Alhadi Ali Radi’s ‘The Metal Bird’

Sudanese short-story writer and novelist Alhadi Ali Alradi brings us to a moment when childhood abruptly ends:

By Alhadi Ali Radi

Translated by Nassir Al-Sayeid Al-Nour

As every morning, when the sun sent its golden rays to announce a new day, we ran like hopping birds after butterflies and small locusts, armed with snares skillfully made of hair pulled from the tails of horses and donkeys. These snares were excellent for catching birds. And as we expected good hunting, we cut through the woods next to the village, never realizing this would be our last contact with the village and its people.

We marched in a straight line, guided by Khalil, the eldest among us. Familiar with the overgrown and wondrous woods, Khalil walked on ahead with an axe, chopping branches that blocked our way. My devoted friend Ishag, the youngest among us, followed a few steps behind him, and I trailed at the end. Ishag was lame and carried his snare in his left hand and his beloved flute in his right. I teased Ishag about his limp until he got angry and shouted at me, sometimes even throwing the branches Khalil had cut. We laughed and had fun, happy in our childhood glee.

After a half hour of walking, we approached the western side of the woods and slipped into a wide and beautiful wadi. Ishag sat on the sand and laid his snare down beside him. Then he put his lips to his flute and started to play a lovely melody. A huge flock of colored birds hovered around us, sometimes perching on the sand and branches as Ishag went on playing.

With skill and care, I set up a trap. First, I stuck a branch in the sand. Then I placed the snare beneath its shadow and scattered a few grains in it. Before long, birds were landing on the trap.

A deafening uproar shattered the quiet, and the sounds of screaming and wailing erupted, growing louder and louder. At first, we couldn’t tell where the commotion was coming from, but then we realized it was from our nearby village. Ishag dropped his flute and Khalil set aside his snare to listen to the voices. Springing up, Khalil ran toward the village and we followed, branches and thorns tearing out tiny bits of our flesh as we crashed through the brush. Heavy smoke covered the horizon and blinded us to what lay ahead. Gradually, the voices grew lower until they dimmed. 

Exhausted and terrified, we watched from the cover of a cluster of tree trunks. Ahead, we saw shrouded people armed with rifles and axes. They moved like ghosts in every direction amidst the smoky clouds. I hid behind a big trunk and Ishag held my hand, but Khalil shot out like an arrow shouting, “Ummi, Abi!” Then he fell, his head slashed, just a few meters ahead of us. I tried to scream, but my voice came out like a hiss. Urine seeped through my clothes, and Ishag put his thumb in his mouth with a vacant stare.

The smoke began to clear and the convoy of ghosts left, but I remained trapped behind the tree trunk. Ishag sucked his thumb and stared at nothing.

I didn’t know if I could walk out of the dense woods, but I staggered into the village. As I passed our friend Khalil’s body, liquid spewed into my throat at the sight of his bloody head. I knelt beside him and vomited.

Slowly, I walked to where our house used to be, stumbling over charred bodies, my nose full of the smells of burnt flesh and straw. I stopped at what I thought was our house. Bodies were strewn around, but my intuition guided me to my mother’s. Staring at the burnt remains, I knew it was her from the silver anklet, now stained black, on her right leg. I fell to my knees and lay beside her, weeping. From the middle of the sky, the sun seemed to set, forcing me to fall asleep.

A stray dog jerked me awake when it touched my foot. I recoiled in fear, but then I remembered my devoted friend Ishag. Rising, I lurched toward Ishag, who sat nearby, still sucking his thumb and staring at nothing.

Oh Ishag, my friend, stand up, talk to me please. Don’t look like this, speak to me. I have nobody but you, and I’m here for you. Please pick up the flute…come back, my devoted friend.

But Ishag refused to do anything I asked, preferring to stay wrapped in his eternal shock. The coming night was ominous, and I trembled when I thought of the wolves. Then I remembered my grandfather and his tales of moonlit nights. Once, as I laid on his lap, he told me that had had gone hunting with his friends. As night fell, his friends lit a fire to protect them from the wolves and the wild. I searched the ash and found a cinder to light a fire. By the time it was completely dark, I pulled Ishag onto my lap like a baby. The fire crackled, protecting us from the wolves and the wild.

Two days later, my friend still sucked his thumb and stared at nothing. I had eaten only fruit and grilled birds, but Ishag had eaten nothing. On the third day, as I was pushing hawks and predatory birds away from our friend Khalil’s body, I heard a whirring from the sky. The whirring grew to deafening roar, and I panicked, running toward the woods and dragging my unconscious friend Ishag with me. We hid behind a tree trunk. A mythical bird such as I had never seen appeared, its cry terrifying, its body covered in metal. It had two wings, one on its back and a small one behind. When it perched near us, its cry was muted until it fell silent.

Frozen in shock, I watched as the metal bird opened and a man wearing a sleeveless white gown stepped out. He was followed by others with different facial features. One of them carried something on his shoulder that he set down in the dirt. Then he held up a device and pointed it. A sparkling light burst and joined the broken sun in illuminating the charred bodies. I hugged my friend and trembled in terror.

The men roamed all over the place, talking and writing in notebooks. One of them came near the remnants of the fire, smoke still rising in thin threads. The man called his companions and they gathered around the fire, cautiously poking through the wood.

They found me deathly scared, hugging my friend, who sucked his thumb and stared at nothing. One of them patted my head compassionately, which eased some of my fear. Then he gently pulled me out of my friend’s grip. When he asked my name, I was crying so hard I couldn’t answer. I cried for a long time.

Before we got into the metal bird, metal creatures overran the place, crawling over the ground. A metal skeleton circled in black walked around on four legs carrying men in uniform. Their clothes were different, but all of them wore sleeveless gowns engraved with red marks.

I fell asleep inside the metal bird, slumbering soundly through the noise and hullabaloo. When I woke up, I found myself inside a white room shaking with the wind. Across from me, my close friend Ishag lay surrounded by people who fastened something like a small balloon inside a tent to one of his hands. The other hand was still in his mouth as he stared vacantly, at nothing. 

Overwhelmed by curiosity, I snuck out. The space was white as far as the eye could see, white upon white. Pyramid-like tents formed “huts.” Other people came out of square tents just like the one I came out of. Red marks were drawn on all the tents. I saw women, children, girls and old men coming in and out of the tents. I walked between them searching the skinny women’s faces for someone who looked like my mother.

Alhadi Radi was born on Nyala western Sudan (Darfur) 1968. He studied English and is considered one of most acclaimed contemporary Sudanese short-story writers. He has published many short-story collections and a number of novels. He also received manty literary prizes, including the Tayeb Salih International Award for Creative Writing in 2016. His short-story “The Metal Bird” won the first prize in the category of Middle East and North Africa in an award given out by The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 2008.  

Nassir Al-Sayeid Al-Nour is a critic, author, and translator.