Harold the Hornbill

HAROLD's mother, like all good hornbills, was the most careful of wives; his father, the most easygoing of husbands. In January, long before the flame tree flowered, Harold's father took his wife into a great hole high in the tree trunk, where his father and his father's father had taken their brides at the same time every year. In this weatherbeaten hollow, generation upon generation of hornbills had been raised, and Harold's mother, like those before her, was enclosed within the hole by a sturdy wall of earth, sticks, and dung. Harold's father left a small slit in the center of this wall to enable him to communicate with his wife whenever he felt like a chat. Walled up in her uncomfortable room, Harold's mother was a prisoner for over two months. During this period an egg was laid, and Harold was born.

In his naked boyhood, Harold was no beauty. His most promising feature was his flaming red bill, matching the blossoms of the flame tree, which was now ablaze, heralding the summer. He had a stomach that could never be filled, despite the best efforts of his parents, who brought him pieces of jackfruit and berries from the banyan tree.

As he grew bigger, the room became more cramped, and one day his mother burst through the wall, spread out her wings, and sailed over the treetops. Her husband pretended he was glad to see her about, and played with her, expressing his delight with deep gurgles and throaty chuckles. Then they repaired the wall of the nursery so that Harold would not fall out.

Harold was quite happy in his cell, and felt no urge for freedom. He was putting on weight and feathers, and acquiring a philosophy of his own. Then something happened to change the course of his life.

One afternoon he was awakened from his siesta by a loud thumping, a sound quite different from that made by his parents. Soon the wall gave way, and there was something large and yellow and furry staring at him - not his parents' bills, but the hungry eyes of a civet cat.

Before Harold could be seized, his parents flew at the cat, both roaring lustily and striking out with their great bills. In the ensuing melee, Harold tumbled out of his nest and landed on our garden path. Before the cat or any predator could get to him, Grandfather had picked him up and taken him to the sanctuary of the veranda. Harold had lost some wing feathers and did not look as though he would be able to survive on his own, so we made an enclosure for him on the front veranda of our north Indian home, and Grandfather and I took over the duties of his parents.

Harold had a simple outlook, and once he had got over some early attacks of nerves he began to welcome the approach of people. Grandfather and I meant the arrival of food, and he greeted us with craning neck, quivering open bill, and a loud, croaking, ``Ka-ka-kaee!'' Fruit, insect, or animal food, and green leaves, were all welcome. We soon dispensed with the enclosure, but Harold made no effort to go away; he had difficulty flying. In fact, he asserted his tenancy rights, at least as far as the veranda was concerned. One afternoon a veranda tea party was suddenly and alarmingly convulsed by a flash of black and white, and noisy flapping; and behold, the last and only loaf of bread had been seized and carried off to his perch near the ceiling.

Harold was not beautiful by Hollywood standards. He had a small body and a large head. But he was good-natured and friendly, and he remained on good terms with most of the household during a lifetime of 12 years.

Harold's best friends were those who fed him, and he was willing even to share his food with us, sometimes trying to feed me with his great beak. While I turned down his offers of beetles and similar delicacies, I did occasionally share a banana with him. Eating was a serious business for Harold, and if there was any delay at mealtime he would summon me with raucous barks and vigorous bangs of his bill on the woodwork of the kitchen window.

He loved bananas and dates and balls of boiled rice. I would throw him the rice balls, and he would catch them in his beak, toss them in the air, and let them drop into his open mouth. He perfected this trick of catching things, and in time I taught him to catch a tennis ball thrown with some force from a distance of 15 yards. He would have made a great baseball catcher.

Having no family, profession, or religion, Harold gave much time and thought to his personal appearance. He carried a rouge-pot on his person and used it very skillfully as an item of his morning toilet. This rouge-pot was a small gland situated above the roots of his tail feathers; it produced a rich yellow fluid. Harold would dip into his rouge-pot from time to time and then rub the color over his feathers and the back of his neck. It would come off on my hands whenever I touched him.

Harold would toy with anything bright or glittering, often swallowing it afterward. On one occasion he seized a rupee coin from me (a week's pocket money in those days) and swallowed it neatly. I never saw the coin again, although I followed him about in the hope that the coin might be ejected, as were my marbles from time to time.

Only once did he really misbehave. That was when he removed a lighted cigar from the hand of an American cousin who was visiting us. Harold swallowed the cigar. It was a moving experience for Harold, and an unnerving one for our guest.

Although Harold never seemed to drink any water, he loved the rain. We always knew when it was going to rain, because Harold would start chuckling to himself about an hour before the first raindrops fell. This used to irritate my Aunt Ruby. She was always being caught in the rain. Harold would be chuckling when she left the house. And when she returned, drenched to the skin, he would be in fits of laughter.

As the storm clouds gathered, and gusts of wind shook the banana trees, Harold would get very excited, and his chuckle would change to an eerie whistle. ``Wheee ... wheee,'' he would scream. And then as the first drops of rain hit the veranda steps, and the scent of the freshened earth passed through the house, he would start roaring with pleasure. The wind swept the rain into the veranda, and Harold would spread out his wings and dance, tumbling about like a circus clown. My grandparents and I would come out on the veranda to watch him and share in his happiness.

Many years later, I still miss Harold's raucous bark and the banging of his great bill. If there is a heaven for good hornbills, I hope he is getting all the summer showers he could wish for, and plenty of tennis balls to catch.

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