Eleven! The number flitted into my reverie with a quiet stealth, just as the shadow of the African Goshawk, glides through the dense foliage of the rivers riperia in its efforts to surprise some unsuspecting black-eyed bulbul to carry back to its young in the nest it has in a large Leadwood tree not far up-river.
The hour before dawn here on the edge of the Kafue river, when there is no moonlight, is filled with a special smoothness emanating from the depths of its silence. It is when the creatures of the night have tired of their cavorting and have quietly begun to search for places to sequester themselves from the soon to arrive sunlight. It is as if they have to hurry and have gone quiet in their haste. This is because here in this broad flat African valley, when it arrives, the dawn is quick and abrupt, with the sun leaping perpendicularly up above the horizon, instead of slowly sliding diagonally above the edge of the world like an old man rising from the bed of his slumber’s, as it does in the higher latitudes of the world.
There are eleven players on a soccer team, eleven players on a cricket, and eleven on a football team.
Why is it always eleven! The thought continued to flit through my consciousness as I blew onto the embers beneath the old metal kettle I had placed over the logs of my camp fire.
Eleven! In almost every army in the world the basic fighting unit, the section, has eleven men.
There is a section leader, a section 2nd in-command and nine other riflemen, one of which always carries the light machine gun.
If some space alien scientists arrived on earth to study us, they would soon recognize that we humans, spread in vast numbers all across the globe like a swarming plague of locusts, are actually a very social species.
They would note that we loved to hang around with others. They would soon notice that one of the worst punishments to be inflicted on any individual human was to be banished from a group.
And that the worst punishment of all, worse even than death, was to isolate an individual from its peers, and thus from their interactions with their group’s culture, rituals, and language.
In fact, the alien scientist would note that the human would prefer to share a cell with a psychopath, rather than suffer solitary confinement.
But it would also soon be noted that the social nature of the human extended its friendliness mostly inward, and seldom outward. That when faced with competition, the young human males banded together into gangs to cooperate, allowing them to face all manner of challenges.
My reverie rekindled the vague sense of unease and anxiety which had plagued me all the previous day with its events.
As the amorphous threat alluded to by Melody still tickled at the back of my mind, I was once again, very cognizant of my aloneness and solitude.
All I could hear was the pad of the sand beneath the leather soles of my sandals as I walked in the pitch-black darkness along the sandy ruts of the road between my camp site and the lodge. Sightlessly I knew that as long as my feet stayed in the depression of the ruts they would lead me to my vehicle.
Strange, I considered, here again as I had done so long ago, and like I had done with Moses, so many times. I was pondering why it was that a band of eleven men was so efficient and functional.
After all, not to long before I was born, a few decades ago, like they had done for thousands of years, the young men of the Zambezi Valley, and those of its nurturing tributaries, such as the Kafue, had still sallied forth in their bands to hunt the dangerous big game of the region, maybe a rogue elephant, a rhino, the buffalo, or the other large antelope, which once existed in such abundant proliferation in these parts.
Not only would these young men engage in the hunts that yielded bonanzas of protein from the meat of their spoils, to augment the grubs, bugs, berries and bird’s eggs gathered by their women-folk, but also they would have had to defend and fight against the haranguing and pilfering of lions, hyenas and jackals, attracted to the meaty bonanzas.
Only by cooperating could they succeed in their endeavors.
And, I knew, a handful of them still did, a handful of unpleasant ones.
But, it was not just against wild animals that the young men competed, it was also against the young men of neighboring groups. The competition was over territory with its access to the bonanzas of food and females.
However, unlike the competition between most other animals out here, where the vanquished slunk away to lick and heal their wounds, allowing them to compete and fight another day, with us human animals the competition was sometimes uniquely murderous.
It still is.
And, as I walked I was aware of this murderousness, even if it came as a crocodile, hidden in the form of a human.
The Stygian silence pervaded my mood as I began to load my sleeping bag into the cab of the land-cruiser.
With a start I was surprised to hear the soft pad of a footstep behind me, it was softer than one of mine.
Then a figure materialized at the edge of the faint glow cast by the cruisers cab light.
It had a blanket cast over its shoulders, and then with an outstretched forearm, and with the palm of the other hand laid at the crook of its inner elbow, as is customary to express polite respect when offering a gift, it proffered a plastic bag.
Even in the darkness the braid of her hair was unmistakable. It now fell down the side of her face to be cradled between the rise of her breasts.
“These are for you, bwana, I have prepared these sandwiches. They are the biltong sandwiches you like.”
I was utterly nonplussed, I had intended to make my own.
“You will need these where you are going, there is nowhere to get food until you get there”.
I opened my mouth to say something but my surprise only allowed me to say thank you, and with that she disappeared into the night.
How the hell did she know I was going, let alone know that I intended to travel a great distance.
Holding the bag to let the light of the cab illuminate its contents, sure enough, there were four sandwiches, sliced in half and wrapped in wax paper.
And, tucked in below them, at the bottom of the bag, lay a long thin strip of leather which threaded through the piercings in the whiteness of a row of small delicate river snails.
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