Idiot Parable 6

The Parable of the Bird and the Water Tank

One morning there came a tapping from the shiny metal water tank that was set up on the small shed to provide the house with hot water. It consisted of a sloping square panel, facing south, and, above that, a cylindrical drum set on four legs. The panel heated the water, which then passed through pipes trailing at head-height back to the main house.

A small bird with a black head, whitish chest and grey back, was standing on one of the struts that linked the panel to the drum and, evidently mistaking its reflection in the curve of the drum for a rival, was giving the metal two or three sharp pecks. Then it flew over to the other leg where panel met drum, and performed the same peck-pecking. Then, evidently convinced it was under a constant threat, it flew back to its first perch, and pecked again at the distorted image of itself in the drum.

After a few obsessive iterations of this, it flew round to the back legs of the drum, where the pipe was connected, and found two more enemies for itself. Peck-peck-peck. Pause. Peck-peck-peck. It then flew away for a spell.

Something about these four other birds had so incensed it, however, that it was soon back upon its first perch, eyeing its initial opponent. Peck-peck-peck. Then it remembered that confederate on the other strut. Peck-peck-peck. Perhaps because of the brightness of the sun, these seemed its principal enemies, and it was only now and then that it would remember to pop round the back and tackle their underlings. But then it would either fly off for a short spell, or return directly to its arch-nemesis, and the pecking would begin again.

Was the bird ill, or was this within the bounds of normal behaviour? Clearly it was disturbed to some extent. When it flew away, did it then however briefly behave normally? Was it feeding, nesting? Did it have chicks or a mate? There are a great number of these water tanks in the area. Was it visiting more than one? many? all of them?

Would it exhaust itself fighting off legions of its own reflection and die, defeated by an enemy larger but just like itself, that only fought back when attacked, and only struck it on the tip of the beak with which it attempted to strike the decisive blow, but which each time only gave back an implacable unyielding response, exactly equal to the fading strength of the bird?

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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