My grandfather shot a flamingo once.
Why? I have no idea. But I swear by all that I hold sacred: this story is true, despite it featuring in a literary context. The reason I’m narrating it isn’t to have my grandfather put in jail; no, I do love my grandpa. And jail is an unlikely scenario in any case, seeing that the authorities in my country have a huge financial crisis to deal with and consequently not that much time to go looking for missing flamingos. (Between us, they would probably prove more efficient in the latter mission.) Plus, any more there is no proof of my grandfather’s crime. Because he ate it. Yes, that’s what I mean. He ate the flamingo. And I cannot imagine any Greek official dragging him to court with evidence based on a short story written in another language. No one believes writers in any language and anyway I’m employing a pen name, therefore proving I’m referring to a real person would be more difficult than you’d imagine. I have taken my precautions, you see. My grandfather’s safe. Legally, at least. Not literarily though, I’m afraid.
No, the reason I’m sharing this story with you goes, I hope, much deeper than relating an amusing incident, or purely for the fun of freaking out animal rights supporters. By this point, I expect I have established myself as a reliable narrator, and I wish that you lie on my chest much like a lover, metaphorically of course, and take for granted all that comes out my mouth. And I believe it when I say there’s a universal meaning about humanity to be drawn from this story, though I don’t think my grandfather or the flamingo ever were in a position to grasp it. The flamingo stood better chances, come to that. Even so, they are both, my grandfather and that ill-fated bird, merely the impulsive characters of the story as it unfolds.
So. Let me set the scene. We are high up in the mountains of Epirus, in the north of Greece. The village where my grandparents live is very small, and I find myself using the expression ‘in the middle of nowhere’ when I attempt to convey an idea of its surroundings. But ‘in the middle of mountains’ will do. Big, ancient mountains, full of cliffs and gorges, where when you utter a word your voice carries on and on, in an echo that seems endless, timeless, infinite.
There is this lake near the village. It’s the kind of place to which you would assign the adjective idyllic, were you able to see it and were you the type that enjoyed clichés. Just the fact that the flamingos preferred it (mark the past tense) and used to stop there on their way to warmer climates makes it unnecessary for me to describe it. Simply summon the most breathtaking sundown from your memory and transfer it to the horizon behind the lake.
Now, witness in it a flock of flamingos, a true flurry of flamingos, a real brilliant flamboyance of flamingos. Pink like happiness or like a baby’s tongue. Delicate and exquisite as the mystery of life itself. With their necks in S-shapes or forming an 8 if they’re asleep. Have you ever seen a sleeping flamingo? The back of its neck rests on its body and its beak comes to meet it from above forming an ampersand, an upright-standing symbol of infinity.
There’s a gentle breeze about the lake. The wind blows warm and passes through our hair, whistling like a forgotten lover in our ears. Add Chopin’s Prelude in E-minor playing in your imaginary soundtrack, or, why not, even an Epirus lament song, without words, in low tone. The air smells like love and peace and tranquillity. If you’re religious, you might picture God laying His hand down on the landscape, gracing every stone and every tree and every drop of water in a sublime quiet, divine solemnity.
Here enters the scene my grandfather. With a gun. And by ‘gun’ I don’t mean the miniature handguns rappers carry around these days in compensation for laughable sexual prowess, no. I mean a goddamn rifle, a carbine to be precise. A weapon responsible for claiming the lives of countless hares, rabbits, wild boars, badgers, foxes and crows over the years. Allow me here the explanation that hunting is legal and still a quite common sport in many rural areas in Greece. (Though flamingo hunting in specific remains an outlaw’s endeavour.)
My grandfather, however, that has just walked into the narrative, is not a hunter. True, he is responsible for dispatching to the afterlife all of the aforementioned fauna, yet hunting is only a side-project for him. A habitual activity, if you like, a pastime that goes hand in hand with what is his real profession: shepherding. When he’s out in the fields grazing his sheep, he sometimes carries the carbine with him. Executing hares, rabbits and –rarely– wild boars is only a tradition engraved in his lifestyle since soon after birth. As for badgers, foxes and crows, they merely pose a natural threat to his poultry population and vegetable garden, thus no second thoughts about assassinating them on sight.
But look. He is now descending the small slope towards the lake, having parked his sheep in a nearby field munching quite happily on grass and unsuspecting in the least of their master’s murderous intentions.
Let’s take a moment and watch the man from above as he climbs down the slope, beads of sweat gathered on his bald head forming a liquid rosary – it is a hot summer day and he has walked several miles here from his home. He has doffed his straw hat and dropped it next to his crook, which he has carved himself out of wood, and is only carrying the carbine over his shoulder, his always white shirt open around the neck revealing his red sunburnt skin, from where his cross necklace never leaves.
He’s not a very tall man, and his eighty years of age have somewhat shrunk his stature. Still, he walks rather proud, almost as if he knows he is a historical human artefact, of an era that has passed and will never again come to be. The features of his face are, surprisingly, calm, quiet, stoical one would say. A peaceful expression. He sports the deceptively unstubborn jaw line all the men in my family have from his side, deceptive because persistence is one of the traits running deep in our blood, so at first glance he appears as innocent as a Tibetan monk, a Greek Dalai Lama. And if we hover closer with our imaginary camera lens, and focus upon his light blue eyes, witness the kindness of his eyebrows, observe the handsome shape of his nose and count the creases beneath his temples and around his mouth, we might be justified to imagine this is not a man capable of dealing death, and may even suspect he just chanced upon the rifle he’s now carrying and that it doesn’t belong to him.
But we’re wrong. We failed to see the mad gleam in his eye that reflects the turmoil in his soul. For he has without doubt spotted something, his sight is arrested by some unexpected apparition, and that is the reason his movements turned so cautious and slithering, slow and measured. What are his eyes locked on? Let’s turn around and behold…
Ah, the unfortunate yet full of grace sons and daughters of the ancient Phoenicopterus genus, pinkly basking in the miracle of existence balanced on one leg, like contemplative ascètes of a feathery order. Little do they know their svelte silhouettes look like game to this predatory Clint Eastwood who’s approaching. Do they even have names for each other in their flaminguistics, and if they do, do they happen to suspect they will soon be mourning poor Peter (or Faramond or Fyodor or even Fiorello, all of them as good as any name for a flamingo), that feeling slightly anti-social on that day chose to perform his yoga exercises further away from the rest of the group? Woe is them, most likely not.
Certainly we don’t know what sort of day it is for my grandfather, but for that particular flamingo it definitely is a luckless one. An unhappy meeting. Does it even notice him before he reaps its rose-coloured soul? Does it lift its head and behold his figure creeping closer? And if it does, what are its fleeting impressions? Does it have time to think: ‘Dafuq. What is this guy on.’? Or is it looking at the sun, which as we see-
Suddenly a terrible crack from the rifle echoes around the lake. The silence is dispersed, in pieces, broken. The flamingos rise, startled, terrified, flutter and fly away in a confused mid-air congregation as the man comes out from behind the short shrubbery and nears the water. We haven’t even had time to revert our gaze and capture the moment of the killing. Or perhaps I chose not to relate it, as the taking of a life, even that of a bird’s, is a business private, intimate, no less mystical than lovemaking or giving birth.
But we may see what follows. Witness the man as he strides over to his fallen victim, his gait glorious, an air extraordinary and heroic dancing about him, his clean-shaven face the only minor flaw that deprives him of the right of semblance to the Greek revolutionaries of 1821 with their handlebar moustaches glistening threateningly in the sun.
He doesn’t know it yet, or perhaps he can see already; but he has hit it. He is now beside it, stands over it, pink flecked with red, and his shadow covers its frail body as the crescendo we’ve been listening to reaches its highest peak and begins to fade away. He is triumphant. Victorious. Sublime.
Of course, let it not escape our attention this is the version of the story as I like to imagine it. After all, what kind of grandson would I be if I didn’t idolize the accomplishments of my forefather? He is the man whose name I bear for life, and I do admit I like the idea that my grandfather has shot a flamingo. It adds a hue of epic madness to my family line; I’m not merely Dimitris – I am Melicertes the Grandson of the Flamingo Murderer.
Others might tell you the story differently. My brother, for example, as a psychologist-in-training, was more interested in the internal procedures of the man, the mercurial temperaments of his soul. What was passing through his head when he witnessed the flamingos? Air, my brother says. He deduces our grandfather’s thought process was probably something very basic, running somewhat along these lines, in the style of Terminator:
<Form of life detected.> <Identification: Flamingo.> <Classification: Bird.> <Conclusion: Potentially edible.> <Action: Terminate.>
Although I recognize the plausibility traversing my brother’s analysis, myself a rather more idealistic individual, at first I chose not to delve into the unfathomable depths of the man’s psyche. I was not disheartened by my brother’s mirth as he imagined what travellers in cars thought when they witnessed through their windows the old man returning home with a flamingo dangling lifelessly from his shoulder. And my admiration for his shooting skills didn’t crumble before my father’s explanation that the carbine fires multiple cartridges, which when scattered in the air cover a rather wide area so that ‘even a blind man would have hit the poor thing’. No. I am one for fairy tales.
Nor did I aspire to exercise judgement upon him, as did his own wife, my grandmother, when the story was discussed. In her very own words: ‘Ay, your grandfather has lost his marbles’. This blunder of hers may be forgiven though, as she was the one forced to pluck the bird and cook it for him. Still, sadly she never divulged whether it was flamingo fricassee she prepared, or lemon meringue flamingo pie, or flamingo mulligatawny, therefore I cannot indulge further in frippery.
So no, no judgement on my part. And I wasn’t interested in the motives behind the action, as was my father, who couldn’t help expressing his feelings about this occurrence when it was revealed to us. It was one of the very few times I’d seen my baba exasperated. ‘Father, is your dementia kicking in? Who do you think you are, Rambo?! Do you want them to lock you up? You see such a beautiful creature and you shoot it! For shame! Why?’
Nevertheless, despite my father’s moral judgement of the event, his acute sense of arriving at the important matters was impeccable once more. It was the why that mattered. And when my grandfather answered, we were all dumbfounded.
Or maybe I shouldn’t understate things. We went frenetic when he told us. We all exclaimed and the dog woke up frightened. And it hadn’t been something that he exactly revealed to us in the first place, no. It was more of a casual remark that he made in the margins of a conversation one Easter we were visiting the village. The flamingo killing had taken place a couple of years earlier, and in the manner of old people accustomed to not talking much, and wisely so, only chance accounted for our discovery of this business.
Still, it wasn’t chance that dictated the whole affair. There’s nothing that could have prevented it. What could have? Let’s suppose, for the sake of reasoning, that during its long journey our flamingo had stopped outside a small city in Bulgaria and the wind had brought to its feet a fortune cookie from the garbage of a nearby Chinese restaurant. What then? Our flamingo would pick at it with its beak, and then eat the crumbs. But it would never be able to read the message inside, despite it clearly stating in small calligraphic characters: ‘You’re fucked, mate’, or ‘An old Greek guy will bring you down’, or more possibly, ‘Don’t take this journey. Only death awaits you at its end.’ Illiteracy in flamingos notwithstanding, there’s a plethora of arguments why this curious circumstance was unavoidable from its part.
As for the other component of the equation. That murderer of flamingos, my grandfather: he was destined to be such from birth, that’s what I’m driving at. Every moment of my grandfather’s life, from his growing up during World War II to his then eighty years of age, had undoubtedly led to this action. All that he ever lived had prepared him for this, had shaped him into the man who one day would walk to the lake, behold a flock of flamingos and raise his gun to take one of them down.
What I mean is, what happened was an inevitability. It could not not have happened. Deterministic? Perhaps. But more than three quarters of a century had made him a man made to taste life and taste a flamingo. For this was his answer to our persistent why’s: ‘I wanted to see what it tastes like’. No matter I still can’t comprehend it. Alas, the shallowness of man.
Thinking of this incident, I turned it around in my head for a long time. Wondering why I couldn’t get it out of my mind, why it bothered me so much, what was there that I could make use of? In the end, I believe I found it.
If symbolic, the moral of the story could be that we all fuck up sometimes. That we’re idiosyncratic, immature of life, unrefined and when we see beauty we cannot recognize it for what it is; all we can do most of the time is kill it. Or that we don’t know how to love a thing. Our primitive instincts drive us to possess it, killing it in the process, instead of figuring how to love it from afar.
Or maybe the moral could be that no matter how bad something is, there’s always something good to come from it, if only one is observant enough. I wrote an entire story after this fowl tragedy.
Yet these are secondary in my thoughts; what concerns me first and foremost in this story is the role of fiction. The power of fiction. There’s undeniably something irresistible in this scene, in the weird circumstance of an old man shooting down a fragile flamingo. Just the notion of it possesses such an internal strength that makes it absolutely unforgettable. It’s two pieces coming together to form a splendid picture. I bet next time you see a flamingo, in a documentary or a romantic comedy or even outside a screen, this story will spring to mind immediately.
And the scene, the scene wasn’t crafted by a fiction-maker; it was the product of a man who barely finished primary school and whose creative writing achievements start and end with heavily misspelled, illegibly scrawled grocery lists. Let all the future great poets of the world with their sapiosexual propensities shiver in their rooms, be them garrets or non-garrets; they have been outchaved by a mere dissonant artistic orchestration of life. For what is my grandfather if not an excellent poet and inadvertently the poem itself all on his own? (And if the sense for narrative is ever proven to be an inherent quality, there, ladies and gentlemen, my testimonials.) I stand, like him, in fiction. For I am a proponent of what the First American commands: ‘Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.’
But be able to recognize it for what it is.
Life is narrative, and pray you never find yourself in the position where, outran by years and your course in them almost spent, you are overheard announcing dismissively, as my grandfather did when asked what the flamingo tasted like:
‘It was a bit dry.’
All characters, locations and events in this publication are factual and every resemblance to real persons and poultry, living or dead, is indeed purely intentional.
Furthermore, the author regrets to admit one (1) flamingo was harmed in the making of this short story. RIP Faramond.