I could barely contain my reaction. I am still not sure if it was a gasp of surprise, or a whistle of wonder.
The cut was conventional. The sleeveless frugality, together with the austerity of its simple square neckline freed my eyes to drift down over the sumptuous pattern of the fabric. From there it was a scintillating slide over her shape, all the way down to its modest termination. It did so and avoided prudery with a slight and judicious exposure of her knees.
– Wow, that is an amazing dress!
The intricate intertwining of the underlying pattern of orange-gold and yellows, was overlain with dominating splashes of big nested windowed rectangles and eye-like circles. The starkness of these random sized dashes of black and white was ameliorated with an occasional substitution of turquoise gray. it was a dress which could have been picked directly from the wardrobe of Adele Bloch-Bauer, after she had modeled for Klimt himself.
The smooth ebony slenderness of one arm demurely crossed over her midriff as she cupped the elbow of the other, as it in turn dropped its stillness like a shadow at her side.
Maybe the visual shock of its colors appearing out of the darkness of the night would have been less impactful if this was Durban, and it was July, and the grand horse race had not yet switched the attention away from the display of fashionable attire.
Instead it was my lonely and almost forlorn campsite in the North East corner of an immense Kafue solitude. This was not exactly the appropriate place for a fashion parade.
– Thank you, she murmured quietly, I wanted you to see it.
Her words were accompanied with a mock curtsy, and a toss of her head which hinted at an air of indifference, almost as if she were not seeking a compliment.
– Where did you get it?
– I made it myself. I bought the fabric in Lusaka, at Manda Hills.
As my surprise ebbed I pulled another camp chair closer to the halo of the fire and indicated for her to be seated.
– Do you go there often?
My question was rhetorical, I knew that the young women who worked at the lodge would not be able to afford frequent trips to the big city.
– I go when I can, she replied, which is not enough!
There was a barely hidden edge of bitterness in her voice.
I changed the subject.
– So how is Eddie?
As I lean back in the camp chair and stretch my legs I was a tad self-conscious of my dress.
Even though there had been a slight cooling of the evening air in the aftermath of the downpour, it was still comfortable enough to sit outside in the drabness of my khaki shirt and shorts, with my feet pointed at the camp fire.
I was not sure if it was this contrast in our clothingn, or something else. But whatever it was, like a pond ruffled by a breeze I was also aware of a faint sense of unease.
It was as if she had been a butterfly always with its wings closed to blend in with the bush. Then, in the blink of an eye, this Charaxes had opened her wings to reveal the brilliance of hidden colors, and a potential to fly faster and higher than I ever imagined.
I reminded myself that she was almost a servant in her stature at the lodge, and probably three decades younger.
Admittedly I was not her boss. Thus I did not really need to concern myself with an issue of maintaining a formal working distance.
But, now, wearing that dress, it transformed her into something else. What exactly I was not sure. And there was the surprise of that subtle brazenness in the way she had told me she would be over.
Maybe there was a crack in my male armor. Maybe she had detected it when I let my gaze drift for too long over the shape under the wet cling of her uniform.
But as we both gazed at the flickering dance of the fires flames, I had that almost forgotten premonition of danger. That six sense one learns to detect when walking into the killing ground of a bush ambush. There’s nothing upon which to place a validating finger. There is just the sense that someone else has the advantage. That if it was you, this is where you would set a trap. That to survive, sounds needed to be listened to more carefully, eyes opened wider, gazes cast quicker, footsteps more cautious. A sense to move away from the obvious and easy, and instead to hug the denser and more impenetrable margins.
Sheesh I thought to myself, what a killing ground, what a way to die! The sparkle of her beauty was spectacularly augmented by her attire.
But that was a ridiculous and out of place premonition. My ego reasserted itself with its veto. She was young, and despite my age, the Bush life had kept me fit and trim, so why not assume the obvious. Why else would she come to my campsite three hours after sunset, when the rest of the lodge had shut down. Why would she endure a distant walk in the darkness. And why else would she dress so sumptuously, if not for me.
But, she just continued to sit in silence as if mesmerized by the flicker of the flames.
The rhythmic, monotonous peep of a fruit bat came from the dark denseness of the water trees behind us.
Again I asked,
– How is Eddie, have you heard from him.
Still staring at the flames, she slowly straightened and then hooked her legs together, and folded her arms tightly across her chest.
-They say he will be fine.
The gold of the dress was reflected in the warmth of the flames, and its yellow in the light from the propane lamp as it hissed quietly on the table beside us.
The moon had not yet risen and the lamps light also stretched the umbra of her shadow like a faint stain over the paleness of the sand.
I began to relax and enjoy the situation, with the unusualness of her company.
Sophia could wait, Claudia could wait, Moses could wait. The whole goddamn world could wait. Caution be damned! Why not walkout brazenly into the middle of her wide open Oshana.
-Can I offer you something to drink? I have some mango juice, some Cola.. Do you drink alcohol, I asked. I even have some liquor I keep for special guests. It is only gin and tonic, but most people like it.
Rising and stretching like a cat, she took the kettle that was on the table and placed it between the logs of the fire.
-Do you have tea? Tanganda or RooiBos.
Then without waiting for my reply, she stood and turned to face me from the opposite side of the fire, looking down on where I set with fingers furled on my lap.
-Bwana, she stated firmly, look at me.
-Why do you think I am standing here dressed like this. Do you think it is to pander to your pride?
I sat in shocked silence.
I suddenly realized that I had been led into the virtual openness of the Oshana for a reason. The dress was the ruse for something different.
-I dress this way to shock you. To show you that I am different.
-I see you looking at me, and I see how you speak to me. Yes, you are a m’zungu. But because you have grown up in Africa all your life, and so many of your friends are African, you have their attitudes.
– Because I am a woman, you take me to be weaker, less capable, even inferior.
-I watch you watching me. I am too young for you, you know that, and yet you still look at me in that way.
-I see how you ignore the obvious. That you ignore that I am different. You cannot see that I want something more.
-Do you think that anyone can produce a dress like this out here?
When caught in any ambush, if one is still alive after the first few seconds of surprise, the only way to survive is to surprise the surprisers, to attack back and hope to win the fire-fight, instead of being picked off as one runs away.
She had caught me out in the mental open.
But before I could even turn to attack she sprung another.
-And I also ask you.. Are you lazy, are you scared?
-Why have you not responded to what I have told you. Why have you not acted quickly?
Now all I could do was let her pick me off at her convenience.
-Bwana, I have told you that the Crocodile has very powerful Muti. He makes it himsellf. It is so powerful it is attracting attention from distant places. That is why the Hyena is here. He flies here when the moon is full to get it.
-You are a m’zungu who understands these matters of Muti. You know where the most powerful Muti comes from.
-Bwana you are here to stop the poaching of animals. You know that it is the money of the rising middle class in China and all Asia that is driving the demand for the Muti of elephant tusks and rhino horns.
-It is the same in Africa. Uhuru has given this sub-continent a rising middle class, but it is for a different Muti medicine.
-Bwana, maybe you are like me, and you follow the news from the rest of this country and the world.
-I’m not sure if you heard that a few months ago here, in Lusaka, a Mwenya middleman was court with a freezer full of m’chende.
-The word in the villages is that the Hyena wants the medicine from the waimama (albino)
-And so most of the waimama have left, or they are hiding in the bush.
-You have thwarted that Crocodile once with Eddie.
-That crocodile is still hungry, and he was back here last night.
-You need to remember that even though you are a m’zungu, you have a white skin.
-So this time, when I warn you, do not be lazy.
-If you do not find him, he may find you out in the open, when you least expect it.
Bwana– Sir (generally said to an older man, or authority figure)
Oshana – wide open patch surrounded by trees in Ovampoland and Southern Angola.
Mchende – Testicles
M’zungu – Caucasian of European descent.
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