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One for Sorrow by Nasreen Rafiq


Scarlet chose a hummingbird. It was the first in her family, and amongst the Armando tribe, it was unheard of. Her mother’s yellow jacana had died the day after Huave went missing in the marshlands. The grief was too much for the bird to bear. Instead of joining the villagers in their search her mother had taken to her cot, lost all hope, refusing to chant to the Sacred Sisters to guide her son back. She lost all her mind in that one night.


After eight blistering days and many moonless nights, Scarlet’s father returned. He led the village throng past the abandoned east town, through the jamun orchard where they gorged on the overripe fruits and only once his beloved Caracara had swooped in to take its place on his shoulder did he enter their adobe and announce the safe return of Huave. He stepped aside to reveal the leech ridden boy in the arms of Santos, their first born son. Scarlet stopped fanning her mother who uttered no rapture of joy, offered no arms outstretched to take her child. The day gave swiftly to night.


The silence in the adobe house was broken only by the sound of Huave suckling the purple nectar oblivious to the fate of his mother, her haste in grieving causing the demise of her beloved jacana. Even the Caracara held his chirps. One by one the villagers returned to their dwellings, the moon reappearing to guide them home, the night prolonged to replenish the weary men.


Ashamed and overcome by her reckless and premature display of emotion Scarlet’s mother turned her back to Huave and her husband imposing a selective mutism. With her yellow jacana of some forty four years gone Scarlet’s mother felt her shoulder light of bird, her heart heavy with despair. Scarlet had witnessed her best friend Petula’s mother wither away when she too had lost her entire mind over a cropless harvest. Until one day she stopped over to play and found Petula’s mother buried under brown tinged leaves beneath the avocado tree.


And so it was Scarlet’s turn to take on her mother’s role, to bear the burdens of the days and despite her fathers counsel, she returned with the smallest bird in the land, a hummingbird. A tiny, pugnacious , jewel–like bird with plumage in Ruby, emerald and amber, that darted nervously back and forth hiding in Scarlet’s poncho.


‘Daughter, did you lose your mind?’ Scarlet’s mother broke her vow of silence, uttering her first words under the glow of the oil lamp, fearing her daughters naivety would send them both to an earlier death.


‘This bird is a nervous wreck. She will never hold the weight of your worries.’


Scarlet held out her palm for the bird to rest. She closed her fist to keep it warm.


‘Her heart will fill and swell with your smallest trouble until it ruptures and your time is cut short.’


Scarlet opened her fingers mesmerised at the melody of chirps and humming, a sound like none she’d heard before.


‘Go trade her for a real bird.’ She waved her away. ‘Get a bird of prey, the Caracaras have served us and our ancestors for all time. The bird is your heart Scarlet, you need a big heart to stay long in this life.’ She lay back down, spent.


Scarlet watched her mother’s hammock ebb back and forth, back and forth, until it moved no more.