Undergraduate Contest Winner: Non-Fiction

Casey Winters

The Marabou

“'I know the pond in which all the little children lie, waiting till the storks come to take them to their parents.'” –“The Storks” by Hans Christian Anderson

Near the border of Kenya, in the arid air of Tanzania, the lake called Natron gasps with thirst. The sky obliges, here on the cusp of Africa's rainy season, and the salty body begins to fill. After she is sated, the long and curvy Natron teases the sky with her orange shallows before revealing her center, crimson and mirrored in worship of the Gelai Volcano brewing nearby. From the sky Natron looks sick, her blood pooling in from the sides.

After the clouds close, a great island of salt forms in the lake's heart. A flock of flamingos fly here from other lakes to find a mate. The local people call these birds the “Children of the Lake.” As the algae from Natron begins to turn their feathers pink, the mating ritual begins. Soon, eggs are laid. In a month, they will hatch. But, for now, they wait, white and salty in the sun.

# # #

Northwest of Natron, in a Ugandan park, the Marabou Stork sits on the highest branch of a leafy tree. He is not the stork of fable, not the bird of fertility, not the one who carries white-wrapped children from the clouds to hopeful parents. If White Stork is the vessel to Earth, Marabou, his cousin, is the psychopomp of youthful death. He sits atop one of the park's many trees to undo his sibling's work. Reaching his pointed beak into the foliage, Marabou pulls a featherless chick from its nest by one wing, tosses it into the air, and catches it like rain.

Marabou's flock, packed in a black-feathered circle on the ground, taunts a family of mongoose in hopes of scoring a few babies off their mothers' backs. The birds tease with little sound but for the quick clap of their bills and the swaying of the sacs on their necks. One mongoose, with a pup clinging to the back of her neck, finds a hole in the flock's circle and runs. The other mongooses follow and, despite the knifing thrust of beaks, they make it safely to the underbrush, scrambling under a stack of paint-chipped canoes.

Marabou, tired of his family's hunger, sees a grass fire outside the park and flies toward it, the rest of the flock following behind. They reach the smoke, and the other storks fly to the ground, but Marabou turns south, patient despite the journey ahead. The others will be fine without him, picking off the smallest animals running in fear from the fire. If they're lucky, they might find the lifeless hulk of a lion or wildebeest when they get hungry tomorrow. If not, they'll fly toward where the humans leave their trash in edible piles to the east.

Marabou must leave, though—he's the lead, the scout, and the African rainy season is here.

# # #

Why do we only tell our children the good stories? We claim their arrival as a gift from that white bird, but we don't prepare them for what comes after, for a life of danger and probable disappointment. For every optimistic story, isn't there a bitter one? For every vision of beauty, isn't there an ugliness waiting to spoil it?

At Natron, Marabou watches alone as the flamingo chicks begin to hatch. Gray and fuzzy, they play around their mothers. The salt island is the great gathering place, a nursery, an extended family reunion. Marabou knows this, his mouth open—part laughter, mostly hunger—as he waits on a termite hill at the bottom of Gelai, the volcanic god whose ash and smoke merge with the migrating sky. The termites are just an appetizer.

Some have called Marabou the “Undertaker Bird.” He folds his black wings around his white underparts, hiding a wingspan of over ten feet, twice his height. Sparse patches of down dot his head, which has evolved bald, so less blood will matte his feathers when he pulls his skull out from a carcass. His head peels and scabs as the desert sun beats down, stippling his scalp red and black, as if he's been spending Fridays diving into Gelai. Panting in the heat, he defecates on his legs both to keep them cool and for deception—he thinks the whiteness is attractive, pure.

Marabou extends his wings and lifts, flying high, his soiled legs held straight behind him. He flies confidently, making little movement, watching the great crowd. The flamingos have turned fully crimson—like Natron herself. At Marabou's view they form a target, and he dives toward the island. He lands, walks for a few feet with his wings outstretched in power. Finding an unattended, unhatched egg, he breaks it open with his beak, drinking the pre-life remains of a chick. He circles on the ground, stalks the edge of the flamingo colony, seemingly unnoticed for a time.

One flamingo chick slips in a pool, and the salt cements around his leg like a fetter. Marabou sees this and stalks toward the baby bird. He walks with patience, like he knows the chick is already done for, and his head moves back and forth, his sharp beak stabbing the air, as if some invisible cough weaves its way from talon to crown on each step.

Two flamingos spread their wings, peck their beaks threateningly at Marabou, but he simply opens his beak in a silent taunt; he's not here for the adults. One newborn chick, learning to walk in the heat, crosses his path. It is easily picked off. The chick lies on the ground, helpless, as Marabou picks at him almost playfully. He lifts it, breaks its neck, and throws it into the crowd as a warning. The adult flamingos begin to flee, flying into the air. Marabou, seeing a series of black dots on the horizon, lets loose a screech for his approaching flock.

The other birds arrive, and although the adult flamingos have fled, a feast of abandoned eggs and babies awaits.

The bird in muddy shackles tries to escape, moving its legs as fast as it can. Marabou walks behind, slow and patient. His flock surrounds a clutch of chicks hiding behind eggs, but Marabou ignores them. He wants the limping one. Overtaking the newborn easily after it slips in another small pond, Marabou breaks its spine with one peck, then swallows it whole. He moves on to other chicks.

White Stork has no perch here, where these children of the lake lie, estranged, scattered across their nursery. The sky above Natron is empty of clouds, and the sun competes with Gelai as King of heat.