Once upon a time there was a little gnome named Ludlow who lived in a comfortable burrow beneath the roots of an ancient oak tucked inside the Franklin Park Wilderness. To Ludlow, who was as tall as the tallest toadstool, the Franklin Park Wilderness was as big as the world. But to everyone else, the Franklin Park Wilderness wasn’t very big at all. Half as big as the Franklin Park Zoo. Less than a quarter of the size of the Franklin Park Golf Course. And Franklin Park itself was only a tiny dot (albeit a lovely, green, diamond-shaped dot) on the map of Boston, where unbeknownst to Ludlow, he lived.
Ludlow loved his wilderness, where blue jays and cardinals wove in and out of branches like streamers of blue and red. Ludlow especially loved the sound the mourning doves made with the slanting of the sun, heralding the birth and passing of each day in soothing tones. Ludlow made sure to gather acorns for the crows, berries for the finches, and seeds for the robins. But the birds Ludlow loved best, the birds he saved his very own breadcrumbs for, were the pigeons.
Now most city dwellers don’t like pigeons. Because they’re grey. Because they’re ordinary. Because they swarm city squares and sidewalks and sometimes even subway stations looking for free handouts. Because they prefer to walk rather than fly. Because they perch on trash cans and rifle through garbage, looking for something to eat. Because they carry the city’s filth on their wings.
But Ludlow didn’t know he was a city dweller, and so he didn’t know he was supposed to disdain the pigeon, whom he thought quite beautiful, their grey feathers reflecting glimpses of emerald and violet in the sunlight, their constant and gentle cooing wrapping Ludlow in a quilt of companionship, helping Ludlow to feel a little less lonely.
Because even though Ludlow loved his woods, and loved his home, with walls of earth and root-wood, decorated with rugs woven from wildflowers, and curtains of daisy-chains, and tables and chairs made from stone still warm from a thousand years of sunshine, he lived alone. Never before had Ludlow seen another gnome. In fact, Ludlow believed he was the last gnome on earth, the only son of an only son four generations running. But because Ludlow, although lonely, was an optimistic gnome, he tried to be happy in his woods, surrounded by pigeons.
And for the most part, he was. Almost.
Now the pigeons could sense that Ludlow wasn’t entirely happy. And this made the pigeons sad. For pigeons are quite generous, convivial creatures (they live in cities after all) and they loved Ludlow deeply. Because he treated them as equals and welcomed them as friends. And to a species largely disdained, Ludlow’s kindness had endeared him to them forever. So much so, that unbeknownst to Ludlow the pigeons decided they were going to make him happy.
So one day, five of Ludlow’s closest friends, Percival, Petunia, Prudence, Parley, and Hank, decided to stage an intervention, and while Ludlow was busy herding earthworms, they descended upon him in a flurry of fluttering and feathers.
“I’m afraid these worms aren’t for eating,” Ludlow said, mistaking his friends’ intentions.
“Oh, we wouldn’t dream of eating your worms” Prudence assured him. “Pigeons are vegan.”
“Somebody should have told that to the guy on Boston Common. He kept throwing bits of his tuna sandwich in my face,” Hank complained. “So I pooped on him.”
Petunia rolled her eyes. “And you wonder why nobody likes us.”
“Let’s not get distracted here, people,” Percival said.
“You mean pigeons,” Petunia said.
Percival shrugged, “Same difference.”
“See?” Petunia trilled loudly, her feathers ruffling, “That’s your problem, you don’t distinguish between birds and people.”
Ludlow interrupted quietly, “I don’t mean to be rude, friends, but you’re scaring my worms.” And sure enough, the worms, who had been sliding slowly and sagely into their tunnels, were now wriggling wildly and getting tangled in knots.
Glaring at the other pigeons, who seemed sufficiently sorry, Parley stepped forward with a bobbing of his head and cleared his throat loudly. “Actually, Ludlow. The reason we’re here is because we’ve noticed you’ve been acting kind of sad lately. And we love and want you to be happy. So please tell us. How can we make you happy?”
But instead of saying anything at all, Ludlow looked down at his feet, his eyes filling with tears that were only half sad. The other half was full of gratitude for such good friends. Only they didn’t see it that way.
Petunia slapped Parley with her wing. “Look what you did! You made Ludlow cry,” she whispered loudly enough for the entire wilderness to hear. Soon every branch of the old oak tree was full of Ludlow’s friends. Even the old falcon had come, although nobody was brave enough to sit next to him. But everybody wanted to hear what Ludlow would say, wondering how they too, could help.
A long while passed, with nobody speaking, not even Petunia, until a wind rustled the leaves like the sound of an ocean wave, and blew through Ludlow’s oak colored beard, causing him to lift his chin and see for the first time the hundreds of birds who had gathered during his silence.
“Sometimes it’s lonely to be a gnome,” Ludlow said, finally. “Sometimes I wish I could meet another of my kind.”
All the birds nodded in empathy and compassion. Especially the pigeons, who mated for life, and whose heads nodded all the time anyway. Then instantly, magically, all the birds lifted in flight, their whistling wings raising a cyclone of dust and feathers as they disappeared in every direction, exploding like a firework that never ends, hoping to find evidence of a fellow gnome.
Then all was quiet.
Was it something I said? Ludlow wondered, then shrugged and walked softly to his burrow.
The following morning, a rapid series of loud knocks woke Ludlow from a lovely dream, which he couldn’t quite remember, although he could still hear remnants of laughing.
The pounding came again, louder.
“I’m coming,” Ludlow said, slipping on house socks of dandelion wool and shuffling to the front door, which opened to five pigeon faces cooing excitedly back at him.
“We found her!” Prudence cried.
“I found her,” Hank corrected. “In Brooklyn. I know a guy.”
“Pigeon,” Petunia said. “You know a pigeon.”
Percival looked at her. “Really? You’re going to start that now? At a time like this?”
Ludlow, still groggy with sleep, still hearing echoes of laughter, struggled to open his eyes. “A time like what?” he asked, yawning.
“Her name is Lucille,” Prudence continued. “She lives beneath the great camperdown elm near Lullwater Bridge.”
“Who?” Ludlow asked, confused, the beginnings of hope stirring at the bottom of his heart.
“A gnome. Just like you,” Prudence said, smiling.
“Except she’s a girl,” Hank said. “And she doesn’t have a beard.”
“She kind of has a mustache though,” Percival said.
Petunia hit him on the head. “No she doesn’t. Why would you say that? You haven’t even seen her.”
“But I will,” Percival insisted.
“No you won’t. I will,” Petunia declared. “It should be a girl pigeon who goes.”
“That’s gender discrimination,” Prudence said, no longer smiling. “Pigeons don’t discriminate. This would be why male pigeons produce crop milk.”
“But I’m the fastest flyer,” Percival said.
“I’m the one who found her,” Hank replied.
“I’m sorry. Did you say you found a gnome?” Ludlow asked, his voice full of disbelief, his knees starting to give way. He reached out for his chair so he could sit down.
Parley stepped forward. “Yes. We did.” He pulled out a feather pen and some paper from beneath his wing. “Here. Write her a letter. We’ll deliver it for you,” he said.
“You can do that?” Ludlow asked.
“Can we do that?” Hank grumbled. “Do you hear this guy? Can we do that? We’re pigeons for crying out loud. That’s what we do!”
Prudence shot Hank, who was still grumbling, an angry look. “Have you ever heard of Commando? GI Joe? Cher Ami?” she asked. Ludlow shook his head. “They’re all famous war heroes. And they’re all pigeons.”
“Humans forget that,” Hank shouted. “Without pigeons, the French wouldn’t have found the Lost Battalion of the 77th. Without pigeons, the Allies in Normandy couldn’t have sent messages to the German front. And what kind of thanks do we get? Tuna thrown in our faces.”
“Actually,” Prudence said, “They stuffed the war heroes and put them on display in a museum.”
Percival shivered. “I think I prefer the tuna.”
Parley turned back to Ludlow. “What they’re trying to say,” he explained, “Is that pigeons are expert letter carriers. And we’d be happy to carry your letters to and from Lucille.”
Ludlow blushed. “If she writes me back,” he said, suddenly shy. But he took the quill and paper anyway.
Hank hit himself in the head with his wing. “I totally forgot. She already has,” and he handed over a folded up piece of paper that smelled like strawberries.
For the next several weeks, the pigeons took turns flying to and from Brooklyn, delivering letters between the fastly forming friends. And Ludlow became increasingly joyous, whistling off-tune birdcalls as he worked, making his friends laugh.
Until the day he wrote his most important letter. The one where he invited Lucille to visit. The one he entrusted to Prudence, who wasn’t the fastest flier, but certainly the most careful. He was so nervous his hands shook as he tied the letter to Prudence’s leg.
“I’ll come back as soon as I can,” Prudence promised.
“Which won’t be very fast,” Percival laughed, nudging Hank with his wing and winking.
Ignoring him, Prudence took to the air with a whistling, carrying all of Ludlow’s hopes on her wings.
But three days later, Prudence returned empty-handed. And the pigeons were so sad for Ludlow, even Petunia didn’t correct the anthropomorphism.
“No letter?” Ludlow asked, despondently. Despairingly. “No reply?”
Prudence shook her head, and tried her best not to cry. “Nothing. I even waited an extra day. But there was no note. No smoke from her chimney. It’s like she simply disappeared.”
For the next three weeks, the pigeons took turns flying to and from Brooklyn. But the camperdown elm remained quiet and abandoned. And the friends mistook Lucille’s lack of communication as a bad sign. And all whistling stopped.
But on the twenty-second day, when a small knock woke Ludlow from a dream of lingering sadness, the pigeons realized their mistake. For on the front porch of the burrow under the old oak tree in the Franklin Park Wilderness stood a delightful little gnome, with green hair and a red dress with yellow dots, looking not unlike a strawberry herself.
“I’m Lucille,” she said, holding out her hand for a no-longer sleepy Ludlow to shake. “And I’m very pleased to accept your invitation.”