Hialeah skies have never seen a pigeon as handsome as you, Maceo. Rare is the hen who could ignore your splendor once your flight path has crossed hers. But then again, you’ve always preferred the rare ones, the hens whose masters would bet yours that their ladybirds were immune to your cocky strut and your shimmering plumage of bronze and copper. Your kind keeper, the Wrinkled Man, has never been one to shy away from a challenge.
He lifts the veil of what you perceive as night. You watch him perform his morning ritual where he sips from a tiny cup and smoke billows in and out of his mouth and nostrils. He ambles over to your loft and unlatches the door. Though the door is wide open, you dare not flutter out—you have more manners than that. The Wrinkled Man presents you with a half-empty feeder, the tremble in his hand has peppered the lawn with a medley of sunflower seeds, corn kernels, and dried peas. You fly up to your perch once you’ve had your fill and stare back at him, cooing and twitching with satisfaction.
Next to your loft is the coop filled with the harem of ladybirds you’ve wooed over the years. The pigeon hens span a lovely spectrum of size, age, and color. Some are old, stygian, and stout. Others are young, lithe, and iridescent. All of them adore you.
Your cooing wakes some of the hens. They cling to the chicken wire that stands between you and their devotion. The hens vie for your attention, but your gorgeous beady eyes are fixed on the Wrinkled Man’s, which are muddled with ashen clouds. He sings his usual song, “Maceo, pajaro bello, buscame la paloma mas linda que hay en el cielo.”
The Wrinkled Man holds out a trembling palm. With a little hop, his hand becomes your perch. He holds you out and all the hens swoon. Your chest swells with lofty pride as they coo songs of love and adoration. You coo back, “Make room, my loves, for you will have a new sister by day’s end.”
Your master smiles wide as he tightens the red bow tied around your left tarsus. He pushes upward ever so gently and the calloused skin beneath your feet disappears.
The world below shrinks as you climb ever higher. From above, homes that seemed immensities on the ground become boxes no bigger than cages and coops. You make a pass over the Wrinkled Man’s house. He’s taken his own perch on the rooftop and follows your every move, not with his eyes, but with an object he holds out in front of them. A few rooftops over, you spot another man doing the same. You do not recognize him, but know his coop well. He keeps many doves and fair-feathered hens, all of which do their best to pretend they do not notice whenever you drop in on them. Most of the hens are rather plain, with only one or two of exceptional loveliness among the flock. You hope your master’s rival has released his most impressive specimen: a Saxon Whitetail adorned with swaths of brown and ivory—even if she is seemingly trained to ignore suitors darker than her.
And you, Maceo, are no dove.
A gradient of black to silver starts at your head and ends at your abdomen. Your neck is inlaid with flecks of purple and green. Your wings are what give you your name. Like General Antonio Maceo, El Titan de Bronce, you boast a broad, burnished wingspan. Wings like yours have been the envy of fellow conquistador pigeons and their breeders alike. Hens fortunate enough to bear your offspring have done so with the hope their chicks will mature with some semblance of your elegance, if only to keep your legend alive.
You touch down on the balcony of a nearby home and scan the skies for the day’s conquest. A flash of green darts from the crown of a palm tree. Your head ticks about trying to follow its course. The jade blur crosses your sights once more. This time, you spot traces of white and blue on the tail end. The bird lands on a wire and sings in a dialect you struggle to understand. You find its stout orange beak odd, but endearing. And its colors! Blues and greens and reds make this creature more winged vision than bird, a sight you can hardly believe. Had you seen this bird in any of the neighborhood coops, you’d remember it as a breath of color amid the muted tones of pigeon hens. You feel something shift under your claws, as if you’ve taken off and flown higher than ever, but you’re grounded, undeniably tethered to that bird on the wire.
The small bird’s song and the beak it sings from remind you of the taste of mango. Based on size and sound, you figure the bird for female. The only way to be sure is to charm it as you would any ladybird. You could entice her with an ethereal dance among the clouds. Your honeyed coos would deliver promises of a new life in a coop beside your loft. You’re intent on using all your charms just to see the slow rise of her tail feathers—an invitation to mate and proliferate your renown.
You’ll begin as all courtships do, with an introduction. As you take flight, the flutter of your wings alerts the emerald bird. She takes a few hops away from you, then stops to peck and pull at something on her leg. Already, you can tell that this will be no easy conquest. But, if you can get close enough to tell her how lovely her birdsong was, or inquire about her accent, or maybe even casually brush your neck against hers; she is as good as wooed.
Though not as close as you’d like to be, you land on the wire. Landing right beside her would be much too forward. From here, you can see that she is holding a yellow ribbon. She turns to you and opens her beak, but no song flies out, just the yellow ribbon. It twirls in the humid air in a winding course towards the earth. Conquistador pigeons are many things—athletes, lovers, poets—but above all, they are bred as gentlemen. You dive after the ribbon in hopes of returning it to her unsullied by the ground below. Any onlooker would’ve only seen the ribbon, followed by a flash of russet, and then, nothing except the cloudless sky.
You fly back up to the wire, the ribbon firmly in your grasp. Only, your beloved is nowhere to be found. You tuck the ribbon away underneath your left wing for safekeeping. Desperate, you call out, “Rare beauty, you are as much a flower as you are a songbird! I would give up my wings to hear your song up-close.”
A white pigeon hen lands on the wire so suddenly that she seems to materialize out of the only cloud on an otherwise clear day. She coos, “My, what an offer. You would part with such a handsome span just to hear me sing? My grandhen was part nightingale, you know. No one ever notices. What an ear you must have.”
“There’s been a misunderstanding.”
“Has there? I see no other rare beauties nearby, only you and I,” she coos. Your head twitches about, still in search of the green bird. She continues, “There is no need to be shy, Maceo. Your reputation precedes you.”
“How do you know my name?”
“Is there a hen that doesn’t? My keeper has warned me about you since I was a chick. Odd how that’s only made me want to meet you even more,” she coos, taking a small hop closer to you, “I’m Nieve, in case you really are too shy to ask.”
To your chagrin, you realize that this is the hen for which the Wrinkled Man has sent. Nieve’s white breast and supple brown rump aren’t weighed down by the sag of age. She coos with a boldness uncommon among older hens. You know from experience that older hens are far too demure to approach you—or any cock, really—the way that Nieve has. They value the courtship, the pursuit, almost as much as you do. Which is why, when tasked with courting Nieve, you cannot help but imagine that her wings are green instead of white, that her beak is rounded rather than pointed, that her arrival happened by chance and had never been arranged.
Nieve rests in the corner of your loft, glowing pale under the moonlight. Her body heaves softly as she sighs in her sleep. You have spent the day mating, reluctantly. You want nothing more than for the Wrinkled Man to remove the brash hen from your loft. Tonight, however, you must share it with her; it is the one chivalrous act you’ve left to perform.
All you want is to be left alone with the memory of your elusive green love, while it is still fresh. If pigeons never forget a place, then you, Maceo, must be part raven, for you cannot shake loose the vision of her face.
Three days later, Nieve is retrieved by her owner. You are sapped from hosting her, having to feign interest while harboring a growing love for your green bird. You nuzzle her ribbon as the hens sleep next door. The color green has become a conduit between you and wherever she may be. You pick at your food, eating peas and nothing else. Whenever the Wrinkled Man releases you for your daily flight, you take to the ground and loiter on the greenest lawns. And the hens’ compliments have become fewer, or perhaps you’ve simply stopped listening.
By the fourth day, your longing is altogether unbearable. How are you to find and woo the green bird? Certainly not by languishing in your loft. The comforts you know are nothing if not shared with her. You resolve that when the Wrinkled Man releases you for the day, you will not return.
Life outside of the loft has been unkind. You are forced to forage for food at your peril. Twice, your meals have been interrupted by beasts with gaping maws and wagging tails. Another time, you spotted a smaller beast slinking about in the grass as you drank from a puddle. You flew away just as it pounced. The agile creature even managed to scale the tree in which you sought refuge.
You’ve been witness to the uglier side of birdkind: a murder of crows stripping meat from fur-lined flesh; drakes fighting over a single mate as she wallows in her own waste, her shrieking brood in tow. If anything, all of this strengthens your will to find the green bird and rescue her from enduring another day of hardship.
Many of the homes in the area are kind to birds, as they hang boxes full of food from their trees. All kinds of birds are known to frequent these boxes when foraging yields nothing. One day, you stop at one of these boxes to eat and rest for a while. You tuck the yellow ribbon away in your wings, which you keep in your beak while flying.
As you hide your keepsake, a nosy blue jay lands to feed and asks, “What’cha got there? Can I see it? Looks shiny. Lemme see it, lemme see it!”
The bird continues to pester you while you feed, until finally, you coo, “Enough! If I show you what I have, will you let me eat in peace?”
“Yup, yup. Sure will,” the blue jay squawks.
You pull the ribbon out from underneath your left wing with your beak. The blue jay twitches with glee and sings, “Pretty, pretty!” He cocks his head to the side, “Wait, that doesn’t belong to you! You stole it from the pretty, green parakeet!”
“You know her?” you coo back, astonished.
“Yup, yup. Sure do. She’s real nice. Always leaves enough food in the box for the rest of us.”
“Which box? This box?” you ask.
“Yup, yup. No, no. I mean, there’s boxes everywhere. Lots of good food in these trees. Last I saw her was in that there mango tree.”
Over the next few days, you seek out trees with boxes in them and show passing birds the ribbon, hoping they may recognize its true owner. At the buttonwood, a sparrow tells you she has seen the parakeet feeding in an avocado tree. There, a family of kingbirds tells you to check where the sea grapes grow: this tree houses a feral pigeon who points you toward a large, branchy gumbo limbo. You lose count of how many boxes, birds, and sunsets you’ve come across. Hope wears thin, until a bulbul sends you to a towering pine where he once saw your beloved collecting needles, for a nest most likely.
An old raven lives in the pine tree. His feathers shimmer with a purple sheen against the pink sunset. You land near his nest and he caws, “Announce yourself. I never forget a face and you, pigeon, are a stranger.”
“I am called Maceo and I seek the company of a lovely green bird. This,” gesturing at the ribbon in your claws, “belongs to her. Have you any idea where she may be found?”
The raven inspects the ribbon closely. His eyes dart back and forth between the trinket and your gaze. “I know where she nests. Too many times I’ve told her to quit pillaging my tree. Tell me, pigeon, what will you give me if I take you to her?”
“Suppose I can assure you that she will no longer disturb your home?”
“The word of an intruder matters little to me.”
“Very well, noble raven. I offer you this, the object I adore most,” you coo, laying the ribbon down at his claws.
The raven looks at the ribbon, pecks at it a few times. His eyes meet yours and he caws, “It will do, pigeon.” He takes the ribbon, hops over to his nest, and tucks it away in the tangle of dry twigs and leaves. “You may stay here tonight, if you must. We leave tomorrow, when the sun is highest in the sky.”
You have spent the night spying on the horizon through the pine’s thick branches. When the sun rises, you fix your gaze upon its burning bulk, looking away only to check on the raven. You are sleep-deprived, yet cannot grasp how truly tired and hungry you are. Still, you’ve somehow tethered your spirits to the sun’s path across the sky. Once it has reached its peak, you fly down to the raven’s nest and coo, “My beloved awaits. Lead the way, good raven.”
You and the raven fly close to the ground, just above the rooftops. You pass all of the trees and food boxes that have led you to the raven, and ultimately, your beloved green bird. The location of the Wrinkled Man’s home has never left your memory. Your return will be glorious. The hens will welcome their brilliant new sister with open wings and the Wrinkled Man will adore you even more for the color you’ve brought into his home.
The raven banks left and lands on a wire. A flame tree wreathed in red flowers sways below. The raven squawks, “This is the place. Tell her to keep away from my pine. You should do the same.” He takes off, leaving only the flutter of his black wings in his wake.
You descend into the flame tree’s colorful brush, hopping and flying from branch to branch in search of the parakeet’s nest. Your senses are aflutter and this reminds you of the time you sipped from the Wrinkled Man’s tiny cup. The sweet black nectar made your tiny heart thump so hard it was almost visible through your feathers. Every one of your limbs was tensed and primed to take flight, but all you could do was twitch and pace until the Wrinkled Man returned to soothe your frenzy. Here, in this flame tree, you think of his hands, the way he thumbs your crown and neck, how his limbs, like that of any old benevolent tree, were once your home.
The drumming in your chest subsides as a breeze shakes flowers loose from its branches. Another breeze blows, carrying with it the scent of pine. You follow where the aroma leads, and teetering on the end of tree’s thickest limb, you spot a nest brimming with pine needles.
Suddenly, the parakeet lands right in front of you. She extends her wings and trills, “Mira chico, there is no food here. Try the ciruela tree down the street.”
If there are words to capture how lovely she is up close, every one of them evades you. All you can coo is, “Maceo? Uh, yes, my name is Maceo.”
“Como?” she trills back.
The nerve you are known for trickles back into you. With a puffed-up chest, you coo, “I am Maceo. I do not seek food. You are all the sustenance I will ever need, my love. I have come to—”
“Maceo? So, you’re the pajaro that’s been asking about me?”
“Yes. I have searched many days and many nights for you.”
“So, you’re the reason I can’t eat or drink without hearing about you waving around that damned ribbon,” she trills. “Okay, you found me. Que quieres?”
“What I want does not matter. What matters is what you need. A beauty like you shouldn’t have to struggle for food or shelter. I can give you all of that and so much more.”
“I am nobody’s prisoner. Not anymore.”
“Prisoner? I do not follow.”
“Of course not; you’re still a prisoner!”
You venture the most romantic guess you can conjure, “As in, I am a prisoner of my desire and only you can set me free?”
“No, pendejo! I mean you were hatched in a cage and you will die in a cage! Eso no es vida, chico! I sat in that dirty cage for too long, wondering what it is to eat, to sleep, to fly when I want to—not when that bored old hag said I could. Now, no one can take away mi libertad. Not you, not anybody. Comprendes?”
Her words cut down to your hollow bones. You’ve lived a kept life with comfort and love abounding, but what about freedom? Without fail, you have always chosen the cage. And now that you’ve tasted freedom, you find it harsh and unkind to a palate as refined as yours.
Everything—food, sex, shelter—can be taken for granted, but not liberty. Moments of regret are few in a life as brief and charmed as yours, and this is your first. It feels as if you’ve spent the day filling your gut with pebbles until you are too leaden to fly. You, Maceo, have made a grave error in coming here.
Your wings pressed tight against your sides, you look up and coo, “My adoration is nothing next to your freedom. Your owner was unfit to call you her own. Not mine. I was cared for by the kindest man and adored by many hens. I must return to them. Pardon if I’ve been a bother to you in any way.”
“Bueno chico, what are you waiting for? A kiss goodbye? Ha! Ni loca!” she trills playfully.
“Farwell,” you coo. You turn your back to the parakeet, extend your impressive wingspan, and burst out of the flame tree like an ember. The Wrinkled Man’s home is not far from here and you should be able to arrive before sunset. You fly low, so that you may recognize home as soon as you spot it below.
You near the Wrinkled Man’s home and notice more pigeons flying about than you remember. You cannot have been gone so long that a new kit has sprung up overnight. A quartet of hens is perched along an awning. You fly close and recognize them instantly: Anita and Conchita, the turtle dove twins, Dulce the frillback, and Gigi the rock pigeon. Other than the moment you courted them, you’ve never seen either hen outside their coop; the Wrinkled Man never let the hens out. They spot you flying past and start flapping their wings and cooing loudly. You fly closer, expecting to hear the love songs they cooed for you every morning.
The hens hurls insults at you, “Coward! Fly far away, ingrate!”
You land on the awning to ask the derisive choir, “My loves, why are you so angry with me? I have returned, for good.”
Gigi, the oldest of the group, coos, “Why even come back? You left and couldn’t be bothered to say goodbye. How little we must have meant to you!”
Before you can conjure up one of your charming retorts, Dulce chimes in, “It’s your fault we have to live like this! When you left, the Wrinkled Man was devastated. He stopped caring for the rest of us. He cast us out and now we have to get by on our own, all because of you! Get away from us, Maceo! Go!”
An apology would most certainly fall on deaf auriculars. The best you can do is appease the hens and leave at once.
With the speed of your distant peregrine cousins, you fly to the Wrinkled Man’s home. Your only hope is that he does not share the hens’ scorn. Yet, he would be right to. How dare you forsake his kindness and care for some fruitless obsession? You risked claw and feather for a love that was ever-present, only you were far too deluded by your own legend to cherish it.
You vow to never leave the Wrinkled Man’s side again.
You start your descent into his backyard. The grass is still cut and rows of perennials have been planted. Your loft is gone, only rolls of wire and a stack of planks lean against the wooden fence. The Wrinkled Man steps out of the house, sits on a lawn chair, and unfurls a large paper before him. You land at his feet and coo apologies he will never understand. The Wrinkled Man lowers his paper and cries out, “Maceo, pajaro bello!” Straining, he bends over and takes you into his trembling hands. He holds you up so his eyes meet yours. Any pain caused by your betrayal is dulled by the Wrinkled Man’s gaze. He thumbs your crown and whispers, “Por fin, estás en tu casa, Maceo.”
The Wrinkled Man carries you to a shed where he once stowed sacks of birdseed. He places you on the counter and walks away to rummage through a box. He returns holding a shiny, hinged object. With the utmost care, he extends your left wing and uses the object to snip the ends off of your primaries. His hand is sure. You feel no pain. He takes your right wing and shortens more of your feathers.
You do not know why the Wrinkled Man has trimmed your wings, as he has never done so before. You hop into his palm and together you go into the dusk. He thrusts his palm upward. Your wings are spread wide and, to your surprise, you can still feel his rough skin beneath your claws. The air seems to pass right through your feathers, no longer around them.
Flight, you figure, is impossible when there is nowhere else you would rather be.