Friday, June 3, 2016

Lost in the Garden

Lost in the Garden
Bobby Derie

Debt had found me once again, hounding on each side. I knew all the signs of it, and determined to escape for a little while, until memories grew short and new funds could be raised to soothe the old wounded wallets. So I found myself once again in Africa.

Even in Africa, it was no simple matter to get lost. There was not a corner of that vast, awesome continent that was uninhabited or unexplored, and non-locals had a habit of standing out, regardless of the color of their skin. If anything, it was easier to get lost in the great crowded cities or the tourist-laden trails than it was to wild it in the bush--unless you knew what you were doing.

So I dressed myself as a man, and made my way to Kalamango.

Tourists do not go to Kalamango, for the route is difficult, and by a quirk of fate ran along a disputed border. Starting in Johannesberg, any pursuers will think you are going to one of the preserves, perhaps to deal with hunters and poachers, but there are no rhinos or zebras in Kalamango, no elephants or lions--so there are no poachers.

Indeed, there are few animals in Kalamango, and fewer people that ever go there. The old people that lived on its edges knew better, and I had traded tobacco and hashish to them betimes and learned about it. So I learned about the great pitcher plants and the small ones, the stinging milkweed and the ghostwood tree. I learned to eat nothing that grew in the Kalamango, to step on the roots - and watch where I stepped even then. To drink only the dew from the bright green leaves in the morning, and to duck when wind shook the leaves in the tall trees.

It was not a big wood, as these things go: perhaps three miles across, as the crow flies, if any crows flew through the Kalamango, which they do not, and on the edge of a much larger and more normal forest, so those who know it only by maps think it is just an extension of the larger forest. A blip on the map, one that had no name save that of the old people knew it by. A good place to get lost, and I had come here once before for that purpose. To sleep in a mosquito-net high above the ground, to travel each day to the edge of the wood to hunt and refill my water. To wander in grey dawns amid roots tangled with bones, past the sickly-smelling pitchers and the liver-colored mushrooms that sprouted at their feet, and raise my head to warm rains.

Time in the Kalamango is measured in malaria pills, water-purifying tablets, and bullets. Moving between the ground and the middle and upper canopies, never sleeping in the same place on consecutive nights. To stand stock still on the edge and wait for the game to come, attracted to the smell of the pitcher plants, to kill them before they got too close. Bush meat wasn't my first choice, when I first came there, but after two weeks of bananas and yam, my standards weakened.

This time, though, was different. I knew as I moved along the roots, careful not to tread on the bare floor. There were knife-marks on the trees - some old, but some new and bleeding sap, swarming with ants. Cassavas grew at the edges of the Kalamango, where they never had before. Bones at the base of pitcher plants were a little too neat, not set in the random patterns I had known them before. Still, it was a two days before I found the first human scat, in the broken trunk of a ghostwood tree. Then I cursed, and knew I was not alone in the Kalamango any more.


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