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Pecking Order by Tammy Hanna

The day of my 14th birthday, Mom opened her mouth to yell at me for eating cake before dinner and I saw birds in her gullet. I couldn’t tell if they were alive or dead. Their eyes were closed and they were coated with saliva but I thought I saw a twitch, a beat on one tiny red breast. The next day, Mom was a pigeon. A big one. The same size she had been, but grey, with claws and a beak and feathers. She was in the kitchen with her apron on. She couldn’t tie the strings at the back so it was just hanging around her blue-grey neck. She was standing at the stove; blinking because she could no longer make us breakfast.

“Were there any signs?” That’s what the doctor asked us. That’s what everyone asked us. My sister and father couldn’t answer. So I answered for them, furiously shaking my head. No, there were no signs. “One day she was my mother and the next she was a pigeon”. What could a doctor have said anyway, if I’d told him the truth? He couldn’t do anything for us so he sent us home.

Even though she was now a pigeon, we still recognised her. There was something in her eyes, but it was the furious pecking we responded to most. When we realised she could still read and understand us, we got a chalkboard and wrote letters of the alphabet on it and words we thought she might use and she would peck at them to let us know what she wanted. When we told her she had to stay on the balcony, she just blinked.

We just couldn’t deal with the shit everywhere. She couldn’t fly very well, being so much bigger than a pigeon’s normal size, so when she tried it, inside the house, it must have made her nervous because she shat all over the furniture including the TV and video. Dad was also worried about disease. We knew there wouldn’t be a cage big enough but we figured she wouldn’t try to fly away so we put a blanket and some cushions outside for her. She pecked for her clothes but they didn’t fit her anymore, so she kept the apron round her neck and we tied ribbons to the end of the apron strings so we could tie them high up on her back, above her wings. She was able to get a tip of a claw through a pair of her favourite shoes, some open-toed leather sandals, so we left those on the balcony with her. She couldn’t walk in them but I think it comforted her to have them there.

We tried feeding her bread, seeds and worms, but she turned her beak up at them and pecked for her favourite foods. The chilli didn’t go down too well. Nor the beef chimichangas. Nor anything with spices. But rice did. She loved rice. She couldn’t seem to get enough of it. Four days in a row all she pecked was rice! rice! rice! We hadn’t added any punctuation to the chalkboard but she added a few extra hard pecks at the end of certain words that couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. On the fifth day, we had nearly run out of rice. I called Dad at the office and left a message with his secretary that he should buy more rice. Dad was going to work earlier and coming home later than usual, so Tina and I took on most of Mom’s care.

We cooked as much as we could before going to school and that day, left four full dinner plates of rice on the balcony for her. When we got home, we found her on the kitchen floor, her grey stomach bloated like she’d swallowed a hot air balloon. The dinner plates were empty and there was uncooked rice scattered on the floor. “Oh no, she ate uncooked rice!” Maybe we should have told her, but we thought she’d know. She’d always scowled at people who threw raw rice at newlyweds outside church doors, “It can kill them you know,” she’d shout as we hurried her along.

She wasn’t making a sound but her eyes were still alive and there was a rise and fall to her chest. I called Dad’s office but he wasn’t there. I called the doctor but he pretended he didn’t know who we were. So we knocked on a neighbour’s door. He stared at us, said he would call a vet and closed his door. We waited and waited, but no one came. We didn’t know what else to do so we sat on the floor next to Mom. Tina scrunched in close, her small arms squeezing me. “I miss her.” I nodded. “I know she was mean and yelled a lot but I miss her.” I squeezed her back and started rocking her. I tried to remember if Mom ever rocked us like that. She must have. There must have been a time when she didn’t just always yell. But I couldn’t remember that far back.

A few hours later, Tina was asleep when Mom’s claws started twitching and she rolled onto her back and then onto her other side. Her beak facing the other way, I heard a belching noise followed by slow rhythmic retching. When it stopped, I eased Tina off me and tiptoed round to take a look.

Next to Mom’s beak, in a puddle of pale liquid was a worm the size of my arm. It rippled and when it turned, I almost screamed. It had a face and I recognised it. It was our grandmother, our mother’s mother. We had one grainy black and white photo of her that had been framed and always held pride of place in our home. My mother had lost her when she was still a girl and that photo was all she’d had left of her. In it, she was still young. Newly married but not yet a mother. She’d looked directly at the camera, her chin tilted up, her face held in fierce dignity. It made me proud to look at her face in that picture. It made me hope that some of her fierceness would eventually find its way to me and blossom in my blood. I’ve always wished I could have met her. And here she was. Limbless, hairless and pink as guts. She looked at me, not knowing who I was. Then she looked at the pigeon and whimpered.

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Tammy Hanna was born in Thailand but lived a nomadic childhood in the Middle East before settling in London. If you ask her where she’s from, she’s liable to hand you the novel she’s been working on for years. Her writing appears in the recently published anthology, Pay Attention: A River of Stones.

Pecking Order came into being when a nearly forgotten image from a dream met a photographic writing prompt. It was not so much written as regurgitated onto the page nearly whole…

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. 04/02/2011 01:14

    An exciting and imaginative rendering of a dream that spills over into real life. Superb.

  2. 04/02/2011 03:47

    Now, that is a strangely compelling tale. Nice job.

  3. 04/02/2011 07:34

    I’m in love with this story. It manages a quiet normality within its bizarre subject. Congrats.

  4. Liz Haigh permalink
    04/02/2011 08:09

    I’m never going to look at pigeons in the same way again.(Or my mother for that matter)

    Brilliant story.

  5. Cezarija Abartis permalink
    04/03/2011 01:17

    I love the deadpan realism of this, the apron with the ribbon ties. Very nice!

  6. G. K. Adams permalink
    04/04/2011 13:45

    This is so bizarre, but you drew me right in with your selection of details. I love it!

  7. Sue Ann permalink
    04/04/2011 23:15

    Wonderful. The last paragraph is a haunting summation.

  8. 06/27/2011 22:40

    Wow, that’s all I have to say. That opening paragraph grabbed me and I couldn’t stop. I’m putting a link to this up on our Read Short Fiction Facebook page in the next couple of days.

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