Chapter 27: Milky Way
With a gleeful swirl, a rush of boisterous air buffeted the crowns of the trees overhead, whereupon it spilled its fervor onto the ground. Tumbling down the slope, the wind shook the shrubs growing in the gully running along one side of the chitenge. From there it playfully pushed at the woven reed matting along one of the walls, before engaging in its final mischievous act, snatching the floppy hat from my head and tossing it into the grass at my side. In turning to retrieve it, I noticed an unfamiliar vehicle partly obscured beyond the nearest chalet.
Then with my faded crown back bolstering my pride, and with a raised hand, I acknowledged Lauren’s loud breezy, “Welcome back stranger.”
Behind her, I noticed two new figures, both slumped back in the large comfortable lounge chairs beyond the bar area.
“How did your mission go?” Lauren queried. I had mentioned the need to deploy scouts before leaving.
Without waiting for a reply, she turned and walked across to the little beverage table tucked against the now limp matting of the chitenge’s wall.
“Tea or coffee?” she asked, “If its coffee, you will have to make do with the plastic stuff. We have finished the good filter coffee.” She was referring to the chicory based instant substitute.
“In that case I’d prefer tea.”
“Roiibos or regular?”
“It’s a bit early for a caffeine boost, so it might as well be Rooibos.
As I waited, my gaze drifted across towards the two new figures, one of which was now leaning forward in her chair with her elbows on her knees, her chin resting on the knuckles of the fist of her left hand as she held a phone in her right. The other sat with elbows splayed on the soft upholstered armrests, but she too had not looked up from the lazy reclined focus on her device to notice my perusal.
I was struck by the thick mane of jet black hair of the smaller of the pair, which cascaded down and framed the pale porcelain sculpture of her face, almost as if it were a hood. As if on cue she looked up. Our eyes met, eliciting a faint smile on a bounteously full mouth whose pouted lip, were meticulously coated with lipstick so crimson as to render her appearance almost theatrical. Embellishing this impression, her dark eyes and eyebrows gave an almost hieroglyphic essence to her face.
The other woman was equally striking. Her head of hair, although not as full, found its dark chestnut abundance tinted auburn with golden highlights. In her case wide green eyes set far apart, with pencil thin eyebrows spanning a high bridged nose gave her a profile stolen directly from an ancient Minoan vase. Her classical features were enhanced by a wide yellow band drawing the hair back from her forehead. But contrary to that of her companion, the smooth olive hue of her skin hinted at a comquistador’an origin, anciently blended with that of an Inca slave.
As Lauren handed me the cup, I nodded surreptitiously over my shoulder in their direction, and under my breath asked, “Are they your friends?”
“Not mine. Friends of Mustafa’s friends. And there is no need to keep your voice down. They don’t speak English.”
“What a handsome pair,” I admired, “It certainly seems they have discovered that WhatsApp works out here.”
Then noting the wide golden bracelet adorning the hand of the darker one, and the light elegance in the purple flow of her close fitting dress, suggesting a membership in a coterie more likely to be seen in London’s Belgravia, I muttered, “I guess it must cost quite a bit to keep them happy.”
I added, “An expensive pair I should imagine.”
Lauren snorted as she led the way out onto the deck over the river. “You’re probably right in more ways than one about them being expensive. But who cares.” she said, “These days, more than ever, who needs marriage to find a form of legalized whoredom, it has always been about bartering in goods and services.”
“Wow!” I exclaimed realizing I had touched a nerve. “You have strong opinions.”
“No, not really, just experience, which breeds realism, which exposes the myths of social consensus and its unnecessary inertia.
No longer protected from the vagaries of the warm wind, we sat out on the open deck with the rustle of the leaves around us sprinkling their sounds onto those of the ripples tugging at the exposed roots in the river bank below the deck.
There was something about Lauren’s candidness which appealed to me more than the physical splendor of the pair sitting in the shade behind us. She lacked ostentatiousness, and hinted of a life experience which had given up trying to melt itself into the taste of the time.
This was something which resonated with me. However I was not sure if this discarding of conformity had come from within, or whether, as in my case, it had been imposed from without.
“I will be heading in to Mumbwa early tomorrow morning. I want to ask Ernest, the head warden to send a patrol up the wets side of the Lunga River.”
We’d been sitting on the deck for some time discussing the unusual activity and my findings in the vicinity of the new camp on the Lunga River.
She bet me, if I dug deep enough, I would find Narina’s father and his friends somewhere manipulating the strings of the puppets tying jackal’s vertebrae to trees.
“He’s a jackal himself,” she said, “a master at deceptive manipulation. Most people don’t even know what he’s up to, or that they are snared in his mesh. And now he’s wooing big money. As you said, that pair over there do not come cheap.”
“Who are they?” and who are they with? I asked. “What do you know about them?”
“Not much, only what Narina has told me. They are South American. From Columbia I think. She can speak their lingo, because she married someone from over there, and lived there for a few years before her divorce.”
“As usual, I’m pretty sure that Mustafa has dual motives for inviting his darling daughter and myself out here to celebrate our freedom. It is convenient to have her around to translate, when the Russians are not around. Do you know that they also speak some basic Spanish?”
This wasn’t something I would have guessed at. But then Africa always manages to concoct some unlikely trait in those who had lived here long enough, it made strange bedfellows.
“Needing her to translate is why he does not want “us” to leave,” she grumbled.
“How on earth have you and Narina remained friends if you have such a poor opinion of her father?
Obviously the surprise on my face showed.
Lauren sighed heavily. “It’s a long story. We were at Chisipitie together. Do you know Chisipitie?”
I mentally shrugged my shoulders, how was it that so many of the woman who found favor in my eyes were somehow tied to that school??
“Yes I replied. I went to Falcon College. Us Bulawayeans didn’t have much to do with you folks up in the capital, but we certainly knew about the fancy girls schools up there.”
“Well!” Lauren continued,” We had a strange relationship, I was a first year teacher, fresh out of teachers training college at Rhodes down south, when she became the head-girl. Some years before her mother had been killed in a car accident., and she was a loner. Shortly before I arrived it seemed that there had been a big fall out betwen her father and brother, which had upset her deeply.
At the time I was a rebel, and even though I was still pretty obedient to society’s mores, I still identified more with the rebelliousness of youth than the conformity to a stuffy legacy of hierarchical old school education.
Narina on her part, although a very strong character, obviously inherited from her father, still had the softness of her mother, and needed consolation and support. It was this unusual give and take, of mixing her advice to me, my sympathy and authority to her, back and forth exchange of roles, that bonded us together, and has kept us thus ever since.
SHe never got any support from her father. He was never around. In fact she spent most of the school holidays staying with an uncle in some godforsaken little town near the Fungabusi Plateau in central Zimbabwe.
So in actuality I never really had to deal with her Jekyll-Hyde father much. Her uncle and his wife were a wonderfully sweet childless couple who together ran a trading store in Gokwe.
“Someday you’ll have to tell me the whole story.” I said.
“Speaking of Mumbwa,” Lauren said, ” I absolutely want to go with you, she insisted. “I want to get the hell out of here. Even if I have to stay at the ‘Aunty Mercy Motel’ for a month before I can catch a bus.”
“But,” she added, “tonight I”m inviting you over here for dinner.”
Then emphatically stated, “We need to celebrate my last evening here!”
“OK, But clear that with Morse I replied. Us ancillaries are not exactly encourage to mix with the paying guests.”
“I present to you The Milky Way!”
There was no need for me to point out the gigantic powdery swathe that cut across the sky.
“What you see is an insignificant pittance of stellar dust, swirled into the dotted flatness of its disc, and stretched into countless flecked billions in the galactic sprawl of its spiraling arms. And then beyond that swathe, we are literally looking from here to eternity, into a space so vast that it encapsulates all of time, where the stardust of creation is stretched out into the eon’s of infinity.”
That is our celestial city!
The wood-saw scratching sound of a Leopard came from the tree line behind us. We had spoiled its hunt. On the patches of softer, sweeter dambo grass which attracted the grazing of the Puku and Impala, there were now no antelope to be stalked. Instead Lauren and I lay side by side on blankets spread on a patch of their cropped grass, at the edge of the treeless expanse which afforded us an unobstructed view of the night sky.
“If the heavens and the stars have been at the heart of so much of our poetry and literature,” I said, “ imagine how more richly embellished it would be had those bards been inspired by these southern skies. Too bad they thought that the world was flat, and had no idea that their northern view looked out at the galactic suburbs, and not back at its shimmering heart.
“It is so beautiful. You’re right, it does look like the distant lights of a giant city!” The whisper of Lauren’s voice at my side barely rose above the creaking of the crickets in the stubble of the grass.”
We lay on our backs looking upwards. I had tucked a fold into the blankets to provide a small cushioning wedge on which we could rest the backs of our heads. All around us the chirping of the insects mingled with the subdued sounds of her breathing.
We lay a while listening to these sounds of the night as we soaked in the heavens.
I was not sure Morse would approve of what I was doing. Admittedly it had been Lauren who earlier had invited me to dinner, to celebrate her last evening out here. Typically anything more than friendly fraternization is discouraged. The guest are to be served, and I was not part of their program or payroll.
At dinner, all of the woman were elegantly clothed. The subdued colors of Lauren and Narina’s dresses contrasted with the bright colors of the Latin pair. This contrast in colors did not hide the expensiveness of their cut or texture, Louis Vutton I thought, and the heaviness of the auburn Latin’s necklace and earrings dripped of a Karl Laagerfeld touch.
A twinge of embarrassment had tugged at my ease. Their air of self- assurance and comfort with opulence suggested they were all of them out of my class. But so what, I could fake it as well as anybody.
During the delicious and well served dinner my conversation was restricted to Lauren. Narina was mostly interacting with the
Spanish spoken by the friends of her father’s friends.
Maybe because she was spurred on by successive glasses of merlot, Lauren had surreptitiously extended her already extroverted friendliness. Her knee bumped mine under the table a number of times.
I guess it was partially the wine which had her stating that it had been a while since she had been shown the stars. Picking up on her entendre, and remembering that I had already mentioned my proficiency on the subject, on a whim, I responded that she was sitting next to just such a showman.
However, with my words judiciously couched in the plural, the offer was to all of them, even though hampered by their lack of English I assumed that the two Latin’s would be unlikely to take up my stargazing suggestion.
I felt a tickle of anticipation when it was only Lauren who readily accepted my invitation. Narina would stay on with the Latin’s she said.
After dinner, when the moon set in an hour’s time, I suggested we meet outside her chalet. For her to don comfortable clothing, and to bring a blanket.
I would do the same.
While I explained this, one of the waitresses had refilled her tall wine glass.
Now as I swept the beam of my flashlight up into the darkness I addressed her. “All this heavenliness splashed across the sky, it is where we live in the universe.
We have hundreds of billions of neighbors. Everything that you can see with the naked eye is part of our galaxy.
“It is so beautiful! I grew up in Africa, and I never paid much attention to the skies.” Lauren was exclaiming in astonished wonder at the revelation splashed across the sky above.
“Splashed,” I said, “with such celestial splendor that it is hard to imagine, and even harder to describe. It is a highway across the heavens, a pathway to a visual feast so sumptuous that it is almost squandered on us mortals.
All of this is held together by a force powerful enough to pull billions of stars, some of them hundreds or thousands of times larger than our son, into a circle in a space which would take a hundred thousand years to cross, even if we could hitch a ride on a beam of light. On this gigantic cluster we find ourselves on our even smaller forgotten slot two thirds of the way out to nothingness, in the circle of our existence. If we could surfed the light back into the black heart of our galaxy it would still take us twenty six thousand years to get there.”
Lauren was still feeling the earlier carefree effect of the wine. She had laughed a tad too easily as we walked to get away from the meager solar lights of the chalets. With her relaxed condition, I thought that a non-technical explanation of the Milky Way stupendous existence would be more appropriate.
I crossed my legs as we lay on the blanket.
“All this beauty makes me imagine things.” Lauren said softly next to me.
“You are not the only one.” I responded. “The stars have always been the catalyst for ideas. I love the ancient Greek mythical reasoning the best.
Imagine if you were one of those ancients. How could you explain it to a granchild sitting on your knee?”
Maybe you could imagine all that mist from the billions of stars is the panted breath of Zeus as it condenses in the frigid heavens. That God’s billows as he catches his breath following some scoundrel pleasure, maybe seducing a swan, or drenching Danae in the potency of his sunbeams. Or maybe you will tell the lad on your knee that it is from a squirt of milk from the full breasts of Hera, after she has discovered her duping as the mother of Hercules.
It is a pity we no longer have the imaginative explanations of the Greek Philosophers.
Only in 1838 did Bissel use the parallax of our swing around the sun to measure galactic distances in light years, and show how stupendously far away everything out there really is.
Now we have all the technology to peer into the heavens in a way exceeding the wildest imaginations of the ancients. And at the same time as we have peered out into the huge and far, we have squinted into the near and small, and struggled to unify it all.
But anyway, back to our city in the sky. Almost everything you see up there is in our Milky Way galaxy”, I continued in a quiet voice, “even those stars not in that broad disc of light..
Picking up my heavy bush flashlight I sent its beam up and slightly to the east.
“That region over there, where it is glowing brighter, well, somewhere in that glow is the center of our Milky Way. All the stars revolve around that big black center, including our sun, which has only done a quarter revolution since the dinosaurs went extinct sixty million years ago.
I lay quietly listening to the distant trill-sound of a Scops owl, and the five part rise and fall of a Rufous necked nightjar. How many thousands of times had I looked up at this wonder, since I first noticed its splendor as a child.
I lay next to this barely known companion and let the magic of it fill my mind.
“Its grandeur and majesty,” I stated, “never fails to elicit a sense of awe. And to imagine that compared to all the rest, this magnificence is just one tiny spec in the even bigger plethora of billions of other galaxies, spread across the universe so far away in time their light is only now reaching us.”
“But back to ours,” I assumed a lecturing tone, ““Across the Milky Way we see dark patches. Those are massive clouds of dust, where stars are being born. The largest of them all, The Great Rift, hides the center. It blocks the light of even more distant stars.
It stretches across our galaxy like our Great Rift stretches up Africa.
A hyena had cut in across the trilling of the crickets with the sound of its long eerie wail. The bush sounds of the near and far.
It is strange how we can have everything laid out before us and we still cannot see how it all ties together, how it is all unified. We still don’t know how to tie Newton’s large to Bohrs” tiny. It’s like here, where I have all the pieces of the puzzle laid out, and I still cannot figure it out. What the heck are a witchcraft man, and Indian gangster, some Russian thugs and a pair of South American dandies doing here?
We lay for almost 5 minutes staring up into the heavens until a shooting star cut a shimmering trail across the sky.
“Ohh well, at least the heavens have provided me some guidance in the past. Maybe they will in the future.
I directed the beam of my light slightly downriver to point over our toes.
“Do you see those four stars?” I waited until she murmured her acknowledgement.
“Do you recognize the Southern Cross. Most southerners do. The Ozzies, the New Zealanders and Guineans, the Samoans and the Brazilians all have them on their flags.
The eerie sounding rise and fall of the hyena’s yowl’s once again wafted towards us across the dark waters of the river.
“They are all named Crux for cross in Spanish, the bottom Alpha,” I explained, “The left Beta, Gamma at the top, and the one on the right Delta, all in the shape of a kite with a small star slightly on the inside between alpha and Delta. That is Epsilon.
What the heck, I thought, why not impress her with a bit of detail, hopefully maybe I would even leave her with something to remember, assuming the wine cloudiness of her mind allowed my words to settle.
“That light from Gamma, left before we were born, eighty eight years ago.”
Spread your pinkie and pointer fingers between the long arm of the kite. Add this three and a half times in the direction of the tail. From that imaginary point, directly below is south. That is how Bush navigation is done. That, and counting my steps. Those stars always tell me which way I am facing when everything is in the dark. I can check that I have the right cross, because over there, to the left,” I said in my low teachers voice, “Do you see those two bright stars, they are the Pointers. Alpha and beta Centauri. They point to the top of the cross like stellar apostles. Alpha is really three stars. The smallest, Proxima is the closest to us at 4 light-years.”
Lauren was making quiet appreciative umm sounds.
I indicated with my beam to a faint red star. “That is Antares. It is a thousand times larger than our sun!”
I wondered if she could understand the vast complexity of it. Could she ever grasp how big it can be when alone in the bush,. How that distant cross, like that of a saviour, provided the comfort as it pointed the way back to safety. How it led Moses and I, time and again, back from dangerous places south to the border cut-line.
But now it was useless in providing me guidance.
“We are both teachers.” Lauren said to me. “I like your teaching.”
I listened to her breathing beside me and wondered where she was going with her words.
Dreamily Lauren picked up her thread again.
“Do you teach people to question their beliefs when you tell them about the stars? Beliefs are nothing but the myths of old men. Including those of old Sangoma men.”
I was surprised by her question, but after a while I answered, “Some of what I teach cannot be taught, but it can be learned.”
I considered how to continue.
“And if that’s the case, maybe if you are still a teacher, especially a woman teacher, you can give me guidance.”
I waited until a jackal ended its yimmering.
“It is not about the problems we are having with witchcraft. That is relatively black and white. The issue I am wrestling with has moral murkiness at its core.”
“Hmmm, now you really have me curious!” she stated.
“My biggest dilemma is with my best friend, and maybe yours as well.”
“You see,” I said, “A brother and a sister may be falling in love right in front of our eyes.
They know about their feelings, but not their relationship. But I do.”
I waited a while before speaking again. “I recently saw something which ties my suspicions together. It has bothered me since.”
I took a deep breath before softly saying, “That is my dilemma. To say anything to them, or not.”
The sound of the crickets mixed with that of the hyena.
Laying swaddled in the stillness of the night I felt the ever present quorum of my teachers all around. The teachers who had always let me learn. In the vast classroom of the night, their voices chirped from the grass beside us, and the eeriness of some of their howl still hung in the darkness. Now, added to it was the sound of a woman’s breathing.
What a classroom, full of surprises, I thought, with lessons close enough to reach out and touch.
I wondered what she would say.
But she said nothing. “Next time I will tell you about Aldebron.” I cut the flash light to return us to the pitch darkness.
As I did so, I felt a finger delicately touch the back of my hand.