Published:  07:50 PM, 01 August 2021

Father's pigeons

Father's pigeons

-Sherzod Artikov

“This is the place that you told,” the driver said.

The taxi came to a halt near the edge of the road. I looked around from inside the car. The view – the edifice with two green cupolas and myriad pigeons around them appeared in front of me. Coming closer I found the yard full of pigeons which were eating birdseed scattered by people. 

“Back in the day, it's called « Pigeon cemetery»,” indicated the driver, following on me. “It’s become the shrine of renowned holy man who lived in the city.  The building at the corner used to be his praying room in the dim and distant past.”  

Plenty of people in front of that building were coming in and out turn by turn. 

“Hundreds of people go on a pilgrimage every day,” he carried on. “Here, people pray for the dead, patients for healing, childless couples for babies. They make imam* give the blessing and reciting the Koran** asking invocation.  Walking in the yard they strew seeds and make a pilgrimage to the holy men's grave.” 

I was keeping my eyes peeled for a flock of pigeons flying in the sky even I was listening to him, honestly. They were just the same as described in my father's album: bluish grey, white and black, gentler and softer than each other as if giving meaningful look. 

“Dear guest,   I'll be in the car, “the driver said after some time getting prepared to get in. “If I didn't have an allergy to autumn air, I would escort you, unfortunately staying outside much makes me sneeze.” 

Blowing his nose, he walked towards his car. I came closer to the pigeons busy with pecking seeds.  They were fighting over food as a few grains left on the ground.  In this case, the same as humans, weaker group will be sidelined; luck is on only more agile of their sides.
There was an old thin woman selling grains on one side of the shrine.  I didn't see her at first.  People were fetching grains in a cellophane bag from her. When I clapped eyes on it, I bought some.  Seeing me scatter seeds on the ground, I was surrounded by pigeons. Those flying in the sky also descended and joined the flock. In an instant, I was in the amongst the countless pigeons.  Forgetting fear, some of them were pecking my grain, as well as my hand, while others climbing up my shoes because of a squeeze. 

Anon the bag in my hand was emptied.  I sat down getting tired.  There was a cemetery behind me.  The shrine and cemetery were separated by a long wall and it was clearly visible through the fenced chink in the midst of the brick walls.  I guess there was a mosque next to it, because the image of a crescent moon made of copper on a high dome was inclined to the eastward. 

As I sat on the bench watching the pigeons, I took my camera and photographed them several times.  Then opening my briefcase I took father's album inside it. I compared the pigeons around me with the ones drawn in the album.  I looked through the notes and dates written under the pictures there.  Below each picture was a note and date. For example, next to the picture of a grey pigeon with the date « 04.06.1995» was written « My darling, my child went to the first grade today. » Underneath was a picture of a white dove with the date « 02.11.2001 » written « Yesterday, I looked at the firmament through the window.  I felt as if I was seeing you, Snow White. »Among them, the one that attracted the most attention was the picture of a black and white, plump pigeon. Father dated « 07.06.2006 » under it and noted down: « I bought chocolate from the store today, it has a picture of a dove on a package, just like you, Fluffy. »

When there was no one left in front of the scholar's praying room which had been mentioned by the driver before, I got up and went there.  Inside, an imam with a turban on his head and white beard was sitting in the room, the Koran and the worry beads were on a table covered with blue velvet in front of him.

“Come on, sir,” said the imam, giving me a warm welcome.

“I want you to recite the Koran for my father's spirit,” I said when I saw his inquiring look.  

He began to recite the Koran.  Listening to him I visualized my father: I called to mind his last days at the oncology department of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.  Back then I often stayed with my father who was lying on the bed for the last few days of his life with brain cancer, lost his hair completely.  He was emaciated and eyes were sunken.  He always lay holding my hands, when I fed a spoon of water or soup to him, he looked at me smacking his lips and blinking eyes.  He always wanted to say something, but couldn't speak as he became speechless, he was only wheezing. 

One day, his condition worsened.  As I didn't move away from him, I took the remote control of the TV set on the wall and changed channels to distract myself. At one point, father wheezed in a low voice putting up his right hand as if screaming.  Pigeons were being shown on television.  At first, I understood that his grunting was to change it to another channel.  When I did this, he got nervous and his hands started to shake.
“Bring back the channel showing pigeons,” mum approached father trying to quieten him.

After returning to that channel, father immediately calmed down watching pigeons.  But his hands were still shaking, his trembling jaw seemed to be hanging if my mother wasn't holding it. 

“Ramadan, did you miss your pigeons? “Asked mum, gripping his jaw tightly to read his mind. 

Tears welled up in my father's eyes, he tried to say something, but he didn't go beyond gasping for breath again. 

“I think your father missed his pigeons,” my mother said, turning her face to me. “In Marghilan, where we were born, there was a place called « Pigeon cemetery ». Your father's childhood was spent there. Even his youth.  There were countless pigeons.  Your father adored and passed much time with them.  He took me there a lot, too. When we went, we always fed the pigeons sprinkling grains and sat dreaming for hours.” 

My father was lying quietly listening to my mother.  One moment he was staring at her mouthing, the next at the pigeons on TV.  Listening her words, he more or less understood what she was saying, and perhaps that was why he wept bitterly and tried to get up wrinkling his border of bed. 
After finishing reciting, imam opened his hands in supplication. I also followed him.

“There’s nothing wrong with asking,” the imam said, glancing at me. “Son, you look like a foreigner.” 

“I’m from The United States,” I said, introducing myself to him. “But I’m Uzbek.  My parents were born there.  They lived in Marghilan for some time and during the “reconstruction years”*** immigrated.” 

“They moved away before gaining independence, did they?” he asked. 

The sky was dark and the clouds were floating in blue.  The yellow leaves of a plane tree in front of the praying room were falling over the ground in the breeze.  I reminisced about my childhood in Chicago stepping on the leaves.  My father said that I wasn’t born when they moved to the USA.  Father had a deep affection for me as he was raised in an orphanage.  Every weekend we used to go either matches of basketball team called “Chicago Bulls “or nature museum. We also went to the cinema a lot. At night, I always passed into a slumber listening stories and tales.  Whenever he is free from work he used to call me to his room and teach me Uzbek and how to play chess.  At that time, he impressed me as a blithe and pleased person.  On top this, he was very jokey.  

Even after growing up, I didn’t notice any common human feelings such as woe, longing or grief in him. True,  sometimes when we came back on foot after watching the match of “ Chicago Bulls “ or drank tea on the porch in the summertime,  his heart sank seeing a flock of birds in the sky. It would happen so quickly that he fell silent as if he had lost his tongue at that point where he was telling a joke or an interesting story, and sudden change in his soul continued for several days.  Sometimes I saw my father opening the window wide and his eyes had a distant faraway look. Even then, the birds would be flying in the sky, my father watched their movements hearing their cries. 

He worked for a diamond trading company.  Even worked at home because of his busy schedule.  Sometimes I watched him from the doorpost of his room and sympathized seeing him working, wiping the sweat from his face.  He worked overmuch, but in the meantime, he took a break, and wrote on album that I now have putting his hand on his chin.  Then I realized that he had drawn the pictures of pigeons at that time. 

After his passing, I flipped through this album every night.  Seeing the light in my room hadn’t gone out yet, my mother often entered the room and watched the album together, her eyes filling with tears.  The inscriptions and dates under each picture were more heartbreaking than the picture of pigeons there. The more I read them, the more I felt like I was bent over the flow of memories. 

“I think your father wanted to go back to his homeland, “my mother said in such woebegone moments. “He wanted to see pigeons.” 

A light drizzle started to fall. October here is just like Chicago’s; it’s kind of cloudy and rainy.  As it started to rain, the people who came to the shrine began to disperse.  Seeing them go, pigeons seemed to be sad.  They looked at each other as if they didn’t understand anything, and stared thoughtfully at the people's back who had sprinkled them with grains.  Just then, the heavens opened and I walked to the car parked on the east side of the shrine to avoid catching a cold. The driver was dozing in the car waiting me a lot.  He woke up when I opened the door suddenly.  
“Were you here? “He said, rubbing his eyes.

  On the way, it was pouring even more heavily.  The car’s windshield wiper was unable to wipe off the raindrops hitting it.  Seeing the sheets of the rain, I thought of the pigeons with concern.  I thought they got caught in the rain.  After a while, I reassured myself that there was a place for them to keep in. I couldn’t stop myself thinking.  Another thought, whether or not there would be a shelter for that countless pigeons began to flicker through my mind.

 “Did you forget something there? “The driver asked when I pleased him to turn back. 

When I got back to the shrine, I got out of the car quickly.  I hurried to the yard which had become a haven for pigeons.  But there was no pigeons, neither on earth, nor in the heavens, as if they had vanished somewhere without a trace.  I stood in the rain for a while not knowing what to do. 
“Did you forget something?”

The imam who was closing the door of the praying room gave the same question. 

“Where did the pigeons go? “ I asked, turning to him. 

The imam looked around as if he did not understand. 

“They went nowhere,” he said in a calm voice. “Look at the roof.  They have nests here.”

I looked at the roof.  At first, I didn’t notice the shelter.  After some time I saw a long, narrow passage.  The passage was enclosed and there were several openings to allow light inside.  The pigeons were closing up and watching the rain fall outside sticking their heads out from the windows. 
“Do they all fit in there? “I said, looking at him for clarity even my concern had disappeared. 

“Of course,” he said, wiping his rain-soaked face with a handkerchief. “They have been living there as a family for many years.” 

When I returned to the hotel, my clothes were absolutely sopping.  Seeing me enter through the main door, one of the servants there handed me a towel.  While toweling, I ordered to the manager a call for me to America.  He immediately dialed the numbers I told and connected my mother. 
“Mum,” I said when my mother’s familiar voice came from the receiver.  “I went and saw my father’s pigeons.  They are the same with the pictures depicted in the album.” 

Mother wanted to say something, but her voice didn’t come out.  Only the sound of her crying could be heard from the receiver…

-Sherzod Artikov is an Uzbekistan’s internationally acclaimed writer
Translated into English by Nigora Dedamirzayeva

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