Loosely translated, ptichi moloko means bird’s milk, which does not sound as appetizing as the Ukrainian dessert it represents: a pastel-colored, gelatin-enhanced creamy puff, molded into a curlicue and sprinkled with powdered sugar. My mother bought ptichi moloko from a store in Brighton Beach, a southern neighborhood in Brooklyn famous for its Russian population and sometimes not-so-kindly referred to as Little Odessa. While in Brighton, my mother also bought pieroshkies (ground meat, cabbage, mashed tubers, or fruit, wrapped in savory dough and deep-fried), farmer’s cheese, pickled cucumbers and tomatoes, smoked herring and salmon, and tiny pouches of cheap caviar. When we brought these groceries back to our Coney Island apartment – a substantial walk, but one we completed almost weekly – my mother set the items on the counter like an exploded cornucopia and I went downstairs to my bedroom to rest as she put things to the order she preferred.
In our peculiar apartment building, half of the apartments went upstairs and the other half went downstairs, a crazy zigzag of architecture. Upstairs, our dining area faced a perfect sliver of air between two adjacent buildings, through which we could gaze at one of the Twin Towers. I remember how the tower glittered at sunset. To the left, we faced the Verrazano Bridge, to the right the Empire State Building. My mother’s downstairs bedroom also faced this direction, but my room faced the Atlantic Ocean, which was literally across the street from our building. Through studious mapping, I deduced that my bedroom shared walls with apartment 715, whose inhabitants spent a good deal of time screaming and throwing things at one another. My room shared a fire escape with the screaming neighbors and I dreaded ever facing an emergency that would require me to climb out there with them, convinced they might start yelling at me too.
The screamers and I shared the fire escape with one more party: a pair of nesting pigeons. The pigeons cooed outside my window at night, sometimes tapping the glass with an overextended wing. They built a tiny nest on my corner of the fire escape. The nest grew large with twigs and straw, and I wondered where the pigeons found straw in Brooklyn. The fire escape slowly turned from gray steel to white from the unique whitewash that only birds can provide. I loved to watch the pigeons: their downy breast plumage, the soft wispy feathers around their shriveled orange legs, their weary yellow eyes and irregular beaks, which tapped and pecked for food on the fire escape. When the pigeon eggs hatched, the little birds, ugly in their newness, cheeped and chirped for their crop milk, which the parents dribbled into their maws. The little ones were pink, with haphazard patches of tiny feathers and purple circles for eyes. Soon, though, they grew beautiful and lithe. The little ones learned to fly.
One year the babies did not hatch. My mother handed me an old broom handle and told me to smash the eggs, so they wouldn’t hatch and wouldn’t produce any more generations to whitewash the fire escape. They were filthy, she said, and had too many babies and made a mess of our beautiful fire escape. I was still young enough that my obedience overrode critical thinking. I stupidly smashed the nest. I regretted it instantly.
The pigeons didn’t come back for many years. When they did, I flatly refused to smash any more eggs and I told my mother that she should do it, which, of course, she couldn’t. So the pigeons started a new nest, dirtying the fire escape once again, and I watched them, rapt and thankful that they had returned, whispering apologies through the glass: Forgive me. Please, forgive me.
Some years later, in college, I was eating lunch outdoors with a friend, and an old, fat pigeon perched one foot away, ruffled, its head pulled tightly to its breast. One orange eye gazed at me lazily, with none of the caution that the fire escape pigeons practiced. Since it was so close to us, my friend and I observed the pigeon for some time, and slowly it shuffled its weight around to better face us. Another pigeon flew to it, perching on the rim of a garbage can about two feet away. How odd, I thought, for them to be so perfectly at ease.
I decided to smash up my remaining potato chips and feed them the pieces. As I strew the chips on the sidewalk, the memory of the smashed nest clattered back into my mind. “Give me your bread,” I told my friend. When he did, I crumbled the bread over the bench where I’d been sitting. We left our lunch spot, and the two pigeons eagerly flew to peck at what we’d put out for them. As we watched the birds eating, I imagined the pigeon post of Paris, those birds that flew so many miles to relay important messages. I wondered if perhaps those pigeons were sent to relay the memory of the smashed nest, to remind me that my good and bad actions will come back to me in many times the measure, that the life I live now will affect the outcome of my future. As a child, I did not yet understand the awful metaphysical ramifications of being a murderer of small, defenseless things.