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the hollywood dodo

2007-09-21 - 10:00 a.m.

� 2004 by elaine radford

dodo at the natural history museum, london

I read The Hollywood Dodo by Geoff Nicholson. Yes, a British farce, but still a story that sneaks in and touches your heart. The scenes set in the 1600s focus on a hero whose great dream is to breed the dodo and repopulate the world with them. Sad how life makes his dream slip away step by step, day by day, year by year.

I want to note here a particularly affecting scene, but if you haven't yet read the book, it's time to close this page because of


I was brought to tears by the scene when King Charles the Second restores the practice of laying on the hands, as the king's touch is said to cure a disfiguring illness known as the King's Evil. Of course, "the bent, the feeble, the mad" stand in line in hopes of the miracle cure, even if their particular illness is something other. Our hero has a disfiguring porphyria.

At last William's turn comes. He kneels, casts his eyes down, then raises them upwards, towards the king's face and the heavens beyond. Charles's features form a mask of serene sanctity. His hand moves toward William, who wriggles and stirs beneath the cloak, and something else stirs there too. When the royal hand is just an inch from his forehead, William ducks aside, twists his body, and from the folds of the cloak produces his ailing dodo. He moves her up swiftly, like an offering, like a surprise gift, though he has no intention of handing her over, and the king's hand makes brief but firm contact with the dodo's thining gray feathers. Immediately the contact has been made, William, more of the conjurer, conceals the bird again.

The faces of the king and his courtiers, of his holy men and his mace carriers, show an amazement that threatens to turn to anger. William imagines himself being dragged from the hall, being beaten and boxed as he goes, taken and chained in some dank basement cell. It is a risk he has always been prepared to run for the sake of his poor dodo. Yet the act is both so audacious and so brief that all concerned choose to ignore it. To make a fuss would only make them look foolish. William moves on, walks out of the hall, a job well done.

But kingship has its limitations. The dodo does not improve. Her gray feathers look grayer. Her sad eyes look sadder. There was always something mournful in her voice, but now it sounds like a half-forgotten, melancholy hymn. William wonders if it is a matter of faith. The king is the conduit for the Lord's healing divinity, but this is surely not a thing to be dispensed promiscuously. It is surely not, for instance, to be dispensed to nonbelievers. A bird is incapable of belief, therefore incapable of saving itself. Perhaps the dodo is simply beneath God's attention. Perhaps she is beneath contempt.

Two weeks later William Draper's dodo is dead.

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