Read an Excerpt
From Chapter One
Things were not too simple in this safari because things had changed very much in East Africa. The white hunter had been a close friend of mine for many years. I respected him as I had never respected my father and he trusted me, which was more than I deserved. It was, however, something to try to merit. He had taught me by putting me on my own and correcting me when I made mistakes. When I made a mistake he would explain it. Then if I did not make the same mistake again he would explain a little more. But he was nomadic and he was finally leaving us because it was necessary for him to be at his farm, which is what they call a twenty-thousand-acre cattle ranch in Kenya. He was a very complicated man compounded of absolute courage, all the good human weaknesses and a strangely subtle and very critical understanding of people. He was completely dedicated to his family and his home and he loved much more to live away from them. He loved his home and his wife and his children.
"Do you have any problems?"
"I don't want to make a fool of myself with elephants."
"Know everybody knows more than you but you have to make the decisions and make them stick. Leave the camp and all that to Keiti. Be as good as you can."
There are people who love command and in their eagerness to assume it they are impatient at the formalities of taking over from someone else. I love command since it is the ideal welding of freedom and slavery. You can be happy with your freedom and when it becomes too dangerous you take refuge in your duty. For several years I had exercised no command except over myself and I was bored with this since I knew myself and my defects and strengths too well and they permitted me little freedom and much duty. Lately I had read with distaste various books written about myself by people who knew all about my inner life, aims and motives. Reading them was like reading an account of a battle where you had fought written by someone who had not only not been present but, in some cases, had not even been born when the battle had taken place. All these people who wrote of my life both inner and outer wrote with an absolute assurance that I had never felt.
On this morning I wished that my great friend and teacher Philip Percival did not have to communicate in that odd shorthand of understatement which was our legal tongue. I wished that there were things that I could ask him that it was impossible to ask. I wished more than anything that I could be instructed fully and competently as the British instruct their airmen. But I knew that the customary law which prevailed between Philip Percival and myself was as rigid as the customary law of the Kamba. My ignorance, it had been decided long ago, was to be lessened only through learning by myself. But I knew that from now on I had no one to correct my mistakes and, with all the happiness one has in assuming command, it made the morning a very lonely one.
For a long time we had called each other Pop. At first, more than twenty years before, when I had called him Pop, Mr. Percival had not minded as long as this violation of good manners was not made in public. But after I had reached the age of fifty, which made me an elder or Mzee, he had taken, happily, to calling me Pop, which was in a way a compliment, lightly bestowed and deadly if it were withdrawn. I cannot imagine a situation, or, rather, I would not wish to survive a situation in which I called him, in private, Mr. Percival or he addressed me by my proper name.
So on this morning there were many questions I wished to ask and many things I had wondered about. But we were, by custom, mute on these subjects. I felt very lonely and he knew it of course.
"If you did not have problems it would not be fun," Pop said. "You're not a mechanic and what they call white hunters now are mostly mechanics who speak the language and follow other people's tracks. Your command of the language is limited. But you and your disreputable companions made what tracks there are and you can make a few new ones. If you can't come up with the proper word in your new idiom, Kikamba, just speak Spanish. Everyone loves that. Or let the Memsahib talk. She is slightly more articulate than you."
"Oh go to hell."
"I shall go to prepare a place for thee," Pop said.
"Never give them a thought," Pop said. "Enormous silly beasts. Harmless everyone says. Just remember how deadly you are with all other beasts. After all they are not the woolly mastodon. I've never seen one with a tusk that made two curves."
"Who told you about that?"
"Keiti," Pop said. "He told me you bag thousands of them in the off-season. Those and your saber-toothed tiger and your brontosauruses."
"The son of a bitch," I said.
"No. He more than half believes it. He has a copy of the magazine and they look very convincing. I think he believes it some days and some days not. It depends on whether you bring him any guinea fowl and how you're shooting in general."
"It was a pretty well illustrated article on prehistoric animals."
"Yes. Very. Most lovely pictures. And you made a very rapid advance as a white hunter when you told him you had only come to Africa because your mastodon license was filled at home and you had shot over your limit on saber-toothed tiger. I told him it was God's truth and that you were a sort of escaped ivory poacher from Rawlins, Wyoming, which was rather like the Lado Enclave in the old days and that you had come out here to pay reverence to me who had started you in as a boy, barefoot of course, and to try to keep your hand in for when they would let you go home and take out a new mastodon license."
"Pop, please tell me one sound thing about elephants. You know I have to do away with them if they are bad behaving and if they ask me to."
"Just remember your old mastodon technique," Pop said. "Try and get your first barrel in between that second ring of the tusk. On frontals the seventh wrinkle on the nose counting down from the first wrinkle on the high forehead. Extraordinary high foreheads they have. Most abrupt. If you are nervous stick it in his ear. You will find it's simply a pastime."
"Thank you," I said.
"I've never worried ever about you taking care of the Memsahib but take care of yourself a little bit and try to be as good a boy as you can."
"You try too."
"I've tried for many years," he said. Then, in the classic formula he said, "Now it is all yours."
So it was. It was all mine on a windless morning of the last day of the month of the next to the last month of the year. I looked at the dining tent and at our own tent. Then back to the small tents and the men moving around the cooking fire and then at the trucks and the hunting car, the vehicles seeming frosted in the heavy dew. Then I looked through the trees at the Mountain showing very big and near this morning with the new snow shining in the first sunlight.
"Will you be all right in the truck?"
"Quite. It's a good road you know when it's dry."
"You take the hunting car. I won't need it."
"You're not that good," Pop said. "I want to turn this truck in and send you one that is sound. They don't trust this truck."
It was always they. They were the people, the watu. Once they had been the boys. They still were to Pop. But he had either known them all when they were boys in age or had known their fathers when their fathers were children. Twenty years ago I had called them boys too and neither they nor I had any thought that I had no right to. Now no one would have minded if I had used the word. But the way things were now you did not do it. Everyone had his duties and everyone had a name. Not to know a name was both impolite and a sign of sloppiness. There were special names too of all sorts and shortening of names and friendly and unfriendly nicknames. Pop still cursed them in English or in Swahili and they loved it. I had no right to curse them and I never did. We also all, since the Magadi expedition, had certain secrets and certain things privately shared. Now there were many things that were secrets and there were things that went beyond secrets and were understandings. Some of the secrets were not at all gentle and some were so comic that you would see one of the three gun bearers suddenly laughing and look toward him and know what it was and you would both be laughing so hard that trying to hold in the laughter your diaphragm would ache.
It was a clear and beautiful morning as we drove out across the plain with the Mountain and the trees of the camp behind us. There were many Thomson's gazelle ahead on the green plain switching their tails as they fed. There were herds of wildebeests and Grant's gazelle feeding close to the patches of bush. We reached the airstrip we had made in a long open meadow by running the car and the truck up and down through the new short grass and grubbing out the stumps and roots of a patch of brush at one end. The tall pole of a cut sapling drooped from the heavy wind of the night before and the wind sock, homemade from a flour sack, hung limp. We stopped the car and I got out and felt the pole. It was solid although bent and the sock would fly once the breeze rose. There were wind clouds high in the sky and it was beautiful looking across the green meadow at the Mountain looking so huge and wide from here.
"Do you want to shoot any color of it and the airstrip?" I asked my wife.
"We have that even better than it is this morning. Let's go and see the bat-eared foxes and check on the lion."
"He won't be out now. It's too late."
"He might be."
So we drove along our old wheel tracks that led to the salt flat. On the left there was open plain and the broken line of tall green-foliaged yellow-trunked trees that marked the edge of the forest where the buffalo herd might be. There was old dry grass growing high along the edge and there were many fallen trees that had been pulled down by elephants or uprooted by storms. Ahead there was plain with new short green grass and to the right there were broken glades with islands of thick green bush and occasional tall flat-topped thorn trees. Everywhere there was game feeding. They moved away as we came close, moving sometimes in quick bursts of galloping; sometimes at a steady trot; sometimes only feeding off away from the car. But they always stopped and fed again. When we were on this routine patrol or when Miss Mary was photographing they paid no more attention to us than they do to the lion when he is not hunting. They keep out of his way but they are not frightened.
I was leaning out of the car watching for tracks in the road as my gun bearer, Ngui, who sat in the outside position behind me was doing. Mthuka, who was driving, watched all the country ahead and on both sides. He had the best and quickest eyes of any of us. His face was ascetic, thin and intelligent and he had the arrowhead tribal cuts of the Wakamba on both cheeks. He was quite deaf and he was Mkola's son and he was a year older than I was. He was not a Mohammedan as his father was. He loved to hunt and he was a beautiful driver. He would never do a careless or irresponsible thing but he, Ngui and myself were the three principal bads.
We had been very close friends for a long time and one time I asked him when he had gotten the big formal tribal cuts which no one else had. Those who did have them had very lightly traced scars.
He laughed and said, "At a very big Ngoma. You know. To please a girl." Ngui and Charo, Miss Mary's gun bearer, both laughed.
Charo was a truly devout Mohammedan and was also known to be very truthful. He did not know how old he was, of course, but Pop thought he must be over seventy. With his turban on he was about two inches shorter than Miss Mary and watching them standing together looking across the gray flat at the waterbuck that were now going carefully, upwind, into the forest, the big buck with his beautiful horns looking back and to either side as he entered last in line, I thought what a strange pair Miss Mary and Charo must look to the animals. No animals had any visual fear of them. We had seen this proven many times. Rather than fearing them, the small blond one in the forest green coat, and the even smaller black one in the blue jacket, the animals appeared interested in them. It was as though they had been permitted to see a circus or at least something extremely odd and the predatory animals seemed to be definitely attracted by them. On this morning we were all relaxed. Something, or something awful or something wonderful was certain to happen on every day in this part of Africa. Every morning when you woke it was as exciting as though you were going to compete in a downhill ski race or drive a bobsled on a fast run. Something, you knew, would happen and usually before eleven o'clock. I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke that I was not happy. At least until I remembered unfinished business. But on this morning we were relaxed in the momentary irresponsibility of command and I was happy that the buffalo, which were our basic problem, were evidently someplace where we could not reach them. For what we hoped to do it was necessary for them to come to us rather than for us to go to them.
"What are you going to do?"
"Bring the car up and make a quick swing to check for tracks at the big water and then go into that place in the forest where it borders the swamp and check and then get out. We'll be downwind of the elephant and you might see him. Probably not."
"Can we go back through the gerenuk country?"
"Of course. I'm sorry we started late. But with Pop going away and everything."
"I like to go in there in that bad place. I can study what we need for a Christmas tree. Do you think my lion is in there?"
"Probably. But we won't see him in that kind of country."
"He's such a smart bastard lion. Why didn't they let me shoot that easy beautiful lion under the tree that time. That's the way women shoot lions."
"They shoot them that way and the finest black-maned lion ever shot by a woman had maybe forty shots fired into him. Afterwards they have the beautiful pictures and then they have to live with the god-damn lion and lie about him to all their friends and themselves the rest of their lives."
"I'm sorry I missed the wonderful lion at Magadi."
"Don't you be sorry. You be proud."
"I don't know what made me this way. I have to get him and he has to be the real one."
"We overhunted him, honey. He's too smart. I have to let him get confidence now and make a mistake."
"He doesn't make mistakes. He's smarter than you and Pop both."
"Honey, Pop wanted you to get him or lose him straight. If he didn't love you you could have shot any sort of a lion."
"Let's not talk about him," she said. "I want to think about the Christmas tree. We're going to have a wonderful Christmas."
Mthuka had seen Ngui start down the trail for him and brought up the car. We got in and I motioned Mthuka toward the far water at the corner across the swamp. Ngui and I both hung out over the side watching for tracks. There were the old wheel tracks and the game trails to and from the papyrus swamp. There were fresh wildebeest tracks and the tracks of the zebra and Tommy.
Now we were going closer to the forest as the road swung and then we saw the tracks of a man. Then of another man wearing boots. These tracks had been rained on lightly and we stopped the car to check on foot.
"You and me," I said to Ngui.
"Yes," he grinned. "One of them has big feet and walks as though he is tired."
"One is barefooted and walks as though the rifle were too heavy for him. Stop the car," I said to Mthuka. We got out.
"Look," said Ngui. "One walks as though he were very old and can hardly see. The one with shoes."
"Look," I said. "The barefoot one walks as though he has five wives and twenty cows. He has spent a fortune on beer."
"They will get nowhere," Ngui said. "Look, the one with shoes walks as though he might die at any time. He staggers under the weight of the rifle."
"What do you think they are doing here?"
"How would I know? Look, the one with shoes is stronger now."
"He is thinking about the Shamba," Ngui said.
"Kwenda na Shamba."
"Ndio," Ngui said. "How old would you say the old one with the shoes is?"
"None of your damn business," I said. We motioned for the car and when it got up we got in and I motioned Mthuka toward the entrance to the forest. The driver was laughing and shaking his head.
"What were you two doing tracking yourselves?" Miss Mary said. "I know it's funny because everybody was laughing. But it looked quite silly."
"We were having fun."
I was always depressed by this part of the forest. The elephants had to eat something and it was proper that they should eat trees rather than destroy the native farms. But the destruction was so great in proportion to the amount they ate from the trees they pulled down that it was depressing to see it. Elephants were the only animal that were increasing steadily throughout their present range in Africa. They increased until they became such a problem to the natives that they had to be slaughtered. Then they were killed off indiscriminately. There were men who did this and enjoyed it. They killed old bulls, young bulls, cows and calves and many liked their work. There had to be some sort of elephant control. But seeing this damage to the forest and the way the trees were pulled down and stripped and knowing what they could do in a native Shamba in a night, I started to think about the problems of control. But all the time I was watching for the tracks of the two elephants we had seen leading into this part of the forest. I knew those two elephants and where they would probably go for the day, but until I had seen their tracks and was sure they were past us I must be careful about Miss Mary wandering around looking for a suitable Christmas tree.
We stopped the car and I took the big gun and helped Miss Mary out of the car.
"I don't need any help," she said.
"Look, honey," I started to explain. "I have to stay with you with the big gun."
"I'm just going to pick out a Christmas tree."
"I know. But there could be every kind of stuff in here. There has been too."
"Let Ngui stay with me then and Charo's here."
"Honey, I'm responsible for you."
"You can be an awful bore about it too."
"I know it." Then I said, "Ngui."
The joking was all suspended.
"Go and see if the two elephants went into the far forest. Go as far as the rocks."
He went off across the open space watching ahead for tracks in the grass and carrying my Springfield in his right hand.
"I only want to pick one out," Miss Mary said. "Then we can come out some morning and dig it up and get it back to camp and plant it while it is still cool."
"Go ahead," I said. I was watching Ngui. He had stopped once and listened. Then he went on walking very carefully. I followed Miss Mary who was looking at the different silvery thorn shrubs trying to find one with the best size and shape but I kept looking back at Ngui over my shoulder. He stopped again and listened then waved toward the deep forest with his left arm. He looked around at me and I waved him back to us. He came in fast; as fast as he could walk without running.
"Where are they?" I asked.
"They crossed and went into the forest. I could hear them. The old bull and his askari."
"Good," I said.
"Listen," he whispered. "Faro." He pointed toward the thick forest on the right. I had heard nothing. "Mzuri motocah," he said, meaning, in shorthand, "Better get into the car."
"Get Miss Mary."
I turned toward where Ngui had pointed. I could see only the silvery shrubs, the green grass and the line of tall trees with vines and creepers hanging from them. Then I heard the noise like a sharp deep purr. It was the noise you would make if you held your tongue against the roof of your mouth and blew out strong so your tongue vibrated as a reed. It came from where Ngui had pointed. But I could see nothing. I slipped the safety catch forward on the .577 and turned my head to the left. Miss Mary was coming at an angle to get behind where I stood. Ngui was holding her by the arm to guide her and she was walking as though she were treading on eggs. Charo was following her. Then I heard the sharp rough purr again and I saw Ngui fall back with the Springfield ready and Charo move forward and take Miss Mary's arm. They were even with me now and were working toward where the car must be. I knew the driver, Mthuka, was deaf and would not hear the rhino. But when he saw them he would know what was happening. I did not want to look around. But I did and saw Charo urging Miss Mary toward the hunting car. Ngui was moving fast with them carrying the Springfield and watching over his shoulder. It was my duty not to kill the rhino. But I would have to if he or she charged and there was no way out. I planned to shoot the first barrel into the ground to turn the rhino. If it did not turn I would kill it with the second barrel. Thank you very much I said to myself. It is easy.
Just then I heard the motor of the hunting car start and heard the car coming fast in low gear. I started to fall back figuring a yard was a yard and feeling better with each yard gained. The hunting car swung alongside in a tight turn and I pushed the safety and jumped for the handhold by the front seat as the rhino came smashing out through the vines and creepers. It was the big cow and she came galloping. From the car she looked ridiculous with her small calf galloping behind her.
She gained on us for a moment but the car pulled away. There was a good open space ahead and Mthuka swung the car sharply to the left. The rhino went straight on galloping then slowed to a trot and the calf trotted too.
"Did you get any pictures?" I asked Miss Mary.
"I couldn't. She was right behind us."
"Didn't you get her when she came out?"
"I don't blame you."
"I picked out the Christmas tree though."
"You see why I wanted to cover you," I said unnecessarily and stupidly.
"You didn't know she was in there."
"She lives around here and she goes to the stream at the edge of the swamp for water."
"Everybody was so serious," Miss Mary said. "I never saw all of you joke people get so serious."
"Honey, it would have been awful if I had had to kill her. And I was worried about you."
"Everybody so serious," she said. "And everybody holding on to my arm. I knew how to get back to the car. Nobody had to hold on to my arm."
"Honey," I said, "they were only holding your arm so that you wouldn't step in a hole or trip on something. They were watching the ground all the time. The rhino was very close and might charge anytime and we're not allowed to kill her."
"How did you know it was a female with a calf?"
"It stood to reason. She's been around here for four months."
"I wish she wasn't right in the place where the Christmas trees grow."
"We'll get the tree all right."
"You always promise things," she said. "But things are much simpler and better when Mr. P. is here."
"They certainly are," I said. "And they are much easier when G.C. is here. But there is nobody here but us now and please let's not fight in Africa. Please not."
"I don't want to fight," she said. "I'm not fighting. I simply don't like to see all you private joke people get so serious and so righteous."
"Have you ever seen anybody killed by a rhino?"
"No," she said. "And neither have you."
"That's right," I said. "And I don't intend to. Pop's never seen it either."
"I didn't like it when you all got so serious."
"It was because I couldn't kill the rhino. If you can kill it there's no problem. Then I had to think about you."
"Well, stop thinking about me," she said. "Think about us getting the Christmas tree."
I was beginning to feel somewhat righteous and I wished that Pop was with us to make a diversion. But Pop was not with us anymore.
"We are going back through the gerenuk country at least aren't we?"
"Yes," I said. "We turn to the right at those big stones up ahead across the mud flat at the edge of the high tree bush those baboons are crossing into now and we proceed across the flat to the east until we come to that other rhino drop. Then we go southeast to the old Manyatta and we are in the gerenuk country."
"It will be nice to be there," she said. "But I certainly miss Pop."
"So do I," I said.
There are always mystical countries that are a part of one's childhood. Those we remember and visit sometimes when we are asleep and dreaming. They are as lovely at night as they were when we were children. If you ever go back to see them they are not there. But they are as fine in the night as they ever were if you have the luck to dream of them.
In Africa when we lived on the small plain in the shade of the big thorn trees near the river at the edge of the swamp at the foot of the great mountain we had such countries. We were no longer, technically, children although in many ways I am quite sure that we were. Childish has become a term of contempt.
"Don't be childish, darling."
"I hope to Christ I am. Don't be childish yourself."
It is possible to be grateful that no one that you would willingly associate with would say, "Be mature. Be well-balanced, be well-adjusted."
Africa, being as old as it is, makes all people except the professional invaders and spoilers into children. No one says to anyone in Africa, "Why don't you grow up?" All men and animals acquire a year more of age each year and some acquire a year more of knowledge. The animals that die the soonest learn the fastest. A young gazelle is mature, well-balanced and well-adjusted at the age of two years. He is well-balanced and well-adjusted at the age of four weeks. Men know that they are children in relation to the country and, as in armies, seniority and senility ride close together. But to have the heart of a child is not a disgrace. It is an honor. A man must comport himself as a man. He must fight always preferably and soundly with the odds in his favor but on necessity against any sort of odds and with no thought of the outcome. He should follow his tribal laws and customs insofar as he can and accept the tribal discipline when he cannot. But it is never a reproach that he has kept a child's heart, a child's honesty and a child's freshness and nobility.
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