When the pigeon first spoke to Jennifer that morning in the playground, she responded by pretending to examine something absolutely fascinating at the top of a nearby tree. Her every instinct told her to ignore the talking bird.
“Excuse me, young lady,” the pigeon said. “Excuse me?”
Don’t look! Jennifer said to herself. Just don’t even look.
Of course, it was possible she had dozed off and the talking pigeon was part of an unpleasant dream. It was very hot in the playground and she was rather tired because she hadn’t been sleeping well lately. For the past few weeks, she’d been having these weird dreams involving this barefoot guy with curly red hair and intense blue eyes who was always wearing a monk’s long, woolen robe. When he tried to communicate with her (in Latin, by the way!), she could barely hear him although he was obviously shouting at the top of his lungs. Last night, for the first time, she had actually been able to decipher the words: “Fallaces sunt rerum species,” which she (as an A+ Latin student) knew meant, “Things are not what they seem.” And then, as this guy (whose name sounded something like “Servus” or “Sembrus”) faded into blackness again, he added, “Omnia causa fiunt”which means, “Everything happens for a reason.”
Maybe so, she had thought, but why must everything happen to me?
“Hello,” the pigeon persisted. “Young lady? Terribly sorry to bother you! Really I am. But can you help me? It won’t take long.”
Why me? She wondered again now, leaving off her examination of the tree and returning her attention toward the magazine she had brought with her to pass the time. Why me?
She wouldn’t have even been here in the first place—on one of the hottest and most humid days of the summer—but her mother had insisted that James, her noise-machine brother, vacate the apartment so that she could study in peace for the bar exam. That meant Jennifer had to accompany the little pain-in-the-butt to Central Park, since there was no way her mother was going to let an eleven-year-old, especially someone as irritating as James, go there alone. What exactly Jennifer was supposed to do in the event of an attempted kidnapping or other un-named harassment had never been made clear to her.
“Should I take my little silver derringer, Mother?” Jennifer had asked innocently at breakfast.
This had gotten a laugh from James but only a withering glance from her mother. As a rule, sarcasm did not work on Mrs. Tindal, and her sense of humor had suffered a definite decline during the last few days as the dreaded bar exam approached and her studying intensified.
“The problem is this blasted string!” the pigeon continued, annoying Jennifer by ignoring the fact that she was studiously ignoring him. He glanced down at his right foot, which was badly tangled in a piece of twine from a deflated balloon. Worse still, as the pigeon now discovered, the other end of the twine was attached to a wrought iron fence surrounding the playground.
“Oh, for a pair of hands!” he cried dramatically. “My kingdom for a pair of hands!”
“Give me a break,” Jennifer muttered to herself.
The pigeon was speaking in an English accent that made him sound quite educated and grand as he enunciated his lines. All in all, it was a well-executed trick, she thought. However, her grudging admiration did not stop her from continuing to become aggravated. After all, it was very hot, and someone was trying to make her look like a fool by pretending to be a talking pigeon.
She looked across the playground to where the most likely suspect, James, was racing around with his friend, Sleepy. Actually, to be precise, Sleepy wasn’t a friend so much as someone to kill time with, since all of James’ real friends were away at summer camp or otherwise on vacation. Sleepy had so many allergies that his mother said camp was out of the question for him. She only let him go to the Park for a few hours at a time, and insisted that he carry his inhaler in his pocket. The allergy medication he took made him tired, hence the nickname.
But, Jennifer couldn’t blame the talking pigeon act on James and Sleepy. They were thirty yards away and, despite the boiling sun, were busy chasing each other up and down the slide. Who was it then? She wondered. There was no one else around except for a handful of toddlers whining because of the heat, and their nannies who took turns dozing on the wooden benches.
Pretending to read her magazine, Jennifer looked sideways at the pigeon. For the most part, he had classic pigeon coloring. His feathers were light gray on much of his rounded body, with double dark bars on the wings and iridescent green and purple feathers at the neck. His feet were the usual pigeon pink. However, on the very top of his head was an almost perfectly circular crown of pure white feathers. It made him look like he had a bald spot.
“Curse the luck!” He cried mournfully, though in a rather sweet voice. He would have been a tenor in the choir, if pigeons were allowed in church. “Curses! Curses! Curses!”
The bird flapped his wings and pecked at the string in a very pathetic manner. The longer this stunt went on, the more she became convinced (unhappily!) that if someone had gone to all the trouble of pretending to be a talking pigeon with an English accent, there must also be a hidden camera set up somewhere.
This just gets better and better, she thought. When she first arrived at Central Park that morning, she had braided her long reddish blonde hair because it was so hot. But what would her (always stylish) friends from school say if they discovered her on the Internet or on some brainless TV show? She could hear it now.
“Are you, like, a milkmaid from Norway or something?” they’d ask. “Where’s your little wooden bucket?”
Nice. Real nice.
Still unwilling to let on that she had seen or heard the pigeon, Jennifer nonchalantly scanned the surrounding area, but there was no telltale shine of a hidden lens. Nor was there a van or other structure that could conceal a camera crew. But what if only one person was working on this project and he was using a Nanny-Cam. Those were really tiny!
She looked again at the pigeon, just for the briefest moment. That was her first mistake of the morning. He saw she had noticed him (that is, the person behind this stupid trick saw that). With the bobbing head of pigeons everywhere, he seemed to glance from his foot to Jennifer and back again.
“I truly could use your help, young lady,” he said, dipping his head slightly, almost seeming to bow. “If you please? I’m in rather a bit of a bind at the moment. No pun intended.”
“Nice try, whoever you are,” Jennifer said, carefully panning the entire area again as she spoke to see if she could tell from which direction the hidden camera was filming her. (What was her best side, anyway?) “A talking pigeon. That’s sooooo likely.”
She smoothed the loose strands of hair along the side of her face, straightened her magazine and tried to act mildly irritated at the scam but otherwise unconcerned (and not crazy-angry like some weirdo). She was a pretty girl with her mother’s long, reddish blonde hair and blue eyes and a small, upturned nose. However, all she saw when she looked in the mirror (which was rather often, but about average for a girl almost thirteen) was what was wrong with her face. She was sure her mother was way prettier.
Unfortunately, the pigeon was not giving up easily and continued to talk. Even more unsettling, his beak opened and closed in perfect synchronization with the words. Whoever was pulling this prank had gotten the routine down pat, Jennifer thought.
“I realize this must seem a bit strange to you,” the pigeon continued amiably. “Perfectly understandable reaction, by the way. But I assure you this is no joke.” As if to prove the point, he flapped his wings in a vain attempt to fly. “Yeow, that bloody hurts!”
Jennifer looked back at her magazine. Of course, she wasn’t actually reading. Who could read with a pigeon flapping away and shrieking like a banshee a few feet from her? She was especially bothered that the poor bird really seemed to be suffering and might hurt itself if it continued to try to escape.
“I know this is a trick,” she said firmly, still addressing the invisible camera. She stretched out her long legs and quickly pulled them back again. She was sure they would look like beanpoles, or worse, depending on what kind of camera they were using. “I don’t know how it’s being done, or why,” she repeated. “But it’s a trick.”
“Yes, yes,” the bird replied in his meticulous British voice. “Absolutely right. A hoax! And a perfectly dreadful hoax it is. What an idea! Preposterous! Just undo the string and I’ll be off. Righto. That’s the girl.”
With an irritated sigh, Jennifer slid over to the end of the bench, intending only to release the pigeon from its captivity. And that was her second mistake of the morning.
Closer now, she could see that the string was wrapped very tightly around the bird’s foot. It threatened to cut off his circulation.
“This is really a very mean thing to do!” she said. She was annoyed that the whole charade was continuing, but was also thinking that if the pranksters tried to use any film footage, she would tell the local animal rights organization and the law would come down on them like a ton of bricks.
“Couldn’t agree more,” said the pigeon, bobbing his head in a way that was very irritating under all the circumstances. “Perfectly terrible.”
“Oh, shut up!” Jennifer snapped.
At that moment, a group of pigeons that had been eating bread and birdseed nearby suddenly took off together. The beating of so many wings created a sudden, strong breeze, tossing up dust and bits of leaves and a few loose feathers.
“Yuck,” Jennifer said. She picked a feather out of her hair.
“Oh my,” said the bird in a worried voice. “There must be a hawk in the vicinity. Would you hurry, just a bit?”
“Hurry? You’re asking me to hurry?!”
She had already been warm just sitting in the shade. Now she was covered with a thin coating of dust and feathers from the ascending pigeons and when she’d slid down the bench and emerged into the hot sun, sweat had immediately dribbled across her forehead. How would that look posted on the internet?
The pigeon let out a screech like chalk across a blackboard.
“Oh, my good God!!” he cried. “Malman! It can’t be! But it is! Malman is here! And he’s going to kill me!”
The pigeon began flapping his wings frantically.
“Stop that right now!” Jennifer said, forgetting for a moment that she was talking to a pigeon. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
“Hurt myself? I’m going to die outright on this godforsaken piece of American asphalt if you don’t take this bloody string off right now!”
Jennifer was extremely irritated now, but she quickly got off the bench and bent over to grab the pigeon. And that was her third mistake of the morning. There really was no turning back now.
To her surprise, the bird did not try to escape as her hands wrapped around his feathery body. It was as if he really understood that she was trying to help him.
Then the pigeon flinched and let out a howl that was genuinely full of fear.
Jennifer hunched her shoulders in response to the warning and felt a violent rush of air and a searing pain near the top of her back as a blow out of nowhere knocked her forward. Holding onto the pigeon, she dropped to her knees. Then a second voice spoke to her, very nearby it seemed—a voice that was deep and sinister, but also with an origin in the British Isles.
“Give me that pigeon!” he roared.
Jennifer turned to look over her shoulder and gasped at the sight of a large hawk perched on top of the wrought iron fence surrounding the playground. Her heart was beating a mile a minute. Her arms and legs trembled. What was going on now? Was this still a trick?
“Give him up,” the hawk screamed again.
“Go away you nasty old thing, whatever you are,” Jennifer yelled right back.
The hawk stretched toward her threateningly, as though he wanted to peck at her face. She drew backwards.
“The devil take you then!” he said, and with a mighty push of his legs, he flew upward and away on the strong, steady beat of his wings. “You’ll regret it!”
Jennifer was awestruck. With one eye on the fast-ascending hawk, she unwound the string that still held the pigeon to the fence.
“What in the world just happened?” she asked of no one in particular, although only the pigeon was close enough to hear her.
“Young lady, you have fought off the notorious Malman and saved my life. Bravo! Or should I say, Brava!”
“Malman? It certainly looked like an ordinary hawk to me.”
But why am I talking to this pigeon? she asked herself.
“Ordinary? Oh no. That was Malman all right. I’d know the wicked curve of his beak and that set of shifty eyes anywhere.” He paused and seemed to shudder before continuing. “But that’s no concern of yours. So if you would just let go of me, I will depart with my fond memories of your goodness and loveliness, and bid you adieu.”
“Not so fast,” she said. Her shoulder still hurt from the collision with the hawk, and she was almost certain the creature’s sharp claws had ripped her brand-new pink shirt. “You’re not going anywhere until I get an explanation. You think this is a joke? Well, I’m not laughing.”
“But, my dear lovely girl—”
“And stop calling me lovely!”
The pigeon seemed to shrink in her hands.
“Yes, of course,” he stammered. “But I assure you this is not some sort of joke. That hawk was out to kill me and you thwarted him and I am genuinely grateful. Only, please let me go. There is nothing to be gained by holding onto me.”
“Oh yes there is. I may not be quite thirteen years old yet, but I know a lawsuit when I see one. Whoever is pulling the strings here is going to pay for this, big time!”
“Where’s the microphone?”
She looked all over the pigeon, but there was nothing that could hold even a very small device. No metal band. Nothing.
“I know how very odd this must seem to you,” the pigeon said. “But I assure you there is no trick.”
“The microphone must be on the bench. That’s it, isn’t it?”
She examined the back and sides of the bench carefully, but again saw nothing. She was crouching down to look underneath, when the pigeon let out a mournful and bitterly ironic sound about midway between a howl and a laugh.
“My dear, there is no microphone! I am merely an unfortunate man who was turned into a pigeon by evil magic years ago. Beneath this veil of feathers, a gentle human spirit lives.”
“Yeah, right. And you think I’m just the fool who will fall for such a trick.” And then she paused and remembered the dream she had had the night before and what the red-haired man had said: Things are not what they seem.
What in the world was going on? Could a pigeon actually be a person? Could a hawk really threaten her?
“I can prove it to you!” the pigeon said earnestly. “Walk to the other side of the playground with me. You’ll see. Does the mellifluous sound of my voice come from anywhere except my mouth? There is no trick.”
With the pigeon firmly in her grip, Jennifer walked across the playground toward the climbing apparatus where James and Sleepy were playing. As she did so, the pigeon recited a piece from Richard II:
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…
Just as the pigeon had predicted, his voice never wavered in strength or displayed any static the entire time.
“That was very nice,” said Jennifer, although she thought someone was a showoff. Shakespeare? Really?
“Thank you,” said the pigeon. “I can do Henry IV also. The scene just before the battle is my personal favorite. Would you like to hear it?”
“Sorry, but not now,” Jennifer said. The pigeon seemed to wilt with disappointment in her hands. “I have to think. If you actually are a talking pigeon, that changes things. In fact, it changes so many things, I hardly know what to say, or think. This is so weird.”
“Yes, it truly is. And you don’t know the half of it,” the pigeon said. “Not the half of it.” His voice became dreamy as he spoke, as though his thoughts now were far away. Then, he seemed to snap out of his reverie, and he stared at her with one reddish pigeon eye. “But believe me, you don’t want to know. This is a dangerous business and Malman is a very dangerous individual. He’s killed before. He won’t hesitate to kill again. So for your own sake as well as mine, let me go!”
“Not on your life.”
“Excuse me? This is kidnapping.”
“You’re a bird, remember.”
“But I’m a human inside this pigeon’s body. I know it’s hard to grasp. But I truly am the victim of a bit of magic gone haywire. My own fault, really. Should have read the spell a bit more slowly, but the Latin was rather dense and, of course, I knew Malman was on my trail and in fact he came upon me at just the very worst time…”
“Save your breath,” Jennifer said. “You’re not going anywhere until I have a chance to think this through.”
“Young lady, I demand that you let me go,” the pigeon shouted.
“Don’t act tough with me,” she shouted back.
While she had been talking to the pigeon, James and Sleepy had stopped playing and come over to see why she’d gotten up and moved out of the shade. James’ light blond hair, which had been cut very short for the summer, was now plastered to the side of his face in tight little curls by his perspiration. He was growing fast, but he was not yet as tall as his sister and quite a bit heavier. He wore a New York Mets baseball cap backwards on his head, summer or winter.
“Hey, Jenny,” James asked. “Who are you talking to? Your imaginary friend?”
He laughed at his attempt at humor, but Sleepy just stood there squinting into the distance, as if he was trying to understand what was so funny about having an imaginary friend.
“Heh, heh,” said Sleepy.
Then James noticed the pigeon for the first time.
“Jenny, what are you doing with a pigeon?” he asked. “Those things are dirty and full of lice.”
The pigeon seemed to bristle as though insulted. However, he didn’t say anything.
Meanwhile, Sleepy rubbed his eyes and blinked rapidly, stifling a yawn and gaping at the captured pigeon at the same time. He was several inches shorter than James and skinny, with very pale skin and dark-rimmed glasses. His straight brown hair fell almost to his shoulders. He pushed it away from his face and smiled at Jennifer.
“My mom said I’m probably allergic to birds,” Sleepy said. “Especially pigeons. That’s why she won’t let me feed them at the zoo. Is it sick? It looks kind of sick. What’s wrong with its head? Is it bald?”
Again, the pigeon seemed on the verge of a retort, but stopped himself.
“Let the thing go, will you?” James said.
He grabbed at the pigeon, and Jennifer spun away from him.
“Cut it out, James,” she said, and there was an unusually serious quality to her voice that made him stop. “Now, listen to me, both of you. You have to swear that what I am about to tell you will never be repeated to anyone, ever in your whole life! So help you God, and if you tell, may God strike you with lightening or turn you into a slimy toad, whichever seems worse at the time! Swear!”
A little intimidated by her tone—especially Sleepy, who had turned even paler than normal—the two boys swore as she had asked.
Still she hesitated. Everything happens for a reason, she thought, remembering the second piece of her dream. But, what was the reason?
“Okay,” she said. “Here goes. This bird was talking to me five minutes ago.”
“What?!” This was James’ exclamation. Sleepy was speechless.
“I’m not kidding,” she continued. “I saved him from a hawk that also had a few words to say. He landed on my back. See for yourself.”
She turned around and bent over slightly. James let out a gasp at the sight of her torn shirt and scratched skin.
Sleepy retreated a step.
“That’s not real blood, is it?” he asked. With his hands on the sides of his head, he yanked his hair backward as though he wanted to pull it out. “The sight of blood makes me nauseous.”
“How did that happen?” James demanded.
“I told you it was a hawk. This pigeon had his foot caught in a piece of string and I was untying him. Then the hawk arrived and as he was trying to get Mr. Pigeon here, I got in his way instead.”
“Hawks do eat pigeons,” James said thoughtfully. “Happens all the time in the Park.”
“It does?” said Sleepy. “I didn’t know there were hawks in Central Park. Is that true, Jenny?”
He looked up at the sky apprehensively.
“What am I, an encyclopedia?” Jennifer asked.
“Don’t worry, Sleepy,” James said. “Even you are too big for a hawk to eat. Jenny must have just gotten in the way when the hawk was coming after the pigeon. It’s totally logical.”
“Fine, Professor,” Jennifer said sarcastically. “Then how do you explain that the hawk cursed me also, just after he hit my shoulder? Is that totally logical?”
James didn’t know what to say. He stared at his sister, clearly hoping she would just start laughing and set the pigeon free, and he and Sleepy could go back to playing again.
Sleepy tugged at James’ shirt.
“She’s kidding, right?” Sleepy whispered.
“Be quiet a minute, Sleepy,” James replied. “I’m trying to think.”
“This is not a joke!” Jennifer said.
“Do you swear?” James asked.
“I swear. So help me God, and may he strike me with lightning or turn me into a slimy toad if I’m lying. The pigeon talked and the hawk cursed me. At first I thought it was all part of some very odd trick, but I haven’t been able to find any microphones or anything. I’m telling you the truth, James. Five minutes ago, this pigeon was reciting Shakespeare.”
Sleepy tugged at James’ sleeve again. He had changed position to stand a bit behind James now.
“Would you ask Jenny to stop? She’s really scaring me.”
“I’m telling you what happened,” Jennifer said, ignoring Sleepy.
“Then why won’t he talk now?” James asked.
“Because there’s a very smart person inside that pigeon. He knows that if he just keeps quiet, people like you and Sleepy will think I’m crazy or playing a joke and eventually I’ll have to let him go.”
She paused. Except for the white patch of feathers on the very top of his head, the bird she held looked like any of a hundred pigeons a person might pass in New York City over the course of a day. He stared at her with one eye, then the other, bobbing his head gently and cooing from deep within his breast. For a moment, she wondered if she really was crazy. Had she in fact suffered some heat-related hallucination? She felt a little dizzy. But then a voice seemed to call to her faintly from inside her head. She recognized the voice as that of the crazy, red-haired guy from her dreams. “Dura, Jennifer,” he was saying, “endure, be strong!”
Great, Jennifer thought. Now I’m awake and hearing voices?
She looked up in the air. High above was the circling hawk.
“Come with me, James. I know a way to prove it one way or the other. Grab my backpack with our lunch bags. We’re going for a little hike. You can come too, Sleepy.”
“I’m not sure I want to come,” said Sleepy.
“You’re coming!” Jennifer replied. “I want all the witnesses I can get.”
End of sampler. For more information, please visit Things Are Not What They Seem