For many reasons, it has taken me almost a month to read Beryl Markham’s West With the Night. Before sending it on to a friend or the resale shop, there are a few paragraphs so rich that I’m saving them here for a good laugh on those days when nothing works. I hope you enjoy this, too.
I smile to myself, remembering Bombafu. What brings him to mind, I do not know, but suddenly there he is. Bombafu means fool in Swahili; at Njoro it meant my father’s parrot.
Poor Bombafu! – one day he whistled for destruction, and it came. How sad, how naked, how disillusioned he was after the moment of his greatest triumph had shone upon him like a gleam of light, then abandoned him to the darkness of despair!
They were proud feathers Bombafu gave to the Cause of his Learning, pretty feathers, long and rich and stained with jungle colour. How proudly he wore them!
How proudly he clasped the perch in the square room outside my father’s study, day after day, looking with truculent, or bemused, or falsely philosophic eyes, on all who entered – on all the dogs of the motley pack my father fancied then!
And these were the undoing of Bombafu. Dogs were simple things, he saw, controlled by a single sound. A man would stand in the doorway of the house and make that sound with his lips – and the pack would come.
But who could make sounds if not Bombafu? Was he to remain a bird on a stick the whole of his long, long life? Was there to be nothing but seeds and water and water and seeds for a being as elegant as he? Who had such feathers? Who had such a beak? Who could not call a dog? Bombafu could. He did.
He practised week upon week, but so cleverly that we seldom heard him; he practised the abracadabra of calling dogs until he knew, as well as he knew the shape of the bar he clung to, that no dog that ever sought a flea could resist his summons. And he was not wrong. They came.
One morning when the house was empty, Bombafu slipped his perch and called the dogs. I heard it too. I heard the quick, urgent whistle that was my father’s whistle, though my father was a mile away. I looked across the courtyard and saw Bombafu, resplendent, confident, almost masterful as he trod the doorsill on hooked, impatient toes, his brilliant breast puffed and swelling, his green, and all too empty head cocked with insolence. ‘Come one, come all,’ his whistle said – ‘it is I, Bombafu, calling!’
And so they came – long dogs, short dogs, swift dogs, hungry dogs, running from the stables, from the huts, from the shade of the trees where they had dozed, while Bombafu danced under the portal of his doom and whistled louder.
I could run too in those days, but not so fast as that. Not fast enough to prevent the frustration of an anticipant dog from curdling to fury at the sight of this vain mop of gaudy feathers committing forgery of the master’s voice – insulting all of dogdom with the cheek of it, holding to ridicule the canine clan, promising even (what could be worse?) a scrap, or a bone, yet giving nothing! That was the rub’that was the injury heaped on insult.
Bombafu went down; he went under; he disappeared only to rise again, feather by feather. His blaze of glory was no abstract one. It floated on the air in crimson and chrome yellow, in green and blue and subtler shades – a burst, a galaxy, a comet’s tail of scraps and pieces.
Sad bird! Unhappy bird! He lived, he sat again upon his perch, his eyes half-closed and dull, a single tattered wing to hide his nakedness, a single moment to remember.
And the immortal line so rightly his, the only word he might have uttered, was stolen too. Surely this was tragedy – this was irony – that not Bombafu, but a dour and morbid raven, a creature of the printed page, a nightly nobody, had discovered first the dramatic power of those haunting tones, those significant syllables, that ultimate utterance – Never – Nevermore!