When it came to songbirds, I was something of a mass murderer. It was not cruelty that drove me but rather a hunter’s instinct. I liked to work out how to catch living things and failing actual capture, to assassinate them.
The leafy suburbs of Parktown North played habitat to a wealth of different bird species. There were tons of pigeons, doves, white eyes and my special favourite, the mouse bird, arguably the world’s dumbest bird. Unlike other birds, the mouse bird chose not to move when a stone hurtled past it or even broke the branch off above its head. Thus it was the perfect bird to get your sight in.
My choice of weapons included the classics, being the hurtled stone and the katty along with a few other choice weapons from my ninja arsenal like the blowgun. It was the katty that was ultimately the most deadly weapon and I became expert at it.
The instinctive guilt that I felt in this hobby was allayed somewhat by the fact that our large contingent of Zulu staff members liked to eat birds to round off their diets of putu and beans. Not that there was much meat on the little tweeters, but they seemed to enjoy beheading them and plucking them nevertheless. Perhaps it connected them to their childhoods.
Guilt or no guilt though I did have to be careful. No adult – and certainly not my parents – approved of unnecessary slaughter for any reason. I had to sneak around, making off into overgrown gardens and fields to pursue my barbarous pastime.
One of the other peculiar habits of the mouse bird is to clench its feet around the branch it sat on in the act of dying. Often it did not fall down and you had to keep shooting to dislodge it.
One time, while hunting in the university grounds across the road from our house, I had just managed to assassinate a mouse bird when a furious man leapt out of nowhere screaming at me.
‘Why are you shooting birds?’
‘I am not shooting birds!’ I replied in outrage. ‘I would never shoot a bird.’
‘Well what are you shooting then?’
‘Cans’ I said desperately. ‘There is a can in that tree and I am trying to shoot it out.’
At that exact moment, the dead mouse bird, which had been clinging to the twig in its grim rigor mortis, suddenly let go of its precarious death grip and fell down on the floor between us. I turned and bolted in a panic while the floppy-haired professor began chasing after me.
Set back by my escape from a certain hiding but not to be outdone, I changed my hunting areas to avoid the grounds of this nasty man. What was he getting so upset about anyway?
One sullen wintry afternoon I went hunting on the opposite campus, moving like a ghost between the massive oak trees, looking for prey. I spotted a large crow and took it out of the tree with a single shot. The bird fell to the ground but to my consternation and disgust decided not to die, instead flapping around on the ground with one of its great, glossy wings clearly broken.
‘Oh no’ I mumbled into the gloomy sky. What now?
I looked at the bird for a bit but it still refused to die. I decided to just walk away but no distance could separate me from the bat like echoes of its painful death throes. It seemed to be flapping in syncopation with my guilty heart. I should not have been shooting crows anyway. Crows were magical birds. They weren’t just rats with wings, like pigeons and mouse birds. They were more like, well … Doberman Pinschers with wings.
‘Damn’ I muttered as I got half way home and decided to turn around and go back to finish the job. As an eight year old I had never had to kill anything bigger that a caterpillar, not at close range anyway. Like an American General, I preferred to kill things without having to meet them first.
It was getting dark by the time I got back to the kill zone. If anything the bird was even more alive, thrashing about on the ground in chaotic circles. At one point it stopped for a second and tilted its head towards me, its cauldron-black eyes regarding me almost compassionately. I noticed a faint rim of blood around its beak as though its lungs had been pierced.
‘Why, damnit!’ I screamed in nauseous protest.
Then I pulled all of my nerve together, grabbed a brick and, closing my eyes, smashed it downwards. I felt the sickening impact but when I opened my eyes the bird was still not dead.
‘Die, you stupid bird!’ I screamed at it and struck again.
Still it would not die and I started to feel a deep seated panic grow in me. It was as if I was walking with it to the very edge of some abyss from which it would never return. It would not let me go back into the light while it faced such an awesome darkness.
Again and again I pounded it and as I did so I began to sob uncontrollably. When you peer in to death, death peers into you. A thousand beaks and claws scratched at my soul but finally the job was done and that beautiful crow was smashed into an unrecognizable smear of blood and feathers.
I placed my weapon next to its head and never played assassin again.