by Hannah-Fleur Fitz-Rankin
The morning sky is smoked like bacon from the fires.
Nikolas stands on the porch with his first instant coffee of the day and scratches a mosquito bite on the back of one foot with the toes of the other. His nails are long and sharp. He scratches until he draws blood.
‘Tell me you’re coming home.’
‘I’m not coming home.’
His mother, four thousand miles away in New York City, screams. Nikolas snatches the phone away from his ear. As a girl, his mother used to dive for tourists off the cracked yellowed cliffs of blistering Crete: her lungs are mighty still; her scream a thing to be feared.
At length she stops. Cautiously he returns the phone to his ear.
‘...for the love of God, how did I raise such a son?’
He tells her not to worry, that he will call again tomorrow. ‘Same time, mama. Early.’
‘Tomorrow you might be dead!’
He tells her the rebels are not targeting white men. He reminds her where he lives now, tells her, again, that this is a national thing and he is not a national; he will not get mixed up in it. ‘I will call tomorrow. Alright?’
‘No it is not alright! I do not want your voice down the line! I want your legs walking in my door! I want your arms round my neck squeezing the breaths out of me! I want you back in my country!’
‘Since when is it your country, mama?’
She scowls audibly: this is an old fight. ‘It is now, agori. The good ol’ You Ess of Aye.’
But it is the Greek that sounds authentic – she still cannot ape her new country’s slang. Nikolas slips the phone to his other hand. It is early in the day but this is the dry season and sweat is already pearling his arms. ‘Are you grown fat out there, mama? In this new country of yours? ’ (When they first moved to the States she would point out obese women, her voice laden with scorn. Look at the arse on that!)
A pause. Nikolas feels her vanity pricking up its ears.
‘I am as I was, Niko. Still I can fit into my wedding dress.’
She means the second one, the one she wore when she married the Yank. Nikolas tries to recall. He was only sixteen; a sulky youth, bruising the day with his eyes. ‘You looked beautiful. A little queen.’
‘Don’t pretend you remember. And don’t change the subject! When are you coming home?’
‘I’ll call you tomorrow mama. I love you.’
‘I should have prayed for a girl! Girls do not leave their mothers to live in foreign lands amongst peasants!’
He sighs inwardly, blows kisses and hangs up. She was a peasant once herself, barefoot and black-eyed, spitting at the rich blonde boys who came to her island for summers. Now she lives in a foreign land, is married to a rich blonde boy, and chooses to forget what came before.
Nikolas puts his phone in his pocket and locates shoes and a shirt. Men do not go bare-chested here; it’s a sign of not being right in the head. He buttons slowly, looking out at his neighbours’ compound, where just a few women are up and about at their usual chores, the things that go on regardless. The American papers have a term for what is happening here: they call it civil unrest. When it makes the papers that is. To Americans, Africa is a chaotic, distant place and his country, what he thinks of his country, is very small. An anteroom to greater, grander countries.
His mother sends him the clippings, with key sentences ringed in red.
The starlings have started their chorus of bleeps and chimes. The sound reminds him of old video games and never fails to make him smile. Even now, with the fires smoking the heavens.
Birds are the reason he came to this country. He is an ornithologist; his project a poorly funded and lonesome foray observing the birds of a country that the country itself doesn’t much care to observe. What money there is comes from international birding organisations, not this country’s authorities, but Nikolas does not blame them. When every dirt-floor classroom rings with ninety plus children’s voices and teachers have to split the kids into two shifts just to get them all through the day, birds tend not to feature prominently on the government’s to-do list. Besides, he is not here to fix any of the systems, or even paper over the many cracks. His business is migration patterns and wing span, not education, agriculture or healthcare. His tools are weighing scales, ringing pliers and a box of rings of varying size and weight that he privately calls bracelets. Some are aluminium, light and small enough to crack round the merest sliver of a leg. Others are steel and thick, built to withstand multiple daily dousings in saltwater from birds large enough to take a five pound fish. Not that he often has need for the larger rings; his work is here, in the grounds of his home. He traps little birds, lured by the false song of his battered tape recorder. The net he uses to trap them is large and fine, strung between two slim poles. It looks genteel, as if on this dry brown land, badminton was in the offing.
Nikolas has been here eight years. His predecessor, a tiny reddened Scotsman named Andrew, collected him from the airport in a pick-up that had seen better days, drove him out to the rickety house that was shortly to be his, and sat him down on the rickety porch with two smeared glasses and a half-full bottle of Scotch. They had barely spoken in the car, so Nikolas just smiled and held out his palms, the picture of effete apology. ‘Thanks, but I’m afraid I’m not much of a whisky drinker.’
Andrew looked at him without expression, then poured a measure into each glass. ‘What’s to be afraid of?’ he said.
The handover was three days. During that time, Nikolas slept on a cot in the living room, his mosquito net straggling from a hook hammered into the ceiling above his head. The village dogs and cockerels woke him every morning at dawn, shortly before Andrew appeared, a mug of sweet red tea in each hand. It was Nikolas saw him have for breakfast; red tea and an unfiltered cigarette, exquisitely rolled. The first morning, watching him shake tobacco from a pouch, he noticed his ring. ‘You married, Andrew?’
The older man lowered the pouch and looked down at his hand. He looked at it as if he hadn’t seen it in a long while. And then he looked at Nikolas. ‘Not so much these days,’ he said.
After that they talked only of bird rings.
There were no fires back then. Andrew did not leave the post because he felt unsafe; he left because he felt the country was tapping his veins. Celts need the gloom, lad. I can’t breathe in this fucking furnace. He wrote to Nikolas after he went back to the grey-green skies of Fife; told him he’d stopped ringing and blamed arthritis, but Nikolas wondered if it was Africa that did it. So many found they couldn’t go back to what they’d had or done before. That’s what the ex-pats he sometimes drank with said anyway, clasping their sweating beers. This place fucks you up.
Andrew still writes. You a Scotch drinker yet, laddie?
So Nikolas had come for the birds. Why he stayed – a question often posed by his mother – was less clear. There had been a girl, but when wasn’t there a girl? There was no girl back in the States; maybe that was it.
You’re thirty four now – a man! You need to marry, have children, make a life. No more wasting time with silly feathered things!
At least the fires have put a stop to his mother’s demands on the domestic front. Now she just wants his single, childless, time-wasting body back in one piece.
He is late to the nets this morning.
Birdsong fills the little gulp of land between porch and trap. There are three caught: a laughing dove, a weaver and a sunbird. He starts with the sunbird, a male: even in the dim morning light he is struck by the emerald and black; the slash of carmine at the throat. In sunshine the colours are so bright you could shield your eyes.
Using his fingers, Nikolas unhooks the little male and places him gently inside a cloth bag. In the darkness, the bird falls still. Nikolas bags the others separately, then carries all three back to the porch.
There is no internet at the house and no computer: he is promised both and expects neither. Instead, he does as Andrew did, and keeps paper records of the birds he traps and rings, then writes up the data at Alpha’s Internet Station, a little shack in the north of the village, and emails it to the people who pay his way. The notebooks are the cheap, paperback kind, blue for the rainy season and brown for the dry. The differentiation is not a formal requirement but a whimsy of Andrew’s that Nikolas finds himself superstitiously reluctant to change. He hangs two of the cloth bags from his porch and places the third on a plastic chair so that he can assemble his tools: small ring, pliers, scales, the plastic cup in which he will place each unresisting bird head-first to weigh it; ruler, pencil and current notebook (brown.) He has seen that the dove is already ringed, so will take down the identification in his book, weigh the bird and measure his wing to see how he is maturing. He reaches for the first bag, containing the tiny sunbird. He is trained to do all that he needs to do with one hand, the almost weightless little body held motionless in the other, two splinters of leg curled around his thumb.
It’s a kind of sorcery, he thinks. Stilling a bird like this.
It moves him to see the faint pulsing beneath the breast feathers. Even after all this time.
The girl’s name was Kaddiatou. That was four years ago.
He was walking back from town when he saw her, cutting through a groundnut field, sweat pouring into his eyes. It was late in the dry season and the ground was baked and brittle; each footstep puffed dust.
The mint was in flower. Meagre, hapless blooms, absolutely nothing to look at but the scent was unearthly. Nikolas sucked at the air like a child at the breast. He was parched and fanciful with it, thinking, I can take the heat for this scent. I can take anything for that scent. There were butterflies everywhere; they were mad on the mint too. He raised his arms amid the fluttering mass of colours: mustard, orange, yellow, and a white so thin it smacked of green. Like leek skins, he thought, his fingers held out stiffly, tempting the butterflies to alight.
She wore the usual things a local girl wears to walk from one compound to the next. A tee-shirt, long skirt, flip flops, headscarf. The sun swept her face, showcasing lips, lashes, bone. Her eyes gave new meaning to the word black.
She could have been twelve or twenty but still he stopped. He had no choice: his feet ground to a halt amidst the mint, amidst the unearthly.
She looked at him when he spoke, which was in itself unusual for a girl in this country. They were alone in that field and he was conscious of it.
She did not exactly stop, but her steps slowed. In English, she said, ‘What is your name?’
He said, ‘Nikolas. I am Nikolas.’ He willed her to say it back, to remember the strange syllables, to smile at them, at him.
She nodded, told him her name, walked on.
He watched her go. Inside his chest something opened that did not close.
After ringing the sunbird, Nikolas releases it straight from the porch, his hand held out to clear the roof. There is the usual fleeting, disbelieving pause, before the bird flits into the lightening sky.
He rings, weighs and releases the weaver, checks the dove, in its second season, weighs and releases her, and is just packing up when his mobile goes. Martin Courtney, known as Court; a former Londoner, and one of the drinking companion ex-pats. Nikolas grins down the phone. ‘Thought you didn’t surface before ten?’
‘Nikky Nikky Nikky. How goes it down there?’
Nikolas kicks off his shoes, sits. The stone floor is cool against his bare heels. ‘Same old same old.’
‘Yeah? It’s all okay?’
There is something in his voice. A verbal twitch.
Nikolas says, ‘I’m just back from checking the nets. About to make coffee number two. Maybe have shit number one.’ He hesitates, annoyed in spite of himself. ‘You wanna call back in ten for an update on that?’
‘Don’t piss about. I heard they were burning the place down from yours.’ He names a village about twelve kilometres away. ‘I’m checking on you, that’s all.’
‘Has my mom put you up to this?’
Court, who laughs at everything, doesn’t laugh. ‘The shit, my son, has really hit. The whites are talking about going. And the ones that aren’t talking are actually going.’ A pause. ‘You’re the only one I know who’s not doing either.’
Nikolas watches a beetle crawl across his porch. ‘Yeah. Well.’
‘You’ve nothing to say?’
‘What can I say? You’re all jumpy as fuck even though it’s nothing to do with you. It’s nothing to do with any of us.’ Us whites, he means. Us Westerners.
Court says, ‘That don’t mean we won’t get caught up in it.’
He’s not wrong and Nikolas hesitates before saying, ‘It’s the authorities they’ll turn on. Which isn’t you Brits anymore, in case you’ve forgotten.’
The Englishman chuckles. ‘Don’t go colonial on me, man. And don’t change the subject. It might be the Government fixing the inflation and fucking the people but it’ll be the whites they blame.’ He lets out a long whistling breath. ‘I know how it is with these things. Once it starts building, once it gains momentum –’ he breaks off.
Nikolas says, ‘So, we should just bail? Is that what you think?’
‘As opposed to what?’
Stay to see the sun rise, Nikolas thinks, heart swelling. But it’s a dumbfuck thing to come out with so he says nothing.
‘I love this country. You know that. But we’re just visitors here. It’s all we can ever be.’
Nikolas wonders if Court’s drinking already. His voice sounds slurred. Maybe he hasn’t been to bed at all. He says, ‘Leave it to me, man. I’ll fix things.’
‘Yeah?’ For a minute the older man sounds hopeful, childlike.
‘Yeah. Right after my shit.’
‘Priorities, Nik, I get it.’
A long pause. ‘Don’t worry, Court, I’m not gonna do anything stupid.’
Silence. Then, thickly, ‘Come over later, yeah? For a beer?’
‘Maybe. I’ll call you if I can make it.’
‘Call either way.’
Nikolas opens his mouth to say, alright mom, then doesn’t say it. ‘Will do.’
He hangs up.
He’d tried to find her.
He went to the local compounds, all of them in a ten kilometre radius. He took the elder women gifts – dried fish, bags of rice, Ibuprofen. He offered formal greetings for their prosperity and welfare. The women smiled, took his gifts, laughed a little between themselves. But they shook their heads when he said Kaddiatou’s name.
He thought, it’s because I have no family here to make the introductions. No mother, no aunt, no sister.
He swotted up on the English Premier League so as to talk soccer with the men who were mad about it. He brought them his sports pages, found out their allegiances, tried to engage them as they clustered round his newspapers. He mentioned Kaddiatou’s name. They shrugged. He asked directly. One said, I think perhaps she was here. Nikolas fairly clutched at him. But now? Now she is gone. When? When was she here? The man shook his head, unmoved by the plea, by the white man’s fixation with time. What does it matter? She is not here now.
Nikolas thought, it is because I am white.
It was the closest he got to bitterness.
It was the closest he got to her.
For a year afterwards, more, he would lie awake at night remembering her face.
He sleeps that afternoon, sweat pooling in every dint and hollow. When he wakes he checks the nets but there’s nothing caught. He showers again in cold water, puts on a clean shirt and walks to Alpha’s to write up his notes and buy tins of this and that. But Alpha is not there; a man he does not know serves him. He wears a faded Manchester United shirt and long shorts, torn at the waist. A little slab of belly shows. He smiles as he takes the money, but his smile is crafty, slack-jawed. Nikolas tells himself there is nothing in this; nothing in Alpha’s absence, nothing in the man’s indifferent, yellowed eyes.
On the way home he sees more smoke and his heart turns over, but it is only the local farmers burning stubble in the fields, making room for cassava. He watches the black columns rise and thinks, perversely, of New York; of steam rising from manholes, and sky peeping between buildings.
Can you return to a country that doesn’t feel like yours? Can you leave behind one that does?
Nikolas walks on, slowly. Soon, the mint will flower again. He will pick some, he thinks, send pouches of it to his mother and to Andrew. He wants his mother to understand a little of what it is that keeps him here; he wants Andrew to remember and to miss.
But it’s more than that. He wants something for himself. Some part of this land he loves that he can hold on to, not set free from his porch, hand outstretched, feathers brushing his fingertips.
Her words to him.
Peace be upon you.
He walks on, towards the smoke.