by Richard Rupnarain
Guyana Journal, February 2006
For the residents of Versailles Estate, a small sugar plantation on the West Bank of the Demerara River, the sounds of roosters crowing, dogs yapping and the milkman calling out for his customers were familiar noises. The recognizable dissonance often announced the arrival and start of another workday long before the rays of the sun would peek through the mangrove bushes and coconut palms along the banks of the river. And Hafeez Khan, the energetic nine-year old son of a Muslim priest, like all the children in the neighborhood, had those different types of sounds programmed into his cranium. Most discernible of all the sounds was the reliable and punctual call of the milkman.
Uncle Milkman, as he was fondly known, owned a Jersey stud bull and four Holstein cows from which he made his living. A short, stocky and humpbacked man whose age was hard to determine, mainly because his face was almost completely covered with hair, never missed his round, rain or shine. In the absence of reliable clocks in many homes he became the tacit rouser of families. Give or take ten minutes he was always at the bottom of the stairs shouting, Milkman here! He said nothing else and in some mysterious way did his job without once looking into the eyes of his customers. After methodically measuring each persons order in one of his aluminum cans, he poured it into their container, collected his money and left for another customer. Most of the residents believe that his reticence arose from the fact that he stuttered terribly and was afraid of being laughed at, especially by insensitive children and ignorant housewives. Others explained that his Creole language skills were very poor and that unless someone spoke to him in Hindi he was likely not to answer them. In any event the villagers liked the old man and he had become a fixture in their daily lives. For boys like Hafeez, Uncle Milkman was to be credited for him being able to take the sheep out to pasture, feed the chickens and still make it to school on time.
So it was to the boys great surprise when on a Friday morning in May the first sound he heard was not that of Uncle Milkman but the discord of a flock of agitated birds chirping just outside of his bedroom window. The sun had not yet broken the skies and the thick, damp morning mist, the portent of another sweltering day, was already accumulating and running off window sills and zinc sheet roofing as if there had been a recent rainstorm. He jumped out of his bed and hurriedly opened the window to peek at the cause of the commotion. For a boy who had seen more than his share of mysteries he was still alarmed at what he saw in the dense fog about twenty yards away from his bedroom window. There must have been over a thousand birds. Kiskadees! The eight-inch long birds, with brown backs and upper parts, yellow breasts and white throats and heads wrapped with virtual white bands, were all perched on the wallaba posts that formed the fence between his home and that of his west side neighbor. These birds, superabundant in coastland villages, and always flying in groups, were among the best known of local species. Unfortunately they were not very well liked. The predators had a sweet beak for fruits and pecked at everything at their disposal, destroying orchards in their wake and depriving many of the residents a means of supplemental income. For another, they were valueless to trappers and hobbyists, as they were awful whistlers that seemed able only to sound out their names, kis-kis-kis-kadee, with annoying frequency. That morning the disharmonic chorus of a thousand loud, annoying, harsh and off-keyed notes was enough to cause even deaf Beethoven to turn in his grave.
Hafeez peered into the tall grass surrounding the fence but still could not tell the reason for the convocation. If there was a cat or snake or something dangerous the birds would have fled ever since but they remained put, chirping, flitting about, definitely concerned about something or interested in something. Perhaps they had located a new source of food. Besides fruit they were known to scavenge almost anything, from lizards to insects to scraps of fish, insects, palm and pepper seeds. What was it? The suspense was too much for him and without putting on a shirt he braved the crisp morning air and dashed out of the house, quietly, through the back door so as not to startle the birds, or his parents who were still not fully roused from sleep, and he took a vantage behind the nearby sheep pen.
But he still could not see anything from behind the pen; so he climbed up on the cold, damp and rusty roof of the pen for a panoramic view of the proceedings and from that elevation he was able to see the reason for the gathering. A baby kiskadee, not more than three inches in length from head to tail, appeared to be in trouble. The chick looked pale and sickly. Its feathers were disheveled as though it had fallen into a barrel of oil, its eyes were droopy as if it wanted to sleep, and it kept moving like a pendulum, backward unto its tail and then forward onto its beak. He crept closer and then jerked backwards in shock when he noticed that the birds were taking turns at pecking away at the chick. They must have sensed it was dying and were moving in for the kill, he reasoned, not knowing if the predators had cannibalistic tendencies. At that moment he felt sorry for the little chick and pondered his next action, all the while looking intently at the birds fluttering over her and settling at her feet. But as he moved closer to the action he realized that the birds were not pecking at the chick but at the grayish gum that held her feet fast to the wallaba post.
Someone, most likely Razack Alli, a supercilious classmate of his who lived down the street from him, and whose sole purpose in life was to catch and sell birds, must have set gum on the post to catch towa-towas and bastards. These popular cage birds were always in demand because of their small size and amazing whistling skills. On any given day cane-cutters, factory workers and even the occasional truck driver could be seen heading to and from work with their bird cages, in hand or on bicycle handles, and invariably the occupant was a towa-towa or bastard. In the absence of pocket radios these birds provided welcome music for the commute to work and the best whistlers were often the envy of other owners.
In fact, many of the workers, especially the Chinese, used these birds to supplement their income. These men would spend hundreds of painstaking hours in training the birds how and when to whistle. They did this either by placing a veteran whistler in a cage next to a novice and have the veteran call the other bird, or by teaching the bird themselves. Soon the novice responded and echoed everything it heard from its teacher. When the men were satisfied that their birds were ready for competition they would arrange challenges with other owners. These special competition birds were often kept in cages draped with a black cloth to keep them from prying eyes. Bets were either placed for the most number of whistles per minute or for the bird that will be the first to whistle. The winner earned as much as twenty dollars, a large sum in those days.
Razack had become a major supplier to the bird exporters as well as to local hobbyists and gamblers. He once told Hafeez that he made ten dollars for each bird he sold to the exporters and that last year alone he caught and sold one hundred and thirteen towa-towas to a white man at Pouderoyen who ships birds to England where they were sold in pet stores. When Hafeez computed how much money Razack made he contemplated seriously the notion of quitting school and entering the trade. But when he heard that more than half the birds caught died during shipment and that the species was rapidly being depleted he felt differently, rather the opposite, and that was to try and stop the trade. But he knew it was going to be an uphill battle. Men like Razack had become so sugared with easy money that they would do anything to keep the means of their livelihood both intact and exclusive. In fact Razack had become remorseless both in the development of his trade and in the protection of his market. It was not uncommon to hear other trappers accusing him for stealing their birds or for removing the gum from their traps. It was equally well known that he jumped fences into neighbors yards at night, cut notches into their catahar trees and bled them for the milk from which he made gum, the same sticky substance hunters used to snare parrots and catch wild ducks. And if ever a bird that was not a towa-towa or bastard landed on the gum he would grab the bird by its neck, rip it off the gum and toss it into the bushes like a dirty rag, all the while swearing profusely at the bird for wasting his precious gum. The local police had more than once threatened him with imprisonment but he ignored the threats and continued to break into chicken farms and steal mesh from chicken pens which he used to make elaborate bird cages. He even tried his hand, or rather his lips, at training birds to whistle since for a trained whistler he could garner as much as twenty dollars whereas it was difficult to obtain more than fifteen dollars for the novice bird. But it was time-consuming work and he soon yielded that aspect of the trade to the veteran trainers.
So Hafeez knew that if the snared chick were to have a chance at life he would have to act quickly before Razack came to check his traps, which he often did long before Uncle Milkman arrived on the scene and before the village became noisy and distracting to the birds. But it seemed that he was not the only one who feared Razack. The kiskadees, pecking frantically at the gum, also seemed to have sensed that unless they freed the chick soon it would be over forever for the youngster. The gum had stuck to the chicks wings and feet and had rendered it helpless and unable to move. When the rescuers pecked at the gum on the wings and feet it appeared as though they were vultures attacking carcass. But they were like surgeons, precise in their work, changing shifts when exhausted, and never once endangering the life of the patient. Despite precious seconds ticking away Hafeez decided to wait a little, his head spinning continuous half circles on the lookout for Razack, and then to the birds to gauge their progress.
Just then a second danger entered the equation. The neighbors cat, Poose, as he was known, with his enviable shiny jet-black coat and mesmerizing green eyes, appeared on the scene, quietly, treading grass without hardly rustling a blade, stopping, starting, and then crouching in the grass, listening and watching intently, his ears up and twitching like antennae, as though he was a general trying to determine points of weakness in an enemy formation.
Poose was a cat with a wicked sense of humor. Being well fed and cared for, as could be seen from his fully developed physique and immaculate coat, he had no reason to chase after mouse and birds, like the underprivileged cats in the neighborhood. He preferred to use these cat staples as toys instead of fare. The problem, and the one Hafeez most feared, was that Poose was not a very good sport. He always destroyed his toys when he became bored with them. Once he toyed with a mouse for hours until the mouse committed suicide. The poor mouse was trying to cross the kitchen floor just when Poose was relaxing and bathing under a shaft of sunlight that had filtered into room. It is hard to say why the mouse chose to cross the ten-foot wide kitchen at exactly the point where Poose lay sunbathing when it could have taken a safer route along the corners. Perhaps he was the one chosen by his comrades to bell the cat. Well, Poose was having none of it. When the mouse was in proximity Poose reached out his heavy right paw, lazily, rested it on its head, closed his eyes and went back to sleep. The mouse struggled to be free and Poose, other than opening his eyes periodically to ensure his prisoner had not escaped, continued to enjoy his siesta. But not wanting to be known as a bad warden he allowed the mouse to leave eventually, though just for a few seconds, perhaps to stretch and have a bathroom break, and then with a yawn and a bored look he rolled over and pawed the mouse again. Two hours later, when he finally decided he was jaded with his prisoner and did not want to play any more he released the mouse altogether, without parole, and the mouse, by this time weak and without the will to live, chose not to leave its prison. It refused the pardon and Poose had no alternative but to take it out of its misery. Poose was a firm believer in catital punishment and with one bite on the neck of the wretched mouse he meted out justice for violating his walk space.
His modus operandi with birds was much the same. While other malnourished cats chased after birds for sustenance, he was simply into it for fun, to test his tree-climbing skills, his agility and his prowess as a hunter. And though he was in it for fun and exercise, a game of cat versus bird, with no desire to harm the birds, unfortunately most of his playing partners were killed in the process. Poose did not understand that birds were a fraction of his size, that they were fragile, and that if he playfully bit them on the neck they were likely to lose their heads. Even when a stricken bird lay writhing on the ground he would sit on his haunches and watch, with indifference that bordered on annoyance, as if to say if you did not want to play why did you come in the first place. When Hafeez saw the spoiled cat crouching in the grass and easing closer to the birds, immediately his mind became inundated with the long list of bird obituaries, all unwitting victims of Poose-play, and he became overwhelmed with anxiety for the safety of the trapped chick. The way he saw it, one way or the other, between Razack and Poose, the chicks life was in double jeopardy and unless he acted swiftly the bird cemetery engraver will begin work on its tombstone.
He jumped off his perch, shooed Poose away, and just when he decided to step forward to rescue the chick it fluttered about three inches off the post and landed again, not on the gum this time but on a clean piece of the post. It appeared that it was famished and did not have the energy to get airborne. Nevertheless, the birds appeared deliriously happy, flitting excitedly, touching beaks and wings, as though they were congratulating each other for a job well done. They even seemed to sense that junior was weakened for its efforts to free itself and that they should wait until she regained her strength. And so they settled down on the posts beside her and waited for her to recuperate, fully aware of the presence of Poose lurking in the grass, but more concerned about the safety of their progeny. Five anxious minutes later the liberated chick was ready for a second attempt at a take off. She rocked back and forth, somewhat shaky on the post, her wings flapping but unsteadily, and then she took off, straight for the skies, the others following her like armies behind their returning conqueror. But perhaps the excitement of freedom from the jaws of certain death had made the chick too ambitious. Already drained of energy she had little fuel in her tank and within seconds of her bold ascent she stalled, and like an aircraft that had lost its wings she plummeted headlong into deep brushes less than a hundred yards away. The pack, evidently realizing something was wrong swooped after her into the brushes, and once again the noise began, even louder than it was when she was stuck on the wallaba post.
Hafeez ran up to the platform above the front stairs of his house and strained his eyes to see what had happened but could not see anything obstructed by the thorny bushes and guava trees that separated the house from the site. So he crept slowly, quietly, like a cheetah stalking an antelope in the African safari, until he found a clearing that gave him a view of the scene. What he saw astonished him even more than when he woke up and saw the flock of kiskadees outside his house. The little chick was on the ground, on its back, its tiny webbed feet up in the air, motionless. There was no sign of life. His heart melted for the sadness that overcame him, but only for a moment, as the chick opened its beak as if to say it was hungry. It was still alive and he noticed that the other birds immediately began to gobble up water from a puddle and drop it into its little mouth, their beaks serving as syringes. Beak to beak resuscitation, he thought. This they took turns in doing and within minutes the chick began to move its tiny webbed feet.
It was almost coming on to an hour since the noise woke him up and soon he would have to attend to the sheep. He prayed that he might be able to see the outcome of the matter before his mother called out for him to begin his chores. But the minutes ticked by, and just when he was about to leave the noise intensified and his heart stopped. Did the bird die?
On the contrary the bird was nurtured back to health and he breathed a sigh of relief when he saw, for the final time, the little chick rolling unto its feet and then rising up out of the bushes, like the proverbial Phoenix, with life anew, and soaring into the blue skies above. The flock pursued it, like a parent behind a child learning to ride a bicycle, and within minutes they disappeared from sight. He watched the empty skies as though he was hypnotized by it all and then he returned home, relieved and happy as one who had just witnessed a successful rescue operation. Just as he arrived home and opened the sheep pen, his mother and father emerged at the back door.
Hafeez, oh, here you are. Where were you?
Oh, I was just watching the birds, he replied and then he told them the story of the rescued bird. After a brief silence he said, They were so many of them! And they endangered their lives for that little bird. Why do you think they were so interested in that one little bird, pa?
"That's what community is all about, son, his father replied, they cared for each other because every one is important and everyone, young and old, strong and weak, bird or human, deserves a chance at life, despite the cost.
His mother walked up to him and sensing that he was cold she wrapped her arms around his chest and hugged him. And thats what love is all about, son!" she added, Thats what love is all about!
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