By Cordelia B Francis
The sun hammered on the river and it shimmered like foil. Caetan was waiting at the jetty. On the bank, across from him, was the ferry.
He hitched his Chetak on to the main stand and sat on a nearby bench itching to get home. Earlier, while visiting his sister in Miramar he had heard the breaking news Unprecedented numbers of migratory birds to alight on Chorao island, flashed across the flat screen TV at Espi’s house. The family rarely sat together, but this afternoon, drawn by the unusual news, they had gathered in the sitting room of their apartment with its red velvet sofa set and floral plastic table cloths, to gawk at the channels. Chorao rarely made it to local let alone national news. Yet here it was. The emerald island floating on the Mandovi with its large vacant homes and meagre population of 5,268 now in the spotlight of the entire nation. It looked pretty with its single hill, curvy roads and famed bird sanctuary.
“This is an event no true-blooded ornithologist should miss,” one announcer declared. “As rare an occurrence as a blood moon,” commented another.
“What’s a blood moon?” asked Espi’s daughter. No one knew so they ignored the question.
The family was more interested in catching a glimpse of themselves or at least a neighbour or friend. But the roads on the island looked empty, the specialists interviewed were from outside Goa - from Mumbai, Delhi and even as far as Uttarakhand.
Meanwhile, no one smelt the burning pulao. By the time the first distinct whiff of burning rice reached Espi, it was too late. The rice had browned and dried on top. The sides and bottom of the pot were black, putting her in one of her sour moods.
“Just make some plain rice, mum,” shouted her son consolingly.
While the rice was boiling, Espi was back on the sofa.
“Oh, did you hear? Christine is moving back to Chorao.”
“Who’s Christine?” asked Espi’s daughter.
The love of my life. The thought rose unbidden in Caetan’s mind.
“Oh, she was my childhood friend,” answered Espi.
“Why is she leaving Canada for Chorao? That’s crazy.” she said, unable to hide the curious glee in her voice.
“Is the whole family moving back?” Her brother probed, hoping to sound casual and not too eager.
“She’s coming back alone. I wonder what happened to Richard? Strange, no? And they looked so happy on Facebook.”
“He is retired, you know, getting a good pension. The kids not coming, I understand. What will they do here anyway? Work in some hotel for peanuts! Everyone here is leaving for UK, Portugal, at least those with any brains,” she continued provoking him, knowing as all siblings, the sensitive buttons to press.
“I’m not leaving,” Caetan replied, biting the bait, as usual.
““I rest my case. Anyway, you had your chance and what did you do? Wasted it to live on that boring island.”
“It looks nice on TV,” Espi’s daughter retorted.
Sighing loudly, she got up to check if the rice was ready.
Migrating west was a heated topic in their family. Caetan, the only son, had backed out at the last minute. What will I do there? At least here I can look after mama was his excuse. But mama had answered, “I don’t need looking after, bhuddo.”
Espi retaliated, “You have no guts. Look at our mundkar neighbours, one son on the ship and now acting all hoity toity.”
That was 15 years ago. No one in their family had left Goa, not even Espi’s husband, who had promised her milk and honey in foreign lands. That was before marriage. But maybe my children will go to the UK? That single dream of a better life had sustained her, transmitted like a genetic disease from generation to generation, until eventually someone, it was hoped, would catch it, cross the ocean to possibilities of foreign currency and glitzier FB photos, and maybe remember to take the rest of the family.
Christine had not taken Caetan despite her promises. Maybe if she had sent one letter, or even a postcard saying she missed him, or asking him to come to Canada, he would have left Chorao.
The thought of seeing her again, all these years later, daunted him. On FB, she still looked lovely while he had grown a wide girth. As he passed the mirror in the hallway, he caught a glimpse of himself. His shirt collar was frayed. The cracked leather belt was straining under the heave of his belly. No wonder he rarely posted photos of himself, nor did anyone tag him.
He left his sister’s house soon after lunch - avoiding rice and restricting himself to one pao. Now, standing by himself beside the still river, he was thinking about her, making a note to go shopping at Big Bazaar and Allen Solly, to start his morning walks, cut out rice, and eat fruits for breakfast.
Then like a bad habit, he remembered her words promising to write to him every week. Thinking back, he recalled faintly, the incessant waiting which had paralysed him so that he rarely left the house, and the hurt that followed from which he never fully recovered. He remained a bachelor as if staying virginal, living with his mama, teaching at the local school, and growing a pot belly were an achievement. Nothing like Richard, who runs marathons and travels with the family to Europe for holidays.
Ridiculous to think she might still harbour feelings for me, he chided himself feeling instantly morose, inadequate, a speck of dust in the universal scheme of life. Luckily, the ferry arrived before he could embark on his list of diminishing returns. As it glided towards the concrete jetty of Pomburpa, its ramp dropped like a panting tongue. He walked towards his bike suddenly aware of the traffic and people gathered around him like a tight fist. “It’s all that bloody news about Chorao. Hope these Indians don’t get any ideas to stay on the island,” he thought.
He kick-started his old Chetak, cold shouldering the tourists with their tikkas and Stetsons, the newly-wedded brides honeymooning with their red and white bangles and hennaed hands. With some difficulty, he moved his heavy bike around to face the ramp, preparing for a quick exit.
A van parked next to his bike. It had NDTV written along its sides. Sitting inside were two young men, and a woman with sunglasses and straight black hair tied in a pony tail. The men were chatting and laughing like holiday-makers.
“Come on yaar, stop wasting time and start filming. This is not a holiday,” the woman, part scolded and part ordered them. Caetan moved away, towards the ferry railing to get away from the mayhem. Vehicles and pedestrians continued to swirl on to the ferry like water around a drain. Everyone quickly settled into an awkward familiarity. The river continued its unhurried pace. All was at rest except the irascible chugging of the grumpy ferry engine and the incessant tumbleweed of Caetan’s thoughts.
To distract himself, he flicked peanuts into his gaping mouth. Then he turned his gaze to the river. From under the engine, an oily film oozed out spreading rainbow colours sluggishly over the green murky waters. A bird’s feather floated away on the meek current. Once the ferry docked, he jerked his bike forward. Finding a little path, he cut through the traffic and was soon on his way home. He unlatched the gate and rode his scooter into the garage. Lassie ran up to him, sniffing his pockets. “Shoo Lassie,” he waved her away, while turning out his inner pockets. He left her to pick out the nuts from the ground.
As he walked past the sitting room, he heard the news on TV. “Caetan, look at this,” his mother called out, “Chorao is everywhere on TV. They say the birds are arriving any time now. Something about climate change and melting ice-cubes confusing the birds. Godonlyknowswhat’s going on. Mad world,” she remarked, getting up and tottering to the bathroom.
Suddenly, he heard a cry from the front garden. At the same time, a crashing sound on the roof wrenched him out of his rocking chair. He jumped up startled. It sounded like rocks falling on to the clay tiles. Holding his newspaper like a protective topi, he ran out into the garden. The garden was covered with birds. They were falling from the sky like raindrops. They dribbled on to the grass, some were pecking at the fallen guavas, others squatting in small bushes. And still they kept coming. Wave upon wave of herons, bitterns, red knots, jack snipes, coots and pintails descended from the skies. Like an omen of doom or hope, he couldn’t tell which. They landed on his lawn, perched on the compound wall, fluttered in the garden, bobbed their heads from the seat of his bike, hopped on to the verandah and fluffed out their little breasts. Lassie, wild with excitement was already ploughing through the flocks leaving behind trails of feathers in her wake.
Struck by the sudden onslaught of twittering birds darting through the air in graceful arcs like fighter jets, flitting on grass blades and bushes, Caetan felt a surge of excitement. The extraordinary sight and sounds of the avian mélange seemed to spontaneously release the tension in his body. His mind became lighter. He felt he could grow wings and fly. Maybe to Canada, but not now, not when she is coming to Chorao. For the first time in years he could imagine a different life filled with vibrant colours where the unknown didn’t seem frightening but thrilling.
Soon the birds were everywhere - on the roads, in the trees, in the neighbours’ compounds. They were scratching and digging up the lawn. Over the compound wall, he noticed the NDTV van parked outside his gate. Its roof covered in plumes of grey and beige, and a heron pecking at the already broken antenna.
Caetan remembered mama. He looked around to see her dizzy with excitement twirling amidst the birds that scratched at her precious lawn and pecked at her treasured guavas. Caetan was sure she would sprain something.
The ruckus of bird warbles, cooings, teetherings was reaching such an intense crescendo, he had to clamp his ears with his palms. In the muffled silence, he surveyed the bizarre scene. Nothing made sense any more. He could barely recognise himself in this strange surreal landscape where people appeared to be someone else, living out strange imaginations. His 75-year-old mother who moaned about aching joints was springing after old Lassie, both like young girls, shooing the birds into the air, thrilling in the delight at their flapping wings and dust swirls as if remembering times when life was simple, and joy came easily.
The neighbours Mr and Mrs De Sa, who Espi never failed to remind everyone of their mundkar status, were standing amid the birds, holding hands like young lovers. Mrs De Sa was dressed in an off-shouldered, moth-eaten gown while Mr De Sa was in an old suit which hung loosely on his bony frame. Like young lovers they embraced each other, kissing rather lasciviously, thought Caetan. Her red lipstick smeared over her face. Some of it had rubbed off on to her husband’s cheeks so they looked more like Punch and Judy than Romeo and Juliet.
Caetan noticed that the TV crew had stopped filming. The cameras and boom mikes lay carelessly on the tarmac. Bird shit rained down on the expensive equipment. The cameraman was chasing the young reporter who was running around the van saying, “Come on yaar, get the cameras rolling, start shooting.” But her voice had lost its sharp edge, sounding flirty and teasing instead. The other crew member lounged on the pavement smoking a cigarette, his eyes shining brightly with a faraway look.
Then, just as suddenly, the birds started to fly. They rose as one, gathering into a large thick black cloud of feather and dust and noise. Amidst flapping wings and streams of shit, the cloud ascended sending animal and human into a frenzy of intense excitement. Under its grotesque shadow, the comical scene continued to unfold.
The people hopped in joy, flapping their arms as if they all wanted to take off with the birds. The cameraman’s camera, drenched in crap and feathers, lay in the middle of the road. He pirouetted around it like a ballerina, at times flying to various corners of the road. Yet the birds kept on rising, feathers falling like multi-coloured snow. For a moment both sunlight and breeze was cut off by the rising avian clouds.
By the time light and wind had returned, it was to a scene of disarray and disentanglement. Bushes had been denuded, ravaged of flower, fruit and leaf. Mr De Sa’s roses, his pride and envy, lay on the trampled grass, tossed like discarded paper flowers. He picked them up without remorse. He clasped them tenderly holding them out to his wife like a treasure of exquisiteness. They walked arm-in-arm back into the house. Caetan watched all of this, fascinated by the old couple’s romance, their yearning for each other still intact. Suddenly he noticed that old Mr De Sa was no longer wearing his pants, only a pair of boxer shorts and Mrs De Sa was... can that be true? Did she just pat down her skirt? Oh, it must be my imagination. I need a drink to steady my nerves. Ignoring the shit on the seat of his bike, he rode towards the local tavern.
As he passed the hill to the old seminary, he recalled his first kiss with Christine. He parked his Chetak to walk, instead, the well-used path that led to the top of the hill and hopefully to past remembrances. Along the way, he recalled the hours they had spent sitting on a rock admiring the Mandovi river below. It fanned out and shone under the sun like a jewelled necklace, never failing to mesmerise them.
It had been so many years since he was up on this hill. He wondered if the river still looked the same, if it was still beautiful and slender and glittery. He stopped to catch his breath suddenly aware he wasn’t young anymore. From his spot on a rock, he caught glimpses of the river below. She will like this, he thought. It will be like old times, like nothing has changed. But he knew he was fooling himself. He always did. Too timid to face up to the truth that indeed everything had changed except him.
A smell pierced through, the acrid stench almost singed his nostrils. It was the smell of bird shit. Caetan stood up and turned around to face the direction of the stench. He was but a few meters from the top of the hill and from his position he could see the vastness of the plateau. The trees and the old seminary had disappeared under a large monstrous bird. It swayed on its spindly legs, its gimlet eye fixed on him. As if from a nightmare, chunks of this feathered creature dislodged, its shape shifted to reveal it was not a single bird but thousands roosting for the night, in this place of beauty, silence and stolen romances.
Caetan laughed to himself. The frail little creatures looked harmless. Well, no point going to the top of the hill. There was no place for him amongst them. He turned around to head back down. But the path had disappeared. Layers and layers of feathers had covered the path so that all he saw was a white landscape of rustling feathers, forming a slippery slope downhill.
In a wave of panic, he fell and hit his head against some buried rock. What if he died here, so close to home, all alone? Worse, they might not find his body, he realised, he would be buried under these feathers, like a bird, but a dead one.
Unable to stand, he sat down. He prepared to slide his way downhill. The feathers kept falling like fine dust.
Cordelia B Francis moved to Goa 13 years ago. Prior to that, she lived in Mumbai, Nairobi and Lagos. She has worked as a journalist at Femina (Mumbai), Times of India (Goa edition), The Herald (Goa) and Gomantak Times (Goa). Currently she runs a luxury villa business and writes short stories in her free time.