(This story by Thando Mgqolozana, published in the 13 December 2015 Sunday Times, first appeared on the walls of Azania House, also known as UCT’s Avenue Hall, as “Dear Sana lwam – continued.”)
* * *
Dear Sana lwam,
I received your letter.
One day, not too long from now I hope, when you have a daughter of your own, you will understand what I mean when I say this letter was an experience so deep I can’t find words to describe it, and baby I’m not talking only about your impressive writing.
Some parts left me shaken. Tell me, baby, when you say you “offed the VC”, do you mean you killed the man? Am I reading this correctly? I’ll be hoping for further explanation in your next letter, for now I will assume you children have gone and slayed the Vice Commissioner. I can’t say I approve of killings, not of other people at any rate, but I’ve thought enough about this and as a way of reply let me tell you a story you may remember from when you were little. Please share it with your comrades at Azania House.
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It was a late summer’s afternoon, in the Year of the Feather, when all birds still lived in Dushe, a palace in the forest. Mrs Hen had gathered her chicks underneath her wings. The hatchlings were only two days old and Mrs Hen was as protective of them as any mother would be over her new offspring. She was sitting outside the entrance of the royal closet waiting for Mr Falcon, the king, to return from patrol duty. Mr Falcon’s routine involved an unhurried flight around Dushe, inspecting all corners of the palace with his sharp eye, and on returning he would lock himself up in the royal closet.
Mrs Hen was entrusted with the key to the royal closet. At all times she could be seen with the golden key hanging on her neck on a piece of string, waiting for Mr Falcon.
In those days birds were distinguished by their feathers; it was believed that the colour, shape, and texture of the feather revealed the character of a bird in a way that nothing else could. Mrs Hen’s feather, according to the final verdict of the Royal Counsel, suggested she was of the most protective bird species in all of Dushe, so the decision to entrust her with the key to the royal closet was not a difficult one to make.
The closet was where His Majesty, Mr Falcon, kept his jewellery collection and portraits of himself that were crafted by the weaver birds on a regular basis, or when one was commissioned by the Royal Counsel, or whenever the weavers were not busy plaiting banners for the Dushe Talent Festival. Unlike his predecessors, who only went into the royal closet when they were showing visitors around, His Majesty went in and viewed the portraits and jewellery for lengths of time, every afternoon. Some birds said – behind his back, of course – that His Majesty was affected excessively with hubris, others said indeed Mr Falcon’s only talent was looking at portraits of himself, and yet others believed he visited the closet in order to meditate – a very royal thing to do.
On this afternoon, Mrs Hen fell asleep while waiting for Mr Falcon. When he arrived, eventually, he saw that her head was tucked underneath her wing and she was snoring. A chick was napping on Mrs Hen’s fluffy back. Instead of waking her Mr Falcon used his beak, carefully, to unhook the key from Mrs Hen’s neck, but before he knew it he was pressed to the ground, struggling to breathe. Mrs Hen had one foot on his neck and another on his belly. She was shouting, imploring the chicks to run to safety. The chicks scattered to all directions. It was some moments before Mrs Hen realised she had mistaken the king for a dangerous beast. She jumped off and cried, “Forgive me, forgive me Your Majesty.”
Mr Falcon got up and was dusting himself, still feeling giddy, while Mrs Hen held her wings akimbo as a sign of peace, saying, “Oh Mr Falcon, Sir. Forgive me. I fell asleep while waiting. I thought you were one of these… dangerous beasts that eat chicks.”
The king looked around to see if any of his subjects were watching but there were only Mrs Hen’s confused chicks, now chirping hauntingly and running back to Mrs Hen’s embrace.
Mr Falcon said, “Just give me the key.”
“Your Majesty,” she said, bowing remorsefully, and handed over the key to Mr Falcon. “I am very, very sorry, Sir.”
Mr Falcon looked at Mrs Hen as though wondering what sort of devious bird she was, and then he flashed that unnatural kingly smile at her, turned around and went into the closet.
Mrs Hen was so nervous she couldn’t fall asleep that night until dawn. She made a promise to herself that she would never take a nap again while on duty, no matter how tired she was. It was the honour of all chickens at stake; if she made another mistake she was sure no bird in Dushe would trust a chicken again, and in those days trust was everything to birds.
There was a new vigilance about Mrs Hen the following morning. She fastened the golden key around her neck, waved and greeted other birds by their names, to demonstrate to them and to herself that she was alert.
* * *
In the afternoon Mr Falcon came back and found all the birds gathered outside the closet, their heads hanging low as though bereaved.. Upon enquiry, Mr Falcon was told that the bird who kept his keys had lost them. The birds had been looking everywhere and there was no sign of the keys anywhere.
Mr Falcon said, “I thought someone had died – but this is worse.”
“Indeed, Your Majesty,” said Mr Vulture, his uncle, shaking his balding head in resignation. “But that’s what you get for trusting a chicken.”
“Are you saying something, old man?” asked Mr Falcon.
“Don’t mind me, Your Majesty. I’m just an old, miserable man.”
Mr Falcon shifted his attention to the other birds and said, “When did this birdy lose my key?”
“She doesn’t know, Mister Yourmajesty,” said the hummingbird, shaking with nervousness.
“Where is she now… what’s her name?”
“You mean Mrs Hen, Mister Yourmajesty?”
“Where is she? Hen, where are you?”
No bird answered but they all turned to look where Mrs Hen was desperately scratching the ground with her feet, searching for the lost key. She was surrounded by her chicks and they were helping her, using their beaks that were not yet firm.
When His Majesty saw Mrs Hen he took off and with great viciousness clawed at and flew away with Mrs Hen’s baby chick. All Mrs Hen could say when she realised what had happened was, “Usana lwam, Thixo!” What she didn’t know was that Mr Falcon would do it again the following day, and the day after, until her entire brood had been clawed away and eaten. He’d wait on a treetop, watch Mrs Hen as she was scratching the ground and then descend unexpectedly. Every time it happened she wished she could fly, to rescue her chicks from Mr Falcon, but flying was not one of her talents.
The other birds were dejected and overwhelmed. The freedom of Dushe from the early days was replaced by fear. According to the Birds’ Charter, no bird could prey on another or another’s produce; but the king’s behaviour towards Mrs Hen ushered in a new era, one in which uncertainty was the order of the day.
* * *
Mrs Hen continued to search for the lost key. Her desperation was aggravated by the demise of each chick. She thought if she found the key Mr Falcon might forgive her, the chickens might stop blaming her for putting the entire species into disrepute, the other birds might stop seeing her as a foolish bird, and slowly but surely everything would return to normal. But one morning, a few days later, Mrs Hen and all chickens were banished from Dushe. That morning the other birds sat on treetops and watched the sorrowful exodus of the chickens from the palace into the wilderness.
On the way, in the distance ahead, the chickens saw figures that looked like giant birds. They thought those must be Mr Falcon’s secret army. They changed direction a number of times in order to avoid an encounter, but every time they emerged the giant birds miraculously appeared in front of them. They kept running and wished they could fly, but out of sheer fatigue they stopped and waited in resignation for the strange birds to catch up with them.
The big one, almost as big as a horse, endowed with a neck as long as a giraffe, introduced herself as Mrs Ostrich; and the short one, with a hideous horn atop her head, said she was Mrs Guinea Fowl-Whistler or some such thing, and together they were the first Dushe rejects. Their crime, they were told, was that they were flightless birds, therefore couldn’t be regarded as birds at all and had to leave. But it turned out Mr Falcon had banished them in order to prey on their hatchlings away from the sight of the other birds. They now lived as nomads, moving from one place to another to confuse the enemy. But the chickens didn’t know whether to believe them or not, and travelled on.
* * *
When they arrived at a pebbly cave on a plateau, very far from where they’d come, the chickens settled and named it Kude-le. The following morning, their first morning in Kude-le, when everybody woke up, Mrs Hen was already outside, frantically scratching the ground like she had in Dushe. She didn’t speak when spoken to, she just scratched and scratched and didn’t stop even when her feet started bleeding. Part of her soul had gone with her late chicks.
Meanwhile, after the sad departure of the chickens from Dushe, Mr Falcon was seen entering the royal closet in the usual way, using a golden key, but no bird knew where he’d found it, or if there was a new one, or whether in fact the original key was lost in the first instance.
* * *
The words of Mrs Ostrich and Mrs Guinea Fowl-Whistler hit home one afternoon when Mr Falcon arrived quietly in Kude-le and clawed away a baby chick from Mrs Hen’s newest brood. He stalked the chickens of Kude-le even when the Year of the Feather had passed.
The cocks of Kude-le could be heard calling each other at the crack of dawn, “Kwek, I miss the Dushe days!”
“I hear there is no more Dushe to speak of.”
“Kwek, I miss the other birds.”
“Let’s go find them in the forest.”
“Kwek, has the key been found?”
“I doubt it. If it had we would have known.”
“Kwek, we stay another day then?”
“It looks like it.”
Over time their memories got so distorted the chickens could not remember a time when their lives were not in danger. They’d argue about it for days. The chicks, unlike the hens and roosters, were more concerned with creating a just society of birds than they were in finding the lost key; but the grownups dismissed them as naïve upstarts, and it went on like that for generations.
As for Mrs Hen, she grew very old and whenever she saw a bird flying over she gathered her chicks under her wings. If she was lucky enough to spot Mr Falcon from a treetop Mrs Hen crossed the road and ran to safety. Other birds used their wings to fly but Mrs Hen used hers to protect those for whom she was responsible.
* * *
Do you remember this story, baby?
I am your mother; I am Mrs Hen. Sometimes I will not understand your methods but I will use my body to protect you if it is the last thing I have to do. If there is a max price for motherhood, this is it!
Tell the Azanians I love them.
And stay woke, baby. I hope to see you at Christmas.
* * *
Illustration by Lizza Littlewort
A brief Twitter history of Thando’s story: