Les Pigeons de la Roche

by Frank Mosca

(Below is a story that I wrote some years back.  In the interest of "full disclosure", I admit I have vague memories of reading something vaguely like this two or three decades ago in a British racing pigeon annual, but if mine is at all similar, it's totally accidental.  The story made the rounds and never found a home. I finally sent it to an online magazine, Aphelion http://www.aphelion-webzine.com/authors/MoscaFrank.html . Since I kept all rights other than first internet posting, I've no problem reposting here. Enjoy)

    I paused at the bullet-scarred parapet and stared across the frost covered valley for the first time in nearly fifty years. Then, there'd been no peaceful fields, no far below tourist buses wending their way up the serpent-like road, there had been only death. Suddenly, I spotted the pigeons, race birds. They circled far out and as they turned and dived out of the sun, they seemed tiny fighter planes. I shivered and for a brief moment was nineteen again.

    I heard the screams of wounded friends, saw the flash of artillery, and knew the utter silence caused by explosions so close they leave you deaf. Sherman was wrong. War isn't hell. It's more insane than any torture orchestrated by mere demons. Even its fading ghost, now almost a half century past caused pain.

    I closed my eyes and forced myself to remember the old enemy was now a trusted friend. Still, habits burned in at the cost of buddies' lives and my own innocence welled up unbidden. Only conscious effort kept me from crouching and sprinting across the open area to a small café now ready for business. I shook my head. I needed coffee, or something stronger.

    As I took my seat among the others, the pigeons circled low then clattered to a noisy landing on the cobblestones where a ten-year-old stood scattering feed. The boy, a dark-haired ragamuffin seemingly unruffled by the frost, caught a silver cock that settled on his shoulder. He tickled the neck feathers, then let it flutter down with the others. I smiled at his evident affection for the birds and considered wandering over to embarrass myself with almost non-existent high-school French when my waiter hobbled up.

    "Oui, M'sieur?"

    "Coffee, please."

    He nodded.

    "By the way," I called as he turned. "The boy with the pigeons? Does he live around here?  I'd like a chance to look at them later, if I might."

    He swung back.

    "Boy, M'sieur? What boy?"

    I pointed somewhat rudely.

    "That boy! With the pied hen on his head."

    His eyes widened, then he smiled enigmatically.  "M'sieur loves pigeons, no?"

    "Very much. I've bred them since I was eight. I even managed to wrangle being posted to the Pigeon Corps during the war, and, let me tell you, that boy has some fine looking birds."

    "I will try to speak with the young man, but ..." he shrugged with that flare only the French can master. "First, I shall get your coffee."

    As he left, I swivled in my seat and watched other tourists filter in. One, a distinguished white-haired man about my age, attracted my attention since his wanderings seemed more purposeful than most. He toured the area, traced some weathering bullet holes, nodded, then cast his eyes toward the valley. For the briefest of moments, I was almost sure I saw something unusual in them when he turned back -- eyes that were lustful almost. Then his face steadied and he moved toward the café.

    Suddenly, he glanced left, spotted the birds and ambled toward them. They took flight, rising high above the ancient stronghold. The boy watched them go, then glanced across his shoulder to see what had spooked them. His face froze and he gave a strangled half cry, blanched and sprinted toward an alleyway. My curiosity now fully aroused, I stared quite openly. The man took a seat at a table next to mine and nodded curtly as he noticed me.  I returned the gesture. Since there seemed to be no way of finding out what had caused the boy's reaction, I was preparing to dismiss both from my thoughts when the waiter returned.

    "Your coffee, M'sieur."

    I reached for it just as the waiter saw the newcomer. He blanched even more than the boy had. Crippled as he was, he forced himself ramrod stiff.

    "Jahwohl, Herr Sturmbann-Führer!"

    "What are you jabbering about, you doddering old fool?" the newcomer snapped. "I'm not an officer. I've never been one, especially not in that army."

    The waiter bobbed his head anxiously. "Jahwohl, Herr Sturmbann-Führer!"

    The ex-officer, for that's how I thought of him now despite his denial, shook his head disgustedly.

    "Kaffee, bitte."

    Seemingly thrilled to have an excuse to leave, the waiter stumbled off toward the kitchen so quickly that he nearly fell. The other watched his evident distress with cold eyes. A moment later, the waiter returned almost at a run, set the coffee down, then retreated nervously.

    Just then, the shadow of the birds swooping low caused me to look up. As I did, I spotted the boy peering from behind an old brick column. He was different somehow, as if he had aged. His face, though still that of a boy, now held the eyes of an adult. He shivered too.

    Again, the birds swept low, coming so near one brushed the Cinzano advertising flags above the officer's head. The man ignored them, took a sip of coffee, made a face, and slowly and deliberately poured what was left of the cup across the cobblestones, muttered under his breath, then stormed off.

<>    Suddenly, the waiter stood beside me. "M'sieur, no matter what happens in the next few moments, be still and do not be alarmed."


    Just then, the boy, screaming as if his heart were being torn from him, leapt from behind the column and pointed at the officer. As he did, the pigeons, now high above, dove. They didn't descend in long lazy spirals. They didn't even descend like a homer racing for its loft. They dropped like falcons stooping at a partridge, and they dropped together with the silver cock I'd seen on the boy's shoulder leading them.

    The officer, who'd turned at the boy's yell, realized almost at the same instant as I that they were heading directly for him. He waved his arm lazily over his head to distract them while yelling for the boy to stop his insane caterwauling, but it was as if he'd done nothing.

    I saw no fear in his eyes. At least, not till the silver cock smashed into him. The rest followed, each bird not only hit him but dragged its claws against his face. The impact of their bodies drove him back and he flailed at them. In all my years with birds, I'd never seen pigeons react like this. I rose to his aid, but the waiter gripped my arm with a strength I thought impossible for him.

    "Do not move, M'sieur. You can do nothing. You are, however, unique. Look about you."

    I glanced around and realized everyone else was staring at the scene with expressions of amusement instead of concern.

    "They see only an old man waving his arms and making strange noises," the waiter said quietly. "They do not see the pigeons, nor the boy. Only, you, the Sturmbann-Führer, and I see them. For fifty years now, I have seen them every day. Yet, in all that time, only you and he have ever seen them also."

    As he spoke, the officer stumbled to the railing's edge. Only, now, did others in the cafe begin to move, but it was too late. With a whirring of wings, the flock regrouped and rushed him. His screams resounded across the valley till he hit. If it weren't for people clustered in horror at the rail, I'd have thought it a dream.

    The waiter sank to a chair beside me and pointed to the railing.

    "Others will pick up the trash, so we need not worry about that. Still, it is over and, perhaps, now my brother can sleep."

    I simply stared.

    He indicated the boy now standing on the cobblestones, pigeons once again settling at his feet, the silver cock on his shoulder.

    "I will explain," he said quietly. "The boy is, or was, my brother, Henri. The pigeons, les pigeons de la roche, were once the most famous racers in la belle France. They flew from this place for many years and were my father's pride before his death just prior to the war. Henri became their caretaker and loved them in a way I cannot explain, but which perhaps you understand since you also see them.

    "The Sturmbann-Führer was S.S. officer in charge of this sector. He ordered the birds destroyed since he feared the maquis might use them. It was early in the war and I still believed men like him could be reasonable. I asked him to reconsider for my brother's sake. For my request, he had these broken." He pointed to his bowed legs.

    "Henri tried to save them by hiding them under his bed. A ten year old boy trying to save his pets and his friends. For that, the butcher ordered him executed. But first, he forced him to watch as the birds were killed. Each had its head ripped off, all but one. That one," he pointed to the silver cock. "My brother's special pet. A bird he'd raised by hand from our best pair. The Sturmbann-Führer knew that and pulled it aside. He promised Henri it, alone, would live to breed youngsters for his own army. As my brother smiled, that animal ripped the wings from the bird and left it to bleed to death on the ground. Then he shot my brother, there." He pointed where the officer had stopped earlier.

    "I've not seen that butcher since the war though I heard he was still alive in South America. I am old now, but my brother never will be. He will never know the joys of his grandchildren as that swine did. He has only the joy of his pets. The pets he had fed here each day for the last half century. Today, les pigeons de la roche have repaid their friend."

    As the waiter finished speaking, Henri turned and smiled gently. He took the silver from his shoulder and launched him in an easy arc toward us. The cock flapped his powerful wings twice. For a moment, no more, it settled on my outstretched hand. I saw it closely enough to note it was pearl-eyed. Then, bird, flock and boy slowly vanished.

    The End

    Copyright © 2001 by Frank Mosca



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