wormholes. They don’t eat worms so much as French fries, pretzel salt, hand-me-down popcorn. Anatomy dictates: when the pigeon steps forward, its head, for just a moment, is briefly left behind. There’s something buried both in their little backpacks and their anatomy. Diamonds, blood samples, bloodlines, codes. They aim to deliver all of these things to our waiting hands. My wife and I sit up in bed, stretch our hands out in front of us, fingers splayed. We do these exercises together to increase, as the OB-GYN said, blood flow, to decrease the chance of her cramping in sleep. Our hands enjoying a brief atmospheric future, waiting for rest of our bodies to catch up. Our hands are the empty nests, the eggless zeros, reddening only because our hearts are beating with so many old sadnesses. We are ever circling our losses, trying to find the way into them, so we can find the way out. Always getting over, always recovering. We need salve. Medicine and diamonds. We need to convince ourselves that we are strong enough to carry the weight of a pigeon—their soft 9.3 to 13.4-ounce bodies. They come to us as we’ve trained them to do. They have popcorn skins in their throats. Ketchup in their feathers. We’ve trained them well, and they slither in the air above us, recalling their serpentine ancestors, counting the seconds until they can land.


Matthew Gavin Frank  is the author of the nonfiction books, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food,  Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Pot Farm, and Barolothe poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and two chapbooks. He teaches at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North. This winter, he tempered his gin with two droplets (per 750ml) of tincture of odiferous whitefish liver. For health.

Photo by Marcia Krause Bilyk