Running to the market, my father clutched the bagful of coins to his chest. On the leather bag was sewn “,” horse, in Chinese, the only gift that his father had given him before the war. He hurried across town, walking under the wood sign with the words “Tai City” etched on it and following the path, which he knew by heart. He finally arrived at the center of town, full of street vendors selling fruits and other goods, with gray-uniformed soldiers at every corner. The coins were clanking against each other inside the bag as if clamoring to break free. My father lowered his eyes from the glaring of the men and shuffled to the doves’ area. He spilled the coins onto his calloused, rough hands and spoke to the salesperson.
“Excuse me,” he said in a steady voice, “may I please have those two doves?”
My father pointed to the two slender spotted doves perched inside an angular metal cage—the doves which he had admired for so long.
The man glared suspiciously at him.
“Do you have the money?”
“Yes, sir,” replied my father, trying to look confident despite the fluttering inside his stomach, “here are the four yuan for both of them.”
The salesman quickly grabbed the money out of my father’s hands as if afraid someone would steal it and counted the coins four times. Just as quickly, the salesman shoved the two doves into my father’s arms and dismissively waved his hand for my father to be on his way.
The doves were really his now. He had imagined this moment for quite some time, though in his daydreams, his father would have been there with him, negotiating with the bird seller, cracking jokes with those he knew, and maybe even stopping for a small treat for both of them once the doves were safely in their hands.
But he was alone, and even finally being the owner of two beautiful doves did not lessen the hurt of missing his father. Will I ever see him again? he wondered.
As my father held the doves, he felt the anxiety disappear. He could hear the piping of the magpies fluttering from tree to tree. The sky broadened deeper blue, and the sun’s rays shone among the few trees, whose shadows lightened. The city no longer smelled of failure and sweat, but now of hope and persistence.
My father reached an apartment building plastered with old advertisements and newspaper postings that had disintegrated into the walls. Though dirty flies swarmed his hair, trying to bite his skin, he paid no attention.
My grandmother came out to greet him. In my mind’s eye, I can almost see her now in her ragged apron, though she was younger then and her hair was still inky and brilliant. She hugged him, with the hands that supported the family, the ones that sewed the clothes and cooked the food. My grandmother looked at him with hope and love, the smile smoothing out premature wrinkles that had already started forming on her face.
The doves chirped around at the home, preening themselves and each other. They flew about, occasionally gulping down a fly that got in their way.
They are so useful already, my father thought.
My grandmother watched my father’s visible admiration of the doves, and smiles settled onto their faces for the first time since his father had gone to war.
* * *
My father remembered the day. The sun shone brightly and cheerfully, and he had just been invited by the headmaster himself to write an article in the school newspaper. He wanted to tell his family right away. Though he was mocked and jeered by some of his classmates who viewed him as a teacher’s pet, he felt so proud to be the first nine-year-old in the history of the school to have been given this honor. He understood that an honor like this came with a price. The neighborhood boys had teased him and refused to let him join in on their games. He hadn’t asked for this, but it had happened, and he felt happy.
He had skipped up the cement steps, for once not seeing them in their true state—dirty and hard, but imagining them as black onyx gemstones leading up to his family’s small apartment.
As soon as he opened the door, he recoiled in surprise. His mother was weeping, her head hunched down, her usual tightly coiled chignon now a messy bun with strands sticking out. My father was shocked; he had never seen his mother cry before.
She glanced up with her red, swollen eyes and pointed with a trembling finger to a piece of white, clean paper printed with gold, beautiful symbols.
Even without reading the characters, my father immediately knew what it was. The paper was too bright and clean to be from anyone other than the Chinese government. His father was going to the civil war.
He was already gone.
* * *
My father tried to manage his usual routine. But, without his father, he would rush home after school, almost afraid of the world now and its control over him.
He had memorized the way to his apartment, and his feet could trace it without him even looking up. The truth was: he didn’t want to look up and see the real world anymore. He didn’t want to acknowledge what it had become. My father wanted a miracle.
He had started spending most of his time with his doves, flying them in the abandoned woods outside of town and talking to them in the dark quiet of his home.
My father had heard about amazing animals that could do things normal ones couldn’t—things such as play fetch, or jump rope, or be able to find hidden people and explosive material. Because his doves were special, he saw them as being almost magical and felt that they could do anything he could teach them to do.
My father and the doves spent a lot of time in the woods. At first, the doves didn’t understand the peculiar hand signals and the funny sounds that my father was using, and my father had to lead them back and forth to the city multiple times until they started to follow his instructions. Slowly, the doves started flying the right way and comprehending what my father was saying. Each two rounds the doves made it back to the city, he would bring them farther and farther away. At first, a stray mouse could get them off course. However, the doves were getting swifter and their improvement made the harshness of war somewhat easier for my father.
One day, as my father was heading out to the forest with his doves, a harsh voice echoed through the alleyway.
My father turned around in horror. No, it couldn’t be. A tall, thin soldier stood, his eyes casting deep shadows on his face. My father could smell the soap particles embedded in the soldier’s pores, he could see the perfectly cut and rounded fingernails of the man.
“Where are you going?” the man commanded more than asked.
My father, stiff in his position, couldn’t move.
My father cleared his throat. “I-I’m going back home… sir,” he added.
“Yes, you are.” The soldier laughed, his voice cracked and abnormal. It was full of cruelty and malice, frightening my father. “Go!”
My father hurried to the apartment, sweating and breathing hard. Will my life ever be the same?
He spent the afternoon in the shadow of the one chipped window in the apartment, watching many of his neighbors being stopped by the soldiers.
All night long, gunshots were heard on the west side of the city. He lay on his ragged bed, trying to force himself to sleep.
He missed his father and there seemed no end to this war. If only his father were there with him, things would be easier.
If only my father and the Tai army had stayed, my father thought.
He looked at the doves perched in a nest that they had built out of branches. It was interesting, watching them take twigs and leaves back and forth and stuffing them together to create a nest. My father suddenly sat up on his wooden bed.
Maybe I could use the doves to send a note to my father. If I could only know that he’s all right…
He ripped out a page of his old textbook and took out his only pencil. My father scrawled a letter to his father.
Tai City has been invaded. Please come immediately! People are dying… I have heard from Mother that you are in the North. I hope that you are all right there and have not gotten injured. I miss you and I hope you come back soon.
My father carefully signed the letter with the word “,” horse, on the last sheet of paper. It was a code between him and his father, meaning swiftly and quickly.
“Xiao Bai, Xiao Hua,” my father called softly the names he had given to his doves. “Go to the North and good luck!” he said, as the doves fluttered off into the wind to the direction of my father’s pointing hand.
* * *
Two weeks passed, and my father was desperate. What if the doves were killed, or went the wrong way? What if my father never got my message?
However, two days later, he could see a cloud of dust rising out in the street. On the tip of a soldier’s hat were his two doves. He cried out. My father recognized the soldiers, many of whom were the men of his hometown.
“Father!” he cried out.
My grandmother stepped out of the apartment with my father in precise, careful steps. Soon, gunshots and orders were heard. The doves swooped gracefully toward my father, but there was no time for a reunion. The Tai City army and the occupiers started fighting.
My grandmother led her son back in the apartment.
“It’s not safe yet,” she whispered, her eyes moistened. “But thank you, son, for your doves that reunited the town.” In the confusion and commotion my father did not have a chance to see if his own father had returned with the army.
They hid in the closet of the small room, but it wasn’t long before their army won.
Hollers and cheers lit up the cold, dreary night like a candle, and my father rushed out of the room down to the town as fast as he could.
The first step into town was celebration. A crowd of people hung around him, clinging onto him. They asked questions, fussed over him, and thanked him. Even the boys that had once taunted him were silent, with glowing eyes of respect. The news spread from the army about my father’s heroic act, but he didn’t care.
My father, confused yet excited, tapped on a nearby soldier’s shoulder and asked, “How did your army get the doves? I sent them to my father.”
“The doves must have flown a wrong route, because they crossed our camp and got caught by our soldiers. We read the note and came over to help the town,” the leader explained.
“Do you happen to know where my father is?” my father asked, knowing the answer already.
“I’m sorry, son. I don’t.”
Tears now streaming down his face, he looked longingly at the other families now reunited by his act, and then back at his mother.
His mother put her arm around him, and they walked back home.
* * *
Years later, with children of his own, my father eventually came back to his hometown. He looked back at the new civilization, to the new life without war. He looked for his old apartment; it was now a shopping plaza, bursting with visitors.
His father had never come back. He didn’t know if he was killed in the war, or if he survived and was still looking for him, but the morning of that day where he had been asked to write in the school newspaper was the last time my father ever saw him again.
He looked at the people swarming in the streets. A sign was posted just next to the street. “Welcome to Dove Street,” it read. Dove Street… his doves had long since died, but the memories of himself as a child playing with them brought back a sense of nostalgia. He sighed, looking at the new life that had created itself around the ruins of his childhood.