Birds had not played a large part in our lives.
Then we moved to a farm in Blanco, George and things changed radically. Suddenly we had guinea fowl that skittered their way through the kitchen. We had Foxy, the crow, who used to sit on the chimney and hurl insults and swear words into the dining room during my parents dinner parties. Hens used to strut around our farm as if they owned it. We had a gaggle of geese that used to snuggle up to the Bull Mastiff dogs in the laundry at night.
The South African Parks Board approached my parents.
“Would it be alright for us to drop off this year old crane at your farm. It has something wrong with it’s wings and is unable to fly. We thought that by staying in a safe environment, it might once more gain the use of it’s wings and finally be able to join it’s fellow compatriots.”
Naturally my parents agreed.
Mums took one look at this terrified baby Blue Crane that was disgorged from the truck and her heart melted. The crane was obviously terrified. Although her head was covered in sacking, she was lashing out with her legs, kicking anything within reach. She was placed in a shed where my parents were advised to keep her for a day or so. Until she had calmed down. They were given grain to feed her. Mums took in her food, well armed for protection. She had a wooden chopping board to protect her face and she wore big kitchen gloves on her hands. Very slowly, with her heart ricocheting in her chest, she approached the bird talking softly: “Here you go, here’s your food. You’ll feel better after you’ve eaten this.”
Slowly she put the grain down and checked that the water was fresh. The crane stamped her foot but remained cowering in the corner. Mums backed out of the shed but stood at the door watching.
Slowly, her eyes glued to Mums, the crane came forward. Then unable to help herself, she buried her head in the grain bin and hungrily devoured it all. Mums laughed softly, and held some more grain out in her gloved hand. The crane came forward cautiously and then put her head down and ate from Mums’ hand.
“You’re gorgeous, aren’t you?” The crane tilted her head quizzically. “I am going to call you – Lady Jane Grey. What do you think of that?”
The crane nudged Mums’ hand almost as if in approval.
She was released from the shed. From then on, she and Mums had an unbreakable bond!
“Lady Jane Grey, you must learn to fly. You must flap your wings like this,” Mums said moving both arms up and down in a flapping motion. Lady Jane looked at Mums as if she had gone mad. “If you do this,” Mums continued beginning to run around the garden, “you’ll begin to fly.”
Lady Jane began to run behind Mums. ‘Oh, this was great fun running after ‘Mum’, especially when she waved her arms in such a peculiar manner!’
“Flap flap, flap flap, do you see?” Mums collapsed onto the grass. Lady Jane came and stood next to her, gently nudging her shoulder. “Okay, enough for today,” Mums stood up, brushing off her skirt. “I need a G and T. And no, you are not coming inside!”
This became the daily routine. Not the G and T’s but Mums trying to teach Lady to fly.
“Put out your wings, put out your wings,” Mums would shout. No wings would appear but Lady genuinely seemed to love what she was doing. One day, as Mums was running, her handkerchief fell out of her pocket. Instantly Lady picked it up and playfully whisked it in front of Mums. She then dropped it into Mums’ outstretched hand and looked at Mums enquiringly. Mums took the ‘hankie’ twirled around and threw it into the air for Lady. Lady caught the handkerchief did three steps with it clasped in her beak, did a sort of bowing motion, a leap into the air and let it loose for Mums to catch. Thus the Handkerchief Dance was born! Mums never tried to teach Lady to fly without a handkerchief in her pocket. They would always finish off their sessions with the Handkerchief Dance!
Lady was the most incredible watch dog. She used to stand on bales of straw and give her wonderful cry whenever she heard Dad’s bakkie approaching the house. Ten minutes later, Dad would arrive. The workers on the farm were not easy around “daardie groot blou voel!” (that big blue bird!) One day Mums caught three children taking her lemons. She gave them a lecture about coming to ask first and as punishment gave them a ‘time out’. They had to sit on the grass in a line while Lady paraded up and down, up and down in front of them. The three children didn’t move a muscle for fifteen minutes. Then Mums said: “Okay, you can go now. Just remember, ask first!”
“But ma’am, the giant blue bird…?”
“It’s okay, Lady, they’ve said they’re sorry. Relax.”
Lady came up to Mums for a nuzzle and some grain that Mums unearthed from her pocket. The three children scarpered!
One day the longed for event occurred. “Put out your wings,” Mums cried breathlessly, “Put out your…”
And Lady did just that and…flew. She flew over a small fence and landed in a most ungainly heap on the other side. She stood up and gave her feathers a shake. She came to the fence where Mums was standing as if to say: “Glory, did you see what I did?”
Mums was exultant: “You flew, Lady, not very high, but you flew! Come on, fly back!”
She didn’t fly again for about three days. Then once more she flew over the fence and landed perfectly. Lady Jane Grey was not flying very high but she was flying!
Early one evening, a whole flock of cranes flew overhead and called down to her. She answered and stared after them as they flew on. The next day, one male crane returned. He landed next to our dam and called to Lady. She flew over the fence and joined him. And their courtship began. He called to her first and then they called to each other in unison. Their heads were thrown back and their beaks were raised to the sky. They conjured up vast fantasy worlds for one another. He lifted up his wings during his calls but Lady kept hers at her sides. She was always the Lady! You could literally hear him say: “Come away with me and I’ll introduce to so many like us. But none as beautiful as you!”
To which she she probably would have replied: “I am not a strong a flier. I can’t manage to fly high like you do.”
“That’s alright, we don’t need to fly high. And you’ll see, as we go so you’ll improve, I promise.”
A week later, he arrived soon after she had finished breakfast. She came up to Mums and gave her one of the head nudges that Mums loved so much. She looked deeply into Mums eyes and then turned and flew over the fence. She was joined by the her lover and they both did an about turn, flying back towards Mums. They flew low but over Mums head and continued on and on, out of sight….gone!
Exactly a year later, Mums was cooking in the kitchen. She heard footsteps behind her – Tic Tac, Tic Tac. She knew only one being whose footsteps sounded like that on the kitchen floor. She spun round to be greeted by the well loved face of Lady Jane Grey. If a crane could have been smiling, Lady’s face would have been wreathed in joy. She came in close and butted Mums’ neck. Mums being Mums, was laughing and crying. She called for Dad and he was delighted to see Lady. Word spread and soon a whole crowd of workers were clustered around Lady Jane Grey outside. She devoured her normal can of grain and then came up to Mums.
“So you’re leaving, my Lady,” Mums said softly, giving her head a stroke. The crane made a sound deep in her throat. Then she gave Mums a last head butt and took to the air. Lady Jane Grey had learnt to use her wings magnificently. She circled the group once and then set off towards the ocean.
We never saw her again.