Of mice and Malachites

2009-05-29 00:00

WHEN we were living at Little Spring some years ago, there was a large reservoir in the garden.

It wasn’t right in the garden, it was really at the edge of the garden and constituted part of the boundary. It was about 10 metres in diameter and probably 1,6 metres deep when full. It stood above the ground with its base at ground level and walls high enough to make it difficult for a child to fall into it. Fortunately no one ever did.

Just beyond and slightly below the reservoir was a tunnel in which we grew tomatoes and cucumbers, and beyond that was a seriously overgrown vegetable garden. For some reason, in spite of good intentions and some hard work, I have never had any luck with vegetables.

We needed the reservoir. The windmill on the far side of the farm pumped water from a borehole. The water flowed by gravity down to two big fibreglass tanks that supplied the house and the overflow went in to the reservoir and then fed all of the water troughs in the paddocks for the livestock.

At one stage it was used as a swimming pool, and then later we put in some goldfish. That came about when a large fish tank in the house cracked from end to end. While the water raced down the passage, which sloped conveniently towards the door, I caught the fish, dropped them in a jug of water and hurried across the lawn and spilt them into the reservoir. We didn’t try a fishing rod, but we couldn’t catch them again. They were Koi of many colours, metallic silvers and golds, and some with red and white and black markings. Really amazing. Not specially compatible with outdoor life however. Camouflage is a useful commodity in outdoor type fish. These didn’t have it. They multiplied at a great rate, shoals of infants often seen flashing in and out of the shadows, so they must have been happy there.

Considerably less happy was the Hamerkop that used to fly over the reservoir. He would stoop over the water, peering into the depths, no doubt catching a tantalising glimpse of gold fish drifting idly in the green depths. He would land on the wall, gaze at the unattainable afternoon tea and then march studiously along the wall, flicking his crest from time to time in frustration.

Kingfishers also used to visit. Pied and Malachite mainly. Pied Kingfishers formal in their striking black and white suits and the Malachites in dazzling metallic blue and green. I am sure that they must have made off with some of the baby fish, but they didn’t make a noticeable impression on the population. Swallows used to fly over and drink, and weavers would perch on the overhanging branches of the Cape Honeysuckle, which grew thick at its edge and rose tall above its walls, casting dark green shadows in which the fish would lurk.

The branch just touched the surface, and the birds would dip their beaks in to drink. Another bird landing on the branch would cause it to dip into the water. They argued and shook their wet feathers. Some birds, I think the shiny black Drongos with their forked tails were amongst them, would fly over the water and splash in it on the way past. Sort of bathing on the wing. Black Sunbirds with their gleaming green skullcaps and amethyst red throats were common and sometimes there would be a Malachite, with shining green plumage and long sweeping tail. They were attracted to the massed orange blooms of the Honeysuckle and the red and gold spikes of aloe.

One winter when it was all under a few inches of pristine snow, I watched a little Black Sunbird alight on an aloe. His weight was just enough to disturb the snow so it puffed up and drifted to the ground. He was then able to reach the brilliant red flowers and insert his slender curved bill to access the nectar, the mainstay of his diet.

So the reservoir, its inhabitants and its visitors co-existed peacefully for many years. It was quite an important reservoir. We didn’t know that it was getting tired.

I was in the kitchen when it went — it must have exploded.

Although we all heard it, none of us knew what it was. A large section of the wall was missing and all of the water. The wall had been lifted and carried over the fence and dumped next to the tunnel. The tunnel was awash and the vegetable garden flooded.

In just a few seconds, a considerable amount of damage had been inflicted in the path of the water and the water was gone, but for a few puddles.

We all started to search for fish. The extraordinary power of that little bit of water made me appreciate properly what floods are about.

We found some of them and took them down to pond by the spring from which we pumped water for irrigation. One very large one lived there for a long time, a few years I think, but the smaller ones were not as safe as they had been, and perhaps the Hamerkop had his revenge. Most of them we could not find.

As I searched, very small high- pitched intermittent squeaks were coming from the battered bedraggled tangle of the vegetable garden. There, clinging desperately to a blade of wet grass, was a tiny blind, naked, striped field mouse infant — a lone survivor of a terrible disaster. I picked the wee thing up and it nuzzled my warm hand.

Its mother must have been drowned. More squeaks followed and I traced another, then another and eventually I had eight of them, not much more than an inch long.

I was pretty sure that it would not be possible to raise orphan mice of that age, but I was prepared to give it a try. When they were warm and dry, they were more contented. My very small daughters were absolutely fascinated and we all tried to feed them unsweetened condensed milk by dipping cotton wool into it and trying to persuade them to suck it. We managed to get them to lick the milk off our hands, but I was afraid that it would not have been enough.

Dael took care of them for most of the day. She carried them about with her in a little box that was suitably lined with soft things. But I was sure that they would die of starvation eventually, and was distressed, but didn’t have a solution.

The little waifs were pink, almost translucent, with little square faces and tiny round ears, dark grey lines prominent on their backs where their stripes would be one day. Their perfect little hands and feet with such deft fingers and toes, even at that age.

By the end of the day, I could not take it any more. I decided to take them outside and leave them near to where they were found. I really hoped that one of the cats would find them and polish them off quickly so that they would not have to starve. I decided to tell Dael that I was taking them back to their mother.

I carried the little box outside and placed it carefully in the tunnel. Utterly miserable, I went back into the house, and tried unsuccessfully to put them out of my mind.

About an hour later I had to go and see how they were doing. I was astonished to find only three left in the box. The others had vanished. If a cat had found them, they would have all gone.

A sudden movement about half way down the tunnel caught my eye. There was a very large, fat, striped field mouse hurrying away with a baby, grasped firmly by the neck, in her mouth.

Not only had she survived, but she had found her babies and was taking them to a new nest.

Half an hour later they were all gone.

As planned, I told Dael that they were back with their mother.


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