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by Jeremy Hinchliff

The stranger said killer whales were related to Cape magpies. Long before humans arrived. We were touchy about black and white. What about zebras and penguins? No, he said, it was the shapes that mattered, on the chest and head.

We saw the sleek killers in Algoa Bay. Important shapes like yin yang signs. Wetsuits of obsidian and ivory. And when you saw the stranger’s magpie toss snails in the air it was like the seal pups they hurl across the shallows.

The stranger was a Freestater. Name of Oosthuyzen. He said magpies could learn to talk. Once we tried but all his bird said was “aark!”

One day someone taught the parrot in the Bushman Bar to swear. It said “fuck off!” to the owner of a diamond mine. Funniest thing heard by black ears or white in a decade.

The Bushman Bar was rammed every night after that. The saloon was tiny but people sardined inside to hear this parrot swear.

So Oosthuyzen trained another magpie. This one could really talk. It put words together in coherent sentences. We saw him sitting on his stoep till the pink of the sunset, training his bird. Man, we were looking forward to it when he came to the Bushman Bar.

The parrot made a good showing. “Fuck off!” it said again. This time to the old Afrikaans police chief. That was the funniest thing since the Whites Only sign came down. Then the Freestater placed his cage on the bar. We were expecting great things from Orca the Talker.

The bird pecked at its swing. Silence. We thought we heard something. We strained to hear more.

“Aark!” The place grew restless.

At last it cleared its feathery throat and looked ready to begin. But only “aark!” came out. Even the most sympathetic were embarrassed. Nothing but “aark!”

“Jeez,” someone shouted, “why don’t you call him Noah, hey?”

The roof came off. The barstaff offered us free beer but we said no, it was a privilege to pay. We christened the parrot John Donne for its eloquence.

But when the stranger had a heart attack out at his bungalow it was the magpie that saved him. Pure accident. It pecked at his mobile phone and hit ring back. The last caller was Sam Mbangwela, the only black guy he liked. Mbangwela got him to hospital.

“Mr Oosthuyzen,” I say as I sip his beer and watch the pink sunset over the kopjes, “your bird doesn’t say much, but it listens like hell.”

He can’t talk himself now, with all the tubes.

Out in Algoa Bay the killer whales sometimes come to the surface. When they tire of predating Great Whites, they take an interest in our boats. But they never attack. At least, they haven’t so far.

Jeremy Hinchliff’s short stories and flash fiction have appeared in Reflex Fiction, Ad Hoc Fiction, Multi-Story and Words with Jam. His e-novel, Dead Olives, was published by Impress Books in 2016.