Many years ago, when I lived in Three Anchor Bay, I had a neighbour called Elei. Elei loved birds (see the story The bird juggler). I asked him once why he loved birds so much, seemingly in preference to people.

He told me that he was conscripted into the Army in his twenties, despite being a recent Italian immigrant.

“I remember,” he said, “very cold in Bloemfontein. And much shout.”

He did two tours in his year of service. His patrol pursued SWAPO guerrillas into the hot Angolan bush. Because he was slight, he ran ahead with the San tracker whose name was Xi, but whom they called Paulo. Sometimes, when he and Xi reached the next spoor, sand would still be running into it. Xi raised a closed fist and the rest of the patrol—further back and fanned out in the intermittent bush—dropped from sight without a sound and crawled slowly into raking positions. In the dappled shade, Xi listened with his mouth open to filter out the high-pitched drone of cicadas.

While Xi listened, Elei watched the trees. A speckled pigeon perched in the branches high above them. Perhaps it saw humans that day for the first time. From where the bird sat it likely saw the fleeing man, crouched somewhere ahead, biting back his breathing.

Then shots rang out and the pigeon flew up in alarm. Later, in the short twilight of those latitudes, it returned as the platoon picked through the pockets of the dead man.

It was here that Elei learned of his love for birds.

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