We were up before the sky below a sliver of far off clouds was tinted violet by the brush of the new day.
Finishing our coffee I suggested to Moses, “How about fresh fish for breakfast?”
“Sounds good to me.” he responded. “I haven’t had it in a long time.”
Thus, as the sun added orange to its palette, and beyond where ‘Eden’s Outlook’ punched its basalt fist up from the riverbank, I tucked the boat behind a mid-stream jumble of rocks, whose crown was capped with a single shrub clinging with admirable tenacity to a crack in a boulder. How it survived was a wonder. In late summers floods its roots would need to cling even tighter as its submerged struggle would be tugged mercilessly by rushing waters. We tied the boats line to its rooted obstinacy.
On either side of the outcrop the river spread into a wide lazy drift, before again gathering energy to force through the constrictions of downstream rapids. The regular wrinkles of its flow indicated a flat riverbed beneath its shallow waters. However I knew that large rocks were sprinkled across its flatness like currants on a bun. With their edges rounded by the rivers rub I hoped to find a few big “Robbies” lurking in their lea.
“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.
I considered how the river represented life. At times as slow as these waters. Occasionally obstacles spoiled the evenness of the flow as we drifted down through our ages. Here and there, turbulent channels could catch the careless unawares, and threaten with the same oblivion as in the silted estuaries of our old age, where eventually the mud of our lives would be dumped on the pages of our histories. Moses and I had never been content with stagnation and conformity. We had always paddled
to the margins, There we had drifted on the brink again and again and picked life’s figs, and watched its elephants moving down to drink beside us, or a crocodile slide into our stream as we metaphorically licked our fingers of the honey robbed from a wild-hive.
It made it all worthwhile.
Now my hands 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. Wrapped in its perfection, the connection ran not from the mind, but from some very deep primitive place in the sole. It ran down my 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, 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 knew with an uncanny sense of awareness that I was good at what I did. But was my audience able to recognize my competence? How could an audience of one understand the nuances of the African bush from gazing at spreadsheets in an opulent bankers office in Munich?
Honed by war, 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, or would be more able to set a hook into the gums of any witchcrafts maw.
But would I be given the time to find the boulders behind which the nganga hid.
I put aside my anxiety for the future of my job as I considered how it didn’t take long to land 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.”
“Piss off!” he scowled.
Noting his gesture, I admonished him. “I bet they didn’t teach you how to give me the finger at the mission.”
Obviously it had rained hard far to the north some days earlier. That water had now reached us. Heading back to the lodge I raised my voice over the rattle of the engine. “It looks like the water has come up half a meter overnight. Just as well we were not camping on a sandbar.”
As our boat skimmed over its waters, the river was tinted with the cloudy opacity of fine soil flushed from denuded land 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, chickens, and people with scratched out patches of maize.
But now, the river’s muddy surge pushed the vestiges of its clear water 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 other rivers, the Sanyati, the Luangwa, the Shire, would inexorably carve deeper, wider scars into the cheeks of Africa before bleeding into the Indian Ocean.
The silt in the water was the color of a changing land. Why did I care? I could do nothing about it. I wondered if Ulrich was underwriting any up-stream mining projects. My anxieties were getting to me.
I throttled back the engine, making 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 had rain around here while you were away.” Moses said, “Which was why it was hard to track the old nganga. The tracks kept getting washed away.”
As I edged the boat into the river bank we could see Precious’s gracious figure waving at us from the lodge’s deck. As we approached she moved down to meet us.
She extended a hand for Moses as he jumped ashore, where he secured the line.
“We have come to ask a favor.” I called out to her. “We are looking for an expert cook who can fry these fish for us. Do you know of anyone around here?”
I held the fish up for her to see, two per hand.
“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 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 theatrically back.
Moses interjected. “What if the cook makes them into fish-fingers and we share them?”
“Deal” she said. “Come on up.”
I walked up the little gully beside the chitenge. Reaching its platform I glanced across to its far end, where I notice the two women sitting on the couches.
I nodded a greeting in their direction.
“Show us what you have there!”
It was a tall fair-haired woman who spoke. I looked at her for longer than I should.
She was hard to describe without contradictions. Sitting slumped back in the couch, she appeared slight and slender. Then as I looked at the pair of them with the fish still held up for display, with my fingers spiked through their gills, she stood and walked towards me. She was wide hipped with a tall proportionate figure. As she reached out to touch one of the fish the faint rippling of the muscles 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 cap gave an impression of youthfulness, even though she clearly was closing in on middle age.
Standing before me, I realized that her slender appearance derived from her height . She was as tall as I, and I stand at 180cm.
“What beautiful fish.” Her voice was surprisingly 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.”
“Are you too delicate for bush life?” I looked at her directly to see how she reacted to the tease. There was no overt response, but she looked at me with a narrowing of her eyes, as if to size me up.
She had a hint of toughness. But maybe I could tease out a feisty side.
“Actually,” I said. “You can catch big fish with worms. But you need to be skilled, which is probably why you never managed to catch much.”
Again there was that narrowing of her eyes as she ignored my jab.
No longer interested in the fish, she looked unblinkingly at me “My father was a doctor working at out of the way bush clinics for years.”
She went on, “He had a passion for fishing. I did a lot of it.”
“If so, you should come out fishing with me sometime.” I stated.
“Fishing is boring.” she said dismissively, “Like most fishermen.”
I smiled, but said nothing. She knew how to punch back.
Pausing and looking around I saw that Moses had drifted towards the far side of the chitenge, where he was deeply engaged in conversation with the other woman. He was behaving in a manner I hadn’t seen before, leaning forward, smiling and gesticulating for emphasis. Their conversation was punctuated by mutual peals of laughter.
“Oh boy, what is with this guy?” I thought to myself.
But my attention was fixed on the arms of the woman he was talking to. I had seen them before. Those delicate tattoos which tease down off her shoulders, down the arms, and behind the elbows to curb around her forearms and brush the edges of her wrists, with a narrow frond reaching out to tickle along the middle finger of each hand.
As I gawked 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 as sin , and a figure as sumptuously languid as the lazy stretch of the sphinx,
The tall woman noticed the flash of recognition on my face as I stared at her companion.
“Hey, don’t be rude! I’m talking to you.” she exclaimed loudly, dragging my eyes and focus back onto her.
“I’m sorry! I got a surprise when I saw your friend. I’ve seen her before.”
“Ohh yea! Where was that?”
“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.” With her chin she pointed across the chitenge.
“But anyway, I am Lauren. and my friend over there is Narina.”
She extended her hand for me to shake.
“You can call me “very board” for short”.
I gave a mock start of surprise. “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 as I told your friend 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. My friend over their, Narina’s father, , 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 Narina and Moses with their laughter punctuating the gaiety of their chatter..
“Maybe you should reconsider coming out on the river with me.”
“If things carry on this way 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. Hasn’t your Moses filled you in?”
“Yep, he sort of gave a brief background. You two were out here to celebrate being single , which you have to admit is pretty unique.”
“That’s right, but lately she prefers celebrating with her new friend.”
“Oh really, I arrived back late last night, so I didn’t get a full briefing. Although I don’t supposed extra-curricular activity would be included in any update. But now I understand his eagerness to have the fish clean here.”
Lauren pursed her lips, ““Hmm, Acting shy is he. You spoiled the fun last night. From the sounds of it there has been nocturnal sneaking back and forth to extend the socializing.”
We both looked 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 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?”
“Narina’s father can be a nasty type. I’ve known him ever since she and I were at school together. He doesn’t have a stellar reputation for friendliness and straight forward deals with his numerous business 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.”
“How is that?” I asked.
“Like with her tattoos. He was furious when he 1st saw them. But then he always 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 blatantly pouting.
“But now here she is, all a twitter around your man, as if he was carrying the 10 Commandments.”
“But what is that got to do with Moses’s courage?” I asked.
“Mstafa is an arrogant son-of-a -bitch, who is very protective of his beloved only, but wayward daughter. Outwardly he is a strict Muslim, but he is vindictive with those who do not find favor in his eyes. I’m not sure if he would appreciate knowing that his precious daughter was busy falling in love with another 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.
She lit a cigarette and took a long draw.
“So you see, not only is Moses not a Muslim, if I can read between the lines, he is tainted with a Jesuit upbringing.”
Another deep draw on her cigarette was followed by her blowing a smoke ring in the direction of the giggling couple.
“But an even bigger sin is that Moses is a penniless, footloose and fancy free wanderer in her Daddy’s eyes.”
“Wow!” I exclaimed, “He has quite a hill to climb.”
“But.” I added. “He is good at climbing hills, and being on top.”
There was that narrowing of her eyes.
Drawing deeply again, this time she blew a series of smoke rings aimed at my face before continuing.
“If you get my drift, Moses is brave to sniff around Mustafa’s only child under his nose like a jackal.”
“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 contemplated her request. “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 hesitated. ““Maybe I could show you some stars.”
This time a faint smile appeared below the narrowing of her eyes, “Maybe I would like that.”
She blew another smoke ring my way.
Precious came walking through the gap in the fence carrying a big bowl. “Gather around. Bring your coffee and loaves. A false profit caught some fish and an angel cooked them.”
Lauren was about to turn away and follow Precious when curiosity threaded its way into my consciousness.
“What is Narina’s surname?
“Beyh!” She said.
I stood still looking at the sway of her ponytail as her shapely figure moved away.