Short Story
Katy Nixon

Like the smallest of prayers

The house felt like it had been drained of all meaning. It was a cadaver. The garden too seemed overgrown and rotten. For the last three days Brian had clung onto the grey plastic of a hospital chair like it was a ledge in some precarious, high up place.

Now he stood in the house he had grown up in, leaning against the kitchen unit facing a man who, until a few hours ago, he had not seen for ten years. As he looked more intently, he recognised his father’s eyes as his own. It was hard not to remember his Papa lying in the hospital bed, fighting so hard for breath that words were no longer an option.

And here was Brian still full of life and fighting so hard for words that breathing felt unbearable. The men stared at each other, uncomfortable and unknowing of the other’s space in the world. In fact all Brian really remembered of his dad was the way his absence had inhabited everything.

He thought about his Papa, years ago, out in the garden watching his favourite doo Big Mac circling the roof of their home attempting to entice a rival Dooman’s bird in. Brian watched from the top of a tree - listening to Malc’s encouraging words to the pigeon - aching to fly.

Already knowing he would not return, like Big Mac always did, he would fly higher and higher until he was just a dot on a cloud. Ignoring the laughter from his friends standing beside their bikes and his Papa calling him in for his tea.

The men stood opposite each other taking in the years. Brian thought about his Papa’s aged tattooed hands, the words love and hate carelessly dotted across his fingers, a dove captured in mid flight was sketched on a hand destined for a life of thankless graft.

He thought about how his dad had arrived at the hospital and cried into those hands. Whispering apologies. Brian understood then that there wasn’t much more time. He had taken his hands too, whispering “cheers Malc” into them, like the smallest of prayers - feeling his Granddad’s palms tighten around his just for a second.

His Papa had always been tough and hard to read, except when he was with his birds. Brian had always marvelled at the gentle way that Malc would pick one of them up while stroking its head with his finger, talking to it in low, soft words.

His weekends when he was small were spent with his Papa in the bowling club taking bets with other Doomen about whether or not the virility of Big Mac would entice the female pigeons into his coop. Brian had witnessed fists being drawn back, arrows made of bone and flesh, over the pride of the birds. For most people pigeons were rats with wings but for Malc they alleviated the burden of gravity.

Frantic cooing interrupted the cold awkwardness. Brian snapped out of his daze and fled the kitchen only then remembering after days of being away about his Papa’s beloved birds.

As he climbed the stairs two at a time he was surprised to hear his Dad follow him. The birds seemed to get louder and more manic, the coos turning to screeches. Pulling the attic ladder down, Brian climbed down as quickly as he could pushing the trap door up.

He was met by a whirlwind of grey and white feathers, the pigeons had escaped their coop. Brian covered his face and heard his Dad swear behind him, both of them trying to stop the frightened, hungry pigeons flying into them.

Brian made it to the small window with his arm across his head and, in a tumult of panicked feathers, managed to open it. The birds raced for freedom. Bursting into the night sky. He somehow knew they wouldn’t be back. He could hear the whoosh of their wings against the wet night air as the cooing quickly became distant. He felt then, for the first time, that Papa Malc would not be back either.

One single white feather floated back in through the open window and he reached out and caught it, cupping his hand around it, he felt his body crumbling into the wiry arms of his father, who pulled him in close, holding him up as he began to sob.

As they stood clinging to each other, surrounded by pigeon feathers and bird shit, there were still no words between them.

Just the white feather still in Brian’s hand, like a reply to the smallest of prayers – the very least Malc wanted to leave behind for his son and grandson was hope.

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He somehow knew they wouldn’t be back. He could hear the whoosh of their wings against the wet night air as the cooing became distant

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