Chapter 26: Floating
We were both awake before the violet tint of the new day colored the eastern skies below a sliver of far off clouds.
Finishing our coffee I suggested to Moses, “How about fresh fish for breakfast?”
“Sounds good to me. It has been a while since I’ve had fish for any meal.”
Thus, the sun had just cleared the horizon when, upstream from where ‘Eden’s Outlook’ punched its rocky fist high up from the rivers edge I tucked the boat behind a small outcrop . This mid-stream jumble was capped with a forlorn shrub clinging with admirable desperation to a cleft at the top of its most prominent boulder. How the shrub survived the floods of late summer was a wonder. Its roots would need to cling even tighter as the leaves on its submerged branches were tugged mercilessly by the rushing water. But the tenacity of its existence made it an ideal place to tie the boats line. Admittedly the rivers flow was not at its peak. But the boat was heavy with our combined weight, making its drag in the flow not insignificant.
Here the river relaxed its movement into a wide lazy drift, like the coasting of a marathon runner, before it again gathered its energy to force its way through the constrictions of the downstream rapids. The regular wrinkles of its flow indicated an unusually even riverbed beneath the shallow slide of its waters.
I knew this to be true from having walked along most of the river’s bare bed during winter’s drought. I also knew that here and there like currants in a bun, nature had sprinkled larger rocks, with their edges rounded by the sandy grit of the rivers rub. It would be in the lurk behind some of these boulders, that I hoped to find a few big “Robbies”. Here the water would be too shallow for my favorite deep-divers. Something different would be required.
“Here, try this one. I have had good success with it in water like this.” I handed Moses a deep purple colored rubber worm flecked with chartreuse speckles.
Standing in the stern of the boat, I cast my line directly across the flow towards the bank, while Moses flicked his at a shallower angle on the other side.
There’s something very peaceful about this sort of active fishing. By active I mean that the body moves repetitively, with slight variations on a ritualistic set of motions. With a lifetime of practice it doesn’t require mental effort. The motions are as fluid as the waters on which we floated.
Trevor had told of the Shamans entering trances by withdrawing into isolation, or hours of chanting. Likewise, here on the isolation of this water, the repetitive mindless flick of my wrist made the lure drop precisely where I unthinkingly wanted, followed by the tug and relax, of the rod, line and the lure retrieval, soothing into a hypnotic state.
In the quiet flow of my thoughts I wondered if our mystery man chanted in his cave-shrine downriver. My thoughts flowed on to wonder if the big religions owed their existence to the soothing trances of their creators. What happens when alone for 40 days and nights.
I considered how the broad River was a metaphor for my life.
We are afloat on our life’s streams. Each on our own little raft, equipped with the oars of our learning and experience which can point us to the left or right, oars which if we are lucky, can slow or speed us up as we float along our path towards destiny and our final meeting with the ocean of eternity. Our individual rivers are sometimes broad and as slow moving as the waters upon which Moses and I floated, with here and there it being spotted by small outcrops, giving texture and irregularity to the otherwise evenness of life’s flow as it drifted us downwards through our ages. Then, at other times, as with the sections we had navigated earlier, our progress would be chopped up into narrow turbulent channels, or rushing maelstroms. These could catch us unawares, and threaten us with the same oblivion as that in the silted estuaries of our old age, when the mud of our lives would be dumped on the pages of our histories.
I thought how so many people, will seek to spend their lives floating where it is calmest, content with the numbing effect of repetitive boredom and conformity. They won’t be willing to paddle to the edges of the river where the interesting elements are found. Few will tarry at the brink of their driftings to pick the fruit of the fig trees, or watch an elephant, meters away moving down to drink, or a crocodile slide into their stream.
I was lucky to have had a companion who had joined me so many times to risked paddling to our margins, and made the effort to explore the verges, where we were sometimes rewarded as we metaphorically licked the honey dripping from our fingers , robbed from a bush beehive .
It made it all worthwhile.
My hands and fingers went through the motions of the flick, twist and turn, casting and retrieving the little lure. Like a violinist’s dexterity with the countless swishes of a baton I was at one with the water, with the world beneath it, together with the world I was molded for by nature. There are times when one knows with an uncanny sense of awareness that you are good and that you’re playing before a discriminating audience. Even if it is and audience of one. But despite that, or rather because of it, you are wrapped together in the symbiotic perfection of it. There is a connection, not from the mind, but from some very deep primitive place in the sole. It runs all the way down the arms, through the hands and fingers, into the long artificial extension of nylon and carbon fiber, with its ending in the soft latex rubber synthesis beneath which lurks some enticement as timeless as the eons. It tugs me back to this bushland and these wide African rivers. It is the same bond and emotions as those of my Paleolithic ancestors when I felt a little tug at the end of the line, the flutter of a fish. The strike which set the hook was as instinctively immediate as any buzz felt by the dust of long disappeared predecessors.
I instinctively knew that together Moses and I were as professional a bush team as any on this continent. No duo were more capable of discovering the strange flows of the last few weks, and setting a hook into the gums of some witchcrafts maws.
It didn’t take long to land our daily limit. Three nice “Robbies”, and a big Purple Bream between us..
“OK old buddy,” I said. “Time for breakfast. One each, we can have the other two for dinner. Or we can ask the ladies at the lodge to make fish fingers. They are good at it. Also,” I teased him, “while we are there, you can show me that new lady friend, with my experience,” I teased him, I am better at judging beauty than you.””
“Now, now!” Noting his gesture, I admonished him back. “I bet they didn’t teach you how to give me the finger at the mission station.”
It had rained hard in the far north causing the river to rise significantly.
I raised my voice over the racket of the engine. “It looks like the water has risen half a meter overnight.”
Moses nodded back as he sat in the prow.
As our boat skimed over its waters, the river was tinted with the cloudy opacity of fine soil flushed from denuded land far to the north. Not even the Lukanga Swamps could filter out the consequence of the upstream over-population. Who knew what the river would look like in a few decades, when the unprotected vulnerability of the swamps was finally overrun by too many goatts, too many chickens, toomany people with scratched out patches of maize.
But now, the river’s muddy surge pushed any remaing clarity out of the way,. It’s resurgent vitality thrust downstream where eventually it would tumble through a gorge to mingle its mud with that of the Zambezi. Thereafter, their combined energies, augmented by the ilk of others, the Sanyati, the Luangwa, the Shire, would inexorably carve deeper, wider scars into the face of Africa, before finally bleeding into the Indian Ocean.
Moses no longer needed to raise his voice when I throttled back the engine, and made a wide half circle in the channel to turn the boats nose into the current, edging it across towards the mooring point below the deck.
“We also had quite a bit of rain around here, which,” he said, “was one of the reasons it took such a while to pick up the old man’s tracks. They kept getting washed away after the downpours.”
Precious looked down from the deck as Moses stood in the bow, before jumping to shore, where he reached out and grabbed a branch to steady himself.
“We have come to ask a favor.” I called up to her. “We are looking for an expert cook who can fry these fish for us. Do you know of anyone around here?”
I hooked my fingers into the gills of the fish, two per hand, and held them up.
“Nice ones.” she admired. “I might know somebody who can help. But how much are you willing to pay?
“Nothing, we are both broke” I said straight-facedly back up at her.
“In that case I can’t help you!” She dismissed us with a wave of her hand.
“You push a hard bargain! “I glared artificially back. “What if the cook makes them into fish-fingers and we share them?”
“Deal” she said. “Come on up.”
I had stepped ashore and was walking up the little gully beside the chitenge.
Reaching the top of the bank and glancing under the thatch of the roof, for the first time I notice the two strangers sitting on the couches.
I nodded a greeting in their direction acknowledging their presence.
“Show us what you have there!”
It was a tall fair-haired woman who spoke. I glanced at her for longer than I should. There is nothign as good as a first impression.
She was hard to describe without contradictions. Initially as she sat slumped back in the couch, she appeared slender, with long legs. Then as she stood to walk towards me to examine the fish spiked on the fingers of my hands, I noted that she was big boned and broad hipped. As she approached the faint rippling under the smooth skin of her forearms hinted at athletic fitness.
Her long face was not unattractive. Her hair gathered in a ponytail through the opening of her baseball cap added to the impression of slenderness.
However, standing before me, I realized that her slenderness, was the visual impression given by her height. She was as tall as I, and I stand at 180cm.
“What beautiful fish.” Her voice was strangely girlish. “When I fished with my father, we caught some of those.”
“Really,” I exclaimed, “do you like fishing?”
“No I don’t! I hate the feel of those worms squirming around when you are getting them on the hook.”
I smiled as I asked, “Where was that, on Kariba?”
“Sometimes, but mostly it was on Sebabkwe in Zim.”
“Sebakwe!!” I reacted with surprise. “I fished there as a kid.”
Stretching out my arm I presented the fish for her to examine more closely. “Fishing has changed quite a bit since then. We don’t much use live worms anymore. Only for women, so that they can easily catch the small fish.”
I looked at her directly to see how she reacted to the tease. There was no overt response, but she did look at me with a slight narrowing of her eyes, as if to size me up.
I pushed another button for the fun of it, there was something about her which hinted at a toughness. Despite her girlish voice, maybe I could tease out a feisty side.
“Actually,” I said. “You can catch some big fish with worms. But you need to be skilled, so I guess you never managed to catch much.”
Again there was a slight narrowing of her eyes as she ignored my jab. “What brought you to Sebakwe?” she asked.
“I grew up near there. Between the Sebakwe and Munyati rivers.”
“And you?” I queried. “It isn’t often that I meet somebody out here who has heard of the place, let alone been there.”
No longer interested in the fish, she was looking unblinkingly at me as she spoke. “My parents lived in Kwe Kwe for years. My father was a doctor working at the near the junior school. He had a passion for fishing, so I know the area and its lakes well.”
“If so, you should come out fishing with me sometime.” I stated.
“Fishing is boring.” she said.
I paused and looked around. Moses had drifted towards the far side of the chitenge, where he was deeply engaged in conversation with the other woman. He was behavingin a manner I had not seen before. He was leaning forward, smiling and gesticulating, and breaking into responsive laughter as she spoke.
“Oh boy, what is with this guy?” I thought to myself.
The woman he was speaking to stood facing away. All I could see was her feminine figure and very long and very black hair swishing down her back as her head moved with the animation of their conversation.
But my attention was transfixed by the sight of her arms. I had seen them before. I recognized the delicate tattoos that tease down off her shoulders, down the arms, and behind the elbows to curb around her forearms and brush the edges of her wrists, where a narrow frond of the design reached out to tickle along the middle finger of each hand.
As I gawked at her she turned to look at me, obviously reacting to how Moses was frowning at the surprise on my face.
She was as I remembered, beautiful, with hair as black and is flowing as that of the Queen of Cush. Her figure was sumptuously languid in an elegant way like the stretch of a lynx. When she moved, it was with a sinuousness suggesting the elegance of a dancer.
But the tall woman opposite me had noticed the flash of recognition on my face, and how I had switched my focus.
“Hey, don’t be rude! I’m talking to you.” she exclaimed loudly, and I jolted my focus back on her.
“I’m sorry! I got a surprise when I saw your friend. I’ve seen her before.”
“Ohh yea! Where was that?”
I switched my gaze back towards the dark woman talking to Moses before I answered, “She was standing next to me at the security check at the airport in Johannesburg. One can hardly miss those tattoos!”
I had not formally introduced myself to the tall woman. “By the way, my name is Gideon, people call me Gidi.”
“Yes I know, we’ve already had quite a bit of your background filled in by Moses, as you can see he has a fan.” She pointed her chin across the chitenge.
“But anyway, I am Lauren.”
She extended her hand for me to shake.
“That is my long name, but you can call me “very board” for short”.
I chuckled. “What’s the matter? Don’t you have enough to do here to keep yourself entertained?”
She placed her hands with a flourish on her hips. “We have been here for 10 days, which is about six days too long for me. That is not what I signed up for.”
“So what is the deal?” I asked.
“Our stay here is sort of open-ended. Narina’s father, that’s my friends name, and I will introduce you to her in a few moments, he is the one who sets the schedule, doing what, I don’t know, and don’t care, because whatever it is, he doesn’t spend too much time here.”
“That’s too bad.” I shrugged, “I can stay here for weeks and not miss any other place.”
“Well, then you are lucky. I like having a lot of people around me and the hustle and bustle of civilization.”
“Usually I have Narina on my side to fight her father. But as you can see, lately she doesn’t have quite the same motivation to leave.”
We watched both Narina and Moses as their laughter punctuated the gaiety of their chatter..
“Maybe you should reconsider not coming out on the river with me.”
“If things carry on this way I think I will.”
Lauren turned back to face me.
“Are you sure your friend is not yet ready to leave?” I asked.
“No! I have made it pretty obvious that I am sick of this place already. Hasn’t your Moses filled you in?”
“Yep, he sort of gave a brief background. That you two were out here to celebrate divorces, which you have to admit is pretty unique.”
“That’s right, but lately Narina and I are not doing too much celebrating. She prefers celebrating with her new friend.”
“Oh really, I arrived back late last night, and I didn’t get a full briefing. Although I don’t supposed extra-curricular activity would be included in a professional briefing. But now I understand why he was so eager to come over to have the fish clean here.”
Lauren pursed her lips, ““Hmm, Acting shy is he. You probably spoilt the fun last night. From the sounds of it, I think your co-worker has taken to sneaking across late at night to extend the socializing.”
We both looked across at Narina and Moses who were still smiling giggling at each other.
“Look at that.” she said, “them acting like a pair of teens. Who would have believed it! And I am stuck watching all this unfold.”
“Well,” I teased, “you almost sound jealous.”
“I am!” she exclaimed emphatically. “At least it would give me something to do. Actually I admire Moses’s courage, or maybe it’s his stupidity.” She gestured with her hand.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Narina’s father is a nasty type. I’ve known him ever since she and I were at school together. I”m not sure exactly what he does, but he does not have a stellar reputation for friendliness and above board deals with his numerous interests.”
“So why do you agree to come out with him?”
“I tolerate him, and he tolerates me…barely. So it would be okay if I knew when we would be headed back. Usually it is OK, because she can get her way with her father, even with his arrogance and nastiness. She gets her way with him.”
“How is that?” I asked.
“Like with her tattoos. He was furious when he 1st saw them. But then he calms down, because she is the only person in the world who can twist him around her little finger. If she wanted to leave she could get her father to take us to Lusaka days ago. I would even be happy with getting to Mumbwa where I am sure I could catch a bus.”
Lauren was almost pouting.
“But now here she is, all a twitter around your man, as if he was carrying the 10 Commandments.”
“OK”! I asked, “But what is that got to do with Moses’s courage?”
“Mstafa is an arrogant son-of-a -bitch, who is very protective of his favorite and only, but wayward daughter. Outwardly he is a very strict Muslim, but he is vindictive with those who do not find favor in his eyes. And I’m not sure if he would appreciate knowing that his precious daughter was busy falling in love with a non-believer.
Especially when it seems that she was heading back into the fold after leaving an ex-husband who mister “Son of a bitch” didn’t fully appreciate.
“So you see, not only is Moses not a Muslim, if I can read between the lines, he seems to have a lot of latency left over from a Jesuit upbringing.”
“But an even bigger sin is that Moses is a penniless, footloose and fancy free wanderer.”
“Wow!” I exclaimed, “That is quite a revelation.”
Lauren paused for a while.
“If you get my drift, Moses should either be more astute about who he deals with, or if he knows, he is brave to start sniffing around Mustafa’s only child under his nose.”
“By the way,” Lauren changed her direction, “Moses tells me that you are quite a man of the Bush. How about taking me out on one of your patrols. I could do with some exercise, they don’t want me to jog here. I need to have a scout escort me, and the only way the scouts can keep up is if they ride a bicycle. One of my pastimes down south is participating in triathlons.”
I contemplated her request. “Oh, I”m not sure if you would like the patrols, because we go out for days. But maybe I could show you some of the finer points of the Bush around here.”
I looked at her directly to see if I could get a response, “maybe I could show you the stars at night.”
This time a faint smile appeared below the narrowing of her eyes, “Maybe I would like that.”
At this Precious came walking through the gap in the fence to the kitchen carrying a big bowl. “Okay people, gather around. Bring your coffee and loaves because some false profit has caught some fish and an angel cooked them.”
Lauren was about to turn away and follow Precious when a strand of curiosity threaded its way into my consciousness.
“What is Nariina’s surname?
“Beyh!” She said.
I stood very still considering this revelation as the tall woman walked across to join the others.
(8th edit 02/28/2021)