The oxpecker never sits on the elephant in the African veld. The Oracle tells us why.
THE ORACLE’S OXPECKER STORY
by S Michael Guthrie
“Tell us a story Oracle.” The children asked. The old man sighed as he carefully put aside his dinner plate. “A story!” He said, “about what may I ask?”
“About warriors” Thabo jumped up, pretending to brandish a spear.
“About hunting” his friend Richard called.
“Oooh no, not hunting and war” the girls protested, “tell us an animal story Oracle, please!” The old man settled himself more comfortably in his chair and sat quietly for a moment, thinking. The children, knowing he would start soon quickly gathered round and sat down quietly in front of him. He cleared this throat and began.
“A long time ago our land was stricken by a long, dry period. The sun beat down, day after day, after day and there were no clouds to bring rain as far the eye could see. The plant eating animals were worried and hungry, then word went out that there was to be a great indaba on the night of the full moon to see what could be done to bring the rains.
That night, the Elephants arrived first at the meeting place in the dry river bed and quickly chased waiting crocodiles into the last muddied pools of water. Carnivores are never welcome at herbivore gatherings. Soon the dry brush along the river began to rustle as more and more animals arrived. There was a mixed herd of Zebras, Wildebeest and Impala loitering on the far side of the elephant, nervously keeping an eye on the water
pools. A little later the Kudu, and some of their smaller cousins, Nyala joined the meeting and looked around for the other large antelope. Sure enough, there were Eland, Sable, Gemsbok and Roan, huddled in hushed conference with the largest
elephant. Within an hour the riverbed was filled with animals of all sorts of shapes and sizes. There were rhino, buffalo, duiker, steenbok, bushbuck, warthogs, waterbuck and many more, even the hippo heaved themselves out of the sticky mud to stand quietly alongside the rhino, after all they too are strict vegetarians. Birds perched in the trees and monkeys and baboons barked at each other from across the crowd. At last the biggest elephant of them all gave a loud trumpet to quieten the crowd and called the meeting to attention.
“First things first!” Elephant began, “please may we have some volunteer buffalo to stand guard as we do not want this meeting disrupted by meat eaters.” Immediately the largest, meanest buffalo moved to the edge of the crowd, facing outwards, eyes, noses and ears straining at the dark, alert, fearsome and on guard.
“Right thank you.” Elephant cleared his throat. “Water my friends! We are here to find out why we have no water, how to share what is left and see if anyone has any idea how to improve our situation.” Immediately chatter rippled through the crowd as nearly everyone seemed to have an opinion. “Order! Order!” Elephant stamped his foot. “One at a time please. You!” Elephant pointed his trunk toward a giraffe. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I think someone or something has upset our ancestors. They are sad and weeping and have no time to dance with the wind and ask it to bring the clouds.” Giraffe said,
pulling his neck up to a great height and surveying the crowd as if he could spot the offending creature from up there. The crowd rippled with discussion as they wondered who could be at fault.
“It’s a known fact that Buffalo muddied the biggest pool and upset Hippo
needlessly last month.” Someone said.
“No, no, it’s those ugly Maribou storks. They eat meat and can’t be trusted at all.” Another called.
“I blame them” hissed a voice, tossing a horn toward the crocodiles who lay listening with eyes closed, pretending to be asleep.
“Now. Now. Now!’ Elephant gave a short trumpet of anger. “I doubt that it matters who or what caused our ancestors to weep. We need to know how we can make it up to them and beseech them to dance with the wind spirits again. I need a volunteer to go to the edge of the escarpment and wait for the mist. The spirit messengers are in the mist and they will tell us what to do.”
“I’ll go” Buffalo immediately offered. I am the biggest and strongest of all the antelope.”
“No buffalo, the slope is too steep, perhaps klipspringer could do it for us?”
“I am too weak Elephant.” Klipspringer stepped forward on wobbly legs. The streams in the hills dried up a long time ago and we are all weak with thirst.”
“What about the baboons then?” Elephant looked up into the dry trees
“could you reach the top of the escarpment?”
“Heeh Haaah!” Screeched the baboons. “Of course we could, easy peasy but we’re not taking those stupid monkeys, they will slow us down!” Elephant sighed.
“It was probably a conceited attitude like that which upset the ancestors in the first place Baboon. You are not to go. I will find someone else.”
“What about a bird?” Warthog suggested. “a bird could fly there quickly and be
back in a day or two, we could meet again before the full moon fades too much for safety.” This set off a lot of twitching and tweeting among the birds, with a lot of nervous excuses about flying too high and too far with no water.
Elephant looked around. He heard someone volunteer but couldn’t spot him. Elephant suddenly realised that the volunteer was his friend the Oxpecker who picked and pecked at his tough old hide day in and day out to keep it free of ticks. Oxpecker was volunteering to fly to the escarpment. “Really!” Elephant asked “are you sure you can make such a long trip.”
“I will eat all the ticks I see on the way,” said Oxpecker, “that will stop me getting too thirsty. Yes I will go and I will leave first thing in the morning!”
“Thank you Oxpecker.” Elephant closed the meeting and wished Oxpecker a good journey and everyone else a safe night.
The Oxpecker, daunted at the thought of such a long and lonely journey, settled onto a bush near the waterhole and gloomily stared into the distance at the far off
escarpment, his destination the next day. At last, he fell into a restless sleep.
“Psst! Psst! Wake up little bird,” a soft voice called Oxpecker out from his troubled doze. He straightened up and looked around but the only creature he could see was the crocodile. “Wake up Oxpecker” Crocodile called again quietly.
“I am awake!” Oxpecker was feeling annoyed at being woken by the crocodile, he had a long journey ahead of him and needed his rest.
“Have you ever tasted maggots?” Crocodile asked, smiling up the bird and before
Oxpecker could answer Crocodile went on “if you think ticks are juicy mmmm you should try maggots. They are thick and white and full of the juiciest juices, here, I have brought you some from my personal stock, try them. I will go back into the water, you need not fear me. Come on, come down and try them, you will be surprised at how moist and delicious they are.” And with that Crocodile backed away into the water. Oxpecker peered down at the large, squirming maggots, fat and white. They did look quite delicious and he decided that there could not possibly be any harm in just trying one. Besides it was not a good idea to insult Crocodile, he was renowned for eating creatures that insulted him. Hopping onto the sand Oxpecker sampled his first maggot and oh, it was the most delicious, moist juicy taste he had ever tasted. He could not help but try another. Then he immediately ate another and another and another. He ate so many he could barely fly back into his bush before he fell into a long, contented sleep. Oxpecker had eaten so many maggots, he slept all through the next day and only woke up at sunset the next night.
“Did you have a good sleep Oxpecker?” Crocodile asked.
“Oh my goodness!” Oxpecker was startled to see it was getting dark again. “I missed the sun! I should have flown to the escarpment by now!”
“Relax! Relax!” Crocodile comforted him. “It is such a long trip for such a small bird. You need to build up your strength first. Look, I have brought you more maggots.”
“No. No.” Oxpecker was worried. Elephant would be very cross if he found out Oxpecker had not left for the escarpment yet. Each day the ancestors remained too sad to dance with the wind spirits to make the rain meant more animals could die as the waterhole shrank. The only animal who liked the drought was Crocodile. He barely had to put any effort into hunting these days. The antelope were weak and had to practically walk into his jaws in order to drink some water. Crocodile enjoyed long dry seasons. He was never hungry and did not have to work very hard to catch the weak animals that came to drink at his waterhole. If his waterhole dried out completely he could walk long distances to find more water.
“Come on now, be sensible!” Crocodile nudged the pile of maggots. “You will never manage the whole distance if you are not strong. Eat some more maggots before you leave.” Oxpecker stared down at the writhing juicy maggots and his mouth watered at the thought of tasting just one more.
“Well maybe just one to keep me going, then I must rest and leave at sunrise or more animals will die.” Oxpecker ate one maggot and as the sweet delicious juices ran down his throat he gasped with delight at how good it tasted and decided that Crocodile might feel offended if he didn’t eat a few more, after all there was a huge pile of them and it was important for a small bird like Oxpecker to have more than one friend.
Elephant was kind and good but he had never given Oxpecker maggots before. In fact he hadn’t even told Oxpecker about maggots and had only kept Oxpecker around to eat his ticks. Oxpecker began to feel quite annoyed with elephant for not telling him that Crocodile had endless supplies of juicy maggots and as he ate more and more of the maggots he decided that perhaps he should be friends with Crocodile in future and not ever go back to just eating ticks on Elephant.
Once again Oxpecker ate and ate and ate until he fell asleep in his bush and once again he did not leave for the escarpment.
Night after night Crocodile fed Oxpecker and as the hot dry days went by more and more animals grew weak with thirst. Crocodile could pick and choose his victims as
they struggled to get water out of the shrinking hole. He grew larger and fatter but he was always careful to put a small amount of meat aside to grow the maggots for Oxpecker.
Elephant grew more and worried as the hot days went by with no sign of Oxpecker returning from the Escarpment. Every day he strained to see if the ancestors had begun to dance in the wind and send the clouds but every day he was disappointed. Every morning he held his trunk up high in the air hoping to catch the smell of his friend Oxpecker on the wind. But Oxpecker never came and neither did the rain. Eventually Elephant decided to call another meeting and this time he would insist on personally volunteering to go to the escarpment to appeal to the spirits. He may never make it without food and water but he felt he had to try. That night as the herds gathered near the
waterhole Elephant told the animals of his decision. As he was announcing that he feared Oxpecker had died on his mission, Oxpecker, so full of maggots from his latest feast, fell out of his bush next to the waterhole and landed on the sand right in front of Elephant.
All the animals stared as the fat bird tried to stand up and explain himself to Elephant.
“It was his fault!” Oxpecker pointed accusingly at Crocodile who had slid into his waterhole when Oxpecker fell out the tree. “He kept feeding me maggots until I fell asleep so I couldn’t fly to the escarpment to speak to the Ancestors.”
Crocodile smirked at Elephant. “Why should poor Oxpecker have to go on such an arduous and dangerous journey? Neither he nor I care when the next rains come. We
can survive on maggots and meat.”
Elephant was furious and trumpeting in anger, he lifted his foot to crush Oxpecker but Sable rushed across the sand calling loudly,
“Wait! Wait! Enough animals have died! You!” Sable glared at the sad looking Oxpecker “You deserve to be punished and Elephant should decide what your punishment is, but please elephant, don’t kill him. He is foolish, easily mislead and greedy, but he shouldn’t be killed for that. He was influenced by Crocodile and did not mean to eat so much he fell asleep. Crocodile knew what would happen and made it very hard for Oxpecker to leave. After all, how many of us could resist a good meal right now?” Sable stared around at all the other animals and not one would admit to being able to leave a good meal if it had been offered them.
Elephant put his foot back down on the sand next to Oxpecker. “You are a great
disappointment to me Oxpecker. I had thought of you as my faithful friend. I am leaving now to try and make the journey to the Escarpment myself. I may never make it back but from this day onwards you are no longer allowed to feed off any ticks I may have. From now on I will roll in the waterhole and kill the ticks in the mud, my whole family will do that and as for you!” Elephant turned to Crocodile and continued in a fearsome trumpeting rage “If you so much as come near me or my family when we are rolling in the mud, I will crush you” Crocodile slowly slid backwards into his waterhole muttering darkly about large mammals over reacting as Elephant turned toward the escarpment and began his journey with determination, spurred on by disappointment in his friend the Oxpecker. Slowly the other animals drifted away, but not too far away from the ever
shrinking waterhole. Oxpecker tried to fly after Elephant but he was stopped by Sable.
“You are too late” Sable said. “Elephant’s never forget. Go back to your perch and hope Elephant is able to appease the ancestors.
A day passed. Then another and another, each one hotter and drier than the one before. Poor Oxpecker, no one would talk to him, not even Crocodile who stopped supplying him with juicy maggots. On the fourth day after Elephant had left a large Eagle appeared in the distant sky. A lot of animals noticed the eagle and gathered together hoping he would have news from Elephant. He did.
“Elephant sends his greetings” Eagle called from the top of a tall tree by the waterhole. “He has made peace with the ancestors but they want him to make peace with Oxpecker before they send the rain. He has asked Sable and Eland to come up with a plan
that will give Oxpecker a chance to redeem himself. Once it is decided I will tell the
ancestors and if they approve they will send the rain. The animals milled around in excitement at the thought of cool, sweet water as Sable called for order.
“I suggest that from now on Oxpecker keeps away from Elephant. From this day onward he will have to work extra hard. In future he is to keep all the antelope, giraffe and rhino tick free. You no longer have one master to serve Oxpecker, you will now look after all of us.” The Oxpecker was thrilled to be forgiven and immediately settled onto Sable’s back to start grooming him, happily crunching ticks and promising the other antelope he would deal with them as quickly as possible. He and Sable are still special friends right to this very day but he never, never again went near Elephant.
And then the rains came.