Dermott Hayes challenged me with an open-ended prompt: Define what I think makes up a good short story and pull a work of his apart against that measure.
My definition of a good short story is simple: Does the story hold my attention? By that definition, a good “short” takes many forms: six-word staccatos, elegant and elongated verse, perky prose, poetry of all kinds, creatively captioned pictures – art or photography.
A good “short” story can be told, in my opinion, in an infinite variety of forms.
What makes up a great short story? For me, the answer is equally simple yet difficult to achieve: Does the story that holds my attention leave me with a point worthy of pondering? I elected to examine Postcard from a Pigeon with my “good” and “great” short story benchmarks in mind. Tanya
A review of Postcard from a Pigeon, a short story by Dermott Hayes:
If there is a point of peril in the preoccupation with pets, Tito – the multi-lingual, Dublin bar dwelling, Albanian refugee – suffers miserably from it. In the beginning of the story Paddy, the local pigeon, has either taken a tumble or rumbled with a scavenging crow, leaving the poor creature with a broken wing. Enter Tito:
“Tito kneeled and spoke to him. He made pigeon sounds. He cooed and billed and murmured softly. Paddy squinted at him ferociously, scrabbling frantically if Tito moved. He kept his beak wide open but never made a sound.”
I’m thinking Tito is a generally decent fellow. Not everyone would rescue an injured bird, especially a “scrawny and mottled” specimen of the pigeon variety. Let’s face it, pigeons are messy birds with a fondness for leaving their droppings all over our human stone and metal masterpieces. I’m feeling an overall affection for Tito.
The time comes to release Paddy, and we are told:
Tito lifted him gently to his face, speaking softly to the bird.
My fondness for Tito is growing. Paddy’s release is a communal celebration:
Half the pub turned out for Paddy’s departure. It was like an American wake and the denizens of Bruxelles were seeing off a member of the family. Pigeon stories abounded.
Had Dermott stopped there, I would walk away sleepily satisfied with the dulling drone of a “happy animal release story” buzzing in my ear – the flapping of freshly mended pigeon feathers.
I feel my fondness for the man with the rumored command of ‘pigeon’ fading. As the pigeon takes flight, we are left with the foreign man, stripped of his kindness-to-animal niceties:
Occasionally, as he sat in the bar on a Thursday afternoon waiting with everyone else for their pay packets, Tito’s humour would change from the breezy sparkle that saw him through years of hard knocks and strife, to a morose and brooding sulk. He would drink more than his customary pint of Guinness and snarl and snipe at his co-workers, foreign and Irish. Sometimes he shunned their company and in a show of defiant bravado, he’d lavish charm on the nearest pretty female customer.
I am beginning to get the feeling that this Dublin bar is the type of place where a small-town American girl like myself shouldn’t venture, at least not without her menacing guard ostrich in tow. Tito is a complicated bird, however; his tale isn’t all bleak. We are told that
“He honed his wits in a hostile world with a sharp wit and natural intelligence”.
What’s not to like about that? He also has “an easy facility with languages”. Yes, we know; he even speaks ‘pigeon’. Not every fellow can do that.
From here, Dermott quickly moves us to a shady place. There is talk of a “Croatian girlfriend” and of Tito being a “deserter” and maybe even “Bosnian”. Oh my! We hear whispers of “involvement with smugglers” and a “ruthless Albanian underground”.
Loving the mischief he could cause, Tito played up to the legend and fuelled the rumours. It was only on very rare occasions people got a glimmer of light through the fog.
I have decided that Tito has a penchant for pigeons but not people. My fondness for him has faded to a spreading of curious wonder peppered with a slight seasoning of dismay. The seasoning is quickly enhanced by the heat of revelation: Tito’s girlfriend is in the late stages of pregnancy, she has dumped him, and they have had a ‘public confrontation’ – Tito’s words – over the matter. Viktor, a bar employee, tells a different version of the story:
“He went mad,” Viktor, a kitchen porter, recounted later to everyone on ‘cowboys corner’, the part of the bar unofficially reserved for regulars,” he shouted and banged on the doors. He wouldn’t go away when they asked him. Then they said they would get the police but he stayed and shouted and kicked the door.”
That settles it: Tito is a disturbed, foreign bird disrupting the Dublin nest – an emu – a big, bully bird. He takes up a lot of space; and when his feathers get ruffled, everyone feels it. Of course, this IS a bar. Guinness inspired gossiping rarely hits its mark directly. And, lest we be too hard on Tito, Dermott places this reminder in the midst of the story:
Tito nursed the bird back to health on a bed of old glass cloths in a shoebox hidden in the cellar, feeding it every day with meal mushed with milk and water squeezed through an old sock.
Somewhere under his coarse emu feathers, Tito has a soft, downy underside, at least where it concerns birds. Like a miserable, middle-aged wife, Tito disproportionately influences the mood in the entire bar:
“Whattahella is the matter with everyone?” Sergio asked no-one in particular, “issa likea funeral in here.” Jimmy stared into his Guinness, his fifth of the day. It was just five pm.
“It’s Tito,” Jimmy barked hoarsely as he lit another Sweet Afton, “he’s depressed about de burd.”
Here, Dermott’s saccharine satire takes its highest form. Jimmy, bar regular and friend of Tito, comes to the conclusion that Tito would feel better if he receives a letter from Paddy, the pigeon. Dermott, the narrator, or his imaginary storytelling “I”, is left to contemplate the ridiculous task. He ultimately decides to pen the title-promised “postcard”:
First I thought I’d get a postcard of the Dublin port landmark and then dismissed the idea as patronising and obvious. A postcard of Bruxelles would do. It would save me a walk in the rain too.
“Dear Tito,” I wrote, “How’s it going? I’m back with me mates down the Pigeon House and I have you to thank for it. The lads here are great crack and the wing has come on so much, the pain has gone. I’ll never forget your kindness to me nor the taste of that bleedin’ sock. Take care of yourself, I have to fly. All my love, Paddy the Pigeon.”
Although I was unsure if the facetiousness of the final sentence might shatter the carefully constructed veneer of absurdity, Jimmy was very pleased with my effort and told me, stashing it carefully in the pocket of his jacket, he would pass it on to Tito when he saw him.
Tito is an ecstatic emu, and I am beginning to feel a resurging glimmer of fondness for the bully bird.
He strutted and preened about the pub, joking and laughing in a Babel of languages. To everyone who would listen he showed the postcard, brandishing it with pride and a hint of whimsy.
Really, who wouldn’t want a letter from their missing or deceased pet? If we end here, I may not be sleepily satisfied, but I could at least take a snickering snooze. Good is okay, isn’t it? No, Dermott is determined to push my brain past some barrier of great. This story is about to take flight.
Tito disappears without a trace. One month later, Viktor, the kitchen porter, brings a curious story to the bar about a “nameless Albanian nomad shot dead in a Bosnian alley”. The news is received oddly with a mix of relief and detached curiosity. We know that the body belongs to Tito from the frayed newspaper cutting:
’Eets in the hedline,’ explained Viktor holding the clipping aloft with a dramatic flourish, and translating, ‘PIGEON POSTCARD MURDER CLUE.’
There is no feathery Karma at work here. The kindness Tito extends to the pigeon after Paddy’s broken-wing brawl, flies past the Albanian nomad completely in the moment of his presumed street fight. And slowly, a reflection takes shape in my mind:
Paddy flies – happy sighs; Tito dies – no one cries.
Postcard from a Pigeon reveals its ponderable point of brilliance – my crux of a great story. While we celebrate the flight of the recovered local pigeon along with the folks at the Dublin bar, we look upon the demise of the damaged foreign emu with cool indifference. Why? Are we stubborn emus with a preoccupation with pets over people, or have we exposed our bias for the local bird? There will be no sleep here; in this story there is a point worthy of pondering.
When I was asked to get a Guest Writer for my blog as part of the #everydayinspiration blogging course, I immediately thought of Tanya Cliff who writes fantasy book, which, you might imagine, has nothing in common with my own chosen oeuvre of crime fiction and short stories. But Tanya excels at good narrative, complex plotting and characterization, essential features of any good fiction. There were no rules, choose any story of mine and, given your own criteria and assessment of what makes a good story, apply those in a critique of my story.
If you want to read the original story, here’s the link
Check out Tanya Cliff at https://postprodigal.com/