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It is in the summer, during the monsoon season in Taipei, when the pigeon keeper’s daughter moves into the apartment on the top floor of a building on an alleyway in Wenshan District. From her window, she sees not only Taipei 101 in the distance with Elephant Mountain behind it, but also the rooftop of the building abutting hers. Her mind recognizes those buildings atop that roof, the ladder leading to a sitting area, the shoddy tin roofing above the makeshift coop, even the old man with his shock of white hair, and she is hit with nostalgia for a past not so long ago.
When the pigeon keeper’s daughter goes to the local market, she thinks about the advice her father once gave her. To choose not the most beautiful, but the most fitting. She weighs the pineapple in her hand, bounces the heft of it, her elbow bowing groundward. The mangos she cups gently, their tender flesh easily bruised. Long beans, wrinkles belying their freshness, and baby corn, the shimmer of each leaf apparent when you shuck the ear leaf by leaf. She buys pork shoulder; she eats no poultry for who can when one grows up with so many birds as friends?
This city is both new and not new to her. In her mind’s eye, she sees it from above, the roads of Taipei snaking around mountains and following the curve of rivers. She may have never come here before, but as the largest city in Taiwan and only a couple of hours by bullet train away from Kaohsiung, how could it be wholly new? It is greener than the town she’s from, the mountains lush and glorious, crowned by vines and weeping bougainvillea. Land snails ooze along the mountain paths, their shells big as a fist. Sometimes she’ll find an empty one like a seashell washed up from the deep ocean. She hadn’t been sure she’d stay long, but as soon as she saw the view from her apartment window, she knew she couldn’t leave. Not yet.
The pigeon keeper’s daughter is named M. Dear M, her mother writes, I worry about the earthquakes where you are. Her mother writes this as though she is unaware of the Pacific Ring of Fire, as though earthquakes are not a weekly occurrence for Taiwan. They are just a shudder as one is lying in bed, the swaying and spiraling that comes before a dream. The pigeons want me to tell you hello.
At night, what she sees are feathers—grey, blue, white. Soft coo of a kit of pigeons huddled together in a dovecote. They aren’t dreams; she opens her eyes (her outer eyes) and finds herself in her neighbor’s coop, the pigeons sleepy but startled by her presence.
She wakes up again to find herself in bed, one small feather underneath her head. From her pillow? She washes her face and sees that her fingernails are edged with dirt. To work, though; she doesn’t have time to think about it.
She works at National Taiwan University, the top university in Taiwan. She has her own bicycle and with it, the school is only a twenty-minute ride away. She isn’t a faculty member but a groundskeeper. All around her are young people her age, but there is no way to meet them. Instead, she makes friends with the security guards and the ayis, the aunties who clean the buildings. When the Nycticorax nycticorax, the black-crowned night herons, wander onto the grounds, she shoos them away gently, or tries to. They are not like her pigeons; they will gaze back at her with their startling, red-ringed eyes and stand still, daring her to be the first to turn away, to move. They come from Da’an Park, where they roost with other types of herons. The pigeon keeper’s daughter is reminded of how she overheard a teacher at Taida call the whole group of them 大笨鸟, big stupid birds, the teacher’s nickname for the herons. In the end, it isn’t the herons who move, but she. That gaze unsettling, as though they know something she does not.
It rains and rains, harsh heavy drops that turn alleys into rivers, a gleaming of disrupted light. She does not work on the days the monsoon rains are heaviest, but the days after, the cleanup, are what take up most of her time. When it rains, she watches her neighbor drinking tea with his friends by his pigeons; her kitchen is all windows. She wonders if they will race, come autumn.
I’d like to hear from you. Your father—
The ink is smeared, the capsule having cracked.
Three crested serpent eagles fly in low circles above her neighborhood, calling, calling. Those three notes repeating. She watches them from her roof where the laundry machines live. The day is hot and still, no rain or wind, although the deep puddles on the white-painted roof attest to the previous rains. Her day off, the air like a sauna; she can feel her sweat steaming, the air so thick with moisture that her motions feel slower, heavier. The eagles, she thinks, know that there are prey down below. Come out, they call to the pigeons, come out and let us sink our talons into you, de-feather you with our beaks, trim you down to your essence. The pigeon keeper’s daughter can’t help but admire them, but she is more like a pigeon herself, she thinks.
She bikes out to a little shaved-ice dessert shop in another district. She was introduced to it by one of the security guards at Taida, an uncle type, a bird photographer hobbyist in his spare time. She asks for mango ice: fresh mango, mango syrup, sweetened condensed milk, all over freshly shaven ice. Nearby, there is a greater variety of restaurants than in her neighborhood: an Indian curry spot, a Japanese ramen shop. She sits at the window and watches the line start to build for curry.
On the way back, she pauses right before the road into the tunnel through the mountains that leads to her neighborhood. Off to the side, a rambling staircase up the mountain, no handrails, just steep stone steps about half a meter wide. It won’t grow dark for hours yet but her bicycle—
The greenery is thick on the mountains, the trees dripping with vines and epiphytes, wild grasses sprouting up between steps and tall as her hip in some areas. She can’t get over the sheer exuberance of the plants in Taipei—how they grow not in centimeters but in meters. So too the insects, the little black midges that are like specks of dirt; they bite hard and fast no matter the time of day or the season. She can already feel the itch on her calves. There are golden orb spiders as big as her thumb weaving webs beside the path. Sweat drips down her chest, sliding toward her stomach.
An eagle call. She looks up and there are those serpent eagles again, but only two this time. The third she sees as she comes to a small clearing not too much farther along the path, plucking the feathers from its luckless prey. He tosses the grey and white feathers into the air, and they drift slowly down, as though unwilling to be taken by gravity. The serpent eagle pauses, holds her still with its yellow gaze.
The serpent eagle is named for its prey, she knows, hunter of snakes and amphibians. The crest is clear to see from this short distance, and the plumage a dark brown. It closes its talons more firmly around its dead prey and takes wing, the white band of its wings clearly visible.
She decides to take that as a sign to head back down; the heat and moisture in the air is stifling. She can’t help but hope for rain to cool the city down, but she knows it wouldn’t be of any use. She turns, but something to the side catches her eye. A letter capsule.
The security guard at the biology building calls her over. “Little sister!” he says, “Are you chasing the herons off the grounds again?”
She shakes her head, smiles, says, “They’re too clever for me, uncle.”
He gestures her in. “Let me tell you what I saw today,” he says.
A video: security footage. The escape of hundreds of tiny birds from their cages, little blots of dark shapes that form a swift arrow around the room before bursting from the window, dispersing upon the wind. Swallows, she thinks.
“I didn’t know they were experimenting on birds,” she says.
“Neither did I,” the security guard responds, “but to see them all fly out like that! I’d been outside, smoking, and the birds poured out like …”
She eats lunch in one of the many cafeterias on campus, placing her umbrella outside in the rack with everyone else’s. None of her usual friends seem to be around today. She serves herself from the steam tables, notes that there are worms in the broccoli again. Instead, she picks three-cup tofu, steamed egg, a serving of three different types of mushrooms, spinach. Seaweed soup and purple rice. She sits in between a group of students and three older men watching the TV set up in the cafeteria showing the news. She hadn’t thought to bring a book and she doesn’t own a smartphone, so she watches TV with the older men. One notices. “It’s always the same. China-Taiwan politics,” he says to her. She nods. “You’re not a student.”
“No,” she says, “I work here.”
“I’m a professor,” the man says. “Economics.”
“I guess that’s why you’re watching the news then,” she responds. The other two look at her. “Are you also professors?”
They are. One of them teaches biology. “I’ve seen you around,” he says to her. “You take care of the gardens?”
She nods. He says, “The bugs this year … we’ll be putting up those experiments again.”
“Traps for the invasive species on the trees around campus. It’s an assignment for the upperclassmen.”
“Does it have to do with the swallows?”
He looks at her. “How did you know—” He turns away.
Sometimes she thinks of her mother. She will begin to write a letter:
The sky before full dark was the red of a poppy. I cooked eggplant but the royal purple of its skin wilted brown, so I knew I’d done it wrong. Tell me: did you send this dog that follows me around when I bicycle in the riverside park? I’d like to be my own person here—
There is no fireplace to burn the letters so she tears them into small pieces, places them in her paper recycling bag to be taken out on a Thursday or a Tuesday when she, along with everyone else in the neighborhood, will go down with her garbage and recycling after hearing the garbage truck’s tune.
M’s pigeon-keeping neighbor is preparing for the races. She can tell by the way the birds are handled, how they are released and called back, a flag and balloon to direct them home. She can tell by the age of the pigeons, all born around ninety days before the big race, so that they’ll qualify, since the races are only for pigeons one hundred days and younger. The days continue hot, torrential rainstorms breaking up the heat only a little.
One day, one of the neighbor’s pigeons comes and sits on her windowsill. It looks at her sideways, its eye twitching and taking in her kitchen. “Hello,” she says to it. It flies away, but a few hours later returns with another friend in tow. When she opens the window, they stay put. They recognize her; she’s one of them. She only feeds them a little, just a few seeds; she doesn’t want her neighbor to see and accuse her of sabotage. She watches them fly away, gliding higher and higher until they are mere specks in the sky. When her neighbor calls them with a firework and sets up the balloon and flag, she finds she can distinguish her new friends in the mix. The male with a brown splotch on his head, the female with white wings sparsely speckled with black.
She finds a tiny egg a week later, wedged into the corner of her window. A gift she isn’t sure what to do with. She makes the egg a nest, keeps it in a warm corner, turns her air conditioner off despite the heat.
On the trees of the campus are small placards stuck to the bark. Like sticky traps for mice, but instead, for invasive insects. M reads them, looks at the information about the eggs stuck to the sticky placard, but it doesn’t make sense. What are they counting? On one, a hummingbird hawk-moth struggles, one wing stuck. Carefully, she unsticks it. Are they the invasive species?
A tiger bittern watches her, its eyes banded by blue and its feathers brown. “What do you want?” she asks it. “Did my father send you?” They have been everywhere lately, stalking her like a fish in water. She points at the bittern with her rake. “You can tell him to leave me alone.” The bittern stands still, as though a statue. She begins to prune the bush near it, lopping off mature leaves haphazardly, sticks dropping like rain. “Go away,” she tells the bittern, but it looks away as though it can’t hear her, and she begins to feel foolish. She picks up the branches—the bush smaller than it should be. It’ll grow back, she tells herself. “Fine,” she tells the bird, “If you don’t go, I will.” It looks at a dragonfly, and she heads toward Drunken Moon Lake.
The moon is missing from the lake today, as it is every day, but it will return by night, though hard to see through the algae that covers the water. The night herons like to fish for it, silver gleamings of moonlight caught in their beaks. It is high noon, so what students there are can only be found inside the cooler cafeterias and libraries, eating or sleeping. She isn’t even sure why there are students around, what sorts of programs they are doing, who their professors are. She’s never gone to university, so how befuddling it is to see students sleeping on their books in the library, on couches, as though they have no homes or rooms to go to. Her education was of a different sort.
On a shortcut, she passes through a garden, a greenhouse full of desert plants blooming in the heat. It’s unclear who this garden belongs to, which department, because it’s a long open hall of flowers spilling all over themselves, gaudy as a party. Another hummingbird hawk-moth has followed her in and she tells it, “Be careful the plants don’t eat you.” She leaves it behind. This is enough for today; her supervisor isn’t around, and she feels a headache coming on. She goes home.
You need to remember, the note reads, but it doesn’t say what. M doesn’t know what her mother is getting at. I’ve already forgotten, she thinks. A brief moment of panic—her mind has betrayed her—but then she dismisses it. Her memory has always been a bit hazy, early memories seen through fogged glass, and distant. Only the recent past is clear: her early adulthood at home in southern Taiwan, the move up north, her time in Taipei. Childhood like a movie seen once and mostly forgotten.
The egg: small as the leaf of a camellia, a perfect white.
Toward the end of summer, the monsoon rains begin to ease off though the temperature is higher than ever. The biology professor sits outside on one of the clear days, fans himself as he tells M, “The problem is that the birds don’t like many of these new insects. They come from other areas, have no natural predators, and take over, driving out the native populations. Then the birds have less to eat and their populations decrease as well.” The lunch break is a long one; they sit on benches by the outdoor set of stalls that sell a hodgepodge of meals, from scallion pancakes to noodles to biandang.
One of M’s ayi friends says, “But we don’t need so many birds anyway. Their droppings get everywhere and they eat the crops.” A contrarian, thinks M. She’s of an older generation. There was a time in China, after all, when sparrows were listed by Mao as one of the Four Pests.
The biology professor takes his turn refuting the ayi’s remark, but M tunes it out. She knows what the ayi will say. This ayi can be kind and generous but hard-headed, her views marked by a childhood under the CCP before a move to Taiwan. Taiwan is part of China, she’ll happily declaim, and she isn’t the only one.
M thinks of these boundaries, of how little they mean to birds and plants. Invasive species colonizing other lands without thought to border and boundary, only thinking of geography and temperature. The mountains to climb, the chill to be borne. The beautiful flowers that attract humans to carry them across oceans, just for a whiff of scent and a burst of color.
The only true direction for a pigeon is the direction of home. A pigeon will battle storm and sea, mountains and wind, in pursuit of that one goal. You should know that better than anyone. Home stays a part of you.
This one not from her mother. Unsigned, with writing thick and dark, but she knows.
In the botanical garden, she hears the call of the five-color bird, the Taiwan barbet, with its sonorous chuckling song. Hidden by the thick leaves of the trees overhead, bamboo and palms and deciduous trees that need never lose their leaves, it’s impossible to catch a glimpse of the bird’s bright colors. But then it comes into view, a small hole in the tree just above head height: that multihued head, yellow-blue-red throat, the dark streak above its eye, the bright green body. It hops out onto the branch, closer to M, and M tells it, “That’s not typical behavior.” It changes into a night heron, body too large for the branch. The branch sways downward under its weight, the heron flapping its wings to keep its balance. M blinks. The Taiwan barbet is there again, its head cocked to look at a large beetle.
“I know what you’re doing,” M tells the barbet. “It’s not so much, is it? To figure out who—or what—I am.” The night heron again, that wisp of white cascading from its head. It croaks, almost like the bark of a dog but raspier. Then the chortle of the barbet.
“Why—” she begins to ask, but the bird has flown away.
The issue, M knows, is that, according to her father, there are certain rules. Rules made by men like him. Rules that govern the civility of society, the understanding of history and the continuation of its dictates. Rules that do not change a bird to a human and back again. Rules that define the roles people play: a father is a father, a daughter is a daughter, and a ruler is a person who controls all he can see. Look at all the myths we’re told, how humans are transformed to beasts or beasts to humans, but not back, and back again. She is the pigeon keeper’s daughter and he is the pigeon keeper. These are the facts.
When the pigeon keeper next door goes to sleep, M climbs out of her window, lets herself drop onto the thin roof of the dovecote. She knows the secret to silence: imagine yourself weightless, a bird of hollow bones. She has done this more times than she can remember because she never remembers. When it is inside you, when it is instinct, it doesn’t need to be remembered.
The pigeons know her, they crack one eye open, shuffle over. There is always space for one more. M’s eyes are closed; she is sleeping and has been asleep the whole time.
The TV in the cafeteria: a Taiwanese movie star said that she was Taiwanese, not Chinese, and all her films are boycotted, sometimes burned. America sells old arms it doesn’t need to Taiwan and earns a rebuke from China. The biology professor turns away, toward M, says, “It’s always the same thing.”
The economics professor says, “Yes, but the context is different now.” They all know. China, the superpower. Taiwan, the rogue child whose development had stalled.
M had known none of this before she came, but she nods along. A sheltered life, she knows, but also a life that didn’t care for these sorts of boundaries and their disputes. But now they are echoing back. The same thing but in a different context.
The egg is kept in a small box of rags and twigs—a makeshift nest. M wonders whether it is viable, whether there is a heart beating inside. The standard incubation period for a pigeon egg is seventeen to nineteen days. She covers the egg again, that shell an otherworldly white.
The ayi M speaks to the most works at the Language Center, where all the exchange students take Chinese classes. Sometimes she complains about the students, how they don’t understand how to recycle. “Three bins,” she says to M, “Paper, plastic, garbage. It isn’t so hard!” M continues clipping the bushes near the building—with Taipei’s weather, it’s a constant battle between the plants and her, but she enjoys it. Ayi leans against the building, covered with vines as it is. “Maybe they don’t have recycling where they’re from,” she concludes.
M laughs. “The students are from all over!” Many of them from other parts of Asia: Indonesia, South Korea, Japan. As a groundskeeper, she doesn’t interact with them at all, although they are closer to her age than the ayis. She’s seen them in their mixed groups, their common language Mandarin or English, so confident in their foreignness in a way she can’t figure out how to embrace. She, too, foreign, but no one can tell.
Ayi huffs, then laughs too. The sparrows that were chirping in the trees fall silent. So does Ayi, her face frozen mid-laugh. The sky darkens and everything is still.
M’s neighbor shoots a firework, the high-pitched whistle ending in a dull boom. White hair, blue flag, red balloon. God of the pigeons, she thinks, the silhouette of him against the skyline. The birds come flying in and she remembers regret, leaving the wind, the sky. Rock doves, native to Europe, western and southern Asia, and northern Africa, but found practically everywhere. Traded back and forth, brought to other regions for meat, for sport, for trade. So many generations everywhere that in essence, you can say they’re natives of all places.
A pigeon in the races, M knows, can win hundreds of thousands of new Taiwan dollars. It is not an easy journey for the pigeons. Brought out to sea to fly hundreds, thousands of kilometers back home. Yes, she thinks. Home is where they want to be. But home has changed so many times, different places for successive generations. It’s a malleable concept.
South, where she used to live with her parents, in a small, isolated town several hours from Kaohsiung, is also experiencing monsoon season. The heat even more intense. Only 450 kilometers away yet a different world. Her mother’s face in her memory: large dark eyes, a narrow sharp nose. Her father’s presence more than any other physical feature, a giant in her memory, large enough to hold her in his palm. But that can’t be right, she thinks, and she rummages through her belongings to find the family picture she could swear she has. But there’s nothing, only photos of herself and her mother, her father always behind the lens. Her own face like something unrecognizable, something tamed and acquiescent.
Thunder rumbles and she imagines her parents can hear the same. The pigeon keeper and his wife. The pigeons huddled together in their coop. The same wind and rain lashing down, sheets of water pounding hard enough to drown out other sounds. The things you could hide in such a noise, the deeds you could do.
The biology professor takes M aside, asks her, “What happened to the invasive insect traps?”
“I don’t know,” she tells him, “I thought your students had taken them off.”
He grimaces, says, “I thought you may have seen something.” He leaves.
The thing is that she had seen something. She had seen, at night, while lying in her bed, the night herons at the university come and take off the traps, peeling them off the bark of the trees slowly and carefully, like cat burglars. She had seen the swallows keeping watch, and she had wondered. But she couldn’t tell the professor that.
Ayi pinches M’s cheek. “So skinny,” she says, “are you eating enough?” There are echoes in her words of other people and other places: have you been eating, have you been doing, have you have you have you. M draws back, smiles vaguely, and walks away.
The pigeons in the dovecote next door are restless, pacing and flapping their wings. They peck at the wires, as though their beaks were wire cutters. Maybe they are.
The rain is never-ending. The plants have no opportunity to grow thirsty, no need to hoard water.
Out on the sea, the pigeons.
M dreams of them, those pigeons. Buffeted by winds, trying to fly home only to be drowned by waves. How could she not dream of them. She, too, one of them.
Or had she forgotten.
M wakes. A warning from her father, these dreams. A warning she can never remember, a flaw in the system.
What it is about is control. Rescuer, rescuee.
The wind is so strong, it knocks her off her bicycle. She falls, skids on wet grass, sharp pain below her elbow. The doctor says, your wing, it’s broken.
I’ve been here before, she thinks.
The rain, like a waterfall perpetually pouring.
M’s mother had tried to tell her. Those letters. Your father—
The things she could not write. M has waited too long; she should’ve taken note of the traps her father had set. The signs were all around her.
A pigeon comes, a capsule on its leg. She fumbles with it one-handed, opens the capsule.
Remember, it says, freedom does not come free.
The pigeon flies away homeward, spiraling higher and higher until it is an inky dot in the sky.
The swallows follow her like a cloud of gnats, swooping around her. The edges of their wings brush her arms, her legs. Her ayi friend says, “What strange behavior. They must like you.”
No, M thinks, they are watching me.
Everywhere, those tiny eyes watching, pressing her under her father’s thumb. There’s no escape, they’re telling her.
She does what she can. She leaves messages to herself all around her apartment, reminding herself of who she is, the things she dreams about, thinks about, feels, hears, smells. I am not only the pigeon keeper’s daughter, she tells herself. And she thinks back on the words her father had said. The most fitting. Yet as time goes on, things come unstuck—what once fit doesn’t always fit forever.
The rain, the rain.
M uses the opportunity to think and plan. Fewer of her father’s friends around although they, too, had been her friends, a sympathy that lies deeper within them but without the strength to rebel against her father’s demands. She understands; if she were in their place, she would do the same. And she remembers that she has, and she did. What does it take, she wonders, to rebel?
A protest in Hong Kong. An earthquake in Taiwan the same day as though in sympathetic response. M imagines Taiwan and Hong Kong tied together by a line, China a massive edifice towering over them. Only recently has history made itself known to her and it is a series of drawings, of circles of influence and lines of connection. The ideas of interaction and relationship rather than the clearer images of geography—how mountains divide the island of Taiwan, the water that lies between the mainland and the island, the ranges and deserts that make up China. Relationship as place rather than geography.
Her arm heals slowly; she almost thinks she can feel the bones stitch back together, reaching for the other side like roots of a tree. “I’m like you,” she tells the egg in its nest, “We’re creating ourselves anew.”
The pigeon keeper next door exercises his pigeons daily. A rustle, a soft sort of explosion as they emerge, a dazzle of wings in soft greys and whites and blacks.
It’s almost time for the races; she dreams of them nightly and finds herself gasping, drenched in sweat and tired as though it were her wings that flew those thousands of kilometers. Her arm aches, still healing. The swallows peer into her bedroom window and she doesn’t have the heart to shoo them away.
At Drunken Moon Lake again, the film of algae greener than before. A day without rain, just the sun beating down hot. M on a ladder, trimming a tree, her bad arm as support, her good arm doing all the work. She clips a branch and a tiger bittern is revealed like a gift. She yelps, grabs the tree to steady herself. The branches droop under the bird’s weight. “Don’t do that,” she tells the tiger bittern. “What do you want?”
It pecks at a leaf curiously, a neat hole appearing in the green. The problem is the lack of clarity in her life, M thinks, her past, her family. The way the birds are sent as messages but without words. “We’re human, aren’t we?” M says to the bird. “So shouldn’t we speak in human terms?” Something about her own words ring a bell; it sounds wrong. Human. Ah, she thinks, that isn’t the right word after all.
Ayi sees her arm in a sling, “What’s this?”
“An accident,” M tells her, and Ayi shakes her head.
“You have to take care of yourself. No one to do it for you.” Ayi looks at M, tsks. “Why don’t you come to my house?” she suggests. “You can meet my sons. You’re a nice girl.”
M smiles, shakes her head. The old-fashioned way Ayi thinks.
“Come over, it’s good for you to have a little company.”
M relents. Dinner tonight.
In the end, it is the biology professor, Ayi, Ayi’s husband and her two sons, and M. Ayi serves them homestyle food, rice and pork chops and vegetables. One of her sons is a science major at the university, the other a shipbuilder. There’s been a lot of work lately, the shipbuilder son tells them, with the repairs needed for the pigeon-racing boats. Quite a few typhoons last year.
“None this year,” Ayi says, and knocks on wood.
“You never know,” her husband says. “The quiet before the storm.”
At the other end of the table, the university-aged son and the biology professor are discussing the invasive insect traps. The air is still and hot, the fan in the corner doing little to disturb it. Ayi’s apartment is on the third floor, a patio filled with drying laundry ringing the rooms inside. A sparrow flies up, hops near the socks. The biology professor, in the midst of speaking, “—in some ways, it’d curb the population of the—,” gets up, shoos the sparrow away, and sits back down. How odd, M thinks.
The shipbuilder son works out in Keelung. “I’ve heard you like birds,” he says to M. The biology professor looks over toward their end of the table.
M shrugs so Ayi answers for her, “They follow her everywhere!” Another sparrow comes to the window and again, the professor gets up. Who is saying what to whom?
“Would you like to come see the start of the races?”
The sun direct today, not a single cloud, so M comes out to the roof during sunset. Swallows flit around her. The air is thick with humidity; M wears the loosest clothing she has to combat the stickiness of her skin. She hangs her laundry up on lines that stretch far above her head; she has to use one of the lawn chairs as a step stool. The swallows call to one another, a constant twitter. The swallows swoop around her, darting closer and closer, then land on her clothesline. They chitter at her and she almost feels as though she can tell what they’re saying. Almost, but not quite. They fly off, a curtain disappearing into the darkening sky.
Days before the races and the air so hot, it’s like walking through a sauna. It makes one feel like gasping for air, the water molecules a weight in the lungs. So much for acclimatization, M says to the egg. Even the pigeons across the way seem to be suffering, keeping themselves low to the cool ground, their wings slightly spread in the shade. The sun bright enough to burn.
M dresses for work, bicycles over to the university. The grounds are quiet, the students all hiding inside the air-conditioned rooms. She clears branches and leaves blown down by the last rain. On a bike ride by the river the other day, she saw swathes of vines that’d tumbled down from the pillars of the highway, like a carpet coming unfurled. She collects the heavy palm fronds that’d fallen onto the main walk into a wheelbarrow, a large hat shading her face. Insects hum around her; she swats them with her good hand, the bad arm pressed against her side. A sparrow flies close, snatches a mosquito. It flies to a nearby bush and watches her as it eats the insect. “Thanks,” M says to the sparrow. Another one comes, then another, and another. M looks around—nobody nearby. They eat the insects around her, barely paying any attention to her, but keeping close. This feels different, M thinks, as though she’s in their midst, as though she’s one of them. Familiar. The sparrows feed around her for a few more minutes, then, as though a switch had been flipped, disperse in a cloud.
And then it’s the day. A pigeon arrives. The letter in her mother’s script: M, be careful. Think over everything before you take action.
M scrawls down a message in response: I have.
With a quick pat, she sends the pigeon back to where it came from. No rain again but looming dark clouds glower overhead so everything is in shadow. She gets a fruit tea with tapioca from the stand across the street, bits of orange and pineapple mixed in with the bitter green tea. She waits outside under the shade of the tea shop’s awning. The smell of gas in the air from the numerous motorcycles and buses that pass by, the dull roar of their engines following them. The swallows peek at her from a nearby storefront. A rider comes up to M, stops, and hands her a helmet. The shipbuilder son. “Ready?” he asks.
She nods, puts on the helmet, and gets on the motorcycle.
They take the road through the mountains out to Keelung. They pass through New Taipei City, then through Keelung City. It isn’t far, only about thirty kilometers away. But the wind is strong as it blows through the valley. Through Keelung, toward the harbor where the ships wait.
Rain descending like a bellow. The green mountains seen through a screen of water, the leaves on the trees bowed down and drooping.
The flash of a badge and they board the ship. On the deck, rows upon rows of cages holding pigeons. Every cage is accounted for, the handlers having arrived hours earlier and settled their birds in place. The rain had suddenly stopped, leaving the deck wet and slippery. “Will they delay the race?” M asks the shipbuilder.
“No,” he says, “it’s not supposed to rain again.” The clouds loom heavy and dark overhead. “Maybe it will clear up by the time the race begins.” M nods but she isn’t convinced.
And then the boat they’re on is slipping from the shore, heading out to sea.
Lightning in the distance and a seagull on the bow. The seagull drops something from its mouth; the object rolls to M’s feet. She picks it up. A capsule. I have no patience for this.
M faces the seagull, says, “Neither do I. You can tell my father that.” The seagull drops from the bow, the wind catching it, and wings off. A whistle blows.
The gates open and the pigeons rise out, a churn of wings, a roiling storm.
The letters never delivered. The birds sent as messengers, speaking a language M should know but can’t quite remember. Warnings, all of them, to stay in line. She is a created thing, a creature with a dulled past, an uncertain future. What does the pigeon keeper want; what can he not have? Caged canaries will still sing if there is light, unaware of day or night. I am trying to find my own place in the world. But what if that isn’t in the manual?
Control, controller, controlled. What is rescue if it’s just placement into another cage?
M sees her father’s face in the thunderheads overhead. I remember.
—the world, torn asunder.
On land, Taipei 101 swaying, weighted down by its steel mass damper sphere. Smaller buildings moving from their foundations, glass crashing, long-loved ceramics breaking into so many minuscule pieces impossible to ever put together. Stone so seemingly immutable, changed.
Out on the sea, waves upon waves, thundering down, knocking the ship about as if a plaything. They rise higher and higher, pause at their peak, crash. Wood splinters. The earth is shaking and the ocean shakes with it.
This, the only option for those who have too much power.
The sky darkened not only by clouds, but by birds of every variety. The sparrows amongst the eagles. Pigeons on the wing. Bitterns and egrets. Night herons and gulls. Swallows and hawks. Barbets and magpies. Thrushes and warblers and ducks. As though out of nowhere or everywhere at once, a silent mass of winged bodies taking over the sky. And she, M, the pigeon keeper’s daughter, one of them.
The birds, the dark sky above. The raging waves, the shuddering earth below. The ship caught in the middle with nowhere to go.
The ship, the waves, the wrenching of steel, the crack of wood, the rush of wings, the weight of water in lungs, on feathers, on bodies and air and talons.
A clear blue sky, anger swept away as though it had never been. Feathers drift upon the water. On the shore, a woman walks a cliff at Heping Island Park, gazes out at water from the gazebo. Along the edge are alien rock formations, bulbous like giant mushrooms emerging from dirt. Waves crash gently on the rocks, churning into white foam. An egret flies into an inlet, stands in the water, and immediately spears a small fish.
Somewhere further east, land rises—an island forms.
When the sun begins to set, the swallows come out. The woman is long gone but they fly in her wake, drawn by invisible winds. A pigeon arrives, its wings stamped with the ink of ownership, a letter capsule tied to its leg, but there is no one to open it. It looks around. It flies away.
In another room, an egg cracks open. A new beginning; an old story.