• FTB Literary Group

The Massacre - Cara Helene

We knew when the first rains came it would bring them. Our excitement would rise like the dust released from the hot Botswana earth as the first pitter-patter of drops quenched it. It had been a long dry season, my mother would remark to every visitor- as she did every year, fanning herself under the shade of the two eucalyptus trees that engulfed the garden. A mustache of sweat collected on her top lip as she lamented breathlessly. Her red enameled nails clutched an ice cube riddled glass for dear life. Behind her, the sprinkler constantly surveyed her desperate attempts to manicure a grassy lawn; a vigilant watch guard. But the only thing that grew in the dust was our excitement as we ran through the cool spray on those sweltering African afternoons, shrieking wildly. ‘Those godforsaken things steal all the water. Someone should cut them down’, she’d mutter under her breath. The two monstrous beasts stood side by side, flexing their thick silvery trunks. Long green leaves dangling down, fingers they'd flutter at us in the hot wind. We’d look up at them with heavy hearts - hearts in which they’d buried their roots deeply. For we’d spend our days entwined around their limbs, hugging onto their boughs - much to my mother’s dismay. But those weren’t the only reasons. There were the weaver birds too. We’d start to keep watch when the rains stopped for the first sight of fleeting yellow. ‘I’ve seen one. I’ve seen one. They’re coming’ was the call when the first male weaver arrived. He’d do the rounds, whipping through the eucalyptol fronds, scouting out the location, though there was no need. They were seasonal visitors; time-sharers seeking warmer climates. We’d watch like mongooses transfixed by the aerobatics. Then the mini magician, starting with a single strand, would start to build his nest at the end of one of the branches. ‘So the snakes can’t get him,’ my brother’s big brown eyes assured us. He’d rip the garden palm fronds off with his beak (don’t tell mum!); his yellow head darting in and out as he weaved his way to a nest. The others would soon be on his tail. Then you wouldn’t be able to count all the nests, dangling from the ends of the branches like plump fruit. We would try though, lying on our backs in the warm dirt, facing the clear blue sky, pointing our fingers up at them, confusing each other into fits of giggles. The females would arrive a few weeks later, ready to pick their mate. The males would hang upside down, puffing out their chests desperately trying to attract a lady’s attention. An interested female would then survey the nest, if it passed the test, they’d disappear inside together. If not, the male would rip the nest off the branch in fury- and start building a brand new one from scratch until a satisfied female came along. That’s when the show ended for the young spectators and the waiting game began, but raised under Nature’s clock, we were used to living season by season. Eventually, there would be chicks and with them a soundtrack to southern African spring as we had grown to know it. My mother had never been given the chance to survey her nest before it became our home. Perched on the edges of a middle-of-nowhere town in a relatively unknown landlocked continent, the dry winds blew her and my English father over as soon as they were married. The marital home was a cinderblock two-bed that weathered the worst of the sandstorms. She’d never lived so far from the ocean. She’d never known a heat so intense. She’d wring her hands in despair. When the heat drained the life out of everything, there was only one thing to do - sweat it out under a cool fan, sprawled out on a bed, and wait for dusk to cloak everything in cooler tones.. That was how my brother, sister, and I spent most of our afternoons after roaming outdoors like the wildcats we were. Collapsed around each other on my parents' bed, a tangle of limbs, a lull of heavy breathing, and the sweet smell of sweat and sand on our skins. The dappled shadows of the trees caressing our bodies through the windows. The watchmen rustling, easing us to sleep. But my mother’s world was plagued by a fear of the unknown. Everything an offender in a foreign environment. She'd spend days in their shadows staring up at them; arms crossed, backstopped with worn down apprehension. Biting her lip. Waiting for them to give up their roots and fall down on her nest, crushing life below. They’d loom back at her, droop a little lower, arms dangling in despair. The bright green tear-drop nests floating in the dusty, dry air like baubles on a Christmas tree come early. They’d eventually brown, baked just like our skins in the sun. But by then there'd be no birds left. Nature’s apocalypse would have happened; as it always did. Leaving only the shells behind. We dreaded two things during those months. The first being the sub-saharan desert storms. The second was my mother’s temperament. Every now and then, the burst of torrential emotion from the African Gods whipped through our deprived bushveld, leaving a broken weaver egg strewn in its wake. Mourners, we’d gather around the aborted occupant, sobbing in memory of the bird that could have been. We’d learned about nature’s ferocity from an early age. Nowhere is it felt more than on the knife-edge that is Africa; life and death on the same spot of the spectrum, a mere slice away. Our little hearts always felt the losses. My mother’s, on the other hand, didn’t. She wouldn’t submit. ‘This place’ may have taken her life, but it would never have her heart. This sentiment fuelled her unpredictable wrath. It bubbled under the blazing sun, erupting into a deadly determination to destroy before being destroyed. So far from home; so landlocked. It gave her an appetite for revenge that she’d aim at anything uncontrollable, ready to clip freedom’s wings. If life started to bite, she bit harder. It hadn't learned. The bush children had. Every year, we were hopeful though. That this one would be different. Things would change. Maybe it was the way spring makes it feel like the earth is shedding its skin. Casting aside old scales, making way for a new softer surface. Things would be reborn - and so too would my mother’s lighter side. She’d cease to be the cuckoo in the nest. But we soon learned that change is not fueled by hope. As with leopards and spots, my mother’s anger was not skin deep. She had snapped long ago and the world around her would be bent by her nature forevermore. The day had come. It had only been a matter of time. The relentless heat had knocked us out by lunchtime, our yawns led us to our beds and into a deep slumber. I was trapped in the humidity of the coveted middle spot, between my brother and sister, breathing in the comfort of familial smells. We slept longer than usual, or rather, my mother left us sleeping. The world had started closing its eyes as I emerged back into it. Dusk had dimmed the room. Drowsily, I stretched out, pushing their bodies off me. Then I heard them. Unidentifiable African voices. My ears pricked up in panic. My mother’s heavily emphasized English was muddled amongst them. Then silence. The swing of a weapon. Again and again and again. Short, successive explosions. Then the earth shook. The giants were on their knees; their collapse inevitable. The wail of the flock rose up out of the chaos; screams of mass murder. I could taste the blood in my mouth as I bit my lip in realization. The birds! The birds! The words must have fallen out of my mouth as my sister shot up next to me. She grabbed my hand, talons digging into my skin. Our eyes met. The tears told us the time had come. It was too late. We flew out of the house and into the garden, throats choked into knots, wings clipped. The perpetrators were still on the scene, moving their ladders, sweeping up the debris, polishing their weapons. My mother stood like an esteemed war hero amongst her comrades; men she had summoned to do her dirty work. She towered over them like a hooded cobra, dictating destruction. The arms of the biggest giant, now defeated, lay at her feet. Limbs hacked to uselessness, strewn across the patchy lawn. Fingers like lifeless confetti, a carpet of a former life, signaling the end of an elaborate event. Amongst the chaos- our cherished weaver nests lay choked. Not a chirp punctuated the massacre scene. Spring had ceased to exist. My sister flung herself at the nearest victim, sobbing as she cradled one of the dead baby birds. ‘Why did you do this mummy? Why? What did they do to you?’ I kneeled beside her and wrapped her in my arms and watched my mother signal her next victim. She was unstoppable. Then she turned to us and ushered us inside the house. Our safe haven from the world. ‘Now stay in here with me’, she warned. ‘It’s dangerous out there.’ My sister and I nodded in silent obedience. I watched the tears roll down her freckled cheeks onto the soft down of the dead weaver bird cradled in her lap; a parting gift of sorrow. ‘You know why I had to do it’, my mother confided in us, her eyes fixed straight ahead. ‘They were going to fall on us, crush us all, ruin our nest.’ We nodded in silent solidarity as she tucked us under her wings. It's very hard to love somebody so cruel- but when that's all you've ever known, you know no different. The cracks on the shell of your world aren’t so obvious when you are the bird within. We sat huddled on the sofa, under the thatched roof, listening as the second giant fell.

Cara Helene is an Anglo-African journalist and writer living in the Middle East. She grew up in southern Africa, lived in England and Italy, before moving to Qatar to work for Al Jazeera- telling other people's stories, sometimes she even tells her own.

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