Birds Like Us, The Pi Phillecroix Story
Sample Chapter (Chapter 2)
“You said something.”
“I said nothing Piette.”
“Yes you did. You said, “Aigle.””
“Non, I did not love.”
“My ears must need cleaning; I heard you say…”
They turned and faced their daughter who was nestled into a warm corner of the family home.
“Non, she couldn’t have?” Paul wondered.
Piette walked over to her newly hatched chick. “Mon cher, did you say something?”
“Piette, she cannot possibly be talking. She’s too young. Talking will not begin for at least another five or six days.”
“Aigle,” Pi chirped.
“Mon deiu! She speaks. It is a miracle. Tres, tres parfait! She’s a Phillecroix!”
Paul Phillecroix rushed to his daughter. “She said “Aigle”! She knows her great birds! I’ll bet she will know her stars in no time at all.”
“Did you hear that Piette? She said, “Etoile.””
“Mon dieu! This is too much, much too much! How does she know all this? How could she possibly know Deneb? How does she know this Piette?”
“Because she’s your daughter Paul.”
“Oui, she is, she is indeed.”
Pi was counting stars and learning their Greek and Latin names long before her peers. It came easily and naturally something that normally would have taken years of schooling by her parents and the elders of the flock. Although they were extremely proud Piette and Paul knew that on its own all the intelligence in the universe would not guarantee survival. Pi’s continued existence would be linked intrinsically to her ability to defend and fend for herself by finding food, water, and shelter. There’s no more deadly predator than that of life itself and all its unforeseen dangers. A bird without wings is a dead bird. Flightless, one can walk or run only so far so fast before becoming entrapped in the jaws of an enemy. But with a few flaps of the wings Pi could carry herself to safety in a matter of seconds. Wings create distance between life and death. The decision was made: Saturday next, Pi’s wings would be tested for the very first time.
The sun rose slowly and steadily Saturday tucking the night into its resting place. Swallows living in the tall maple and sycamore trees encircling l’Arc de Triomphe began their day as they have for thousands of years by whistling lyrical songs.
The sun poured warm rays into the Phillecroix home waking first Pi, then Piette, and finally Paul who rose with excitement. Hopping over to Pi he said, “Today is going to be a day that you will remember for the rest of your life sweet fille.” Pacing back and forth in the small nest like a general addressing his troops, he continued, “As you know you come from a very long line of brave and heroic message-carrying pigeons. You are a flying specialiste. Hold your head high, and look to the skies. Accept nothing less than your best, and then strive for more. You will be tested more harshly and more often than any other bird. You have a reputation to uphold.” Puffing out his chest the blue streak running down it grew bigger and brighter. “Yes, my sweet, beautiful, little bird, today you will carry on the family tradition by taking the first of many flights. Bon chance, good luck!”
After breakfast with knots in her stomach Pi stepped to the edge of the family nest and looked down at the screeching machines rotating around l’Arc de Triomphe. Her face went flush, the ground below waved and rolled like the sea and her eyes fluttered as dizziness filled her little head. Teetering back and forth on the ledge inches from plummeting from the stone precipice, Paul Phillecroix yelled, “Don’t move!” In an instant he grabbed her tail feathers and pulled her to safety. Her eyes turned muddy gray as she squeaked out, “Mère, père, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, Pi. We will not let you fall. We all started out the same way. Just trust yourself, you’ll be fine.”
She took a deep breath and once again hopped up onto the ledge. Piette and Paul Phillecroix shared a worried glance as Pi carefully peered over the ledge. Her instincts told her to leap but something else pulled at her feet commanding her to stay.
“Mère, père, I’d like to attempt this from the ground please.”
They looked at each other perplexed. “Every Phillecroix throughout history has learned to fly the same way, from the nest,” exclaimed her father. “It is not proper to take your first flight from the ground and besides, it’s easier to take-off from here where you can glide the winds.”
Pi’s stomach ached from the thought in her head. “Oui, père, I know what you are telling me is true but I…”
Piette tapped her husband with the tip of her wing. “Let her go from the ground,” she whispered.
“Impossible! Every Phillercoix throughout history has taken his or her maiden voyage from above and certainly not from the ground. What would the flock society think if they were to see us sending our daughter, our only daughter, off on her first flight from the cinders below? We would lose all respect and credibility and not only that, it would be an insult to all of her ancestors – your family and mine. Non! This will not do, this will not do at all.” He turned his back, tucked his wings tightly together and stood in his convictions; his every word coursed and cut through Pi leaving her gasping and wheezing.
“Mon Dieu! She’s not breathing!” Piette rushed to Pi and took her in her wings. “Look what you’ve done Paul Phillecroix. Is it not enough that we have brought this beautiful child into the world? Have we not waited so very long to have a healthy, bright and beautiful child? Should so much pressure be placed upon her so soon? Is it absolutely impératif that she fly from the roof?”
Paul Phillecroix was listening. He’d been told more than once to loosen himself from his firm, French Phillecroix pride. But even so to ask this of a man who holds so dearly to tradition is a difficult task.
Piette opened her wings and unveiled a teary-eyed and fearful daughter. “Look at your daughter Monsieur. Take a good look at the bright blue streak running down her breast. Look at the love and devotion in her eyes. Is this not enough for you to be proud of? If nothing else you could…”
“I am sorry père. I am so very sorry that I have disappointed you.”
Paul Phillecroix cleared his throat and bowed his head. “This is not good, not good at all. Maybe it would be better if she did not fly at all. Taking off from the ground is not an option.”
“Fine, Paul. I shall take her down myself and enjoy every step of that cold spiral staircase.” Piette could hold her own when it came to facing off with her husband. He knew too, that she would have her way with or without him.
With a glance towards le Sacré-Coeur, Paul Phillecroix relented. “Fine. If you want to attempt flight from the ground, then down to the ground we shall go.” He waddled off ahead with his shoulders hunched as he leapt over the roof’s cornice and glided down to the base of the Arc.
“Ignore him. He just wants what’s best for you. Come, we’ll take the stairs.” Piette and Pi hopped down the long metal staircase to the bottom of the stone structure. There they discovered Paul Phillecroix strutting about the charcoal-colored cinders to the beat of an old tapped military rhythm.
“Ah, finally. What took you two so long? Pi, come here and stand next to your père. “Watch me now. First, you must prepare yourself to push off the ground with both feet at the same time. Flap your wings several times like this.” He stretched his wings and beat them repeatedly stirring up dust and cinders from the ground. “Keep flapping until you’re airborne and once your weight has left your body then you’ll know what it’s like to be flying.”
“But I’m not as big as you are père. What if I go up and can’t come down?”
Paul thought to himself, why would a pigeon, a Phillecroix pigeon no less, be asking such questions? It is our nature to fly. It is who we are.
“You were built to fly. The Great Bird made you that way just like all the other pigeons. Come, try flapping your wings.”
Piette offered encouragement with a nod of her head and added, “There’s nothing to it and when you’re in the air you’ll be so happy, so free soaring above the treetops.”
But again a low, thin voice called to Pi deep from within herself. She turned back to greet her parents gaze. “I’m not sure that I am ready to fly at all today.”
“What?! You don’t need to be ready,” barked her father. “Commence at once!”
Trembling slightly she obeyed her father by first lifting her left wing then her right. She tried flapping them together as Paul Phillecroix had instructed but something wasn’t right. Her father noticed it first; her left wing was barely moving while the right was flapping normally. Nevertheless, he encouraged and expected her to continue.
"That’s it Pi, you’re doing it. That’s right, keep flapping those wings, both at the same time now.”
She stopped. She heard something speaking to her and again she didn’t know what it was trying to say. Don’t stop Pi.
“You’re doing fine sweetheart,” Piette offered.
Concentrating with every ounce of energy she had, she lifted her wings from her little body and began flapping them in unison.
“Yes, that’s it Pi, you’re doing it,” Paul Phillecroix boasted.
Her wings began to move together. The tips of the feathers extended allowing morning light to filter through, casting thin striped shadows. Gradually her skinny legs rose from the ground as she was taken into the freedom that she was promised. Piette and Paul’s hearts rose as Pi ascended into the open sky. They had waited countless years to pass on their skills, experience and family tradition and the moment was finally here. Their hopes and prayers had been answered. And just as quickly, they were dashed. Pi plummeted to the ground with a great thud.
Silence blanketed the Etoile. She lay stunned at the base of l’Arc de Triomphe inches from the eternal flame. Her left wing lay crumpled under her own weight, the right pointed skyward. Her left leg throbbed and the right was completely numb. With gravel stuck in her beak she managed to speak weakly through her dented pride, “I can’t do it. I knew that I couldn’t do it and shouldn’t have tried.”
Paul and Piette Phillecroix gently lifted Pi from the chopped stones until she stood shakily on her now swollen legs. She shook the dirt from her feathers and turned away from her parents. A tear formed in her pumpkin colored eyes and it slowly ran down her beak.
“Mon chère,” Piette said in an effort to comfort. “Everything will be alright. We’ll try again tomorrow. You are a French Phillecroix, strong and brave.”
Pi didn’t feel very strong and was sure she would never be brave. Now she knew what the thin voice was trying to tell her - she was different, different from her parents, different from all the other pigeons. Different. Even so, her desire to desperately please forced her to give her parents hope. “Okay, I will try again tomorrow for you père and you too mère.”
Surprisingly and uncharacteristically Paul Phillecroix said, “Climb onto your papa’s back. We’re going home. We’ll try again tomorrow.” She clung to his broad back and they slowly ascended the one 137 stairs back to the nest.
“Père, mère? How do pigeons know what direction to fly if they’ve never been to where they are going?”
Paul and Piette smiled at their daughter’s innocence. “Because they do. It is inside all of us; we know where to go and so do you. You know the way Pi.”
“But how does it work mère?”
“It just does. Some things, no matter how many times we questioned them, will not change. Go to sleep love, you will need your strength for tomorrow. Bonne nuit. Good night sweet little bird.”
Paul and Piette walked out of the nest and onto the southeast corner of the roof. The lights of the city twinkled around them.
“She’s very smart, Piette.”
"Yes, she is. Very smart.”
Paul Phillecroix turned his glance towards the Eiffel Tower. A flock of geese flew overhead honking as they ascended in formation, disappearing into the night sky.
“It never made sense to me why those geese fly back and forth every year. It seems like a lot of wasted energy.”
Piette smiled, as she heard this pronouncement countless times. “Yes dear, it makes no sense at all.”
They sat quietly for a long time after the geese flew into the distance until Paul Phillecroix broke the silence. “You know as well as I do Piette that it takes a lot more than intelligence to survive. If she can’t fly odds are against her…” He trailed off not wanting to press his thoughts into words. Piette rose slowly and took his wing in hers then whispered, “She is a Phillecroix and she has everything she needs not only to survive in this world but to live a long, useful and happy life. Whatever else she may need you and I will provide her in abundance. Let’s go to bed. Tomorrow will be here soon enough.”
Paul Phillecroix took a deep breath, stood, and as he turned away from the City of Lights, a shooting star soared across the northern sky leaving a trail of silver glitter in its wake.
The night was slow in turning and Paul and Piette Phillecroix awoke well before daylight. Paul Phillecroix had tossed and turned all night, waking Piette in his uneasiness. Unlike the day before, the entire family winded their way down the metal staircase and Pi prayed with each step she took until she reached the exit. Under a clear blue open sky they walked, first Paul Phillecroix, then Piette, and finally Pi to the center of the place de l'Étoile. Piette and Paul Phillecroix gave Pi ample time to prepare; too much time if you had asked Paul Phillecroix.
Pi puffed her chest and stretched her wings outward in preparation and then retracted them again. Paul and Piette Phillecroix watched and waited patiently until she was ready. She rehearsed again by puffing out her chest, stretching her wings and then began to flap first her left wing then her right. The left continued to move up and down in a strong, rhythmic motion, while the right struggled to keep up with that of its partner.
“Look Paul,” shouted Piette. “She’s doing it!”
Resolve shone on Pi’s face as she flapped harder and harder in attempts to raise herself from the ground. Her left wing continued to move with precision while the right fluttered out of time. For a moment one foot would leave the ground and then touch down and then the other would lift slowly and then it too would come to rest. After using every ounce of energy she was able to summon, she stopped and stood exhausted, her chest heaved from the effort. Worn and shuddering with shame, she turned to face the rising sun. “I can’t fly mère. I’m sorry père. I will not be able to carry on the family tradition.” The statement buckled Paul Phillecroix’ knees. Both he and Pi could hardly stand with the weight of their sadness. Pi’s scrawny, little legs quivered under their burden. “What’s wrong with me?”
Mother and father stood helplessly. “Do something Paul,” Piette encouraged.
“Moi?! What can I do ma femme?”
“Talk to her.”
For the first time in his life, Paul Phillecroix stood frozen in thought without anything to say. Piette nudged him forward with the tip of her beak and slowly he put one foot in front of the other and walked to his daughter. His head bobbed in a rhythm slightly out of time from that of his pink colored feet.
Pi couldn’t face him. Not now. Not with her eyes filled with tears and her feathers creased and crumpled.
Paul Phillecroix stepped in close to his daughter, close enough so that their tail feathers brushed. He heard her sniffling back tears and gently called her name.
“Hmm...everything will be okay...did you know that your great, great, great, great Grandfather, Pierre Phillecroix, flew only several meters on his first attempt?”
She turned her head slightly over her body to see her father’s face. “But he flew père, he flew. I can’t get off the ground for more than one second. I’ll never fly père, never.”
Paul Phillecroix’ heart was breaking, and as he searched for something to say a speck of silver floated down onto Pi’s back feathers.
“Pi, I want you to know that your mère and I love you.” Piette gave her husband a stern look. “What I mean to say is that we will love you whether you fly or not.”
“What good is a pigeon that can’t fly père? I’ll have to stay in the nest forever never making friends, not going anywhere or doing anything.”
“Sweet little bird…”
“I heard you and mère talking and I know what you’re thinking and I won’t let you worry about me. I know that you wanted a boy and I know that you’ll never be satisfied with a flightless daughter. I can’t live like this père, I don’t want too. I can’t, I won’t.”
Paul Phillecroix looked to Piette for help. Standing in the silence between husband and daughter, Piette considered her youth and her mother who had passed many years ago. Paulette would groom Piette in the afternoon sun and tell her stories of the Great Bird and many of life’s valuable lessons. Now she looked to her once more. Dear mother, please help me to find the right words to comfort my beautiful child.
“Oui?” Several thin feathers atop the crown of her head waved in the Paris breeze. She looked directly at Piette and stated, “No matter what you or père do or say, I will not be a flyer. Ever.”
A cold chill ran through Paul Phillecroix’ body. He looked to Piette who peered into his hazelnut colored eyes seeing his disappointment. She stood directly in front of Pi and firmly said, “Pi, I want you to listen to me carefully.” Pi lifted her head and greeted her mother’s gaze.
“Many years ago your father and I were invited to join the annual Phillecroix cousins’ club where they were having their first cross-Channel relay race. Your father was so excited. He was strong, fast and eager to show everyone his talents. Each family member was to choose whom he or she wanted as their relay partner and I assumed that your père would ask his cousin Michel because he had flown the Channel many times. But your père surprised everyone by saying that he wanted me as his partner.”
“What happened mère, did you win the race?”
"I started ahead of your père because he could easily have finished the crossing on his own. It was a clear day with deep blue skies, but the winds were strong and pushed back with tremendous force. I had barely left the cliffs of Normandy when my wings felt as if they weighed fifty kilos. I pumped them up and down trying to cut through the powerful gusts but halfway through the race I started suffering terrible muscles cramps and lost control and headed straight into the cold waters of the Channel. Just as I was about to crash, something swooped down from out of nowhere, grabbed me, and pulled me to safety.”
“What was it mère?”
“It was your father, of course. He saved my life, again. But the story doesn’t end there. He wanted to take me back to the safety of the cliffs, but I told him that I would be fine and that he should continue on without me. But your father wouldn’t hear any of it. He secured me within his claws and carried me the entire way! We finished the race and the following morning we flew back to Normandy.”
“Did you and père win the race?”
“No. What’s more important was the fact that we finished. Your father kept flying with every ounce of strength and determination he could muster. He easily could have left me there or taken me back but he continued on. That same strength and determination he used to go on with the race, carrying extra weight and finishing, is also within you. Every bird has it; it’s just a matter of tapping into it. Once you discover it you will see that it will carry you through anything, even the most difficult of times. The first step is to believe. Believe in yourself. Believe that the Great Bird created you just as you should be, perfect yet with so much life and learning ahead of you. All you have to do is be the best Pi Phillecroix that you can be and the rest will take care of itself. Your father and I will not love and care for you any less if you cannot fly. What is important to us is that you live your life with courage and purpose.”
Pi listened to her mother’s words and desperately wanted to believe but what if she didn’t have the same strength and courage that her father had and what if she too became cramped and tired during her journey with no one to rescue her? What if?
“But I’m different from the other pigeons now mère. All the strength and determination in France will not get me off the ground and into the air.”
“We are all different in some way. All of the Jacquet boys are different from each other even know they are part of the same family. Nicolas is much different from his brothers don’t you agree?” Pi shrugged her shoulders slightly.
“And how about madame and monsieur Cambier, they certainly are not very much alike are they? They are husband and wife yes but they are two separate and very different birds who came together in marriage.”
“Yes mère, I understand. I just don’t want to be so different that the other birds will put all their attention on what’s different about me.”
Paul Phillecroix interrupted, “It’s not just your differences that distinguish who you are. It is what and how you conduct your life. The Great Bird has decided that this is your fortune and we shall abide by that decision. We are a family and we will face this together holding our heads and chests high for the world to see.”
Pi walked to her father and buried her head in his strong, feathered chest. “Père, je vous aime tant.”
Paul Phillecroix stretched out a wing and invited Piette to join their embrace. And as they stood there in the center of l’Arc de Triomphe, the center of the world, Paul Phillecroix raised his brow and looked to the heavens and silently asked, Why? Why would you cast this fate upon my daughter? I have served you well throughout so many years. Have I ever wavered in my devotion to you and those in need? Have I not answered your every call?
The wind whipped leaves around the Phillecroix’ legs and the sun stole behind a slow moving cloud. Paul Phillecroix was a patient man and had waited many years for the birth of his first child. Wasn’t he deserving of a sprinkling of impatience? Well? Answer me! He waited for a reply that he knew wasn’t coming and then guided his family back to their rooftop home.
So it was to be that Pi Phillecroix, daughter of Piette and Paul Phillecroix V, descendant of Pierre and Pipio Phillecroix, a Blue Streak bloodline of the most famous, heroic and decorated pigeon family in the entire world was not to fly.