The Great Bird

Disclaimer: I wrote the story below for submission to the commonwealth writer’s competition for some prize (I believe a short story of between 2000-5000 words – the story below weighs in at about 2,382 words).
Was looking for “something” and I came across reference to the competition on Farafina’s
Wordpress blog. As usual, I didn’t really make any effort until almost the last minute
– and even after finishing the draft, I didn’t clean it up in time – only to find out that I had missed the deadline by about a week 🙂 I didn’t pay close attention to the submission deadline – my bad.
As to the story below, I checked my bare portfolio and didn’t find anything that I thought
would qualify (“Conversations with the Devil” and “Once upon a journey …” seemed to
have too much of a religious slant to them). So I basically let it go, but it was at the back of my mind to write a story for the competition.
Fast-forward some days, and it’s almost daylight, and the generator had stopped, and as usual, there was a single mosquito in the room (I don’t mind the things taking a “drink”,
but why in all that’s holy must they announce their intentions by buzzing in my ears?)
And I never can sleep once I hear that buzz. Usually my re-action is to get up, “spray” the
room, stand outside for say about 20minutes then go back in. On this occasion, having turned in late, with the generator off, I just laid there in the dark awake.
Which was when the story below started playing out in my head – totally from scratch – don’t take that to mean it’s any good – I am just saying it as it was 🙂 I think the initial draft took maybe less than an hour – with me typing feverishly on my BB in the dark 🙂
For the real writers, check out people such as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Sefi Atta, etc.
One thing you may notice quickly is these people’s command of the English language – I couldn’t speak English to save my life (OK, I exaggerate :-)!

Well, if a few people think it’s passable, I may just submit it next year (God willing, we are all still alive, and JC hasn’t yet returned)

Title: The Great Bird

The elders tell of a time, recorded only in the oral history of our people, long before the coming of the Whiteman. A time of wide grasslands and lush virgin valleys; a time of abundance; a time of peace.
The same elders tell of a great bird which dwelt deep within a forbidden forest, which if found and caught, brought great wealth, beyond imagining. In fact, it is said, that one of the ancestors of the current village chief caught such a bird, and his line has always been great and rich ever since.
The same elders tell of an evil forest, filled with fearsome giants with stone clubs the size of grown men; little wicked spirits who tear babes from women’s breasts and grind them in little wooden bowls to make foul gruels.
Myself, I think they had partaken too much of the sap of the tree of forgetfulness.
* * * * * * * * * *
The elders say that poverty is a play best watched from afar; a dish best served to strangers of indeterminate linage. I grew up in a time of deep, desperate lack. When hunger drove men to strange things, and the tales of plenty told by toothless old men sounded like that garden of heaven from the Whiteman’s religion.
There were few times I could remember truly sleeping on a full belly. The forests no longer had big games; the rivers gave up fish so small only the finest net could catch.
The jobs were faraway in the cities. And stories of slavery and despair by the few who have made the journey and came back. Yet, some of those tell fantastic stories of great houses built of stone that had 10 floors one on top of the other, that the man on the 10th floor descended and ascended by rope. The village chief’s house had only one floor. It was said the Whiteman built it long ago. But the floor was wooden, and the termites unwavering: no one goes up there now, except young boys who knew no better than to risk broken necks on an afternoon jaunt.
* * * * * * *
Very few practiced the Whiteman’s religion. Even fewer practiced the other religion brought back long ago by traders who had ventured north to a land said to be ruled by white men, who nevertheless did not practice the religion. This led to much confusion. Our deities were many, but ultimately accept the same things: a goat for prosperity; a cow to ward off ancestral evil spirits. Other little  things such as chicken, dogs and bush rat and oil to wash it all down. If both these religion came from the place of the Whiteman, why were they so different? When they both claim to worship one god? The village’s chief priests and herbalist claim our suffering came from allowing these strange religions in our midst.
I do not know, for the practitioners often share what little they themselves have to eat with complete strangers: they can’t be as evil as the medicine men would have us believe. No matter, the village chief has decreed they must not be touched (there is a rumor that he worships one of these gods in secret)
* * * * * * * * * * * ** * * * * ** * * * * ** * * * * ** * * * * *
In a village like mine, your friends are your peers and growing up, you form even smaller bands that are terrors to the women and children. And so it was that I grew being fast friends with 5 of my peers.
We had nothing to discuss except food and riches during the long hot afternoons once the seasonal harvest is done. I do not remember who brought up the story of the great bird first. But soon amidst jeers, taunts and dares, with secret fears and bold faces, we soon decided to go in search of this bird, if indeed it exists. Dreams of riches and young nubile women whose fathers would beg to foster on us helped reinforce our otherwise wavering decision. With a bush rat in hand, we approached the village madman who it is claimed sees visions and speaks to the ancestors, for no one else knows the place of the great bird.
Snatching the rat, he staggered back and forth, and then sat on the ground mumbling to himself. After about an hour, we were ready to depart, thinking of the rat we could have eaten ourselves but instead gave to the madman. That was when he spoke: “you must leave the village facing east. Your journey will be long. When you think you have gone far enough, then you have just started.”
He wouldn’t answer any more questions, and as we made our way towards the village center, almost out of earshot, he added: “I see twelve young bucks drinking from a sparkling pool. No, half are reflections. But only half made it from the water’s edge”
Not sure if he was addressing us or himself, we made up our mind, that if indeed we come across those young bucks, at least one will not get away from us.
* * * * * * * * * * * ** * * * * ** * * * * ** * * * * ** * * * * *
There was little preparation to be made. And with the harvest done, parents were glad to be rid of troublesome youths. All we said, was we were going on a great hunting journey and none was to expect us back for several days.
As the madman said, we made our way due east of the village. The vegetation changed a little but we saw nothing of the forbidden forest of the village tales.
But hunger soon became our travelling companion. We feasted on what little roots we found and small animals we caught while keeping a lookout for the young bucks mentioned by the madman. Indeed he must have been mad, no animals bigger than grass-cutters have been seen in ages and even reports of wild pigs have never been confirmed. Nevertheless, we chose our camps carefully and ensured there was always a look out.
Nothing out of the ordinary happened for the first several days, and then misfortune descended rapidly like a mid-summer shower.
We came to a slightly denser forest where we soon spied a burrow by the foot of a small hill. There were some marks at the entrance that were still fresh. We decided whatever was inside couldn’t be very big, and the marks meant it wasn’t a snake either. As we had no easy means of making a fire at hand to smoke out the burrow’s occupants, we cast lots to see who would crawl into the burrow.
Soon the other five were position in such a way that if the sixth, who crawled on his chest, head-first should back out in a hurry, we would be able to kill any animals that follow him out. For several minutes, he made careful progress while we waited in expectant silence. Then suddenly, with what remained of his legs outside the borrow thrashing violently and an unearthly scream shattering the stillness of the afternoon, I am ashamed to say, that the other five took to the winds. Realizing what we had done, we made it back as carefully and as quickly as we could. We barely saw the hind part of what must have been a wild boar recede into the undergrowth. On the ground in front of the burrow laid our friend, and his injuries showed the ancestors were beckoning to him already. He tried to talk, but nothing we could make sense of. Soon, he was at peace. We laid him to rest the best we could. The grave was shallow as we had no tools to dig with, but we piled stones on top to prevent forest animals from getting at him.
We continued the journey, speaking little, for the death of our friend and our shameful behavior weighed heavily upon us.
A few nights later, we made camp near a river. We huddled together around a small fire, retelling some of the stories from our youth to encourage ourselves. Soon, one of our little group wanted to relieve himself. Stepping back away from the fire a little into the bush so that the rest of us do not partake in the abundance of odours emanating from him, he continued to contribute to the discussion. Suddenly, there was a loud thump as if a massive rock had fallen from a great height. Then there was rustling in the grass and it all came from the direction where our friend had been on his haunches. Building up the fire as quickly as possible, while some rushed towards the bush with burning sticks from the fire, there was nothing to be found. We searched for several hours in the dark, calling out his name while fearful of our own safety. None of us could sleep that night, and in the morning, we found an impression in the grass and some shed skin of what must have been a great snake.
That day, we slept fitfully and thanked the gods the snake did not come back as none of us was awake enough to stand as a lookout. We debated going back, but remembered the madman’s words, thinking we must be at the point where we think we have gone far enough, then must continue. The terrain seems to be rising gradually and we were soon gradually skirting the side of a great mountain: going round it would have taken several days and who knew what we will find on the other side? The ground was fairly stable and the going steady. We spoke little so as to concentrate on the task at hand. But that didn’t help the person at the front of the line, for he stepped on what appeared to be shrubbery, but which hid a gap in the path and sent him tumbling down the side of the mountain. There was nothing we could do for the fellow. We peered down the side of the mountain and saw his broken and twisted form far below: it was evident he was no longer with us. We made camp at the place and remembered our three friends in the ways of our forefathers. It was impossible to sleep, lest we join our fallen friend. In the morning, we were careful not to look down as we proceeded, for he was now to be remembered in stories and dreams.
It was just as well we did not attempt to go round the mountain, for on getting to the top, we found the land was at the same level with other hills as far as we could see.

* * * * * * * * * * * ** * * * * ** * * * * ** * * * * ** * * * * *
The hills were full of caves and we wandered from one to the other. It was obvious that no living thing of any considerable size had been on those hills in a long time. But in one such cave, where there was nothing but dry bones on the floor, was a strange spectacle on the wall. There in the picture, was one of my people, kneeling down, presenting a great bird to a man painted white like our warriors. But he was different, for on his head sat a strange looking cap, and in his hand was the stick from heaven that thunders and sent men to meet their ancestors. This must have been before the “great war”, for no Whiteman has set foot in our lands since the time before the old men were little babes on their mothers backs. The Whiteman (for surely, he must be) gave many strange things back to the man of my people in the picture on the wall.
Some of the bones on the floor looked like it belonged to hens as big as the little men spoken of by the elders, but what do we do with them? Besides, we still had the journey back to make on empty angry stomachs.
We left that place in sorrow and des pair, but with care made it back to the village with little incidence.
The three of our original party of six made a pact at the village entrance, beneath the great grandfather tree: nothing was to be said of what we found, except that wild animals ate our friends.
* * * * * * * * * * * ** * * * * ** * * * * ** * * * * ** * * * * *
Many years have passed. I am an old man now, with missing teeth and a walking stick, just like those old men of my youth. We eat a little better now. They say the Whiteman has brought great knowledge on how to grow food in abundance. I do not know if this is true: I haven’t seen the abundant food, and I haven’t seen the Whiteman. But my great grandson who lives in the city and comes to visit once every year assures me that it is so. He is small but knowledgeable beyond his years, and shows me pictures in what he calls books, so maybe I should believe him. The last time he came, he brought one such book filled with pictures of many strange animals. He said most of them live in distant lands and that some cannot be found again. He showed me one picture that has been on my mind these past moons. It was of a great bird in lush grasslands. It brought back memories I have long forgotten, of a time of strength, youth and friendship; of six young men, of whom I am the last that will soon make the great journey. The last thing he said was that men hunted the birds and ate it and its big eggs until it could no longer be found anymore. I asked if it brought great riches to those men. He said he thought not, for they were men that lived as I have often told in my stories, and there were none of those strange machines (he calls them) that carry people around the cities now and make little children run screaming to their mothers and even elders of my years step slightly back when once in a while they pay august visits to our village.
“What does the Whiteman call the great bird?” I asked.
“Dodo”

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3 Responses to The Great Bird

  1. Yetunde Fash says:

    waow! waow! you should have been a professional/occupational writer. This is good. I lost all sense of time as I read. I followed those young boys on their adventure and I shared their feelings. Now I am back from my journey and I realise, late for my Monday morning activities. thanks. Please keep ’em coming. And enter this for a competition. 🙂

  2. Annie Ab says:

    I really enjoyed the story.You must enter it.Great job!

  3. Mofolusade says:

    “The elders say that poverty is a play best watched from afar; a dish best served to strangers of indeterminate linage.” I like this quote, its true still. You nailed it, you should clean it up and submit still!

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