25 – The Book of Gideon (butterflies)

25:        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 hippo’s footprints where they had been pressed through this crusty surface into the wet mud below.

These soggy depressions lurked like deliberate 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, the shrieks of happiness welled up out of her heart like those from raucous children on a playground. 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.

She was fascinated by the figure striding before her. He moved smoothly, confidently through the grass, occasionally snapping off a long stem, unconsciously picking it apart the way an old man may finger his worry beads.

She also found it annoying. How could it happen so unexpectedly, so far out in the wilderness, without warning.

Surely she should be in control of her emotions. But no! It tugged her concentration away from the hippo pitfalls. His movements were so mesmerizing . She had to force her eyes down, away from his lithesome strides to search for the traps and not keep falling flat on her face.

Unlike her, he never stumbled. How did he do it?

A loud exclamation of “Shit, Goddam holes,” came forcefully from behind. She turn her head to offer a word of commiseration to Lauren, stumbling behind, , but as she did 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 pointed to the fast flutter of a beautifull insect with wings dappled in russet-reds and black, with here and there a fleck of white. It landed on a patch of damp ground below the bushes at the edge of the tree line.

“It always folds its wings up 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, meaning it is heavy for the size of it swings, and so has to make up by rapid wing beats and fast flying.”

The previous evening, as she had for the last few days Narina had succumbed to the temptation to wander over to Moses’ campsite before darkness set in. She knew that the staff had picked up on her get-aways. She could no longer pretend it was simply a welcome change from hanging around listening to her friend complaining of boredom. In his quiet way, conversation with him was interesting. It was that which had drawn her to him to begin with, but now it was more than that.

She hoped that the staff could keep her secret from her father. He would be furious if he found out, just when he thought she was coming back into the fold from the grasp of her foreign unbelieving ex-husband. In her father’s mind she would be skipping from the frying pan to the fire, and his chances of a pedigree heir would once again recede. She couldn’t bear her father ordering her away just when she was reaching for the sky.

Yesterday he had offered to lead her on a walk into the park. They would cross the river with the boat he told her. On the other side it would be a short hike. Only a half hour each way, over the open flood plain, across the big dambo, then a short climb up the low hill which peers back at them from the other side of the river. 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.

He would show her something different.

“What?” she had asked.

“Butterflies.” he said.

Everything about him was intriguing.

“Where did you learn about them?”

“From the books in the little library at the mission where I was raised,” was his nonchalant reply.

It was so unusual it caught her off guard. ‘You must be joking!,’ she had exclaimed.

“Africa is rich in butterflies but few people pay them much notice.” he said.

It intrigued her. Like everything about him. Even his arrogance when he said he knew more about the natural world than the Lodge’s guides.

Reaching the edge of the pitted grassy ordeal, Narina finally felt she could lift her head to gaze around without risking another stumble into another hippo hole. Quite a hike she thought. Easy for him, but not for her or Lauren who had demanded to tag along as soon as she heard about the unusual focus of the hike.

Moving into the start of the tree line where a patch of clay soil stunted the vegetation, Moses again pointed.

“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 how it resembles its gaudy floral namesake.”

“I won’t bother you with their Latin names, you won’t remember them anyway.”

Looking at him, mesmerized, she was captivated by his presence. It was the tall vibrant abundance of him, all packed into lithesome lean luxury, held together with taut muscles rippling beneath a smooth ebony surface. His description of butterflies added to the aura of uniqueness. It was gentle delicateness emanating from a frame of subdued strength. There was the soft sound of his voice, with an accent being a mixture of the English lilt of Africa, with a faint Portuguese trace. She must ask him about it.

Conscious of staring too long, she caught the curious manner he returned her gaze. She felt the warmth rise in her cheeks. His look expressed a question, 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 inter-African mini-migrations.”

Beginning to pant up the slope of the hill, Narina stop to catch her breath as she lagged behind Moses effortless strides.

“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. Its copy-cat colors keep it from being eaten.”

Standing panting in the shade of a tree half way up the slope, narina tried to come to terms with her run away emotions.

For heaven’s sake, Moses 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, it would be a big spike in the wheel of any shared destiny with someone like him.

She had long since emotionally flown the dogma of her families religious coop. She was proud of her independent view of the world. It was expressed in her quiet, but determined rebelliousness. She was not as extroverted about it as Lauren, but she was just as focused about it. It was one of the reasons the two of them got on so well together. She thought how it had been with a sense of spite that she had tattooed her arms, even in the face of her father’s ire.

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 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.

Continuing her slow climb up the hill, her reverie was cut short as she almost bumped into him when he stopped abruptly.

“That one over there is called a Guinea-Fowl’. it always holds its wings open when it lands, unlike the Painted Lady. Its steel grey color, sprinkled with fine white spots, gives it its name, after that of the bird.”

The slope was deceptively gentle. Behind her Narina could hear Lauren’s complaints about its steepness. She thought how it served Lauren right for insisting on tagging along for the walk. It was not exactly the short easy hike that she had envisioned.

Ahead, and higher, the slope eased gradually into the dome crest of the hill. 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, the soil had been stripped away from the hills rocky cheeks by the punches of time. The open spacing of the trees on the slopes 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 Kafue River snaking its way below them.

On one of the layered rocky terraces near the crown of the hill, pulling the back pack off his shoulders Moses said it was to be their picnic site.

“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 in the crowns of the trees.

“That is the Foxy Charaxes.” He said. “To get a good look you will 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 leafy shrubs, and between the bigger rocks, but to no avail.

He returned after some time crestfallen. “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 the unusual.

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 into the channel Lauren asked.

“So what are the most precious sightings you have ever seen?”

Again Narina felt herself caught up in a spell. She looked at the ebony chamois of his skin as its contours flowed over the muscles of his arms like the wake of the boat as it headed back across the river.

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.”

“If you see one you will know that you have been graced with a gift from the bushland Gods.”

After crossing the river, Moses let the women off at the lodge’s boat tether point.

Walking back to her chalet, Narina examine the startling suddenness of her new emotions.

She was barely recovered from her divorce! Should she share her mental state with Lauren? No, absolutely not. Lauren would laugh and tease. They were here to get away from men!, Not to get closer to them, Lauren would say.

Later that night Narina couldn’t sleep. She lay in the warm darkness staring up at the blurry mesh of the Mosquito netting over her bed.

The images kept showering 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 swirling 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 to separate realms of the future.

However her heart leapt remembering how his quizzical stare had 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 a reasonable motive for them. All it had been to trigger this was the kiss he gave her. That soft sensuous pressing together and lingering of thir lips when they parted on that second evening.

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 was she not part of Africa? Didn’t the pout of her full lips hint at an admixture? Was not the darkness of her skin a gift from a long ago slave girl? There had been enough time for some fore-bearer to dip into that chocolate box. After all was not the Beyh family fortune founded on the logistics of Zanzibar slaves almost two hundred years ago.

In her mind she examined his face as it once again drew her thoughts to its stage. 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? Surely it was her imagination playing tricks.

She was waiting, hoping, silently begging for him to catch her wrist, swing her around, dance her off her feet, whisk her away into paradise.

Why, when something was impossible, she craved it so fervently?

She wanted him to lead her into a promised land, where they could kiss, caress, conjugate, like no lovers had ever done before.