Earliest heartbreaks

I’m six years old, it’s July and I’m playing in my grandmother’s back garden with the newly-hatched baby ducks. She’s shouting after my brother to be careful and not step on the little things as he runs.

I don’t run. I sit on the broken stone slabs and watch them; I give them names, figure out their personalities. There are six, yellow and black; The larger one has pale feathers and is bossy, she doesn’t get a name. The smallest one is mostly black; she gets left behind all the time and trips over the bits of stone on the dusty path trying to catch up. She’s called Jackie.

My mother shows up from around the house wearing her red sleeveless shirt and the jeans she’d cut into shorts earlier. I’m holding Jackie in my hands and she wants to take a photo. I stand, tilt my head to one side and slowly bring my hands near my face. I look at her little beak, her moist black eyes and I see her. She’s fragile, she’s strong – she’s Jackie. The camera clicks and mum walks away absently.

I spend the rest of the day taking Jackie on adventures. She goes in the vegetable garden where the ducks aren’t allowed to go and gets to walk on the scarce patches of grass under the trees and eat bits of lettuce and cucumber. She sleeps in my lap on the street bench by the gate, while I watch the older kids play hide and seek.

It’s early evening. Jackie and the ducks are back in their little enclosure and we all sit outside eating cold soup made with green beans and lemon. Mum smokes, grandpa sits quietly, his head bowed over the metal bowl while grandma tells him off for yet another thing he forgot to do.

I eat quickly and think about her, decide where we’d go before it gets dark. I finish, I stand up, take the five steps to the duck enclosure, open the gate in a hurry. I look for her on the other side, not near. I step over the little fence and inside. But the earth is soft, it squeaks, it crushes. It moves so slightly under my shoe and goes limp, flat, lifeless.

I know. I don’t breathe, I don’t look. Oh dear god, please, don’t let it be Jackie. I lift my foot slowly and stare at the still black feathers and the stretched out neck. Her beak is crooked, her eyes open and moist. I die.

My limbs gather themselves, my arms squeeze around my knees; an enormous lump fills my throat and my chest, my muscles tense, my eyes widen, my ears ring. The wail finally escapes, it rings through the garden like an air raid siren. They rush and stare, someone comforts me, someone laughs. The duck is picked up by her tail and held high for all to see. ‘Third one this week’ my grandma says casually while my mother insists that I must stop crying. I must!

They take her. But where? I can’t speak. I must dig a grave, make a cross like my father did for the little bee we found in the water pail last year. I have to speak. I can’t speak. My swollen eyes follow my grandma, she goes to the side garden towards the latrine; she walks fast, I can’t stop her. I close my eyes, squeeze them, bury my head between my knees.

‘Come on silly; she says walking back empty handed, ‘it’s nothing, forget about it!’

She’s gone.

It’s evening. I’m curled up around a pillow in the cool room, crying softly. My face itches, my head and my muscles hurt. Mum walks in and she’s strange, her face twitches and she stutters, can’t bare to watch me in pain, can’t figure out what to say, how to stop it. I sit up and look at her ‘Maybe she’s in heaven’ I whisper between hiccups, and smile. ‘I’m sure she went to god and she’s happy..’

‘I’ll be okay, mum, really!’

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