I wrote this story for Christmas a few years ago:
The narrow bar of bright light from the gap in the curtains crept across the room. It moved across the face of the sleeping girl and she stirred, the red glow through her eyelids dragging her away from her dreams.
It was Christmas morning and Christmas had been saved.
For weeks, Stella had been worried. Her family was going through a very dire financial time. Her father had been out of work for months; food was scant and there was certainly no money for presents or luxuries. The oldest of five girls, Stella hadn’t wanted to face the disappointment of the younger children when Father Christmas didn’t come.
Father had gone out yesterday afternoon and sold his most precious possessions so that he could buy each of the children a gift. The three youngest girls were each getting a rag doll. The shop owner had given Father a big discount as these were the last three rag dolls she had and she was happy to make the sale late on Christmas Eve. Stella had helped her Mother wrap them and they were beautiful. Stella and her sister, Beth, the second oldest, were getting the stationary that they needed for school the following year.
Stella was grateful that she would have the things she needed for school but a small part of her longed for a rag doll. Stella loved dolls.
Christmas morning progressed well. The dolls delighted the younger children who were gathered happily together, examining each dolls face and hair and comparing their pretty dresses and silky pantelettes. They played imaginative games where the dolls attended marvelous picnics and parties together.
“The basket was filled with the most delicious food,” Sarah, the middle child, said. “chicken and ham with freshly baked bread. For afters there was apple pie with cream and biscuits with all sorts of different cheeses.”
It broke Stella’s heart to hear the small children speaking about food this way. She was grateful for the large turkey that Father had bought home last night and which was currently roasting in the oven. The delicious small wafted through the house.
A great noise of loud barking broke into the pleasant scene. The family owned two large black Great Danes and they had gone mad, barking and howling. The dogs were generally gentle and a bit stupid, so the unexpected frenzy was unusual. Despite their large size, the dogs seemed to be thriving on a diet of maize meal and milk rather than the expensive dog food they had enjoyed before the family’s economic crisis had begun.
Right now, the two dogs were standing in front of a tall tree at the far end of the garden, barking incessantly. They were leaping around and tripping over each other in their fervent efforts to reach higher up into the tree.
Mother and Stella rushed outside. To their horror, they discovered that the dogs had discovered a bird’s nest in a hollow in the tree. Although only a few minutes had passed since the barking started, the dogs had already killed all of the baby birds except for one. It sat in the devastated nest, a terrified bundle of tiny feathers.
Mother calmed the dogs down, she was very good with them, while Stella gently picked up the one remaining baby bird and gently cradled it in her hands.
Mother and Stella hurried back to the house. They needed to try to save this tiny baby bird.
Mother and Kelly, Stella’s baby sister, set about turning an old basket into a warm nest for the baby. Kelly had never been this close to a bird, baby or otherwise, and her large, blue eyes were shining with interest.
Mother lay a worn out and thin pillow inside the basket and right up its sides. She then laid pieces of cut-off cotton material over the pillow. Kelly, under Mother’s direction, draped a worn-out toweling nappy over the handle of the basket, leaving a narrow opening to allow for airflow and some light. Seeing as the baby bird had come from a nest in a hollow in the tree, it seemed reasonable to keep its new home fairly dark and intimate.
It was impossible to determine what kind of bird this fragile little creature would grow into; if they could manage to keep it alive. Baby birds cannot feed themselves. Their mothers put the food directly into their gaping beaks.
Mother, Stella and Beth had a robust discussion around what they should feed the bird.
“I think pronutro cereal is the best thing,” said Beth.
“Yes, we can mix it to a thin consistency with water and feed it to the bird with a syringe. We have a few left over from Kelly’s last course of antibiotics.”
Mother went off to see to the lunch and the two older girls undertook the job of feeding the bird.
Stella filled the syringe with one millilitre of the pronutro mixture and slowly injected it into the bird’s mouth. When the baby saw the syringe coming it willingly opened its beak, making the process easy for Stella. The baby seemed to react well to the cereal and so she refilled the syringe and once again the baby opened its beak, allowing Stella to inject the food into its mouth.
The girls decided that two millilitres of cereal was enough for the moment. Mother was calling that lunch was ready so the two girls left the bird and went to join the rest of the family which had gathering around the dinner table to enjoy their delicious windfall meal.
What an amazing meal it was. The turkey was tender on the inside and lovely and crispy on the outside. Mother had made her delicious roasted potatoes and there were steamed courgettes and baby spinach out of the vegetable garden.
Everyone was happy and Stella felt her own anxieties dissipating in this warm and loving environment. The lunch time conversation was excited and light; there were the presents to delight over and the baby bird to chat about.
Stella was a big reader. She had a vast collection of books, some new but many old and foraged from second hand bookshops and book sales. She knew that somewhere, in one of these many books, she had read about how to rear a baby bird.
After the lunch had been eaten and the dishes washed and packed away, Stella and Beth fed the baby bird again, using the syringe. They then set about looking for the book that could give them some more advice about rearing a bird by hand.
Over the next few days the tiny ball of downy fluff that was the Christmas bird changed. Orange and black feathers appeared and the tell-tale crest of the hoopoe bird could be seen. There were other signs that this bird was a hoopoe that the girls soon noted, not always with pleasure.
The hoopoe was rather a dirty little thing. After feeding it would reverse back a few steps and shoot poo out of its rear end. The first time the bird did this Kelly was horrified.
“Look! Look!” she shouted. “The bird made a mess. Yucky!”
It took a while for the girls to latch on to this and take the necessary precautions with newspaper laid down around the bird’s basket home. The bird, whom the girls named Hoopie, continued to feed enthusiastically from the syringe. The quantities of food that Hoopie consumed in a day were quite astonishing to Stella and Beth, who had the task of feeding the bird several times a day.
When New Year’s Eve rolled around, the family had supper and settled down to see in the New Year in front of the television. The family was living in a small house on a working farm and in the distance the celebrations of the farm workers could be heard above the noise of the television.
At midnight the farm workers quarters exploded with noise and happy shouting. They had been celebrating all day by drinking vast quantities of Umqombothi, a home-made African beer made from maize and sorghum, from the communal drum called a gogogo. Stella knew this as she had watched the New Year’s Eve preparations by the farm workers with great interest. The women had prepared great quantities of samp and beans for the evening meal, along with other traditional foods. Stella had been fascinated to watch the cooking of this popular dish which was made from boiled samp, boiled sugar beans, fried garlic and onion and chopped potatoes. Stella thought the addition of the potatoes was quite unexpected.
At midnight, fire crackers were let off and old Mecca, the seemingly ancient mother of the farm supervisor, could be heard staggering around drunkenly and shouting “Happy!”, “Happy!”
When Stella and Beth checked on Hoopie, just before going to bed, they noticed a horrible pungent smell of rotting meat. They soon realised this terrible odour was coming from their little bird which had been disturbed by all the commotion and was unsettled and upset.
The New Year heralded good news for the family as their father was notified of his success with a job application. He would be starting work immediately and this was a huge relief to their anxious mother. It wasn’t the nicest job, in Stella’s opinion. Father would be delivering newspapers to the airport and this involved his getting up at 4A.M. in the morning every day, seven days a week, and driving to the distribution centre to load the newspapers onto the truck and take them to the airport in time for the first flights at 6A.M.
Some further good news was that Easter was early that year and a friend of the family’s had offered them their holiday home in Trafalgar, a little town along the South Coast of KwaZulu Natal, over the Easter holiday period. The younger children were very excited to go as it had been a long time since they had been to the beach.
Stella and Beth were worried.
“What about Hoopie? What will we do with him?”
Their Mother tried to reassure them that Trafalgar, which is on the north bank of the Mpenjati River which enters the Indian Ocean at the Mpenjati Nature Reserve, would be a great place for Hoopie. They could take him with them in the car.
The car trip down to Trafalgar was uneventful. Hoopie stayed in his covered basket and they gave him water regularly and fed him little bits of mince meat. Hoopoes are meat eating birds and their diet comprises largely of insects. When research the diet of the Hoopoe bird, Beth was surprised to read that they also ate frogs and small reptiles. Small balls of minced meat was the best alternative the girls had and Hoopie seemed to be thriving on it.
Their pet bird had grown and matured. He had been living in the attic at home; a large dark room with heavy beams. The family could hear him drilling into the beams with his strong beam. On one occasion, Hoopie had used his beak to kill a lizard, he had repeated pecked at its head until it died. As far as Mother was concerned, this validated Hoopie’s position as a member of the family; Mother hated lizards. Stella and Beth were a bit shocked but agreed that this was nature’s way.
When they arrived at the holiday house in Trafalgar, the family was thrilled. Their home for the duration of the holiday was a typical old-fashioned cottage with three bedrooms. The décor was very beachy and there were dishes of shells and dried seaweed in every room. The cottage was very close to the sea and had a musty, salty smell.
The garden was amazing. A small patch of very green lawn was surrounded by thick and lush foliage. It felt as if they were living on the edge of a jungle. The late afternoon was filled with the sounds of nature; birds calling, crickets chirping and other noises less easily identified.
Hoopie was very pleased to be freed from his basket after the long car trip and took very well to his new habitat. He was soon flying around the garden, drilling into the tree trunks and investigating the insect life. Hoopie was so tame that if Stella or Mother called for him he would fly down and sit on their shoulders.
Money was still as consideration and so Mother stocked up at the local grocery store with cheap foods like big blocks of cheese, gerkins and skate wings. Skate is a diamond-shaped, flat fish that looks a lot like a ray. Stella had never eaten this kind of fish before but they all loved it. Mother would batter the wings with egg and jungle oats and shallow fry them in a frying pan. This became the meal the girls begged for during the holiday. Lunches comprised of thick sandwiches of fresh white bread, cheese and gerkins. The cheese was processed and had a slightly different taste to what the girls were used to but they tucked in with gusto nevertheless. The sea air and relaxed atmoshere had an amazing effect on everyone’s appetites which had been quite lacklustre over the past few stressful months.
The holiday cottage also had a soda stream machine which thrilled the younger girls. They would take one of the bottles of cold water out of the fridge, add some soda stream syrup and then put it on the machine which filled the water with bubbles and turned the drink into a soda. Stella didn’t like the syrup which was very sweet but enjoyed the pleasure this machine gave to her younger siblings. She took some of her own savings to buy them different flavoured syrups at the shop.
The hot days passed, with daily morning trips to the beautiful, sandy beach and afternoons spent lying around reading. The cottage had a bookshelf of books, most of which Stella had not read, and it was like a late Christmas present.
Stella’s only slight anxiety was Hoopie. He had settled into the garden so well that his visits to the cottage became less and less frequent. He would disappear for hours at a time and now foraged for his own food, ignoring the little bits of mince meat that the girls left out for him. Stella didn’t want him to fly away just yet. She wanted to get him back home to his natural habitat.
As all lovely and nice things do, the holiday came to an end after two wonderful weeks of sea and sunshine. The day before the family was due to travel home was filled with anxiety for Stella and Beth. Hoopie had disappeared. He did not come when they called for him and they had not seen him for a couple of days. The girls took turns standing in the garden and calling for him but it was looking as if they would have to leave him behind when they travelled the next day.
Stella felt very sad. She had grown very attached to this funny little bird and didn’t want to leave him behind in a place so very far away. She had a fitful night, tossing and turning, and got up very early the next morning. She went outside while Father was packing the car in one last attempt to find Hoopie.
Suddenly he appeared. Gliding effortlessly out of a nearby tree and landing on her shoulder just like he always did. Stella managed to walk back into the house and get him into his basket before he could take off again.
What a relief. The family set off on the long drive home feeling much happier that they had their delightful little bird safely in his basket.
Everyone was happy to be home. Holidays are always lovely but there is nothing in the world as good as your own home and bed. Hoopie seemed as happy as the girls were to be back home and spent the first few days back home happily drilling in his attic. It wasn’t long before he started flying out of the window and disappearing for hours at a time again.
One morning, Stella stood calling Hoopie when unexpectedly there were two. Hoopie had found a mate. His lady friend did not come close to Stella but watched from a distance as Hoopie said his goodbye. That was the last time Hoopie came close to Stella but the girls would occassionaly see him in the distance, foraging for insects and making his call to advertise his ownership of this territory.
Stella knew that a wild bird is not like a dog and does not form lasting relationships with humans. It was a little sad to see him go but she was happy that the little bird that the family had rescued from near death had lived to rejoin nature and continue the cycle of life.
by Robbie Cheadle