Al and Ntando drove the first hour in silence. Even Poe was quiet, perched on a little stand on the dashboard. It seemed to have been designed just for him. The snow fell lightly to the earth, most of it vanishing, but some sticking. It looked as if the scrubby land had been dusted with icing sugar.
Ntando’s stomach growled.
“Here,” Al said, popping open his glove box. “Got plenty of nuts, seeds and dried fruit in here. Help yourself.”
Poe dropped down and nudged a small packet with his beak. Al chuckled, and pulled it out. Ripping the packet open with his teeth, he emptied it into the jeep’s ashtray. Poe hopped over, and began to peck, as focused as a tiny jackhammer.
Ntando watched the bird eat while she nibbled on some hiker’s trail mix. She caught Al glancing at Poe, and a private smile crossed his face. The sort of smile she imagined she sometimes had when Vuyisa was around. That feeling of being with somebody who ‘gets’ you. Or I thought she did.
Ntando swallowed, hard.
“You doing some serious thinking there,” Al said.
Ntando shook her head, not wanting to discuss it. “How long have you had Poe?”
Al gave a soft chuckle. “Nobody can own Poe. He owns himself and comes and go as he pleases. It’s like that saying, ‘If you love somebody, you set them free’. Well, Poe lets me be free and I do the same, and when I’m lucky, our paths cross. He’s great company.”
She nodded. “I’ve never really had a pet. But if I did, I think I’d like a cat.”
Poe cocked his head, and she swore that bird was glaring at her. Al noticed too. “Calm down, pal,” he said. “She doesn’t own a cat.”
“Guess he isn’t a fan.”
“Him liking cats would be like a zebra loving lions.”
“Makes sense,” she said. “Not that I’m getting a pet any time soon, anyway. They’re not allowed in the res, and I wouldn’t have enough money to feed it.”
“Everything has its season,” Al said. “Even friends.”
Ntando wondered if that is what had happened between her and Vuyisa. Perhaps they’d had their season. She had friends from her childhood whom she’d been close to, who faded out of her life. One day she’d look up and realise they hadn’t spoken in months. Somehow, they’d changed, drifted into new routines, hung around different people.
But she’d never had a relationship end out of nastiness. Maybe she’d been sheltered. Maybe this is what adults did – just one day cut each other off? Wasn’t that what divorce was? Two adults who’d been as close as possible, one day deciding they were done?
But she needs my help, Ntando thought.
“That’s more serious thinking,” Al said.
Ntando shook her head. “I don’t know how I’m going to thank you, Poe, River and Forest for all that you’ve done.”
Al chuckled. “Nobody is expecting a thanks, trust me. If I lived for thanks, I’d be living a completely different life. One I don’t think I’d enjoy. I do what I need to do, because I feel it is right. But nobody owes me for it. I make my choices, and they are free to make theirs.”
Al grinned. “Like my buddy, Poe. That’s exactly right.”
I’m coming for you, Vuyisa, no matter if you no longer like me or not, thought Ntando, with certainty.
And with that vow, a gash in her heart began to heal. The sort of wound made by harsh words and betrayal.
Tell us: What do you think of Al? Do you agree that we have to let things we love be free, not try to control them?