Horrible scream in the dead of night

By Sir Christopher Ondaatje

Of course I had heard about the notorious devil bird. I first heard about it on Kuttapitiya – the tea estate in Pelmadulla where my father worked and where we children grew up. But that was a very long time ago in the 1940s before I was sent to England “to get a decent education”. Ours was a wild carefree existence, and we were happy. I particularly remember 1946 when my father took me on a trip around the island. It was probably the highlight of my life up until then. I was 12, and it was certainly the last thing we did alone together. Our final journey took us by car from the estate first down to the Yala Game Reserve on the southeast coast, and then north to the ancient cities of Sigiriya, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. More than any other member of the family, my father and I shared a love of the outdoors and of wildlife; it was a great bond that he had encouraged between us on our walks around the estate or on holidays.

The Devil bird

“Christopher, do you want to come?” he used to yell as he set off on his inspections, and I accompanied him, partly because I loved him so much and partly because he would be angry if I didn’t go. As he walked, he taught me about history, about nature, about confidence, and he always encouraged me in any interest I had, whether it was in birds or athletics or boating. It was then that he first told me about the devil bird. It is rarely seen, and there is still a debate about what it is. Suggestions include a brown wood owl and a crested honey buzzard, but the best evidence, amassed in 1968 by Dr. R.L. Spittel, suggests it is either the crested hawk eagle or the forest eagle owl. Whatever its identity, there is a local superstition that the devil bird is an omen of death.

According to the ancient legend, once there was a jealous husband who suspected his wife of infidelity. During her absence he murdered their child and made a curry from the corpse. He served it to his wife, who ate it until she found the baby’s finger on her plate. Mad with grief and disgust, she fled into the jungle and killed herself, but the Gods transformed her into a bird, the devil bird, which still horrifies the world with the woman’s hysterical screams. The cry of the devil bird has also been compared to the sound of a baby being strangled, a boy being tortured and a lost child whose wailings break off into a pitiful choking sob. Dr. Spittel found a variation of the myth in the folklore of the Veddahs, the island’s earliest inhabitants. A Veddah and his son Koa were out hunting for three days without success. They were both very hungry. The father told his son to kindle a fire and, when it was aflame, thrust his son Koa into it, roasted him, and ate some of the flesh. He took part of it to his wife, who cooked it and was sharing it out when she suddenly became aware that it was her son’s flesh. Digging the handle of the spoon into her head, she screamed, ‘Koa’, fled into the forest and died. And now, as the crested ulama, she makes the midnight jungle echo with that wail.

Even stranger are the tragic tales told by a man named Shelley Crozier, who went hunting on three occasions in the 1920s with three different friends to the same waterhole in the remote Eastern Province. Each time he heard the devil bird cry under a full moon. The first time was with his fried Phillip, like Crozier a special apprentice with the Railway.

“Here was a whitish brown bird with a hooked beak and about the size of a hawk, craning its neck to get a better look at us,” Crozier reported. “When exactly opposite my friend, it stretched its neck forward, puffed its neck feathers out and then shattered the silence with its deadly scream. Screaming and shaking its head up and down, as though he was abusing my friend, he shut up and was about to fly off when I shot it a bare foot away from the point of my gun. My friend was sweating from every pore of his body, and by the light of the moon, he looked as pale as death.”

“I am not long for this world,” Phillip prophesied. Then at dawn, seeing the dead bird, he shouted, “For God’s sake take me from here.” Five days later Phillip was struck by a bus. “The curse of the devil bird,” he said to Crozier in the hospital, and died.

Christopher Ondaatje

The next year, Crozier visited the same place with another friend. They heard the horrible scream and the bird flew out of the night and dropped a chameleon onto his friend’s lap. He laughed it off, but four days later he became ill and was sent to hospital. “Devil bird,” he whispered to Crozier, and died.

The following year, in exactly the same place, Crozier was with yet another friend, Nöel. Nöel, too, had been warned, but insisted on making the trip. “Devil or angel, I stay,” Nöel said bravely at first. But as the darkness came, his courage departed. “Let’s can this damn shoot and get out of here, even if we have to get lost!” he said. But they didn’t go nor did they sleep. Then the scream. “I am bloody sorry I came,” Nöel said. An hour later another scream, and the bird flew low over Nöel’s head. Two weeks later he was dead.

Rather belatedly, Crozier decided not to tempt fate any further, stating: “I vowed that I would never again take a friend to that place as long as I lived.”

All these stories of the devil bird, and the warnings my father had given me when I was a child, swirled around in my head when I returned to Sri Lanka in 1991 after 40 years to research The Man-Eater of Punanai – a bitter-sweet memoir of my early life on the island, and an attempt to grapple with the ghost of my father. I was also going to re-tell the story of the Punanai leopard that had killed and devoured at least 20 human beings in the region of Punanai, keeping the tiny village in terror. Childers Jayawardena, Lakshman Senatilleke and I, therefore, intent on creating the last trip I had made with my father, headed first south to Yala, then north to the ruined cities, and eventually to Punanai to learn more about the man-eater. It was an unsettling time in Sri Lanka. Throughout the fall and winter of 1989, as I was getting ready to return, the newspapers were full of stories about Sri Lanka’s civil war. Government troops were clashing with rebels, bombs were exploding in markets and buses, and innocent people were getting killed in the process. The country was a virtual powder keg. We knew we might get caught in the cross-fire between several warring factions, but our determination to succeed in our eight-week research safari overrode all other considerations – even the threat of danger. From Colombo we headed for Galle, then to Hambantota and the flat, dry, yellowy-brown scrubland that I love so much; and then, via Tissamaharama, to the arid and sandy terrain that makes up the four hundred square mile Yala Game Sanctuary. It was to be our home for the first four weeks.

We searched for leopards, of course, spending the first few days in the Talgasmankada bungalow – a small building, just a couple of rooms and an L-shaped verandah, on the bank of the Menik river. Its name means the crossing where the thal trees are. The bungalow was almost bare of furnishings and had no electricity and only a little water, but it was wonderfully shaded by huge deciduous trees. Almost immediately we felt free. The only telephone connection was from Tissamaharama 40 miles away. We had to go out every few days for fresh food. Other than that, news of fighting in the area or reports of murders reached us only by word of mouth. Eventually we began to clear our minds, to the point that all we really cared about was if we had a pair of dry shoes, a hat against the sun, and a dose of mosquito repellent.


We slept out on the verandah. The rooms were too hot, so a row of cots were placed along the gallery facing the river. I noticed that Lucky and Childers chose cots in the centre, leaving me with the first bed a wild animal would come to on its nocturnal prowl. But we all got used to our positions, including the park trackers. The days were long, tracking leopards and interviewing people. We learned to be patient, and looked forward to the magical night and the smell of the kerosene lamps. We slept well. The breeze was cool and there were no mosquitoes. From time to time I was awakened by a sound and shone my flashlight into the eerie blackness, catching the inquisitive eyes of deer and hares and squirrels. We got used to occasional angry cries of the peacocks too, and sometimes slept through the rasping, sawing sound of a leopard from across the river.

And then on the fourth night we slept again on the verandah, but with less success. There were louder and more disturbing jungle noises, and neither Childers nor Lucky seemed able to settle down. Deep in the night a shot rang out. Again, it came from the other side of the river, perhaps a mile away. Terrorists? I knew the others were awake, but nobody moved or said anything. The sharp crack of a rifle set off a frenzied chorus of shrieks, led by the peacocks and a couple of langurs, and amidst them came a blood-curdling scream. I froze. No one made a sound. It really did sound like a child being strangled. I lay tense and wide awake until the commotion quietened down and I was able to drop off to sleep.

The morning brought a change of plan that seemed another ill omen. Originally we were intending to spend five days in Talgasmankada, go off to another part of the park for a while, then return for five more days. Now, we were instructed to go immediately to the Patanangala bungalow on the coast. Childers, a former game warden, explained that this was to allow him to pursue his research about turtles, but I suspected that he and Lucky had decided that it would be safer to move away from the bungalow. The Talgasmankada bungalow had already been burned to the ground a couple of years before, and it was on the main escape route for terrorists trying to flee north into the interior from the coast. The fighting was getting closer. I wanted to forget about devil birds and terrorists as I was much more interested in looking for leopards. It wasn’t a particularly good atmosphere and I wasn’t quite sure why.

Wanniarachchi, one of the trackers, was quiet and seemed very edgy. We packed quickly before having breakfast, and had piled into the jeeps heading away from Talgasmankada shortly after sunrise. I was in one jeep with Lucky, Wanniarachchi and Raja – our driver. Childers followed in the other jeep with the other tracker, driver and the bags. We made our way on the jungle track to Patanangala. The jungle seemed very still.

Almost in silence, our two jeeps cut across first down the Gona Lahaba road, along the main Yala road, and were just about to turn left down the Patanangala road to the sea when Wanniarachchi, silent until now, burst into a stream of agitated Sinhalese, talking to Lucky mainly, and to Raja, who stopped the jeep very suddenly, letting Childers pass us and then turn towards the Patanangala bungalow. Lucky too now seemed agitated, looking from Wanniarachchi to Raja and back again. No one said anything for a while and then Lucky looked to me and said, “Chris, we must go to Kataragama immediately. This is important. Wanniarachchi’s daughter has a young baby girl and he is worried that she may be sick. I think it’s the devil bird. It’s the first time he’s ever heard it.” Then silence. “Shall I drop you off at the bungalow and then go with Wanniarachchi to Kataragama and come back a bit later?” Lucky asked.
“No,” I said, “We must all go. Let’s quickly go to the bungalow, tell Childers, and then proceed to Kataragama now. If the baby is ill we must do what we can right away.”

It took us a few minutes to get to the Patanangala bungalow where we explained what the problem was, and turned around and drove back to the Talgasmankada road, to the Katagamuwa entrance to the park, and then the six miles to Kataragama, eleven miles northeast of Tissamaharama.

We were silent, serious, intent. The last stretch took us almost into the Kataragama town before Wanniarachchi directed Raja to turn left down Vallimathagama Road to a humble thatched wattle and daub hut at the end of the road. Both Wanniarachchi and Lucky got out immediately. I stayed in the jeep with Raja. Wanniarachchi didn’t knock, he simply opened the door. But his daughter, quite unconcerned, was already there to greet him. However, after an intense conversation in Sinhalese, a horrific expression appeared on the daughter’s face, after which both the daughter and Wanniarachchi disappeared into the house leaving the door open. I could see them hurrying to a corridor leading to a far corner of the dwelling. Lucky stayed outside the house smoking and fidgeting nervously. We said nothing, fearing the worst.

But after a few minutes, perhaps eight or nine, they reappeared this time with the two-year-old daughter in her mother’s arms. They both still had a terrified look on their faces. Wanniarachchi’s granddaughter seemed to be perfectly all right but there continued a serious dialogue between father and daughter for some time before Lucky and the tracker climbed back in the jeep.

Nothing was said, and I asked no questions. Then just as we turned off the highway into the park Lucky turned to me and said, “You know, Chris, I am not a particularly superstitious man, and I think I have heard the devil bird a few times in my life. But Wanniarachchi has not, and last night must have triggered something in his mind. He was very nervous, and convinced that something terrible had happened to his granddaughter. That’s why he insisted on going to Kataragama right away. He wouldn’t have asked normally because he knows how important this work you are doing is to you, but he was certain that a curse had been thrown on his family and particularly on his daughter.

“The amazing thing is he may have been right. And we may have only got there just in time. The little girl was in her room asleep, but when Wanniarachchi and his daughter went to her they found her head stuck between the bars of her cot. Anything might have happened. They had an awful time getting the little girl’s head free and back through the bars. Wanniarachchi’s daughter was in a terrible state. Anyway, it’s a lucky thing we came right away. I don’t know about this devil bird but there are so many stories and so many warnings that it is no wonder people are terrified when they hear the bird’s scream.”

I said nothing. Nothing needed to be said.

(Christopher Ondaatje is the author of The Man-Eater of Punanai and Woolf in Ceylon. Source: The Sri Lankan Anchorman, Toronto, Canada.)

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