MY FRIENDS COME AND GO By Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo
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MY FRIENDS COME AND GO
By Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo
Click here to send comments
Click here if you'd like to exchange critiques
The huge whispering pine trees in my village square stand tall and empty - all six of them. I think they were purposely planted like that: in a circle. As gentle breeze caress their scaly branches, they whisper merrily, dropping dead leaves, sharp as needles. The ground around them is thick with fallen leaves, black and warm from rotting.
Hopefully, I examine the topmost branches, praying to see soft, slight movements, of my friends, the weaverbirds. I see nothing. I don’t mind too much. It will not be long before they start arriving.
I have always loved weaverbirds. My first memory of childhood is of sitting on the wet ground, cross-legged and gazing into these magnificent pine trees, wide-eyed, absorbed and thrilled as I watched them carry on their daily activities; thousands of them shrieking endlessly as they played, fought, mated.
I watch them begin the intricate process of building their nests. I am amazed as they round it off, three, four or six days later; how soon depends on whether palm and coconut fronds, their most important building materials, are available or not. When they aren’t (this is after they have stripped the nearby palm and coconut trees of all elements of fronds, leaving them naked), the birds fly as far away as possible in search of them. They then ferry long, thin, green strands, expertly sliced with black, strong, pointed beaks, sharp as razor back to the pine trees. I feel sorry for the nearby naked palm and coconut trees. It is the worst part of the year for them, when my friends, the weaverbirds come.
But I will rather the nearby trees remained naked all year long than not see my weaverbirds. It is breathtaking watching them manoeuvre their beaks and claws; their heads and wings; their bellies and tails as they passed the thin strand of fronds this way, bringing them out that way in the delicate, but intuitive process of weaving their homes.
I have since identified the beautiful, red and black coloured birds, which shrieked loudest as the males; and the dull, light yellow ones, which allowed themselves to be climbed on, with semblance of irritation on their demeanours as the females.
There is nothing I enjoy more than watching the weavers shriek, especially in the afternoons when the sun is blazing in the cloudless sky, fit to roast. Then they leave their pine trees and hide under the dense leaves of the mango, pear and malaria trees found everywhere in my village. Their shrieks, rising and fallen in crescendo as they strive to outshine each other leave me feeling drowsy. And suddenly, the birds are quiet, as if commanded. And the entire surrounding acquires a disturbing sereneness, as if a ghost had just strode past.
When they resume, they do so with renewed vigour. Finally tired of vibrating air through their lungs, they fly to the nearby palm trees to feed on the red, shining palm nuts. Or to the farmlands nearby where they will wreck havoc on the maize plants, bent double with ripe cobs.
Always, I tail them to the maize farms. Or find a spot a little distance from the palm trees. There, I stand. It is un-quantifiable pleasure, watching them undertake the difficult task of peeling off the covers of the maize cobs with their beaks and claws, their red eyes alert, roving, darting this way and that. They know that the farm owners are only a shriek away. Finally, the maize cobs are peeled, exposing white or yellow seeds, or a combination of both. Hungrily, they feed to their satisfaction.
Whether they are tearing away at maize cobs or plainly feasting on red, ripe palm fruits, the weavers are a beauty to behold. Especially so when they rush to the water hole, a short distance from their pines to water themselves, flapping their wings merrily in the stagnant, sometimes green, sometimes brown water.
As they hop out, wet, to stand in the sun to dry and preen themselves, they open their throats and sing the sweetest songs ever (songs of love, I suppose) to each other.
I close my eyes, lost in eternal bliss, never missing a note.
I will pray that they never stopped killing me. But I know it is only for a couple of minutes before their leader gave the signal. And then they will rise to the air. This time back to the whispering pines. Or to the undercover of the mango and orange trees, where they will sing and sing and sing, their heavenly symphony never seeming to end.
It is the younger birds, the ones whose glossy wings reflect and shimmer against the morning sun that do the most singing. They must secure their mates before the season is over. The older birds, already coupled didn’t sing much. Instead, much attention is given to nest weaving. Couples build the nest, in readiness for their eggs. Eggs arrive before the heavy rains come, in July.
Weavers lay about three or four eggs. After the eggs are laid, the females spend more time in the nest, only going to the maize farm or palm trees once or twice a day. In a matter of a week and a few days, the eggs hatch into young weavers, naked and blind to the world.
I have seen the birds after they hatch. Not by climbing the tall pine trees, which are too tall for a boy of eleven, like me. But when the unfortunate happens, for example, when the wind blows too hard. Or when it rains heavily at night and the nests are blown down.
I will wake up the next morning to find several nests lying on the ground, most upside down, soaked. Searching them will reveal eggs, either newly laid, or in advanced stages of incubation, some cracked, some intact. Or young weavers, blind, naked, hairless and helpless, with tummies protruding and legs raised as they struggle on their backs, cycling in the air, beeping wimpy sounds that shred my eleven year old heart. In the absence of their mothers, these fledglings are attacked, killed and hauled underground by battalions of soldier ants.
That is how I came to hate soldier ants so much.
I am powerless against the bigheaded ants. And the elements. I can only pray that the heavy rains stopped. Or the winds reduced their anger. Or that when they fell, the fledglings are old enough for me to nurse.
Not minding the lice, which crawl over them in multitudes, I take them home under my shirt, and put them in my cage of coconut bamboo, which my father built for me before they came and took him away in the night and I never saw him again.
My mother helps me make a fire, silently. I warm the young birds by the fire. As they tremble and beg for food with mouths open, I throw particles of bread, or rice or fish; in fact, anything I can lay my hands on, I through into their open, yellow mouths. Sometimes I give them sugar, or pepper. Or even Ovaltine I rummage from castaway tins in the public dustbin. When I am unlucky, these birds die in my care, mostly from diarrhoea.
I am left sad. And heart-broken. Like that time my father went away. He didn’t even say goodbye to me. Or to my mother. He just went quietly with the men, and they became one with the black night, the wind howling, the dogs barking.
“The Chief’s men,” my mother said when I asked her who the men, dressed in black, wearing hoods, were. She said she had been expecting them for a while. No one ever told me what my father did, though I did hear snippets of discussion, adults talking about how terrible the times had become. How one can no longer give a personal opinion of anything anymore; how one can no longer call a spade a spade.
Severally though, I have been lucky enough to adequately care for some of the downed weavers. I return them to their whispering pines after they have grown stronger and can manoeuvre from branch to branch.
I watch them fondly as they make their way to the topmost branches to join their kinfolk. Sometimes, I wonder, “Do these birds I have nursed ever remember me?” But that is the least of my worries. What kills me with apprehension are the killer kites, which first appear as black specks: black stains against the clear white, soothing sky.
They come toward the ends of the rains. Whenever I see them fanning out in the sky, I feel a sudden tightness in my throat and emptiness in my stomach. Whenever these kites show face, two things are bound to happen.
My weaverbirds will no longer sing. If they sing at all, they do so with their hearts in their mouths. You will hear the trembling in their notes. Their songs are no longer melodious, but melancholic, filled with fear, and uncertainties; punctuated with warning signals from one or two who serve as lookouts, risking their lives, exposed at the pinnacle of some tall trees. When they go to the maize farms and palm trees, instead of seating majestically on things, they hang underneath the cobs and bunches, with their wings neatly folded, eating hurriedly; never chatting to each other as they sample opinions about taste and freshness of their meals. The kites, with their telescopic eyes must not sight them.
Out of nowhere, the kites pounce on the weavers in the whispering trees as they mind their business. And the air will be filled with a mirage of brilliant colours, dirtied here and there with specks of dirty black, several thousand wings scattering in all directions as the weavers run for dear lives. Inside nests, confounded fledglings hold their tongues. Perhaps not the whole story, but even they know something about the enemy kites. The colour of their feathers for example.
A weaver is pounced upon in flight, at the peak of his life. The hawk makes away: to a solitary meal. Or to feed its offspring, somewhere in the forest, at the top of a silk-cotton tree or a towering mahogany. Or to just simply maul an innocent weaver for the fun of it; for lack of something better to do; for game.
The kite invasion signifies the end of the migration season. And soon, my friends, the weaverbirds must vacate their temporary home, the whispering pine trees in the centre of my village. They must return to where they came from (I have often wondered where).
One morning, they begin to disperse. First in small numbers, then in droves. Leaning dejectedly against a small tree, I watch them, several young males and females, not two months old ready to make their first and perhaps most important life trip. Tears well up in my eyes. I don’t bother to wipe them. They drop, splashing on my shirt, or making it all the way to the ground, growth of young grasses breaking their fall.
Three or four days later, I am still there to watch the last and youngest birds stretch their wings, and take off. Because they have not made this journey before, I shout as I point out the right directions for them, urging them on, wishing them safe journey.
My mother pleads with me, but I reject food. For days I do nothing but weep. Like that time when men in black khaki uniforms, wearing black hoods came and took my father away in the dead of night, the wind howling, the dogs barking.
I console myself: In only a matter of a year’s time, my weaver will be back again, in their annual migration. In time for stripping bare the palm and coconut trees, which would have grown new fronds.
Patiently, I begin to wait. As I continue to hope and pray. I believed my mother when she said, “You Pa, he may surprise us one day and come back home.”