Hans rapped on the hard stone of the burgeoning National Monument with distaste and ignored his grandson’s huff of exasperation. “You know what they should be building here instead?” Hans harrumphed. “They should have a World War I memorial. No one remembers that it was called the Great War for a reason.”
“They called it that because they thought there wasn’t going to be a World War II, Granddad,” his grandson, Jan, reminded him none-too-gently, and his eyes strayed to Chipsey King down the street. “Look, can we go get chips now?”
“Forget your chips, blubber beak!” Hans shook out his feathers and pulled himself up to full height, despite the arthritis in his leg giving him hell for it. “I was lucky to get a scrap of bread, in my day. Or a place to sleep at night! Or not to be dead when I woke up in the morning!”
“Mom said not to let you tell me this,” Jan said, without much conviction. He may have hated when his grandfather denied him a snack, but the old bird’s stories were never to be missed. He was a little crazy; everyone said so. But Hans knew how to distract even young pigeons from the sights and sounds of Dam Square.
“What do you expect? Your mother’s French.” Self-satisfied, Hans settled back down on his perch, just at the edge of the stone wall running behind the monument. He looked up at the men carved before him, stark naked, and tried to make sense of how this was paying tribute to those who died in the Second World War. He couldn’t see it. Damn kids. Hans was glad he wouldn’t be around much longer to see where the crazy world ended up at the hands of these hooligans. “Do you want to hear about war, Jan?” he asked suddenly, musing to the clouds overhead. “Do you want to know what it meant to live and die for your country?”
“Oh, yeah!” Jan sat up excitedly, nearly tumbling backwards off the nearly completed monument. He raised his wings and pantomimed firing a gun. “I wish I could’ve been in a war, like you and Dad! I’d give all those bad guys a piece of my beak!”
“No!” Hans said sharply. He turned to face his grandson and placed a firm wing over his back. “War isn’t a game, child. You can’t speak so lightly of it. You’re lucky to be able to pretend at your age, in the safety of your home, instead of being out there with the real thing.” The flash of a detonated bomb, untouched even by Hans’ fading memory, lit the old birds eyes, and he raised his beak a bit higher, all manly pride and fading glory. “I went to war, you remember. And there was so much touched by that stain that should never have been near it. It was winter, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and fifteen, and the sky grew dark by dinnertime…”
Hans fancied himself a war veteran long before the war had come to an end. He was a native Dutchmen who had found himself flying over Germany when battles began to tear Europe apart and, once the lines had been drawn, he’d made his way to France and allowed himself to be recruited. The men in his battalion didn’t seem too bright, but he carried their messages, all the same, and saved a helluva lot of lives doing it, thank you very much. After rushing through falling bombs and flying human limbs to do his duty to his adoptive country, one winter day in December, Hans found himself alighting on the roof of tall, narrow house along a canal in some tiny town in Belgium. He would later learn that this was Bruges and, for the duration of the war, this would be his home base.
Hans scooted inside the house via a tiny square cutout at the roof’s peak and fluttered to the attic’s floor. He cooed quietly into the dust and gloom, pacing carefully forward until he could make out the outlines of discarded memories and broken furniture. He cooed again, in search of his contact – chap by the name of Villette, if he’d read the message correctly – but was surprised to hear another pigeon coo in hesitant reply.
She strutted out of the shadows, bringing light into the forgotten room with her presence. Her feathers were a pale, pale gray, nearly white, so she looked like a dove of peace rather than a dull pigeon of war. She was tagged, a number around her left leg, which told him she was doing her duty to her country, too. He couldn’t recognize her accent, so Hans simply stared at her in awe and waited for her to speak.
“Soldier.” She dipped her head in greeting, her graceful movements putting even swans to shame. “You’re here to see the Captain?”
She spoke English with an accent so close to Hans’ native Dutch that he shuddered with homesickness. But she had a strange lilt to her tone, betraying something musical in her origins – a romance language somewhere in her upbringing. He nodded dumbly and managed, “Y-yes. Yes, ma’am. News from the front.” He wanted to knock his own beak off for forgetting his manners. Hans pulled himself into a hasty salute and announced, “Hans, Number 00984. Flying in from France. Ma’am.”
She laughed softly and nodded. “At ease, soldier – no need for the formalities. Captain Villette will be back in a moment. I believe he only just ran downstairs for some lunch.”
“Of course. Understandable.” Hans shifted, putting all his weight on the leg without the hastily typed message attached to it. “It’s lovely to meet you,” he tried, lacking creativity after the long flight.
“And you, Hans.” She dipped her head. “I’m Ava.”
Hans thought he would be enjoying his time in Bruges, after all.
Jan was struggling with his grandfather’s story. “But,” he puzzled out, squinting, “Grandma’s name wasn’t Ava.”
Hans sighed. He had to wonder what his son and daughter-in-law were feeding this kid to make him so incredibly dim-witted. “Certainly wasn’t,” he agreed in an exasperated growl. “I met your grandmother here, in Amsterdam, after the war.”
“So who’s Ava?”
“Aren’t I telling you, kid? Shit.” Hans slapped a wing over his face. “That’s what stories are about – shutting up and listening until you don’t have any more damn stupid questions.”
“Sorry, Granddad.” Jan sensed that those chips were slipping through his feathers. He blinked politely. “What happened next?”
Hans delivered his message to Captain Villette, as he’d been told to do. “Sorry I don’t have anything for you to do now, little bird,” Villette said to Hans, placing him gently on the attic floor. “We’ll just have to wait for something newsworthy, hm?”
“No news is good news, I suppose,” Hans agreed, wandering off into the shadows to explore the place a bit. He didn’t think Villette had heard.
Hans would have liked to take a closer look at the canals he’d flown over earlier, or scoop up some discarded foodstuffs in Markt Square, but he was exhausted. Mapping the attic would have to do to fulfill the adventure quota for the day. He also had to admit that he was hoping to stumble upon Ava again. She had to be somewhere in the attic, as she’d been watching, mere moments earlier, as the Captain removed the message from around Hans’ leg and scribbled down notes. Hans paused and glanced back over his shoulder. Villette was hard at work once more, bent low over something that looked coded and complicated. He was a young man, very young. He had a child’s face.
“He’s only 20.”
Hans started, bringing his eyes and mind back to the front of his body. Ava was standing there, having somehow snuck up on him, and she was gazing with sad tenderness at Villette. “He doesn’t even look that,” Hans replied.
“He may have lied, to join the army. I’m not sure.” Ava took a step closer, her eyes catching the weak sun from outside. “But he talks to himself a lot. He misses home.”
“America.” She shook her head. “I can’t imagine ever flying there. I don’t know how these soldiers do it, flying so far from home.”
Hans clacked his beak, searching for a way to gently steer the subject away from the sad plight of Captain Villette. “You were recruited by the Americans, then?”
Ava nodded. “I was bred to be a homing pigeon,” she said, just a hint of pride in her tone. “When the war started, the Americans moved in and took up most of us as their own. They’ve been working pretty closely with the natives, though. And at least they haven’t moved us away from home.”
Hans raised his head a little. “So you’re from Bruges?”
“Born and raised.” Her eyes softened. “I know I’m lucky. I get to see my home, every day. Others don’t have that.” She looked at
Hans. “Where are you from?”
“I fly for the French,” Hans replied, “but I’m Dutch. Small town in the countryside.” He looked at her, his eyes bright. “I like Bruges. It reminds me a little of home.”
“Will you be staying long?”
Hans allowed himself to believe that there was a tinge of hope to her words, in her eyes. “Yes,” he said. “And I’d love a tour guide.”
She studied him for a moment. Hans felt her eyes on his beak and raised it a little higher, glanced away as if he weren’t interested. “Tomorrow, perhaps,” Ava replied, at length, and then she stalked away into the shadows with the air of a woman who didn’t want to be followed. Hans obeyed, so as not to ruin his chances, and hoped up onto an abandoned wooden crate to rest.
When he woke up the next morning, tucked into one of Villette’s cages in Bruges, Hans had a panicked moment in which he forgot all about the baby-faced captain and Ava and the little Belgian town. As he peered into the gloom, he was sure the Germans had gotten him, stolen his secret messages and planned the most inhumane ways to murder him. But then he caught sight of the sun streaming through the small square at the top of the attic’s wall and remembered that he was still well behind friendly fronts. He looked to his left and, through the mesh, he saw Ava watching him curiously.
“Good morning,” she cooed softly.
“Is it?” Hans guessed that it couldn’t be long after dawn. Captain Villette wasn’t even back at his post for the day’s work yet. He shook out his feathers and leapt to the bottom of the cage, pacing around the small perimeter to get his heart beating. “Do you think we’ll have time today for that tour you promised me?”
“Unless more news comes in from the front.” Ava turned at the sound of footsteps on the stairs and Hans paused.
Villette appeared and smiled at the birds, then crossed the room to let them out of their cages. “Talkative this morning, aren’t you two?” Hans and Ava hopped out and fluttered to the ground, stretching their wings with a few lazy laps around the room. When Ava made to lead Hans out of the square opening and into the morning air, Villette exclaimed, “Hey, now, what’s this? I might need you two later!”
“We won’t go far,” Ava assured him. Hans alighted on the back of an old kitchen chair, watching Ava toss the captain her demure tilt of the head. Villette sighed in response and turned to his work, muttering about wild animals. Hans envied the way she could wrap people around her little talon.
They launched themselves into the air from the tip of the long, tall house overlooking one of Bruges’ many canals and Hans let Ava lead him where she might. They skidded along the canals, brushing the gentle water with their talons and wingtips and reveling in the mix of chilly water and wind. They passed a few swans, who glided lazily past stone docks and hardly spared the pigeons a glance, and perched on small, covered boats that rocked gently in the current to rest.
Eventually, Ava led Hans through a labyrinth of small streets and narrow alleys, until the world opened up again and they could strut proudly through Markt Square. The restaurants that ringed the square were mostly closed, their windows boarded over with long planks of wood and their menus erased by rain, and the few people who walked around were either hurried natives or military personnel. The pigeons snagged forgotten chips from the pavement beneath a colonel in full uniform. The man was so enchanted by the birds that he tossed them a few extra mashed morsels, a small smile on his lips.
They took a slow lap around the square after that, to allow the chips to digest and, in the meantime, find something else to eat. Hans, at Ava’s insistence, talked a little bit about growing up in Holland, about shitting on beloved bicycles and learning to love mayonnaise on his chips. Ava was a Belgian native, Hans found out; she’d been born in a tree a few blocks from Villette’s headquarters, in fact. She described the swans as uppity and the town as quaint, but there was a fondness in her tone that made Hans’ heart ache. He loved his homeland, too, but it must have been so hard for Ava, living her during the war and knowing full well that one stray (or deliberate) bomb could send her whole world literally crashing down around her. The war could come home and Ava would have to be here to see it.
Ava paused at the foot of the belfry, situated at one end of the square, and peered up at its top. “Are you up for a friendly bet?” she asked.
“Maybe.” Hans followed Ava’s gaze up the side of the building. “What do you have in mind?”
“Last one to the top finds dinner!” Ava shouted, then pushed off the ground and beat her wings hard against the air. She was a few feet off the ground before Hans reacted, pushing himself to match her pace. He caught up and twisted around her, showing off, and she laughed in response. They cut through the air, up and up, past the ringing bells, until Ava alighted first on the very peak of the belfry, raising her beak to the sky and tasting the air high over the square. Hans settled in beside her, shuffling close enough for their feathers to touch. Ava shot him a look, but pressed closer. “So,” she said, “what’s for dinner?”
Their breaks passed in much the same pattern for weeks on end. Periodically, one or the other would be sent out on a mission, gliding along air currents or beating their wings furiously through battle-torn clouds. But they always returned to Captain Villette’s set-up in an attic in Bruges. When they weren’t working, they’d stroll the canals and peck at bread crumbs left behind by the swans, or ascend to the heights of the belfry once more to take in another war-torn sunset. Hans began to get it into his birdbrain that, when this was all over (as it surely would have to be, soon enough), he’d stick around Bruges. Maybe he and Ava could set up a nest in one of those bare branches, watching the trees flower in spring and drop their fiery leaves again, come autumn.
The New Year came and went, 1916 bringing with it only a few feet of Belgian snow and more bloodshed. It was a day in early January, quiet and white, when Hans was riding an air current back towards the tiny town he’d come to regard as his home. He’d been gone for nearly two months, after getting dragged through a godforsaken forest by a ragtag Russian platoon for almost six full weeks. The time had been rough, with attacks around every corner and Hans’ thoughts forever drifting far and away, over the sweeping countryside around him and back towards Bruges—and Ava.
It was around lunchtime as he drew closer to the town limits, but there was an eerie stillness over the buildings and streets. Then, the smells and sounds came to him on the wind—blood, fear, the screams of desperate people. The deliberate taps of machine gun fire filled the air anew, putting holes in Medieval roofs and native Belgians. Hans dipped low and navigated the narrow streets, hoping to avoid being seen as he raced back to Villette’s. He had to make sure headquarters was still standing. He had to find Ava.
Hans crossed the last canal and was relieved to see that the house was still standing. But there were two people crumpled on the ground outside, lying in a growing pool of their mingled bloods. Panicked, Hans nearly ran into the house rather than slipping agilely through the opening cut for the carrier pigeons.
“Ava!” he called into the attic’s gloom. There was no response.
Hans dropped to the floor and crept farther into the room, cooing for Ava, for Villette, for anyone to find him and tell him what was going on. Shafts of light fell into the attic where bullets had passed through the weathered shingles and old wooden frame of the house. “Ava,” Hans said again, getting closer to Villette’s desk and the empty cages. The soldier was nowhere to be seen, but Hans hopped up onto the desk to see what he’d been working on. There was blood splattered on the latest round of messages.
A pile of papers on the floor rustled and a soft coo came up from underneath them. Hans fluttered to the ground and eased the papers away with his beak. The memos revealed Ava, her eyes darker than usual, one wing ruined and a nasty gunshot wound leaking blood from out of her chest. Her feathers were matted with the cold liquid and she could hardly lift a wing to hail Hans. She managed a soft coo of greeting. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said softly.
Hans nuzzled her head with his beak. “I’ll go for help,” he said. “You’ll be all right.”
“I’m dying,” Ava countered, looking at Hans’ feet. He followed her gaze and saw his talons covered in her blood. Ava took a breath. “I’m glad you made it back…in time.” She nodded feebly to the ruined mass of papers and torn wood a few feet away.
“There—over there. Look.”
“Okay. I will, I will.” Hans was reluctant to leave her side, but equally hesitant to deny her wishes if Ava was certainly dying. He padded to the pile of debris she’d indicated and began throwing aside papers.
“Gently!” Ava commanded, summoning all her strength to make sure she was heard.
Hans, startled, paused to glance at her, then began gingerly picking through the papers and waving away the dust. He shifted a discarded message aside to reveal a mass of shredded papers, leaves, and other rubbish. There were egg shells scattered across the floor, caked in a grime made of yolk, blood, and long-forgotten dirt. He had to peer closer to recognize it as a nest.
“Ava,” Hans said, all he could think to say. He looked over at her, but she turned her head away and closed her eyes.
“They’re all gone, aren’t they?” she whispered. “I thought so.”
Hans hurried back to Ava’s side, pressing himself against her and putting his head against hers. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea.” He nuzzled her neck with his beak once more. “I should’ve been here. I should’ve come back sooner.”
“You’re here now.” She drew a shallow, shaky breath, then opened her eyes to meet his. There was something surprisingly bright there, something that overcame her grief. “I’m not alone.”
“Never,” Hans replied. “I’m glad I’ve known you, Ava. I’m glad to have loved you.”
He listened to her breath for another moment, until the whistle of air into and out of her beak ceased. Then, gently, Hans moved his head away. He pressed his beak to hers and stayed that way for a very long time, until the sun had set and her blood had nearly frozen in the winter chill.
The next morning, Hans managed to break himself from his stupor and get to his feet. He forced himself to take in Ava’s ruined frame again, choking on his sorrow. Slowly, he turned away and made his way back to the ruined nest on the attic floor, hoping to give the chicks he would never know some dignity in their senseless death. He swept eggshells onto memos and tucked them neatly into a pile, his beak clenched firmly against the pain welling in his chest.
He was nearly done with his somber work when he found himself ducked under Villette’s desk. In the half-light, Hans could just see a small, gentle curve, gleaming at him from out of the gloom. He crept closer, hardly daring to draw breath. He pecked gently at it and leapt back when his tap was echoed from within. He leaned closer and tapped again, nearly crying out with joy when the sound came again. The egg began to rock back and forth. A tiny beak cracked through the top.
“Little one,” Hans said, his voice hoarse. “You survived, little one.” When the chick had broken free of his shell, Hans bundled his son under his wing and held him close. “Little one,” he whispered all through the night, laughing with wonder when the chick chirped in response. He’d have to find the boy food, a home—and a proper name. But that would all come, in time. In time, Hans’ little one
would help his heart to heal, and something beautiful might yet come of the loss of his Ava.
The Americans found him that way the next morning, huddled underneath the desk with his son cuddled against his father’s feathers. Hans crawled out from their sanctuary and mustered a weak salute, then offered up the message attached to his left leg. He would do his duty, to his country and to his love, until the day he died.
Hans blinked into the sun and turned to look at his grandson. Jan hadn’t spoken a word since his grandfather had started his story and the older bird was a little worried. Jan stared back at his grandfather, the story still playing out behind his eyes. “Grandma isn’t Grandma?” he asked at last.
“Oh, Grandma’s Grandma, of course,” Hans replied. “She always has been your grandmother and she always will be. She took in your father and I like we were her own. She knew we came as a package deal, eh? My son needed a mother.”
“I’m really sorry about Ava, Grandpa,” he said at last. “I didn’t know you did all that.”
“No one does, really,” Hans replied. “It’s been my secret for a very long time. Only me and your grandmother and your father
knew. Not even your aunts and uncles.”
“Why didn’t you tell them?”
Hans sighed wearily, blinking up at the monument before them as if in search of an answer. “Some stories are only meant for you,” Hans told his grandson. “They belong in your head. I think this was one of those stories.” He put a wing over the young bird’s shoulders and poked him lightly with his beak. “Besides, can’t a pigeon have some secrets?”
Jan looked at his grandfather. “You can,” he allowed. “But sometimes it’s good to share your story, so you won’t be so sad.” He glanced up at the spring sunshine overhead. “I like Ava a lot. I wish I could have known her.”
Hans blinked back tears and patted Jan’s back. “I wish you could have, too, son.” Wiping discreetly at his eyes, he turned his head to glance down the block. “Now, enough with talking,” he said, his robust tone bringing life back into his heart. “How about those chips?”