There on the muddy flats where creek met bay, in the darkness just beyond Selander Bridge, Boni stood far from the flock. Close enough to stay in view but far enough to nurse his grudge. Dar was the shit-show Boni had predicted, yet the other flamingoes were tolerating it. The low-tide stench of city river sewage. The subpar food within it. The proximity to everyone, everything.
“I swear to God,” Boni said to himself. He kicked the water around his ankles. But he was on the third evening of his hunger strike, so he nearly lost his balance. The others, who were feeding, had gotten used to Boni’s pridefulness. Right from their arrival, he had stood indignant, taking in the situation on the ground. He had bellyached about how these surroundings were beneath them, how everyone grew deaf when he warned against leaving glorious Natron. Boni’s eyes gleamed every time he ID’d another offense. He dug his toes in the mud-sand and he rattled. “See? See?” At least tonight he was quiet and the others could scour the waters in peace.
He was quiet but he was not silent, muttering alone to keep focus. Mostly, he stared at the bay’s horizon, glancing on occasion to see if any of the others were checking on him. It was hard to tell. Then in a weak moment, weak from no nourishment after the long journey, he saw a rocky outcrop ahead to the left. It was like the ones at the lake back home, so he trudged forward headlong. When it vanished, he was toppling into a stack of two derelict tires. “Jesus Christ,” he said. And it seemed the flock didn’t notice.
But a sharply amused owl did notice. Done cruising the heights for bats, Yusta had just settled nearby onto one of the beachfront building ledges where she liked to take dinner. Boni’s upside-down fluttering legs were entertainment as she tore into her catch.
Yusta generally didn’t do ground-level life. But she was wanting to know about this particular bird. On two nights already, she had observed him avoiding the others and talking to himself. So when she was good and finished with her meal, she glided down to the tires, clamped on one pink leg with her beak, and dropped a tousled Boni onto some sand. After he smoothed himself out, he afforded Yusta one nod and a curt thank you.
“You’re welcome. And I suppose, welcome to Dar es Salaam as well.”
Boni grunted and turned back to the horizon. Yusta glanced around, her big brown head whipping here and there. “I’ve seen you,” she said. “Kicking at nothing.”
“And standing around alone. Do you ever eat?”
“Do you eat from this filth?”
“Not a chance.”
“It’s good enough for the rest of your group.”
Boni saw that she was not yet going back where she came from, so he snapped his beak shut and kept his sight to sea.
“You seem troubled, pretty bird,” said Yusta. “I know trouble.”
Boni moved forward from the sand and began wading, putting more space between him and this owl.
“I hope that didn’t sound menacing,” Yusta said. “I just mean I’ve been through it.”
Boni only sighed.
“And of all creatures, who understands a yen for solitude more than I do?”
Boni dropped his gaze down and to the side, but without turning enough to look back at her.
Yusta went on. “So I’m not here to impose.”
Boni only shrugged. But he did wonder why this owl, of all creatures, wanted to talk.
“Alright then,” Yusta said. She flew over onto the tires, for at least a suggestion of elevation. She did another survey, winding her head. This was not a good setting for her, it made her anxious. She felt ready for takeoff but would give it some minutes. Now that she was out over the water and in line with Boni, his back wasn’t to her. She looked up, scanned the sky, looked down. Then from the horizon, one of the ships stationed in line for the harbor sounded its horn long and loud. That made Boni straighten up and focus. He heaved two sighs in a row, like someone with a thought that needed prodding.
“Where did you come from?” Yusta asked.
“Lake Natron. Like most of us. We have it to ourselves.”
“I know of it, I think. Far north, no?” Yusta picked at scant details in her mind. “Wait. Natron? Wait wait wait.” Laughter ruffled across her face, though her eyes stayed like big black marbles. “I actually have heard one thing,” she said. “Your lake up there is just as foul!” She laughed again. “Yet you won’t eat here! Are you joking?”
“The story being,” Boni replied tightly, “that there wasn’t enough food there to last us, apparently. There being, the most magnificent place in existence.” He dug his toes into the mud and held them like that. “The principle being, that I did not come all this way to eat amidst human shit.”
Yusta again asked why the others found it fine. But from Boni there was only simmering silence. She followed his gaze to the ship lights. “You are really repressed,” she said.
“Oh for mercy’s sake,” he replied. “Is there something you needed?”
Yusta wondered how to keep from seeming pushy. In Boni she had recognized an impotent soul. A thing or two about him recalled her past self. From before she took back control from her suffering. From before she flew out from under the strife in her life. Since then, she had been dying to impart her know-how, her life skills. Generally, her positive mindset. The only shame was that she hadn’t had an audience. But an opportunity was now presenting itself. And surprisingly, after several minutes of them taking in the view, it was Boni who spoke up next.
“Back home,” he said. “When I’m pissed off, I count stars. It helps without exception.” He looked at Yusta. “I haven’t done that. Do you know why?”
“Because there are, what, five? Maybe five bloody stars in Dar es Salaam.”
“Alright listen,” Yusta said. She jumped onto the ground, which had reached as far as where they were, bare of water. She hopped closer to him. “You can stand there listing everything you hate. Having a splendid pity party with no party food. Or you can find something positive to focus on.”
“You wouldn’t believe the night skies elsewhere,” Boni said with an acid chuckle. “But what do you know? Typical city bird.”
“Guilty.” Yusta held up a wing.
“I bet you think Dar is everything.”
“I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
“The noise, these lights, the too many humans, and big ghastly things nearby.” He gestured at the buildings overlooking the bay. “Just look. They don’t make you nervous?”
Yusta didn’t contemplate the concrete blocks much anymore, other than to find a good ledge to dine in private. She looked at the tall silhouettes dotted with lights. There did seem to be more of them year by year.
Boni was still sounding off. “Not to mention the foul flow coming out from under there.” He pointed back towards Selander. It was nothing new, but Yusta did whiff the difference – compared to the air high up. She felt glad she was seldom at this level, which incidentally gave the bridge more presence. Though it sat low, it looked its highest for now, with the tide out. For a while, she watched the few cars rolling across it, casting their bothersome lights. “How can you stand it?” Boni could be heard saying.
“It is what it is, I suppose,” said Yusta.
“Frankly I didn’t expect even your type here.”
“It’s home for some of us.”
“When did you come?”
“Born and raised.”
“But where are you from-from?”
“Oh whatever, I’m third generation. I have relatives down in Pugu Hills, which is not even far.”
“Have you gone places? Seen anything else?”
“For what? There’s plenty to see here.”
“Is that right? All the humans?”
“Let me share something about these humans.”
“Don’t tell me you’re fond of them.”
“Fond? In a roundabout way maybe.”
Boni spit onto the ground, surprising even himself.
“Just listen,” she said. Boni obliged, even facing her.
When humans saw Yusta, they fled or threw things at her. They did that to her kind in general. This was also true beyond Dar and as distantly as any owl she knew had traveled. It used to hurt her feelings. She knew she wasn’t the death omen they believed her to be. And she had been physically injured twice. But one day came where she was done. She said to herself, fine, we’ll have it their way. She was going to let herself feel the strength of it. From then on, there were evening scare-runs, most often along the stretch of buildings up that very beach. She would look for curtains that weren’t drawn. She would perch and wait. She would stare a human down. Every look of terror, every shriek, every scramble, empowered her. In the event one of them flung something, she was too quick. An excellent rocket. From all the times she struck at street level, she became an ace at dodging stones. She hadn’t been hit in months.
“Are you getting what I’m telling you?” Yusta said.
“I’m glad that sorted itself out.”
“I told you before to find something positive, correct? That’s not happening. Alright. Try turning a negative into a positive.”
“The negative is that we are here. The positive would be to reverse that and go home.”
Such fettered thinking, Yusta thought. “Is there nothing you can do right now?” she asked. “On your own, to get some life into you.”
Boni shook his head. He turned to the bay once more. He shut his eyes and pictured his painfully beautiful, desolate lake. Just then, again, one of the ships sounded its horn. “Over there might make Dar bearable,” he said. “It seems nicely out of the way.”
“Those aren’t staying put.” Yusta laughed her laugh. “Don’t you know where they’re headed? You’d hate it more.”
“I was only thinking out loud.” Boni was embarrassed. “For the sake of your pushy questions.”
“Actually,” Yusta said, turning and hopping toward the tires for a quick scan. “You couldn’t understand what those things out there are. Because they could never survive heinous Natron.”
Boni made a good attempt to charge her. But Yusta’s head twisted around in time to see. She jumped and he scraped across the sand. Then she pinned him, one talon gently on his lovely neck.
“Don’t be a beast,” Yusta said, contemplating him as she peered face-down. A trace of gusto flashed over his face. When he gurgled Yusta let go. He stood and unruffled again, feeling spent.
“Well, pretty bird,” said Yusta. “At least that must have let out some of your repression.”
Boni concentrated on taking in many needed breaths and waved Yusta away. She had also had her fill and needed to be on a tree. Tonight, she thought, had been a decent start for Boni. The bum-rush, though irksome, showed a spark that could serve him. At the heart of things, he obviously craved more power, more freedom. Yusta had just the dose. She decided she would bring him ASAP on a scare-run. It would take convincing him, hopefully the next evening. But not in his pathetic physical condition.
“And by the way,” she said just before shooting into the heights. “Is this really the hill you want to die on? Eat something.”
* * *
Boni did eat, before it dawned. But he still had a heart of protest, so he was not ready to commune with the flock. He scooped himself a few murky mouthfuls of algae, knowing they could see him. Nevertheless he went and ate behind the tire stack. He wept from the foreign stench and from the comforting sensation of food making its way down his throat. Then it was heavy sleep and dozing until nightfall returned.
Yusta seemed fairly less irritating this time because Boni was nourished. She arrived bearing leftover frog, which he declined. But then she made the more interesting proposal, which immediately had Boni considering his level of agility. He had out-swerved an eagle once before. However, that was with the help of the other flamingos swarming. So he didn’t feel such confidence now. At the same time, he weighed some of the words Yusta was using on him. Power. Freedom. They had lingered, ringing gently in his mind whenever he dozed.
Yusta led a series of stretches and flexes on the sand. Boni then obliged her with just the one liftoff so she could observe speed. She wasn’t wholly assured.
“I’m not auditioning,” Boni said. “Do you know how bloody far we flew to get to Dar? Do you know what that trip takes?”
“I’m not sure that’s the relevant skillset,” Yusta replied. “But fine, they’d aim at me before anything. Just stay a bit out of the way.”
For fifteen sublime seconds, Boni relished the sight of ninety-nine pale pink heads below, turning upward in unison as he soared off importantly with this dark unknown.
They circled over a building that Yusta hadn’t struck in weeks, a ways down the beach. She zeroed in on a set of windows with curtains open and lights not overly bright. After she signaled Boni they both angled down, gliding onto a ledge. Yusta stood with legs slightly bent and prepared. She whispered to him to look out for humans who might appear elsewhere from either side.
Boni also took the opportunity to look down because he had separation anxiety this far from the water. Then he noticed that one of the things on the horizon had moved, but he wasn’t sure if it was his own shift in angle to the bay. As he tried to orient his perspective, he heard a piercing cry. Yusta was standing soundlessly where she had been, but with her wings spread open. She was humungous. In front of her was a human, one moment with mouth wide and shouting, arms flailing, the next moment shooing and hissing. This kept on unexpectedly. There was likely nothing good to throw. So Boni got a good look at the human’s stormy face before the curtains finally snapped shut.
Yusta didn’t circle again or signal, let alone stop to check in with Boni. She cruised and then dipped, three buildings away, when she spotted a group of loud humans on a balcony. Boni tried his best to catch up onto the railing. He hadn’t quite reached before the group was on its feet in a great racket and throwing bottles. Bottles which didn’t stand a chance. Yusta swooshed away in laughter. Boni veered and followed.
They rounded things off back near base, on the actual bridge – perching in wait on a street lamp, dead silent and ready to swoop down onto the guardrail if there was a passerby. Not many humans walked there that time of night, so it only happened once. This one raised hell too but while running and never stopping, at least not before Boni and Yusta flew back down to the sand.
“Postmortem?” said Yusta while Boni waded for a recovery snack. “Pun maybe intended.”
Boni had seen it for himself. The humans were as wild as promised. And he would never forget those facial expressions. The contempt, the hostility, the downright hysteria. The gleam of sudden mania. All in those big marble eyes.
“I said how do you feel?” Yusta pressed.
“The question actually being, how you feel.”
“High on life! What a run.”
“So to speak. You’re addicted.”
Yusta’s swiveling head came to a stop and fixed on Boni.
“I reckon,” Boni continued, “what you’re feeling isn’t exactly power.” In his opinion, he explained, Yusta wasn’t all that freer than him. And she wasn’t much in control.
“Didn’t you see me out there?”
“Your activities are not helping matters.”
“The stupidity of the humans is not my problem.”
“Who cares about them?” said Boni. “I mean you’re not helping yourself.”
“Then you really weren’t paying attention.”
“You’re still angry as all hell. And pretending you’re not pained anymore.”
“The pretty bird is trying to turn things on me.” Yusta gave a bemused, acid chuckle.
“You are actually dependent on humans.”
“What a joke.”
“You’re obsessed with them.”
Yusta made a good rush at Boni and she got him. He was no match under her talons, but she restrained herself enough where he could still get words out.
“Who’s the beast now?” he said. Yusta got palpitations at that. She let go.
Each a tad huffy, they watched the tide come in. Eventually conversation came to them. Boni mostly listened, since he felt he owed Yusta. What she pointed out was that she had found her thing, her empowering thing. And that after she shared that thing, Boni had trampled all over it.
“Guilty. But back to you,” Boni said. “What if one day,” he asked, “a human doesn’t react to you? How will you feel?”
Yusta confessed that it had happened already. It was an incident she wanted buried. That placid gaze had been soul-destroying. The memory, when she allowed it to surface, made her quiver. Even here in this moment. She looked up and down the beach.
“Always looking everywhere,” Boni said. “Everywhere but yourself.”
“Good one, whatever,” Yusta replied. She pointed out that soon the tide was going to reach all the way to the bridge, so she would probably be off. This made Boni look over at the flock, which was contentedly feeding as usual. The sight of them rankled him fairly less.
Noting Boni’s overall less pinched demeanor, Yusta asked how long until their next journey. He wasn’t sure where or when.
“Clearly,” she said, “you wouldn’t come along again on scare-runs. Which I’m not so finished with, mind you.” When Boni shook his head she went on. “In any case, it’s not likely I’ll see you.” She was hovering now, a touch obnoxiously, wingspan showing.
“If I had to bet,” Boni replied, “we won’t leave for some days.”
“Well I might be busy mingling.”
For Boni, that pricked a little. “I suppose you need to keep it to the trees.”
“Different trees,” said Yusta, rising higher. “I’m considering a brief change of scene.”
“Where to!” Boni yelped at the disappearing back of her. He felt the gust from her ascent.
“A small trek!” Yusta shouted over her shoulder. “To count stars over Pugu Hills!”
Diana lives in the coastal city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Her work has appeared in publications such as Wasafiri, LossLit, Afridiaspora, New Orleans Review, and Kikwetu, as well as the book Street Level.