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The Camel's Shadow Has Four HumpsAfrican Myth, Urban Mystery
By Akmed Khalifa
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Akmed Khalifa
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSkyscrapers and other tall buildings awkwardly stick the sky
in a jagged assault on an otherwise peaceful canopy angry young clouds sling rain at the city and its appendaged ghettos streets glistening and wet flank gathering puddles of shallow water pumps and wingtips slosh pat stomp stand waiting various hair blows in rain washed air tree tops like thick afros wave to and fro the undeterred hunch at the shoulders faces wet in warm rain scurry like tightly wound playthings
a crawly metallic caterpillar on wheels coughing up thick black smoke pauses up on and in it LeMar Early finds a sitting space between the last thought and the next
his eyes wander half seeing, and fix upon another roving pair. Surprised at meeting his, they dart quickly upward pretending to hang onto words above his head. Shifting his focus, LeMar's eyes settle on a kind old face that genuinely smiles at him. For a quick second the many things that make them different from and strange to each other disappear as they exchange a first and last,
Lumbering through the hood, between final drops of rain, the laboring bus stops where LeMar's nights often meet his days. He jumps off and into the streets. The hard, blank cornering pavement meets the harder, more blank air there as he pounds the sidewalk and heads home.
The avenue is alive. Cool fools, pants creased, hats ace deuce, court leather-clad honeys in storied stilettos and fluorescent lipstick. LeMar passes the masses and rounds the corner toward his crib. Leaning in the doorway of his apartment building is Widemouth, with one shoe on and a paper bag on the other foot held there by a rubber band. Widemouth grips a bottle of wine in one hand and the door frame in the other.
"Hey man, where's your other shoe?" LeMar asks.
"If I knew would I have this damn bag on my foot?" Widemouth replies. "I may be drunk but I ain't stupid."
LeMar laughs as he wishes Widemouth luck finding his other shoe and climbs the stairs toward his flat. Even though prone to episodic drunkenness, Widemouth has earned LeMar's respect. He is known to just about everyone as the resident street philosopher, always ready with a story or an opinion about everything. Widemouth is experienced enough for three or four lifetimes and like the old African proverb, "has seen the elephant and heard the owl."
Twenty-five-year-old LeMar, orphaned at six years of age by the death of his parents in a car accident, and on his own since he was eighteen, has also seen and experienced life beyond what his years on the planet might indicate and still manages to have a positive outlook on life. He hustled and schemed his way through three years of college with no visible means of support. Somehow LeMar has managed to use every advantage and seize every opportunity available to him since leaving the foster care system immediately after his eighteenth birthday. His good looks and persuasive talents lend much to his ability to survive, but he's also intuitive, smart, and well liked by most people he meets, especially women, young, and old alike.
It is late and now in his apartment sitting on the couch, LeMar lays his head down on a cushion and drifts off to sleep listening to John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" walking out of the huge speaker against the wall. He sleeps every night to a chorus of jazz riffs and chords streaming from his computer that is wired into the sound system he has rigged to play all over the apartment. Morning arrives unannounced and soon out of the shower and out of the front door of his apartment, LeMar greets the new day and Widemouth, who is sitting on the building steps sipping a steaming cup of coffee.
"What's up man, did you find your shoe last night?" LeMar asks.
"I woke up and it was in my back pocket," Widemouth replies. "That explains why I was so tired this mornin'. I walked my ass off last night. You should try it. Sleep with your shoe in your back pocket and see how far you get."
"You know you're out of your damn mind don't you?" LeMar says.
"Beyond a shadow of a doubt. I wouldn't have it any other way. Speakin' of shadows I got a story for you straight from the mother land. You ever heard of the camel whose shadow had four humps?"
"I can't say I have man, but I don't have time for it now."
"Hold on now, hold on, you need to catch me when the thought is fresh or it might not come back around for years. I can't remember the last time I thought about this story, and who knows when it'll cross my mind again. In fact I heard it from a old brother when I was 19 or 20. I was on the back of a broke down old truck about a quarter mile from the banks of the Mississippi in the heart of the Delta. The night was crystal clear, bright enough to read by. It looked like God had reached out and touched every star above me one by one. I'm tellin' you LeMar, on top of that the moon was all over the sky. You couldn't miss it with your eyes closed. Any which way you turned it was starin' you in the face, just hangin' there like a big yellow ball of cheese, like you could just stick your hand up and cut off a chunk and put it on a samich.
"Okay, you got my attention, run it," LeMar says, "but don't make it too long man I got some business to take care of."
"Well, if you stop interruptin' me I can throw down some knowledge. So, smack dab in the middle of that sweet summer night, here comes this old brother leadin' a Georgia mule down the little old Mississippi dirt road I was sittin'on. He stopped and pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped the sweat off his face. I asked him if he wanted to sit a spell, and as we sat there listenin' to the crickets make background music, he told me this story.
"You see, a long time ago there was this African village that fell on hard times. Things got so bad that they had to sell all their camels except one, and they were on the brink of extinction as a village. If things didn't improve they would all have to pack up and move someplace where they could make a livin' off the land. Then one day a young boy named Jamal was walkin' with the last camel in tow and tied it to a dyin' tree so he could get some water from a nearby well. On the way back he noticed that the sun was beamin' through some branches on the tree and shinin' on the camel in a way that it cast a strange shadow behind it.
"He put the water down, walked behind the camel and there on the ground was the camel's shadow, but the shadow had four humps. The young boy looked at his camel and the one hump on its back and then looked back at the shadow. He walked all the way around the camel, but couldn't figure it out. He decided to get another opinion and left the camel tied there to run to the village and ask the elders about the strange shadow.
"Now, when the village elders heard his story they decided to go see for themselves. When they all got to the spot, the shadow was still on the ground. The elders realized that it was the sun shinin' through the branches and onto the camel's hump in a way that cast the strange shadow, but they were more interested in what it meant. They walked around the camel strokin' their beards and mumblin' to themselves. Then one elder raised his hands and said, 'Prosperity. Anyone who stands in this shadow will become prosperous.'
"Everyone stood all quiet like for a minute. Then one by one, each of them walked over, stood in the shadow, turned, and headed back to the village. Jamal untied his camel and followed behind them. The next day Jamal went into town to see if he could find some work to help his poor family. When he got near the outskirts of town some tourists asked him for directions. After he told them what they needed to know they thanked him and asked him where he was from.
"'I'm from the village of the camel whose shadow has four humps," he said. "Anyone who stands in the shadow will become prosperous."
"The tourists liked Jamal's story so they asked him if he could take them there, and if they would be allowed to stand in the shadow.
"'Yes," Jamal said, 'but it will cost you one American dollar.'
"The tourists, thinkin' it would make a good story to tell their friends back home, said they would be glad to pay and soon were headed with Jamal back to his village.
"When they got back to the village, Jamal got his camel and led them to the soon-to-be-famous spot, tied the camel and the strange four humped shadow appeared behind the camel once again. The tourists paid him one dollar apiece, happily stood in the shadow, took some pictures, and then headed back to town. Jamal, proud of the money he had made, rushed home to share it with his family. A week later Jamal went back to town again to look for work to help his family. When he got to town he was surprised to find that word had spread about his camel and its shadow and that more tourists were lookin' for him. He found the tourists and took them back to the spot, collected a dollar from each one of them and ran home to share it with his family again.
"The word began to spread fast, and soon Jamal was bringin' tourists to the spot every day. He decided to charge two dollars to stand in the shadow, and tourists were only glad to pay it. The spot became so popular that the villagers started bringin' clay pots and fabric and handmade statues and other things to sell to the tourists. After awhile the village itself had become prosperous and the villagers had enough money to rebuild their herd of camels. Jamal became a local hero, and his family was proud of him and his famous camel."
"I liked that story Widemouth. It was inspirational, but I gotta bounce man. I got places to go and people to see."
"All right LeMar, fold that story up and keep it somewhere you can get at it."
"Stay up," LeMar replies as he heads down Homewood Avenue. On his way down the avenue he reflects on the story Widemouth has told him and his own neighborhood. Homewood is a distressed urban community in Pittsburgh, a black community in crisis like so many others across the nation. It often struggles with crime and drugs, and residents continue to move on looking for a better way of life. Viable, economically healthy families move to other, safer parts of the city, and businesses continue to decline. But there is something about the community LeMar just can't put his hands on. There is something about it that just refuses to die. He can't see it, he can't taste it, and often can't hear it over the din of sirens. But he can feel it; he can sense that it is alive and old and gritty and as tough as the reinforced concrete beneath his feet. The spirits of the people who had come and gone are still there, still connected to those who remain, and he knows it. LeMar is determined to tap into it, to pull it up and out into the open.
Sitting on the bus, LeMar's thoughts drift back over Widemouth's story and how young Jamal was able to take advantage of a myth created out of everyday reality to turn his village into a prosperous community again. He wondered if an urban myth, a modern legend, could reconnect Homewood and its people to a renewed sense of community spirit.
Day breaks over the city in pieces a shard at a time falling quietly unfettered through LeMar's window covering him filling his bedroom he turns from penetrating sunlight unable to avoid the break of day swings feet over the side of the bed onto cool hardwoods arches his back stretches a yawn stands slowly into Saturday morning it is peacefully quiet as he slowly merges into unoccupied air and heads for the bathroom. Standing under falling lines of steaming hot water invigorates him and soon he is dressed, out the door, and onto the avenue.
LeMar's car has been in the shop for a week, and he finally has enough money to pay for the repairs. He thinks about buying a new car, but he can't afford it, and it would mean sacrificing too many other things in order to do so. When his car isn't running he resorts to public transportation, but taking the bus is often more than just a notion. Sometimes the ride is smooth, uneventful and even pleasant. If he steps on other passenger's feet they excuse themselves for being in his way. But at other times the trip is surreal.
He recalls one Saturday afternoon when the bus opened its doors and the noise wafted down the steps in decibels loud enough to be heard around the corner. After boarding the bus and paying for his fare he squeezed around an angry woman who was arguing with the driver about where the bus was headed. She wanted to have the driver take her where she wanted to go, which was five blocks off of the bus route.
Immediately behind her were enough baby mamas to have qualified for convention status. All were chewing gum and chattering. Strollers, bags, and miscellaneous personal items completely blocked the aisle. Behind them was a drunk passed out on the seat, stinking of alcohol and vomit. One seat back and over sat another man who was having an angry conversation with himself. In back of him was a born again crack-head who was trying to religiously convert two uninterested young girls sitting across from him. And the back of the bus had been commandeered by a fistful of young thugs, smoking enough dope to give the entire bus a contact high. LeMar took a seat and imagined that at any minute the bus might erupt into a chorus of, "Jer-ry! Jer-ry! Jer-ry!"
Finally at his destination, LeMar jumps off of the bus, rounds the corner and walks through the propped-open door of the repair shop and over to the counter to pay for the work done on his car. After counting his cash and handing it across the oil and grease stained counter to the cashier, he grabs his keys and walks to his car. Whether he called it a hooptee, or a short, or just his ride, it got him from one place to the other and it was paid for. On the way home he decided to stop at the super market in East Liberty. He needed a few things in order to cook dinner for Venetia, the only woman in his life now, who is looking forward to sampling more of his Nouveau Afro Cuisine.
Venetia, from Philadelphia, has just graduated from college with a degree in education. Her parents, middle-class black folks, don't openly object to her relationship with LeMar, but don't approve of it either. They are pushing her to get an advanced degree, hoping that the more educated she becomes the more likely she will drop LeMar for a more upwardly bound professional. What Venetia's parents hate most is where LeMar lives. They feel it to be an unsafe area of town for their daughter to frequent. They were not always middle class and successful. They had lived in similarly rough areas of Philly, and that was exactly why they were concerned about her safety. They worked hard to move her away from the hood and here was LeMar, pulling her back in. They knew however, that although sweet and demure, their daughter was no push over. Venetia could certainly take care of herself and could be cold blooded and vindictive. LeMar had discovered those traits about her and called her his mud kicker. He loved the fact that if necessary she could lean her back against his and take on the world with him.
LeMar turns into the super market parking lot and finds a spot near the front of the store, rolls up his windows, locks his doors and heads inside. He stands at a counter staring off into space for a moment.
Half focusing on getting what he had come into the store for, LeMar manages to finish shopping and heads back to his crib. Once back home, he turns on some music and starts to prepare the meal he promised Venetia. Soon, there is a light but determined knock on his apartment door. As he peers through the peep hole his eyes fill up with the sumptuous sight on the other side.
"You got a license for all that?" he yells through the darkly stained oak veneer of the apartment door.
"No, but I heard you were the one who could give me an examination," sings the sweetly melodic voice seeking entrance to his ghetto fabulous pad. He swings the door open and in vamps his sultry dinner guest with airy perfumed scents of lemon and rose clinging to perfect cocoa brown skin. Venetia's face is cute, showcasing beautiful light brown eyes and perfect teeth. Her angelic face is perched on top of a wickedly curvaceous body.
Inside LeMar's apartment, she reaches up to grab his face in her hands and kisses him gently, "Hi baby," she intimates.
"Hey sugar, come on back and keep me company while I finish the barbecued tuna fish," he says, and grabs Venetia's hand pulling her toward the kitchen.
"Barbecued tuna; is that your idea of Nouveau Afro Cuisine?"
"It'll be delicious, don't you trust me baby?" he asks.
"Implicitly, lead the way," she says and when they enter the kitchen Venetia is pleasantly surprised.
Venetia drools, "Mmmm, whatever that is it sure smells good; that can't be tuna fish."
Excerpted from The Camel's Shadow Has Four Humps by Akmed Khalifa Copyright © 2011 by Akmed Khalifa. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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