“Learning to identify birds is a long and slow process and it takes years of experience to develop the skills needed to tell obscure species from the “little brown jobs”; herein lies the challenge and fascination …”
—Known Birds of Southwest Africa (1973)
—Known Birds of Southwest Africa (1973)
North of Goas Farm, along the eastern edge of the Namib, the scrub reaching out before us, the knobby Erongo Mountains rising like blue elbows in the distance. We roam, Obadiah and I, along Krieger’s fence line to our spot. Behold Krieger’s fence! So expertly and lovingly barbed, it was as if the mad German had gone out there and braided the wire deadly sharp with his own fat hands. A flesh-shredding great wall that stretched gleamingly across the veld for kilometers. And beyond it—the only standing water east of the C-32 and hence birds, at least in theory, birds. Where were the birds?
I must tell you that when we birded, he wasn’t he and I wasn’t I. So maybe in this way our failure could be attributed to our alternate selves? He was Lanioturdus, the doyen of field identification, and I— I—was his faithful assistant Dieter though sometimes Lanioturdus called me Chauncey.
We’d been out there a couple of hours looking for a slight tremble in the branches. We with our checklist and nothing checked off. We saw sparrows, lots of sparrows, as if they had collectively decided to taunt our incompetence. Can’t you two dopes see anybody but us? We’d finished our second half pint of Zorba. According to Lanioturdus it was disrespectful to sit while birding so we stood and my feet were as catatonic as my brain when I saw, yes, an actual bird. It had a red chest and thick red feathers that crept all the way up beneath its beak. A black head and tiny eyes that didn’t blink when it hovered in front of us like a hummingbird. It stared as if it was out there finding us and not the other way around. Field marks: Seed-cracking bill. White mustastchial flash down the chin. Rufous-buff underparts. Then it dive-bombed so fast beyond the bush my eyes couldn’t follow. It wasn’t much bigger than a weaver and I would have thought it was one, but for all that bloodish red.
“What was that?”
“What was what?”
“Just now. A bird. We just—”
“What do you mean, Doyen? Red with a black head. Eyes that didn’t blink. Looked like a weaver but red. Seed-cracking bill. White flash down the wings. Rufous-buff underparts. It was right here, right—”
“It wasn’t a weaver.”
“So you did see it.”
Lanioturdus rubbed his beard, squinted. Then he yawned, inwardly, without opening his mouth, and murmured more to himself than to me, “Do visions ever translate? Red? Mayn’t it just as likely have been off-white with a brown necklace and slightly glossy plumage? These things are possible.”
“A chest-banded plover? I’m telling you it was red. Red with a black head. Come on—what do you call it?” I took out my book and started whipping through birds, all the birds we had yet to see, ever to see: whindrels, phalaropes, scrimpter bills, avocets, helmet-shrikes, fly-catching cuckooshrikes, fork-tailed drongos (Dicrurus adsimilis), ant-eating chats, Cape Peninsula tits, short-toed rock thrushes …
“Call it?” Lanioturdus said.
“Why are you withholding on that bird?”
The Doyen sighed, pulled his hands down his long, sad face. Teacher Pohamba said that Teacher Obadiah’s face got sadder and longer in winter—but that it was only a storyteller’s trick. It’s as if, Pohamba said, he sheds leaves not for regeneration, but for effect. Anything so he can bore us to death with his wisdom.
Then Lanioturdus began to hold forth. He orated to a faraway space above my head, to the mountains. “White flash down the wing? Rufous-buff underparts? Impossible. Such a bird does not exist. Call it? Call it? Always call it. And the moment we do? What happens? We are lulled into believing we have reached a sort of détente between the understanding and the dark. You think you can conquer all with call it? There was no bird, Dieter. There never was any bird.”
“But you’re the one who memorizes, who dreams nightly of Cape Peninsula tits—”
“Tits? Yes. Did I say I wasn’t guilty?”
“You just said—”
“Listen—is there anything more useful as a means of control than names? Oh, yes, I’m guilty as sin. Where’s the noose? We name our children. Names aren’t hopes—they’re commands. Listen, God comes to a man named Abram and says I’m changing your name. The man’s ninety and for his ninety years he’s been called Abram, a good enough name as any. But now God says, Listen, Abram, you’re Abraham now. And not only this. Congratulations. You’re the father of a people. As long as you snip their foreskins. Understand? So Abram says, Fine, I’m Abraham, and no problem about the foreskins. We’ll do it when they’re defenseless babies so that they will only have a vague memory of the pain, a memory that will linger, but remain unidentifiable. So then God says, Wonderful, wonderful. And there’s something else. You’re also going to be a father again—literally a father again. With Sarah? Abram-Abraham says. But she’s a barren old biddy! Trust me, God says. All you have to do is name the boy Isaac. Isaac—for laughter. Oh thank God, thank God, Abram-Abraham says. But God says—There’s only one last thing. Anything, God, anything!
“And so God says, When the boy’s five I want you to take him to the mountain and kill him.”
Lanioturdus laughed, a rare outward laugh for a man who usually stifled his laughter down into his beard.
“Take him to the mountain and kill him! That’s funny. Isaac for laughter! Hilarious! But, see, we need not reach so far back. I knew a woman at Otjiwarango who adopted children. People came from hundreds of k’s away to give her their children. The woman’s condition was that she be authorized to rename them. Mandela, Michael Jackson, Oginga Odinga, Zephia Kameeta, Kwame Nkrumah, Einstein, Lubabamba, Bobby Kennedy, Pope Pius XII, Indira Gandhi, Weimar, Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis, Toivo ja Toivo, Martin Luther ... How would you like this? One day you wake up and your name is Anwar Sadat? Don’t you see the danger in your calling it? In your giving names?”
I held the last of the Zorba to my lips, but didn’t drink. He could take you back is what people said about him. Even the most cynical teachers on the farm said that Obadiah could, when he got going, take you whirling back to your seven-year-old self. You at your desk befuddled. Your little feet swinging. When the world was still a beautiful mystery and the tall, gaunt teacher with the wings of gray hair was the only God who could explain it. Master Obadiah, the Great Unraveler.
That day out by Krieger’s fence he was wearing shorts. His old, beautiful legs were like withered trees. On his feet were his best tasseled loafers. The wind dusted our faces.
“It used to mean hope.”
We took the shortest route back to the farm, along the C-32. On the way we came upon a donkey that had been hit by a lorry but hadn’t died yet. He was simply wandering along, bleeding. He’d once been white with brown spots, but the blood had soaked his fur from his hindquarters to his neck. We had no water to give him, only commiseration, which he seemed to want to stomp us for suggesting. Obadiah tried to give him one of his loafers to chew on, but the donkey wouldn’t take it.
“I am no use to man or beast,” Obadiah said to the crust of the afternoon moon. “Farewell, Bucephalus.”
He chucked the shoe in the veld. The donkey zigzagged forward along the road as he bled. About half a kilometer from the farm, he dropped.
Later I find the bird. It’s not rare, rather common, but a lurker, always among us, but seldom observed. Tends to skulk in the undergrowth. Common name: crimson-breasted shrike. Scientific name: Laniarus atrococcineus.