Baby swallows litter the ground.
Today there are almost no mud-daub nests to be found, but when the woman was a girl the swallows crammed their nests under the eaves of schools and penitentiaries, farmhouses and barns. Swallows lined the ribs of underbridges like flitful delicate trolls, slicking the red ground with their streaked guano, their pellets of gathered mud, the scrabble-legged carcasses of insects.
The girl was at a Catholic school, though she was born a Methodist. She wanted to become a nun, though she would instead become a widow. The world shapes us with no regard for what we want. But on that day hiding from lessons and sweating white nuns in sun-beaten Africa, she found the fallen swallows; a bushel of them like a gift from god.
The girl was always a mother, even when she was a child. This is what happens when you are the eldest of five and your mother has to run away with you and your siblings after your real Father tries to kill the family. Now she has a New Father, but he is not Real, and Neither Is She. There are Three Unreal Children, and Two Real Children. The girl accepts all of her sibling as real, even though she is a Real sister, a Half-Real Sister, and an Unreal Mother. It's complicated, but that's life.
Here too, is life. The baby swallows are still alive, fat bellied and hideous, crying for parents that will not come (real or unreal). The girl collects them in her skirt, holding them like overripe persimmons that she does not want to bruise. She is tender with them. They are babies, and babies deserve love.
The girl knows that she cannot keep them. If the Sisters find out that the girl has a bushel of persimmon-soft swallows they will cane her across her fingers. God knows what will happen to the baby birds.
So she hides them.
“Tell me the story of the swallows,” I ask her. She is a mother now, long past her convent days and dreams of brides of gods. Instead she is doing the dishes. After that she will make all the beds, vacuum the lounge, feed the dogs, pick up the dog mess, feed the cats, clean out the litter trays, feed the rabbits, and go to the shops for something for her family to eat.
It will be spaghetti and ketchup with grated cheddar. The family eats this almost every night. Once there was a fish pie that the Father did not like. It was shaped like a fish with pastry scales. It was beautiful and the woman had spent all afternoon making it.
“I hate fish, honey, you know I hate fish,” the Father told her before he went to eat dry white bread to show her how much he was suffering. The Father hated many foods: curries, fish, shellfish, mushrooms. He liked chips and eggs and steak, though mostly he got spaghetti and ketchup mantled with golden cheddar.
She never tells me how the story of the swallows ends. She smiles when she tells it, amused by this tiny version of herself who hid baby birds from nuns. A version of herself that broke rules.
“They were so angry,” she says and shakes her head as she dries her dishwasher hands. “Those nuns.” She laughs.
She does not tell me what happened to the swallows.
Years later, the Father dies. Cancer, or something like it. He dies at home in his bed because they cannot afford a hospital. Afterwards the woman is surrounded by family whose help came too late. She cries herself small, she weeps, she turns grey and feeble, she turns to spider silk and self-hatred.
She calls me and before I answer, I know who is on the phone, and what she will say.
My howls break the windows.
I borrow money so I can fly north for the winter. Our family is diminished. We stand at the front of the church while a man I do not know tries to convert us all to Jesus at the Father's funeral. The woman cannot sing Amazing Grace. The sister cannot, the brothers cannot, I cannot. While we choke, the congregation sings. Their voices rise and whirl and swoop, skimming the pews and the prayers.
The woman flies south, the last of her fledglings with her. They move into my house, and years pass, a blur of grey and grey and grey, as though winter will never end.
The woman gets a cat. She's called Princess and she moves in of her own accord, and eats the woman's budgies.
Cats will be cats. I leave home again, take my own family further north than the woman has ever dreamed. This is what happens to swallows.
The woman sleeps on a second-hand bed surrounded by charity shops trinkets, the hollow of her back warmed by Princess. Women move into the house; sisters, girlfriends, daughters, strangers. Some are broken baby birds, and the woman resents them even as she loves them. She is tired of loving, but it is in the marrow of her, deep as DNA. She finds a church where she slots into place, a sister of god. She bakes cakes, makes soups, knits delicate skeins of wool into baby shawls.
It is summer and the swallows have come south and they skate low over the steel and brown waters of the Zandvlei, over the long green grass and the clouds of clover. They eat their fill of midges and mosquitoes, gather food for chicks in hidden nests.
I whatsapp her. “I miss you. I love you.”
The woman returns my brief message with three minutes of chatter, prayers, and do-you-belive-in-god. She sounds like my mother and suddenly I remember her younger; bright and hard and fearful and angry and gentle and tired and filled with dreams. She wants to start baking bread, she says. I email her a recipe.
I take photos on my phone and whatsapp them to her. She sends me videos of my dogs, now hers.
There are swallows in the skies above them. Bright and hard and free.