I trip, but I do not fall as I carry a mean-spirited fancy pigeon to its wire enclosure between two cacti. The sun is strong, and the wind is strong, and my sweat dries to salt before dripping. In the distance, a mortuary truck with a cooling fan on its roof chugs past the ramshackle roadside butcher shop. There, strips of biltong beef spin dry on industrial clothes cleaners’ wheels. I am aware of my status, and the pigeon’s status, as animal, as meat.
Along the roadside is a mile-long line of parked pick-up trucks and vans, trailers and RVs. All I can hear is a chorus of agitated cooing, the wind blowing the sand into the cages, and the indecipherable directives issued to the mass of hopeful breeders through the feedback of an old loudspeaker. The bird wriggles in my hands. This pigeon’s beak has been bred to be blunt, pouty, and so I only frown, and do not bleed as it pecks my hands. This pigeon is a Black-laced Blondinette variety of an Oriental Frill, one that often arouses the ooooohs and aaaaaahs of the attendees of fancy pigeon shows such as this one I’m attending here on the outskirts of Cape Town, sponsored by SANPO, the South African National Pigeon Association.
According to SANPO, the bird I am carrying is not so much mean-spirited, as it is exhibiting its “jaunty disposition.” Perhaps it’s still pissed off that we’ve bred out of it the ability even to feed its own young. Breeders have now charged this job to “foster feeders”—typically homing pigeons with normal-sized beaks, and therefore the ability to regurgitate and nourish the Oriental Frill squabs.
An adult frill’s face resembles that of a common pigeon, if that common pigeon had undergone some horrible surgery to remove the front part of its face and the sides of its neck. Judges of such fancy pigeon shows—like the old Ottoman Sultans of the Manisa palace who first selectively bred, and subsequently heaped regal designations upon the Oriental Frill—find these “butchered face” qualities favorable.
Like many of the over-served classes, sultans liked to believe that they had desperate dependents over whom they could lord their sparkly benevolence. And so, they commanded the palatial breeders to create a special bird only for them; a bird that would be kept hidden away from the commoners; a bird with a unique white spattering on its tail feathers that the sultans themselves could name “The Seal of the Sultan,” and which, in spite of this sultanic self-importance, resembles more the sluggish ejecta of an incontinent pigeon who shat itself. Breeders today more commonly call these markings, Moon Spots. Beneath the Moon Spots, its tail—which, according to the SANPO show judges, should be no more than two feathers wide—is the color of root beer.
The eyes of the frill should be the color of yellow gravel. The mane should be well-developed and unbroken, rising to the same height as the peak of the head. The neck should be stout, but held proudly—which means that the neck shouldn’t move that much, ensuring that the eye is always exactly in line with the juncture of the toes with the ankle. The wings should be without sails, and therefore, not really suitable to flight, escape. The wattle should be small and neat. The frill itself should be precisely two inches in length and ample, extending “from the middle of the gullet to the breast,” and comprised of feathers that “grow outward to both sides uniformly,” according to the National Classic Old Frill Club guidelines (the motto of which reminds us to “Enjoy the Thrill of the Old Frill”). If the feathers grow only to one side of the frill, judges will penalize the bird. If the frill is shaped like a rose, judges will penalize the bird. A frill should look like a frill; not like a flower, the judges have been bred to think.
Not only can’t the Oriental Frill feed its own squabs, but we’ve also ensured that its beak is so truncated that it can’t even peck the earth for food. It must eat from a special cup, designed by the breeders who designed the bird itself. Indeed, we’ve made its beak so useless that the baby frills can’t even peck their way out of their eggs. The sultans appreciated this, of course, and congratulated themselves on their own generosity, as they cracked the shells for these baby birds with their beringed thumbs, delivered these dependents into their palace aviaries.
The breeders and judges here at the SANPO show are not sultans, but a disproportionate number of them are recent divorcees. As one announcer mumbles something into a microphone about Moon Spots, someone’s child, sitting in the dust, points out the real moon, overhead and faded in this late afternoon sky. A day moon, seemingly translucent like a cataract. Even as I silently engage in this tired compulsion of comparing the moon to something else, thinking cataract, I hear the child compare the moon to a cupcake. Another child—a contrarian—says, no, it looks like an onion. An argument ensues, and one child picks up a stick, the other a petrified cactus paddle. The frill stops pecking my hands for a moment, lifts its head to watch the developing fight. A sunburnt woman in a pink tank-top printed with the phrase PRAAT AFRIKAANS OF HOU JOU BEK! (“Speak Afrikaans or shut your beak!”) rushes over to the kids, yelling something reverently about watching out for the birds. The children separate. The frill reassumes its sorry attack of my knuckles.
This particular show is partly an outdoor one, one in which showgoers can, according to SANPO’s Assistant Show Manager Koos Botha, enjoy “the wind gently blowing down the slopes of Devil’s Peak, the dassies saluting the setting sun as it casts long shadows, the natural semi-desert vegetation.” On the outskirts of the showgrounds, the semi-desert is run through by a two-lane highway flanked by an expansive grid of plastic bottles and other containers, stacked so neatly, and so high, that they seem to contain a hidden city amid the dunes and the succulents. No one here can confirm what this is—whether or not it’s part of some underground recycling plant, or junk art installation.
And on the outskirts of this plastic city, fronting the highway, is another structure, eluded by clear significance: a corrugated iron garage with a huge sign in front, advertising, I BUY THE BURIED 2016. The garage is crooked, perhaps close to collapsing. The sign is a perfect white rectangle, and the letters are black and capital, and uniformly stenciled. It is professionally made, and seems so much more “official” than the garage itself. Snaking from the garage is a line of about eight pick-up trucks, patiently waiting, I’d guess, to sell.
In the desert surrounding the garage, a dead Karoo bossie rots on a pedestal of clay, amid other low plants with names like Drunk Onion, Birdy-Cannot-Sit, and Mouse Nipple. A Padloper Tortoise stops to sniff its own flank before slowly moving on. Shouldering the road are discarded Red Bull cans, gas cans, Ricoffy tins, orange peels, a box that once held fried fish fillets from Ocean Basket, Da Feesh That Got Away printed in script along its side. Pharaoh’s ants search for food in the shell of a Telefunken TV. Horseshit, but no horses. The broken glass and plastic bags in the fields catch the light and appear constellar, like treasure. The world seems ready to perform some emergency.
How much were these tickets again? I got into the show at a discounted rate, because I told the board I am apprenticing with an experienced breeder, and am planning to write an article about it. Generously, they are allowing me to participate in this small way beyond merely observing and recording the goings-on. This bird—a mere twelve ounces— tries to lift its soft wings against my hands. Its poor beak is hardly a scrap of pinky toenail. I can feel its over-bred heart racing, the warmth of its blood through its belly feathers. It is agitated and mutant and beautiful. Its name is Sophia Loren.
An elderly man with wet lips and baggy blue jeans approaches us, and air-kisses Sophia. He’s cradling a predominantly white bird, with a black head and black tail feathers. “She’s a good one, I think,” he says about Sophia, “I’m showing my best nun today.” He holds his bird closer to my face.
“Ha,” I say, “she does look like a nun.”
“There’s a reason for that,” he wheezes, and points out how, via his expert breeding, he has replicated the design of a nun’s habit in miniature on the bird’s breast. “I’ve done it perfectly,” he says, “And look: No lice. No dirty feet. At the end of the day, it’s a very good bird to have in your life. This particular bird…” he lowers his voice and winks at me, “is very popular with the ladies.”
“Well then, good luck,” I say.
“We can only pray for the correct judgment,” he says, looking around, as if lost. “Now where did they situate the bloody nun section?” He walks off, bewildered, into the network of cages.
The dust of these plains lifts around me and Sophia, settles into our hair and feathers. The bird stops pecking at my hands, realizing perhaps, that, in spite of what her instincts may be telling her, she no longer has the bodily tools to defend herself in this way, to break my skin. She cocks her tapered head, stares me down. I’m convinced that the coldness runs from the bird’s amber eyes, and that a strange affection replaces it. Why do we always try to hurt the ones we love? Of course, my being convinced of this should tell me more about myself than about the bird. Maybe it’s not the bird at all that seems to be asking me, What are we doing? Why are we here?
Before I can get to the cages, the sunburnt woman in the pink tank-top gets in my face. I can see the dust on her two front teeth. The abominable Pigmy Pouter pigeon in her hands gets in Sophia Loren’s face, and Sophia makes the sound I’d likely make too in this situation if I had a bird-throat—a low worried growl. The Pouter is a monster, resembling a rock dove deformed by scalpel and collagen. My heart goes out to the damned thing. Its legs are too long and skinny, and seem to have been shaved. Its crop appears permanently inflated, and its actual head is lost in the swell, as if one pigeon has been sunk into another. It can’t possibly be breathing easily.
The breeder bounces her Pouter, lends her voice it, baby-talks to Sophia in Afrikaans, “Aren’t we beautiful? Yes, we are.”
“Hello. How are you?” I say, not because I care, but because, in the face of her tank-top credo (PRAAT AFRIKAANS OF HOU JOU BEK!), I want to let her know that I speak English.
She looks at me, and says, in a voice about three octaves lower, “This is Daswa. What’s your baby’s name?”
“She’s not really mine,” I say, “Her name’s Sophia.”
The line of trucks at the garage across the across the highway is growing longer, lining the shoulder now. Horns are honking, and the birds don’t seem to like the sound. Someone can’t buy the buried fast enough.
“What a nice flat face!” she makes Daswa say to Sophia.
“What are you doing then with someone else’s bird?” she asks me.
“I’m just… helping out.”
“Hm,” she sniffs, “Wouldn’t it be nice now to afford a handler?” she asks Daswa.
“I’m not really…” I begin to explain.
She holds a hand to my face, and Daswa is forced to readjust.
“I started doing these shows over twenty years ago,” she says, “and there are so many new breeds now. All these cross-breeds and cross-breeds of cross-breeds. Breeders who employ handlers who employ secondary handlers. I don’t know. I’m more of a purist. We’ve really started watering things down. All these breeds now… They’re risks to integrity. SANPO used to enforce some kind of control, but these days? Ha.” She bends her nose to Daswa’s head and coos, “They’re not like you, they’re not like you.”
Daswa stares straight ahead into the middle distance, watching a swarm of midday mosquitos laze. Her legs dangle from her owner’s hands like those of some adult in short-shorts crammed into the seat of one of those county fair swing carousels. If we’re to concur with the 18th-century British Baronet, amateur breeder, and “inventor” of the Pigmy Pouter Sir John Sebright when he wrote, in his famed letter, The Art of Improving the Breeds of Domestic Animals, “I do not believe that there ever did exist an animal without some defect in constitution, in form, or in some other essential quality,” then Daswa’s long, shaved leggedness, her ballooned chest, and her inability to survive without near-constant human intervention are to be perceived as corrections to a defective natural order.
This bird has been revised from its rough natural draft, her body made to accommodate carets, strike-throughs, transpositions, redactions. She has been slashed. In this way, Sebright saw the breeder as an editor. Darwin praised him in On the Origin of Species, calling Sebright a man who “would produce any given feather in three years… six years to obtain head and beak.”
Daswa’s owner lifts her head, gestures with her chin to the hundred-something cages. “Look at all these diluted birds.” I wonder if she, like Sebright—who came to breeding after his wife’s untimely death when she was only thirty-three—found breeding in the aftermath of tragedy, as salve for loneliness. I wonder if she, like he, saw despair as the product of imperfection, and needed to make things right; to lift her gaze from the turbulent internal, and face, finally, outward toward the birds, pin her hopes and her powers to them. How many of us, I wonder, must make our grieving manageable by obtaining heads?
I can no longer hear Sophia’s agitated growling, but I can feel her belly vibrate. Like me, she’s a disaster on the inside. I want to intone the words, “genetic mutilation” to see how this breeder would respond, to see if she would feel complicit or not. I want to tell her that in the mental hospitals of the mid-twentieth century, to be “diluted,” was a euphemism for undergoing a lobotomy, for having the natural machinery of one’s head messed with. I wonder if, hiccupping wanly in the recesses of their DNA, any of these fancy pigeons remember being naturally occurring doves.
“Things tend to get more and more extreme, I guess, before they catch themselves,” I say.
The woman picks one of Daswa’s feathers from her tongue, and spits between my shoes. Sophia looks up at me, as if to say, “Really?”
Judges sit at long plastic tables and mutter to themselves, commenting perhaps, on the ways in which beauty dovetails with ineffectuality. On the highway, air brakes and horns. In the garage on the other side of it, if we’re to trust in the sign, the dead are being exhumed, examined, appraised.
“Frills!” one of the staffers screams through a megaphone. I must make my way to the cages. I can feel Sophia’s heart against my hands. I wonder if she is depressed, or scared, or bored, or aware of the fact that these people think she’s gorgeous precisely because she’s useless. Because, to live, she needs us as her keepers. She needs our brains and our hands, our silence and our noise. Like many of us, she depends on that which should drive her mad.
“Well,” Daswa’s owner says, “Good luck.”
“You, too,” I say, “I’m Matt, by the way.”
She looks at me as if I’ve violated some code, and draws a crucifix into the dust with the toe of her right sneaker.
“Uh-huh,” she says, “I’m Daswa’s mom.”
The primary SANPO announcer begins to scream something unintelligible through the loudspeaker, and I can feel Sophia’s heart rate increase again. Cradling her belly with my right hand, I use the thumb and middle finger of my left to protect the sides of her head—the places where I’m guessing her ears may be. It occurs to me that I don’t even know if she has ears. I try to lose myself in the cacophony of the show and the highway behind it. Sophia presses her face to my knuckles as if to hide there, as if I can protect anyone from anything.
What do the overbred fancy pigeons’ brain function and memory and instinct have in common with their “original” counterparts, their progenitors? Do they remember—if only as weak electrical hiccups in their genes—what it was like to fly, to eat autonomously, to go on great migrations with others of their flock? If so, to what degree, then, does a fancy pigeon feel “locked in?” Or, is a new kind of “post-manipulation” instinct born, squeezing out, and eventually replacing that original instinct (and instinctual memory)? Does the fancy pigeons’ dependence on their human handlers become that new kind of instinct?
Or, is there a gulf—confounding to the fancy pigeon itself—between what it thinks it can do (based on any remaining instinct of its original progenitors), and what it actually can do (based on the trappings of its long-bred body)? How—not only physically, but also emotionally—does the fancy pigeon deal with this chasm between instinct and ability, the ghost itch to the lost limb? Does it get frustrated? Depressed? Or am I—violently, and self-interestedly—heaping yet another human rubric onto the poor bird, trapped as I am by my own instinct, memory, perception of available emotional responses, cage of skin?
If the fancy pigeon’s body is the result of a generations-long (and violent) human drive to actively “perfect” that body, one may question the role of the deus ex machina—that is, the heavy-hand of an outside force (in this case, us) in the evolutionary process of another species. And does that evolutionary process change—however infinitesimally—as our conceptions of “perfection” (and the perfect pigeon body, and attendant behavior), evolve over time (and region and culture) as well? Are we, as a species, ever willing to ruin another species’ instinct (and their abilities to perform on this earth according to said instinct) in order to make of them something that we think is more beautiful? To what degree, in this case and others, do we find that beauty and dependence overlap?
I was lucky to find lodging near the show grounds, what with all the SANPO fanciers having booked all the rooms. I met Sophia Loren’s owner last night in the motel parking lot, when, at sunset, the SANPO crowd emerged from their rooms with plastic cups of Richelieu brandy and Coke, talking shop, and disingenuously wishing one another a “good show tomorrow.” A few of them sat on the bumper of a multiply dented turquoise Land Rover, the hood of which was slick with a paste of pigeon dander and feces. The cardboard windshield shade bore the image of a wistful Sophia Loren in her blue hat and kerchief from El Cid.
In shadow, so many drunk people held their drinks and their strangely shaped birds. They opened and closed their trunks, accessed their coolers and cages and deck chairs. Someone began playing Afrikaans Boeremusiek on a small stereo—some concertina-driven song about a pumpkin and a shipwreck. I floated about like an electron, circling them, until a short woman with a tall perm (who introduced herself as Jackie) finally offered me a drink. She wore yellowed Keds and no socks, a billowy peach blouse with a ruffled neck and flared sleeves. Her ankles were smooth and bug-bit. Her left pinky nail was black with fungus, and her forehead was sunburnt and peeling.
Most of the group was clad in polo shirts and cargo shorts, and one skinny old man—taller than the rest, wore a loose-fitting black jean jacket covered in seventy or so patches, testaments to all of the pigeon shows in which his birds have been featured over the years. He referred to himself as The Godfather. The rest of the group referred to him as Jaco. The fact that I prefer my brandy neat endeared me to the Godfather/Jaco, and, in turn, the rest of the group. For a brief moment, the conversation turned away from pigeons, and became comprised mostly of exclamations of “No Coke?!” and its variations. They soon lost interest in me, and went back to their pigeon talk, Jaco bragging about the size of his Fantail, someone slandering an infamous show judge with bad eyesight, someone worrying about the prowess this year of some Satinette named Israel.
The sky darkened, scabbed. Everything in sight—the earth included— seemed architecturally unsound. As she stumbled to the rear of the turquoise Land Rover, Jackie’s hairdo shuddered and leaned. She beckoned me, and opened her trunk. “It’s nice to see someone taking an interest in fancy pigeons, you know,” she said. “Usually we have to go out there and recruit interest. School programs, social programs, and such.” Jackie poked her head into the back of the Land Rover and said, “Ooo-boo, goo-goo.” There, amid the empty brandy bottles and bags of pigeon feed was the cage that housed the bird she was about to introduce to me, winking and slurring, as, “Sophia Loren. Young Sophia Loren.”
Maybe it was the loud music, or the boorish exclamations of the drunken breeders, but Sophia seemed worried, agitated. I felt that maybe I was making a bad first impression, and so I straightened up, held my shoulders back. I asked Jackie all sorts of questions about breeding culture and pigeon show culture, until she and I both grew bored with the conversation.
“Look,” Jackie said, “come to the show tomorrow as my guest. This is your official invitation! You can help to feed Sophia, carry her to her proper show cage.” She elbowed me in the ribs—a little too hard—and downed her cup. She motioned for me to do the same, then tipped my cup from the bottom as I sipped so that a little brandy dribbled from the corners of my mouth. “You’re not ready to groom her, though,” she says, “That’s all me.” I coughed, and a little brandy came up through my nose, and I sneezed five times fast, and wiped my mouth with my sleeve. Jackie high-fived a low-hanging palm frond, and shouted something in Afrikaans—something that sounded vulgar—to her compatriots, some of whom responded by laughing, some by groaning.
“In a minute, in a minute!” Jackie called to her friends. Turning to me, she said, “You see the same people all the time on the circuit, out on the road. You love some, you hate some. Competition, support… That’s family, right?”
“I guess so,” I said.
Jackie grabbed me by the collar, and leaned in. She smelled of booze and bird. “No excuses,” she said, “Besides, I can use the help.” She let go of my shirt and shouted, “Gimme a leg up!”
“What time do I need to meet you out here tomorrow morning?” I asked.
From behind Sophia’s cage, Jackie retrieved a cylinder of aerosol hairspray and unleashed the espuma over her head. In response, Sophia—I swear it—coughed twice. Jackie sprayed it on so thick, her face was briefly obscured. She answered, as if through a frosted window, “six sharp.”
Overhead, the stars lazed. One of the group broke a bottle, and someone else complained that the song that came on the stereo is blasphemous. It had gotten so dark that the group blurred together, became one amorphous blob.
“And then she died, and so her birds died,” Jaco slurred to the group, holding court. “And they burned her with her birds. And the ashes?”
Here, Jackie held up her hand to me, as if to tell me not to speak, but to listen closely because here it comes—some kind of punchline I am destined not to get.
“The ashes,” Jaco told the group, “they put in the cage.” Everyone laughed.
Sophia’s cage is merely one in an avenue of sixty-two cages, all entrapping the dusty flaps and anxious coos of the other Oriental Frills in this: the designated Oriental Frill section. I drop Sophia off at her cage for some last-minute grooming, and Jackie—her anxiety through the roof—has no time for me. I find myself roving among the rows, exhausted, having slept poorly, drinking weak Nescafé from a paper cup.
For a moment, I stop walking, close my eyes and listen to the avian onomatopoeia, let myself get lost in it, but I nearly fall over, and so open them again. The desert is pallid, dry-mouthed, also just waking up. The coffee is too hot for the cup, and I have to switch hands to keep from burning. The quality of cages range from thrown-together rectangles of chicken wire (like Sophia’s), to multi-tiered deluxe models with mansard roofs and hourglass figures. One even has as its centerpiece, a lovely spiral staircase, each tiny step having been meticulously AstroTurfed, which its inhabitant—a well-kept Frill named Mercedes—judiciously ignores.
A team of eight “Layout Specialists” arrived here today predawn, at what was hours ago an empty plot in the desert, to map out the breed sections, unfold the legs of the long plastic tables, and set out the cages, ensuring, one such bleary-eyed specialist tells me, “that the birds are as comfortable as possible, and that the area be kept as neat and tidy as possible.”
Now, long-legged mosquitos alight on, and lift from so many engineered feathers. Each cage is affixed with a slip of paper bearing SANPO’s logo—a clean-lined, abstract hybrid of a pigeon, a sunset, and what appears to be a hammerhead snake—the bird’s name and breed, and the slogan—copyrighted and heartwarming—“Together We Can Spread Our Wings and Fly to New Horizons,” which, given that the birds are both caged, and have been genetically modified to keep them grounded, has little to do with the pigeons. SANPO’s human participants, though, seem grateful for—even inspired by— the easy metaphor. I overhear many of them speaking to each other about flight, horizons, a brighter future, the new South Africa. One old man even mutters something about “uncaging hope,” to the thoughtful nods of his fellow enthusiasts.
Strung over the cages, affixed to telephone poles, light posts, and plastic SANPO javelins stabbed into the clay, are limp little flags of the world, an affectation that—despite the fact that every participant in the show is South African—may point to SANPO’s imperialist ambitions. The flags, like birds, feebly flap. This dual flapping, underscored by tinny, microphoned announcements, is the aural manifestation of these SANPO shows’ ultimate purpose and ideal (according, at least, to the brochures), “to foster the love and care of fancy pigeons, and to introduce the sport of fancy pigeons to the younger generation of South Africa.”
Amid the Frill enclosures, three members of this younger generation sit in the dust beneath the Swedish flag, watching SpongeBob on an iPad. Their parents pack birds into cages, and popcorn into their mouths. So many of these birds—the ivory Brunner Pouter especially— have such inflated torsos that, if given only a cursory glance, they appear to be headless. Even more so than the Pigmy Pouters, their heads are completely usurped by their breasts, pushed down into their torsos’ hollows, forever beneath their “surfaces,” forever in their own bodies’ shadows.
Their legs are long and skinny, and, according to one pouter fancier in a T-shirt that reads Making Progress Possible Together, “highly desired.” To be well-judged, this fancier informs me, these birds, gasping for air, must have a “perfectly round globe [or inflated crop]. The globe must—I repeat must—be ROUND AS A BALL. Not pear-shaped. Not oblong. But ROUND AS A BALL. To be exceptional, the bird itself should look like a ball on a stick… If the beak is overgrown, you must make it shorter by cutting it…”
He wishes me luck, and I wish him luck, and he turns and knocks into the foldout table that holds the SANPO fridge magnets and keychains, the pigeon-themed flower arrangements, the perfect-bound copies of the Book of Standards, and the palates of shrink-wrapped show ribbons and trophies. He picks up his glasses from the dust, and apologizes to the trophies, before rounding a wall of cages and disappearing into the panoply of shit and feathers and labored cooing. I prowl the maze, missing the warmth and weight of Sophia in my hands, smelling the stale roastiness of the pigeon feed, the rank sawdust at the cage-bottoms.
Such shows really took off in South Africa only in 2007, when, according to the SANPO literature, a small group of lonely and community-seeking breeders were anointed, “with the vision of creating a club that had the following criteria: it had to be affordable, easily accessible and have a highly visible presence to all members of the community in South Africa… engaged in the sport of exhibiting the ‘perfect’ fancy pigeon, a sport that requires dedication, skill, avian knowledge and lots of patience. To this end, the club decided to stage exhibitions… in popular shopping malls and venues where it would be visible to a high volume of people traffic.”
Soon, SANPO partnered with the headmasters of primary schools throughout South Africa, organizing fancy pigeon-related field trips, assemblies, and internships. A principal of one such school, in a thank-you-note oft-reprinted in the SANPO newsletters, praises the presenters for making the “biblical connection between pigeons and Noah’s Ark,” and for “your quest to show our children that there are far more captivating things than the evils of drugs and crime. GOD BLESS.”
Various groups of children clad in matching school uniforms parade the rows, a disproportionate number of them too busy sneezing to think about drugs or crime, let alone God. Their uniforms bear their school logos—a red crucifix bisected by a white dove; a white crucifix bisected by a red angel; a blue crucifix germinating from the spine of an open Bible; a beige crucifix sprouting the flukes of an anchor at its bottom: Anchored in the Word.
A little girl who is showing a Long-Faced Tumbler and I sneeze together, bless each other. When I ask what drew her to breed fancy pigeons, she tells me, “They have a big head, and a short beak, and I love them.” Her mother steps over to wipe her nose with a cocktail napkin, adding, “And they keep her busy, and out of trouble. Under still waters, the devil swirls around.” The mother wears a t-shirt that says, LONELINESS IS A TUNING FORK.
Devoutly, the birds—the balls on sticks, as well as the feather dusters on wheels, those with the fleshy rose-petal eyeglasses and scuba flippers, the chicken heads in fur coats with turned-up collars, the fat mushrooms flashing their bloomers, the toothbrushes standing in tufts of curly parsley, the throw pillows with the Jacobin cowls, the tree-frogs in Turkish bathrobes, the almond-headed demitasse spoons with poodle perms, and the nuns in mukluks—accept all of this excitement. It’s all they know. They will find no revelation here. They don’t even blink. We’ve numbed them trans-generationally. We’ve blinded them with science.
I follow one of the judges—a blank-faced man in a blue-and-white SANPO blazer. He downs two cans of Red Bull, tosses his trash, and starts with the first cage in the Frill section. When he opens the door, the bird gives itself to him, to his pinching of its head, his rotating of its neck, the graceless yanking of its poor wings into their full, bastardized length. In spite of all that Red Bull, his hands are steady. He pins the bird’s head to his belly with a ballpoint pen, and lifts its leg feathers as if rolling up a tiny pair of stockings, stretches its orange toes. He is doing what he was put on this earth to do.
“You see?” the judge says to the breeder—a tall nervous man with razor-burn and a runny nose.
The breeder hangs his head. “I know. I know,” he says. The ribbon, the trophy, the purse will not be his.
Before he moves on to the second cage, I stop the judge to ask him what drew him to this hobby. He spanks his own thigh with his clipboard. “I’m sorry,” he says, “but I am very busy, as you can see. But, I will tell you this: pigeons are a lifelong friend to me. Excuse me, please.”
I excuse him, but follow him through the cage-maze until he comes to Sophia. He pokes at her with a rod that looks like an old TV antenna. Jackie stands to one side of the cage, biting her lip and shifting from Ked to Ked. She watches the judge’s face, as if trying to crack some code. Her perm has fallen since early this morning, and her eyes are tired. She doesn’t seem to notice me, though I’m standing right next to the judge. She’s wearing last night’s peach blouse. I’m also clad in yesterday’s clothes.
The judge says to her, scolding, “When it stands, it must be perpendicular to the ground, and the tail must be parallel to the ground.” Sophia sashays around the rod and the judge laughs. “It’s a dancer, this one,” he says. When he ushers her from the cage, and pins her head to his belly with the pen, I swear I can hear Sophia growl. “No break at the back,” the judge says, “Very nice.” Jackie smiles weakly, as if she knows her bird is going to earn no ribbon today. She knows how to read a judge’s tone. She knows how these things go. I try to smile at her, but she’s looking at her shoes.
I turn to the sky, the blank space where birds should be. Soon, as if a frosted window, Sophia’s wing shades me from the sun, as the judge spreads it wide, assesses the way the light passes through her feathers. As he holds her aloft, she takes a shit on a broken-down cardboard box that says, CITY OF CAPE TOWN, on its side. It’s nice to see her do something so natural. A professional, the judge does not acknowledge this, but I imagine him saying, “Clean white stool, even borders, minimal splash. Very, very nice.”
The judge places Sophia back into her cage, and has somehow noticed that I am devoting more attention to her examination than that of the others. He winks at me. “A very nice bird,” he mutters, “Good tightness. Very proud. Up and coming,” before moving down the row. I feel an odd rush of fatherly pride, and give Jackie—who is eating her way through a bag of sticky marshmallows—a thumbs-up. Jackie shakes her head and, frustrated, holds a hand to my face, as if to further silence all of the nothing I have to say.
The distant two-lane highway has been free of traffic for the last ten minutes. That sound, then, is not the rushing of cars, but the wind through the ragged silver plants of the semi-desert, which itself seems to be breathing a sigh of relief now that about half of the show-birds have been packed up, and their accessories broken down, loaded. Cars are filled with ribbons and trophies, flowers and feed, pigeons and people. Dust blows into the open trunks.
Sometimes, birds lose. Bless them, so blissfully unaware of these losses. Jackie, though, is not so lucky. Her instincts compel her soft weeping. She has broken down Sophia’s show crate, and is about to place the bird in the smaller enclosure for travel. Pressed between Jackie’s palms, Sophia looks at me, twists her stubby neck. We both know she’s going into another cage; that she can only survive in a cage. I help Jackie load a corpse-sized bag of feed into the back of the Land Rover.
I don’t know what to say, so I say, “I’m sorry.”
Jackie shrugs, and wipes her face with her hand. “It’s the life, I suppose. We do this because we love it. But the money, the time, the travel. All the petrol. Most of the time, it’s the same ones who get the purses, anyhow. We can only pray for good results at the next show.”
In the trunk, Sophia paces the perimeter of her enclosure, reacts imperceptibly to the tighter dimensions. “I’m sorry,” I say again.
“Eh,” Jackie mutters, “It was nothing you did.”
She hops up into the driver’s seat, and swipes the El Cid windshield shade aside. It folds into a neat accordion which she tosses into the back with Sophia. She pats the passenger seat, and I climb in. The dashboard ashtray is overflowing with lipsticky cigarette butts. She starts the car, and before putting it into gear, she pushes the lighter in to get hot. She will spend one more night at the motel before moving on tomorrow to another set of showgrounds closer to Johannesburg. The dust follows us as we pull onto the road, drive past the giant and confounding walls of plastic bottles. At the flimsy garage, a man in palatinate blue overalls sits against the signpost, I BUY THE BURIED 2016 presiding over him like some title card. Between his feet is a single-burner propane hotplate, and he’s stirring a steaming saucepan with a strip of rawhide.
I try to make eye contact with him as we pass, to see perhaps, if he’s had a good day, but he doesn’t look up. In the desert beyond him, ox ribs poke from the dunes, and emaciated lambs graze on the overcooked scrub, which is so low to the ground that they take in mouthfuls of sand along with it. The sand will soon overtake their stomachs, and they will effectively drown in it, and die young. Their bodies will spoil before they can be eaten, a suicide of sorts, foiling the slaughter. People will go hungry. But for now, the lambs stumble amid cairns of dried horseshit, but no horses—monuments to some dead ranch, the people and animals who once trotted and rode there. Another confounding clue for the aliens to rove among, and decode. I sit, not quite knowing what to do with my hands, as if I too am waiting to be entombed, to be eaten. To sustain. I surprise myself with the loudness of my sigh. Jackie touches my shoulder.
“Really, I promise you,” she says, “It was nothing you did.” The lighter pops out hot, and Jackie lights her Peter Stuyvesant with the orange coil. For my sake, she blows the smoke toward her open window. The desert light hits her like this in a way that I notice, for the first time, a long faint scar running across her neck, as if, long ago, her throat had been cut.
Sophia is silent in the back of the car. Overhead, one cloud moves aside to exhume another; so many patches of bare blue sky, and the birds who fly there, still interred in the vapor. So many things, inexplicably surviving.
There is no party in the motel parking lot tonight. The remaining SANPO folks—the winners and the losers—are out having dinner in town at the Hoi Polloi or The Dog and Fig or The Cherry on Top or Angelo’s; or else they quietly decompress in their rooms beneath creaky ceiling fans and television light.
I force myself to envision every pigeon I saw today, take careful inventory of each manipulated variety—each one an intricate and intentional balm for some specific trouble in the corresponding breeder’s heart. I know this compulsion to take such an inventory is both neurotic and pathetic—some desperate drive to count sheep, while fully aware that it will not lead to sleep, but only to more counting. Oriental Frill, I begin, Fantail, Jacobin, Pouter, Nun…
And I tell myself that I love these birds—these birds that shouldn’t be. I love them so much, that later tonight, when everyone at the motel is fast asleep, I tell myself that I’ll sneak out to the parking lot, unhinge the doors to their cages, and coax them out into the desert with my hands. They will shuffle and flop, and will not fly amid the sand and the cacti. I will have to blink to make them out in the dark.
Their breeders will wake, and will notice that their birds are missing. Even though I will have given the pigeons a head start, their breeders, each with their two naturally-occurring legs, will be faster. But in the commotion, maybe one will get away, and maybe that one will be Sophia—the bird that I once carried, the bird that once added warmth and weight to my hands.
And maybe by the middle of tomorrow night, Sophia, marooned in the desert, exhilarated, alone, and a little frightened, will discover that she had the power to eat her own plants and insects this entire time. She will eat them beneath the stars and the arms of the cacti, and beneath the chassis of a rusty car waiting to sell a coffin or a corpse at the roadside shack across the highway from where a fancy bird show was once held. Newly free, she will gorge herself full, and tuck her head into her breast and will sleep there like that until a bemused fish eagle—so far from home—will spot her shadow, and descend and eat her. The fish eagle will be lost, exiled, so far from any water. Fish eagles do not fly like this over the dry middles of deserts, and so this, too, will be a miracle.