"This may be the most original cross-species love story I've ever read. Part travelogue, part recovery memoir, and one hundred percent compelling." —Gwen Cooper, author of the New York Times bestselling Homer's Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat
"[An] epiphany-provoking gem of a story, skillfully crafted, vivid and rich with feeling." —Richard Blanco, Presidential Inaugural Poet and author of The Prince of los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood
"A stunning, exceptional memoir from a woman who truly understands and appreciates birds . . . A captivating, heart-warming tale and a delightful, inspiring read." —Joanna Burger, author of The Parrot Who Owns Me: The Story of a Relationship
An avian expert and poet shares a true story of beloved birds, a remarkable grandfather, a bad-girl youth—and an astonishing redemption
Nikki Moustaki, author of The Bird Market of Paris, grew up in 1980s Miami, the only child of parents who worked, played, and traveled for luxury sports car dealerships. At home, her doting grandmother cooked for and fed her, but it was her grandfather—an evening-gown designer, riveting storyteller, and bird expert—who was her mentor and dearest companion.
Like her grandfather, Nikki fell hard for birds. "Birds filled my childhood," she writes, "as blue filled the sky." Her grandfather showed her how to hypnotize chickens, sneak up on pigeons, and handle baby birds. He gave her a white dove to release for luck on each birthday. And he urged her to, someday, visit the bird market of Paris.
But by the time Nikki graduated from college and moved to New York City, she was succumbing to alcohol and increasingly unable to care for her flock. When her grandfather died, guilt-ridden Nikki drank even more. In a last-ditch effort to honor her grandfather, she flew to France hoping to visit the bird market of Paris to release a white dove. Instead, something astonishing happened there that saved Nikki's life.
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The Bird Market of Paris
By Nikki Moustaki
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2014 Nikki Moustaki
All rights reserved.
From earliest childhood, I watched Poppy's birds for hours: the Rhode Island Reds and Japanese silkies, green and golden pheasants, peacocks and peahens, duckling chicks in the spring, rolling pigeons and homing pigeons, star finches and zebra finches, peach-faced lovebirds, gray and white cockatiels, and yellow canaries that sang concertos at dawn and dusk. I thought the pheasants weren't birds at all, but aliens. They were too beautiful to be from this world.
Poppy's chickens were affable birds who let me hold them. There's a photo of me at two years old in diapers in the backyard, trying to ride a big Rhode Island Red. Poppy's pigeons were independent creatures who kept themselves one wing-beat out of my reach. The white pigeons—my favorites—came close when I tossed them the leftovers of our lunch, almost close enough to touch. I'd sit cross-legged in the grass, still as a lighthouse, and wait for them to approach, and then reach out to touch one just as it fluttered from my grasp.
One morning, I discovered a chicken wandering in the yard, long striped feathers trailing from its tail, a gold head and rump, deep blue wings, and a body as red as cherries. Instead of luring it with food or talking softly to it, I chased the fast little bird around the yard for at least half an hour and corralled it into the pigeon coop, wings flapping, honking and wheezing in fear. Flushed and breathless, I ran into the house with the "chicken" clutched to my chest to show Poppy what I had found, so proud of my discovery.
"Chérie, you found the new pheasant!" he exclaimed, smiling and clapping his hands. "Bravo!"
For each of my childhood birthdays, Poppy bought me a single white dove, a ritual as regular to us as blowing out candles. Sometimes the dove arrived in the early morning, and I'd wake to Poppy standing at my bedside, holding the bird with two hands, like a sandwich; other birthdays, the dove appeared at noon in the backseat of Poppy's 1973 ice-blue Ford Pinto, Poppy having left the house under the guise of purchasing milk, but returning with a small cardboard box instead, air holes punched into the top. I counted the days to each birthday dove, a feathered tick on an invisible calendar marking my growth. Poppy said the dove ensured I'd have peace for another year.
My earliest, most vivid memory of our tradition is the morning of my eighth birthday. I padded across the terrazzo floor in bare feet, past my red-eared slider turtle, Sam, who lived in a Tupperware bowl in the sunny Florida room, past the kitchen smelling of chocolate and yeast, and my grandmother, whom I called Nona, laboring there in the heat on my birthday cake. I swatted open the screen door and found my birthday dove on our patio, perched in a brass cage dangling from a hook on a curved, rusted stand. My birthday dove had baby-fine feathers that looked painted on, a blush-colored beak, and huge, inky, iris-less eyes surrounded by fleshy white rings. I visited the dove all day, poking inside the cage to stroke a wing with the tip of my finger.
At dusk, candles blown out and cake eaten, Poppy fished the dove from the cage and placed its quivering body in my hands. The bird smelled of musky rain and carnations. I cupped its warm body and trekked into the backyard as sunset painted the sky with pinks and violets, the bird vibrating in my palms like a plucked guitar string.
"Where does my birthday dove go?" I asked. I knew the answer, because I asked the question every year.
"She goes to the heavens, Chérie," Poppy said, sweeping his hand over the sky. "And becomes a star to watch over you when I cannot be there myself."
Wanting to do it right, I launched the dove, arms and hands open in a prayer to the sky, tracing its flight with my eyes until the bird swept into the horizon and out of sight. Its wings whistled as it disappeared, and I felt joy mixed with exhilaration, like I was made of bird flight.
* * *
One humid weekend morning a few months later, Poppy asked me to help him outside as he passed the kitchen counter, where I was perched on a stool finishing a breakfast of fried potatoes and a bowl of frozen mangos that I ate like Popsicles, the last treasure from our tree's summer harvest.
"Please put on shoes, Chérie. I will eat your toes if I see them." Poppy disapproved of my perpetual barefootedness. He was full of stories about rusty nails, gangrene, and amputations.
I crunched over the lawn after him with my sneakers untied, over grass growing stiff and brown in the heat, past the three pomegranate trees, to the coop Poppy had built after the last one rotted into a heap of splintered wood and unraveled wire. He wanted me to duck inside the coop and rescue a baby pigeon that had jumped over a wooden partition and into another nest. The displaced baby's parents had stopped feeding it. The coop's door, an Alice-in-Wonderlandish hatch, did not cooperate with Poppy's adult bones.
I squeezed inside. The enclosure smelled like wet wood and pigeon feces. I associated the musty, almost moldy, odor with the birds and had become as fond of it as someone might of blossoming gardenias. The shelf was partitioned into sections, each one large enough for a pigeon sitting on eggs. Each section had a lip on its outer edge so the eggs wouldn't roll out.
A large squab—a baby pigeon—huddled in the corner of one of the sections, and a small, scrawny squab hunched in the section next to it. Pigeons typically lay two eggs, and as a rule one egg hatches out a male pigeon and the other hatches out a female. The babies have to stay in the nest or the parents won't recognize them—at least, that seemed to be the case with these two squabs.
Poppy stood outside the coop, facing me through the wire.
"Chérie, reach up and move the small one into the nest with the fat one," he said, pointing from one pigeon to the other.
One of the adult pigeons scrambled out of a nest and onto a perch above my head. Eggs rolled toward the lip of the partition, glowing white orbs dappled with specks of pigeon poop.
"The baby is starving, Chérie, you must move him," Poppy said, pantomiming the gesture of scooping, like dirt in a backhoe.
I reached up, hesitated, pulled my hand back. The baby pigeon looked dangerous: an alien with a huge beak, gray skin, and fluffy greenish moss spreading like disease all over its body.
"Pick him up and move him over," urged Poppy. "Are you afraid? Please do it, Chérie."
I wanted to please Poppy, but there was too much activity in the coop. Mature pigeons flapped and cooed in a kind of Morse code, agitated at my intrusion, their chicks begging with high-pitched voices. I gazed at the squab, terror rising, believing I'd suffer serious physical damage if I touched it—maimed fingers or worse.
"He will die," Poppy pleaded. "You can do it. You can rescue him."
I stood on my toes and poised my hand over the baby, ready for pain and the feeling of something sharp, but he was pliable and warm, and I felt his bones slide underneath his skin. He pulled his legs into his body and tensed. I moved him to the proper nest and placed him inside with his sister.
"Bravo!" Poppy cheered, clapping his hands. "You saved him!"
I ducked through the coop door into the sunlight as a pair of blue jays dove through the branches of our grapefruit tree. I had changed the path of one creature's future. I felt, for the first time, how fragile everything was, including myself, maybe even Poppy, definitely our birds. That feeling stayed with me long after the baby pigeons feathered out and flew away, long after the coop decayed and Poppy tore it down, long after we moved away from that house and the new owners separated the lot and built two houses on the land that once held birds and wonder.
* * *
I spent every summer of my childhood with Poppy and Nona, like grandparent summer camp, but the recession of 1979 forced my parents and me to move into Nona and Poppy's small three-bedroom home in South Miami. Nona and Poppy didn't share the same bed, or even the same room, and they weren't affectionate toward each other, but there was a solidarity between them—the kind of bond, I later realized, that forms between people who have seen things together that they don't want to remember. My parents slept in the third bedroom and I slept with Nona in her bed, which was always filled with birdseed I had dragged under the sheets with my bare feet; I'd wake, a little sweaty, with millet kernels indented into my skin. We didn't have air-conditioning, just the constant whir of fans in every room.
I don't know how my parents felt—that situation couldn't have been comfortable for a married couple—but my transition was seamless. I spent my days watching Poppy seduce birds to eat from his hands and scrutinizing the pita bread in Nona's oven.
"How does the bread fill up with space?" I asked her as I watched the Frisbees of dough puff into inflated globes. I crouched with my nose so close to the oven's window the heat pulsed through me like a melody.
"The bread will fall if you talk about it," Nona whispered, her small, bronze hands white with flour, ready with a flat wooden paddle to rescue the bread. I could match her complexion after a week of beach days; otherwise, I was as pale as my mom, the lone non-Greek in our nuclear family, a native of Coney Island, on the Atlantic, not the Aegean Sea.
"But how does the pocket get into the pita?" I whispered back.
"The dough knows what to do," she said.
I doubted dough had its own volition. I thought Nona didn't want to tell me the secret, because giving it away might jinx the bread, turning it into flat, chewy discs instead of fluffy pockets.
Poppy seemed more willing to let me in on his secrets. Every morning he opened the coop door and released our pigeons. He tossed them birdseed and leftovers from the night before, then turned on the hose and propelled a fine mist through the nozzle, the water effecting a rainbow in the sunlight for the pigeons to bathe beneath. They shifted their heads underneath their wings and writhed their necks at impossible angles. They hunched in the wet grass with wings relaxed, shimmying their bodies deep into the lawn.
Then they bounced up, shook off the bath, and disappeared into the breeze as if they were made of it. There were days when I worried about them being out in the world. Once, driving with Poppy in the afternoon, he pointed out two of our fancy pigeons standing atop a telephone pole. At dusk, the pigeons returned like factory workers and entered the coop, one by one. Poppy often sent me outside to make sure they were all accounted for, all two dozen or so, then I'd close the door and latch it against the raccoons and the occasional fox.
Most evenings, after securing our pigeons, Poppy and I stood in the grass and listened to the mockingbirds and blue jays claiming their territory for the night, the cicadas beginning their loud chorus. Night jasmine filled the air with its heavy syrup. Feet rooted in the earth, I mimicked the mockingbirds to see if they'd call back to me, which made Poppy laugh.
The year we first lived with them, he bought me a pair of blue and white parakeets, Pepito and Pepita, who soon came to a tragic end at the claws of our neighbor's cat. The crime scene was sanitized by suppertime, and a new pair of green parakeets had replaced the unfortunate blue couple. Poppy believed it was a good omen when a pet died in the home—that a tragedy originally intended for humans had taken the animal instead. He said this was why people in the old country kept animals in the yard and house.
Whenever one of my pets passed into the next realm, a canary or a cat, I'd run to Poppy crying, and he'd clap his hands, raise them to the sky, and exclaim, "Merci, mon Dieu, thanks to God!" We memorialized the life the animal gave up for us and toasted with apple juice, listing the animal's positive attributes: Henry was a fine duck, a friendly and beautiful duck, with the prettiest feathers, whose honk could be heard down the block.
* * *
Nona was a gracious and proper woman, but had some old world superstitions that I couldn't understand. She didn't allow me to keep the seashells I collected on the beach. She said they were bad luck because they were dead, and you don't bring death into the house.
She said that when someone shattered a dish or a glass, it meant something evil had been put upon them, but now the spell was broken. She burned frankincense, myrrh, and mastic every few days, carrying the little dish of burning sap all over the house to drive out evil that may have settled in the corners.
She wore "evil eye" amulets, royal blue glass discs with concentric white, light blue, and black circles in the center: one around her neck, one in a ring, and one on a bracelet, and kept them all over the house, saying they repelled other people's evil thoughts about you.
When I was ten years old, Nona asked, "Who do you love more, me or Poppy?" How much Nona's eyes looked like mine, in shape and color, deep brown with flecks of gold. I loved both Nona and Poppy, but if the scales tipped, they tipped a feather's weight in Poppy's favor. I forced my face into as neutral a position as possible. Nona said, "I knew it. You love your grandfather more."
Poppy pulled silver dollars from people's ears and gave the coins to them. He looked people in the eye. He believed in giving small presents to everyone, from local celebrities to the receptionist at his dentist's office, and he held lunch parties at his fashion design studio where he plied his clients with homemade spanakopita and baklava. I helped him hard-boil eggs in tea so they were brown instead of white. Nothing in Poppy's world could be ordinary.
He was a gifted raconteur, telling stories over and over, each time adding another tiny detail, embellishments like sequins on a dress. He talked a bit about Egypt, about the green talking parrots that lived in the palace and about the superior nature of Cairo's fruit and vegetables, but most of all, Poppy overflowed with stories about Paris, the city's broad sidewalks where ten people could walk shoulder to shoulder, and the lazy afternoons sitting in cafés, people watching. Rarely did I hear about the Pyramids of Giza or the Sphinx. He was taken with Paris, and through his stories I was taken with it, too. He said he would take me there someday.
He told me about the Marché aux Oiseaux, the bird market of Paris, held on Sundays in conjunction with the famous flower market and close to Notre Dame. I heard about the bird market of Paris from Poppy so often, it became something I had to experience.
"You can hear the music of the birds a mile away," he told me. "The birds are a miracle, you cannot imagine such beautiful birds, the colors, the songs." He spoke emphatically, like a man running for office, and I believed him.
In my imagination, birdsong filled the market, waving and swelling like smoke, sunlight bathing each feather to a glisten, down to the shaft where the feather anchors into the wing. Pullets, canaries, and finches playing with the afternoon light, an iridescent sheen bouncing from their tightly groomed feathers. Roosters with feathers on their feet. Pigeons with tails spreading up and out like an Andalusian lady's fan. I didn't know these birds, but Poppy's talk made them irresistible. That's the way I'll love them, too, I thought, when I'm old enough to go to Paris. It was as inevitable as the stars, which were birds, after all.CHAPTER 2
Poppy cut his shoulder-length, flowing silver hair himself by looking at the back of his head in a mirror. He had a strong, straight nose, and was known for his overgrown eyebrows; he'd roll them upward into curls, like handlebar mustaches on the outside edges of his eyes, and chase me around the house or yard as I squealed, pretending to be afraid. He seemed tall when I was a child, but he was of average height. I rode on his broad shoulders to pick grapefruit and key limes from the taller branches on the trees in our yard.
Most close friends and relatives called Poppy by our last name, Moustaki, including Nona, though when I was around, she called him Poppy. My father, his son, called him Monsieur Moustaki. My mom called him by his first name, Soli, and acquaintances and business associates called him Bruno, his middle name.
Excerpted from The Bird Market of Paris by Nikki Moustaki. Copyright © 2014 Nikki Moustaki. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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