Chapter 13 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 westt, from the dry dunes of the Namib at the edge of Africa.
The 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 wide beneath the thin layer of clouds, which slivered across the horizon in pale ceramic mauve like the wing feathers of a goose as it laid its golden egg.
I watched how the lazy tendrils of smoke rose up from the fire at my feet. The unfurlings filtered the light of the setting sun into faint shadows on my bare legs. From there it faded into the dusk dapples creeping through the leaves of the taller trees.
After the orb settled out of sight, the light of day was drawn into the vortex left by its disappearance. I could hear how its last spent rays were quenched in the waters of the Atlantic as they were echoed in the soft hiss of the wind in the branches above our heads.
Night comes quickly in the tropics.
This sudden plunge into darkness 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 ward off 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. Slowly the glow receded along the spokes as the stub 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, cascading sparks 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 pressing need to talk. Our catching up was done. We simply sat and let our minds be still, or move at their own pace.
As anyone who has been camping knows, a few moments spent looking at a fire molds its mesmerizing magic on our minds. The erratic and repetitive flicker of the flames brushes away our contemplations, emptying our minds of logic and reason. We are left with only our emotions, and the basic stimuli of being alive: The image of the flames dancing, the warmth on our shins, the chill of the air on our arms, the pressure of our bodies in the camp chairs, and of course the sounds of the night.
It 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, excitedly, almost hysterically. Obviously this little dog was motivated by its emotions, not words. Food? A bitch in heat? I wondered. Lucky devil if it was the latter. I realize that my mental words were motivated by feelings surfacing out of the depths of my subconscious. Words, which if examined, hinted of an excitement no less profound than that of the Jackals yips. I had an ally in the hunt for the crocodile in the people’s minds.
As we watched the hub burned back leaving a wider ring of ash, one of us would stretch out a leg to nudge a spoke into the center of our combustion.
We sat mesmerized watching the flames lick resurgent and higher, like the Jackals yips.
It did not require verbal cognizance, or coordination, it was the yips of our reunited soul.
I looked at Moses as he stared down at the desultory flickers of the flames. The small licks of light push back the darkness enough to let me make out his features. He had aged better than I. The flames warm yellow hue reflected softly and surreptitiously off his skin, 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, a honing of his outline.
The way his facial muscles tightened over his cheekbones and spread down to flex with his lips, suggested a toughness which had resisted the rigors of the years. Time had burnished his face into agelessness, like the leather of a cavalry saddle. In a strange way it made him an even more handsome man than the one I remembered.
I dropped my eyes back to the hypnotic flames, leaning forward as I spoke. “The last I heard he was up in Nigeria.”
I concentrated on forcing myself away from the fires subtle grip as I continued,
“I saw this in a post from one of our veterans.”
Moses slowly extended his arms above his head. Looking up he lazily dovetailed his fingers with his palms facing up at the swathe of the stars. At the same time he stretched his body in a gesture of relaxed contentment as if offering a supplication to the heavens. Maybe it was to dissipate the unaccustomed stillness of his body; after all we had been sitting together in this way since sunset.
As he sat between myself and the moon, its fullness was cradled in the upturned palms of his raised hands. It appeared he was pushing it 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, making it 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 ove 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.
“Which 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 PMCs, private military contractors.
The Nigerians were clever enough not to use any of the other foreigners, who had never fought on this continent. The others bring 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 in my voice as I picked up on the subject’s thread.
“I remember how Eben went into Siierra Leone with two hundred men and with Nellis and his gunship. They sorted out everything. Then the bleeding hearts give the word mercenary a bad rap, because the eighteen thousand UN “peacekeepers”, who had done fok-all, found themselves with Peace and nothing to keep.
We sat in silence listening to a lion roaring somewhere 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 talking about a fuzzy elderly home care gig.
The lion was roaring again. Somewhere down River a hippo snorted. Strange that it had not left the river to feed. Maybe it was a cow with a newborn calf.
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.
By now the fire had died down. We were no longer kicking the branches to feed the flames at its center.
“Okay, time to turn in. Tomorrow I will take you upriver 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 your help to do some tracking and chasing to find out what it’s all about.”
(8th edit 02/19/2021)