We went up the mountain in the morning, bright sun on the dew and spiderwebs sparkling, mist rising from the grass and resting in the hollows. We were three together, barefoot boys slipping through the seaside bungalows and white fenced gardens to the wild slopes beyond. There was a rough dirt track leading up halfway, and then a footpath through the rocks and heath, the scent of wild geraniums strong as we brushed by . We had sticks in case of snakes and a bottle of tap water and three oranges, some marbles and a catapult, slingshot to you, made with carefully cut rubber from an old car inner tube. We took turns carrying the provisions, which we were all going to eat later, but only the two older ones carried the catapult in turn, because Cliffy couldn’t shoot properly with it and what good would it do us if he was carrying it and we met a leopard, say , standing in the middle of the path ? Of course nobody had actually seen a leopard around here for a couple of hundred years, but you never knew .
When we got to the branch in the path after the zig zag climb through the rock bluffs , we turned left along the more used trail . We would take the fainter right branch on another longer day when we didn’t have to be back by lunchtime. We ate the oranges quite soon after getting up onto the different terrain above the steepest slopes. Here the bushes were mostly heather , flowering pink and white , and proteas, with their big stiff blossoms . There were insects and birds busy all around, harvesting pollen and nectar, and of course others after the harvesters, spiders and lizards and a hawk wheeling high above against the sky. We watched him watch us, probably hopes we will scare something into the open that he can swoop down and grab , we decided. The lizards just duck into cracks in the rocks, and the small birds stay low among the bushes, so it must be difficult to get hold of something even when you can see so much busy life all around.
We trotted and walked , stopped and watched, making our way towards the lookout station with the flagpole where they signaled to the fishing boats in the bay when shoals of fish came into view. There was only a bare pole today, rope slapping in the wind and the dark green door padlocked, the windows blank in the whitewashed walls of the square concrete building.” Must have carried stuff here with a donkey,” I speculated.
“Maybe a whole lot of donkeys,” chimed in Cliffy, “then they wouldn’t have to stop building to go down and get more stuff , they could have just brought everything at once.” After contemplating this image, of a whole train of donkeys winding along the rocky path, I objected “ But the fishermen don’t have lots of donkeys, they only have rowing boats and maybe a couple of donkeys, so they probably did it a bit at a time, every time they came up to watch for the fish they would bring some stuff and build a bit .”
This seemed to be our older brother’s opinion too, because all he said was “ Probably they put a roof up first, after they put up the flagpole, so they could shelter from the rain.”
Although of course both of us younger ones immediately thought that it would have been difficult to have a roof with no supporting walls, we left it at that and looked for other interesting stuff around. Bright birds were zipping through the bushes, hovering by flowers and darting off again, iridescent blues and greens shimmering on their heads and backs , bright orange below.” Those are sunbirds,” said eldest brother authoritatively. There were brown little birds with them, which were the females, but at the time we didn’t realise they were a single species, and other brown and yellow birds with long trailing tail feathers , which Paul confidently identified as sugarbirds. We tried a few flowers to see if we could get any of the nectar they were all feeding on, but the most we could do was to get our noses dusted with yellow pollen, which tasted faintly bitter if anything. “ What about finding a bee’s nest, a hive ? There should be lots of honey “ I suggested.
“ They’ll just sting us, “ answered Paul, “ You have to have a fire and lots of smoke, then they don’t sting, but we don’t have any matches.”
“ Maybe we can find some of those black bees that don’t sting, Mum said there are black bees that don’t have stingers, remember ? “
Wandering among the wind-tossed bushes, we searched for the legendary black bees , and found bumble bees in several sizes, lots of ordinary bees, some creatures that looked like bees but didn’t act like them, and several kinds of wasps. No black bees .
“ If we find a black bee, what are we going to do ?” asked Cliff,” One bee won’t have much honey, will it ?”
“ Oh, that’s easy,” came the answer, “ if we follow it , it will lead us to it’s hive and we can get honey there. “
“ Hey , here’s a nest, a bird’s nest, “ I called. In the middle of quite a thick and sturdy protea bush there was a tiny cup, twigs and grass tightly woven onto a fork in the main stem. Parting the leaves and leaning forwards, I tried to see if there was anything in it.
A yellow branch moved and revealed itself as a great snake, a cobra thicker than my arm, it’s muscular length trailing from just below the nest down into the tangled grass , The mouth opened a little, showing fearsome teeth and a flickering forked tongue as it turned to me, black expressionless eye locked to mine from a distance of three feet. The body rippled as it seemed to flow up into the bush, gathering into an S bend and lifting the head free to sway back a little. I held my breath and slowly brought the catapult up with my left hand, stretching the rubber back with the right at the same time. My hands were moving somehow without volition, my attention was focused on watching it’s eyes, hoping to be able to jump back and away if it began to strike , but not wanting to precipitate things.
Sunbird struck. Blazing blue and orange , a tiny bundle of feathers hurtled through the branches at the snake’s eye and seemed to attach itself there, so that as I shot and jumped back and out into the open, I saw the sinuous yellow column blossom into a crown of glorious feathers.
Shaking, I watched from a good distance as the whole bush seemed to fly apart , lashed by the body writhing in it’s prolonged final spasms. Snakes don’t seem to die quickly, the body keeps moving long after the brain is gone. Not so with birds, this one was thrown clear in a few seconds and was dead before he hit the ground. I picked him up, careful of the spatters of venom on his feathers, and marveled at tiny perfection. The tip of the beak was broken off, probably right inside the snake’s eye, and there was the mark of a single tooth on his belly where feathers were missing.
We came down from the mountain three brothers , one of us mortal now, honeyless and bearing a small death. Carried in a shirt pocket he died like Ajax or Achilles, remembered in glory, battle winner. We thought he had been protecting his nest , but Dad said “No, just his territory, sunbirds’ nests are closed , with just a small hole to go in and out, if the nest was cup -shaped it was probably a sugar-bird’s nest , so that bird won the war and lived.” Optimistically , Dad took to calling me Sugarbird soon after that day, and it took me a long time to understand why he picked such a wussy nickname for me.