Somewhere deep inside the core of our adult souls there must be a child lurking, peeping out with a sense of wonder. Simce that child doesn’t age, we lose track of the gap between our yesterdays and today. But because only fools and children speak the truth, it takes youthfulness to make one aware of the magnitude of that daily tally. If all we get to see of our aged selves are a few minutes in front of a morning mirror how can we be blamed for ignoring the progress of our decay.
To Precious, I must seem ancient. It was her youth which wiped the fog from the mirror of my mind. Her words lingered.
“You are too old for me.”
Growing up amongst the people of Central Africa the woof of its culture intertwined with the warp of my own. Despite the influence of my western culture, I found it hard to readjust my perception of a woman’s position on the totem pole of life. I bridled at her imperatives, especially since she was younger than I. Nevertheless life flowed equally in different directions even as we stood beside each other, balancing its burdens. Precious, to get away, me to stay. But it made me pause to wonder if I should also look deeper into the mirror of my life and check the wrinkles of my efforts to preserve the surface of this place?
Walking across the dambo, the long tongues of grass, still sodden from the previous evening’s downpour, were licking their moisture onto the shins of my legs, from where the droplets trickled over my ankles and into the tops of my leather shoes. Without socks, I could feel the moist squishiness between my toes. The mix of water and warmth would soon transform the somber hues of the dry winter Bush into the bursting, iridescent vitality of the hot wet rainy season.
Feeling the dampness of this long grass caress my bare legs my preoccupation with the enigma of this determined woman drifted away as I crossed behind the chalets and continued as far as the office, looking for Morse and a cup of coffee.
I couldn’t see anybody, although there was sounds of activity from the kitchen.
“Hey.” A woman’s voice called out.
Looking around I couldn’t detect from whence her call had come.
“Hey, I want to show you something.”
Precious craned her head over the sill of the kitchen’s high side window.
I started walking towards her. Appearing at the doorway she said, “no it’s over there behind you.”
I stopped to let her reach me, whereupon she continued purposefully past with me following in her wake.
Reaching the far extent of the vehicle shed she pointed to something on the corner post. It was where the old crocodile man had been leaning when he first appeared.
“I don’t see anything.” I said.
She stepped closer to the post and pointed to an object hanging from the stub of a not in its wood.
On a thin strip of leather were threaded some vertebrae.
“Jackal’s bones,” she said. “A jackal has been sent to watch us.”
Wordlessly I moved across and remove the leather thong with its bones. I looked at the ground.
It did not take long to find.
It was a clear set of boot-prints preserved in the soft sand under the tin roof.
Staring at the imprints, a dead man stepped quietly over my soul.
In the war, when tracking those on the other side we needed to know who were the players and how to recognize them.
The boots supplied by the Russians to the ZIPRA insurgence movement in what is today’s Zimbabwe had a very characteristic x-studs at the center of the soles of their boots. The print in the sand was made by such a boot.
The prints were new, made since the crocodile man had stood when I attended to Eddie. The ZIPRA cadres had been from the Matabele tribe, those people of the far away Matopos hills, where the oracle of the Mlimo preached its mystical beliefs.
Were these new tracks also made by the Croc Man?
I regretted not checking at the time. The new warning note was still in the pocket of my shorts.
I had better start watching my back.
For whatever reason, an old high school science image of Schrodinger’s mysterious cat came to my mind. The cat was playing hide and seek as it chased the virtual laces of these boot-prints where they had been discarded in the cubby holes of my memory. Staring at the prints, my mental skitterings stumbled all over the place. Neither the imaginary cat nor its hiding place provided a hint as to why the prints were here, or where they were leading.
Anyway, I thought, at least I could depend on the ritual of the coffee. Morse would be sitting out on the deck overlooking the river having his usual morning beverage, and without guest in camp, I would join him.
As I walked, getting nowhere with the cat, I let it morph into a hound, which bay’ed back through the past, scenting for the sort of wind which could have blown these boots along for decades until their prints were pressed into the sand alongside this remote stretch of river.
My pensive mood took me the long way around. From the sheds I wound between the haphazardly parked game viewing cruisers, then the tractor, various structures and the assorted equipment needed to run a self-sufficient lodge in a remote part of Africa. From there I circled behind the big anthill with its giant trees shading the laundry and kitchen block. I was in no hurry, the coffee could wait. If my mental hounds cast about a tad more, maybe they would flush a clue from the thickets of my past.
A swish from a branch high above my head disturbed my ramblings. It was followed by the chatter of a Vervet Monkey from the crowns of the biggest trees in a herbaceous island. These islands flair up between the chalets like the fuzzed up hair of a Rastafarian. The chit of the monkey was not a full on alarm bark, rather it was the scolding directed at a young one, or maybe a “watch-out” notification to the others. Perhaps one of them had recognized me, as the nasty guy with the slingshot.
I was pleased to see I had been successful in transferring my problem to Morse. I would tease him about it in a few minutes over our coffee. The monkeys had moved their nocturnal “roosting” spot from the trees above my campsite to the kitchen copse.
These dash-snatch-n-grab thieves had learned the hard way that my slingshot was not just a work of art. My proficiency at making them, a skill from my childhood, and using a good slinshot, had played a big part in the shift of their nocturnal residence to Morse’s fiefdom.
Lifting my gaze to the tops of the Leadwoods and Accacias I raised my hand to give the finger to the small apes watching from their lofty perches.
“Little buggers, I muttered to myself.
I wished I had a sling-shot which could solve the problems of the other sophisticated pilferers in the park.
But that wasn’t reality, I muttered to myself, just before I called out a louder Mabuka Mwane – good morning to Morse, as the hippo’s snorted their greetings at a late returnee splashing back into the water.
With his legs extended and his ankles resting on the guard rail of the deck out over the river, Morse returned my greeting and asked, “How was your trip?”
Pulling up a chair next to his, and holding my cup of dark coffee, poured strong with plenty of sugar so that like life, I could taste both its bitter and sweetness at the same time, I gave him an update.
As Morse and I chatted I noticed precious approaching. Stopping a few meters away she gave a little curtsy in African style with one foot slightly to the rear making it more of a kneel than a curtsy. At the same time her hands, held as if praying, were clapped softly and slowly together, signaling a request for audience.
Morse nodded an acknowledgment. “What is it?” He asked.
“Dimas has left a message for Bwana Gideon to say that he is at the pontoon scout camp.”
“An unusual woman!” I said after we watched her walk away. I don’t know her as well as you, but from our few interactions, she is full of contradictions.”
I didn’t expand upon how she obviously covered the strenght of her character with a cloak of subservience
when playing that role with those of her culture, and then increasingly she had cast it off when alone with me.
Obviously she deemed it better to get where she wanted by playing that game.
Morse rocked back in his wooden chair. He lifted one leg to rest on a knee as he looked across at the rising sun and the river below the deck.
“Gidi. Around here people always advise to do as she instructs, because it is not wise to mess with the spirit of Mushala.”
A frown appeared on his round face as his voice lost its flippant tone, “Do you know anything about Adamson Mushala?”
“Of course I do!” I retorted with surprise, “Anybody who is interested in the early history of this country knows about Mushala. He was the rebel Robin Hood who is purported to have had magical powers. He terrorized whole swathes of Western Zambia, acting against officialdom and helping the poor, after being shunned by government in the years following independence.”
“When I first came here, I were shown around by Kings. Back then he was friendly to me. It was as I was cooking one evening, that I invited him to eat with me. He told me how Mushala was finally killed. He was betrayed by one of his mistresses.
She revealed his hideout to the soldiers who were given strong muti, making them invisible.
Morse nodded, “yes, that is so, but that is not the end of the story.” He looked down at the empty cup in his hands and then tossed its dregs over the railing into the river.
“The people believe that Mushala’s ghost still wields power. It is said that after his death, Mushala liked to torment President Kenneth Kaunda, who had ordered his killing, by switching the place of the knife and fork at dinner. Mushala was left handed and set a place for himself they say.
Morse reached into a pocket and took out a small knife. Unfolding its blade he clean under his finger nails.
“Gidi! Do you know anything about Precious’s family? She talks to you, did she tell you about it.”
“No I know nothing about a family.”
“Well,” said Morse, “She had a strong-willed mother, a mother who didn’t care about taking risks and who went against the advice of her parent’s, right from the time that she was a young girl.
Morse said in a low voice, “Precious’s mother was a teenager when she ran away from home. She was beautiful, and was being pressured to marry a man with a rich family. The man wanted to pay her father a big lobola. So she ran away, and they could do nothing about it, because they were scared.
Precious’s mother ran away to be with her lover.
She was Mushala’s favorite mistress, and most faithful woman. Not the traitorous one.”
Morse paused, “So you see, Precious is Mushala’s daughter. She has everything of the wild independent spirit of her mother and father. It is all rolled and mixed into one individual.
And Gidi, it is said that she has her father’s magical powers, they are always bubbling under the surface of her skin. Which is why even the local nganga’s do not want to meddle with her.”
Morse looked at me pointedly, “Even as a m’zingu you may find it best to listen to what she says.”
Sitting staring at the river flowing past us, I wondered at the game Precious was playing. It was more complex than I thought.