“S’bongo!” I hear my mother’s voice ring clear and loud across our homestead. I look up. There in the sky are the unmistakable brown and purple feathers of the Jago bird. Its massive wingspan blots out the sun and its black shadow twin chases me as I start running toward my mother. She motions for me to get inside—not that inside our mud-and-stick home is much safer than outside—yet it’s all we have. We huddle together underneath our window and wait, still and quiet.
The Jago bird is one of the most ruthless, destructive creatures in our region of southern Africa. Its wingspan is the biggest any in our village have seen. Bigger than the tallest of the men. Its cry has the ability to send a surge of cold through our bodies, even in the heat of summer. It has attacked our livestock, eaten our crops, and even attacked adults and children. We have reason to be frightened. Whenever the bird comes around we hide. It has become our first instinct. Some of the old people say the bird is a curse on our people. That we have upset the gods, that when the bird is seen a time of trials and suffering will begin.
When we are sure it is safe, we slowly walk out of our hut. It is a simple home, one round room with a thatched roof and no door. We are very poor but it is home to me, my little sister, Nkugle, and my mother, Boniswa, whom everyone calls Bon. I don’t remember my father. He died when I was three.
Days later, I collect my water jug and head off into the dense forest surrounding our village. My shoeless, calloused feet have traveled this dirt path many times. I have to go collect water for my family before dark. If I stay out later I risk getting bitten by a snake or losing my way home. Getting to the river takes about forty minutes. The return takes much longer. I’m still slower than my mother, but she can’t collect water as she looks for work in town.
As I walk I hear a screech. I know that screech. My body immediately reacts, sweat is replaced by chills like a winter gust. I realize I need to hide. Dropping the jug, I scamper up a nearby broom tree and hunch down. At the top of the tree I look down. The bird is pecking at my water jug. I wish I could scream at him—tell him to leave. But I can’t, I have never been able to speak—speak a word, sing a note, or even laugh.
Not being able to speak can be very frustrating. Not many understand me. My mother has always understood me though. Since I was little, I was able to draw with sticks in the dirt. When drawing in the dirt was no longer sufficient, she bought me a set of pencils, a small notebook, and one rubber eraser. I don’t know where the money came from. That notebook and pencils are my greatest treasures.
The tree is rocking violently now. Looking down, the bird is gone. Looking up, there he is. My grip on the limb loosens and I don’t remember anything until I wake with a sharp pain from a scrape on my knee. My head rests on a pile of leaves near the tree. I can’t see the sun anymore. As fast as I can, I gather my empty jug and limp home.
When I arrive, my mother takes one look at my knee and rushes inside to get moss to soak up any remaining blood. Once my wound is clean, I draw her a picture. It’s of an ant and an angry Jago bird. “Oh, S’bongo!” Mother shakes her head and pulls me next to her. We both soon drift to sleep.
The next morning when I wake my mother has already left to collect water. When she returns she is clearly weakened by the effort. She lies down on her mat and falls asleep immediately. It’s a bad sign, as she hardly ever takes breaks from work. I hope tomorrow I have the strength to collect the water.
The next morning, however, it is clear no one is collecting water today. My knee is puffy and sore, and the cut oozes. My leg cannot support me. My mother is ill and it is painful for her to breathe. When I try to give her hot pap that morning, she winces. The trip to the healer takes three days time, and she will want some form of payment. We cannot afford that. I hold my mother’s hand and rub her face, comforting her with my eyes.
The next day I go to the next homestead and motion for my best friend’s mother to please watch over my mother and sister as I go to collect water. This trip is less eventful. I return as children are coming home from school. The children stop laughing and joking as I pass. I hear them murmur “curse” under their breath, and they move away from me. My best friend smiles at me, but it is a timid smile—even she thinks I may be cursed.
Then the screaming erupts. Everyone runs toward their homestead. My mother lies there, unable to move toward me and my sister under the window. We keep a watchful eye on her. My mother’s eyes look frightened. This time the bird’s visit is short. Soon I walk back outside. As I emerge I notice green herbs scattered around the front of our homestead. Did the healer come as I so wished she would?
I bring the herbs back into our homestead and show them to my mother for approval. They pass the test. I grind them in a small wooden bowl with a spoon. They give off a small amount of juice. I mix the juice with a small amount of water and pour it into a cup. My mother drinks and we all hope for the best.
Over the next few days my mother recovers. One morning I awake to find fingers quickly twining through my hair, making a small tight braid that only an expert could make. This is a good omen.
When my mother is fully recovered it is time to celebrate. I sneak out to a small clean water spring up high on a mountain in a small cave hidden by ivy. I only go to this spring when it is time for a celebration. The trip is long and tiring. When I reach the top I quickly fill my jug. Turning to return home I notice something out of the ordinary. It’s purple and brown, long and slender. It is lying almost over the edge of the steep cliff. A slight breeze would make it fall. I don’t know why I feel like I should take the risk of falling but I must get the feather.
As I reach for the feather, a breeze whisks it away. It dances on the wind and lands on the next cliff just below me. I take a deep breath and reach down my hand. I almost have it when it happens. I lose my balance and tumble head first down the hill. I bump my head and the world begins to spin and eventually goes black.
I awake at the bottom of the hill, amazed at still being alive. I still have a firm grasp on the feather. A new one lies beside me. I head back to my small village and my mother.
When I get home she wants to know where I got the two feathers. I begin drawing a small picture of me falling down the mountain. I continue my small sequence of pictures by adding a shadow that I saw before I fell. I am not sure who or what the shadow belonged to but a thought I cannot ignore floats around in my mind.
Screaming erupts again and I scramble out quickly. I climb nimbly up to the roof of our hut. My stomach churns as I prepare for what I am about to do. I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and leap! I feel scared and giddy at the same time. I hear a rush of wind and brace myself for the impact on the ground. I feel an impact but it is not a hard earthy one. It is soft and feathery. We soar!
I open my eyes and see underneath me brown and purple feathers. I open my mouth in surprise and a feather shoots toward the back of my mouth. I pull it out gagging, coughing. I know I am sick or so I think. I groan and it startles me. I don’t groan. That is not possible for me to groan. I try to speak and for the first time in my life a noise that is as close to speaking as I have ever been able to make comes out.
With powerful, rhythmic beating wings the bird and I make quick time to the mountain. We land on a ledge outside a cavern not visible from below. Inside there is a huge Jago bird with fierce eyes. I am terrified and cannot move. My eyes scan the cave for an escape or at least a place to hide. Before I can move, the bird stands, revealing a nest and five small birds. They rise up, opening their beaks, pleading silently for food. Why aren’t they making any noise? I look at the bird that carried me here, our eyes meet, and I understand.
The giant bird moves to the ledge, opens its enormous wings, and looks back at me, expectantly. I move toward him, grasp his neck, and we take off—all of Africa spread out, like a giant patchwork quilt, below.