Two days into his stay at the farm he knew something was amiss. Each morning he had woken up to a crisp cool dawn of the early spring days, the air redolent with the heady bouquet of the hillside blooms and the mild rays of sunshine diffused through a curtain of thin fog that hung in the air well into the mid-mornings. On the whole it was good to be back at his ancestral farm which he had all but forgotten for over two decades, hardly having had time to consider visiting his hometown through his busy work schedules. But this year, it did seem a great idea and he vaguely tried to recollect what it was that had made him disregard his usually favoured glamping trip as a rejuvenating vacation.
Raising his camera once again to scan the tree tops and moist boughs, he knew what he had sensed since his arrival here. No birds. Absolutely none. No chatter, no cries, no calls, no songs. He scanned the dense grasslands fervently; where were they all? He recalled seeing myriad species on each of his past visits – they simply couldn’t have all gone away, not in such a lush, undisturbed plantation. Making a mental note to delve deeper into the matter after breakfast, he turned around to head back towards the house.
Just then through his peripheral vision he sensed movement on a nearby tree. Whipping his camera around, he focussed on the disturbance in the lowermost branches of the nearby jamun tree. Whatever it was had jumped to the next higher branch. Following with the lens and with tighter focus he could just about make out something flit across the field of vision. Definitely a tail there; certainly a bird. Scanning the next branch, he had the body and tail in focus – the feather colours and arrangement with the distinct red under the tail meant, in all likelihood, a red-vented bulbul. The bird slowly and silently kept making its way towards the treetop, while he tried to capture the whole bird in his frame – but to no avail. Try as he might, a view of its head remained elusive.
By now the bird had reached the topmost branch and it sat out there in the open, still and hushed. Finally, he thought, there would be no impediment to capture the bird in its full glory. But the sight through the view finder caused him to gasp. The camera dropped out of his grip and fell violently to hang from the strap around his neck. His hands shook as he raised the camera to get the bird back into focus. It was impossible but what he was seeing couldn’t be wished away. He lowered the camera and just stared as if hypnotised. The bird was headless!
It just sat there at the top of the tree – not a sound, not a movement – an unseen head bent down towards him and non-existent eyes staring down at him. Suddenly wings flapping clumsily it fell out of the branch, plummeting towards the earth – just like, just like…that day twenty odd years ago! It was as if a mist had formed in front of his eyes. His mind raced to that last visit when, playing with the loaded air rifle of the farm’s caretaker, he had raised it aimlessly and taken a shot at the nearest visible bird sitting on the top of the jamun tree, innocent and vulnerable. Shot through the syrinx, not a cry uttered, not a wing flapped.
The mist in his eyes condensed into moisture, until it welled up into torrential tears. He sank to his knees with the realisation of his past deed, his head in his hands touching the ground in abject apologetic surrender. The ground was moist and a metallic smell flooded his nostrils – blood, or may be the iron in the soil.
It was then that he heard a faint but distinct “peet-tetwee” from above, repeated again and again, as it faded away into the morning haze. He raised his head wiping his eyes away at the shirt sleeves as the warmth of the sun trickled in through the mist leaving him awash in golden lustre…
[In the frame: a Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer), ostensibly in the land of the living]
– Narendra Nayak © 2021