'Sunbird' - published in Joyful magazine.
The first of two stories I've written based in the time and place of my childhood - Fishoek, near Capetown, in the late 1950s.
The other, 'Eland' is included in Ch 6 of 'Eland Dances', my forthcoming novel.
Both of these stories are included in 'Heavy & Light Tales'
The very last paragraph of 'Eland' is relevant to some degree to everything I've written.
To me, the experience of finding the rare, the unique, and the unexpected became a much stronger possibility than it is for most people. Something leads me to suspend my disbelief quite readily.
They went up the mountain in the morning, when bright sun sparkled on the dewy twigs, the leaf
tips and spider webs, and mist rose from the grass and rested in the hollows. They were three together, barefoot boys. They slipped through the seaside bungalows and white fenced gardens to the wild slopes beyond. There was a rough dirt track that led up halfway, and then a footpath through the rocks and heath, the scent of wild geraniums strong as they brushed by. They 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. They took turns to carry the provisions, which they were all going to eat later, but only the two older ones carried the catapult in turn, because Rich couldn’t shoot properly with it, and what good would it do if he was carrying it and they met a leopard, say, 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 they got to the branch in the path, after the zig zag climb through the rock bluffs, they turned left, along the more used trail. They would take the fainter right branch on another longer day when they didn’t have to be back by lunchtime. They ate the oranges quite soon after they
were up onto the different terrain above the steepest slopes. Here the bushes were mostly heath, flowering pink and white, and proteas, with their big stiff blossoms.
There were insects and birds busy all around. They harvested pollen and nectar, and of course others were after the harvesters, spiders and lizards and a hawk who wheeled high above, against the sky. They watched him watch. Probably hopes we will scare something into the open that he can swoop down and grab, they 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.
They trotted and walked, stopped and watched, made their way towards the lookout station with the flagpole, where the watcher signalled to the fishing boats in the bay when shoals of fish came into view. There was only a bare pole today, the rope slapped in the wind, and the dark green door was padlocked. Blank windows in the whitewashed walls of the square concrete building overlooked the steep slope down to the sea.
You could see the mountains on the far side, blue in the distance across the bay. Cloud shadows, sunlight, and wind squalls shaded the water in shifting patterns, all shades of blue from almost black to the light blue-green along the beaches, where the surf showed as white lacy lines.
“Must’ve carried stuff here with a donkey,” Pete speculated, more interested in the building than the view.
“Maybe a whole lot of donkeys,” chimed in Rich, “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 strung along the rocky path, Pete 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 older brother John’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 the younger ones immediately thought that it would have been difficult to have a roof with no supporting walls, they left it at that.
They tried to spot a fish shoal, but couldn’t see anything that looked like a fish, or a whole lot of fish, so turned back to the mountain to look for other interesting stuff around.
Bright birds zipped through the bushes, hovered by flowers and darted off again. Iridescent blues and greens shimmered on their heads and backs, bright orange flamed below. “Those are sunbirds,” said eldest brother authoritatively.
There were brown little birds with them, which were the females. Other brown and yellow birds trailed long tail feathers. These John confidently identified as sugarbirds.
They tried a few flowers to see if you could get any of the nectar that the birds fed on, but the most they could do was to get their noses dusted with yellow pollen, which tasted faintly bitter if
anything. “What about if we find a bee’s nest, a hive ? There should be lots of honey.” Pete suggested.
“They’ll just sting us,” said John. “You need 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?”
They wandered among the wind-tossed bushes, 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 Rich, “One bee won’t have much honey, will it ?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” came the answer, “if we follow, it will lead us to its hive, and we can get honey there.”
“Hey, here’s a nest, a bird’s nest,” Pete 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. He parted the leaves and leant forwards, as he tried to see if there was anything in it.
A yellow branch moved, and revealed itself as a great snake, a cobra thicker than his arm. Its muscular length trailed from just below the nest down into the tangled grass. The mouth opened a little, showed fearsome teeth and a forked tongue as it turned to him, black blank eye locked to his from a distance of three feet.
The body rippled as it seemed to flow up into the bush, gathered into an S bend, and lifted the head free to sway back a little. Pete held his breath and slowly brought the catapult up with his left hand, stretched the rubber back with his right at the same time. His hands moved without volition, his attention was focused on it’s eyes. He hoped to be able to jump back and away if it began to strike, but he didn’t want to precipitate things.
Sunbird struck. Blue and orange blaze, a tiny bundle of feathers hurtled at the snake’s eye. Attached itself there.
As he shot and jumped back into the open, he saw the sinuous yellow column blossom into a crown of glorious feathers.
Shaken, Pete watched from a good distance as the whole bush seemed to fly apart, lashed by the body as it writhed in it’s final spasms. Snakes don’t die quickly, the body moves long after the brain is gone.
Not so with birds. This one was thrown clear in a few seconds. He was dead before he hit the ground. Pete picked him up, careful of the spatters of venom on his feathers, and marvelled at tiny perfection. The tip of the beak was broken off. Probably right inside the snake’s eye. There was the mark of a single tooth on his belly.
They came down from the mountain, three brothers, honeyless. One of them mortal now, he bore the memory of death through the garden gate, his bright saviour in his hand.
Flames and black smoke covered the upper slopes over Fishhoek. After it had burned for three
days across the wild mountain, the fire had now come perilously close to houses across a wide front. The fire engine had been there since the evening before, and this morning most of the men had gone up the track with sacks and axes and shovels.
Where else would three boys go on a Saturday morning, breakfast bolted down and pocket money already spent? Not that there was any prospect of actually participating, but all the action made the area interesting, especially from the house on the far side of the valley, where the flames were visible, way taller than the ant sized men who moved around in front of them.
As the boys got closer the flames were lost from view behind the houses and trees on the lower slopes. Firstly ash and black burnt grass and leaves, then hot and sometimes glowing bits began to drift down on everything. Smoke and hot air swirled around, so that it was quite unpleasant. The three brothers began to wonder if this was such a good idea, with the roar and noise of the flames louder as they got closer, when the wind dropped away suddenly, and the noise of the fire seemed to change.
There was an outburst of noise from the men up there, shouts thin with distance, and then the wind switched around just like that and began to blow from behind the boys. The men cheered and yelled now. Something had happened and they weren't there yet! They wanted to be a part of this adventure, the Great Fire. They hurried up the track past the last houses.
The fire engine was parked where a big rock blocked it from going any further uphill, and on any other day it would have rated a good close inspection, unattended as it was, but not now. They hurried past on the footpath through scrub and tall grass, where the air hummed with insects disturbed by the fire, and birds darted around with full beaks.
A great brown-mottled mantis came out of the smoke. It whizzed along and landed on Peter’s right shoulder, turned its head on the thin neck and waved its barbed front legs in an agitated way. Pete called to his brothers, “Hey look here, he’s trying to talk to me!”
“What’s he say then, is he telling you there’s a fire and lots of smoke?” joked John, and they all laughed.
“Probably, though now he’s just waving his one leg and pointing it thataway, off to the right a bit, which is the direction he came from. Maybe he wants us to rescue his eggs. Maybe he’s a she that is, and wants us to save her eggs,” answered Pete.
So of course, since they had heard somewhere that mantises were thought by the Bushmen, the San, to be messengers from their version of God, the boys kept a close watch on the grass and bushes on their right as they climbed the winding path. About a hundred yards further up, the mantis took to flight again, and flew into a clump of tall spindly wild geraniums.
The boys followed, and were startled by a lunging brown shape that erupted into visibility as they neared, an antelope that took off headlong, and crashed away across the slope, “Wow that’s an eland!” exclaimed John, “Must have been driven down from the Game Reserve by the fire.
Where’s that mantis though? It landed somewhere in here, lets see, maybe it does have eggs here or something.”
They fossicked around among the strong-scented plants for a bit, and John was just getting impatient and had started to move on, when Pete saw a flicker of movement. The mantis spread it’s yellow and orange underwings as it sat on something that looked like a rock, until he looked closely. “Hey! Here’s a baby buck! The mantis is sitting on it, come see.”
They watched as the animal struggled to stand up, then wobbled for a few seconds before it collapsed again with a sprawl of impossibly long legs.
“We should leave it here, then the mother will come back and it’ll be ok,” said John. Since this seemed like the best thing to do, they started back towards the nearby path, and waited quietly as two men crashed and stumbled past downhill. One with his arm all red and burnt, and the other one helped him.
“You boys shouldn’t be here, it’s dangerous,” called the burnt man.
“I’ll be back in a bit, as soon as I get Joe to the nurse,” said the other, “You better be gone by the time I get back.”
They looked at one another and shrugged. Just because that guy got himself burnt didn’t mean they would too.
Right at that moment the wind changed again, blew down the slope at them, carried choking black smoke and a rain of burning debris into the surrounding bush. Several minor fires started up where flaming leaves landed in dry grass, and in a few seconds their feelings of security and eagerness to see more action changed to unease and some apprehension.
“That mother eland won’t come back if it starts to burn here,” said John. “Let’s carry the baby down the hill a bit, where the fire won’t get it.”
They quickly went and picked the little animal up. John crouched down and they draped it over his shoulder with its legs dangling front and back. He said that was a “Fireman’s Lift.” His younger brothers were impressed, as they hadn’t known there was a special way to carry animals when you rescued them from a fire. They would have done it all wrong without their eldest brother.
The mantis came along too, seated comfortably on Peter’s shoulder, with quick side trips over to the baby eland every few minutes. On one of these check-up visits Rich noticed something that looked like a little wasp’s nest stuck to the hair under the buck’s neck, almost invisible in the hollow where the neck and chest merged, “Here’s the mantis’s babies too,” he cried. “Look here, that’s why it was so worried!”
They stopped for a bit and examined this for a few moments while John rested, then Pete picked up the load and they set off again. Soon they reached a smoke free area just uphill from the first houses and stopped again a few yards off the path, out of sight in case that man came back. Here they noticed a single bump in the middle of the baby’s forehead.
“That must be its horn,” said Rich.
“There should be two horns,” said John. “All animals have two horns, if they have horns.”
“Unicorns don’t, they have one horn,” said Pete. “That's what their name means. Uni means one and I suppose corn means horn.”
“So why don’t they just call them one horns, then?” asked Richie.
“Same reason lots of things have several names,” said John. “Men are guys and fellows too, and buck are also antelopes. So this is a baby buck, and an eland, and a unicorn.”
Nobody felt like arguing. It was quite hot and everyone had itchy eyes and throats from the smoke.
“His mother won’t find him here, the fire is coming down the mountain and it’ll burn where we found him, so what are we going to do with him?” Pete asked. John just shrugged, and Richie looked down and started to dig his toe into the ground with great concentration. “We could take him home, and ask mum if we can keep him,” said Pete. “Unicorns are special, more special than dogs and cats, and mum did say maybe we should get a dog soon, so she probably won’t mind.”
This seemed like a reasonable assumption to all three, so they set off home through the quiet Saturday morning streets, carrying the baby unicorn in the Fireman's Lift and the mantis anyhow she chose to ride.
About half way home, the baby began to struggle and bleat, so they stopped again and sat in the shade of someone’s tall wooden fence.
“Maybe we aren’t doing this right,” said John. “When they catch a Unicorn they have to have a Maiden, and then it’s tame and does whatever they want.
Well of course this sounded like important technical information, so they decided that probably baby sister Isabel qualified as a Maiden, and could actually help with a project for a change, instead of being an annoyance, as all kid sisters tended to be. Richie was volunteered to go home and bring her, and some orange squash and perhaps some apples, and not to get lost on the way, while the elder two waited.
The mantis seemed to approve of this arrangement. She nodded her head up and down vigourously in time with the movement of Pete’s head when he asked her opinion. “That’s a good idea, right mantis? Rich should go and fetch her and we’ll guard you guys here.”
The clincher came when Richey objected loudly. “Hey no fair, it’s just moving it’s head because you are.” The mantis turned to look at him and spread her wings and waved her front legs threateningly. He shut up right away then. He didn’t realise that his loud voice could have produced the same reaction without any understanding of his meaning.
When the two youngest arrived, all four sat and drank orange squash, and Issy was introduced to the Unicorn, which didn’t seem particularly impressed by her, but allowed her to stroke his nose and feel his horn-bump. He didn’t seem interested in the orange squash and just sniffed the apple they offered, so they decided he probably only wanted milk. Naturally Issy couldn’t carry him, so she walked behind where he could see her when they set off again, with his front legs dangling down the carrier’s back.
Soon after they got to the main road a grey car pulled up, and the driver, a tanned man with a black beard, asked, “Where are you going with that eland?”
So John explained about the fire on the mountain and the mother that ran off, and the one horn, but didn’t mention the mantis, until she flew over and perched on the car’s steering wheel.
Then Pete showed him the egg case, and he listened solemnly to the whole story before saying, “So do you live on a farm then, where an animal like this can live? Because you know it will grow quite big and it’ll need space, just like a cow or a horse. You won’t be able to keep him in a small garden. Why don’t you all climb in? I’ll give you a lift home and see about getting milk for this little guy. Best if I take him to my farm, up in Swaziland, when I go back next week.”
Riding in a car wasn’t something the children did every day, so that was pretty good, and they got home in a few minutes and ran in all talking at once to tell mum about it. She came out and looked in the open window at the young animal on the back seat and said, “Well, Mr. umm,”
“Riley,” he said. “Pleased to meet you ma’am.”
“Well Mr. Riley,” she said. “if you could take care of this little fellow, I’m sure that would be best. Thank you for helping, and I hope they weren’t too much trouble. They do get into all kinds of things, but they mean well, you know.”
Naturally these grown- up arrangements weren’t quite what the boys had hoped for. They had vague expectations of marvellous events, and fully expected to be proud Unicorn guardians for some indefinite time yet, before the baby could manage on it’s own and go out in the world and do, well, magical things. Trying his best to extend any protection he could, Pete said, “He can have my name, I don’t have anything else that he could use, and be sure and let the mantis stay with him and help him, I’m sure she’ll look after him and her eggs too, and that way he’ll have something from his home with him. That is a special kind of mantis you know, because she laid her eggs on him. My dad said there is a kind of mantis that always lives with grazing animals and eats the insects that fly up from their feet.”
Mr. Riley seemed to find it quite easy to talk to children, because he just smiled, and didn’t argue or laugh, he just quietly said, “Well, I will leave the egg case where it is, but the mantis can do as it wants, if it flies out the window I won’t stop it.”
That was that, he drove off with the baby in the back seat and the children went into the house, and then back outside to rinse off the worst of the black dust from the fire with the hose, before they washed their hands and faces for lunch.
After that day Pete always had a sort of low level, background belief, that there was some basis of fact behind many old myths and practices. It gave him a niggling feeling, when he heard some superstition or folk belief expressed, that it did seem like nonsense, but perhaps somewhere in the wide world the Little People still sang their songs, or other unicorns drifted across the mountain meadows.