The Drowned Dove

The murmur of the seaside, waves-upon rocks, scuttling, clicking crabs as they dash across baking sand: winter on the Cape. All the white picket houses snooze along the bay and distant brown beachheads, dotted with boulders give way to dark, foreign trees. We saw a mongoose at the Green Hole once. Since then I always imagined unlikely wonders lurking in those trees: mongooses – confirmed; monkeys – probable; lions – for certain; elephants – not impossible. I would roll about in the thick white sand, popping my feet, one toe at a time, into the icy, green water before yanking them out with giggling cowardice. My brother and I did go swimming in the end, after a long period of teasing; somebody subsequently remarked that we were the strangest little boys for wanting to swim in winter. But I say what kind of winter brings with it burgers and milkshakes, beams of white sun and collecting hermit crabs in buckets? A jolly good one, and nothing like the grim fare we had gotten used to in England.

One day, groaning, we were sent off to see family friends, strange people who meant nothing to a seven year old. Sleepy, sulky, bursting at the seams with wine-gums which I intermittently stuffed in my mouth, the journey was long and winding. Where these friends lived was entirely divorced from the bright vistas of the ocean. There, it was a jungle – huge, swollen blades of grass towered above my small blond head like legions of green bayonets. Carp ponds ruptured the lush land, lime-green craters in rings of clay, brimming with insidious, grimy water. Barbel and carp, as big as a boy, snorted and gurgled at the bottom of those giant mud-puddles and I had a strong desire not to fall in. The thought of their dark tendons, rippling under brown scales, unnerved me.

I do not remember the house, but I remember the wiry, brown and impossibly mature looking twelve year old who was my brother and mine’s host.  Bare foot in olive cargo shorts he smiled with dull buck teeth, his hair all flat down on his brow, the colour of dark chocolate, his haircut making him resemble a hybrid between a medieval king and his fool. He held a long-barrelled pellet gun like a pike.

All the parents were around, conversing, drinking: sun-burnt chests, sun-burnt jowls, a sea of khaki. Nobody paid us much attention.

Our host soon became adamant, excited. He wanted to shoot a bird. I was shy, much younger than he, scared by his suggestion and unwilling to either give assent or to protest. Why did he want to do that? I would understand if it was to impress his father, or if he wanted something for dinner, or if we were out in the bushveld and hunting was the activity of the day. But this was a normal afternoon in his house, and he wanted to shoot something. Why?

The dove was sitting on a telephone wire and the trees behind it erupted with green afros beneath the turquoise sky. He looked like a real marksman, our host, lean and leathery, steadying himself on a wooden table. The bird moved its head from side to side, looking left and right, in that slightly paranoid way that birds do. It had a little black collar on its neck, a dark stripe over bruise-coloured feathers like a tie, like it was dressed for dinner. Thwap went the pellet gun and it was barely a whisper. The dove that had once flown fell.

There was an ornate stone basin in the centre of the garden, filled with a few millimetres of water. It stood solitary; a small dark pillar, a pagan altar sprouting from the centre of the neatly cropped grass. Crunch went the dove as it landed through the water and hit the stone.

It was flapping about like mad, facing upward to the sky. Good shot went the chorus of voices. A red spot was spreading across the bird’s pale chest like a blot of ink on parchment. Still it flapped, splashing about in the water, which was fast changing colour. Water in its throat, in its lungs – blood on the stone, slipping down the altar like fat scarlet beetles. Flap … flap-flap… flap … flap-flap.

Nobody did a thing but watch as the bird beat its wings and turned and stubbornly flapped and sloshed about in its own little puddle of death.

It strikes me that the altar was a bird-bath. Well, drowned, mangled and held limply by its tail-feathers like a red rag, the dove looked far from clean.

By Matthew Chalmers.

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