I sat in the front of the motorboat manned by Mukisa, who held onto the tiller, guiding it slowly through the narrow alleyways between the islands and peninsulas of dense papyrus grass. A steady hot and humid gentle breeze blew across the Mabama Bay Wetlands, carrying with it the scents of vegetation, alive and dead, and that indescribable smell of fresh water teeming with aquatic wildlife. I inhaled it until it filled my lungs; until they ached. I tried to see everything all at once, as if the watery landscape alive with birds, mammals and lizards was a photograph capable of being viewed with a single panoramic glance. I knew there was nothing that could quell my enthusiasm, my excitement, as an observer of this world so far away from the streets, pollution and noise of my neighborhood in inner-city Chicago. It was the death of – or more precisely, a small inheritance left for me by – my grandfather on my mother’s side that allowed me to take this trip back to his birthplace of Entebbe, Uganda. My otherwise state of poverty be-damned.
Birds were everywhere I looked. All kinds of birds; warblers, kingfishers, herons, storks, ducks, cuckoos, on and on, then there it was, standing in the reeds near the bank, a shoebill. It was the shoebill stork I wanted to see. An endangered species, prehistoric in appearance and thought to have roots in the last days of the dinosaurs, it was estimated there were only a few thousand remaining in the wild. It stood there on long spindly legs, about 4 foot tall, its feathers a blend of powder blue and dusky gray. There was a tuft of feathers sticking out of the back, top of its head. Its bill looked like a shoe for an extremely large foot. On the tip of its bill was a reddish mark, like a birthmark, shaped like a hammer. It stared at the boat, at me, with unnerving intensity. “Stop the boat,” I called out to Mukisa, “I want to have a closer look at the shoebill.”
He turned off the engine, and picked up an oar. As he guided us closer to where the bird stood, I thought it would fly away, or at the least walk further back from the bank, but it remained where it was, immovable, fearless, walking only a few feet, only to stand motionless again. A couple yards away from it, Mukisa, stuck the oar into the mud in the water, bringing the boat to a halt. “Against law to interfere with natural habitat or wildlife,” he said.
The shoebill stared at me, it’s dark yellow eyes fixed on me with such unwavering focus that I felt embarrassed, as if I had been caught outdoors, naked. It then shook its head as if dislodging ear wax, and then began to do what Mukisa had earlier told me about shoebills, was bill-clattering. Its quivering bill sounded like a machine gun, the only form of vocalization it made. I lifted my cellphone and took several pictures of it as Mukisa busied himself keeping the boat from drifting deeper into the weeds.
The first “pssst” that I heard the shoebill make, as if made by someone wanting to secretively catch my attention, I thought was some kind of physiologically emitted noise, like a bird form of a hiccup or a sneeze. I lowered my cellphone and met the bird’s gaze.
“Hey, fella,” it said in a barely inaudible whisper.
Uncertain what I had heard, from a bird that was said to make only one noise, I dismissed as the rustling of the reeds at best, my imagination at worse. I raised my cellphone, prepared to take another picture, and then heard it again.
I lowered the phone and stared at the bird. “What?” I said tentatively, with astonishment, also in a whisper.
“What’s your problem?”
It then spread its wings to a full 5 foot wingspan, flapped them a few times, lifted into the air, and flew off.
I had booked a room at a small, modest hotel located in downtown Entebbe. When I returned to it after my foray into the wetlands with Mukisa I expected more than a typical “welcome back” greeting from the clerk at the check-in desk. I wanted to be asked if I had seen a shoebill, which I had, or if I had figured out an answer to the stork’s question, which I hadn’t. To be honest, I didn’t even think I had a problem, but when a bird asks you that question, it requires some reflection. I went to my room, showered, and took a short nap before leaving the hotel to wander around the local area on foot and find the restaurant the desk clerk suggested I might like. Many of the shops and stores had open fronts with a lot of merchandise on display in front of them, something rarely seen in Chicago. It made me wonder about shoplifting in Entebbe. Then I thought, I’m too negative. Maybe that’s my problem. I found the restaurant, The Bird’s Nest. On their menu, to my surprise, was Chicago-style pizza. That’s what I ordered. I thought, I’m not into experimenting with different foods. Maybe that’s my problem.
Before returning to the hotel I took a taxi around the city and to see Lake Victoria. I felt I had seen enough of Entebbe to satisfy the ghost of my benevolent grandfather. I tried to hide my feelings that other than Mabama and Lake Victoria, I wasn’t thrilled with Entebbe. It was a new place, a new city, I should have been thrilled. Maybe that’s my problem.
I returned to the hotel at sundown, went straight to my room instead of sitting in the lobby to talk with the other tourists who had congregated there, and went straight to bed. I spent a sleepless night thinking about the shoebill. Even before I received my requested wake-up call from the front desk I was wide awake, although blurry-eyed. I never get enough sleep. Maybe that’s my problem.
The flight to Pakuba, Uganda, located within the Murchison Falls National Park, took a little over an hour. Before booking the trip to my grandfather’s birthplace, I had searched online things to see and experience in Uganda, and the Murchison Falls park was at the top of every list. My plan was to stay in a lodge there for three days, and then return to Entebbe to make contact with the side of my grandfather’s family who lived there. At no time growing up do I recall him ever mentioning any of them and I drew blank stares when I asked my parents about them. I thought it was something I should do. At the Pakuba airport I was met by Ochieng the guy who drove one of the lodge’s jeeps.
“You have come to see the many wildlife in the park, yes?” he said to me as he tossed my backpack and small suitcase in the back of the jeep.
I didn’t want to tell him that originally it was seeing a shoebill that I was interested in, but having seen one in Mabama, and not fully enjoying actually – meeting – one, my interest by default now lay in seeing the elephants, hippos, giraffe and the antelope-like Ugandan kob in their natural habitats. I was never really a wildlife kind of guy, seen either in their natural habit or otherwise. It had been years since I had been to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.
“Yes, to see the wildlife,” I replied with faux enthusiasm.
“The park has many, many bird species also,” he said as he got behind the wheel.
I climbed into the seat next to him. “I saw many birds in Mabama,” I said.
“Did you see one of our famous shoebill storks?” He started the engine.
I hesitated before answering. “No.”
“Anyone who comes to Uganda must try to see a shoebill,” he said as he drove the jeep away from the curb.
On the way to the lodge I saw the animals I told Ochieng I wanted to see, with the exception of hippos. I felt I had already used up at least two days of exploring the park in a single drive. He assured me I would see the hippos the next day when out on a boat to see birds and to look for a shoebill. After arriving at the lodge, I spent the rest of the day and evening sitting on the front porch sipping ice tea and listening to the bird watchers chatter excitedly about the different birds they had seen. None of them had seen a shoebill, but they all remained hopeful.
The motorboat I had hired for the tour through the part of the Nile River that flows through part of the park and feeds the Murchison waterfalls left the dock a little past dawn. Manned by two men, Damba and Irumba, one at one end guiding the boat and the other on lookout at the front, I sat alone in the center, having paid extra to reserve a boat for myself. We slowly glided on morning sunlit water through the tributaries that meandered through the park as Irumba pointed out many birds, alligators, koba and even a troop of chimpanzees before a shoebill was spotted standing in a thick carpet of grass. It remained in place, only slowly turning its head to watch as Damba guided the boat closer to the shore. I should have been thrilled to see a second shoebill, but instead I felt as if hundreds of the parks’ butterflies had taken up residence in my stomach. The shoebill looked exactly like the one I had seen in Mabama. But don’t most shoebills look identical? I thought, suddenly feeling feverish. As we watched, it walked closer to the bank and stared right at me. On its bill was the hammer-shaped marking.
When three alligators approached the boat from the other side, Damba and Irumba turned to gently prod them away from the boat with the boats’ oars.
“Pssst.” It was the shoebill, its eyes fixed on me.
“What?” I whispered back.
It raised its head, clattered, and then lowered its head, shook it a few times, and then locked its eyes on mine. “What’s your problem?” it said.
“Who said I had a problem?”
“Don’t you ever think about your life, examine it? To quote, Socrates . . .”
“You can quote Socrates?” I said, astonished.
“I can still quote the last tyrannosaurus rex I met before the great extinction,” it said. “Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living.”
“What’s that have to do with me?”
“Look around you,” it said. “Really look.”
With the alligators turned away, Damba and Irumba, returned to their places.
The shoebill rose into the air on gently flapping wings and flew away.
I did see hippos that day. I returned to Entebbe and met several of my grandfather’s relatives, none who remembered him. I returned to Chicago and took up my life where I had left off. I repeatedly ask the question of myself and others that the shoebill asked me. “What’s your problem?”
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 540 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.