“Fallen Angel.” Oil on canvas, 16×20, May 2021, by Susan Glickman
The Dove Dove
The scientific name for pigeon is Columbidae, a latinization of the Greek κόλυμβος (kolumbos), meaning “diver”, the name applied to pigeons in Ancient Greece and analogous to the English word “dove”, derived from to Old English dūfan: “to dive or plunge”. Some scholars dispute this etymology because pigeons are not aquatic, but after finding this beautiful specimen lying still and dead outside my door, I can easily imagine it diving headfirst into a tree reflected in the window.
I can imagine it diving eagerly into that mirage of green. I can imagine the shock of encountering that sudden barrier, followed instantly by pain beyond anything the creature had ever known, and then nothing, nothing, nothingness: a plunge into total dark. I can imagine an instant of bewilderment that the world was not what it had seemed to be, that safety was an illusion, that where buoyant spring air had beckoned there was instead something cold and hard and utterly alien. Something from the human world the bird usually swam above: a place of sharp angles and unnatural materials, corners and edges.
Icarus fell because he flew too close to the sun and its heat melted the wax securing his feathers. He fell because he lost his synthetic wings. This angel fell with wings intact, but it too fell victim to human artifice. It was the opposite of hatching, when its sharp little beak chipped away at the shell encasing it; the opposite of fledging, when it left the safety of its familiar nest to dare the air.
The opposite of flight. The opposite of light.
And yet it remained so beautiful, its feathers soft as spring blossoms. Delicately coloured, a rosy blush suffusing the infinite gradations of grey that tinted its plumes. Below its tender belly curved two bright red feet, scaly and reptilian, with intimidating talons. Perhaps its ancestors were indeed aquatic, flying low over the water to snatch unwary fish the same way pigeons in modern cities swoop down to grab abandoned French fries or sandwich crusts. But that fierce era must have been more than 5,000 years ago, when Mesopotamian tablets first recorded the pigeon’s place within human culture; more than 5,000 years before that, when its domestication is thought to have occurred.
Maybe pigeons pursued prey back in the Pleistocene era, when humans tamed dogs — creatures of more immediate use to hunters in a dangerous world. Of what use were doves? Well, we consumed them, of course, as we do most things; even now, if you see “squab” on a menu, you are eating one. Most feral pigeons around the world today are descendants of birds raised in ancient dovecotes and treasured for their meat. But we also found other uses for them, especially as messengers who would fly home reliably with our words. Despite being universal symbols of peace, “war pigeons” not only carried messages but were decorated for their service. The first three recipients of the Dickin Medal to honour the work of animals in World War II were carrier pigeons; White Vision flew nine hours in poor visibility and heavy weather to deliver a message that saved the crew of a ditched aircraft; her colleagues Winkie and Tyke were celebrated for similar accomplishments.
Predating these avian heroes, Cher Ami (a female homing pigeon who should really have been named “Chère Amie”) won the Croix de Guerre for conspicuous gallantry during World War I. She now rests in the Smithsonian Institution, final home also of Martha, the last passenger pigeon. But while Cher Ami is on display, delicate Martha is sequestered, more protected in death than her species was when alive. It is appropriate that the passenger pigeon’s closest living relative is the mourning dove, since they were hunted to extinction by European settlers in North America who assumed that nature was as inexhaustible as their appetite. But after all, who would have imagined that the most common bird on the continent, flying in flocks of millions that blotted out the midday sun and changed forest ecosystems, would be so susceptible to human greed?
Cher Ami was only one year old when she died of war wounds. Martha made it to twenty-nine, though she never laid a fertile egg. Did something in her DNA compel her to hold on for dear life with those sharp talons? Pet pigeons usually live no more than fifteen years; wild ones, only two or three.
As a child, I slept on the top floor of a house whose eaves sheltered many anonymous pigeons. I fell asleep each night and woke up each morning to their cooing, a sound as familiar to me as my own breath. I have always found them beautiful, sometimes arrestingly so, with their iridescent feathers and quizzically alert gaze. One soft spring morning in my adult life, I opened the back door and found that beauty lying intact on the mat like an offering from some sardonic deity. God as a cat, purring, “Here, I brought you this!” I could study the bird more closely than I ever had and yet felt abashed, intruding on its privacy, profaning its death.
I watched it for some time, hoping for the breast to rise and fall, rise and fall. But it didn’t. In case it was just stunned, I left it lying there for a while before returning, but it never moved. Instead, the once-bright eye began to glaze over, and I had to accept that the spirit that had directed the creature to dive into my window had flown away.
Susan Glickman used to be an English professor, then a creative writing instructor at both Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, and now works as a freelance editor and is learning to paint. She is the author of seven volumes of poetry, most recently What We Carry (2019), seven novels, most recently The Discovery of Flight (2018), and one book of literary criticism, The Picturesque & the Sublime: A Poetics of the Canadian Landscape (1998).
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