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The Soaring Bird of Courage
This is a fictional story, and it takes place in what is now Zimbabwe. The date is 1871.
The huge Afrikaaner raised his hand and brought the column to a halt. He inspected the the bauxite dust that made up the broad trail along which they were travelling, then went over to the thorn bushes at one side. He turned.
“A small impi awaits us, Major. Just ahead.”
Major Simon Edson leapt from the small supply wagon. “One up the spout, fix bayonets.”
“Come along, lads, you ‘eard the officer. Look sharp.” Sergeant Chivers and five privates jumped to the ground, just as a score of ululating tribesmen appeared through the bush and on to the track. Almost immediately, one of the privates was killed, an assegai lodged deep in his belly. The battle became very personal.
Piet van der Merwe unsheathed an enormous double-edged bayonet and began to inflict terrible carnage. Simon, the six bullets in his side arm spent, now used it as a club in his left hand while he grabbed up the rifle of the fallen private, and thrust for his life at the warriors surrounding them. Suddenly, an iklwa was thrust into the Afrikaaner’s side. Piet looked at it, tugged it out and rammed it into the belly of the warrior who’s weapon it was. The man’s eyes opened wide with amazement as he tumbled to the ground, clutching his stomach. The iklwa was so named for the sound it made when withdrawn from flesh. It was shorter and with a broader blade than the assegai and used for close quarter fighting.
All the soldiers had expended their bullets from their single shot Martini-Henrys. Two privates lay dead, and the remaining two, with the sergeant, were fighting a desperate battle with their bayonets. In, up, twist, out, time and time again. The next time Simon turned to look, another private was victim to an iklwa, and Sergeant Chivers and the remaining soldier were fighting back to back.
Piet was obviously weak from the iklwa thrust and losing blood, but he fought with every ounce of his enormous strength.
Suddenly, a knobkerrie crashed into the base of his skull, and like a great tree felled by the forester, he collapsed on the blood-soaked trail.
Simon stood over him, his back to the thorn bushes at the side of the track. His helmet was long gone, his red tunic ripped to pieces and his once-white shirt now soaked in blood. His rifle was difficult to hold for the gore so thick upon it. The bodies of the warriors lay piled on the ground, yet still they came on. He turned again quickly, and saw that Sergeant Chivers was on his own, fighting like a demon. Simon turned back, just in time to find a tribesman coming at him with an underarm thrust. He parried it, drove his bayonet into the man’s belly, cut upwards and across, disemboweling the warrior. His guts spilled out. The warrior tried to push them back in, but collapsed.
Just then, a knobkerrie smashed into the side of Simon’s head. A red haze swam before his eyes. Just before he passed out, he thought he heard the sound of a bugle.
The bugle was real. A column of mounted soldiers had been tracking this very impi. They made short work of the survivors and looked around in admiration at the carnage wrought by so few men.
The stench of battle was thick in the air. Blood, guts, bowels; all the hellish refuse of combat. Major Simon Edson, Piet, and Sergeant Chivers were the only survivors. All, including the dead, were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, save Simon, who received the Meritorious Service Medal, awarded to officers.
In September 1868, Mzilikazi died. Not only was he king of all the nDebele people, he was their founder. He was a senior lieutenant of the great Zulu king, Tshaka. In 1823, he broke away from his sovereign, since he considered he’d become too greedy and too unwilling to share the spoils of war. In this way, he formed the nDebele nation, or Matablele as they’re still called by Europeans. Their language then, as now, is similar to the Zulu tongue, and their name means The People of the Long Shields.
Just before his death, Mzilikazi ruled over great swathes of South Africa, an area that was to become known as Rhodesia, after Cecil Rhodes some 20 years hence. His first son, Nkulumani, should have succeeded him. However, like so many absolute rulers, old age made him paranoid, and he had Nkulumani and many of his senior izinDuna, or tribal chiefs, thrown over a cliff. The remaining izinDuna, therefore turned to the second son, Lobengula, to take his place, and in late September 1868, amid a gathering of the whole nation, he took the Throne of the the nDebele people.
Certain of the impi, or regiments, were against his elevation, mainly because his mother was a Swazi woman and considered inferior. Lobengula proved himself a true leader, however, and put down this rebellious faction by force of arms once, and for the remainder of his reign.
It was said that the streets of the capital, Gu-Bulawayo, or the Place of Slaughter, ran with more blood than rain that year.
For some time, Simon had been considering resigning his commission. He had enough money saved to buy a 3,000 acre cattle ranch, not big, but sufficient to supply he and his family with a good living. He and Piet had always been close, but their brush with death brought them even closer.
He asked the big Afrikaaner whether he would like to join him in the venture, and Piet readily agreed. His knowledge of the bush and of cattle would be invaluable assets.
Patricia, and his son, Timothy, were delighted to have Steven home. For the first year, everything went better than they could ever have expected. Patricia and Timothy lost no time in making Piet a member of the family. He insisted on living by himself, however, and built a rondavel, a round, single roomed dwelling where he slept and relaxed, but joined the family for meals.
After the first year, though, Simon started to slip away from them. It was imperceptible at first, but more and more he spent less time on the ranch and more on the whiskey bottle. Where there were none before, arguments began to spring up between husband and wife. Life soon became a broken landscape of tension and controversy.
Piet went about the business of the ranch in his slow, deliberate way, and kept his council. Meals were taken in strained silence, and the Afrikaaner would escape to his rondavel as soon as possible. There, he would smoke his pipe, seated in his huge captain’s chair outside the door.
Timothy, 11 years old and small for his age, liked to join him in a little rocking chair that Piet had made for him. He listened with rapt attention as Piet told him tales of battles with the Zulu, hunting lion and buffalo, and stories of the the Great Trek made by the Voortrekkers so many years before. The boy counted these times most precious to him. The smells of leather, sweat and blue aromatic pipe tobacco, together with the closeness of this massive man, enveloped him in a cocoon of safety from what had become domestic misery.
Another day, another argument. Both voices raised in anger. Normally, Timothy ran away from the ugly sounds, but suddenly he heard his father yell his name. Curiosity overcame fear, and Timothy crept up onto the stoop and put his ear to the edge of the glass door.
“–no good, Patricia. The boy’s terrified of cattle, of everything that moves, it seems.”
His father came into view, glass in hand. It was only ten o’clock in the morning. Timothy hear the great grandfather clock strike the hour. He flattened himself against the wall, still able to hear the hectoring voice.
“Let him have a go with my service revolver the other day. First shot, flat on his back.” Simon’s voice tailed away. “No good to man nor beast.”
Timothy risked a quick look into the room. His mother was standing with her hands on the back of a chair, her knuckles white.
“And I suppose, in your besotted opinion, the answer is to send my son to school in England. God in heaven, Simon, what’s happened to you? Where’s the man I loved?” The last words were a cry of pleading desperation.
“Oh, for God’s sake, women know nothing of these things. Make a man of him if it kills me. Now be a good girl and run along and leave–“
Timothy heard a slap. It sounded like a gunshot.
Again, he inched his head around the door so that one eye took in most of the room. He was just in time to see his mother, standing eye to eye with his father, snatch the glass from his hand and fling it violently against the wall behind Simon. He stood there, bemused, his hand still positioned as though he held the glass.
“When you find my husband, be so kind as to tell me,” his mother hissed fiercely. “The excuse for a human being standing before me is a most unwelcome visitor.” She swept imperiously from the room.
Timothy tip-toed off the stoop and ran down the short driveway. He veered off into the long grass, threw himself down and wept until his back and shoulders ached. He was sure he shed every tear that God had given him.
Nothing was said during dinner that evening. Piet knew well what was happening and it sorely grieved him. The dear friend who’d saved his life was fast becoming a monster to his wife and son.
As usual, Timothy followed the Afrikaaner as he headed for his rondavel. They took their seats, and Timothy waited while Piet charged his great pipe and lit it with the deliberation that governed all his actions. Scented billows of smoke rose into the velvety evening air, and Piet tamped down the tobacco with a forefinger as thick as Timothy’s wrist.
Piet was halway through a story about walking around a giant anthill and coming face to face with a lion, when Timothy blurted out; “My father hates me!”
Piet stopped talking and slowly turned his eyes on him.
“You interrupt me, Jong. Kindly explain yourself.”
Then it all came spilling and tumbling out, while tears ran in little rivers down Timothy’s cheeks. He didn’t think he had any more tears, yet they came again from somewhere.
“Oom Piet, he’s right. I’m weak, and afraid of so many things.”
He jumped off his chair to run away, but Piet’s huge left arm shot out with the speed of a mamba and caught him by the seat of his pants. He pulled him back and hoisted him into his lap as if he were a tiny puppy.
Timothy buried his face in the great chest and wept again. Piet’s left hand entirely engulfed the boy’s blond head, while he continued to puff at his pipe and wait patiently for the storm of anguish to abate.
“I-I’m sorry, Oom Piet.” The voice was very small.
“Sorry, Jong?” came the rumbling, guttural question. “Sorry for what? For crying? Or for interrupting my story?” He spoke the last in gentle mock severity and very lightly tapped the tip of Timothy’s nose.
“For crying like a silly girl, Oom Piet. Father says that men should never cry.”
“Then your father’s ‘ead is full of bricks. You English ‘ave this business of the ‘ard upper lip, or whatever.”
“Yes, but you never cry, Oom Piet.”
“Oh? And from whence comes this great knowledge? Of course I cry. To ‘old in your feelings is like always reining in a fast ‘orse, never allowing it to run. You will make it weak and stubborn and the same thing will ‘appen to your ‘eart.” He tapped his chest.
“But I am weak and frightened of things, Oom Piet. Father’s right. He wants to send me to school in England to make a man of me.”
Timothy didn’t look at Piet’s face, or he would have seen the mouth harden and the blue eyes catch fire.
“Tell me, my Timothy. You say you are weak. I can carry a 200lb sack of corn under each arm.
Your father can barely lift one. Yet I am alive today because he fought like a lion to save me. If I am so much stronger, how, then, do you explain that?”
“I can’t, Oom Piet. But I’d be too frightened to fight like that. I’m useless.”
“Now you listen to me well, Jong.” Piet gripped his little shoulders and moved him around so that they were face to face. “To speak thus is to slap the God of Abraham in the face. We are all ‘ere for a reason, all part of ‘Is Great Purpose. Never ever forget that.”
“No. No, Oom Piet, I won’t.”
“And one more thing.” Piet gently lifted the boy off his lap and stood him before him. “You ‘ave extended your love and friendship to me of your own will. It is a gift more valuable to me than gold. ‘Ow, then, can you be useless?”
He embraced the boy briefly but tightly. Timothy walked slowly back to the house. He had much to think about. Piet rose and stomped into his rondavel. His anger was fierce.
Timothy had one other friend who shared all his secrets. An nDebele boy of about the same age, but bigger. The day after Timothy’s conversation with Piet, he met Mbizo at their secret place and together they trekked into the bush. They went farther than usual, Mbizo carrying his shield and assegai, Timothy with the assegai Mbizo had made for him. Suddenly, Mbizo stopped dead, and Timothy nearly cannoned into him.
Timothy felt his stomach leap into his throat. He looked over Mbizo’s shoulder and saw two leopard cubs. Mbizo whispered to Timothy to walk backwards very slowly the way they’d come.
Slowly, they went. Very, very slowly. Timothy’s eyes were fixed on Mbizo’s muscular back. Sweat poured off the smaller boy. He felt it running down his sides from his armpits, down his back and off his chest. He thought the whole of Creation could hear his heart hammering against his ribs. Don’t look around. Don’t even breathe. Watch Mbizo. Oh God, please let this end! Please make us safe. Not far now. Nearly there —
Suddenly, there was a rustle, and a flash of spotted fury flew past his head. The big cat landed with its front paws on Mbizo’s back, smashing the boy to the ground. Timothy saw the merciless jaws open and try to take his friend’s head in its mouth. Mbizo twisted and turned and tried to spear the animal, but he was held down too tightly.
Timothy looked on in horror. What was he to do? He was the prisoner of his fear. Snatches of conversation with Oom Piet came to him from the previous night. That was his best friend under that killing machine. Run! Run away! Hide! Pretend he never saw what happened. And then face Oom Piet. In his dreams, he would have to explain himself to his best friend. Like lightening these thoughts flashed through his mind. He started to jump up and down in indecision. Then, from somewhere deep in his primeval make-up, he gave a cry, more animal than human, and rushed to where the leopard mauled his friend.
In a haze of panic, he stabbed at the spotted back. The great cat turned in fury to face its attacker. Momentarily, it crouched, then sprang at Timothy. He saw the brute’s bloodshot, yellow eyes as it slammed him to the ground beneath its weight. He managed to hold his assegai upwards and thrust it into the belly of the spotted terror.
The last thing he remembered before oblivion was the stench of the leopard’s foul, foetid breath.
“Oh my God, where is he? Where can he have gone? Piet, you’re sure you haven’t seen him? He didn’t say anything to you?”
Patricia paced to and fro on the stoop, her steps jerky and uncoordinated. She kept wringing her hands, a handkerchief crumpled between them.
“Mevrou, if I knew, you know I’d tell you.”
Patricia moved over to him quickly and laid a hand on his arm. “Piet, I know, and I’m sorry. I know you’ve done all you can.”
Just then Simon appeared at the door, full glass in hand.
“Wretched boy. Told him never to wander off like this. Teach him a lesson.”
Piet moved towards him as soon as he appeared, and now towered over him. Very gently, he took the glass from Simon’s hand and with great deliberation, dashed the contents in his face.
“If one more word issues from your mouth, Meneer, I will be forced to ‘it you. Your poor wife wouldn’t wish to see your ‘ead roll upon your fine wood floor.”
Simon blinked up at him, and with a puzzled look on his face, turned and walked unsteadily away. He wasn’t seen again that night.
Just then, there was a sound on the stoop and two Africans appeared. They wore the headrings of ‘zinDuna, and were dressed in the full regalia of leopard skins and monkey tails. Piet went to them and they entered into an intense conversation. Finished, the two Africans turned and trotted back into the short dusk that ran away before the encroaching night.
“Mevrou, Timothy is safe, though injured. ‘E’s at the Great Kraal of Lobengula.” Patricia fainted.
Piet strode over to where she lay in a heap on the floor. He picked her up like a baby and laid her very gently on the large sofa. He covered her with a blanket and softly left the room. She came to, but sheer exhaustion overtook her and she slept.
She awoke the next morning to feel the sun warming her blanket. The memory that her son was alive brought her quickly to her feet. Piet was on the stoop smoking his pipe and she went and joined him.
“Mevrou. You managed to sleep?”
“I did, Piet. Did you?”
“I did, Mevrou, but ‘ere we ‘ave something of a puzzlement. Timothy is alive and recovering, yes, but ‘e was with a boy who is one of Lobengula’s favourite sons. I ‘ad no knowledge of ‘is friendship with this boy, who’s name is Mbizo. Did you?”
“No, Piet, no idea at all.” Patricia frowned. “I’ve never heard of him.”
“It seems that because of Timothy’s action, this boy still lives. ‘Owever, ‘e was worse injured than Timothy. Mevrou, if ‘e dies, then so does Timothy. A son for a son.”
The colour drained from Patricia’s face.
“You-you mean they’ll kill my son just because the other boy dies? Piet, that’s – that’s barbaric.” Her voice rose almost to a shriek, and she buried her face in her hands.
“I know, Mevrou, but we do not deal with people in fine suits and ties, who do their business in drawing rooms. This is Africa, Mevrou, and ‘ere we deal with their ancient law.”
Just then, they heard a sound behind them. Simon was on the threshold of the drawing room, holding onto the door for support. He looked ghastly. The eyes in his chalk-white face were sunken and bloodshot, and it looked as though he’d been crying. There was no sign of a glass. Patricia walked quickly to him and helped him to a chair.
“Has Timothy–been found?” His voice was barely above a whisper, the question tentative and nervous.
“He has, darling.” She flashed a look at Piet. “All’s well.”
“Thank God. I must wash,” he muttered, trying to stand.
“Come, dear, let me help you.” He leaned on her as they made their way to the bathroom. He was half way through washing his face, when he turned and threw himself down beside the toilet and vomited. All Patricia could do was to watch. Watch and pray that she was seeing the last of the unwelcome visitor.
Simon recovered, hauled himself to his feet, went back to the wash basin and cleaned his teeth. “Go back to bed now, my love. I’ll help you.”
But he turned back to the drawing room. He staggered to the door, then leaned against it. “Piet.”
The Afrikaaner was standing with his back to the door, but at the sound of Simon’s voice, he spun around. “Piet, I can never fully express–“
But the big man strode to him and enveloped him in a bear hug. Patricia watched as the two men spoke, her eyes glistening. Finally, Simon turned and walked unsteadily back to her. She put an arm about his shoulders.
“Back to bed, my love. I’ll help you.”
“My darling,” he whispered. “I’ve caused you so much pain. I–“
“And now it’s forgotten. Come.”
She led him back to the bedroom, covered him with a blanket, and rejoined Piet in the drawing room.
“The poor Major wrestles with ‘is conscience, but I told ‘im that if we never made mistakes, we’d be on a level with God, which would cause the Almighty a great muddle.”
Patricia couldn’t remember when last she laughed.
They heard Simon vomiting again in the bathroom. Patricia started to go to him, but Piet held her back.
“No, Mevrou, leave ‘im be. ‘E must vomit out the evil that’s within ‘im.” He faced Patricia. “Tomorrow, Mevrou. Tomorrow we go for Timothy.”
The horse and trap threw up clouds of bauxite dust as they made their way to the Great Kraal. The short, slender, purple leafed mapani trees seemed to stretch endlessly on either side of the track. Simon and Patricia held hands. Colour had returned to his face and he was a lot better.
Finally, they came in sight of the Kraal. It was huge. Two gigantic elephant tusks were set on high mounds, forming an arch which in turn led to the road. At the end was the King’s throne.
“We leave the trap ‘ere,” said Piet, climbing down from the driver’s seat and assisting Patricia. “We leave our weapons as well.”
Patricia felt as insignificant as an ant as she looked up at the mighty arch and then the road before them, lined on each side by thousands of tribesmen. It was a distance of about 100 yards to where Lobengula sat, surrounded by his wives, senior ‘zinDuna and some of his offspring. As soon as they walked beneath the great tusks, a total silence fell. No sound. No movement. It was as though the whole gathering had turned to stone.
She walked between the two men. As they walked, warriors fell in behind them, gently tapping their shields with their assegais. Patricia’s back automatically tensed in readiness for the spears she felt sure would pin them to the ground. Finally, they arrived before the King.
He was an enormous man, seated on a huge throne on a mound raised some six feet above their heads. He wore only a loincloth and made liberal use of the flyswatter he held in his right hand. Piet bowed to Lobengula, and Patricia and Simon followed suit. Piet opened the conversation in sinDebele. The King smiled.
“But we should speak in English. I enjoy the practice, and my other guests may not be as fluent in our tongue as you.” He nodded towards Piet. Patricia expected a great, booming voice, and was amazed at his quiet, almost genteel tones. His English was flawless.
Simon bowed to him. “Your Majesty, it is a great honour to stand before you.”
Lobengula liked being called “Majesty”. Normally, he was known as ‘nDhlovu nGakulu’, or great elephant. This had no bearing on his size! Simply that Africans consider the elephant the king of beasts.
They were served pots of ‘tshwala’, the milky coloured African beer, which Patricia found surprisingly good.
“I thank you for your courteous greeting, and we will drink to our friendship.” Lobengula drained his large goblet and handed it to one of his wives. “Now we must speak of your son.” Patricia’s throat constricted.
“My son is alive today,” Lobengula continued, “because of your son’s most gallant action.” He flicked his fingers, and a warrior came to them out of the throng surrounding the King, carrying a parcel wrapped in oxhide. He placed it at their feet. “In there,” the King continued, “is the skin of the leopard your son so bravely killed, together with monkey tails, his nDuna headring, his black shield and iklwa. He is too young to wear them now, but later he will wear them with honour.” He made a beckoning motion, and Timothy appeared holding the left hand of a woman, while a black youth accompanied them, holding her right. Both boys were bandaged and limping. They came up to the three Europeans. Mbizo bowed.
“My name is Mbizo,” he said in halting English. “I am most – most apology for Timot. He is most bravery.” The nDebele found it impossible to pronounce the ‘th’ sound.
“I am so glad you are well, Mbizo.” Patricia moved and squatted down in front of him. “If the great King will allow, you must come and visit us often.”
“I would like, Madman.”
Timothy whispered something in his ear.
“I am sorry. Madam.”
Timothy rushed to his mother and wrapped his arms about her. She kissed him all over his head. Then he went to his father and did the same. Patricia noticed the tears in Simon’s eyes as he held the boy close.
“And now, if you wish, you are dismissed,” said Lobengula, sitting back on his throne.
As they made their way back down the broad path beaten hard and flat by thousands of feet, the sound of a beautiful treble voice floated in the air. It rose like a graceful, invisible bird into the timeless African sky. Before it could fall, it was caught by the deepest bass note, followed by intricate, melodious cadences from ten thousand throats.
“Oh, how beautiful,” Patricia exclaimed. “What is it, Piet?”
“Verdommt, but they sing the ‘Bayete’. The great hymn of honour.”
“Are they singing for us, Oom Piet?” asked Timothy.
“They sing it for you, my Timothy. Just for you.”
He passed a hand roughly across his eyes.
“Verdommt sweat,” he muttered.
The Bayete was a Zulu hymn of praise, and in reality would never have been sung by the nDebele on such an occasion. The story does portray Lobengula accurately, but for further excellent information, I suggest you log into Wikipedia. There you’ll find a detailed history of the nDebele people, as well as the Zulu.
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