Sonya and the Pigeon
by Peter Zelchenko June 19, 2009

Little Sonya clenched the Starburst pack hard in her right hand while Papa pulled her along busy Madison Street. They had just rounded the corner at Michigan, near Millennium Park. Every so often, Sonya had to run a few steps to keep up with Papa's hearty strides, and there were too many things to examine here. Papa was not thinking about Sonya today! Sonya occasionally looked up at the impossibly high buildings crowding out the sky overhead. The fast walking made them all joggle. Oh! She had to pull her head back to Earth to keep from losing her balance.

Sonya was on her favorite, one of the pink-red kind, so good that she was trying very, very hard to keep sucking gently and slowly, not bite into it and chew, making it disappear too fast. The yellow were her second favorites.

They were nearing the El tracks at Wabash. Here, she'd noticed before, is the main place where the sun never shines in Chicago: everything is in the way. She brought her head down to Earth again, and her eyes caught a pigeon walking quickly across her path, hurrying to the shadow of an old building. Like all pigeons, it was doing what pigeons do: watching her sideways, strutting past when it knew it could fly. Why didn't they fly out of people's way? Was it like a game, to see how close they could get without being caught?

Sonya stopped chewing the Starburst. In fact, she abruptly stopped walking and slid her hand out of Papa's to stare at the pigeon strutting in circles nearby. Papa turned and looked down at her.

"What's the matter, Sonya? We need to get back."

She pointed at the pigeon. Every once in a while she saw a pigeon with a missing foot or some other problem. She had also seen a dead pigeon once, flat in the street like a carpet. This live one was a muddy white and the ends of nearly all its feathers were scruffed and bent badly out of shape. It looked miserable, like it had been through a beating machine and then rolled in the gutter. Like a walking dead pigeon. Like there was no hope for it.

"Yes, I see the pigeon, Sonya. Now, let's go."

"Why does it look so bad, Papa?"

"I don't know. Sometimes they get hurt. Son'ka!" He extended his hand to her.

Sonya's legs moved forward, but her neck craned back to watch the pigeon marching around in the shadows next to the old downtown building. She kept her eyes on that pigeon until they rounded Wabash, and then she remembered the pink-red in one side of her mouth and chewed hard.

~ * ~

The train rounded a big curve, where Sonya could see the front and back of the trains from her window. She was on a yellow Starburst now. Yellows tended to make her think a lot.

"Papa, why is it golub in Russian? Goluboi means sky blue, not black and gray. Pigeons are always black, gray, and some white, and sometimes a little brown."

"Golub is related to French colombe. Do you hear how they sound alike? They both mean pigeon. Maybe pigeons used to be bluish, or probably goluboi used to mean gray and then changed to blue after a long time. Words do that sometimes."[1]

"Ooo, and golubtsy too! My favorite dish in the whole world! But cabbage is not blue."

"And don't forget gluboky means deep. Lots of cousin words."

"Papa, did you know goluby are really doves?"

"Of course, Sonechka! In Europe they are the same thing. Only Americans think pigeons and doves are different things."

"I think they don't like pigeons here, Papa.[2] They should call them doves and maybe they'll be better to them. Do you think someone hurt that dove?"

"We'll never know what happened to that dove, Sonechka. Let's talk about something else."

Sonya looked out of the train window and chewed that yellow Starburst like mad.

~ * ~

Past the end of her train ride, past her last Starburst, Sonya thought about that bedraggled pigeon and her heart grew to near bursting. During the walk home, she went into her head and devised a trap to trick it and capture it, because pigeons and other wild creatures don't want to be captured even if they know they need help. She thought for it a fine net shaped around a frame like a big box, with the opening at the bottom. But pigeons were too smart for that. She would have to put a very long stick on it and lower it very gradually over the bird. Then it would be caught. It would be an important tool for helping birds.

Once she had it, she would have to make it better. Birds must be proud of their feathers; you see them taking care of them so carefully. Probably if she got the feathers cleaned and straightened, it would not be sick anymore. But how could she straighten and wash hundreds of feathers on a wild bird? That was very perplexing. She had tried to straighten badly damaged feathers before, but the plastic part stays bent and the little feathery parts never go back in line. She frowned as she tried to think of the ways she could do that.

Sonya didn't mean to think washing machine, because it seemed cruel, like something a very bad boy would do. Still, it came to her, just like that. It would have to be like in the hospital, when you are very sick and have to stay in a box, like babies are, or strapped to a bed, like grandma was, or some other thing for a while. But this box would have to have some kind of safe soap in it that also had something in it to straighten the feathers. She had tried to come up with what those would be but that was not easy. She would either hire scientists to do that or it would be magic. Since it might need to be magic, she decided she would not have to think as hard about what it really was, and she didn't really want to, anyway, since it was going to be very hard for the pigeon. Sonya would have to hurt this pigeon in her magic box. It might hate her for it. It would just have to be that way.

She didn't want to do this next part, but she forced herself. She had to think through cleaning that pigeon. Surely it would feel all alone in that fluid, as if nobody cared about it, as if it were dying. It would have to stay in there for a long time -- hours, maybe days. She saw it floating around limp in that cleaning place, eyes shut, drowned in a deep sleep, a floating gray mass that lingered gradually back and forth in the fluid. In time, it could be taken out and dried off and in a while it would wake up and be healed, its feathers once again straight and pure white. She would pat it dry in her Turkish towel, then cradle it in her arms and give it a gentle hug goodbye, then watch it rush away with purpose, its strong perfect wings beating a Sunday sky.

~ * ~

Sonya sat draped on the couch like a rag doll. She fit nicely on that couch, head against the cushion, ankles just off the edge of the couch.

"Papa." She sat up. "Is Columbus and that French word colomb the same word?"

"Well, I'm sure they're related, Sonechka. Columbus probably means dove. Dove is a last name in a lot of languages."

"And when Noah needed to find land like Columbus, he sent a white dove out and it saved the animals."

"That's right."

"My pigeon is even a cousin of that same dove!"

"That's right, Sonechka. Thousands of years."

Sonya plopped back again, pushed her fists deep into her pockets. One was stuffed with empty Starburst wrappers. She had fished around and been sure there were no more, but at the bottom was one last square. She made up her mind that it would be pink-red and was not wrong.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

[1] All of these words probably derive from a common Indo-European ancestor called kel-7, which, according to Harvard philologist Calvert Watkins and his team, originally meant gray, black, or dark.
[2] Could the term "flying rat" ever have been coined anywhere other than Chicago?

Read writer Jamie Kalven's 2005 story, Kicking the Pigeon (PDF). Nothing to do with this little piece, really, but way more important to read. Jamie and family worry about Chicago's people the way Little Sonya worries about pigeons. For a very personal introduction, read Jamie's book Working With Available Light: A Family's World After Violence, on the brutal 1988 rape of his wife, photographer Patricia Evans. Son Josh, by the way, runs Progress Illinois.

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