Ma is banging pots in the kitchen, and this is how I know Grapa is on the roof feeding the pigeons. The HOA had a meeting about him and Ma is worried about eviction.
Grapa and I have a coop hidden up there. On days I feel well enough to climb the stairs, he shows me how to gently cup their bodies, support their legs between my fingers, how to clean their loft and secure the landing board when it droops under a hundred touchdowns. Most importantly, he shows me how to clip the small message capsules to their legs. Got to keep your skills up, he says. Stay sharp. Be ready. Grapa doesn’t talk much, and never about the war, about the battles, his buddies, or why he limps. But he tells me a pigeon will carry my message whether it’s shot at, loses an eye or a foot, or gets punctured through the wing. A pigeon will always remember your kindness, he says, and will deliver a message you couldn’t send any other way.
Our pigeons return with only my own note. I am 12. I like physics and adventure stories. What do you like?
No one uses pigeons anymore, Ma says. They’re pests now.
Did you know the pigeon is actually a dove? Grapa says. A symbol of peace and faith.
The first reply comes after I get too sick to climb to the roof anymore. I’ve stopped going to school but still do homework from my bed. The days have become long and tedious, each the same. Grapa brings the first message like a Christmas present. I tremble to unscrew the capsule and retrieve the scroll. I haven’t studied physics, but I love stories about pirates and watching the sea.
The sea! Could this person live by the sea? I ask Grapa, Could a pigeon travel so far?
A pigeon can fly home a thousand miles, he says. In just a day or two. They’ll find their way through any obstacle.
I grab a pencil and scribble in miniature. I wish I could see the sea. But for now I can only see the sky. What grade are you in?
You have a penpal, Grapa says. Had one myself as a boy.
Every morning I can’t wait to hear from Grapa if a message has returned. My penpal lives on an island, the wall of her city holding back the sea. She describes the cathedrals, the grottos tucked into the walls by the waves. I tell her how tired Ma is after her double shifts, how pigeons high in the air can look like miniature airplanes, and how Grapa gives me drills to keep me a strong soldier even in bed.
Then the HOA finds the hatch on the roof. They call a removal service, put up barrier netting and a code lock on the door.
Don’t worry, Grapa says, a pigeon always finds its way home.
He nails a landing board to my windowsill and scatters a handful of seed. He cups his hands together, blows a low whistle through his thumbs. They come.
This isn’t a good idea, Ma says. It’s just for a little while, Grapa says, then catches himself. I look away, run my hand admiringly over the new perch. I don’t like them to see I can tell they’re sad. I guess I’m like Grapa that way.
My bones ache more and I’m a lot more tired, but I’m still eager to wake up and open my window. My penpal tells me she loved my drawing and asks for another.
I reply, I have trouble holding a pencil now, but I’ll try. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to write.
The downstairs neighbors complain about droppings in their flower box. The HOA comes to inspect. They pry up the landing board and install metal spikes on my windowsill. This is your last warning, they tell Ma.
Grapa sits next to my bed. Now that the landing board has been confiscated he’s even more silent.
Never give up, he says finally, and opens the window. His whistle is so quiet I almost don’t hear it, and a pigeon lands on his arm.
Maybe I shouldn’t, I say.
She’ll miss you, he says.
My hand shakes. Please don’t write anymore, I write. We can’t keep the pigeons any longer and I’m worried for Ma and Grapa. I won’t be here much longer anyway, but I’ve loved your letters.
He watches me roll my message and helps me pin the capsule on.
The reply comes within a day. Wings flash outside. Ma opens the window and the pigeon comes in and lands right on the bed.
Remember, the message says. A pigeon can pass through any obstacle, find you in every possible world, even heaven. Wherever you go, you’ll be loved.
For a moment, I’m confused. This doesn’t sound like the girl on the island across the sea. And then I hear Grapa making coffee in the kitchen.
Ma, I say, is this Grapa’s handwriting?
She doesn’t even have to look. Oh, honey, she says. Her face tells me everything.
I hear Grapa light the second burner, boiling water to cut his espresso. I can picture every movement of his rough hands though I haven’t been in the kitchen in weeks.
I have Ma get me my pencil and I compose my last reply. I love you, too, I write. I’ll miss you more than anything.
Ma helps me sit up, so I can be the one to release the bird. I hope he is right, that there really will be pigeons in every universe. If that’s true, I could send him back a message, let him know I’m okay.
At the window, I hold the pigeon a moment, feel its heartbeat flutter under my hands. When I finally let go, it pales in the sky until it passes out of sight.
Kiran Kaur Saini’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Shenandoah, The Forge Literary, Strange Horizons, F&SF, Best Small Fictions, PRISM International, and elsewhere. Kiran is a Pushcart Prize nominee and winner of the Henfield Prize for Fiction, and her work has been supported by the North Carolina Council for the Arts, the Speculative Literature Foundation, and the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County, as well as by fellowship residencies at the Headlands Center for the Arts, the Djerassi Fine Arts Work Program, and Blue Mountain Center. At the start of the pandemic, she left fifteen years in film production to care for her 89-year-old mom. In her spare time she practices Szymanowski and Mompou preludes on her family’s 1927 reproducing piano. You can find her at https://kirankaursaini.com and @kirsphere.