At the edge of the sky, the sinking sun inexorably slid closer to its collision with the empty expanses of the Kalahari, with its rays being filtered through the haze of desert dust blown in from the dry dunes of the Namib at the edge of Africa.
The dust burnished the sun’s halo a 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 slivering across the horizon in pale ceramic mauve like the wing feathers of a goose laying its golden egg.
Settling out of sight, the orb pulled the light of day down into its vortex. The echo of its distant quenching in the Atlantic hissed softly through the breeze ruffled branches overhead.
Lazy tendrils of smoke rose up from the fire at my feet. Their unfurlings filtered the light of the setting sun into faint shadows on my legs. From there it faded into the dusk dappled leaves all about.
Night comes quickly in the tropics.
This sudden plunge into darkness takes the uninitiated by surprise.
From the licks of the flames at its center, the branches feeding our fire spiked out like the spokes of an old wagon wheel. Slowly the glow receded as the stub embers fell as ash. Occasionally a pocket of moisture, trapped in the semi dry timber, snapped sharply when its steam burst a cloistering cell, cascading sparks to where our sandal clad feet stretched towards the warmth.
We had been sitting together at the periphery of this glow for some time. There was no need to talk. Our catching up was done. We sat and let our minds be still.
The fire molded its mesmerizing magic on our minds. The erratic and repetitive flicker of the flames brushed away our contemplations, emptying our thoughts of logic and reason. All that remained were our gentler senses, 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 the sounds of the night.
Our cognitive minds sank to the level of our early limbic brain. We were at one with the
Side-Striped Jackal yipping intermittently, excitedly, sometimes hysterically. The little dog was motivated by its emotions, not words. Food? A bitch in heat? I wondered. Lucky devil if it was the latter. 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.
Watching the hub burned back leaving a wider ring of ash, I would stretch out a leg to nudge a spoke back into the center of our combustion.
Moses and I sat mesmerized watching the flames lick resurgent, like the Jackals yips.
There was no need for words, we had the yips of our reunited soul.
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 hue reflected surreptitiously off his skin, imparting it with a wrinkle free smoothness.
Whatever blemishes there were, if any, were removed by the shadows on his countenance. It polished the inside of his outline with firelight.
How 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 a more handsome man than the one I remembered.
I sank my eyes back to the hypnotic flames, leaning forward as I spoke. “The last I heard he was up in Nigeria.”
I forced my concentration away from the fires subtle grip.
“I saw this in a post from one of our veterans.”
Moses extended his arms above his head. Looking up he lazily dovetailed his fingers with palms facing up at the swathe of the stars. It gave the impression that the fullness of the moon was cradled in his hands. At the same time he flexed 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 torso; after all we had been sitting this way since sunset.
“Yes, he is there a lot.”
There was the deep timbre tone to his voice, making it deceptively slow. It imparted a certain profundity to his words. Everything about him was as such. His being suggested a conserved energy. Why do more than necessary to convey his thoughts and actions. He could be as still as the moon’s shadows on the ground, or as fast as a striking snake.
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.
“I was recently 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. They 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 he 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.
A lion roared 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.
We both chuckled.
The lion roared 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.
Despite the outward differences between us, our lives had linked together 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.
“By the way. Out of the quietness of the night Moses spoke softly. “What happened to Sophia?”
His question caught me off guard. I hadn’t thought of her since standing in the middle of the Hook Bridge watching the vultures circle overhead.
“Wow, you remember her!”
“Of course I do! You were smitten with her for as long as I can remember.”
“It is a long story.” A vague sadness spread over me like a shroud. She asked me never to contact her again… I had let her down too many times she said. She found a reliable man, she told me. She disappeared”. I drew in a deep breath. “But that is a long time ago.”
“As you know,” I said, “The heart is a lonely hunter. It hides, lurking beneath the surface of life. Like the ghost of Ven der Dekkenm, the Flying Dutchman, condemned to forever fail trying to sail his ship around the Cape of Storms, my heart was condemned to always fail in rounding the cape of her hopes.
I didn’t tell Moses about her short texted words. ‘Is that you, I am older now, and younger’.
“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!”