Strange Bird

by Justine Loots

First Place


 Chapter one excerpt.


When they first saw the island, Kay curled her hand around Elroy’s and pulled Toby in towards them. They stood, bundled together like that, on the sailboat’s wooden deck, watching the tiny pebble magnify. That was to be their home. Toby remembers glimpsing shades of green so vivid they seemed implausible. Sun-kissed sage, she thought to herself. Speckled jade. Moss-glowing gorges. The words were jewels, more substantial in that moment than the island itself.

            She felt her mother’s warmth against her back, and something else with it. She couldn’t name it then. The word only came later … possibility. It filled all of them, but her mother overflowed with its thousand colours. If Toby had known their possibilities would narrow right down all the way to nothing, she would have tried harder. She would have found the word there on the boat, spoken it out loud, and so held onto its promises.


There were sixty of them on that boat, sixty-six if you count the cattle. They were Titian red – some with white patches – although Toby was told a description like Titian belonged to their old lives. She didn’t retort that the word Simbrah had no use either, for these cattle would be the only breed on the island, so what was the point in differentiating them? Adults, Toby realised, are selective in their grasp of logic.

            The cattle still had their horns. In the old world, these would have been removed before the calves were three months old. They’d have had no need for protective horns in feeding lots. As for the island, the travellers had no idea what they or the cattle would face, so they chose cattle with horns that were still intact.

Two bulls were to cart heavy materials that the travellers would use to build dwellings, along with a communal hall. The bulls would also be used to plough the land so that they could grow crops. The four cows would provide them with milk and, in time, calves.

They’d travelled for forty-six days to reach their new home. Toby had learned to mark off each sunset in her mind for she had no pen or paper. They were told there’d be no need for such things. From now on, they’d live off the land.


It was a sunny day, clear enough to believe in new worlds, yet the cattle became restless as they approached the island. Some thought it was anticipation, that they were relieved to smell the earth again, but the cattle minders went silent in the way adults do when they know something but don’t want to unnerve you with the details. The water became choppy, which puzzled the skipper since the sail remained slack, as if there was no wind at all. The rough water made docking almost impossible. The cattle were sweating. The bulls bellowed and snorted, and one of the heifers lowered her head and bucked, kicking her hind legs into the side of the boat, splitting the wood. They refused to budge, even after most of the people had disembarked. Jonah, the cattleman, tried to lure them off with a pail full of fresh green shrubs but they swayed their heads away from the pail. Anything to do with the island seemed distasteful to them. Eventually Jonah used the whip on them, something he hadn’t done once on the entire sea journey, just to force them off the boat.


Toby set her feet on the ground, awkward as a gazelle fawn. After being on the boat, the beach sand was rigid and unforgiving, and she fell down, unsure whether to laugh or vomit. Some of the others howled, so certain in their exhilaration. Out the corner of her eye, she noticed that for a split second the nearby trees cast shadows in many directions all at once. Was it dizziness? Toby might be disoriented but she felt strangely awake. She was left unsure if the island wanted them there at all.


Jonah’s face was wet with exertion as he led the cattle to the nearby shrubs. His assistant Zed, a lanky tinker-type who could fix almost anything, stayed behind to mend the side of the boat. Toby could tell he wanted to be alone. He was distancing himself from the whipping or perhaps, like the cattle, was reluctant to leave the familiarity of the boat. On the journey, the travellers made an effort to get along. They had to, they were all they had, but Zed had an invisible shield around him. Conversation bounced right off it. Even when people chatted to him directly, he never heard them, or at least pretended not to. He was a silent man, and most people aren’t comfortable with those who are comfortable with silence. They fill the void, revealing all kinds of intimacies. If it wasn’t small talk, Zed would listen. He would neither advise nor judge, so people would open up further. Afterwards, they’d be ashamed at how much they’d shared. They’d call him peculiar, as if it was Zed’s fault they’d purged their sorrows from their beings into his. He added their blame to their sorrows and quietly retained all of it.

Although he stayed behind, Zed never repaired the side of the boat. He probably didn’t see the point. There was nowhere for any of them to go, this was it.

‘Everything else is behind us now,’ they repeated at sea, as though the mind travels in a straight line, looking forward only. Anyone who’s sailed knows that might be an ideal but it’s an impossible one, and Toby can’t believe the act of thinking is any different.


Shortly after they had disembarked, the skies darkened. The trees swayed wildly, as if building up momentum to lurch out of the ground and stride over to the cluster of people to confront them for landing here. The travellers could have returned to the boat, spent the night sleeping onboard, and tackled the building of shelters when the sky cleared, but none of them could face that. Even a storm was preferable to another night on the water.

            Toby and Elroy plucked mussels from the rocks. He wanted to surprise the others with the ocean delicacies.

            ‘Can we just take these, Pa?’ she asked him.

            ‘Who’s going to lock you away?’ His eyes twinkled.

            She ran her finger along the hard edge of the shell. Again, she didn’t have words. Later she’d see each shell as a sealed hermitage, and wonder who they were to crack them open, haul out the aquatic monks and devour them?

But since these words were out of reach, or didn’t yet exist, her father’s thoughts about the mussels filled her.


As they worked, they inched their way to where a small river met the ocean. Kay had joined them, offering to help, but she was too mesmerised by the trees’ unruly waving.

She turned to them briefly, ‘Something’s not right.’ A strange whistling sound reached them. ‘The trees … that sound.’ Kay was unsteady on her feet. The francophone travellers might have said it was mal de debarquement, which is when your body still thinks you’re at sea even though you’ve landed.

But our family’s not francophone, thought Toby. We’re brown people, earth people who know land from sea.

            Elroy shook his head, unruffled by the sound. ‘They’re thorn trees’. He smiled at Toby, ‘You’ve heard of whistling acacias, haven’t you, kiddo?’

            Toby nodded, trying to smile back, but she’d caught her mother’s disquiet; at least that’s what she thought it was.

Then she saw it: a darting green arrow heading for her father. Harlequin is the name for that shade of green brilliance, she’d realise later. She lurched into Elroy. They tumbled down into the shallow water. Toby was up on her feet like a cat, but the river snake was already disappearing between the rocks.

She checked on her father. He was catching his breath from the shock. She turned to her mother. Her hands were over her mouth, the incident reverberating through her. Although it made no sense, and the snake had vanished, Toby knew her mother was the one in some kind of danger.


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