In partnership with the Commonwealth Writers, Granta is publishing the regional winners of the 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Faraaz Mahomed’s ‘The Pigeon’ is the winning entry from Africa.
Each morning, for about four months now, I am woken by the same foul, fat pigeon. I am certain that he’s the same one, even though I have no means to prove it. In truth, I have no way to be sure he is a he either. It used to occur to me that maybe he had left something at the window or inside, and was hoping that being here to retrieve it would allow him some sort of release. On most Saturdays, I leave the window open. It makes me feel kind, because I am easing his spirit into the next phase or something of that nature. He never comes in, though, and so we converse silently about what it is he might want or why, of all the places on earth, he would choose to be here.
I’ve not given him a name, because I don’t want to become too attached. He will leave, and I will have developed some form of a relationship which is all in my head. Instead, he is named pigeon, or when he is the subject of conversation, which he often is, the pigeon. He has a very brutal-seeming face, but the sound of his brooding is actually quite tender. I did ask the SPCA to come round and make sure there was not a broken wing preventing him from flying away. The woman on the other end, obviously older, told me that they are unable to rescue pigeons, so I would need to bring him in. This led me, on one open-windowed Saturday, to climb out onto the fire escape with a bucket and a vegetable steamer, the kind that is silver and peppered with holes for draining. I searched for him for a good six or seven minutes, the dryness of the day creeping into my eyes and nose. It was the pigeon himself who alerted me to his whereabouts. I heard that unmistakeable ruffling noise somewhere above my head, like an old man waking up and shuffling towards the toilet for his first morning piss. Slowly, I approached him. I assumed that, by now, he was aware that I was not trying to hurt him. He didn’t mind me approaching, but fluttered away once I tried to make use of my makeshift birdcage. I watched to see if there was any struggle or strain, or if he was lopsided when in flight, but he was perfectly fine, deftly traversing through the air, carrying his considerable weight along without any disquiet.
The pigeon and I have a very warm and comfortable relationship. It feels intimate, but I do realise that he has never actually had occasion to tell me anything about himself. In truth, he knows everything there is to know about me, and I know very little about him. His elliptic eyes are only opaque, and I sometimes wish I could ask him if he was born with that crease at the back of his head or if it’s the result of some or other misadventure. On a particularly irresponsible day, after a really bad argument with Jasmine, I shared some of my rum with him. It felt funny at the time, but now I can see it was cruel. He did nudge his head towards the bottom half of an old lunchbox that someone else had already left on the fire escape. He pecked the liquid and it rippled uneasily. He seemed to be sniffing it but I’m not sure how much a pigeon can smell. Anyway, he chose not to drink with me that day and I must admit that I felt a little rejected. He actually flew away altogether, largesse in tow, and I was left utterly alone.
I remember the burning sensation of the rum that day, plummeting down my gullet and leaving in its wake poking, prodding awakenings along the tunnel that led to my belly. Slowly, these dulled and became festering singes that reminded me from the inside out how sore I was. Not in all the places of my body, but certainly in the parts where it mattered. Jasmine and I had been collecting unkind words to say to each other. I could see them, over the preceding days, settling on the tips of her pink lips ready to be deployed in angry flight. What started as a rather innocuous disagreement about the fan slowly inched closer and closer towards a fight, the kind of fight that you build up defences to avoid but somehow find happening. It happens slowly, because the defences are too difficult to keep standing upright. Little by little, you witness the tops of them desiccate and then erode.
More than anything, I think I hated that the newness and sublime illicitness of our affair was slowly dissipating. We were starting to know each other in ways that felt familiar, and I would have preferred that we didn’t. I wanted her vague and nameless insecurities to remain vague and nameless. Gradually they revealed themselves in moments of vulnerability or congress. I started to find names for them, like timidity and callousness. Even the ripeness of her body was starting to feel mundane. I realised, just yesterday, that I could tell you the exact shape of the tiny black stripes that emerged from the centres of her grey eyes, and how they rippled when her eyes widened with ecstasy.
I don’t know how it happened, because we were both extremely cautious about the idea of growing too close to each other. It was a risk that neither of us wanted to take, particularly now that she was engaged. What was worse, I think, was that she meant it. She wanted to be married, and I wanted her to have whatever she wanted for herself. They were perfect for each other – her long droopy hair matched his perfect cheekbones. But the pigeon will attest that it drove me to distraction. He has seen me agonise with guilt and genuine concern about the pain I would be causing Nathan, whose friendship was one of the last residues of my childhood that I actually wanted to preserve. He, the pigeon that is, watched, with his sharp eyes, as I rationalised my way into and out of the affair with Jasmine. I recognise that there is no way to know for sure, but it felt as though he understood and did not judge me.
Come to think of it, it was only seven or eight days after Nathan’s accident, which coincided with the start of our affair, that the pigeon arrived, as if he knew that I needed him to bear witness to my self-indulgences, or just that I needed a friend. The first few days were especially torturous. Ever since I walked Jasmine to my place from the hospital, and ripped the stained dress off of her, bundling her into the shower where she sat naked as Nathan’s blood and hers mingled with the hot water and disappeared down the drain, we struggled with the fact that we needed comfort. That we found it in each other sullied it, but didn’t stop it from happening.
They had been away for a long weekend. Travelling back on his motorcycle at night, neither of them could see the ridge in the road. Jasmine told the story to me as if she was reliving it, but it was worse because the end was really only the beginning. When I found her, trembling and mumbling to herself, it seemed difficult to maintain any sense of dignity about her. The blood and urine on her dress made her look like a frightened child, and the story she told was filled with fear and need and desperation. For an hour, probably, I sat with her while they finished the last of her stitches. We left the hospital as the man in navy blue overalls said that Nathan was in a coma, and they would be keeping him over the next few days.
It sounded like the most unlikely of possibilities. Even now, it seems like an alternative reality when I think about the chaos of that evening, about Jasmine heaving in bed as I listened from the sofa. It was the only thing I could hear, the rest just stillness and chilled vacantness. We were on the fifth floor of a six storey building, and I don’t think anyone was upstairs or down. It was just us and the mortar which seals all the heaviness in. Anyway, we both needed it, to be held and fucked. It was a jittery, disconcerting kind of fuck, filled with awkward hesitation. I’ve never fucked my sister, but I imagine that the trepidation would be similar, voices slowly jutting out for breath and bodies carefully intertwining until they can’t be forced apart. I remember tingling and shivering and writhing and, when it was over, we knew it would be happening again.
For a few days, we hovered around each other at the hospital, the sound of Nathan’s steady heartbeat and the smell of industrial bleach shared between us in the absence of words to speak or thoughts to share. She struggled more than I did, because she had said yes that weekend. I now realise that she was not sure which of her actions were mistakes or miscalculations. She was – is – the type of person who regrets everything.
Roughly a week after the accident, the yellow and blue bruises on Jasmine’s legs and arms and neck were starting to fade. As they receded, her contrition multiplied. She was living and breathing and healing without him. Her swollen right eye wasn’t throbbing enough to cause her pain and the quivering in her tiny hands no longer seemed so shaky. She kept two or three fingernails dirty, as if holding on to the freshness of the night, but each time we saw each other, she started to look more like herself again, hair neatly swept up and neck adorned with the gold heart pendant she was wearing the first time I met her.
We edged towards repeating what had happened that night, and somewhere along the line we stopped fighting it. It was a Saturday evening, breezy but not cold. Under some feeble pretence about wanting to talk about the last time we slipped into each other, we decided that she should come over for tea. Jasmine likes her tea almost perfectly white, she sips it with thought and consideration. I prefer the strong, bitter kind, which meant having to walk to the superette to buy milk. She likes the two per cent. I know this because of the fight they had when Nathan’s brother Isaac came to visit and, like a narcissistic and invincible nineteen-year-old, he would open a new bottle before finishing the old one. It made very little sense practically but there was no real fear in Isaac that things might go bad or lose their freshness. It drove Jasmine mad but didn’t really bother Nathan at all, and she raged at his permissiveness in her soft, merciless way until there was a more tangible, more intelligent, adult reason to be angry. Her opportunity came when Isaac made a comment about Boko Haram that somehow sounded to her like a justification of their actions. Funny, thinking back, how quickly the ugliness started and how long it seemed to last. Somewhere in the mess, the two per cent had become important enough to bear mentioning and, as I walked, I remembered its significance, like the beacon around which all of the other tumult had docked.
I carried the heavy bottle in full knowledge that our charade would only be prolonged through tea and guilt and loyalty. Still, it evaporated more slowly than I think either of us expected. As I approached my building, I caught her walking towards it from the other direction. We were neither eager nor casual. I showed her the bottle and she quickly remembered how I knew about it. We left the subject hanging silently, like an unwanted grape on a long and convoluted vine.
‘I don’t know if I’m imagining it, but it felt like he was trying to squeeze my hand today.’
It was the safest of topics and I nodded knowingly, without entering into the ridiculousness of her presumption.
‘Have you been sleeping?’
‘Not consistently, but it’s getting better. I haven’t dreamt about it for the past two nights.’
Pensive silences were interrupted with dull practicalities, like her X-ray results and conversations with Nathan’s boss, which were only to be quickly dismissed.
It was a surprise when Jasmine initiated the conversation she was there to have. She started just by saying that it was ‘rather a mistake’.
‘I really do not want any of this to disrupt Nathan’s recovery.’ She was making it easy for both of us. It wasn’t even clear that there was to be a recovery, but still.
‘I’m not exactly sure what it means or why it happened . . . I think I was just, we were just . . .’
‘It was probably just shock or trauma or something. I wouldn’t think too much about what it meant,’ I said, rescuing her from painful remonstrations.
‘I can’t do it again,’ she said to me, earnestly. I didn’t respond, but knew it was bullshit.
‘Have you heard back about MSF?’ It had taken her about two minutes to search for absolutely anything else to talk about.
‘The envelope is right there . . .’ I said, pointing to the breakfast table ‘. . . I’m just not ready to open it.’
‘What are you hoping it says?’
I didn’t have a response for her. I wanted a change, a shift from this vacuum. I felt my body screaming for it, but I would have to be prepared for nothing to change and I couldn’t fool myself any more than I could fool her.
Not deliberately, my eyes shifted to her naked knees, one perfectly formed, brown and soft and characterful and the other ugly and brutalised, like the branch of a tree that no longer stood healthily in the earth. She could see me looking, but I could not not look.
‘I hope it’s good news,’ she said, shifting her legs as if I was molesting her. It made me turn around and walk toward the window so we could have almost the entire room between us. It wasn’t very big, but, in my careful and possibly unkind way, it seemed like she might feel safer if the dim light and the stale air occupied all of the space that separated us, if I could get no further away than I was right then.
‘I hope I get over it if it’s not.’
‘You’ll just have to make peace with being here, right?’
I remember feeling a little offended at how banal she seemed to find my inertia. It seemed insensitive to me that Jasmine would presume she understood my need for escape and newness, but we did, in some ways, witness each other in extraordinary ways. I didn’t say anything because I was unsure how to convey the seriousness with which I viewed my crisis. I think, also, because I would have been too wounded had she not properly understood it and, at the time, there really was no space for pain or anxiety that was separate from the accident or the events that followed directly after it. I did feel a little cruel though, and bluntly told her that I wouldn’t tell Nathan anything, that she didn’t need to be concerned about him finding out, that it would be our secret. Ironically, that was the assurance she needed to allow herself to do it again.
We weren’t quick or uncomfortable this time. She began to tell me about how difficult it was to be alone and about how there were always leftovers because, after having lived with Nathan for a year, she seemed to have lost the ability to cook for one. It lightened the night, because it really did seem to be the stupidest of concerns, and I couldn’t help but laugh. She even seemed to understand why.
‘Do you think he’s going to wake up?’ There was a proper sense of despair in the question. Up until then, we hadn’t really addressed the possibility that he might actually die or vegetate. It was simply a question of how bad it would be when he woke up. Would he be depressed about the amputated leg? Would he have any memory loss or need cognitive rehabilitation? The realm of possibility did not, in even its widest reaches, include the possibility that Nathan could actually die.
I didn’t want to offer any false hope. I offered wine instead – cheap Chardonnay that no one wanted, ever, except maybe at that moment. The rest was fast and irresponsible, like a chase through a forest littered with prickly barbs, each of us determined to end with a conquest no matter the cost. It was soft and textured at the end, because we were starting to understand how the other liked to be fucked. The pendant bobbed up and down as her breasts undulated while I stood behind her. She had no idea but I was, for some bizarre reason, fixated on the pigeon’s stark eyes.
He waited for her to leave, angst-ridden and torn up by her own regret, and then sat with me over tea, bearing witness to the fact that I was no longer ashamed. What shards of guilt still remained were blunting, and he didn’t mind that they barely pierced my skin anymore.
That seems like forever ago now. Over time, I have learnt the shape of every cleft on Jasmine’s body, and have come to understand every moan, grunt, stare and laugh for the finitude with which they are intended. Nathan’s awakening was a gruelling three days. They slowly removed the pipes and assessed his functioning. His hands trembled and his face contorted with fear at the thought of living again, the light of day inching at him like an unwelcome invader. I have known Nathan for almost twenty years, admired his deftness and envied his indestructibility, but witnessing a one-legged waif occupy his body made him strange and grotesque.
Hobbling was a farcical struggle for Nathan, and, in the same way an infant falls back on crawling, he would rely on the crutch rather than walk on his new leg. Jasmine and I slowly convinced him to walk the lanes with us, having him huddle between us, one arm wrapped around me, the other around her, stumbling like a petrified three-headed monster. I could see the guilt and shame curdle in her face, but it disappeared when he wasn’t between us. Rather than make sense of our guilt, we would drown it in liquor and then simply wait for sex to unravel itself. She often threatens to run, Jasmine, telling me most times that it will be the last time and then launching ugly, blaming attacks at me when it isn’t. I don’t mind, so I never struggle against the accusations, but I worry sometimes that her soft violence will not fade with time.
It’s less comfortable leaving the window open for the pigeon these days. The chill has slowly undone the stubborn heat, so there is only a slight opening that filters in a hint of noise from outside. Occasionally, he sticks his beak in, but if I invite him in or encourage him any further he disappears, flitting from the fire escape to the bedroom ledge or away into the street. I have learnt to keep my distance and not crowd him, lest I lose him altogether.
Today is Nathan’s birthday, which we’ve taken to calling his second first birthday. I ready myself for the dinner party Jasmine is throwing in his honour. It is certainly a feat worth celebrating, the victory over near death and an almost complete re-emergence into a new kind of life. It’s a powdery, misty Sunday, and the grey begins to turn into purple-black. I don’t see any sign of him. I haven’t since yesterday.
I bundle into coat, scarf and gloves and collect my keys off the kitchen table, where it seems every story rests comfortably in sight of the pigeon. Jasmine’s earring peeps out at me from the bookshelf, and it reminds me of the unsuspecting kindness that Nathan accuses me of for taking her in on the night of the accident. The MSF letter, now wrinkled and creased from droplets of rain that have found their way in, rests spitefully at the top of a pile of others, alongside Jasmine and Nathan’s wedding invitation.
I reach to pull the window closed, and hear a shuffling noise, like paper folding itself gently. Grabbing my shoulders, I lean outward. Water has pooled from the rain of the last few days, and it swirls in wretched circles. Rushing around with the grace of a stone, he is curled into himself, not a beat left in his miniature heart. His eyes are closed and his beak shut tight, as if words might escape.
Photograph © Chris Smart