This brief piece is my take on the cautionary tale. The subject matter might seem child like, the style and language are most definitely adult (I hope). I trust you find it to your taste.
Once upon a time, or maybe twice, at a time even before such things were written down, the tragic tale is told of a singular bird and how it earned its name. I have no cause to doubt the veracity of this story since it was recounted to me at my grandmother’s knee one day in that precious hour when the spent day is bidding a sleepy, satisfied au revoir to a cloudless night waiting in the wings to unfurl its bejewelled canvas. She, in turn and by tradition, had received it from her grandmamma, a recognised savant in her community. And now I lay it before you that you might take it as a nonsense, pure entertainment or, perhaps, a truth that’s worth retelling; to each of you as you see fit.
All was a cornucopia. It teemed. It overflowed. Foliage, flowers and fruit brawled playfully for their fair share of light, shade, moisture and heat. Fecundity filled every corner and crevice with beasts great and small of every shape and hue. Existence was certainly a matter of rampant superfluity. To say it betokened uncontrolled havoc could, of course, never be inferred, for this would suggest an infallibility too far. But, notwithstanding this, there was, however, some cause for concern. Things could not be allowed to overstep the limits of tolerance and, whilst direct intervention might be perceived as somewhat heavy-handed, an infringement of innate freedoms, there was a need for – how might one phrase it delicately? – a degree of ‘local management’. What was needed was a creature who could be relied upon to convey Their requirements without appearing to speak directly for Them; a safe pair of hands – claws, hooves, trotters or fins for that matter – to smooth the reassertion of a modicum of order. And so the call went out, hushed upon the breeze through the whispering leaves, crashed upon the shores by the cavorting waves and chattered by the babbling, gossiping brooks.
Rooting aimlessly among the detritus of exotica far beyond his own drab absence of note came a bird - one consigned to the edges of creation – who stood out in no particular, part and parcel only of the background against which the carnival of life was played out. But he heard the message as he happened to waddle past a crowd of deeply bowing grasses:
“Wanted, one who might communicate with all creation that all might live in harmony.”
It was an ambitious remit, to be true, and none-the-less worthy but, though the wording conveyed no sense of exclusion, his first reaction was to dismiss it summarily as most definitely not for him. The decision made, he mooched off further into the thicket in front of him. And, as he mooched, he thought,
“Why not me?”
Good sense might have provided him with more than one eminently plausible answer to his rhetorical questioning but these were drowned out by a sudden sense of self-belief fuelled by a tide of unexpressed frustration at his lowly station in life. However, whilst the euphoria of the possible cast a shroud, no matter how nebulous and temporary, over the crystal clear image of the probable, he was not completely blind to the likelihood of their being other candidates for the position. So, by way of preparation, he set out to meet with them surreptitiously to gauge their approach to it. He would engage them in innocent conversation. No-one could possibly guess at his true motivation.
The most obvious choice would be the lion. He was of established pre-eminence. And he was also irascible and somewhat unpredictable. So the bird approached with caution, halting at the edge of the clearing amid the brush in which the massively muscled creature lazed with his similarly endowed entourage. There was a collective twitching of ears at the arrival of the outsider. Their leader swivelled his head sending a succession of waves through the thick mane which framed his regal face. Seeing who it was he sneered,
“What do you want?”
Tripping clumsily over his fear the bird replied,
“Well, er, nothing really. I was just wondering if you had heard the news.”
“What news?” Now interested, but not deigning to show it.
“They’re looking for someone to communicate with all creation so that everyone can live happily or, er, something like that.”
“Pah! That! I’m not interested in that! I’m far too bust being king of the jungle to worry about that. Now go away.”
Rather nonplussed by the reaction of the lion the bird slowly turned and trundled away. He took himself off to the very edge of the ocean where he had heard that the great whale held sway. Lying just off-shore, his huge length seeming like a floating island, the whale snorted intermittent jets of spray high into the air.
“What,” snort, “can I,” snort, snort, “do for you?” Snort.
Creeping as close as he dared to the extremities of the fast incoming waters, the bird yelled at the top of his voice to be heard over the noise of the capering waves,
“I was just wondering what you thought of the news.”
“What,” snort, “news?”
“They’re looking for someone to talk to the whole of creation so that everyone can live in peace. Something along those lines anyway.”
“Oh,” snort, “that.” Snort. “Sorry,” snort, “Too busy trying, “snort, “to catch enough,” snort, snort, “of these pesky little krill.” Snort, “to keep me going.” And with one final snort and a massive flip of his tail he was gone.
Surprised, but encouraged, by the answer the whale had given, the bird travelled to the foot of the beetling cliffs at the end of the plains. Looking up he could just make out, soaring majestically on the uplift of the warm air, the profile of the eagle. Flapping his own stumpy wings and hopping chaotically from one clumsy foot to the other he tried to catch the eagle’s attention horribly aware that the great predator might just mistake him for a meal. Suddenly the eagle stooped, hurtling down the sheer face of the rocks toward the flopping, flapping visitor. When he saw exactly who it was he spread wide his wings pummelling them powerfully against the air and pulled up short.
“Oh, it’s you. What are you doing out here?”
“I just wanted to talk to you about what They are looking for.”
The eagle frowned pensively,
“You mean about wanting someone to communicate and so on?”
The bird nodded feverishly.
“You came all the way out here just to ask me that?”
“That’s of no interest to me. I am as free as the air itself. Why should I bother with anything like that?”
“Oh, no reason.”
With a mighty beat of his wings the eagle took to flight leaving the bemused bird to his musings. Curiouser and still more curious. No-ne seemed willing to take up the challenge. His optimism swelled as he journeyed far away from the ocean’s shore, beyond the plains fringed by the lofty cliffs into the steaming jungle and out of the other side until he reached the Great Gateway. Shimmering iridescent, it glided open at his nearing. Without hesitation he entered and the gates hushed silently closed behind him.
And there They were, seated on a raised platform looking down imperiously at the bird, who felt, suddenly, very alone.
“You have come about the position.” It was most definitely a statement of fact and not an inquiry. The bird nodded furiously anyway.
“You understand what it entails.” Another statement. More nodding.
“When we have need of you We shall make you aware. Go now.”
And go he did, as expeditiously as his stocky frame could manage.
Once more outside the gate, he heaved a huge sigh of relief and elation. They had given him the job without demur or delay. A foregone conclusion it all seemed in retrospect as, indeed, it was. He puffed out his chest with pride at his achievement. He fairly frothed with excitement.
At home, amidst more familiar surroundings, he contemplated the unique position in which he found himself. The thrill of power and authority coursed through him. He preened and pouted. He caught a reflection of himself in a puddle and a thought struck him. If he was to be really effective he would need to impress. How could he possibly do that dressed in the dun coloured weeds that were his every day wear? Surely they wouldn’t begrudge him a fine set of clothes to perform the position with appropriate gravitas? So he voyaged back to the Great Gateway which, as before, swung open to him. They were, of course, there waiting for him. Barely had the notion of speech tapped at the door of his mind’s-eye than One spoke,
“Your wish for clothes is granted. Go now.”
As the gates closed behind him, he looked down at himself. Every inch was shimmering colour, and all tailored to fit. As he moved, the myriad rainbows mutated ecstatically in kaleidoscopic motion. He hurried to the nearest water the better to regard his image. He gasped at the sight. Here was truly a suit made to impress!
Again home, and the novelty of his apparel slightly dimmed, the bird gave himself to thought once more. If he were to communicate Their messages to best effect, he would need a voice that was equal to the task. He tried his own out for size. An awkward squawk was all that he could manage. It would never do. Given the severity of the situation he felt sure that They would oblige. So, he set off for the Great Gateway once more.
Through the gates and before Them the bird made to speak but One raised a hand – and perhaps just the one eyebrow - in mild reproof intoning,
“Your wish for a voice is granted. Go now.”
Although his case had been clear as daylight yet still he was surprised at the ease and speed of Their acquiescence. Barely outside the gates he drank deeply of the pristine forest air and essayed a rather timid tonic sol-fa. The music that he made was of the sweetest, lightest wine. He was encouraged to change key and try once more with added brio: bright top notes ringing sharp as a bell. He trilled, chanted and carolled all the way home.
The morning found him deep in thought once more. Impressive to both eye and ear he might be but these attributes would be as nought if he did not have the bearing to complement them. They could only reach the same conclusion as he and he hurried to the Great Gateway to put the proposition forthwith.
He could not be sure but where, hitherto, he had been greeted with near complete impassivity, was there perhaps the merest hint of exasperation? Maybe a hint of disappointment? He dismissed such considerations in the instant that it took One of Them to agree a third time,
“Your wish for bearing is granted. Go now.”
The bird backed out of Their presence and scampered through the Great Gateway pausing long enough to hug himself for the sheer, unalloyed joy of it all. He simply could not wait to start practising.
Nor did he. The very next day, without commencement of official duties, saw the bird strutting through the forest, chest and chin thrust forward in an affectation of supreme importance. With a look of indifference which teetered on the very edge of disdain he surveyed each creature upon his path. These, in their turn, scratched their collective and individual heads in bemusement. There was that about this bird which was as familiar as a lifelong habit and yet the manner and raiment marked him out as something exceptional. The more he spied, from the corner of his gimlet eye, what he perceived as respect and, quite possibly, awe, the more the bird primped and postured. And all this he accessorised vocally with, “Good Day”, to each and all, now in a sonorous baritone, now with capering merriment, occasionally with a hint of menace or, again, with a companionable, cajoling warmth.
This caricature of eminence once passed, the creatures gathered in knots and clusters to discuss the identity of this personage at once so recognisable and yet so strange. One story has it that it was the Owl who, by the application of that wisdom and perspicacity for which he is noted, first clarified the mystery. Others say that it was the wily old Fox, he who made it his business to know everything about everyone, always who bottomed the conundrum. Who honestly can say? But revealed the truth was. And the chattering classes broadcast it throughout woodland, pasture, plain, river, sea and ocean. The bird heard, and his self-aggrandisement, thus nourished, bloated yet further. In the blindness of his new-found arrogance, the bird could not, indeed did not want to, see that his appearance and demeanour sat ill with fellows accustomed to one of much humbler mien.
The day came when the first edict was revealed to the bird for onward, and outward, communication to the furthest corners and to everyone and everything that lived therein. It concerned the sequencing of watering habits at the seasonally swollen rivers. The existing free-for-all, amongst other drawbacks, risked the lives of smaller creatures, and the premature drying up of the waterways. The new, streamlined system would organise and stagger the arrival of different species and super-sets of symbiotic relationships. The programme would work to the benefit of all. (Though the ever presence of the crocodiles would clearly need further work!)
The bird received his mission with excitement, pride and a deal of trepidation despite the gifts with which he had been endowed. Expectations would be sky-high and he was determined that he would not be found wanting. He gave the matter his utmost attention. Its every detail he committed to memory, breaking the whole down into more readily assimilated portions, practising these by rote and finally reassembling the totality. He rehearsed a plethora of possible deliveries, seeking out the most appropriate and nuancing these to the finest degree. His coat he would burnish to a diamantine splendour. He would comport himself with dignity in all things. These would be bravura performances for each would be modified and modulated to accord with each distinct audience, and circumstance, the better to convey the essence, and particulars, of the message.
This narrative need not be populated with the specifics of how the bird acquitted himself. Suffice it to say that he gave his all. The degree to which he succeeded is attested to by the calm which attends the enjoyment of the fruits of the rainy seasons at the great waterways of the planet. This said, there would be those who aver that this had more to do with the excellence of the message than its messenger.
Having accomplished his first task, the bird was keen to underscore his presence and so, in the absence of further official demands upon his oratorical skills, he wandered the paths far and wide accosting unsuspecting gatherings and addressing them fortissimo; welcome or, more usually, not.
The second directive concerned the timing and destination for annual migration and subsequent return. The current confusion saw a sporadic blackening of the skies as a myriad different families took to the air with attendant late arrivals, no-shows and casualties. Popular landing sites saw a superabundance of arrivals, more than could effectively, or comfortably, be accommodated. A more commodious programme was set out with allocation of departure time to specific groups who would circle in a holding pattern until, a flock having agglomerated, they could journey forth to a similarly allocated terminus.
Again the bird practised from the dawn chorus until the dying notes of the day that he might do justice to the significance of the assignment. He weighed the task complete. He left no appurtenance unaddressed. Word-perfect and polished, he took the message to the last crack and crevice of land and sea.
But witness the mighty gatherings, the organised clouds that seasonally swirl above before the trek to warmer climes for evidence of the efficacy of the decree. Hear too, though, the muted, but massing, mutterings that style might just be becoming the enemy of substance.
They saw the implementation of their plans and were encouraged to make pronouncements on such varied issues as, fishing rights at the frozen extremities of the worlds, light and airspace in the steaming jungles and leafy forests, and the moderation of temperatures across the continents. The bird delivered them all with never-faltering verve and virtuosity, each presentation and performance, and each such exhibition, underpinned by incessant, and somewhat annoying, practise. He gloried in his role. His audiences, sadly, increasingly, did not. The palate of their attention became jaded with the too-rich fare of his declamation. And so, little by little, those to whom he was meant to be the conduit for a greater sense of order, peace and tranquillity, became inured to the blandishments of the emissary. The despatches went unheeded. Progress in the great project stalled. They saw all, and were not pleased.
It was made known to the bird that They required his presence and he duly made the long journey to the Great Gateway to present himself before Them. One spoke.
“We asked only that you communicate with all creation that each one might live in harmony with his fellows. But you asked for a better appearance. We agreed. You asked for a better voice. Again we agreed. You asked for a better bearing. Once more we agreed. With all of this you have failed us. Go now.”
The audience, and his tenure, now both unquestionably at an end, the bird turned and made his sorry way back to the Great Gateway. Outside he chanced to see himself reflected in a small pool of standing water. All trace of his splendid apparel was gone. He made to sing his sadness in melancholic melody but all that came was a caustic croak. Still, he had his pride. He would bear all with propriety and restraint. But, try as he might, his stiff upper lip refused to set and the tears of frustration coursed down his face to drip, unchecked and inelegantly from the tip of his beak. There was nothing for it but to make the flight home in disgrace. But as he flapped his wings for take-off he realised that this too was now denied him. If only he had been himself, he thought ruefully. Now, not quite bird and not at all mammal, he wasn’t even that. With a heavy heart, and even heavier tread, he clumped back whence he came…..Doh, doh, doh, doh…….Dodo.