Week 60: Cherubs
We said goodbye to our latest family visitors – parents and three small children – and sat in the back garden, the din slowly receding from memory. The despotic rule of tiny, highly mobile and newly verbal human beings was over, though it’s worth pointing out that, judging by the eldest child, the development trajectory into reason and reasonability seems to be a short and fast one.
As our eardrums readjusted to the quiet, we noticed something moving up the trunk of the carob tree a few feet away. Its disguise was perfect; it looked exactly like the bark. If it hadn’t been moving, we’d never have noticed it. It twisted its neck and showed the side of its face, a chocolate-brown stripe running down through its eye. It was a wryneck (Jynx torquilla): little bigger than a sparrow, and a member of the woodpecker family. A bird not often seen.
I mention the Latin name because it’s an interesting one. We get the word ‘jinx’ from here. In ancient Greek and Roman times the bird was believed to have magical powers, enabling lovers to win the heart of the one they wanted. This called for some jiggery-pokery involving tying the poor bird to a wheel and spinning it. The second part of the name, torquilla or ‘little twister’, describes the behaviour that might have given rise to its reputation for supernatural abilities. When threatened, the bird can twist and squirm its neck like a snake, hissing and darting out its long, ant-eating tongue.
Ants are, apparently, the wryneck’s favourite food. If that’s the case, then frankly it could be eating them a whole lot faster. I’m generally at ease with the insect life around here but ants inside the house have only themselves to blame when they get squashed or sprayed. Interestingly, the more despotic the child, the more keen they were to save the ants. The oldest one, the one subject to reason, was happy to assist me in killing them. Whether this is down to innate character or development stage, only time will tell.
The câmara at Tavira has just completed the renovation of one of the town’s many churches: that of São Pedro Gonçalves Telmo, the mariners’ church. It’s fascinating – even if you don’t like chubby cherubs and gilt. For me the most interesting part is the wooden ceiling: a trompe-l’oeil effect intended to give the impression of much greater height than the reality. It was painted in 1766 – i.e. soon after the 1755 earthquake when so many buildings were damaged and had to be wholly or partially rebuilt – by one Luis António Pereira, and is said to be his only known piece of work. By the twenty-first century the wood had rotted but the paintwork had more or less held together. The entire ceiling got taken to Lisbon for renovation and then returned to be part of the restored and reopened church. The original work was not immensely skilled, I’d say, and perhaps that’s why Pereira wasn’t asked to do any more. Or did he have an attitude problem? It was very hard to avoid noticing these cheeky cherubs, after all …