Wednesday, May 5, 2010

BRAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME


As a result of today, I shall be ordered to kill. Such a thing is not unheard of for boys in Africa, even for nine -year-old's. I have been on this game-farm in Northern Rhodesia since I was four. Taking care of sick animals is part of my chores. Next will be…


But I am not aware of the beginnings of this story as, baby bottle in hand, I huddle with an orphaned fawn in the prickly straw under the low tin-roof of the three-sided shed. The little duiker comes back to life. It trembles on scraggly legs and sucks voraciously. Creamy milk dribbles from the dark purple of its lips. Its soft rust-red pelt is studded with white stars. 

Some sixty feet away, within the wire-fence of our paddock the small herd of antelope grazes, misty breath clouds billowing.


A wagtail bird flit-flits up to the nearest fence post, distraction enough in the corner of my eye. But now the kid gets restless. Still, it is all so peaceful, with the morning dew steaming up from around the distant buck.

Then there is a sudden surge of brown bodies as they swirl and cough. Sides puff like bellows. Feet stomp. Heads and tails lift, and they break into a wild panic just as a golden flame of dappled sunlight streaks up and over the fence.

Landing, the threat freezes. Then, flick! The leopard’s tail brushes the crisp air.

The frantic herd mills about; anxious deer press against the wire in the far corner.

“Hey!” I shout unthinkingly, and kneel and hug the baby protectively.

The big cat turns quick as flame curving around a dark log. Across the field its malevolent eyes are sharp as pinpricks as it stills to an intense stare.

I stand up. The buck in my arms wriggles and writhes. The leopard crouches.

I advance with the kid out of the shed and into the light, and yell again. “Hey! Go away! Foetsek! Hamba whenah! Clear off!”

Powdery dust clouds implode under its paws as the huge cat pads a few steps closer.

Directly behind me is the gape of the shed. Useless! We’ll be trapped! My eyes dart about. No! Stare it down. The wire gate is too far to reach, almost exactly between me and the menace. What to do? My breath clouds pant. Don’t break the stare! Focus!

I sidle slowly backwards. My mind reels. Hoist the kid onto the roof? Run and climb the fence? Throw a rock? Scare the thing with a yelling charge?

Stupid!

In one instant the leopard approaches, the next it veers and straddles one of the other buck. It happens so quickly that I do not even see the attack. Clamped by the neck, the buck’s bony front legs dangle like two knobby twigs, and its back legs bounce as the great cat gathers speed.

“Hey!” I scream.

Loping with the limp deer still in its jaws the leopard lithely hurtles the fence, but the carcass catches. The sudden drag has the massive cat somersaulting over its prey, but not letting go. Its claws noisily rake at the wire and its powerful thigh muscles ripple as it tugs. The poor buck appears to come alive as its legs spasmodically kick and the head jerks this way, then that. But the leopard savagely wrenches it downwards, and the wire-spikes slit into the antelope’s tender underbelly, spewing its entrails in obscene bloody ropes that writhe and bounce in a trail after it, until, at the edge of the tall grass, the specter is gone.

I stand there, stunned.

The wriggling duiker, still in my arms, brings me slowly back to my senses. The wagtail bird flit-flits away. I put the kid down. At a distance the herd, momentarily mesmerized, one by one, nonchalantly resumes grazing.

We’re safe!

But somehow, I know I’ll see that leopard again.

Bash! Thud! Bash! The noise at the kitchen door, a week later, startles me awake.

Wha!? the Alsatian barks in the dark. We’d long ago turned off the generator. Wha!?

Bash! Bash! Thud! Bash. “Bwana! Bwana!” old M’dhalha’s voice calls.

Wha!? the dog barks. Wha!? Wha!? Wha!?

“Bly stil! Shaddup!” big Daddy Sarel shouts. He carries his rifle. “Voetsek, hond! Ek kom!” he yells, and the banging stops as he one-handedly fumbles at the lock. The dog, scratching at the door, whines. “Jy!” Daddy Sarel orders me, “Soek vir die lig!”

I scrabble in the kitchen drawer for the torch, grab it up, and shake it in my efforts to get it working, until it suddenly beams up into my blinking eyes.

Daddy Sarel, still in his pajamas, opens the door a crack. The dog yelps from his kick.

M`dhalha, our old servant, his thin bare black torso shiny in my light, urges, “Leopard, Baas! Buya! Come! He is with the donkey!”

“No!” I dart past Daddy Sarel and M`dhalha and run, the torch-light raking the ground ahead of me. It soon throws a distant wash on the side-wall of the stable, from where the eerily distinct sounds of a cat-like screeches and enraged yowls become a terrified orchestra of caterwauling, braying, snarling, and thudding.

I slow to an uncertain stop.

The adults catch up. Daddy Sarel plucks the light from me and thrusts it at M’dhalha, and as we round the corner of the stable the cacophony suddenly goes ominously quiet.

Daddy Sarel halts up, and readies the rifle.

Why is there now only a distinct yet soft ‘whee-ezing’ sound?

We creep closer and M’dhalha rakes the yellow beam up and down the scratched old door, and then stabs at the place where the leopard, clawing and chewing at the ant-eaten wood, gouged the earth to squeeze itself inside.

“I told you to replace that door!” Daddy Sarel whispers at me, when from behind it an anguished and haunting bray erupts: Eee-yah-oo-aw! Eee-yah-oo-aw! Oo-aw!

Daddy Sarel motions me to stand back. M’dhalha jerks open the door. Daddy Sarel hoists the .303 to his cheek. But he does not shoot.

There is no leopard.

The beam goes back and forth. Is it behind the knocked over feed drum?

Rosie’s backside is toward us. From somewhere in front of her, near her neck, purpled blood, in pulses of mist, sprays outwards. The stable glistens eerily. Then I bite into my lip as the donkey hobbles around to face us. Her right foreleg, attached only by thick gooey ropes of raw skin, dangles. Skewered bone shards project from the knee joint. Her hoof, now a useless clod, drags. And as the light goes back up to her face I gasp and cover my mouth. Her eye-socket is a bubbling hollow, pulsating thickly with yellow and slimy gore. The ear is a red rag.

Sudden movement out the door and past us blurs, yet I see sharply focused pink whiskers, a glass-yellow eye, and rust-red-blood as M`dhalha pivots with the light.

The terrified cat streaks away along the yellow beam and Sarel’s rifle swings up.

“No!” I abruptly yell, and lurch forward and push at the man so that the Kabang! blasts about our ears, echoing, Ga-bang! ~a~ga-ban, a-ban...

“Moer! You little bastard!” Daddy Sarel shouts furiously. “Moer! Jou klein moer! Jou verdomde stupid bladdy moer!” He lifts his arm up past his shoulder to deliver a backhand blow, but as the light sweeps away from us I jerk back, and the blow swishes by.

Deliberately, Daddy Sarel reloads. The bolt clunks loudly. “Light the bitch!” he swears.

The beam swings to highlight Rosie. Her throat gurgles. She looks alien, limp, and glued to the red-brown mud in breaking strings of her own blood. Mists of crimson, lurid and surreal against the golden light, pulse from her neck. But still she does not fall. Her sides heave with her coarse breathing.

Daddy Sarel thrusts the rifle sideways at me, and commands, “Shoot her!” Then he marches off.

The rifle is enormous, suddenly foreign, and too heavy. Dazed, I barely realize what I’ve been told to do. But I know how to shoot. Given a pellet gun on my sixth birthday I’d become deadly accurate, but when I’d bent to pick up a suddenly lifeless sparrow I’d sworn over its grave that I would never kill again. Then again, boys make makeshift vows about all sorts of things.

Wordlessly, M`dhalha now helps me hoist the weapon, his large hand bearing the weight of the thick barrel, his body against my back. “When you and it are one,” his calm voice at my ear instructs, “you’ll know to pull the trigger. Hit it here,” he adds, his careful long fingers softly touching the skin over my left eye, the cool tips then sliding to the hollow of my ear, “or here.”

I lower the gun, turn away. Tears fall. “Can’t we fix her? Please, M`dhalha? Can’t Rosie live?”

“For what, my Bwana? For herself, or for you?”

I stare up at him. Then I know that something much larger than me is at stake, and going with its momentum, I lift the weapon, align myself, and stroke the trigger.

Ka-ban-whump!

The donkey falls like a dumped flour sack.

But forever afterward I will remember lowering the weight of that rifle, rubbing at my shoulder, and feeling somehow very, very old.

The next day, as the gruesome chunks of bloody meat are being carted by wheelbarrow to the cheetah and lion cages, I find myself crying again. M`dhalha’s hand comes down on my shoulder. Stifling sobs, my teeth clenched, I groan, “I should’ve cared more! I could’ve prevented it! I didn’t fix the door. That’s why I didn’t want the Leopard shot. It was my fault!”

“Inkosana, Little Boss,” M`dhalha cautions, “I am thinking that there is such a thing as caring too much. Eyah? Perhaps you should have let Bwana Sarel shoot u Silo Silambile, the Hungry One, or next it will come back to eat one of us!”

But less than two weeks later that same u Silo Silambile, the Hungry Leopard, arrives in a stout bamboo cage on the back of a creaking beige-colored Datsun pick-up. Seven or eight wildly sweating men run through the orange dust clouds alongside the rattling vehicle, chanting and ululating, while inside the bamboo bars the terrified creature hisses and spits and claws and jack-knifes madly about.

The .303 in hand, Daddy Sarel checks the breech. “Adam! You and that new piccaninny over there, stand back!” Turning from us he calls out, “Manguana, you tell that piccaninny of yours to keep away from here, you hear? And tshesha, hurry! Grab a rope!”

Manguana, despite his gray hair, is the new ‘boy’. He has a coldness about him that I do not trust. I’m sure he is the same man that a month ago I saw at the back door with the half dead snake for sale in his fist. And now he’s shown up for work with this filthy piccaninny of his, who stands at a sullen distance, taller, perhaps even older than me.

Unsure, Manguana takes hold of a noose, and motions his child. “Aikimbo! Hamba ima lapa lo bietjani mlungu. Go stand by the white boy,” he orders. But Aikimbo just darts away and goes over to the generator shed.

I deliberately go to stand beside him, and smile a greeting, but the black kid looks down on me, and again moves away.

And then the creaking truck at last comes to a squeaking stop. Six of the men quickly slip long bamboo poles into and through the cage so that they can carry it without being in reach of the snarling cat’s unsheathed claws. The back of the pick-up faces toward the holding cages, but the low retaining wall of the driveway prevents it from getting close. The truck’s left side is also so near to the waist high embankment that the three men standing above the height of the truck bed have to grasp the extended poles at their knees, while the men on the other side of the cage are kept struggling with their poles above the height of their shoulders. And somehow, in the ungainly transition of forces between the lower men simultaneously attempting to mount the awkward height of the embankment, and the upper men attempting to synchronize the swinging of their poles, along with the constant weight shifts from the infuriated whirling of the entrapped beast, the whole thing teeters, totters, and falls! Some three-hundred pounds of cage and cat scrape downwards amidst fear-filled screams and snarls and a clawing and a letting go that ends on the earth in a crackling of split bamboo.

“Fok!” yells Sarel.

Immediately, men scatter. Voices and arms and legs are thrown in every direction as the door springs open, and the leopard, frightened and yowling, emerges.

“Pasop! Watch out! Gooi! Throw! Throw those ropes! Gooi!” yells Sarel.

A single noose ensnares the cat’s neck. “Hau! Miena bamba êna! I have him,” Manguana exclaims. But the leopard, seeing some opening, bolts. Three or four men spring to Manguana’s side. I scramble to join them and we all haul on the gyrating rope. It grows taught. The leopard suddenly flies off its feet, yowls and writhes in mid air, and lands on all fours; facing us.

“Gooi weer! Throw more ropes!” Sarel shouts as from some thirty feet away the cat comes in a rush of sliced air. But with the truck behind us, we cannot back up, and bodies catapult away in haphazard consternation. Some dive and roll under the Datsun. Some hurtle up the parapet. And all escape, except for Manguana, and… me! With the sudden release of the rope Manguana falls backwards, tripping me. In the tangle of our legs he screams with fury, kicks wildly, and backpedals up against the truck’s tire. I roll aside, but only just in time for the blur of the snarling brute to hurtle past me.

Manguana shrieks as the cat’s angry jaws tear into his neck. Its hind legs repeatedly rake up and rip downwards, opening up the black man’s stomach with successive savage jerks.

Amidst the melee of howls and shouts and the gushing blood and the swirling of dust clouds I see Daddy Sarel squat low with the gun, but already I cannot stop myself.

I leap up and, as lashing as the tail is, snatch at, and grab it, fully committed to yanking the beast off its grizzly prey. At once the huge leopard spins on me, bloody fanged and slit eyed.

And Sarel fires.

The bullet’s impact skews the cat’s body in mid swipe and its head arches back and spews blood. Then it falls sideways, and shudders itself to a still.

At last, I look aside.

Manguana, like a shredded rag doll, continues to sit upright against the tire. His head is hunched over in a dark red apron of blood. Hideously bright white bone sticks up from behind his neck. Then the head suddenly swings sideways, hanging only on cords of glistening flesh. In a face still frozen with fear, the pink teeth grin.

“No,” I exclaim. Numbly, I look around for Manguana’s son, Aikimbo. The boy is standing next to Lemon, our surly houseboy, by the kitchen door. But when our eyes meet, Aikimbo just stares back, his eyes glinting with a strange glow of excitement.

“Get up! Staan op!” Daddy Sarel’s voice penetrates through.

Like a tug-of-war victim suddenly let go, I’d fallen backwards in the dust. Now I rise stiffly, and stand numbly, and stare at the blood-sodden heap of the dead cat.

Whump! Daddy Sarel’s heavy backhanded blow bashes into the side of my jaw, spinning me off balance so forcefully that I stumble to my knees.

“You stupid little bastard! Moer! You bastard, I tell you! I told you to stand aside! Why the bladdy hell didn’t you listen? Now look what you’ve done! See! This is all your own bladdy fault! Yours! You’re responsible for this! All of it! Next time you’ll listen to me when I tell you to do something! You hear? Hoor?”

“Yes Pa. I’m sorry, Pa! So... sorry.”

But Daddy Sarel turns and strides away, shouting, “Lemon! You take care of that new piccaninny. You got your cousin this job. You now bladdy well take care of his brat!”

Aikimbo stares directly at me, then smiles.

It’s a smile that chills.

Later that night M`dhalha informs me, “Manguana is only the piccaninny’s uncle, not his father. Understand? I am thinking, Aikimbo has seen much of killing before now. His father was killed in front of him by white soldiers. Eyah? His uncle was taking him for too be in Zimbabwe. But Lemon is his cousin, so...”

“So, Aikimbo has come to stay?”

“Eyah, miena Bietjani Zimba, êna blala. Yes, my Little Lion, he is staying.”

I nod, and then realize what he just called me. “Bietjani Zimba? Little Lion! Is this the new name for me?”

M`dhalha smiles. “A name is not the thing unless the thing makes it so.”

“But, ‘Little Lion?’ M`dhalha! Would I not be called this if I didn’t deserve it?”

He tries again. “A name is not what you are; it is what you must be. That is why we call you Bietjani Zimba, I am thinking You must grow with courage.”

“And ‘Aikimbo.’ What does this mean, please?”

M`dhalha grimaces, “Groan-maker.”

“Groan-maker! Ha!” I think a moment. “And your name! Are you not a ‘M`dhalha,’ the Wise One, my Nkosi?”

He laughs. “This name is not for what I am, but for what I must always try to be. Even the Makula Zimba, the Big Lion, is careful not to rush foolishly, I am thinking. If his courage does not kill him while young, then this lion is learning to use his courage properly. He knows a sharp kudu horn can go into him like a spear. Eyah?”

“Eyah.” Then, I shudder. I go quiet. Rosie, Manguana, and now even the hungry old leopard. All dead. For what? So that I could prove my bravery? Be called the Little Lion? I shake my head. No. There’s quite another name for me.

And yes, I fear, I deserve it.


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