Chapter 12: Firelight
Far away, beyond the horizon, as the sun inexorably slid closer to its collision with the empty expanses of the Kalahari, its rays filtered through the haze of desert dust blown in from even further west, from the Namib at the western edge of Africa.
The evening dust burnished the sun’s halo an even richer gold, causing its last light to sink and reach out like the spreading of immense wings, stretching both north and southwards beneath the thin layer of alto-stratus clouds, which slivered across the horizon in pale ceramic mauve like the wing feathers of the goose as it laid its golden egg.
A few minutes earlier, I watched how the lazy tendrils of smoke rose up from the fire at my feet. These unfurlings filtered the light of the setting sun into faint shadows on my bare legs. From there the light began to fade into the dusk dapples as it crept through the leaves of the tree line opposite where we sat.
After the orange orb settled out of sight, the light of day was drawn into the vortex left by its disappearance, until its last spent rays were finally quenched in the waters of the Atlantic.
Night comes quickly here in the tropics.
This sudden plunge into darkness often takes the uninitiated by surprise. Visitors from the northern latitudes, assuming that there is still time to prepare for nightfall, suddenly find themselves without flashlights to illuminate their way in the darkness.
From the flickering licks of the flames at its center, the branches that fed our small fire spiked out from the embers of this hub like the spokes of an old wagon wheel.
The glowing stubs which formed the hub slowly receded outwards as the embers feeding the flames dropped away as ash. Every now and again a small pocket of moisture trapped in the semi dry timber, would give a sharp snap as its steam burst a cloistering cell, sprinkling sparks in a cascade almost to where our sandal clad feet stretched towards the warmth of the fire.
We had been sitting together at the periphery of this glow for some time. There was no longer any pressing need to talk. Most of our catching up was done. We simply sat and let our minds move at their own pace, or even not move at all.
As anyone who has been camping will know, even a few moments spent looking at a fire will work its mesmerizing magic and hypnotic effect on our minds. The slightly erratic and yet repetitive flicker of the flames seems to slowly brush away our cognitive contemplation, which empties our minds of the logic of reason. It leaves us aware only of our emotions, and the basic stimuli of being alive, with things such as; the image of the flames dancing, its warmth on the shins of our bare legs, the faint chill of the air on our arms, the pressure of our bodies in their camp chairs, and of course the sounds of the night creatures.
I wondered if the state was as close as my mind could get to that of a wild animal like the Side-Striped Jackal which we could hear yipping intermittently, and excitedly, almost hysterically, a short distance away. Obviously this little dog found itself motivated by its emotions and not words. Food? A bitch in heat? I wondered. Lucky devil I pondered if it was the latter, and immediately examined myself to realize that my mental words had been motivated by emotions surfacing out of the depths of my subconscious. Words, which if I examined, hinted of excitement no less profound than that of the Jackals yips. I would now have an ally in the hunt for the crocodile in the peoples minds.
Every so often, when the overlap of the branches at the center had been burnt back to leave a wider hub of ash, one of us would stretch out a leg to nudge or kick one of the spokes forward into the center of our combustion, or if the branch was stubborn, it would require us to lean forward and manually push it a few inches into the embers.
And we would continue to sit mesmerized as we watched the small flames lick resurgent and higher, like the Jackals yips.
None of this required verbal cognizance, or coordination, it was the yips of our reunited soul.
“So what is Eben up to these days?”
I looked at Moses as he stared down at the desultory flickers of the flames at our feet.
I was struck by how he had not aged.
The small licks of light managed to push back the darkness enough to let me make out his features.
Its warm yellow hue reflected softly and surreptitiously off his skin, thereby imparting it with a wrinkle free smoothness.
Whatever blemishes there were, if any, were removed by the faint ripples of the shadows on his countenance. The effect was to impart a polishing, almost a honing of his outline.
Also the taut lay of the muscles of his face as they tightened over his cheekbones and spread down to flex with his lips and chin, suggested a toughness which had resisted the rigors of the passing years. For him, the years had burnished his face into agelesssness like the leather of a cavalry saddle. In a strange way it had made him into an even more handsome man than the one I remembered.
I dropped my eyes back to the mesmerizing flames and leaned forward as I spoke. “The last I heard he was up in Nigeria.”
I could feel the fires hypnotic effect. I had to concentrate to force myself away from its grip as I continued,
“I saw this in a post from one of our veterans.”
Moses slowly extended his arms above his head, and looking up he lazily dovetailed his fingers with the palms of his hands facing up towards the swathe of the stars. At the same time he stretched and straightened his body in a gesture of relaxed contentment as if offering a supplication to the heavens overhead. Or maybe it was to dissipate the unaccustomed stillness of his body, after all we had been sitting together in this way since after sunset.
Uncannily he sat opposite me, directly between myself and the moon. It’s fresh fullness was cradled in the upturned palms of his raised hands. It appeared as if he was pushing the moon up through the leafy latticework etched on the night sky.
“Yes, he is there a lot.”
Moses still had a deep timbre tone to his voice, which was deceptively slow. It gave a simple profundity to his speech. His lips barely moved when he spoke. Everything about him was as such. It imparted an impression of something ingrained in his being causing a conservation of energy in all he did. Why move his lips more than was necessary to convey his thoughts. He could be as still as the shadows of the moon across the ground when he wanted.
Moses spoke quietly, “Eben is probably the most senior consultant to the Nigerians in their fight against the islamists.”
He lowered his arms and folded them over his chest.
“That is where I have been until recently. I was part of his team. At least they got it right, and had the balls to hire the right type of advisory group. You know what they call us these days?”
It was a rhetorical question.
“We are no longer mercenaries. We are now PMC’s, private military contractors.
The Nigerians were clever enough not to use any of the other foreign PMC’s who had never fought on this continent. They bring all their silly ideas and methodology from the Middle East, A few of them even act as if they are still fighting the old Soviet campaigns.”
“Sheesh!” I retorted with a slight whistle of my breath. “PMC’s. All this political correctness Bullshit.”
There was a hint of bitterness as I picked up on the thread of the subject.
“I remember how Eben went into Siierra Leone with 200 men and with Nellis and his gunship. They sorted out everything. Then the bleeding hearts give the word mercenary a bad rap, because the 18000 UN “peacekeepers”, who had done fok-all, found themselves with Peace and nothing to keep. All the UN bureaucrats suddenly had no job. All the suppliers and logistic parasites had no contracts. They could no longer suck money out of gullible Western taxpayers. UN peacekeeping is one huge racket. They had to give mercenaries a bad name so that they could keep up their politically correct scam.”
I was silent for a while as we both sat and listened to a lion roaring not too far up river.
“Eben is smart.” It was Moses turn to speak. “I”m surprised he hadn’t thought of this gimmick earlier. You have to admire the yanks and their marketing gurus. They need mercenaries like Black Water in Iraq. So call them something else. Say they are in the PMC business. The voting mob won’t figure it out.
“Yes, I agreed quietly, Sheeesh, It sounds like they are in a type of fuzzy PC gig.
The lion was roaring again, and somewhere down River a hippo snorted. Strange that it had not left the river to feed. I thought how, considering the outward differences between the two of us, our lives had linked together again and again in so many ways to produce such a wonderful bond. Even though we hadn’t seen each other for years it was as if the last time we had nodded goodbye was yesterday.
The fire had died down. Neither of us kicked the branches towards its center to keep it burning.
Okay, time for us to turn in. Tomorrow I will take you up river to meet our neighbors who are also involved in this whole anti-poaching gig.
As we rose and moved towards our tents, I said, “This may not be Angola, but some strange stuff is going on.
I will certainly need you help to do some tracking and chasing to find out what it is all about.”