A SORROWFUL STORY
by William Dunlap © 2019
I have a story
A sorrowful story
A tale of pride and glory
A pair of transparent emotions
That can fill an ocean
And sometimes do.
You will see
It's all about me, my, and mine
Makes you want to cry
You might ask, why?
Yes, I have a story
It's a sorrowful story
And I’ll tell it now
Whether you want to hear or not
And so it goes…
The lovely Evelyn Whyte-Chapel and I were driving through the plains of East Africa in a vintage Land Rover which was given to bouts of disruption. It broke down easily. English engineering you know! We came to an impassable watering hole that was in reality a bog. It was in the middle of the dry season, in the middle of the Serengeti, toward the end of the migration when everything had either moved on or died. Wildebeest carcasses dotted the landscape, vultures, storks, and hyenas scavenged for what they could, worms and vermin got the rest. Bright green areas of grass flourished where last year's exhausted animals had foundered, their final contribution was to fertilize with their last essence the very place they died. A noble thing, I suppose.
At the far end of the bog the water is a smidgen deeper. Here was a huge crocodile, two thirds submerged and still as a stone. Waiting-, waiting-, for one of us? A hippo? An antelope? Perhaps for another crocodile, or the rains. All would come soon enough as all things do to those who wait.
This place was marked on our map as a ford by our Maasai guide and he should know. Yet it was quite wide and wet in an almost sexual sense. There were no telltale tire tracks from this alleged ford. To the east the bog opened into a salt lake, bright pink reflecting the glory of a thousand flamingos. To the west, a smattering of acacia trees and greenery suggested more water.
What was a white hunter to do? Why, brew a pot of tea and make furtive entries in his journal, of course.
Late April, 19 - –
Three days out of the Muthaiga Club in Nairobi. We've left porters, guides, translators and fellow travelers in our wake. Am anxious to see the site of the killing of the game wardens. Murdered in their sleep by poachers near the Mukururu Rhino Camp. If armed men haven't a chance, what are the odds of the elephant or rhino surviving?
One would think the advent of Viagra and the whole family of love drugs, which lower a man’s blood pressure and elevate his libido would have given some relief to rhino horns and predators paws, the traditional sources of so many folk remedies designed cure male sexual indifference. But, no. These new consumers with their wealth and insecurities are literally thinking with their little heads, making manifest their willingness to purchase on the black market traditional nostrums. Poachers have taken note, and prospered. Greed overpowers common sense and conservation every time.
End of journal entry, now back to life’s real adventures.
A cloud of dust on the horizon is sighted, and keeps growing larger. Is it a vehicle? A herd of elephants? A sandstorm? If I back up and get a running start maybe I can push the Land Rover through this mud and muck. The strange apparition gets nearer and nearer, heading straight for us. This is after all a ford, so marked on the map by the hand of the all-knowing Mugambo.
My old Foreign Legion commander used to say, “When the terrain and the map diverge, go with the terrain.”
And so I did.
The Land Rover sunk to the handles of its doors halfway across. In anticipation of the possible need to winch it across the wet expanse, I'd had the good sense to secure a coil of heavy twisted line to the front bumper. There was one tree, a dead one, at the water’s edge. I inflated an air mattress and paddled over, attached the line and paddled back to the partially submerged four-wheel drive vehicle. Time was of the essence. I began to winch and the Land Rover moved ever so slowly.
I’ve often wondered about the derivation of the word “winch.” It’s pronounced the same as “wench,” which meant one thing in Medieval England, a barmaid of easy virtue, and “winch” quite another when it's your only hope through mechanical advantage of salvaging possessions, equipment, and life itself. So I “winched,” but wanted desperately to “wench.” Nothing derogatory about my “winching” in context. If I “winched” hard and fast enough I might be able to “wench” in the very near future. This “winch” was to save us all and I thanked with all my heart the Bitch Goddess of Come Alongs. Ah, the English language, so full of fun, complexity, and promise.
‘Twas a pride of lions stirring up all the dust. Two males, one dominant, a dozen females and several cubs converged on the watering hole and began to drink, but only after the big male found a proper spot and lowered his head. It was good to be on the other side of the leech-infested mud bath of a ford. We were scraping the muck off our boots and the sides of the Land Rover with sticks. There must have been a ton of such stuck on the tires and chassis. I tied a rope to a bucket, tossed it out, retrieved it and began to wash the car so to speak. The lions looked at us as though we were crazy, mud being a natural insulator from the African sun. Just ask our friend the crocodile. I looked to the left and noticed he was no longer there. Oh dear! Better keep an eye out for that rascal.
Come nightfall, the temperature dropped precipitously. We slept naked inside the tight enclosure of the Land Rover’s rear compartment on top of canvas, rations, ammunition and Jerry cans of water and fuel, our rest interrupted by creatures of the night. Some climbed atop our roof sniffing for us, especially her, through the small crack I had left in the windows. Every now and again I would shine my light and gaze out at the illusion of an aquarium full of zebras, baboons, wildebeest, water buffalo, and the occasional leopard and cheetah swimming by. All were on the move, hunting and being hunted. The watering hole was a favorite, if sometimes fatal, destination.
Evelyn and I made not a sound but held one another close, glad and grateful to be alive, her nubile body a warm and comforting presence. We’d washed our clothes as best we could and left them to dry in the front of the Rover, then shared a dram of single malt scotch, a twenty-year-old Talisker. It was the exact age of Evelyn and almost as smooth and satisfying.
Just before sun up, there was a huge eruption of sound. The cacophony one hears of a morning in the wild; the full-throated call from animals who had made it through the night, those who had eaten but not been eaten. Something to shout about, I suppose.
To gain relief, I cracked the rear door enough to urinate out onto the Serengeti. Evelyn was not so fortunate. She excused herself, moved to the front passenger side and made some sort of feminine accommodation. I did not want to know nor imagine. I'm a hopeless romantic about these things and cannot bear the thought of being accosted by the facts and difficulties of female hygiene and/or behavior.
The gentle glow of morning light came up as the animal sounds diminished. In no time, the red rubber ball of a sun was hanging like a testicle above the horizon with long shadows cast by all that it illuminated. The animals and their victory cries were gone. Dare we venture out? I was writing in my journal, of course, and allowed that Evelyn go first.
She gathered her clothes, now dry, and opening the door stepped stark naked into the early light to stretch and breathe in the morning air. She was a gorgeous sight to behold. To watch her dress was a French Impressionist’s wet dream. Evelyn appeared however, unsteady on her feet and wobbled a bit. Then, looking down, she screamed. The young specimen was standing buck naked on the back of the vagrant crocodile, and it had noticed. The big croc lay in the shade of the Land Rover, its length exceeding that of the vehicle by several meters.
Evelyn leapt back inside just as the mammoth reptile snapped at her well-turned ankle, missing it but biting the door frame and leaving a tooth for good measure. The croc was gone, back to the edge of the water to wait and watch patiently for another opportunity.
I built a fire and boiled water for tea. We still had eggs and bacon for a proper breakfast which we ate inside the Rover to keep the pesky kites from diving down and taking bites right off our fork or snatching a finger for good measure. I tend to agree with those who claim dinosaurs were more in line with our current population of birds. They probably possessed a beautiful song as well; an aviary of monsters. Something to think about in our downtime, of which we have a great deal.
The African wildlife, having become bored, abandoned us. We packed up and pointed toward the killing ground, still some days away. We would pass three tribesmen looking for the Maasai who had stolen their cattle. Two were on foot with bows and poisoned arrows, the other on a precarious bicycle wearing an Ole Miss T-shirt that had seen better days. Turns out a soccer coach came through years before looking for talent. He spread good cheer, a scholarship or two, and this wearable message: Ole Miss - 5 or 6 of the best years of your life.
On we drove and were soon overtaken by a congress of baboons. They were an aggressive aggregation who beat on the windshield and attacked the mirrors, twisting them to better see themselves. One made the international sign for, “Got a smoke?” Another masturbated while two males put on quite a show attempting rear entry intercourse on another who was too busy picking up grub worms to notice.
We drove quickly away and left them audienceless. The next two days were event free and on the third we saw signs directing us to the sight of the game wardens compound and an Evangelical Christian Home for Unwed Mothers. Bullet pocked mud brick walls were all that remained. The roof and out buildings were burned. A makeshift cemetery for eighteen bodies lay in the shade of a Jacaranda tree.
Evelyn gathered blue fallen flowers from the Jacaranda and arranged them artfully on each grave. As the sun went down a small herd of elephants came to the edge of the clearing. They paused and some threw dust in the air with their trunks. The elephants left quietly and respectfully, knowing more than we ever will.
That night we slept among the dead. As if out of remorse or deference, there were no morning sounds, quite possibly because there were no animals. God knows there are fewer and fewer of every species. The passages once open to migration are being daily converted into farms. The indigenous human population intrudes on the comings and goings of the wildebeest, rhino, water buffalo and elephant. These seemingly benign squatters do as much, if not more damage than do the poachers with their lethal force. Whether it’s the rifle barrel or the irrigation pump, it is interlopers interfering, altering and in the end infuriating the balance of nature. This is quite obvious to anyone who takes note.
The following morning we broke camp bright and early, packed the Land Rover and set course for Nairobi. The plains were inordinately quiet. The migration had passed. As a self-designated white hunter, one of a long line, I was feeling a little redundant and unnecessary, and something of an anachronism.
Evelyn had overnight succumbed to a classic case African Enlightenment. It happens to post-colonials out here. They become sociologists, ecologists, and naïve if zealous anthropologists; all empathetic with the place, its people and creatures. She challenged me and my chosen profession.
“But there is precedent,” I argued. “Just consider the great men who have come before, who took to the bush, became more African than the Africans. What about Ernest Hemingway, his man Philip Percival? Denys Finch Hatton and Baron von Blixen-Finecke? The Bonhams, Jack and son Richard? All great white hunters. They did so much for Africa and the animals. Well, they killed them to be sure, but then so did John James Audubon. We humans often kill the things we love. It can’t be helped.”
But it was all for naught. She folded her arms and crossed her legs, and I was never to see the lovely Evelyn naked again.
Copyright © 2019 by William Dunlap.
All rights reserved.
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