In This Broad Valleyby Raymond Foster
This story is based on an extraordinary vivid dawn dream I once experienced. I know what it feels like to be killed by a lion!
One night I dreamed of my valley, where I had lived and died. It was linked with a person, of course. You know how it is when you feel for somebody: sympathy, and when sympathy grows deeper, empathy. And when a close friend or a relative pays you a visit and perhaps stays the night, you dream his dreams? Well, I do, anyway. You become one. That's how I know we are all linked, far beyond race or rank or religion. We are all one. The understanding has grown over the years, that we are all me. We truly are. Tarambikai, John, Sabande, Raymond, we are all individuals, yes; but we are all me.
In the Land Rover I pored over the map with the interior light on. A track left the main gravel road and headed east, winding through the hills to link with several farms before eventually crossing the border into Mozambique. It was strange how a place could exert such a pull, even from the insubstantiality of a map. That broad valley was nearby, and I had to visit it.
It was a dirt track that looked as if it could turn spiteful when the rains came. I have broken more springs and engine mountings than most, and I took the potholes cautiously. The old road was scarcely ever maintained. I believe it was once an important route, but very few vehicles came this way nowadays.
Every now and then through gaps in the trees the rugged peaks of the distant mountain range showed palely outlined by the rising moon. The track climbed steadily into the foothills until suddenly as I reached the crest the moon came into view over the mountains and bathed my valley in its silvery glow. I decided on a likely spot below a small kopje, steered off the carriageway and switched out the lights.
I got out and gazed for a while into the night, waiting for my eyes to get used to the soft glow. A nightjar trailing long pennant-wing plumes drifted like a ghost across the slope. A shadowy shape moved some yards away, gliding, and I strained my eyes and ears until a bushbuck barked in the distance, and the shadow answered. Somewhere across the valley a porcupine piped mournfully, and I felt the little hairs standing up on the back of my neck. This was my valley all right, though I had never set eyes on it before, not in this life. I knew it had once been my home. I rummaged in the Land Rover for my sleeping bag, found a mossy hollow near the kopje and bedded myself down for the night.
Dawn came mistily, and in a forgotten surge of time I joined two old friends down there in the valley—on that morning, in that valley where I had lived all my life.
In the morning light a few buildings clustered neatly, their tin roofs gleaming dully. This was the seat of government, and the home of that living wonder, the commissioner: one-man assembly, judge, jury, and court of appeal.
The three of us approached the commissioner's house with some trepidation. He had a reputation; a hard man, whose interpretation of the law depended on how deeply he had drunk the night before. This must have been a bad morning for him, for the clerk looked very agitated as he asked our business and then made us wait in the dust below the stoep. When he finally called us in, instead of sending us to see the commissioner, one of the constables began to question us, very rudely, as though we were criminals.
"Where have you been this morning?"
"What do you mean, where have we been? We've been coming here!"
"Have you been to this office before?"
"You know we have. Lots of times."
The more he questioned us, the stupider his questions seemed, until we started to get annoyed. Then, to get us really angry, he had the cheek to search us. We were only wearing our everyday short pants anyway. I could have punched him on the nose!
There were others waiting in the office, and when the constable finally went out of the room I turned to them.
"What's the matter with him, I wonder?"
"Didn't you know? Somebody broke into the commissioner's house early this morning and stole his things—money—clothes—jewelry—I don't know what."
I blew in disbelief. "He surely doesn't think we did it? We wouldn't be daft enough to come back here!"
"He was the same with us. If we stole those things, we said, do you think we'd be daft enough to come back here? We told him that. He wouldn't listen."
"Anyway," I said, "it's hardly likely to be a local lad."
"Of course it's not a local lad! A jackal doesn't mess it's own den. It's obvious. Look through the window—that's the main footpath just down there. Every rogue in the country goes along there, sooner or later. Just there—look, by those trees." He pointed.
We all knew very well where the path was, but we looked anyway.
"Anyone could have come along, seen the buildings and sneaked over to see what he could steal. A local lad would have more sense. But I suppose they have to blame somebody, eh?"
"Instead of accusing us, they should get us to help them track the thief."
"And pay us a policeman's wage!"
We all laughed at that, and a white man's voice from inside bellowed: "Quiet out there!"
"Tula, tula," I whispered. "He sounds in a bad mood!"
We were in two minds whether to go away and come back another day, but if we did that, they would think we had something to hide.
When our turn came to see the commissioner, he was as unhelpful as could be. He knew our problem well enough, and he had promised to do something about it before. There was an old lion in the district that had turned man-eater. He wasn't even bothering to kill our cattle and goats now. People were easier prey. He would hide near a kraal at night and wait until someone came out first thing in the morning. Then a quick pounce, and he had his breakfast all ready to carry away into the bush. Sometimes he would hide near a footpath and catch somebody in broad daylight. That's why we were carrying spears.
"He ought to eat a few more of you," the commissioner shouted. "Make less work for me!"
"Nkos said he would help us..."
"Don't tell me what I said! I'm a commissioner, not a hunter. I told you boys, I've asked the government to send me a white hunter and, when they do, he'll come and shoot your man-eater. But until then, you'll just have to go on being eaten, won't you!" Then he looked us in the eyes pointedly. "Anyway, you've got spears, haven't you? Why don't you kill him yourselves?"
We started to protest, but he cut us short. "All right. Next!"
As we went out through the doorway he called us back. "Oh, if he catches you, don't come running to me!"
We left him chuckling at his own joke, and stepped out together into the sunshine, complaining among ourselves. They should do something about it, not just make promises.
But as we walked up the hill, my friends still grumbling, it suddenly struck me that the commissioner may have been talking sense, whether he knew it himself, or not. I said so to the others. Weren't we in danger of forgetting how to do things for ourselves?
"After all, we are supposed to be great hunters, by tradition," I argued. "We would never have asked anyone else in the old days. We would simply have killed the lion?no trouble. Well, why not now? Are we going soft, just because we have a white government?"
My friends had not taken the commissioner's advice seriously, either, and my remarks started them thinking about it, too. The longer they thought, the more their enthusiasm for the idea grew, until finally we began making plans for a lion hunt. We felt braver already! Before long, we were wondering why we had ever wanted a white hunter to do it in the first place. As we walked, we turned over ideas.
"Why not just get everybody to beat through the bush, and drive the lion out into the open?"
"Then what? He'd just walk on ahead until we'd all gone home. Before we tell the lads, we ought to find out where he lies up. He must have a favorite place he likes to go in the afternoons; all lions do. Where was he seen last?"
"All right, lets go to Nguwa's village now and start looking for spoor, wherever he may have crossed a footpath, or a garden, or a sandy patch, and track him down from there."
We walked over the hill until we were looking at Nguwa's kraal. It seemed most likely that the lion would head for the trees as soon as he had made a kill. We studied the thick bush higher up the slopes and agreed on a strategy. The hillside was stepped like a chair, and there were three or four footpaths running slantwise, one above the other, each a fair shouting distance apart. It was a good place to start. The lion must have crossed at least one of the paths at some point.
It was agreed. I would stay on the main track which curved around the village, heading towards Portuguese territory. My friends would cut across the hillside and each follow one of the other paths. If any of us spotted the lion's spoor, we were to shout.
Alone, I realized I was holding my spear too tightly, and relaxed a little. I wasn't afraid, of course, but it made sense to be cautious. I walked the path slowly, aware as never before of the faintest sounds and smells, studying the dusty surface for a few paces ahead, looking around warily every few moments.
A bushbuck broke cover from a thorny patch and made me jump in alarm. It was true! Having a white government was making us soft! I breathed deeply and carried on. It was surprising how many animal tracks you could recognize, when you looked carefully. The bushbuck, of course, startled, two front hooves pronging the middle of the track where it had jumped across. Duiker—inquisitive, sharp points pricking the verge. Bushpig—bold, a whole herd of them blundering across, obliterating all other tracks for several paces. Antbear—meandering, scratching the bank wherever termites had started to build. Moongoose—dainty, two hind paws close together where it had stood erect. Jackal—sniffing in circles like a dog, pausing to scrape a little hole in the dust. Francolin, guinea fowl, crow, a night jar's squat; and here one the cats had been?a Serval, purposeful, tracking voles.
Suddenly, something lying in the grass next to the path drew my glance. It was a picture; a photograph like the ones the commissioner had on his desk and framed on his walls, only this one was smaller, showing a white woman with a child. It could have been the commissioner's wife.
A little further on there were more photographs, and then an empty leather wallet. I started to pick them up, but realized straight away that I would be foolish to take them. They were obviously connected with the robbery, and the police would think I was the thief, so I left them by the side of the track and walked on, keeping my eyes open for property, as well as tracks.
A few paces further on, I came upon an expensive-looking watch, right in the middle of the track. Now there was a strange thing! I could well understand the pictures being thrown away, and even the wallet too, but a watch is just the sort of thing a thief would want to sell. It occurred to me that perhaps it was a trap set by the police, and if I touched the watch, they would leap out and arrest me.
With this worrying thought in mind, I stepped over the watch and was about to carry on when I realized that it was lying in the center of a huge pawprint. I looked around very carefully before bending down to examine the spoor. It was as big and round as a fair-sized melon. This was our man eater all right.
My eyes traveled along the edge of the track and through the bush above. Between the clumps of grass I could see signs of a struggle—scuffled marks of a man's knees and elbows. I looked up the slope. The bush was not too thick and I could see a good way. I guessed the lion had dragged his victim over the brow of the hill into denser cover. I remembered now there was a rocky outcrop up there, just the place for a lion to lie and feed.
A few paces above the track I spotted a dark pool of blood soaking the ground and splashed over the grass. Something was lying in the bush nearby, and I thought for a moment it was the body of a man. This was dangerous, because it would mean that the lion was still there. I held my spear warily as I crept along, but it was only a bundle of clothes. I turned them over with my toe. They were a white man's clothes, all right, very smart. One or two other bits and pieces were scattered here and there up the hill, and I could see where the victim's heels had trailed through the sandy soil.
I decided I had gone quite far enough on my own, and returned to the track, thinking about rejoining my friends. Our ways had diverged too far by now to give them a shout. Anyway, the lion would hear me and maybe move to another lair.
I retraced my steps until I reached the crossways where, as I remembered, a little path ran down the hill directly to Nguwa's place. I walked quickly, half running, and had not gone very far along the lower path before I met one of my friends on his way back, having decided that he had gone far enough without finding any clues.
I told him what I'd seen, and together we found our companion and started to round up the local lads. But it was already too late to start hunting. It would be near dusk by the time we got back on the trail, and none of us fancied tracking a lion in the dark. Anyway, we spread the word around, and before we slept that night everything had been arranged for the following day.
I stirred in my sleeping bag as dawn was breaking, then sat up and looked around, instantly wide awake. The line of hills stood out against the brightening sky. My dream was only half way through; there was no time to lose. I rolled up my bag, climbed into the Land Rover and reversed onto the track. I knew exactly where that rocky outcrop was, and I had to go there, now.
I sped through the valley recklessly, raising a cloud of dust and startling a solitary hyena, loping home after a night's raid. After a while the track began to climb again, then followed the contour along a stepped hillside, above a kraal where early morning smoke was starting to rise through the thatch.
A mile or two further on I pulled onto the verge and switched off the engine. This part of the hunt would have to be on foot. Confidently, I stepped up the bank and started to climb through the bush, rustling the grass gently underfoot. The morning was quite bright now, and I was aware of my companions around me.
We crossed the top footpath and I led the way to the place where the thief had been killed. As I expected, the watch had gone. It was after all, a busy path.
We had already decided—it was I, who had found the spoor, so I would lead the hunt. I was to follow directly on the lion's trail, and the lads would spread out on either side, each a few places apart in a line right across the hillside. We would advance slowly and silently until, I hoped, we could close in on the outcrop and have the man-eater surrounded.
Over the brow of the hill, the trail was still distinct. We neared the outcrop, and started to edge our way between the first of the boulders. The going was tricky now. The bush was quite thick, and the lads nearest to me hung back, making signs to their neighbors to surround the rocks and begin converging in a circle.
Suddenly, a string of beads gleamed up at me from the scuffed sand, then a lady's bracelet. We were still on the trail all right. Then another object caught my eye—a linked band of gold with a solitary red stone. Something about it fascinated me and, forgetting my own decision to ignore the stolen goods, I stooped quickly and picked it up. It seemed strangely familiar, as though it had been mine all along, but of course, it had not. I gripped it in my hand, unable to throw it down and wondering what to do with it.
I was right in among the rocks now. Directly ahead was a sheer cliff face, with massive fallen boulders on either side. My spear-arm rested on the nearest rock, and I glanced around, looking for the lads. They were coming into view through the trees, closer together now, closing in on this spot where we believed the lion was hiding up.
My fingers found a crevice in the stone—a deep crack. It looked as though the rock had split when it fell from the cliff. I peered in. It would make a good hiding place. Without further hesitation I opened my fingers and let the circlet drop into the cleft. It would still be there, I thought, if ever I wanted it. No one else would find it.
I clambered past the rock and edged closer to the cliff, where the bush was less thick in the litter of stone and wind-blown sand. The sun had risen now and was slanting onto the rockface, bringing out every detail in vivid shades of yellow, brown and gray. I looked round again at the lads. They were closer now, spears ready, their bodies gleaming in the sun's rays. Almost shoulder to shoulder they stood silently waiting. The ring was complete.
Suddenly it occurred to me that I too was inside the ring, and in great danger, for at that moment I knew the lion was there—just there, where the fallen rocks were folded against the cliff, half concealed beneath bush and creeper. I started to move back towards the circle of familiar faces, and as I turned I saw the lion for the first time—huge, tawny, black-maned, his rump against the rock, head raised in anger.
Before I had time to take more than a couple of steps, the lads shouted a warning together, as one. It all happened so quickly. The shout from a dozen throats. Me, whirling round and raising my spear, too late. The crushing weight on my back, breath squeezed from my chest. A choking smell, black hair smothering. Numbing claws fastened deep into my back. The bite final and fatal, as the man-eater's jaws clamped at the base of my skull.
After a long time I moved. The day was warming fast now, and I could feel the sun burning the back of my neck. I looked around carefully. The bush seemed thicker than it had before, and the rocks were covered now in a tangle of thorn and evergreen creeper. A single porcupine quill lay on the sandy soil, striped black and white. There were no lions here now, sure, but it would make an ideal den for a porcupine.
Carefully, I searched until I had found the cracked stone. It was difficult to be sure, and even when I was finally convinced I had the right one, it posed problems. A Musasa had grown up over the years and filled the fissure with root, coarse bark protruding, jammed solidly between opposing stone surfaces. There was no way I could get my hand in.
Sweating, I tried to prise the gap wider, but it would not budge. It was a sizable tree, and the root was there to stay. A lever of some sort was essential. I balked at the prospect of having to take that long, steep climb again, but there was no choice.
Not so confident now of finding my way back, I marked my trail by twisting a knot in a clump of grass every few yards. I was not dreaming now. Who was there to blame if I got myself lost? Back at the Land Rover I rummaged in the tool box. A tire lever? The jack handle? They were just too flimsy to pit against the solid rock. The jack itself was my best bet—a heavy duty screw-hoist affair. I grabbed it and started back up the hill.
The morning was really hot now, the sandy hillside reflecting heat like a whitewashed wall. The trees seemed full of cicadas, churning out their metallic chorus, almost deafeningly loud. Panting and dripping sweat, I reached the rock, found a small cavity for the base of the jack, and held it in place with my foot while I worked the handle. It skidded and I tried again, higher up. This time it held, and the gap started to widen, but the root was still blocking the view. I shook the Musasa this way and that, trying to loosen the stones.
I was just poking my fingers into the cavity when a yellow scorpion scuttled out, threatening the air hesitantly with its tail cocked, before crawling slowly out of sight again beneath the rock. I pulled my hand back quickly and knelt in the sand, squinting inside gingerly.
There was something there all right. I could see a smooth yellow shape deep in the gap. I looked around for a twig or something similar to hook it out with. There was no sense in grabbing hold of another scorpion. I stood up and found the porcupine quill again, then, using this as a probe, I lifted out the circlet of gold with its solitary red stone.
The metal was untarnished after who knows how many years in its secret place. I rubbed the stone on my shirt until it gleamed deeply. A ruby, or a garnet, or merely glass?1920's rolled gold, valuable antique, who knows? I dropped the circlet into my pocket, released the jack, and set off down the hill.
I am no believer in holy relics or the power of talismans, but I thought I understood its true significance as the tangible proof of my own sojourn in this broad valley. But there was more, it worried me. I remembered the strange feeling that the circlet had already been mine, long before I picked it up and concealed it in the rock. I had held it before, many lives, and many deaths before.