The Black Herons

The events of that day lay clear on Thomas’ mind like puddles on rain-washed gravel.

Thomas had got through the long morning prayers with sleep hanging his eyelids low, but at the final ‘Aammeeen!’ he’d snapped awake and proceeded to establish the ending of that early morning ritual with a few jabs at the plexus with his finger-tips, an abridged way of crossing himself quite unlike the Baroque ones his father was executing behind him. Then he’d hurried along traversing room after room, feet sliding along the cool cement floors until he came out on to the East Veranda into the half-light of dawn.

The pigeons were stirring in the dovecote as usual, coo-cooing and bobbing on the ledges. Thomas loved to be out and about at this time of the morning. Walking across the gravelled courtyard, through the arched doorway and into the orchard, his thought was on the possibility of finding some windfalls under the mango trees- check that first, and then check the herons’ nest. He had been watching them for over a month, from the first sighting when he saw a black heron carrying a twig to the very top of the silkcotton tree. Standing still and straining his eyes he’d watched the pair of them day after day, building and setting up home, a messy arrangement of twigs- extraordinary birds what glistening slate-grey colour what fine crest of plumes slightly curving seldom seen in the village the white herons and egrets and the earthy-brown bitterns all too common yes, but not black herons.

 Once when he couldn’t contain his curiosity any longer he had made the perilous climb to the top of the tree his heart thudding in fear and excitement as he neared the top. The heron sitting serenely on her nest was startled to see his head emerging into its horizon only a few feet away and it had flown away in a desperate flap of wings and untangled legs. There were three eggs nestling on the soft down, smooth, evenly painted in a most exquisite pale blue, the shade of the blue flowers on Mother’s English tea-cups. Thomas wanted to pop one into his mouth but he just stroked their warm marble-smoothness and then gone down quickly vowing never to scare the birds again- one more fright and they might abandon the nest.

Coming to his favourite part of the grove where the mango trees grew, Thomas dawdled. Here stood the Honeydrip, the Stringer, the Bluethroat, the Talljuicer, all such tall cloud-sweepers. But the pleasures of eating five mangoes in a row, sometimes ten if they were small were for the summer holidays when they were picked and neatly arrayed on the cool floor of the cellar- windfalls would do for the time being.

Casting his eyes about the long limp grass and fallen leaves he found three, almost undamaged and plump in their promise of sweet sticky ooziness. Cuddling them against his chest Thomas walked on until he came to the pond where he stopped, and looking across the pale pearly luminescence of the water, saw the silkcotton tree silently soaring up.

‘There she is!’ he told himself, ‘there’s the black head with its scimitar!’

Every time he saw the heron up in her broody perch Thomas felt a sense of relief that it had come to no harm, that all was well. The danger in the rice fields that lay to the far south of the village was unspeakable. But all was well.

He wandered about a while longer, and eventually coming to the archway into the courtyard, paused. His brother Skaria was there feeding the pigeons, scooping and flinging out paddy in golden arcs, the birds silly as ever their necks iridescent in the low-slanting sun  shuffling, jostling, stepping on each other’s toes, keeling to one side dragging their wings.

‘Thomas!’ Skaria said sharply in a display of older- brother authority, ‘where’re you wandering? Don’t you have any home-work to do?’

‘I’m coming,’ Thomas said lightly and sprinted across, making a wide detour of the pigeons, past where the old sweeper-woman was bent double over raking the courtyard getting his feet stung by the gravel-spray, and bounded onto the East Veranda.

A mild sense of loss twisted Thomas’ insides - his hour of peace and solitude were over, now all was rules and schedules. He went over to where Grandmother was sitting on the low-wall of the veranda leaning against a pillar spooning up coffee from a bowl, the sweet vapours billowing around her.

‘Got any mangoes?’ Grandmother asked.

Grandmother was blind in both eyes for as long as Thomas could remember, but she could tell who was approaching and what their business was with uncanny accuracy as though she had a third-eye.

Leaning against her frail bones Thomas took a sniff at the mangoes and dimmed his eyes. They were fragrant with yesterday’s sunshine.

‘There! Smell them!’ he said, holding them out under her nose.

‘Put them in the cellar for now,’ Grandmother said gently pushing him away, ‘you can have them when you come back from school. And take care not to burn your skin on the sap.’

Thomas wandered into the house and went into the pantry, and feeling his way in its stuffy darkness, opened the cavernous rice-chest and leaning in, carefully set the mangoes in it.

After a quick perambulatory inspection of the kitchen where it was all to-do and bustle by now, he fell into the morning-routine of school-work, an unhurried breakfast and getting dressed, and as there still remained plenty of time, lounged on the East Veranda reading the previous day’s newspaper until he heard his friend’s whistle from beyond the gatehouse. Then the sinews pulled tight, and calling to Mother and Grandmother, he’d set off.

It was when he was loping down the east-courtyard that he noticed Skaria sitting at the far end of the veranda intently bent over something, and for a brief moment had wondered whether he should stop and see what he was doing, what was he up to, what adventures did he have in mind for the day? He had it so easy! What wouldn’t he give to stay at home all day like Skaria not yet seventeen and already dropped out of school free to go fishing and shooting and wandering the groves all day. There was something to be said for not being too bookish. There was never a time when Thomas had taken to school, finding the outlay of anxiety and time disproportionate to the gains.  

Hearing the whistle again he broke into a run, out through the gatehouse, pausing at the far end of the path for another look at the silkcotton tree, yes, she was there with the crested plume silhouetted against the sky, and soon caught up with his friends.

 Once you’d got through the hazards of that initial entry into the playground without appearing in the eye-light of the Headmaster, the one they called The Wasp, matters at school proceeded along iron rails like trains on tracks- the second bell, the Assembly under the cane-wielding glare of the Wasp, the new anthem of ‘Vande Matharam’ sung by the reedy boy, his neck out-stretched, sinews showing, and after that the day passed uneventfully as such days pass. He’d sat through the lessons oppressed by the heat and the regimen, his impatience stretched like the hide over a tabala until it was lunchtime, and from then on things eased off. The westerly breeze came skimming over the lake and funnelled up the river murmuring the palm-fronds and dousing the heat.

When finally the Wasp brought his cane down sharply on the table it signalled the end of the day.

‘Wol STAN!’ the Wasp said sternly and the children scrambled to their feet while quietly getting their things together.

‘Rightern! Phront! Leftern ! PHRONT!’ he boomed, and with the cane splitting the table, bellowed, ‘STI-DOWN!’

At four o’clock sharp the bell rang and another school day was over and the children sluiced out like a breached dam into the playground and away along every rutted lane and path. Thomas hurried home breaking into a trot as he got nearer and paused at the outer gate a little out of breath scanning the tree tops.

The top of the silk-cotton tree was bare and he stopped in his tracks.

She was not there.

He peered up from various angles. No, the nest was empty. Could both the parents have gone away to feed? No, they’d never do that, the crows would snatch the eggs.

Tucking the school-bag under his arm he ran the rest of the way and entered the kitchen, where’s Mother had she seen them my nesting black herons where are the servants had anyone seen them? His heart was thudding against the ribs and he was breaking out in a cold sweat.

‘Ousep!’ he called, but there was no sign of the houseboy.

‘Ayah!’ he called again.

 

She must know, she often saw me going to the orchard he remembered but now he wasn’t sure if she ever knew about the black herons because he’d never told her.

Ousep appeared out of nowhere babbling something but Thomas didn’t hear him because just then something caught his eye and turning he saw it fully, the two dark feathery forms that lay on the cold cement of the work-top.

He knew instantly but took a few steps for a closer look, put his hand out and ran a finger over the grey scales of the slender legs and took in his hand the long toes now clumped into a curve and he was a little shocked to feel them cold. The long necks were stretched out, the crests damp and folded, the feathers in disarray, look at the beak half open the eye half shut what’s this look what’s this it’s damp and sticky hold the feathers apart- it’s blood! The shots had torn the flesh.

‘Mother!’

He spun around in a raging damburst of grief his voice caught in the throat and he cried again, ‘Mother!’

‘Have you seen the black herons shot today!’ he heard Ousep say, his voice light with ignorance. Thomas turned around in a rage and saw Ousep shrink back- get away what do you know it was the gun Skaria was polishing this morning there was a pain in the throat he couldn’t swallow something was wrong something was exploding behind the eyes-

‘Master Skaria shot them this morning from our silkcotton tree,’ Ousep went on, oblivious of the catastrophe.

Great sobs came out and dropping the bag he ran through the rooms, gone both gone killed bloodied through the Small Dining Room they were mine he shot them down the length of the Great Veranda to the West Wing through Mother’s bedroom my herons he shot them both, and finally into the darkness of the boxroom where he flung himself down in the far corner on a pile of newspapers sobbing uncontrollably.

When there were no tears to cry anymore and no strength to sob anymore he stopped but the body continued to convulse with every breath. Every time he remembered the perfectly round gentle weight of the pale blue eggs and the silhouette of the curved crest the anguished tears flowed again. He dozed fitfully and when he awoke his chest ached, perhaps he should’ve gone out and saved the eggs he could’ve hatched them under one of Mother’s broody hens and hand-reared them but no, in no time the crows would’ve got the eggs the pale blue shells were probably lying on the ground sucked empty they’d have hatched and grown into fat chicks their crops stuffed taut with fish if only he’d looked again and seen Skaria was polishing the gun.

Mother had sent emissaries from time to time and Ousep being about his own age was the first to come in with his frivolous talk.

‘Aha, there you are! You want some coffee-and-milk? You know those mangoes you got this morning? I’ve hidden them in a better place where Master Skaria can’t get at them! Look, Grandmother’s calling, you coming?’

But Thomas sat in frozen silence.

 In the end, he got up only when Mother came and took him by his arm saying:

‘My son! Come on, get up now! That’s enough of crying! Come and have your bath! Your eyes and your face, you’re in such a state! Don’t cry anymore!’

She pulled him up and walked him out to the bathing-room.

Skimming the hot water out of the cauldron and slowly sluicing over himself he thought of Skaria and felt a violent anger welling up in him, a wish to kill his brother which took the form of squeezing Skaria’s neck with his bare hands.

That evening at dinner finding even the smell of meat nauseating he’d confined himself to rice and vegetables.

 How swiftly how innocuously the events of that day had unfolded and yet how it had caused the path of his life to change.

 ‘He is too spoilt,’ he’d overheard Skaria declare, ‘what is he, a Sidhartha Gautama that he can’t bear the killing of a bird? He needs to see more of the rough side of life!’

 A few weeks later Skaria announced: ‘You are going to be sent away to Boarding School next year!’

 Sent away? To a boarding school, to sleep in a strange place, hear the midnight sigh of strange walls, wake up to strange smells, eat strange food – how was that possible? He’d suffocate and die like a fish out of water!

‘I am not going anywhere!’ Thomas declared.

‘Yes, you are!’ Skaria said, ‘you won’t turn out all right if you stay here! You can’t stay a vegetarian all your life.’

 And with that his fate was sealed. When school reopened again, the moorings were cut and he was pushed out, just thirteen, to the English High School in town, to board there. And where that journey had taken him sailing out to ever wider waters all the way to university in Calcutta! All that how many eight years gone by finished and folded and snapped shut like the pleats of an accordion.

And now there sits in his suitcase carefully folded and secured into envelopes various letters and certificates - admission, introduction, character from the Rev. Duff - and a ticket on the SS Varsova  Bombay to Southampton he will be off to England shortly what do they think he was no Sidhartha Gautama after all he was turning out alright, Thomas thought with a surge of excitement.

 

‘Chaai!’ came the shrill call and the tea-seller appeared at the far end of the carriage with his steaming kettle.

Thomas swung down from the upper berth in an easy athletic move and looked out of the clattering swaying carriage of the train. They were only a day out of Calcutta, somewhere on the black alluvial plains of the Deccan; it will be another two days before he reached his beloved home.

 He called the man over and bought himself a tea and ordered for lunch a vegetarian meal.

 

The End