‘Then reach out with thy thought, till it be drown’d…
And though thy soul sail leagues beyond,
Still, leagues beyond those leagues, there is more sea…’ 1
I am at the entrance to a cave; my guide is at my side, hands, a presence, no more; darkness is all round but the path before me is lit from within.
Walk down the path; it is a directive; across the top of a quiet waterfall flowing in from the left to the right; a very steep drop to the right but the water moves quite slowly; slow falling water; letting go, letting go; I am given a gift; a ring; a pearl ring; completeness, wholeness, defence against danger, the mature soul; and a strange rhombus which floats; the path to self-realisation;
I am flowing down through my body into my heart; what do I see?
My palms are pale but my skin is black; I have marks around my wrists; I am beautiful; how do I know this?
He wants me for his own; he is swathed in white robes; I can see only his eyes and the big ship and we are sailing away from the shore, from my land… and I ache, my heart, my soul; my soul cries out its pain to the mountains, to the great twin peaks but the dry, hot wind casts it away to roam the graveyards of the long dead…
And here is another plain, but not of dust and thorn; this one is blue and there is a line between the blue and the blue and far and away a voice says to me there is the line of hope…
As I leap, the water comes up to meet me; I will surely drown to find my freedom…
Sam woke with a start.
Her heart was pounding, her stomach was still in the dream and her T-shirt was sticking to her chest. And somewhere between conscious thought and memory there was the echo of a voice….
“We could be part of a famous story one-day” mused Kevin. “All these adventures with wild life…I mean we’re either extraordinary folk leading ordinary lives or ordinary folk leading extraordinary lives. Definitely a tale to tell.”
“How’s that?” said Sam sceptically.
“Well – it could be- A Rat and His Girl – or- Five Rats and It – or The Famous One and a Half or if you want to be really topical A Pooh in My Luggage – how does A Rat’s Tale sound?”
“It sounds typically egocentric! And where am I in all that?” said Sam acidly. “Incidental interest, scenery or a walk-on part?”
“Ah” said Kevin “You’re the…” and the rest was lost as he moved away.
“The what? I didn’t catch that! Come back here rodent! Don’t walk away when I’m talking at you! Kevin! This is my life we’re talking about! This is not a story Kevin! It’s not The Lion, The Witch and The -”
“Warthog?” said Kevin helpfully. “It might be…” He waved a paw in explanation.
They both looked.
“Did you know” said Kevin conversationally “that the pig’s orgasm lasts thirty minutes?”
Sam said nothing. What did you say to that?
“Imagine that! Do you think he’s bored stupid for the thirty minutes or maybe he’s doing mental arithmetic or just counting it out, second by second?”
Sam, whose experience of orgasm was limited to text books and a mild fascination with the practices of rabbits during biology class could still think of nothing to contribute. In the end and not to be outdone she said
“A male lion can mate over fifty times a day”.
“Exhausting! But I’m still not over the pig!”
“And elephants are the only animals that can’t jump.”
“Really?” Kevin was finally diverted away from pigs. “That would be a good thing from my point of view – especially out here. But back on the subject of pigs… What d’you think you’d get if you crossed a pig with a rat?”
“Sausages” said Sam reminiscently. She was bored with sex and hungry.
“ No. No. Before the sausages” said Kevin
“And bacon” said Sam. She could almost smell it sizzling in the pan.
“Yes all right. That’s probably how it will all end up. But I mean before -”
“Eggs? No I don’t think so. Not with rats and pigs.”
“Mayonnaise? The mind boggles!”
Sam was jerked out of her porcine and poultry reverie.
“What about rats and pigs?”
Kevin looked at her and mentally gauged tolerance level against calorific deficiency, decided in favour of carbohydrate intake, handed her a piece of banana and put the subject of pigs and rats back in its box.
“What are you on about?” said Sam graciously accepting the proffered banana.
“Oh, I was just playing a round with a few of Darwin’s less known theories” said Kevin evasively.
“That’s all right then. I thought you were still on about reincarnation as a pig.”
“Nah. Not me.”
They ate banana in silence.
“Are they territorial?” said Kevin after a perfunctory wash. “I only ask because that one has become several…”
“You’re a bit of a wee timorous beastie when it comes down to it aren’t you?” said Sam taking unfair advantage.
“Courage is a state of being” said Kevin haughtily. “Valour is a state of acting.”
They both looked across at the pigs.
“I am in general of a courageous disposition-”
“I’d vote valour?” said Sam.
“Me too” said Kevin. “RUN!!”
During the night, in their swiftly constructed shell of slender branches with its palm frond roof, Hunter awoke to the sound of someone or something moving purposefully over the grass in time to a low, steady murmuring. And he pulled his jacket towards him and felt in the pocket. And Sam could sense his relief as his fingers found and closed round the fetish. He looked across at Noni. She lay quite still. Her face was smooth, her breathing quiet but shallow. He frowned. Primitive superstition or sacred relic? Whichever it was he allowed his fingers to stroke it in time to the rhythmic sounds from beyond his night vision and gradually slipped back into an uneasy sleep.
That night there was no wind. The surface of the lake was as flat as a mirror reflecting the perfect round of the moon. The travellers were asleep. As Sam watched, small ripples began to emanate from the centre of the lake. Then they became small waves, the circumference getting wider and wider… and wider.
And the water appeared to part, and the moon and her own reflection on the lake seemed to join in a pathway of molten light and –
Kevin bit her ear.
“Ow! What did you do that for?”
“Look over there” Kevin hissed.
But Sam didn’t look over there. There was only one direction she could look. She looked back at the centre of the lake but a thick impenetrable mist had descended and the pathway of the moon was obscured. The monster of Lake Tele had preserved its anonymity.
Kevin was scuffling under her hair. It was extremely irritating. Sam made to grab him round the middle but her hand met teeth and claws.
“For God’s sake Kevin!”
“Look! Look!” Kevin was frantic and not to be gainsaid.
The biggest snake Sam had ever seen in her life was sliding smoothly through the undergrowth towards the entrance to the shelter where Noni lay, dead to the world. The shock sent a bolt of lightening through Sam. She was pretty sure it was a python because of its size. God it was big! It looked like a dolphin that had been ironed. But what if she was wrong? The venom of some snakes did indescribable things to the inside of the human body – and before you could say antidote, even if there was one! What did the natives do if they got bitten? They probably didn’t – too damn smart by half – what if it was some kind of cobra? What if -
Then they heard it.
For the first time in her life Sam truly understood the meaning of the words blood curdling. It was as if the blood in her veins turned to sour cream and clogged the arteries to her heart. How would you describe it? How could you describe such a sound? Forget Carl Orf and O Fortuna! If I had to give hell a soundtrack, thought Sam, that noise would be in the opening sequence.
They had all heard it and to each it had a different timbre and a different meaning, as if the single cry was divided into different strata of sound and each of them caught a strand.
Kevin heard fear; the fear of a small mammal, a brother in arms, about to be consumed by something predatory.
The half man heard surprise; the astonishment of his ancestors, out net hunting for dyker and coming across a sabre toothed tiger. The astonishment which holds fear at bay just long enough for death to strike…
Hunter heard rage; his own anger at being confounded and caught wanting. His fury at putting those he loved in peril. The sheer folly of his position.
The boy heard supplication; a plea to the gods; Save us Immortal Ones! Our lives are in your hands!
Sam heard mortification; the embarrassment of one who feels she should have had more sense than to get into something like this. Frustration at the level of one’s own stupidity.
And Noni – Noni heard regret; sorrow for a life cut short, for potential unfulfilled; for love unrequited…
And of all of them only she was unafraid of what she heard.
The tableau, frozen while the echoes of the scream reverberated through the trees and through the emotions of everyone there, suddenly broke apart. Hunter now saw the python and glad to be diverted into action, was on his feet and diving at it. He grabbed its head while Mogo and the half man hugged its tail. Even so pinioned it was twisting and thrashing so violently that the two were hard put to hold on to it. Its energy was demonic.
So what had that noise been? A fishing owl calling to its mate, swooping low over the lake? A troupe of chimpanzees egging each other on to catch a colobus monkey, screaming as they bashed its brains out for fun, sharing the spoils and running whooping back into the forest? Or Mkele Mbemba, whose cry, the native peoples believe, portended a death…
“What was it?” Mogo whispered in fear.
“They are the spirits of the lake. They have no relatives among the living; all the villages which their ancestors once inhabited are gone; there is no one left to bring them any offerings or serve them; they don’t know who they are and they are lost and they are full of anger and sorrow.” Noni spoke calmly but her teeth were chattering.
“Are you afraid?” the boy whispered looking at her shining face.
“No. I am not afraid.”
“Will they harm us sister?” he stammered.
“I do not know.”
“We have only killed to eat” Hunter broke in. “- only the old, the sick and the injured which the spirits of the forest have put in our path and they should be satisfied.”
Was this comfort in terms they understood? Who was he trying to convince? What did he really believe?
He spoke to all but he was looking at Noni.
“But the spirits of the lake want what we do not wish to give.” Her voice was barely above a whisper.
“What is that?” Hunter’s voice was sharp.