July 27, 2005

Witch Finder

Robert and I took one of the Toyota pick- ups from work and drove two hours and quite a long way from the forest that Sunday. We were supposed to be scouting for wild mushrooms, which people in Europe paid big money to eat in upscale restaurants, but he had begged me to help him . He was in an agony of fear and horror, his sister had phoned to tell him his three year old niece had gone missing. The family feared the worst, that she had been kidnapped and was probably dead by now, or soon would be.
There had been several people around their district who had vanished over the past five or six years. Each one had been found several days later mutilated , with certain body parts hacked off, lips and genitals, tongues , ears and eyes usually, though sometimes internal organs had been taken. All had bled to death and then were dumped , still tied hand and foot, wrapped in newspaper and old plastic fertilizer bags.
Everybody knew it was the old Muti murder horror , using human body parts for potions and charms to give powerful people an edge over their rivals, for promotion in Government or business, financial success or luck in ( it’s just a word ) Love. Everybody knew who was involved too, there were often big shiny cars parked at a certain isolated homestead, where the cattle were fat from grazing other people’s crops, and the old man had a surprising number of young wives. Ten years ago he had been an object of scorn, ragged and shiftless, perennially drunk and his children always hungry, often in trouble for fighting or petty theft, a seller of weak medicines and doubtful spells, whose customers usually couldn’t afford the bus fare to the Government hospital or else didn’t want their husbands to know they were trying to abort their eighth child, or who were quarrelling with a co-wife and hoped to have her burn herself at the cooking fire.
We talked during the drive, of course, and he told me all this, though no names or other identifying information, at my request. I was going to try and get some sort of objective proof somehow, something that could justify certain low-ranking police going over the heads of their Station Commander and the District Commissioner to make arrests and do more than a token investigation. My reputation as some kind of crime investigator and communer with the spirits was rather flimsily based on the luck I had finding wild mushrooms in commercially viable concentrations and keeping track of the misdeeds of several rambunctious drivers and about a hundred young co-ed mushroom pickers out in the forest. Oh yeah, plus I had long hair and a raggedy beard, which proved the craziness required of any worthy Witch-finder.
Traditionally, I knew , the process used iin these parts involved getting suspects and innocents together and working the atmosphere up into a sort of humming tension of expectation and fear, then sorting out putative culprits from the gathered crowd by use of the sense of smell. Chaka, the great Zulu leader, had a favourite Witch-finder , an old woman, who was probably more feared than he was. She was said to have “smelt out “ hundreds of evil men and women , conveniently often people that Chaka wanted to dispose of , simply by moving among an assembled crowd with her eyes closed, sniffing at people’s bodies.
We drove off the main road through the hills for several hot and bumpy miles along tracks more often used by oxen and tractors than by anything without low range gears and four wheel drive. We went slowly with the windows open , enjoying the vista of green hills dotted with grazing cattle and dark clumps of trees , corn tall and lush on the flatter land near each of the widely separated homesteads. We passed a few people walking in groups of four or five together and then one old man striding along alone , carrying a plastic supermarket bag . As we eased carefully past him, a stench of rotting meat wafted in the window,. “ Hey that guy’s lunch is a little past its “best by” date “ I joked. Robert just stared solemnly back and responded “ Mr. Dube eats some strange things.”
Today the neighbours were all gathering again at Robert’s sister’s place, after searching the countryside over the past three days. She lived as second wife of the eldest son of the extended family. The missing girl, Emilia , was her third child, and had been playing with other toddlers of the family under the care of her eldest sister, who was nine, while the adults and older children hoed weeds in the nearby corn field. When Zanele, her mother, came to eat lunch with the kids, she found Emilia gone and her sister shaking and crying , while the other little ones wept in sympathy. She told me this while seated at her mother-in -law’s table in the thatch roofed house at the centre of the compound. I had the privilege of sitting at ease sipping tea , playing the role of a mysterious and powerful investigator while the gathering waited silently outside. We three, Constable Simelane, Henrietta Zuma ( Emilia’s grandmother), and I were trying to find some detail that might have been overlooked in the first panic and turmoil of the disappearance.
All that Grace could say was “ She’s gone, I don’t know what happened, i went to Elphas, he fell and hurt his knee and it was bleeding and he was crying, so I washed his knee and told him to sit there by the tree in the shade and then I came back and she was gone . But I looked and looked and I dont see.” She was speaking English to me, quite fluently and with a slight American accent, probably her English teacher was a Peace Corps worker, and somehow that last sentence had an odd ring. I said, “ Pardon Grace, do you mean you didn’t see where she went ? “ She promptly burst into loud sobs and hiccupped “ No, no I can’t say , I can’t say . Oh my poor sister .” Her mother hugged her tightly and patted her back while glaring at me. “ What do you think, of course that’s what she meant, are you trying to torture her ? Whats the matter with you ?”
I swallowed a sip of tea to help my suddenly dry mouth and throat to articulate my next words gently “ Please ma’am, can you let us talk with her a little more, we have to get every detail we can , she might have seen someone nearby before the child, before Emilia that is, went missing .” Grandmother Henrietta suddenly frowned and spoke “ Zanele, let her sit here a while, I will see that she answers properly. You go and see to the other guests, there is beer for the men, everyone should be here by now. “ she turned to me “ Ask. I will see that she answers “
Grandmother was evidently ruler in this homestead, because the sobbing child gathered herself with an effort and whispered to me “ I saw him , he said he would help to find her , but I musn’t say that I saw him or she will die .” The adults leaned forward listening intently “ We can only help your sister if you tell us everything “ I said, “ Can you trust the person who told you to be quiet ? Is this a person who could lie to you ? ”
“ No, no , I musn’t think bad things about people, the minister at church told me I musn’t , I must be a good girl and pray to Lord Jesus and everything will be fine , he said.”
“ Well you know , Grace, sometimes people are bad and say things that just aren’t true and break their promises. You should trust your family and be polite , but don’t always believe everything people say “ said Grandmother “ Now tell us, child, who was there, who did you see that day ? “
“ But he said he could only help to save her if no-one knew he was nearby If I told anyone he wouldn’t be able to help and she would die, and it would be my fault . “ She wailed. Grandmother waited grimly until she quieted again and then spoke , “ Tell us. Who .Was . There . “
“ Johannes Dube “ she whispered. “ When I didnt see her I looked by the gate, and there were some people running away, carrying a sack, then Mr Dube was standing there ,and he said he would help to find my sister when I asked if he’d seen her”
With that name I suddenly realised what we had to do. “ Listen Grace, you can help us, you know. I want you to go out among the people and help your mother to look after the guests, take them food and drink . While you are doing that, I want you to use your nose. If you smell bad meat , I want you to try and find where the smell is coming from, without anybody noticing what you are doing. Come back here and tell us if you think somebody is carrying anything that smells like that, perhaps something in their pocket or on a string around their neck . “ She nodded solemly and looked at her grandmother for approval.
In a few minutes she was back , and whispered to her grandmother, who wrote on a piece of paper and passed it to me. Johannes Dube . Plastic bag and something on a string around his neck. Mandla Zwane , something in his right pants pocket, Dorothy Hlope, something smelly in her purse. We looked at one another silently. “ Right then, lets call in Dube first “ I said . ”See what he has to say. If these guys believe their magic will protect them , they have to carry the Muti they’ve made with them to get the benefit. Which means if we get a look at what they are carrying we will probably find all the evidence we need for the Constable to arrest them.”
The old man swaggered in and sat down, taking the teapot and pouring himself a cup , which he proceeded to slurp noisily. “So what do you want, Henrietta? I told you, if you pay me two cows I can use my magic powers to find your granddaughter. Send this fool away first though, before I do anything .” He spoke SiSwati, not realising I understood him, then turned to me and spoke English “ How do you do , very good of you to come help our poor people .”
I played along “ Mr. Dube, if we all work together we will learn from one another and I’m sure we can accomplish a lot . I am so happy to be able to help the great people of your beautiful country . I am so curious about your customs you know, tell me, what are you carrying there, is it your lunch ?”
“ Oh you know, just some of our traditional food that it is our custom I must eat you know , to make myself strong . “ He replied casually.
“ I just love to try your traditional food you know .” Before he could react I grabbed the bag from his hand and dumped the contents on the table.
Two ears and some other body parts , covered in red ochre and bits of plant matter , and pierced by thongs , ready to be strung around someone’s neck, but still plainly and unmistakably enough to tie him to the missing girl. Constable Simelane rose grimly to his full 5ft 6 and took him firmly by the arm. “ Well now, what do we have here ? “ he intoned, in his best British Bobby style . “ I think you had better come along to the station so that we can pursue our enquiries. Who is in it with you then ?”
“ No, no, you dont understand, it’s Zwane, him and that Hlope woman and Esther Dlamini, they did it, they threatened me , but I was going to tell you anyway .” whined Dube.
I didn’t hear any more , as I bolted outside to the fresh air and heaved my guts up , to the mute astonishment of the gathering. This actually was just the right thing to do, as vomiting and extreme agitation are regarded as signs of spirit possession . As believers in magic powers and the influence of spirits on the mundane, our targets were likely to believe that I was picking out suspects with this kind of help . Shakily, I went back in and we called in each person “smelt out “ by Grace or implicated by others , and questioned them, and each blamed others, each was carrying some sort of charm with human body parts as one of its components, and each in turn was formally arrested and locked in a separate room , pending the arrival of reinforcements and transport from the police station in town.
Eventually six people were convicted of ritual murder and sentenced to death. Since Swaziland did not have an executioner, they waited in prison quite a while and for all I know they are still there.

July 20, 2005

The first line

This last piece, Only Angel Saw, was written for The First Line, which is a magazine/website that provides a first line and asks writers to do stories using this.

only Angel saw

Having little to his name when he died, the reading of Henry Fromm’s will went quickly. Angel had tied her hair back and put on a jacket, borrowed from Dave, in an attempt to be sympathetic to the occasion ; both formal and official and of course quite sad. She had been surprised by the letter, with her name properly spelled and all neatly laid out on a really lovely thick and creamy sheet of paper, definitely worth keeping to use the other side, perhaps a memory portrait of Henry in a happy mood, eating of course, something that might capture his essential purity and simplicity.
So now she owned everything in Henry’s room , all his clothes, his bed and blankets and books, his hotplate and cooking stuff, his clocks and everything except his money. His sister from Liverpool got whatever money there was, which was all she was interested in , so there was no need for the sniffy attitude and stares at her bare feet. Dave would be happy too, they could move into Henry’s room with its big window and space to move around. Of course they’d have to get rid of all that stuff somehow, maybe just put it all on Jen’s stall at the market.
“ One more thing Miss Davidson , “. said the lawyer “there is a receipt here for rent paid for his room in Congreve Street for the next 10 months and a similar receipt for rental fees on a storage facility , Browns Storage and Cartage of Brook Lane, in Bushey. Both the contents of his room and whatever may be in storage are yours, constituting as they do all his worldly goods other than monetary assets . Here is an abstract of the relevant passage of the will, which you may show to establish actual possession of the articles in question. “
“ Thank you “ she answered with a bright smile , and took the offered pieces of paper, more of that thick creamy stuff, and put it all neatly folded as it was into the jacket’s inside pocket .
Dave was enthusiastic about the stuff in Brown’s, speculating endlessly about what could be there, so next day they went to see.They had no problems , no-one asked to see any bits of paper or anything, they just used the key with the big plastic tag “Browns S & C” which was hanging on a nail beside the door in Henry’s room. Brown’s didn't believe in being nosey it seemed, they walked in the gate and found door #7 , matching the number on the back of the tag, and tugged it open through the dead leaves and cigarette butts lying in a soggy mess all along that side of the yard.
Inside they found several cardboard boxes tied with string, which looked as if they hadn't been opened since the end of the War, more than twenty years before. The first one was filled with Army stuff, khaki uniforms and boots neatly wrapped in thick brown paper that looked as if it had come from a butcher’s shop,which was, as Dave pointed out , appropriate for what it represented. Henry had been in the Army in the War , he had been with something he called the South African Irish, which didn't exist according to Angel’s friend Jane’s boyfriend, who worked in the Home Office in London. Well at least there were neat little harps on the uniforms, so they were something to do with Irish, anyway. Henry was always talking about fighting in Africa, in Abyssinia against the Italians and then in the Desert, and he would always get blind drunk when he started on about someplace he called Sidi Rezegh and not say much after he got that far.
In the second box they found old papers, yellow looking newspapers and bundles of letters written in neat feminine longhand in light blue ink and tied with string, typewritten official looking papers in big stiff brown envelopes and a few books, all of it smelling of mould and damp and mice. Angel tried to read the title on the fattest book , which actually looked like it was written in gold leaf, but it seemed to be some weird foreign writing with strange shapes , so she asked Dave “What’s this Dave, is it Hebrew ? You can read that cant you?” Dave took a quick look and frowned “ No way, this isn’t Hebrew or anything like that, I should know, after all I am a Cohen , you know . My Dad made sure I learnt all that stuff. This must be that Abyssinian writing , what do they call it, Geez. “
Of course they dug right down to the bottom of the box, to see what good stuff might be under everything else, and were rewarded by the contents of a bundle wrapped carefully in oiled paper and silk. Some kind of costume with great bright stones decorating the chest area, which Dave grabbed and put on over his t shirt while she was admiring the pattern in the silk wrappings. There was also a very ornate crucifix right at the bottom of the box, which Angel held up to admire in the weak light from the open door.
Dave was already ripping the last box open as she turned to him “ Wow look at this, isn't it beautiful ? Look how it shines in the light, it must be gold “ crowed Angel . That caught his attention enough to turn his head to her as he opened the lid on the box. Which emitted light of its own in dazzling intensity , blazing bright in the dim room, but seen only by Angel. By the time Dave turned again to look, that first coruscation had dimmed to a bearable level, enough to puzzle him as to its source but no longer blinding. What he saw was another wooden box carefully protected inside the cardboard, with what looked like carrying poles packed beside it, light shining gently from every crack in the seemingly normal wood. “ Hey wow that has to be worth something .” said Dave “ There’s something in this box shining the same way, the old guy had a whole stash of gold stuff mouldering here while he got by on his Army pension or whatever .” He tried to pull one of the planks off the box, but found it too much for bare hands. “ Lets go to the pub and celebrate “
They locked up again and Angel slipped the key into her back pocket, with the tag dangling like a plastic tail, and the crucifix hung neatly from the leather thong around her neck, next to the glass trade beads from Morocco that Dave had given her . She also took a photo of a smiling young man in army uniform, slim and mustached, primed for the battles of life, Henry around 1940 or so, a long road and fifty pounds away from the Henry she knew in the Sixties.
They stayed in the Rose and Crown until Last Call, then piled in someone’s van and went to a really cool party in a huge bare country house that someone who was someone else’s boyfriend had just bought , something to do with Pinewood Studios and a movie called 2001 . Anyway when they got back to town it was Monday afternoon and Dave had to go into College to write an exam, so Angel took the photo and started her portrait of Henry on that nice paper, young and smiling.
When Dave came in carrying fish and chips he had news “ That was a breeze, I just knew everything , the answers just came easy. I did great, Baby, just great “ he grabbed her and tickled her until she thumped him with the fist holding the watercolour brush, spraying yellow paint over his face and hair - Henry had been blond of course - and then they ate while sitting on the bed, side by side. “ Oh , by the way, we can forget about whatever was in that last box , Brown’ s burned down yesterday “ he said through a mouthful of cod.

July 18, 2005

Lion and Unicorn

“Come here, beautiful “ crooned the great beast in a playful singsong grumbling voice that echoed among the rocks and trees to rebound from all sides at once. She froze in mid - stride, right there in the open dusty ground next to the great granite swell of the hill slope at the head of the valley.
This valley had been their home for the past year , the children's laughter bouncing happily around as they played, the adults a little busier with the concerns and complications of life. They had fled the old place to escape the tyranny and oppression of an autocrat’s rule; a self-proclaimed king whose only virtue was strength, whose only concerns were his own advantage , his numerous offspring and the security of his rule.
The result had been the disappearances in the night, the whispering morning conferences when everyone tried to account for the latest mysterious disappearance,optimistically trying to assign some blame to the victims in order to reassure themselves of their own safety.
Finally, when even the noon sun seemed unable to lift the gloom and mothers kept their brghtest toddlers tightly by them, the band had set out from the only home they knew. They had found this fold in the hills on the fourth day of their journey, bright with bird song and green as a dream , and had settled in like ducks into a pond.
She stood at full alert, heart speeding up to a frantic gallop while her legs seemed made of quivering mud, almost collapsing under her . Where was he lurking ? - she scanned the dappled shifting shade of the white -thorn tree , the deeper shade of the rock beside it -- all that moved was a wren bobbing about its business in tiny self- importance.
She knew that voice, the threat his presence here in the valley brought to all her family and friends - the image of those hairy paws on her daughter’s shoulders, that foul breath --she breathed out suddenly in disgust, clearing the very thought from her nostrils.
With the snort came resolve. No more. No more running, someone had to make a stand or this would never end, living in fear of that beast, never knowing where or when he would strike, no peaceful playtimes free of worry. Innocent young ones just tender meat in his eyes.Time to fight him face to face.
With studied nonchalance she stepped forward, head held high - “ Come see what I have for you big guy “ - she answered in a voice somewhat higher pitched than she had hoped.
All around an uneasy silence spread , only the hot breeze rustled the grass standing in clumps here and there among the trees. If things went as usual, there would be no witnesses until after it was all over, and no retribution. The thought fanned her into restrained rage, her breath began to whistle in and out as the adrenaline surged through every part of her.
Suddenly he stepped into view, seeming to glow brightly against the dark rock behind him. How had she missed seeing him until this moment ? -- he was so big, so menacing it seemed impossible that he had been hidden until now .
He swaggered confidently forward, arrogant and sway-bellied, in control of everything he knew - his rivals run off or dead , his prey his for the taking .
He paused for a moment in faint puzzlement - why was she making it so easy ? Looked like he wouldn't have to run to catch her - who cares why - he could save his breath , though hed grab her from in front instead of behind like usual. Good enough. He grunted deep in his chest as he swung into practiced action. As he reared onto his haunches to grab her by the neck - his favourite opening move - she lowered her head and stepped sharply forwards, driving her single spiral horn into his exposed belly.
For once the unicorn had won, the lion lay bleeding in the primordial dust.
Turning away from the spreading dark puddle of blood in the dust , she walked to the stream and dipped her head into the cool water, waggling it from side to side to rinse the blood off her horn while it was still wet. It was hard enough to be born as different as she and a few others were, without being shunned by the herd because of a smell of blood . She would show her grand - daughter the body and demonstrate her successful moves to her, at least there was one bright child amongst the herd to pass a few lessons on to. Most of their herd mates and relatives were just ordinary eland, born with two horns and no ability to learn language. In every generation a few were born like herself, one - horned and able to understand and learn the spoken language beyond the few simple grunts and whickers of the main herd. If they could only live in peace for a while, perhaps they could increase their numbers to the point where they could safely breed only with other speaking ones, instead of having to mix in with the ordinary herd and have some children born to the bright pain of intelligence and some to the dull certainty of a placid animal life. That lion had been really quite frightening, a predator with a rudimentary grasp of language and the ability to think . A truly terrifying prospect if he had bred intelligent cubs, but as far as she knew he had not. He had been conciously targetting the brigfht ones of the herd in their previous home, which had reduced their numbers to a frighteningly low count before they had moved here.
The great flat top of the mountain with its ever present clouds and mist had been their haven , their home for many generations until that animal had caused their recent move. Perhaps now they should move back there and resume their old life, after all the relationship they had built up with the small men there, the users of poison arrows , had been quite interesting. The men had sent their wise ones up the mountain to spend time with the herd, and the learning had gone both ways. Here in the lower country the men were herders of sheep and cattle and not quite as ready to accept an intelligent herbivore as an equal.

July 15, 2005


The first great snowstorm of winter brought fierce winds and a chill that pierced to the bone. When I went out to bring in some firewood early in the evening, a calico cat came running out of the swirling , stinging whiteness, miaowing desperately . She headed right for the door and slipped in as soon as I opened it for her, obviously quite used to people and confident of her welcome despite the hard life she must have been leading recently. She was thin and slightly ragged looking, very hungry and quite vocal until I gave her some cold chicken, which she ate while purring loudly. She settled comfortably in front of the stove, with her paws neatly folded under her chest and a definite air of permanence about her. My thoughts were that she was probably a town cat brought out by someone and dumped in the countryside to fend for herself, as seems to happen fairly often.
Within an hour she had earned her keep by catching one of the mice which had been running all over the house, nibbling any food left open and leaving their droppings everywhere. She ate all of it, no fuss, no mess, and I decided she could definitely stay.
Late that same night when I opened the kitchen door to marvel at how high the snow had drifted in a few hours, there was a half-grown black and white kitten crouched there. Quiet and still except for shivering, she passively allowed me to pick her up and bring her inside, where she eagerly accepted the last of that cold chicken. The two cats knew each other , and the younger one tried to nurse, but was sharply rebuffed, so the relationship was obvious. Naturally I slogged around in the snow for a while, trying to see if there were any others around, but found nothing but bare snow and dark shadows.
Both cats spent the winter inside, using the litter box , catching mice and keeping me company. Neither wanted to venture outside for any reason, it seemed, until the snow melted and the muddy ground dried out a little, when both sat and enjoyed the spring sun with me.
The younger cat was long and lean , with big paws , and markings that reminded me of Sylvester, the comic book enemy of Tweety Bird, so she was Sylvia. Her mother was more compactly built, with tiny neat paws and a much more restrained manner,. I named her Rose, but mostly she was known as Sylvia’s Mother . Sylvia climbed everywhere and got into everything, knocking sugar bowls and chess pieces to the floor, crouching on top of the fish tank with one paw hanging hopefully down into the water until I put a cover over it, and finding mice in the most unlikely places.
One day when the birds were busy everywhere and the grass was sprouting new and green, Rose went for a walk somewhere and never came back , though I left a window open for her for weeks. Sylvia stayed with me, pregnant with her first litter before I ‘d realised she was old enough. She had six , all of whom went to homes happy to receive them, and was pregnant again before her second visit to the vet, when of course I had intended to get her “ fixed “. She had by now matured into quite a large and athletic cat, sleek and soft furred, prone to sudden outbursts of unsolicited purring and addicted to tummy rubs. She was also quite an ambitous hunter , and several times brought back rabbits for her kittens.
One evening that fall I was bumbling around in the kitchen with the four babies of her second litter tumbling and wrestling around my feet. Suddenly there was a loud pained squeal as I stepped on a tiny tail, and instantly Sylvia was there in bristling fury. Her yellow eyes glared into every corner , searching for the threat, ready to rip apart anything that dared touch her children, radiating pure fury and aggression as every hair stood on end and her claws dug into the floor. Quickly she checked to see if everyone was present and unharmed, first one kitten got a sniff and a lick, then the next, then me and then the fifth of her charges, the fourth kitten. I felt in rapid succesion, fear of this feral beast, then relief that she discounted me as a threat, and finally honour and gratitude that she counted me as a kitten

July 4, 2005

Revised green corn

Just added a bit to this piece, if you actually read it over the past few days, which not many have done by now. Some at the end and a few words in the middle.

Green corn

Green corn
Towards evening the old boat chugged into a deep inlet, what had been a steep narrow valley in the hills above the great river before the dam was built now a convenient harbour. They had taken soil samples at two spots along the shoreline during the long day, each time leaving the water and following game paths inland , carefully labellig the sealed bags of earth with the map co-ordinates and depth they were from, then storing them with the growing collection back in the boat.
Here they would have tracks made by people to follow, company for the evening, beer and talk around the fires. There was a prospectors’ camp, two geologists and their gear, quite a few helpers and others in a sprawl of tents under the trees where a stream met the lake. Further up where the ground levelled out was a great expanse of corn , head high and bursting with vigour, and beyond that rose the smoke of a fair sized village..
“ All right guys, lets get set up over there beside the other tents, Adam you go see about getting some of that corn, a couple of ears each should be good, Henry you start the fire , Pete lets go meet those geologists, bring that case of beer. Oh yeah, Adam , heres some cash for the corn, just find someone who actually owns it before you start paying though “ and Andy and Peter headed for a shady seat under the thorn trees, where two empty canvas chairs signaled a welcome amongst the half dozen already there. Guy and Alex , the geologists, were both bearded and sunburnt , Guy a lanky twenty something with yellowish curls straggling over his shoulders , and Alex getting on for forty with years of beer fighting his belt. They were sitting with a young woman and an older man, both dressed in khaki shirts and pressed pants, smart contrast to their hosts’ crumple and wear style. They were Chief Luto and his daughter Tuli, visiting from just over the other side of the corn field, both fluent English speakers and obviously better educated and more prosperous than your average subsistence farmer. Andy and the Chief were soon deep into soil chemistry, corn varieties and pests, with side excursions into lake water levels and vegetables. Some quick words to one of Alex’s guys sent him running off to tell Adam not to worry about paying for those ears of corn, the Chief didnt want any cash . Tuli and Guy and Peter had their own technical discussion going, music and mini skirts, guitars and chords, the Scene in London where he had just come from and In the capital Lumaka, where Tuli had just finished high school. Alex was happy with beer and the cool breeze, just sitting and sipping and listening to a dove cooing the last sunlight away somewhere nearby.
After one of those short sharp tropical sunsets and the metallic clamour of the guinea fowl going to roost in the thorn trees , the creaks and croaks of frogs and crickets praised the rising half moon and the blaze of the milky Way and Southern Cross over them. Guy brought out his guitar and played and they sang Beatles , Dylan and Baez , stopping to munch roasted green corn and pork sausages. They sang “ I been working like a dog “ with enthusiasm, everyone joined in. They sang “one two three four what are we fighting for ? “ with just the young people , and a couple of duets from Guy and Tuli , “Parsley sage rosemary and thyme” went down well with some nice harmony. Then Pete tried one he’d heard just a couple of weeks before in a pub in St Albans, “In the chilly hours and minutes of uncertainty I wanna be In the warm heart of your loving mind “ and everyone swayed to the tune and sang along the second time around, but somehow Pete was convinced there had to be more to the song than that, so he extemporised “Ah to wake once more and feel your arms at Edens door “ which was ok, but still kinda short .Hippos started to grunt and snort somewhere offshore, getting closer as Luto frowned and cursed “ Oh no here they come again, they had a taste of corn last night and now they’re back , we didnt see them around here until yesterday, they must have moved along the coast. Damn. I’ ll get some guys to light a fire in the field and see if we can scare them off. It wont be easy because they must be quite hungry, there’s no reeds or grass for miles along the coast except here and we drove them off pretty quick last night. “
Peter was up for adventure and excitement, cocky after the encounter with the Rodians on the lake, so went along into the field and waited by the blazing logs in the path from the water . Two young guys from the village armed with tin cans and stones as noise-makers had been appointed to this duty by their chief, and they had a fair sized calabash of home brewed sorghum beer, nkomboti, to help pass the time quicker and several large joints rolled in brown paper to slow things down again.
Some hazy time later the logs were blazing four foot flames, and they had all moved back away from the heat, when the noise of something large and sure of itself crashing through the thorn branches across the path sent his buddies off into the shadows . Pete grabbed a blazing branch and waved it in front of him like a lion tamer with a chair , shouting “ Go on get outta here “
One of the other guys grabbed him from behind and hustled him off the path into the corn as the hippo just kept coming . He threw the burning branch right into its open mouth as it stamped by, then stumbled blindy deeper into the dark field. Woke up with a lump on his head and a really bad headache , lying in Guy’s tent sometime after sunrise. Andy had left to get his soil samples and the rest were down by the stream , looking for diamond indicator minerals in a process that involved shovelling gravel into a wooden sluice and pumping lots of water through it, then picking through their gleanings with tweezers and magnifying glasses . There were a diesel generator, a pump and several radios all going full volume, a scene of bustle and industry sending a plume of silty brown out into the lake. Sounded like one hippo felt unhappy too, because one of the four or five out there was grunting and complaining loudly instead of snoozing with just his nostrils above water in proper hippo style. They had munched through a wide swath of the cornfield despite all efforts , and most were busy digesting and keeping cool. Tuli brought Peter clean water and a damp cloth, but not much sympathy;” Hey man , you were sucking it back pretty good last night, werent you ? Just drink lots of water and take it easy. What did you do to yourself anyway, fall over into a donga and hit your head or run in to a tree or something ? You look like you got yourself a concussion, your one eye is really big, and the other is normal , let me see. Oh yeah you got a nice bump right here . Well that will help when Andy gets back, he might let you off with some of your hide left, everyone has been up and working for hours already. “
Anyway when Andy got back from the bush everything was already packed back in the boat and they set off for the next stop somewhere to the West up the lake with little delay. “ You know that is quite remarkable back there” Andy commented “ That Luto is really someone around here . They are lucky he”s the chief, he gets things done .and he works hard, and hes not afraid to try things . That corn was planted months before the rains came, when the Rodians dropped the water level in the lake it left a big area of level mud and shallow water, and he went in and dug drains and planted corn , they dont have cattle around here bedause of the tstse fly you know, so everything had to be done with hand tools, no ox ploughs. If he can get some of that corn to the city they should make a bit selling it to eat fresh. Make way more like that than as a staple crop, and looks like the hippos will get most of it if they leave it in the field to mature and dry. You must have run right into one of those drainage ditches.” Then he turned his attention to the map and started to plot locations for the afternoon soil sampling hike.