Louie and Nick
by Jill Hand
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
I climbed through the window on the thirty-third floor and plopped down on the rug. “Hiya, Nick,” I said to the old guy seated at the desk. “How’s tricks?”
Nikola Tesla turned stiffly at the sound of my voice, wincing a little. He’d hurt his back when he was hit by a car while crossing the street. “Louie! Good to see you, my friend!”
He gave me a big happy grin that lit up his hollow-cheeked face. In his youth, he’d been as handsome as a matinee idol, but old age had whittled him down to his essentials: jug ears, aquiline nose, cheekbones like an Aztec and those intense eyes.
Looking into those light-filled eyes, you got a sense of the relentless flood of ideas that whirled and pounded and pulsed through his brain: ideas that lit up the world and blazed out into space. I bobbed my head up and down a few times in response to his greeting. I would have smiled back at him, but since I’m a pigeon, smiling isn’t part of my skill set.
A pigeon? You’re probably wondering how on earth a pigeon could be conversing with inventor and genius extraordinaire Nikola Tesla. Is this some kind of a joke?
No, it’s not. I really am a pigeon, albeit an unusual one. How else would I be able to climb through a window on the thirty-third floor of a Manhattan skyscraper? Okay, yeah, a window washer or a cat burglar could do it, but I’m neither of those things. I’m just a plain old New York City pigeon, albeit of ancient and honorable lineage, descended from the rock pigeons of Mesopotamia, the world’s oldest domesticated bird.
I weigh 11.8 ounces or a little more if I’ve been pigging out on any scraps of food left lying around. I’d had the remainder of a pastrami on rye from Katz’s Delicatessen that somebody had thrown in the trash in Union Square Park just before I flew over to visit with Nick. My feathers are bluish-gray with black bars on my wings. My eyes are red with a silver ring around the pupils, and my four-toed feet are big and pink and scaly.
The fact that my feet are so big and my knees are located so high up, under my feathers, gives me a prissy walk, like a store detective in the ladies’ wear department at Gimbel’s. People call us rats with wings because there are so many of us and we crap all over everything. Our trinomial name, Columba livia domestica, sounds classier, although it doesn’t negate the fact that we crap all over everything.
You’re probably thinking, He’s got a pretty good vocabulary for a pigeon. He uses fancy words like ‘trinomial’ and ‘negate.’ My grandma’s parakeet could talk, but he didn’t use words like that.
Of course he didn’t. I talk the way I do because I’m a lot smarter than your grandma’s parakeet, whose lexicon was limited to “Hello, sweetie!” and “Scratch my head.” I’m also a lot smarter than your grandma.
That’s because I’m a cyborg: part animal and part machine, with a teeny-tiny little computer tucked inside my brain. I speak six languages. Even the smartest African grey parrot would seem like a real blockhead compared to me. Compared to Tesla, however, I’m a birdbrain. But let’s be frank: almost anyone who ever lived would seem like a birdbrain compared to Tesla.
If you’re thinking there is no such thing as a cyborg pigeon, you’re right. Not in the twentieth century, when my conversations with the old man took place in rooms 3327 and 3328 of the Hotel New Yorker, an ugly Art Deco building on Thirty-Fourth Street and Eighth Avenue in the Big Apple. Not in the twenty-first, or the twenty-second century, either. There is a cyborg pigeon in the twenty-third century, and that’s yours truly.
I’m a pigeon with a mission, although not one as dramatic as Cher Ami’s, the homing pigeon who was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government. Maybe you’ve heard of him. He carried a message that saved 197 survivors of a World War I American infantry battalion who were pinned down behind enemy lines without food or ammunition, being shelled by their own guns.
He must have been one hell of a brave bird, although people will say he did what he did simply out of instinct, which is a lot of baloney. In the autumn of 1918, there was no place closer to Hell on Earth than the muddy trenches and the scarred, blackened tree trunks that were all that remained of the Argonne Forest, and yet he flew through it, not once but many times. Even after he was blinded in one eye, shot through the breast and had one of his legs nearly blown off, he kept going. That, my friends, is not instinct. That’s courage.
My mission is a humbler one: to befriend a lonely old man. To that end, I was hatched from an egg like a regular pigeon and subsequently modified by a group of scientists in order to go back in time to January 1943, make friends with Tesla, and record our conversations for posterity.
They love Nick in the twenty-third century and can’t get enough of him. I wish I could tell him that. It would cheer him up to know that it’s he and not his despised enemy Thomas Edison that they adore, but I’m under strict orders not to spill the beans, not yet anyway. Soon I’ll tell him, but not yet.
Hold on a minute, you’re thinking. You’re from the twenty-third century? Does that mean they discovered the secret to time travel?
Yes, it does. If that shocks you, go lie down for a while with a cool cloth on your head. They discovered it partly by studying Tesla’s experiments with high-voltage electricity and highly charged rotating magnetic fields and partly by accident. You’d be surprised by how many great scientific discoveries are made by accident.
I’m a cyborg — or a cy-bird if you prefer — part living creature with a warm, beating heart, part efficient little machine. I’m one strange bird, the “stuff that dreams are made of,” to quote a line from a movie about a bird starring my all-time favorite actor, Humphrey Bogart.
If I were a man, I’d probably be a lot like Bogart: not big, not a pretty boy, a little world-weary and cynical, but smart and classy. When Bogie’s on the screen, even when he’s just standing in the background, smoking a cigarette or pouring a drink, he’s the one your eyes are irresistibly drawn to, no matter who else is there, emoting like mad and trying to hog the camera. Yeah, he was one of a kind, just like me.
They showed me some of his movies when they were prepping me for my trip back in time. The idea was to let me know what to expect: what the cars and the buildings looked like back then, how the city streets sounded, and how people dressed, and what kind of lingo they used.
They chose a pigeon to go talk to Tesla instead of a gorgeous dame because he preferred pigeons to gorgeous dames — or handsome fellows, for that matter. Sex didn’t interest him. He was celibate, one of the many things about him that people found distinctly odd.
Another thing they found odd was how nuts he was about pigeons. No kidding. He knew a white pigeon once that he claimed to have loved like a woman. He didn’t mean that in a kinky sense, he just really, really liked pigeons. That’s how he got hit by a car: he was coming home from feeding pigeons in the park. That was in 1936, and he never completely recovered. I think it’s safe to say that he liked pigeons better than he liked people.
If they wanted to make a talking bird to go back in time and chat up Edgar Allan Poe, they’d probably choose a raven. Poe would have loved conversing with a sinister black raven, creepy little dude that he was. Ravens, unlike unmodified pigeons, really can learn to talk. All the corvidae can talk: your crows, rooks, ravens, jackdaws, magpies and so on. They also know how to use tools.
It’s a little scary how smart they are and how their black eyes have a merry, wicked glint that gives you the uneasy feeling that they could get up to all sorts of shenanigans if they wanted to, shenanigans like attempting to take over the world. But I digress.
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Copyright © 2016 by Jill Hand