Chapter 23: Butterflies
The hot summer sunshine, pouring down perpendicularly onto the land, quickly dried the dambos clay surface, making it easy to walk on. A cloak of knee-high grass hid the hippos footprints where they had been pressed through this crusty surface into the wet mud below.
These soggy depressions lurked like specially prepared traps for the unwary. However Narina was oblivious to her occasional stumbles .
“Maybe I am going mad,” she thought. “Was she some kind of romantic fool? “
Why on earth was she having such thoughts? What was happening?
But what could she do, there were shrieks of happiness whelling from her heart. After all logic didn’t matter. The heart is both the hunter and the hunted. It was both ridiculous, hopeless and wonderful all at the same time.
Such a roller-coaster of emotions.
How could it happen so unexpectedly, so far out in the wilderness, without any warning.
As she walked, Narina examined the figure walking before her. It held her attention at the same time as she found its draw faintly annoying, because it tugged her concentration away from the hippo pitfalls. it was so mesmerizing she had to force her eyes down, away from him, to search for the traps and not keep falling flat on her face, or even worse, spraining an ankle.
He moved so smoothly, so confidently through the grass, occasionally snapping off a long stem of it, and seemingly unconsciously picking it apart the way an old man may finger his worry beads.
Unlike the two of them, he never stumbled, not even once.
A loud exclamation of, “Shit, Goddam holes,” issued forcefully from behind. Narina thought that Lauren may now be regretting wanting to tag along.
She began to turn her head to look back, to offer a word of commiseration, but the man in front pointed at a flitting flash ahead.
“That red butterfly with black dashes and small white spots at the bottom of its wings is a Painted Lady.”
He had stopped and was indicating to a beautifull insect with its wings dappled in russet-reds and black. It landed on a patch of damp ground below the bushes that marked the start of the tree line.
“It always folds its wings up and held closed when it lands. With the under-side freckled greys, it blends into the background. It is a fast flyer with a high wing loading.”
He would show her something different he had said.
“What?” she had asked.
“Butterflies,” he replied.
The previous evening Narina had succumbed to the temptation to wander over to his campsite before darkness set in. It was a welcome change from hanging around listening to her friend complaining of boredom. In his quiet way, conversation with Moses was interesting.
He had offered to lead her on a walk into the park. They would cross the river with the boat. On the other side it would be a short walk. Only a half hour each way, across the open flood plain, across the big dambo, then a short climb up the low hill which peers back at them. Everything he wanted to show her could be found in the bushy diversity between here and there.
They could take a picnic lunch and have it at the top of the hil. The view up there was beautiful he said.
It was an offer so unusual it caught her off guard. ‘You must be joking!,’ she had exclaimed. But he had replied that Africa was rich in butterflies. That few people really paid them much notice. It intrigued her. Everything about him was intriguing.
She thought him to be somewhat arrogant when he said he knew more about the natural world than the lodge’s guides.
His knowledge of nature he had taught himself. He said it so casually, confidently.
“How?” she had asked.
From the books in the little library at the mission where he grew up he answered.
Now, reaching the edge of the pitted grassy ordeal, Narina finally felt she could lift her head to gaze around without risking another stumble into a hippo hole.
Moving into the start of the tree line where a patch of clay soil had stunted the life out of the vegetation, he again pointed to the side. “That one over there is a ‘Pansy’. With all the yellow splashes bordered with black and then the violet purple spot in the center of the lower wing, it is full of color. You can see why they call it a Pansy. It is like its gaudy floral namesake.”
“I won’t bother you with their Latin names, you will not remember them anyway.”
She was fascinated by his constitution, the tall vibrant abundance of it, all packed into lithesome lean luxury, held together with the tension of taut muscle rippling beneath the gloss of its smooth ebony brown skin. This aura was augmented by his recitation of butterflies no less, spoken quietly in a soft rich voice, with an accent mirroring the English lilt of Africa, but with a faint Portuguese trace. She wondered why it was so, even as it added to his allure.
Conscious of staring a tad too long, she caught the quizzical manner he returned her gaze. She felt the warmth rise in her cheeks. His look expressed curiosity, asking what interested her more, him, or his narrative.
“The one flying past over there,” Moses pointed, “with the long narrow wings, is an African Monarch. It is similar to the American Monarchs which migrate down into South America. Here they don’t migrate far, although many of the butterflies engage in smaller intra-African mini-migrations.”
Beginning to pant up the slope of the hill, Narina had to stop to catch her breath as she trailed behind.
“We will probably not see it today but there is another butterfly which looks almost the same as the monarch. Not surprisingly it is called the ‘Mimic’. The Monarchs have a nasty chemical which birds don’t like. The ‘Mimic’ does not. Instead its copy-cat colors help to keep it from being eaten.”
For heaven’s sake, she thought to herself, he himself said that being raised at the Jesuit mission still had an influence on his attitude to life. She was no longer a believer, but coming from a Muslim family would be a big spike in any wheel of a shared destiny with someone like him.
She had long since emotionally flown the dogma of her families religious coop.
Her independence was expressed in her rebelliousness. It had been with a sense of spite that she had tattooed her arms.
But that was then. Now, how could she dash their raised hopes again, if she gave into her heart. Wat would her father and his other extended family think? What would they say if they saw her falling in love with another unbeliever, this one even worse than the first, little more than a wandering pauper.
Her reverie was cut short as she almost bumped into his back when he stopped.
“That one over there. That is a ‘Guinea-Fowl’. You see how it always holds its wings open when it lands, unlike the Painted Lady. It’s steel grey color, sprinkled with fine white spots, is what gives it its name, after that of the bird.”
Ahead, and higher, the slope of the hill eased smoothly into its dome crest. Shallow shelves of dark brown basaltic rock stretched between the anemic trunks of spread out trees, a sign of scant topsoil. Behind these terraced shelf edges, and tickling at the feet of the next was a covering of short wavy grass giving the hilltop its appearance of round parklike smoothness.
Like abrasions on a boxers face, here and there the soil was stripped away from the rocky shelving by the punches of time. These rough horizontal surfaces afforded ideal picnic spots.
The open spacing of the trees meant that although they were out in full summer greenery, their leafy heads did not obscure the horizon. If anything, like a giant gallery, they framed the vistas spreading out as far as the eye could see, proffering a magnificent view out over the river and its valley as it lay before them. Pulling the back pack off his shoulders Moses suggested this be there picnic site, where they should eat their sandwiches.
“Now I will try to find you two of the most beautiful butterflies in the bush, the Charaxes and the ‘Mother of Pearl’. For some reason those two elusive types have been frequenting this spot a lot lately.”
It was not long before he called them further along the ridge. He was pointing to a big beautiful triangular wing butterfly flitting about high in the crowns of the trees.
“That is the Foxy Charaxes.” He said. “To get a good look you wil need to look at it with your binoculars. They are very quick, and are always at the tops of the trees.”
“Now let us see if we can find the mother-of-pearl. They are territorial, and up here is where they like to hide in the shadows between the rocks. They sip the moisture in the leaf detritus that accumulates there.”
Unwrapping their sandwiches from the cellophane paper, the two women sat on a big rock admiring the view. Moses continued to move around the crest of the hill peering into the shade underneath bleafy shrubs, and between the bigger rocks, but to no avail.
He returned after twenty minutes with a crestfallen edge in his voice. “I am sorry, every time I have been here for the last few weeks I have found them, but not today.”
Narina felt a glow of admiration for his frankness. What did she care about a single butterfly. Already this unusual man had lived up to his promise of showing her the unusual, when it came to these insects.
After finishing the sandwiches and picnic juice, and starting to wend their way down hill, Moses suddenly pointed. “Over there! Do you see it?”
“A mother of Pearl. It is what I was looking for.”
Neither Narina nor Lauren saw anything. “Where? They asked.
“Do you see the big rock that looks like it is leaning against that tree trunk? Moses motioned with his hand. “Directly below it. Do you see that leaf stuck upright into the sand.”
Narina saw the leaf. “OK, where is the butterfly?”
“Wait. Keep looking at it.” Moses said.
Then with a lazy languorous motion, the leaf unfurled. With wings spread open, a flash of creamy abalone was daubed at the center of a dull dirt canvas hung in the shadow of the rock. Like a blinking cyclops eye, it was such a sudden transformational spark.
“Wow!” Lauren had exclaimed in wonder.
“So there you have it,” Moses spoke, ” I doubt that any lodge guest has ever seen one of those. They are harder to find than sightings such as wild dog or cerval cat.”
As they watched, with a silent snap of its wings it was gone.
The short walk down the hill, across the dambo to where the boat was tethered, was uneventful except for another ordeal with the hippo holloes.
As Moses cranked the motor and pointed the nose of the boat out into the channel Lauren asked him, So what are the most precious sightings you have ever seen?”
Narina looked at the glossy ebony chamois of his skin as its contours flowed over the muscles of his arms like the wake of the boat trailing behind them.
She watched as a thoughtful look drew a curtain over his face for a few seconds.
“Well, two things come to mind,” he said. “Firstly a bird, the Narina Trogon.” He smiled broadly and teasingly, “Not just the one in the boat, but the real one, which I saw only yesterday near my campsite, with its crimson breast feathers, and emerald body and wings, and long tail feathers.”
Narina felt her cheeks flush so hot that she was certain that they must be as crimson as the bird’ breast.
“The second,” he said, “is a butterfly, “It is so rare that even I have seldom seen it. The Pearly Emperor is the most beautiful charaxes of them all. One should be able to find it here, high up in the riverine trees. It flies here directly from the Garden of Eden,” he murmured in reverence.
“If you ever see one you will know that you have been graced with a gift from the bushland Gods if they sparkle it before your eyes.”
After crossing the river, Moses dropped the women at the lodge’s boat tether point.
Walking back to her chalet, Narina examine the startling suddenness of her emotions.
She was barely recovered from her divorce! Was she about to be insanely in love again?
Should she share her mental state with Lauren? No, absolutely not. Lauren would laugh and tease. They were here to get away from men! Lauren would say.
Later that night Narina couldn’t sleep. She lay in the evening heat staring up at the blurry mesh of the Mosquito netting over her bed.
The images kept showering down into her mind. She couldn’t suppress them. She was cavorting with him in a heavenly wilderness, dashing between the roses, hiding behind the blush of big lilac bushes. Hoping he would find her, then giggling and laughing like a schoolgirl when he did.
Inexorably his attraction was beginning to swirl her into its circle like a leaf being swept into the vortex of a whirlpool, with all its giddying consequences.
For a moment reason reasserted itself. It wouldn’t be possible. They were from different social backgrounds and cultures. Their lives had followed such completely different trajectories. Apart from this brief intersection, they were on journeys toseparate realms of the future.
She felt how her heart leapt when she remembered how his quizzical stare had seemed to question not so much her motives, as her emotions.
Had he detected her futile struggle to push her feelings back into their little locker deep in a corner of her heart. She herself could not, for the life of her, fathom or detect any motive for her feelings.
His smiling face kept pushing itself into her mind, his face of Africa, not the face of India, like hers. Their miss-match would be an issue in the extant racial consciousness of this continent.
But then was she not part of Africa? Did not the pout of her full lips hint at an admixture? Was not the darkness of her skin inherited from a slave girl and not an untouchable Drvidian. There had been enough time for that. After all was not the Beyh family fortune founded on the logistics of Zanzibar’s slaves almost two hundred years ago.
She examined his face as it once again ushered her thoughts aside. There was something refined about it. Something in its lines as slender as his tall fine physique, something as mysterious as the Portuguese in his accent, something faintly inherited from her own Zanzibar origins. But no. How could that be? It must be her imagination playing tricks.
She was waiting, hoping, silently begging for him to catch her wrist, swing her around, dance her off her feet, and whisk her away into paradise.
Why, when something was impossible, she craved it even more fervently?
She wanted him to lead her into a promised land, where they could kiss, caress, conjugate, like no lovers had ever done before.