Read Wizard of the Pigeons Online
Authors: Megan Lindholm
On the far western shore of a northern continent there was once a harbour city called Seattle. It did not have much of a reputation for sunshine and beaches, but it did have plenty of rain, and the folk who lived there were wont to call it âThe Emerald City' for the greenness of its foliage. And the other thing it boasted was a great friendliness that fell upon strangers like its rain, but with more warmth. In that city, there dwelt a wizard.
Not that folk recognized him as a wizard, for even in those days, wizards were becoming rarer with each passing year. He lived a simple life upon the streets of the city, passing among the folk like the wind passes among the flowers, unseen but not unfelt. He was known, to the few who knew him, simply as Wizard.
Little was known of his past, but atoning for this lack was a plenitude of rumours about it. Some said he had been an engineer and a warrior who had returned from some far battle with memories too fearsome to tolerate. And some said no, that he had been a scholar and among those who had refused to go to that far strife, and that was why he dwelt nameless and homeless in the streets. And some said he was older than the city itself, and others that he was newly arrived, only a day or so ago. But what folk
said of him mattered little, for it was what he did that was important. Or didn't do, as Cassie would have quickly pointed out.
To Seattle there come blue days in October, when the sun shines along the waterfront and one forgives the city its sins, both mortal and venial. On such a day the cries of the gulls seem to drown out the traffic noises, and the fresh salt breath of the ocean is stronger than the exhaust of the passing cars. It was such a day, and sunlight shattered brilliantly against the moving waters of Elliott Bay and the brisk wind blew the shining shards inland over the city. It was a day when no one was immune to magic, and a wizard might revel in its glories. The possibilities of the day tugged at Wizard's mind like a kite tugs on a string. So, although he had been standing for some time at a bus stop, when the bus finally came snorting into sight, he wandered away from the other passengers, letting his feet follow their own inclination.
When he reached the corner of Yesler Way, he turned and followed it downhill, toward the bay. The sidewalk was as busy as the narrow crowded street, but Wizard still halted in the middle of it, forcing the flow of pedestrians to part and go around him. He gazed up fondly at the peak of the Smith Tower. A merry little flag fluttered from the tip of its tall white tower. Mr L C Smith, grown rich from manufacturing typewriters, had constructed the tower to be the tallest building west of the Mississippi. The flagpole had been added in an attempt to retain that title for a little longer. The tower was no longer the tallest, of course, but its proud lines gave Wizard the moral courage to pass the notorious structure known as the Sinking Ship parking garage. This was a triangular monstrosity of grey
concrete wedged between Yesler and James Street. When one considered it as a memorial to the Occidental and the Seattle, the two old hotels torn down to allow for its construction, it became even more depressing. The hill's steepness always made it appear that the garage was foundering and would vanish into the earth tomorrow, but, alas, it never did. Wizard hurried past it.
Safely beyond it, he slipped back into a stroll again, gazing around himself and taking more than a minor satisfaction in knowing his city so well. He knew it not as a common street survivor might, but as a connoisseur of landmarks and their history. How many skid row denizens, he wondered, of all the skid rows across the nation, knew that Seattle had boasted the original Skid Road, after which all others were named? From the hills above the city, logs had once skidded down that nearly vertical street to Yesler's Sawmill. Living conditions in the area had been so poor that an eastern reporter had taken his impressions and the name Skid Road home, to coin a brand new clichÃ©.
Wizard passed under the grey thunder of the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a small claustrophobic shudder, and emerged into the sun, wind, and sea smell of Alaskan Way South. He turned north and plodded up the waterfront, watching the tugs, ferries, and gulls with equal interest. Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. That was what was luring him. He hadn't chatted with Sylvester for days; the old coot would be wondering where he was.
By the time he reached the glass doors of the shop, he was just chilled enough that the warmth of the interior made his ears tingle. He stood, rubbing the chill from his fingers, and let his eye rove over the shop. It was a
marvellous place. It was so crammed that not one more item could be packed into it, yet each time Wizard dropped by, something new had been added. The place was a cross between a museum and a shop, with rarities on display, and bargains for browsers. The aisles were cluttered with machines that, for a single shiny coin, would let you test your strength, find your weight, take a peek at the lady in her bath, or hear the nickelodeon tunes of the olden days. For fifty cents, another machine would squish a penny into a souvenir of the shop. One could buy postcards and shells and knick-knacks and jewellery, carvings and pottery, toys and trinkets. Suspended from the rafters were trophies of the seas, including a mermaid's body. But Wizard walked past all of these fascinating things, straight to the back of the shop.
The very best things were in the back of the shop. The shrunken heads were here, and the ancient skulls in glass cases. A baby pig with two heads was pickled in a large jar atop a player piano. To the left of this piano was a Gypsy fortune-teller holding her tarot cards and waiting for the drop of a dime to deal out your fortune card to you. To the right of the player piano was Sylvester.
âSo how's it going, old man?' Wizard greeted him softly.
Sylvester gave a dry cough and began, âIt was a hot and dusty dayâ¦'
Wizard listened, politely nodding. It was the only story Sylvester had to tell, and Wizard was one of the few who could hear it. Wizard looked through the glass into the dark holes behind the dry eyelids and caught the gleam of his dying emotions. The bullet hole was still plainly visible upon Sylvester's ribby chest; his dessicated arms
were still crossed, holding in the antique pain. His small brown teeth showed beneath his dry moustache. Sylvester was one of the best naturally preserved mummies existent in the western United States. It said so right on the placard beside his display case. Sylvester had met with success in death, if not in life. One could buy postcards and pamphlets that told all about him. They told everything there was to know, except who he had been, and why he had died in the sandy wastes from a bullet wound. And those secrets were the ones he whispered to Wizard, speaking in a voice as dry and dusty as his unmarked grave had been, in words so soft they barely passed the glass that separated them. Wizard stood patiently listening to the old tale, nodding his head slightly.
Sylvester was not alone. There was another mummy in a glass case next to his, her shrivelled loins modestly swathed in an apron. She listened to Sylvester speak to Wizard with her mouth agape in aristocratic disdain for his uncouthness. She had died of consumption and been entombed in a cave. She still wore her burial stockings and shoes. Privately Wizard did not think her as well preserved as Sylvester, but she was definitely more conscious of social niceties.
Sylvester finished his account, and Wizard stood nodding in grave commiseration. Suddenly, raucous laughter burst out behind him. Wizard gave a startled jump, and turned to find that two teenage girls had slipped a coin into Laughing Jack. The runty little sailor with the fly on his nose and the cigarette dangling from his lips guffawed on and on, swaying in the force of his hilarity and wringing answering giggles from the girls. The girls had eyes as bright as young fillies'. They were incredibly young, even for a
bright October day in Seattle. Wizard could only marvel at it. When the coin ran out and Jack was mercifully still, they stepped up to Estrella the Gypsy.
âOh, I did her before. Come on, Nance. That's a dumb one. She just gives you this little printed card.'
âIt's my dime,' Nance declared loudly, and slipped the coin in the slot. Estrella lifted her proud head. She gave the girls a piercing look and then began to scan the tarot cards before her. She made a few mystic passes and a small white card dropped from a slot in the machine. Estrella bowed her head and was still. Nance picked up the card. Haltingly, she began to read Estrella's prophecies aloud. â“Your greatest fault is that you talk too much. Learn to â”'
âGeez, Nance! You coulda learned that from me and saved your dime!' Her friend rolled her eyes, and with much giggling the two girls departed, Nance waving the little black and white printed card before her like a fan. Wizard shook his head slightly after them. Sylvester breathed a small and dusty sigh. Estrella lifted her head and gave Wizard a slow wink. A second card emerged from the slot.
Wizard stooped cautiously to take it up. He glanced at the brightly painted tarot card in his hand, and then peered sharply at Estrella. But she was as still as a painted dummy, her eyes cast modestly downward. Wizard stared at his card. It was more than twice the size of the one the girls had received. Depicted on one side in gaudy colours was a man, caught by one heel in a rope snare and dangling upside down. Wizard was fascinated. Slowly he turned the card over. In ornate letters of dark red was printed A WARNING! That was all. Estrella wouldn't
meet his eyes, and Sylvester gave a hollow groan. Even the pickled piglet in its glass jar squirmed uncomfortably.
Wizard tucked the card into his shirt pocket and gave a farewell nod to Sylvester. The wind hit him as he emerged from the shop, pushing him boisterously as it rushed past him. He strode down the street, letting the exercise warm him. A tiny pang reminded him that he had not yet eaten today. Time to take care of that. He heard the approaching rumble of a bus. Tucking his shopping bag firmly under one arm, he sprinted to the stop just ahead of it.
The bus gusted up to the stop and flung its door open before him. Wizard ascended the steps and smiled at the bus driver who stared straight ahead. He found a seat halfway down the aisle and sat looking out the window. â“â¦Cannot rival for one hour October's bright blue weather,”' he quoted softly to himself with satisfaction. He stared out the window.
The bus nudged into its next stop and five passengers boarded. The four women took seats together at the back, but the old man worked his slow way down the aisle to stop beside Wizard's seat. Wizard felt his presence and turned to look at him. The old man nodded gravely and arranged himself carefully in the seat as the bus jerked away from the kerb. The old man nodded to the sway of the bus, but didn't speak until Wizard had turned to stare out the window again.
âMy boy isn't coming home from college for Thanksgiving this year. Says he can't afford it, and when we said we'd pay, he said he needed the time to study. Can you beat that? So I asked him, “What are Mother and I supposed to do, eat a whole turkey by ourselves?” So he said, “Why don't you have chicken instead?” No
understanding. He's our youngest, you see. The others are all long moved away.'
Wizard nodded as he turned to look at the old man, but he was staring at the back of the next seat. As soon as Wizard turned back to the window, he started it again.
âOur second girl had a baby last spring. But she won't come either. Says she wants to have their first Thanksgiving together, just her family alone. So when I said, “Well, aren't we family, too?” she just said, “Oh, Daddy, you know how small our place is. By the time you drove clear down here for Thanksgiving, you'd have to spend the night, and I just don't have any place to put you.” Can you beat that?' The old man gave a weary cough. âEldest boy's in Germany, you know. Stationed there fourteen months now, and only three letters. Phoned us three weeks ago, though. And when his mother asked him why he didn't write to us, he says, “Oh, Mom, you know how it is. You know I love you, even if I don't find time to write.” After he hangs up, she says to me, “Yes, I know he loves us, but I wish I could feel him love us.” It's for her I mind. Not so much for me. Kids were always a damn nuisance anyway, but it hurts her when they don't call or write.'
The bus pulled into Wizard's stop. He kept his seat with his jaw set against the grumbling of his stomach. As soon as the bus lurched forward again, the old man resumed.
âI guess I wasn't around that much when they were growing up. I guess I didn't put as much into them as she did; maybe I didn't give them as much as I should have. So perhaps it's only fitting that they aren't around when I'm feeling my years. But what about Mother? She gave them her years, and now they leave her alone. Can you beat that?'
Just as the old man's voice trailed out, the Knowing came to Wizard. He always wondered how the talkers knew to come to him, how they sensed that he had something to tell them. Even Cassie had no answer to that question. âEvery stick has two ends,' she had mumbled when he had asked her. âMumbo-jumbo!' he had replied derisively. But now he had something for the old man, and it must be delivered. He took his eyes from the window, to stare at the seat back with the old man. He whispered as huskily as a priest giving absolution in a confessional.
âBuy the turkey and the trimmings. Tell her that with or without kids at the table, you wouldn't miss her holiday cooking. Your eldest son got some leave time, and he'll be flying in from Germany. But he wants to surprise her. So keep it to yourself, but be ready to go to the airport on Thanksgiving morning. Don't spill the beans, now.'
He never looked at Wizard. At the next stop the old man rose and made his slow way to the door in the side of the bus. Wizard watched him go and wished him well. At the next stop he hopped off himself and went looking for the right sort of restaurant.
It took him a moment to get his bearings, and then he recalled a little place he had used before. He mussed his hair slightly, took his newspaper from his shopping bag and tucked it under his arm, and clutched the plastic bag by its handle. His stomach made him hurry the block and a half to the remembered location.