Cher Ami by Yolanda Faye Holden - HTML preview

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Cher Ami


My husband was a keen pigeon racer. I cannot stand those wretched pink-eyed birds. They give me the creeps.

Iguba, the Zulu word for pigeon or dove, sounds sweet when pronounced by the human tongue, but its meaning is horrific,” Tumi cautioned as she took down the laundry from the washing line – her one eye gazing at me, the other watchfully scrutinising the brick-and-wire structure in the back garden. “The word means ‘slasher’ or ‘to slash something with a sharp instrument’”. She clicked her tongue in disgust.  “The bird is known as a bird of murder. When two birds tussle, they fight to the death!” The white sheets fluttered their wings in the morning breeze.

The house was always spotless, but she refused to clean the coop. My husband did it himself – devotedly and lovingly.

My heels are burning like hot coals as I kick my sandals into a corner of the bathroom. I rub my tired feet. They are swollen and sweaty. It was a long day at the office. I light a candle and run myself a bath. After the bath, I’ll rub some cream into my feet and slip my toes into a comfortable pair of slippers. I have never had the luxury of an intimate foot massage, but tonight I won’t let bitterness ruffle my feathers.

Through the bathroom window I have a full view of the loft where my husband spent most of his free time. He adored those birds and tolerated me. He fed them, groomed them and even washed their feathers and feet after each race.

“The Greenspotted Dove is known as a bird of mourning and a symbol of loneliness,” Tumi continued the linguistic tuition while folding the laundry. When this bird sounds – Do Do Do Do Do – it is saying: ‘my family is dead, my lover is dead and my children are all dead!’ It is said that, if one heard such a bird singing, your whole family would perish.” Her nauseating narratives made me despise them even more. Just for a moment the grey and russet structure towered like a blockhouse from a war movie. 

We found him that icy winter morning in the dovecote flat on his back and covered in poop the birds perching on his body like white-clad medics seemingly trying to resuscitate their fallen Colonel.

In the seventeenth century, King George I of England decreed all pigeon droppings the property of the Crown and their lofts were policed to enforce the law. Pigeon manure was a precious commodity, as it was used in making gunpowder. Was my husband perhaps assassinated by his feathered subjects?

They are still out there – watching my every move. Bobbing and strutting. “Who-woo, who-who will be worthy to take his place?” they constantly call and try to lure Tumi and me into their lair.

Some nights I drift off to sleep, dreaming that two pigeons come flying down from the hazel tree and place themselves on the window-sill, one on the right, the other on the left, and remain there sitting. Watching me attentively. After a few minutes of just sitting there, they fly into my bedroom, through the open window and peck out my eyes. I wake up amongst sweaty sheets – with a throbbing headache and the area in the centre of me forehead, between my eyebrows, burning like fire. 

What could this dream mean? I have consulted my best friend, Google, and read books on dream symbolism, but the answers elude me. Am I too stubborn to see what is right in front of my eyes? Could I be blinded by unforgivingness and feelings of resentment?

Sliding into the bath, I immerse myself in the soothing water. The wetness covers my face and my head like a baptism. I hold my breath until my nose burns and my lungs seem to explode. The bath water splashes onto the tiles as I shoot upwards gasping for air. Strands of wet hair cling to my neck and face. Water could nurture or destroy, cleanse or drown.

A wicked grin plays around the corners of my mouth as I reach for the soap dish. I use Dove with moisturising cream. As I lather the arms, elbows and legs of my thirty-something body, I feel comforted by my own touch as I always have. My hands briefly caress my breasts and nipples before they examine the handles on the bath, the twin taps and even the structures that support the towel-rail. As I dry myself, I discover a curious coincidence: life is lived in symmetry!

  Noah guided humans and animals into the safety of the ark when the Flood turned ominous.  Two of every sort, male and female, they were symmetrically led into the sanctuary of the ship.

My husband and I were always mismatched and dysfunctional. Now that he has passed on and I’m alone, I continue to feel lopsided.

Pigeons are monogamous and, unless separated, pigeons mate for life. During courting, the male puffs out the feathers covering his neck. He lowers his head and bows several times while he encircles the female. He spreads his tail in a display known as tail-dragging, and runs closely behind the female in moving her away from his competitors. Once paired off, the female puts her bill inside the male’s beak. In this pose, the two birds move together in rhythm, bobbing their heads up and down. Thereafter, the female bends down and the mate mounts her – flapping his wings to keep his balance.

Pigeons have been known to live for more than 15 years. My husband was only 35 years old when he died. We had been married for five years. Why does my life continue to be unbalanced and why do I still miss him?

After mating, the male flies upwards in a display flight – clapping his wings together over his back. 

Noah’s dove was most likely a homing pigeon. The bird was sent out thrice. The first time it returned as it found no dry place on which to perch and the waters were still covering the face of the whole of Mother Earth. The second time it returned with an olive branch. (An olive branch is a symbol of peace.) However, the third time the dove did not return as its mission had been completed.

Down the passage a Nick Cave song is sounding:

“This prayer is for you, my love

Sent on the wings of a dove

An idiot prayer of empty words

Love dear is strictly for the birds

We each get what we deserve

My little snow white dove rest assured.”

Amy had always been my husband’s favourite pigeon: a pure white dove whom he called his “Dove of Peace”. He worshipped her in his wooden Hindu temple.  In India, the pigeon is revered and many thousands of birds are fed daily in towns and city centres throughout the country. Apparently they believe that, when a person dies, his or her soul assumes the form of a pigeon – therefore, by feeding the birds, they are caring for the souls of their departed ancestors. My husband fed his flock religiously, as though he believed that his body, when reincarnated, will never go hungry if he had fed pigeons in his previous life.

He told me that, even before her birth, he had eagerly awaited her arrival. He nursed her from a hatchling, to a squab, to a squeaker, to a fledgling, to a juvenile, and to a full-grown adult. She was never interested in finding a mate. It seemed as though she had adopted my husband as her friend, companion and lover, as they did not care much for assortative mating.

Amy and her army of allies could not put a single red foot wrong. I was the enemy –   and an insult to one was an insult to all. I once dared mentioning that pigeons all look the same to me. My horror-struck husband pulled a bulky book from the shelf and explained: “The Blue-bar has two black or dark grey stripes or bars on each light-grey wing. It has a dark-grey body and shiny, rainbow-like neck feathers.” He tapped on the accompanying photograph as if sending a Morse code message to his birds for urgent assistance. I was not remotely interested. “The Spread has only one dark colour, spread all over its body, and the Pied Splash pigeon has one or more spots of white.” I was beyond myself with frustration. “The Checker looks like a chequer-board and its feathers have flecks of light and dark …” I leapt from behind the table, snatched the book from his hands and tore it into shreds.

I met my husband in an Irish pub. I was visiting a relative in Dublin and he was celebrating with an old school friend. His long dark ponytail shone blue and, although he was only in his mid-twenties, grey stripes were already raking his hair. The boys, merrily celebrating their reunion, showered us with drinks and free beers came pouring in. Later that evening, when the pair had built up enough courage, they strutted over to our table chests pushed out, shoulders broad and muscles flexed underneath their chequered shirts as they navigated their way with determined precision.

“I hear that you chicks are also from South Africa.” He lowered his head and winked from beneath his cap: “And birds of a feather should flock together.” Although it was the worst pick-up line I had ever heard, we were too intoxicated and too juvenile to flee from our admirers. Soon the foursome was paired off.

Being drunk and over-eager, we were already French-kissing and groping each other before leaving the pub and our bodies were moving together in rhythm in the hotel doorway, even before we could make it to the bed. After mounting each other in drunken fervour, we both passed out on the floor of the hotel room.

Fortunately, I did not miss my flight, which was booked for the next afternoon. We bade each other farewell with a harrowing hangover. The steel bird was reluctantly returning to OR Tambo International Airport.

A few weeks later, a white dove was perched on the window-sill of my office. I saw a tiny scroll attached to its foot. It was a wedding proposal!

A release dove refers to any breed of domestic pigeon used for ceremonial purposes. They are used to commemorate important milestones of life, as well as for offerings of hope at weddings, sporting events and grand openings and to represent the soul’s final journey at funerals.  Amy carried the rings on our wedding day. I shrieked as she miscalculated her landing and crashed into my tiara – destroying my hairdo and tearing my veil. My new husband apologised profusely. He was mind-boggled: “Pigeons don’t miscalculate. They were even used during the Gulf War, as their messaging and navigation were not affected by any interference or electronic jamming!”

It is ironic how the fixation that attracted us to one another has become the very thing that we hate and despise the most about each other.

After our honeymoon, love letters and poems were frequently delivered through my bedroom window. The sugary words and icing-coated phrases sweetened my morning for only a few months. Thereafter, my jar of vinegar overflowed with resentment. I hid the unopened messages in a shoe-box in the cupboard.

One morning, while sulking in bed during an acute attack of pre-menstrual stress, I threw the thick hard-cover copy of Agatha Christie’s Queen of Crime at a flabbergasted Amy as she prepared for landing.

Thousands of feathers came fluttering down like during a pillow fight at a pyjama party. (A full-grown pigeon has about 10 000 feathers.)

A loud thud sounded as she hit the ground. The room was as quiet as a crypt.

The door burst open as my husband rushed into the room – beyond himself with despair: “My Amy, my beautiful Amy ...!” were the only words he managed to utter. At that moment, staring at the expression on his face, I despised myself almost as much as I have despised him ever since that day. Amy was his first love!

“Poor creature,” I whispered as I knelt alongside the injured bird, “another clumsy landing”.

She was still breathing, but her left foot and wing were noticeably broken. She just lay there on the carpet – staring at me with an expression that will haunt me for the rest of my present life. I had to look away in shame.

My husband – gently enfolding the bird in his hands – was sobbing like a distressed toddler: “Pigeons have flown in many wars, including both the First and the Second World War, achieving a 98 percent success rate in the missions flown, despite enemy fire, and often with mortal injuries to themselves.  My little Amy will survive!”

After this disturbing incident, letters were still delivered to me. Not as often, however, and not by Amy. I always hid them, unopened, in the cupboard. Our wounded relationship never recovered after that day.

Soon afterwards I developed a recurring nightmare, which plagues me at least twice a year. I am trapped in a small depression on the side of a hill behind enemy lines without food or ammunition. Machine-gun bullets whistle through the air and I know that I’m doomed if I don’t get a message through to the allied forces on the other side. I am unable to communicate my message.

When I wake up I am disoriented and my throat is as dry as bone-dust.

Sometimes there’s a variation in the plot. I am Amelia Earhart. I’m getting ready to cross the Pacific Ocean in my Lockheed Electra. My husband delays my departure. He insists that Amy accompanies me on my flight: “Pilots should carry pigeons in case they crash their planes. Please, please,” he pleads with me, “take her and release her when you need help!” I ignore him and shut the door of the plane without saying goodbye to him. As my plane ascends higher and higher, my vision is obscured by clouds. My map is nowhere to be found. I fear that I’m completely lost and that I will not reach my destination. My plane loses altitude and it nosedives downwards. I scream but no one hears me.

When I wake up I am disoriented and my throat is as dry as bone-dust.

After my cleansing bath, I’m emotionally ready for the ritual. I tighten the belt of my gown as I step into my slippers.

All of a sudden a thunderbolt shatters the silence and the heavens open up. Outside rain starts pouring down on everything that was once dry.

Box in one hand and a torch in the other, I set out for the pigeon loft. “Tonight is the night! I can no longer procrastinate.”

Tumi’s eyes are wild and as big as ostrich eggs when my shadow slides past her room. “Sho, Madam,” she cautions, “please don’t go to that cursed coop this late in the evening!” She gets soaking wet as she tugs at my drenched gown like a tantrum-throwing child in a supermarket.

Determined, like a field commander, I will not allow myself to be deterred from my mission.

Tumi mutters something in Zulu, clicks her tongue as she usually does to show her disgust, and bolts the door behind her.

Clumsily balancing the box on my knee and the torch in my left hand, I manoeuvre the set of keys with my right hand. I have never been to this wicked watch-tower before and it takes me about ten minutes to find the right key. I’m trying hard not to wake the slumbering pigeons. I’m here for one reason only – to settle my score with Amy!

I expected this queen of the chicken-wire-mesh-and-wood castle to be waiting for me. She does not disappoint. But instead of an award-wining homing champion, I am met by a shadow of the great monarch she once was.

I had not seen Amy since the funeral. My late husband stipulated in his last will and testament that she was to be the carrier pigeon delivering his last poem to the small group of mourners at his funeral. The poem was his final tribute to me, his loving wife – delivered by his white dove of peace. I wailed, cried, laughed, cursed, broke down and died at his graveside. I longed for release and for atonement that I could never expect from my dead lover.

 Amidst the straw and hay I sit down on floor next to her.

“Cher Ami, how do you do!

Listen; let me talk to you;

I’ll not hurt you, don’t you see?

Come a little close to me.”

(Taken from the poem, Cher Ami, by Harry Webb Farrington)

Tears well up in my eyes as I unpack the shoe-box; carefully unwrapping the scrolls one at a time, and reading them in sequence, to carefully reconstruct the puzzle of time ticked by. She never coos a sound, but sits very quietly – head slightly slanted – attentively listening to my recital. Amy and I examine every single word, every sentence and every paragraph with awareness and conclude that, in this life there are two luxuries – love and time. For those are not a birthright, but a gift from the Creator.

It must be my imagination, but I’m sure that I spot a single teardrop rolling down her face, just as the sun rises bright orange after the storm. But, then again, one’s imagination gets the better of you when you are beyond tired.

As pigeons are bound by their destiny to help in search-and-rescue missions, she silently nods in agreement to my proposal. As I gently fasten the small canister containing the note to her foot, it is silently agreed that bygones will be bygones. I am yearning for deliverance and the grieving sovereign has no reason to remain in solitary confinement. As she is dispatched to deliver my message to Michael, I know that my fatally wounded friend carries a deep red scar and will never again return to this battlefield.