The following short story is from guest author James Case. He received a degree in English Literature from the University of Connecticut, and in 2013 an MFA from Boston University.
No one noticed the problem at first. There were few early setbacks when the carrier pigeons were introduced, except a slight up-tick in the common cold. Of course, in the beginning, the carrier pigeons were only used for emergencies. When a relative was ill, or an accident happened at work, you could scribble a quick note or warning and off it flew. The post office at the time only issued small slips of paper, so there was a real need to be concise. That, in combination with the carrier pigeon’s early function, meant many of the original abbreviations were a bit morbid. For instance, if a pigeon brought you a note hastily scrawled “UNCLE ND-AUNT NB,” you would rush off to the hospital because your uncle was near death and your aunt was having a nervous breakdown. But, later on, these same abbreviations became a wonderful source of humor. You might get a message saying “PIG ND,” have a good chuckle, and know your friend was hosting a barbeque. How the service evolved from strictly functional to casual I couldn’t say, but its overwhelming success was probably the largest factor.
It’s important to keep in mind that during that time period, when it first started, most families still lived in the same squat one-story huts, generations packed in on each other like sardines in a tin can. Most of your friends (indeed, everyone you knew) lived in the same neighborhood, so a pigeon could fly from hut to hut without much confusion or difficulty. And so you’d write a message, pin it on a bird, and a minute later your cousin was racing into the retirement home to hear your grandfather’s last will and testament (LWT). It really was like magic, and the system only got better and better. People realized there was no longer a need to live within shouting distance of one another, and soon everyone was living in skyscrapers, and pigeons were flying up and down by the thousands, even faster than the new elevators.
Soon they began carrying messages like “SWEETHEART, LEFT OVEN ON” or “LATE, TAKE DOG FOR WALK.” The new skyscrapers at first housed the entire extended family, but eventually it was popular for brothers and sisters to live on opposite sides of the kingdom, with messages flying back and forth about different kinds of pasta or new TV shows. The King himself sent out royal pigeons every morning just saying things like “HOW’S BREAKFAST?” or “ENJOY YOUR MONDAY,” perhaps to drum up popularity, perhaps out of sheer boredom, no one really knew. Soon newlyweds were buying separate apartments rather than moving in together, so they could continue exchanging flowery love notes or bits of poems. People barely left their skyscrapers at all.
The post office even developed a larger bird for take-out, so you could send a message requesting dinner and five minutes later a chicken-sized pigeon would lumber in through the window with some thyme, sage, and a few fingerling potatoes tied to its leg. Then it was just a matter of snapping its neck and tossing it into a pot. And to think what a nightmare ordering out used to be! Say, for instance, you wanted Indian food. First, you’d head to the docks, praying that somehow a boat had just come in, specifically one from Mumbai or Calcutta. If not, you’d have to leave an order with a captain, and months later they’d knock on your door, step over your relatives, and hand you a little cup of frozen food and an exorbitant bill. With the pigeons, you could just send a note, and moments later, there was curry simmering on the stove and a dead pigeon bobbing in a pot of boiling water. They even included paper napkins and plastic utensils.
I can’t remember precisely when the trouble started, but it was around the time abbreviations became popular with the poets. It was an underground movement at first, with young men and women in French berets sitting over their morning coffee, smoking cigarettes, and writing inane things like “Full of Loneliness/ A poet ND” or “My heart / prepares/ its LWT.” Originally, we all assumed it was just an explosion in literature. The post office even started using poets in their ad campaigns. Only months later did we realize, when we were suffering ourselves, that it was actually a kingdom-wide depression. It just seemed that one day you were getting carrier pigeons recommending a new novel, and the next day all anybody wanted to write about was how lonely they felt. “Love ND” and “Romance LWT” became hackneyed forlorn catchphrases.
The newspapers were immediately flooded with personal ads, but everyone was too mopey to ask anyone else out. Suicide rates spiked, and suddenly people were getting pigeons that read “COUSIN JOB” or “GIRLFRIEND DIB.” The postal service tried to cheer everyone up by dyeing the pigeon’s feathers and painting them in bright colors, but there was something truly horrible about a neon-colored bird telling you your mother had leapt from a tall building (though of course, simultaneously, flowers became very big business). And to top it off, what we’d thought was a literary movement turned out to be a literary purge, since all the respectable poets poisoned themselves in the park right after the new postal service ads were revealed.
The King, finally grasping the severity of the situation, sent carrier pigeons to his queen and staff, who in turn sent pigeons to the top scientists, philosophers, and professors, who then put all the assistants, graduate students, and adjunct faculty to work. About a month later it came out that the suspected problem was the pigeons themselves. Being in reality little more than winged rats, the higher-ups surmised that larger, nobler birds would lead to a general improvement in morale. And so the postal service implemented kingdom-wide reforms.
Unfortunately, problems arose immediately. The regular pigeon chutes had to be enlarged to accept the new eagles, and the birds had a hard time distinguishing between these new chutes and the old chimneys, so they invariably flew down the wrong opening only to burst into flame along with any accompanying paperwork. Take-out also became extremely combative, and there was the constant worry a new puppy or a small child might go missing. People began sitting by their fireplaces with baseball bats, trembling and waiting for breakfast. Within a year the plan was scratched. The assistants, graduate students, and adjunct faculty were put back to work, and shortly afterwards a new solution was unveiled to the public.
Apparently, the problem had nothing to do with the pigeons or the eagles specifically, but with feathered vertebrates in general. As such, the scientists, philosophers, and professors thought it best to switch everything to ground service. Several proposals were entertained, but the postal service eventually settled on ants. They loved busy work, could navigate difficult terrain, and were obstinate in carrying out tasks. Proponents talked about a happy, safe, note service, failing to realize that everything would slow to a crawl.
People began sending note after note, trying to predict what the other person would say before they received a reply, but in reality just composing absurd messages. And this had an extremely negative impact on the ants, which just couldn’t see the importance of a conversation lacking any sense whatsoever. Bringing a note from the east side of the kingdom to the west side was a time-consuming business, and if the note only said “WHT R U TLKNG ABT?” or “LL,” the messenger ant was liable to leave it on the side of the road and go foraging for sugar or dead beetles. Tear-stained letters were also increasingly in vogue, and lugging a damp piece of paper scribbled with nonsense until you collapsed just didn’t seem worth the effort.
In short order the carrier pigeons were brought back, the old system was reinstated, and new questions were being asked. There really was a boom in philosophy at that time. Newspaper headlines declared, “LONLINESS-BIRDS NOT CONNECTED!” “LOVE A HISTORICAL MYTH?” and “THE POETS LIED.” When they weren’t killing themselves, people were furiously sending pigeons back and forth, the optimists stating they’d felt something in fourth grade, and the pessimists in turn calling them softies and fabricators. Eventually, trying to calm the uproar, the king issued a statement claiming that, according to public record, love had existed as little as fifty years prior (though there was no information on its demise, and the evidence was scanty and unreliable). Most scholars believed it couldn’t have died since it wasn’t actually a living organism, so it must have simply moved on. As such, a young scientist was heading an expedition that coming Thursday, whose sole goal was finding it and bringing it back.
That morning when I woke up it was bright and sunny. I had decided the day before to watch the expedition leave in person, though I hadn’t left my building in quite some time. When I finally got outside I was surprised to find other equally pallid people milling around and squinting suspiciously in the sunlight. We were slowly herded down towards the river, where a large crowd was assembling before the docks. It really was like the old days, albeit with a lack of small children. The young scientist was heroically posed on the prow of a heavily laden ship, overseeing preparations, and despite his thick glasses and pale skin he looked somewhat dashing.
The king himself was standing on the dock, flanked by sweating unctuous officials, and as silver trumpets blared he untied the first lines from the pilings. The ship’s sails went up, and a spontaneous cheer burst from the crowd, a cheer so loud it startled the pigeons from their roosts and out into the sky, and as they flapped around in momentary confusion the eagles swooped in. They started snapping up the larger take-out pigeons first, and, when those became less and less numerous, began gorging on the carrier pigeons as well. And as the crowd kept cheering all the loose feathers started drifting down, in a sea of brilliant colors, like shower after shower of confetti. People were crying and laughing, old lovers were fornicating on the sidewalks, and the king was jumping up and down in jubilant excitement. But as I watched the ship sailing out towards the horizon, all I could feel was a nagging worry. When the ship finally disappeared, I was convinced it had fallen right off the edge of the world, that even as the crowd cheered and celebrated the young scientist was circling stars and distant planets, surrounded by inky black darkness, and we were still stuck here, alone, with each other.
C. Allen Benson says
I enjoyed your story. I don’t read a lot (because I never had the time), but since retirement, I’ve started to read more in order to understand how to write. Your story was an exciting change of pace.