Short Story|It’s Ok to Feed the Pigeons
It’s Ok to Feed the Pigeons is a dystopian short story by Vareen Ismail. Vareen is a twenty-year-old British Kurdish student, aspiring writer and journalist from Manchester. She studies English literature at the University of Salford and is passionate about mental health, climate change and literacy education. She’s also a bookstagrammer and voracious reader; her favourite novel is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
This story continues our Short Story Month celebrations. As a platform, we’re passionate about short fiction and the importance of this beautiful art form.
It’s Ok to Feed the Pigeons
There is a garden tucked between noisy and congested city streets. The city is all sharp right angles engulfed in the jaws of an oil guzzling behemoth. Everywhere you look, the devil’s spawn of concrete slabs look down imposingly on the crowd. They are covered with technicolour ads that constantly play garish music. Most of them are AO (Arctic Oil) adverts. Arctic Oil is the largest employer in Atlantis. They own literally everything here. They own the oil rigs, the theatres, the hospitals, the schools and the president who is also, incidentally, the president of AO. This city is different. Atlantis is one of the first Arctic cities.
There were pictures my history teacher showed us where the Arctic was covered in huge sheets of ice called glaciers. They looked so white and soft. But we were told that they were dangerous because they were constantly moving. You never knew which way they would move. One wrong step no matter how light would send you crashing through the chunky ice, submerging you in the Arctic Ocean. ‘Dead from pneumonia’ is what my teacher said would happen next. ‘It wasn’t a pleasant way to die’ my teacher said.
Even though she was talking about such terrifying structures she seemed sad. She had the same look my mother has when she looks outside; when she sees the city instead of ice she looks disgusted and mumbles unintelligible sounds. It sounds like chanting or a language that doesn’t exist. As though she is trying to cast a spell to bring back what is lost. Now she never opens the curtains. It makes me think about what else was lost. A world I can only see through other people’s eyes. It must have been something special if it caused such a visceral reaction from my mother.
The more I read about this foreign fantasy world the more I am confused. Surely it’s a good thing that these savage beasts like lions and polar bears have been wiped out. They could have harmed so many people. It’s a mystery how humans survived so long with these ancient beasts. But apart from that nothing has really changed. We still live in cities. My mother and I have food and shelter. It’s really not that different.
When I voice this opinion to my mother, she just stares at the empty wall before her. She is cloaked in shadows so I can’t make out her expressions, but her voice is strangely clear like the Arctic water.
‘Of course you don’t understand. You never lived there. You don’t know how it’s changed. You don’t know what it’s like to see the pH levels of rivers and mercury levels from industrial pollution rise. The gunk those slaves of Mammon chuck into estuaries while you’re badgering politicians and all those other dinosaurs to bloody do something. Anything. But no. They’re too interested in copping a feel or increasing their profit margins for their precious shareholders. The shareholders are our fucking overlords, Professor. You have to understand. Oh Sir, I understand. I understand that I am the only one that understands that this godforsaken planet is dying and much faster than predicted. And to prove my hypothesis, I go on an expedition to the ice caps in the Himalayas. And I was fucking right. Except no calculations could have ever predicted that Judgement Day would happen much faster than anyone anticipated. Do you know what it’s like to witness the deaths of one billion people? Whole villages, towns and cities inhabited by people that were living, breathing and had their own hopes and dreams. Those places that were once filled with life are now as dead as Pompeii. But you were lucky to escape, and why were you lucky to escape? Because you are white, even though your great grandmother was Indian but that’s not important. What’s important is that you are white and have a nationality to a country that doesn’t even exist anymore, so we helicopter you out of there and leave those brown people to die. It’s fine. It’s justified. It’s a whole load of codswallop is what it is. What really boils my blood is that it was only on the front page for around three weeks.’
My mother then becomes really quiet, like one of those mythical panthers that roamed her foreign world. When she becomes like this, silent and frozen, it always makes me uncomfortable. When my mother is like this I never know what to do. Should I carry on speaking or should I walk away? She is a glacier of emotions that never seem to stop but instead keep on moving and mutating. One day I am afraid that I will make a mistake, no matter how small, and will cause the glacier to break revealing uncharted waters. However, I am not sure who will fall into the Arctic first.
‘What is your favourite animal? From what I have read I feel like mine would be the giraffe. They are so tall and their necks stretch on forever. I wish I was taller.’
‘My favourite animal would be a pigeon.’
‘What is that?’
‘That would be a bird. A very ordinary bird. Its feathers are grey and white and there is nothing really special about them. They don’t have a beautiful song and they don’t fly very fast. But in every city in the world, whether it was in China or America, you will have found pigeons.’
‘I have never seen a pigeon here.’
‘There are no pigeons in this grotesque thing. Go away now. I have a headache and only want to sleep.’
The only sound that can be heard is the noise of the adverts playing, but I can’t get to sleep. Not because of the adverts, but because I’m forging a plan to get my mother a pigeon.
I open up my Arctic graphene personal device and type ‘pigeon’ into the Arctic search engine. It comes up with loads of pictures of small plain looking birds. They are nothing compared to the ginormous giraffe with its long graceful neck or even other birds my teacher showed us, such as the majestic eagle. I really can’t understand how this is my mother’s favourite animal out of all the animals that ever existed. Pigeons are so dull.
But then I come across a video of four children throwing pieces of bread at the pigeons. In the background, you can hear the sounds of the city chugging along, but they’re so faint you can just ignore them. It’s probably due to the camera’s poor sound quality. Even though the camera clearly isn’t the most advanced or latest model, it still captures the moment perfectly. The pigeons clump around tiny pieces of bread and start pecking at it, fluttering their wings furiously until one of them is victorious in snatching the minuscule piece of bread. It reminds me of a scene from an old American sitcom about two siblings fighting over the last cookie in the cookie jar. It was hilarious. The children in the video also seem to think so because they are laughing and smiling.
‘Are you guys having fun?’ a loving voice says off camera. The children cry yes as they all jump up and down. The pigeons all start flying in V formation, completely synchronised, circling above the children’s heads. Instead of inciting fear, it just brings more joy to the children. It looks magical and for the first time I wish that I was living in that foreign world and could go to the parks to feed the pigeons. Suddenly, the boy with brown curly hair who looks about five or six, starts coughing. This starts a chain reaction like dominoes falling, as the oldest child and the voice off camera start coughing as well. Then a man with brown curly hair barges into the view of the camera, scooping the boy up in his arms and attempting to cover his mouth with his jacket. He looks angrily at the camera and starts to shout at the voice at the other end, ‘I told you we shouldn’t have come outside. I told you. The pollution levels are too high.’
Then the camera abruptly fades to black.
Atlantis is the only place on Earth with zero levels of pollution particles. That is why it is so hard to live here. The asking price exceeds the millions. My mother did not want to come here, it was my father’s doing. He said he wanted to live, even if it was only a few extra years, and that he wanted us to live. He told my mother that he loved her and that he wasn’t going to let her go. My father worked in security for Atlantis. He would look at lots of screens and then shoot at red dots. I said that it looked like a really boring video game and he laughed. He said that Atlantis was special and when something is special only a few people can have it. I asked why that was. Surely if you had something special you should share it with everyone. My father said that was not how the world worked which confused me. It still confuses me. He died a few months after that, his body washed up in the Arctic coast. My mother became really still when she heard about my father’s death. She didn’t cry or eat. She just became still. I don’t think she even breathed during that time. After three months had passed, she broke her vow of silence. She said that once a nation starts building concentration camps its hard to turn back. ‘Are you talking about the Nazis?’ I asked.
‘No I am not talking about the Nazis, although they were called detention centres in my day. However, a rose by any other name is still a rose.’
Seeing that video of the family feeding pigeons and then the little boy coughing brings those memories back. I think for the first time I understand just how special I am.
The next day I go to the zoo. All the animals there are clones of ancient beasts like lions or chimeras, like the Cod which is a cat and dog hybrid. I walk everywhere but I can’t find pigeons anywhere. Suddenly, an old woman taps me on the shoulder which startles me. ‘Hey. Don’t worry, I’m here to help. You seem lost.’
‘I’m here to find pigeons. Do you know where they are?’
‘Pigeons! You won’t find any pigeons here. They weren’t special enough to save.’
If there are no pigeons how will I make my mother smile? The old woman sits beside me. Then she whispers in my ear a set of instructions. ‘Follow them and you will reach my garden, if you still want to see pigeons.’
I follow the instructions right to the letter. I’m not worried about trusting the woman or wandering the streets of Atlantis alone, since crime is a thing of the past. The path takes me through winding alleyways and past many landmarks like the Elysium Museum. What stands before me at the end of the map is a circular patch of greenery, rather like a garden in the books I had read. I hear chirping sounds coming from the trees. I feel elated when I recognise the bird song. Mesmerised by the pigeons flying around me, I don’t notice the old woman approach me. She taps my shoulder, ‘I brought us some bread to feed the pigeons with.’
‘I know what to do with the bread.’ I huff like a petulant child. I mean, I am a child, but I don’t like adults looking down on me. It annoys the hell out of me.
‘Ok missy, calm down.’
‘I’m sorry. I just don’t like being… I mean…’
‘I understand. I was a voracious reader as well. It comes with the territory.’ We then both burst out laughing. She splits the bread in half. We then tear small chunks towards the pigeons, but they don’t seem to notice. They don’t clamour around the bread pieces. They just stand there on the ground looking isolated, then at certain intervals they fly. I just want to feed the pigeons like in the video. I start tearing the bread more forcefully until it starts to become dust.
‘Do you want me to tell you something interesting?’
I didn’t answer her.
‘The pigeon and the dove are cousins.’
‘You mean they are both part of the animal family Columbidae.’
‘Well, aren’t you clever? Now that I think about it, cousins is not really the right word. You see, in many languages the words pigeon and dove are interchangeable. Many people use the word dove to refer to the white pigeon and scientists refer to the bigger species as pigeons and the smaller ones as doves.’
‘My mum’s favourite animal is the pigeon. She cries at night because there are no more pigeons. She cries about everything. She doesn’t like Atlantis and I… I don’t know what to do!’
She hugs me close. It’s awkward since we don’t know each other but it’s a source of comfort and I am starved. ‘Not everything is interchangeable. One day you will understand that.’
And my heart breaks.
‘The pigeons in this garden, they’re not real are they? They never crowd around the bread pieces and they are programmed to fly at specific intervals.’
‘Well, aren’t you clever?’ We both hold on to each other as if we are drowning in the Arctic Ocean. She is crying. I have a grown woman in my arms and she is crying. I am also crying. Not the silent crying, but ugly crying. The crying that feels as though my soul is being stolen from me. We sit on that rickety bench until the sun falls down on Atlantis, with the pigeons flying overhead and the bread littering the ground.
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