Winter had arrived early and that June morning when I left the house, the kikuyu grass was iced with a thick hoar frost that crunched beneath my feet as I skipped towards the pool. The sun struggled out of the yellow haze over the Johannesburg skyline, curling thin wisps of vapour from the water.
I could see Ouma sitting at her window, apparently deep in thought. Whatever ailed her these days, and it seemed there were a variety of ‘trials’ as she called them, obviously caused long sleepless nights in the chair.
Nearing the pool, I noticed a rounded grey clump floating in the icy water, a yard or so from the edge. Closer, I realised it was a wood pigeon, its head sunk deep into its puffed-up body, staring stoically into space.
Compassion overwhelmed me, and I rushed to the stoep to gather my fishing net, abandoned there the day before. I was not supposed to approach the poolside when no-one was about, but this was an emergency, and throwing myself face down on the chilled tiles edging the pool, I reached out and managed to slide the net under the bird, pulling it to the edge.
I tipped it out of the net, nudging it carefully onto the grass where it gazed up at me, trembling and occasionally blinking. Ouma always said not to touch birds. ‘They carry disease,’ she would warn. I raced into the kitchen, grabbed a tea towel and carefully wrapped the quivering bird inside a nest of cotton. I carried it into the dining room where the sun was already laying a chequered pattern across the floor through the french windows, and laid it in the centre of this pool of warmth.
Then I poured a tiny bowl of water and laid a few crumbs of bread next to the bird. It was blinking more slowly now. I hoped it wasn’t dying.
All day I observed my patient covertly from the doorway. Ma and Pa were not pleased, but they tolerated my activities, Pa warning me to expect the worst. Ndidi, the maid, tutted in disapproval, confining herself to the kitchen for the rest of the day.
Later, in the garden, I dragged Jacob, our garden boy, to the dining room windows to show him the bird, but he shook his head doubtfully.
“No good will come of it, Miss Sarah,” he said. “This is its time.”
I was angry with him, and flounced off, but he was accustomed to my occasional displays of petulance and went on about his business.
By afternoon, the bird had nibbled some bread and showed some signs of life, so I carried it to the garden where the frost had now evaporated. The bird tottered slowly round the garden, gathering confidence slowly.
I shot a triumphant glance at Jacob, who leaned on his spade, expressionless.
At night I transferred the bird to an outhouse with some milk and bread, pausing at the doorway to offer a fervent prayer for its continued recovery, before going to bed.
Next morning the bird was dead on its back, feet frozen in the act of clawing at the air, and as I buried it beneath the jacaranda tree I avoided Jacob’s gaze. Glancing back at the house, I saw Ouma, still by her window, and thought I detected a rueful shake of her head.
The following week, Ouma suffered a heart attack. My mother, who was a trained nurse, immediately started what she called ‘resuscitation’. It was painful to watch Ouma’s fragile body beneath the onslaught of what appeared to be such extreme physical violence, and I cowered behind an armchair, peeping out from time to time.
Once Ouma had come round, Jacob was called to help her into her chair. I stood anxiously in the doorway awaiting the arrival of the medical team, and as she was carried away, I saw Jacob and Ndidi exchanging glances. Jacob caught my worried gaze.
“It’s her time,” he said.
Ouma was returned to us, but she was even more frail, and within a month of her so-called recovery, she died in her sleep and was buried, as she had wished, beneath the jacaranda tree.
I didn’t tell Ma and Pa when I saw Ouma again, sitting on the stoep rocking slowly in her chair. Nor did I mention the sleek grey wood pigeon she was gently stroking on her lap. Ouma wouldn’t talk to me though, and the pigeon stared at me bleakly, almost accusingly.
I lay awake nights, fretting. Pa said it was grief; it felt more like guilt.
This went on for weeks, as the winter gave way to spring, the sweet purple of the jacaranda blooms began to emerge beneath the brilliant blue sky and the fragrance of hibiscus hovered around the stoep.
Yet the world seemed to be waiting for something.
One warm November day, I watched as thunderheads formed on the horizon over the city. By late afternoon they were billowing and furling high into the sky, and a brisk wind began to stir the trees. There was the familiar pungent smell of wet earth, as the storm growled its way over the highveld towards us, and together Ndidi and Jacob moved garden furniture onto the stoep.
I wanted to tell them to mind Ouma and the pigeon, but then realised they were making sure the furniture was stacked at the other end of the stoep, away from the ghostly figures. I wondered whether perhaps they too could see them.
The storm broke with a hiss of lightning and a crash of thunder that rattled the roof-tiles. It circled the house for an hour or more, as I watched, shivering from my window. During prolonged flashes of the lightning I could see Ouma and the pigeon, still on the stoep, but appearing somehow more animated, looking expectantly out towards the jacaranda tree. I felt almost faint with fear and apprehension.
Suddenly, with one horrendous crash, a fireball struck the jacaranda, slicing it straight down the middle. The tree groaned, as if in agony, and its beautiful feathered branches, dotted with trembling purple blooms, teetered for a moment, before crashing across the lawn.
Ma screamed. Pa cursed.
The storm rumbled away, the garden shimmered under a million dancing raindrops, and Ouma and the wood pigeon had vanished from the stoep.
Jacob re-emerged from his garden shed, and smiled at Ndidi and me.
“The spirits came back for them,” he said. “They were fortunate. It was long past their time.”