The Racers

Anne Sanow


The darkness, the light: either state fretted the birds, and he could not understand what they wanted of him. On those first early dark mornings he presumed they felt discomfort from the chill, and he tentatively stirred his hands, warmed from a flannel-wrapped brick, into the loft in an attempt to soothe them. First one bird, then another, would glide its silken body against his palm and take the radiance from him. They rustled and cooed. He stood there reaching in, eyes closed, and tried to learn them through their movements and warblings. A true pigeon man can bring them around and call'em off by name. This Garrity had told him when he bought the lot, six each males and females, to start; now Martin waited for something of this knowledge to work its way to him from the touch of feathers, the rub of a beak, their rough pebbled legs.

They wove through his arms, scattered the grain, ribboned his fingers with pecks both curious and sharp. Martin felt they were deciding to know him, and he wanted to convey that shelter and sustenance were not all he had to give. He wore the same thick wool pullover each morning for consistency of scent. They worried its sleeves. On the third morning the refrain from an old folk song came to mind—of maidens and riverbanks, trees that no longer grew, the mournful passing of time—and he hummed it low, turning his wrists slowly, opening out his palms. The birds watched him.

At Garrity's he'd watched a flight whip a gorgeous loop over a row of breeding lofts, russet and white bodies spackled against the blue February sky on a rare sunny afternoon. It would be a long time before he'd be able to do that, the Irishman told him, but he watched Martin carefully as the boy looked into each roost and the way he slid in his hands, letting the birds find their way to him, told Garrity there might be that kind of patience you needed to gain their trust: surety to fly, to race, to return.

You'll lose a few though, he said too. Can't be helped and in winter. Martin had only so much money so the set he bought wasn't for looks or for racing, and the breeder would not guarantee any of the males or females were officially paired but it would happen eventually, you know a stud when it's after what it wants. But Martin, swaying there reedy in the coverall that would thicken another young man out, maybe did not know and Garrity reminded himself that this was the quiet one you never saw at a dance or a picture show in town or looking even like he could pull or heft any of what a farm would ask you to do. A stripling, blond and pale and strained about the face. With these looks he stood apart from the sons of the other German farmers or the big men, some of them Poles, who ran the Wausau mills; certainly he'd never be taken for Irish. Perhaps it was the look of hunger that clung to him—this though he'd been brought over at three or four years of age the most, Garrity mused, Brandenburg he'd heard, a homeland part of the web of kinfolk that had the Baumanns, Rudi and Louisa, taking him in now that the parents were in one of those centers out in Nevada or the Dakotas where they sent you if your allegiance was in question. The Jap attack in Hawaii had done that, but to be German and sent there must mean something else. So this young Martin, nineteen or twenty maybe, here alone and not holding himself like anyone that Garrity could see, and he could not be called up but he might make some money on the birds when the Army was buying. He was delicate, that was it, fine and fair altogether. This was a good deal of speculation for Garrity and he concluded his thoughts with a spot of sympathy for the boy, shaking his skinny hand after he pocketed the cash. All the luck to you, Martin Pötter—the surname coming out as a strange lilting music on Garrity's tongue.

The compulsion for the birds was not a thing that Martin could find a way to say. What the chickens wanted of him each day was easy, but he felt no particular affinity with them or with the pond ducks; he could shoot a turkey or goose with no thought for its comfort or soul. The land here gave up so little and there was no remorse to spare. Unbeautiful, a nuisance: pigeons were city birds, but the war was giving them value and now a man like Garrity had more than a hobby on his hands. This was only an ancillary draw for Martin who did need the money they would fetch but it was something else too.

And now they were settling with him, he could feel it. Within a week there was a turn in attitude and some of them began to linger, demonstrating personality with a certain tilt of the head, a softer rhythm of pecking, a more relaxed movement when he reached to clean droppings or add fresh twigs or rake through the sand for debris. The smallest bird was a female, sleek and dark grey, and when she leaned into the crook of his elbow for two mornings straight Martin knew he could name her and chose Frida, to honor his mother and for the way the bird seemed to want to soothe him. He hummed his tune and murmured her name to her. After this the others came to him easily: Willi and Jenny, Ace and Blackie, Paddy and Jack, Pepper and Lena and Lottie. The first two to pair were the largest and laziest, so they became Madame and the Baron. With a new urgency Martin rose to spend an extra twenty minutes with them in dark mornings sharp with frost, before the milking and eggs, before the horses, earlier even than the infant fussings that waked Louisa and set the little house in motion. Over and over Martin repeated their names while the birds ran up his arms, nuzzled his ears, pushed pebbles through the sand and told him, in their ways, they were about knowing him too.

Frida established the habit of leaning into his elbow's curve, taking warmth, and with soft insistent pressure conveyed that she understood he'd been broken there. She tipped her dainty head back and forth to watch him; the glow of her went through sweater and undershirt and skin and sinew down to Martin's very bones and found the secret of where his father had wrenched and cracked them, through the tributaries of his blood to his heart where he bloomed with the knowledge that this was a healing. If Frida was the smallest she was also possessed of a dependable temperament and the others, even flibberty Pepper and Jenny, made room for her to claim Martin first, would settle when Frida bid them to. Other habits formed: Ace tapped at the warm brick, chubby Lottie rushed first for the grain; the Baron and Madame remained stolidly aloof. Willi puffed his chest toward Lena, who had yet to show any inclination for him, while the other three males were as yet undecided, clumping and roughhousing like ungainly youths in a schoolyard.

Now their rustlings told him more. Martin guessed which had come from the same nest, which had been the first to crack out into the world, which, as a squab, had eaten from its mother's or father's gullet last. Some had been handled more casually than others—less prized, less loved—and this could produce either aggression or reticence, depending, and Martin discovered he could wait with them for long held minutes, sweatered arms among them, know me, know me, know me. The delicateness Garrity had noted the perfect hedge against roughness, cold, abandonment. This was what Martin wanted to give them.

The season passed into March, the holding month. There had been less than the usual snow and the horizons of the farm met up with the sky in a dim gray line. Feathers fluffed against the cold, the birds began investigating beyond the lee of the barn, making Martin catch his breath: Would they taste this freedom and leave him? They did not. Frida he tucked into his loose flannel shirtfront, imagining it a sling. She rode in the hammocked gap between the buttons. One day he took her out and edged her onto a railing across the yard and she picked up one foot, then the other, and kept her eyes on him as he backed away. She waited. The boy walked more, then turned his back to her, walking quickly now around the barn and out of sight, breath holding.

She flew to him. The cold stillness made the sound of her wing rustle crisp, distinct, and at the barn's side now Martin turned to watch her sail toward him gracefully, taking a glide around the loft as if in airy pleasure and coming to rest on his shoulders. Here here, he told her. Home.

He began working the others, small distances across the yard and back. He entreated them with dried peas, walking the perimeter of the fence with hands full so they'd fly to him, made them rest on his arms before the reward. He returned them to the loft, walked out again, rewarded again, returned. Listen, he said to them. Come. The three unpaired males were the fastest, the greediest—but without any tempering from breeding they would soon be quarrelsome, Martin knew, and perhaps they might also become reckless.

This intuition was confirmed one afternoon when Jack and Paddy, engaged in a squabble near the paddock gate, ignored the slow, hanging spiral of a goshawk high above the pines. The predator aimed and it was perhaps the shadow of its wing, a slight tilt in the air, that signaled danger to the flock and they fled in a clump, Blackie leading and Frida, Martin was sure, among them, and he himself was too far across the yard when the hawk fixed its sight and dove down with a scream of terrible joy, tearing Paddy away from the rail in a bleat of blood and feathers. Jack floundered in haphazard circles on the ground where the raptor had shoved him aside, and when Martin ran to him and gathered him up the bird was seizing, its heart a tight rammel of fear.

The others had crowded into the loft at the goshawk's cry and their distress was a frantic whir when Martin gently lifted Jack into his roost, stroking the slick of feathers on his neck, whispering, shushing, soothing.

But the air wouldn't release its thick panic. Madame and the Baron watched from their roosts with slitted eyes as the flock pressed against the side of the loft farthest from Jack, the smell on him now of death, the smell on Martin now of betrayal. He felt a sharp jab at his side, Ace or Jenny he thought, yes anger, behind him as he leaned over to Jack still whispering, stroking, trembling so hard he wondered if the birds knew him still or if it had all been his imagining, if this one thing could irrevocably change things so. He stood there willing Jack to revive, taking the pecks on his arms stoically, finding Frida at last in the back corner watching him, not moving, leaving the others to finish. It was the first loss of which Garrity had warned but not the last, not the worst.