THE PIGEONS

By Coelho Netto

Member Brazilian Academy of Letters

When the pigeons leave, misfortune follows.

 

—Indian superstition.

When Joanna appeared at the door yawning, fatigued after the long sleepless night spent at her son's bedside, Triburcio, on the terrace, leaning against his spade, was watching the pigeon-house closely.

The sun was already setting and gilded the moist leaves. At the edge of the ravine, turtle-doves and starlings were circling in the air, making a joyous noise above the high branches of the neighboring trees.

The caboclo[6] Indian did not remove his eyes from the pigeon-house. The wrinkles on his forehead bore witness to an inner struggle—, grave thoughts which were clouding his spirit. A pigeon took to flight, then another, and still another; he turned his head, following them with his gaze until they were out of sight, and then returned to his melancholy contemplation.

The birds came and went, entered the pigeon-house and left in agitated manner, cooing loudly; they circled above the dwelling, sought the trees, alighted on the thatch of the cabin, descended to earth in spiral flight.

Some seemed to be getting their bearings, to seek a route: they gazed across the clear stretches of space and penetrated to the distant horizons. Others would fly off, describing vast circles, and would return to the pigeon-house. Then all would come together as if for a discussion, to plan their departure.

Some, undecided, opened their wings as if about to fly away, but soon would close them again. Still others would dart off, only to come back aimlessly, and the noise increased to a hubbub of hurried leaving.

The Indian gazed fixedly. Well he knew that the life of his little son was at stake, and depended upon the decision of the birds. "When the pigeons leave, misfortune quickly follows."

Joanna noticed his preoccupation. "What is the matter?" she asked.

The caboclo scratched his head and made no reply. The woman insisted. "What is the trouble, Tiburcio?"

"The pigeons have taken a whim into their heads, Joanna."

"And you are lost in the contemplation of it? I have not cared to speak, but I know well the meaning of what I see."

The caboclo slung the spade across his shoulder and walked slowly up the road that led to the plantation, through the wet hay which exhaled a piquant odor.

Some hens were clucking, hidden in the high grass, and a little ribbon of water which flowed gently along sparkled here and there through the openings in the brushwood.

Tiburcio, head bowed, spade on his shoulder, could not shake off the deep impression that had been made upon him by the sudden migration of the birds.

It was the fatal sign.

To be sure, he had heard the owl's screech for many and many a night; but he had seen no cause for fear in this: everything was going along nicely; their little son was in good health and they, too, knew no illness. But now the warning of the evil omen was confirmed. The pigeons which he had himself brought up were flying away. They were leaving, thus forecasting the arrival of death.

He turned back; he raised his eyes. There were the birds high above, still circling about, and Joanna was at the threshold of the cabin, leaning against the jamb, her arms crossed, her head hanging. The poor woman was surely weeping.

Within him he felt a mute explosion of hatred and revolt against the ungrateful birds. Never had he had the courage to kill a single one of them. He lived only for the purpose of keeping the pigeon-house in order, thinking only of making it larger so that it might accommodate more pairs. And the little child, was it not he who crushed the millet for the fledglings, who climbed the mango-tree, going from branch to branch to see whether there wasn't some crack through which the rain came in? Who knows? Perhaps the pigeons were leaving their dwelling because they no longer saw him?

He shrugged his shoulders and continued on his way. As he crossed the dam his heart palpitated wildly. He stopped. The water, held back in its course, threw back a motionless reflection of him. But although he looked down upon it he saw not his image; his thoughts were entirely with the little child who, burning with fever, was in delirium.

He chose a side path. The millet stems were so high that he disappeared within them with a crumpling of dry leaves. The soft ant-hills which it was his daily custom to level off failed to attract his attention. He walked straight on. Parrots flew by, chattering, with their green wings shining in the sun, and huge grasshoppers were jumping in the leaves.

He came upon a straw hut,—here the child was wont to play with its toys;—there was even now a boot of wild sugar-cane. But already the grass was beginning to invade the abandoned shelter.... For a month the little child had not visited the place. When the father came to the field of manioc he sat down, bent almost in two. The spade weighed upon his shoulders like a burden. The strength had oozed out of his legs. His whole body was broken with fatigue, as if at the end of a long journey. He sat down upon a hillock and began to trace lines upon the earth, with a distraught air.

At times it seemed as if he heard the echo of his wife's voice. He would raise his head and strain his ears to catch the sound. But only the rustling of the leaves stirred by the breeze and the chirping of the insects in the sun came to him. All earth seemed to perspire. A diaphanous vapor rose tremblingly from the hot soil; the leaves hung languidly, and through the intense blueness of the sky passed some urubus[7] in search of distant lodgings.

Suddenly a pigeon winged through the air, then another, and still another. They were leaving ... they were leaving!... A beating of wings,—more on the way. They would never return, never! They were fleeing in horror, feeling the approach of death.

For a long time he gazed about him, but could see only the rich verdure waving to the wind in the warm transparency of the atmosphere. He should have taken his child to town as soon as the illness had appeared. But who could have foretold this? He raised his eyes to heaven and they lingered upon the luminous azure; then came another pigeon. He shook his head and, striking his fist against his thigh, slung his spade back upon his shoulder and turned in the direction of his house.

When Joanna saw him on the terrace she appeared to divine his thoughts.

"It is well you returned, my dear! All alone here I am at a loss as to what to do."

He looked at the pigeon-house, saw that it was deserted, and ominously silent. As evening fell Tiburcio sat down upon the threshold of the cabin and began to smoke, waiting for the pigeons. The grasshoppers were shrilling; all the birds who had their nests in the tree nearby retired and, as it was still light, they lingered in the branches to trill their good-night cadences.

The sky grew pale. The landscape was veiled in a light mist. The evening breeze scattered the gentle odor of lilies. Not very far off a dog barked now and then. At times a grave lowing saddened the silence. Tiburcio did not remove his eyes from the pigeon-house, unless it was to pierce the shadows and try to discover in the distance one of the birds. Perhaps some of them would return.

Where could they find a better shelter? The forest was full of dangers and domestic pigeons could scarcely live in the brushwood. What other pigeon-roost could have attracted them? If he had but followed the line of their flight ... Some had taken the direction of the fields, others had flown towards the mountains, and there was no sign of any returning.

It was now quite dark. Joanna lighted a candle. Already the frogs were croaking in the marshes. A star shone in the sky. Tiburcio fixed his gaze upon it and began to pray in low tones. The silence was scarcely broken by the murmuring of the water as it ran and broke over the stones in the ravine not far away, just behind the cabin.

Tiburcio sighed, arose, leaned against the jamb and lacked courage to go inside. Joanna came near the door.

"And now?"

"The same thing," he replied.

He stepped down, called her, and together they went towards the terrace. Near the mango-tree, directly under the pigeon-house, they stopped, and the Indian, as if in fear of being heard by the child, asked softly, "Joanna, don't you know any prayers for this?" And he pointed to the deserted pigeon-roost.

"Only Lina knows," she answered.

"She can pronounce the proper spells?"

"So they say."

Tiburcio stood as if in a dream. Suddenly, in a firm voice, he announced, "I am going to her."

"Now?"

"Certainly!... Haven't you just said that she was a sorceress?"

"I have never seen it, Tiburcio.... That's what people say."

"But you?"

"I? No. And I am afraid that it is too late. You have seen your self how far gone he is! He is no longer interested in anything. I move about, I speak, I go here and there, I come back again into the room,—but it is all nothing to him. Ah! God in heaven!"

Her voice died out Suddenly she melted into tears. Tiburcio withdrew and commenced to pace slowly up and down the terrace. The white moon was rising. The fields became less obscure and, in the light, the shadows of the trees, very black, stretched across the ground.

"Patience, dear woman, patience!"

The strident crickets were chirping. The caboclo murmured, "Yes, I know ..."

Of a sudden Joanna shuddered. Quivering she turned towards the cabin, from whose wide door shone a ray of livid light; for a moment her astonished gaze lingered and then, with a bound she was gone.

Tiburcio, motionless, without understanding what his wife had just done, quietly awaited her return, when a piercing cry rang out. The caboclo rushed to the cabin and made for the room where the candle was burning. The woman, on her knees before the little bed, leaning over the child, was sobbing desperately.

"What has happened, Joanna?"

She gave a hoarse cry and threw her arms across the corpse of her son.

"Look! It's all over!"

She bent down, her face brushed a cheek that was burning; her trembling hands felt a little body that was still aflame. She touched the sunken chest, where the ribs showed through like laths, and the hollow abdomen.

"Listen to his heart, Tiburcio!"

He could only reply, "It is all over!"

The mother arose with a leap, disfigured, her hair dishevelled, her eyes sparkling. She tried to speak, stretched her hands out to her husband, but fell limp upon a basket and, bowed down, bathed in tears, she began to repeat the name of her son with an infinite tenderness that was rent by sobs.

"My Luiz! My little Luiz! But a moment ago living, oh blessed Virgin!"

Tiburcio turned away and in the room, before the table, he stopped, his eyes wandering, his lips trembling, the tears rolling in big drops down his bony face. Joanna left the chamber, wavering as if drunk, and seeing him, threw herself into his arms; he held her without uttering a word, and they stood thus in embrace for a long time, in the dark, narrow room where the crickets were chirping.

Joanna went back to the chamber. Tiburcio remained leaning against the table, his eyes fixed upon the candle which flickered in the breeze. Slowly the light of the moon came in, white, climbing upon the walls. He arose with a sigh, went to the door, sat down upon the threshold, lighted his pipe and looked leisurely out upon the country, which was growing brighter beneath the moon. Suddenly it seemed to him that he heard the cooing of pigeons. Above, the stars were shining, the tree tops glittered in the moonlight. Could it be an illusion?

Motionless, he concentrated his attention. The cooing continued. He arose impetuously, walked straight to the pigeon-roost and leaned against the trunk of the mango-tree.

"Could it be the pigeons who were returning after the passing of death?" he began to mutter in fury, replying to his thoughts. "Now it's too late! A curse upon them!"

A beating of wings, a tender cooing, and little cries came from the pigeon-house. There was no doubt now. He went forward and, from the middle of the terrace watched the pigeon-house, walking resolutely towards the cabin.

Joanna was sobbing hopelessly. He took the candle, went to the kitchen, and seeing the axe in a corner he seized it, still muttering. He then turned back to the terrace and, having reached the mango-tree, rolled up the sleeves of his coarse shirt so that he might swing the axe.

At the first blow against the post which supported the pigeon-house the birds grew still. Tiburcio redoubled his efforts. A crack now weakened the structure, but still it resisted. He leaned the axe against the trunk and, grasping the branches, raised himself to the top of the tree. From there he supported himself between two boughs and gave the large box a furious kick. The pigeon-roost fell shattered to the ground.

Two pigeons flew off in great fright, dazed. Uncertain of their direction in the clearness of the night, they lit upon the roof of the hut.

The caboclo slid down lightly along the trunk and saw two little bodies who were whining, staggering, dragging themselves along. They were two little pigeons. He bent over them, took them in his hands and began to examine them. They were ugly, still without wings, having only a thin down to cover the muscles of their soft, wrinkled bodies. The Indian turned them over this way and that in his shrivelled hands. He felt their fragile bones, and the little things struggled to fly away, moving the stumps of their wings; they stretched out their necks and whined.

Gnashing his teeth, Tiburcio squeezed the fledglings and crushed them. Their tender bones cracked like bits of wood. The blood gushed forth and trickled, warm, through the tightened fingers of the man.

Under the impulse of his fury he threw them to the ground; they flattened out, soft as rotten fruit. And the caboclo, growling to himself, trampled upon them. The parent-birds were cooing dolorously upon the thatched roof, flying hither and thither.

Joanna, embracing her dead child, was still sobbing when Tiburcio entered the chamber. He stopped before the little bed, and looked down. Of a sudden the woman shook, arose with a start, seized her husband's arm, her eyes distended and her mouth wide open, her head bending over as if to hear voices, faraway sounds.

"What is it, Joanna? What is the matter with you?"

In terror she stammered reply. "The pigeons, dear husband. Don't you hear them?"

It was their sad cooing that came from the roof of the house. "They are returning! Who knows? He is yet warm!" she cried.

And in the heart of the woman arose a great hope.

Tiburcio shrugged his shoulders.

"Now it's their turn to mourn!" he answered. "They are sobbing, like us. It's a pair that remained behind because of the little ones. I dashed the pigeon-house to earth, I have killed the fledglings. See!"

And he showed his bloody hands.

"They flew away; they're on the house. Do you want to see?"

He went out; she followed. They walked to the terrace. Tiburcio pointed to the ruined pigeon-house. Then he grasped the crushed bodies of the little birds. "Look!"

Without breathing a word Joanna looked on. In her horror she had stopped weeping. She gazed upon her husband, whose burning eyes flashed fire. He threw the first little pigeon upon the roof bellowing, "'T is well!"

He threw the second.

"'T is well!" he repeated.

The pigeons, frightened, flew off into the dark foliage.

"'T is well," he said once more.

Joanna, dumb, terrified, could not remove her eyes from her husband, who was now crying with sobs, his opened hands stained with blood.

"Come, dear husband. It was the will of God. Our little son is in heaven!" And slowly she heartened him. They entered their cabin and, before the pallet of the dead child, the tears gushed from their eyes, while, on the roof above, the pigeons, who had returned, were cooing dolorously.


6 (Return)
Caboclo signifies copper-colored. Indigenous tribes of Brazil are so called from the color of their skin.

7 (Return)
Urubu: the black vulture of South America.