The Vertigo of Tradition
By ILCW member Justin Fenech (Malta)
Death is now the phoenix’ nest;And the turtle’s loyal breastTo eternity doth rest.
Shakespeare’s ode to the death of ideal love necessarily marries the phoenix and the turtle dove. The poem is one of Shakespeare’s vaguest, most indecipherable. But one thing is left without doubt: even the loveliest things die.
Scientists warn of impending turtle dove British extinction.”
The headlines were un-ambiguous. Malta was to blame. Joey remembered the arguments he had had with his girlfriend, the day he met her parents. He was a hunter. He was voting Yes in the Referendum. Tradition is his constant companion. Familiarity makes his living fortified. It is an idle mindset but very tempting. The spirits of the unadventurous flock to tradition like birds flock to the shoulders of Francis of Assisi. Without it, how would he remember his dead father. Without it, he would be abandoning his mother’s faith.
The last turtle dove he shot: he barely hit it, only one bullet hole in its sharp wing. It must have been the fall that killed it. Or his Spaniel’s over-eager retrieval. As the Spaniel dropped it at his feet, he had a moment of compassion. The turtle dove’s lifeless eyes reminded him of his father’s.
I have inflicted upon this animal the same fate cancer had imposed on my father. Are my actions cancerous?
In that moment, he was progressive. Revolutionary. He was thinking rational thoughts enlightened by tragedy. It was the same breed of thought that must have occupied the mind of a gavroches getting himself killed to steal a few bullets for the Revolution. And he was a revolutionary then. The turtle dove, in his hands, was a Marat in the bath – but he feared it would be a Franz Ferdinand. So he carried it to his truck, fearing the traitorous war it might spark in his soul of souls.
Birds are the ancestors of dinosaurs. There was a big bang of diversification after the ancient masters went extinct. Some bird songs and means of communication activate similar areas of the avian bird that speech activates in the human brain. Turtle doves, members of the Columbidae family, are closely related to the common pigeons, the saintly white-winged dove and distantly related to the iconic dodo. It is a diminishing species juxtaposed in between the already extinct dodo and the flagrantly flourishing pigeon. Piggy in the middle. The future unclear. The death of each individual is another nail in the coffin.
Joey and Nadia’s children, should they ever come, might grow up never seeing a turtle dove. How would Joey feel, if his love for tradition helped to bring about the end of that very same tradition? What would he tell his children? All he had were tales of dead doves: for his children’s curious, nature-hungry minds, it would not be enough. And with each passing generation, tradition is itself getting closer to extinction.
Or so it seems. Traditions, by their very nature, are a myth. They are the personal projected into the public. As Joey talks to his potential in-laws, looking into the father’s eyes as if he were a puppy begging for scraps, he feels a bubbling animosity welling inside him. His father-in-law is a chef who cooks such oddities as turtle dove soup, yet belligerently despises hunting.
“I don’t want to see that man in my house, Nadia. He has blood on his hands.”
“It’s just a fucking bird, dad.”
“It’s not that. I know that man. His father was a wife-beater.”
“How do you know?”
“He used to live round here. Every night we could hear his wife’s screams, her sobbing, and his tyrannical voice.”
“Why did you never report him?”
“He was a police officer. How could anyone report him? And he’s no different. For now he kills birds. But God knows what he would be like with you.”
Nadia contradicted her father, as a young lover would, but that night she had her doubts. Does a strong sense of tradition mean submission to the autocratic whims of parenthood? Was Joey destined to be what his father was? She decided to go with him to a rally held by the Yes camp. A walk in the countryside organized by hunters for hunters.
There were dogs everywhere. Children. Hunters in shirts. Some drinking. Beauteous sunny days only the Mediterranean could conjure up. Joey was jovial, in high spirits, he introduced her to some other hunters. She felt uneasy around them. And that night she had a dream which decided what she would vote in the referendum.
She saw a turtle dove flying in a borderless sky. She was not moving, yet still she flew alongside it. She could see its wings, orange-brown like a phoenix, chest heaving, pink as if reflecting a flamingo’s dream, the striped patch on its neck like a priest’s collar or a proudly poured Guinness: its cooing summoned forth strange flying reptiles, feathered and beaming. It cooed in her ear: “love me one last time.” Then, from behind the clouds, a shot rang out and she saw the dove falling at dizzying speeds through the sky, descending endlessly.
When will it hit the ground?
When will the splat come?
She wept for it. Alongside her she saw her mother jumping out of a burning building. Also no ground in sight. Endless falling. Asphyxiation but no release. When will the end come?
She awoke before the longed-for death could arrive. She turned over in her bed and found next to her the disfigured corpse of the very same turtle dove.
She screamed aloud. And she woke up again. This time, for real.
The referendum was over: “Malta rejects spring-hunting ban.”
“The historic referendum was decided on a razor thin margin, with just 2,220 more votes deciding against the ban out of a total of of 250,648 votes cast.”
Joey wanted to celebrate with Nadia. But Nadia was still reeling from the sight of the turtle dove decomposing in her bed. She went out on her own, for a drive to the Buskett woodlands. There, in the dense tree-cover, she listened to a myriad bird-song illuminating the breezy silence. She felt compelled to say a prayer for their sakes. A Hail Mary or an Our Father. But she thought: most of the celebrating hunters are saying the very same prayers. She wanted no part in that. She realized no prayer was necessary. She merely indulged in the orchestra. Indulged her sensuous humanity.
Her silence overthrew the myth of tradition on the day the whole country plunged into the unmoving quicksand.