The Old Fever: A Memoir of Kenya by Rick Gray
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  EXCERPTS FROM A MEMOIR by Rick Gray
 Yellow Moon
 Somali Women 
 The Notebooks
 Somehow Peeling
 In the Darkness 
 Checking into the Pig 
 The Curse
 
 

In the Darkness

I had received an early warning about Kenya at the age of four, when I saw Born Free on a television at a neighbor’s house in Hillside, New Jersey. I don’t remember how I got inside their home, or where my parents were, but what I do remember is the lions. They stayed with me for many days afterwards, and nights, roaring through my dreams. The lions in Born Free were the greatest things I had ever seen. When I first saw them for real a few years later, at the Ringling Brothers Circus in Madison Square Garden, it was not the same. In Born Free, the lions were in the wild in Africa, and even then I understood this was better than cartoon fantasies or the circus. I decided that I too wanted to be released into the wild, like the lions in Born Free. My explorations of my Hillside, New Jersey surroundings were discouraging. Eventually I let the lions go, understanding they were even further from my world than God, who seemed vaguely connected to my own through the intercession of fierce nuns. I turned away from lions in Africa and focused on my own survival.

But in Kenya it all came roaring back. Against all the odds, a sense of wonder with the natural world had somehow survived in my heart despite my many years of education. Unlikelier still, I had landed in the country where the forgotten creatures of childhood dreams still roamed in the darkness that lay just outside the glow of my lantern.

The students began appearing at my door as I dressed in the freezing dawn to tell me there was a leopard sleeping on the paved road in front of our school. Within seconds they were treated to the sight of a white man racing through the tall grass, sometimes shirtless, with my pants unzipped and my peeling neck craning as I peered through the fog for the spots of a leopard. I blamed the laughter behind me for scaring away the animal. The forest of the Abedare Mountains above the school hosted one of the densest leopard populations in the world, yet I never saw a leopard in the two years I spent in their shadow. But they were out there, watching. During my night walks, there were times when the darkness purred with their sly presence. My students were out there too, enjoying my doomed searches. On many of my hunts I heard their sly laughter quickly squelched against the cold, wet earth not far from where I crept with my flashlight.

Undeterred, I turned to the maps and went for lion. The biggest obstacle was Meru National Park, part of the official tourist circuit in Kenya, which meant gate-fees and expensive rooms at a luxurious, colonial-themed guest lodge. The area would also be heavily patrolled and fenced, making illegal entry impossible. An end run around the park could be done by skirting the border areas of Somalia. This would take days on foot, lots of water, and was, I accepted, crazy. Yet when I began to look for other options, I soon learned the park at this time was infested with heavily-armed poachers. They had driven away the tour companies and park organization. When I telephoned the park lodge from a Nairobi call center, no one answered. There were no recent reports on Meru in the latest editions of both the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide to Kenya. I couldn’t believe my luck. The place was wide open for trespassing.

Mike, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, agreed to come along on my safari. The situation at Meru was even worse than I imagined when I arrived. At the park entrance, we found a dozing guard curled on the floor of a hut, a green park authority hat covering his face as if he were dead. Flies buzzed around him, and his gun leaned against the wall like a theatrical prop from a long-closed production. We simply walked past the entrance gate and far into the park, where I stopped beneath the shade of an acacia tree and waited to hitch a ride.

A few hours later, I could see that Mike was beginning to doubt his decision to join me. Mike had stumbled through training with a look of bewilderment, as if he had been drugged by his parents, who had grown tired of raising him, and dumped onto a plane headed for Africa. I think Mike agreed to go to Meru because he was so happy someone had spoken to him. It was wrong of me to ask him on such a poorly planned trip, but I couldn’t help liking Mike, with his strange silences and his bone-deep eccentricity, and knew there was no one else foolish enough to join me.

Below the acacia tree, I tried to lighten the situation with small talk. Mike wasn’t talking. The stillness of the African bush, which slowly envelops you like salty air as you approach an ocean, steadily shrank the sound of my voice until I could no longer speak. We stood in silence and growing awe as we began to understand where we were. Things we hadn’t noticed began to appear around us in the landscape: a large, dead snake on the dirt road not far ahead of us, a troop of baboons observing us from a distance, the circling vultures overhead. “We’ll give it ten more minutes,” I said, and the burning air around me seemed to swallow up my words before they reached Mike. His face now looked like that of a little boy who knew he had done something very bad.

The vehicle that finally appeared was driven by a British couple who peered out at us as if they were seeing a new species of ape. As we climbed into their Land-Rover, heaving with relief, I could see they were amused in that British way.

“American?” the driver began, with mock-surprise. I prepared to return his serve, but Mike jumped in, his voice quivering with gratitude and heat exhaustion.

“Yeah! We’re American Peace Corps volunteers! I’m from Wisconsin!”

“Out for a stroll, are we?” His wife in the passenger seat tightened her shoulders, trying to suffocate her snicker.

“We’re going to see animals,” Mike informed the couple.

“Is that so? And where are you staying?”

“We’re just taking it as it comes. Peace Corps, ya know? Hahahahaha!” Mike had never spoken so much since I had known him, and was clearly maddened by the sun.

“So where are you guys from?” I asked, now that we were all good friends.

“England,” the woman’s voice rang through the Land-Rover as if someone had struck a cold bell.

“Little island off the coast of Europe. You might have heard of it,” her husband followed up, savoring his words as if they were sips of his local, bitter ale. They were having a blast.

“But England is Europe, isn’t it?” Mike asked.

“Look,” I said, “just drop us off at the lodge.”

All management at the lodge had fled long ago. A group of men in faded uniforms was gathered outside playing checkers with Tusker bottle caps. As Mike and I moved through the abandoned bar, with dusty buffalo horns mounted on the wall, no one came to serve us, or even ask what we were doing there. After looking for a beer, or any kind of food, Mike and I shuffled out onto the verandah, where I was hit by my first sight of wild elephants.

The image struck me like an enormous African fist, and I stood dumb in its long shadow. I don’t think I ever really believed such a thing could still exist in our time. What I was witnessing disproved everything I had sadly come to accept as the truth. One of them nodded its huge grey head and swing its truck up over its back. As it sprayed itself with warm muddy water, a primal smirk seemed to rise from the bundle of tough, tear-stained wrinkles beside its mouth. I couldn’t stop gasping. These animals existed in opposition to everything that is compromised, cynical, and most of all, small, in our world. The elephant is not of the world, but of the earth and its creation, and it’s impossible to observe them in the wild without thinking of the mystery of these things. I wanted to cheer them on, to scream with joy, to jump up and down and wave my arms and let them know how important it was they were still around.

Mike finally shook me out of my reverie and broached the issue of food and shelter. We approached the employees of the lodge, still playing checkers, and attempted some Swahili before we reverted to hand gestures. We soon had our eyes shut and were fake snoring. We were led by one of the uniformed men down a dirt track before we saw a group of decaying safari huts standing in the tall grass. Our host led us inside and showed us the simple cots and the washroom. Mike and I were both too grateful for the bed to bring up the subject of food, and our host wasn’t mentioning money for the hut. We decided not to push our luck and kept quiet. As soon as he left, Mike and I both collapsed onto the beds and tried to sleep.

“Hey Rick,” I soon heard.

“I know,” I told him. We needed to eat. It was the kind of hunger that comes from being outdoors. We climbed out of the beds and out into the red light of the sunset and began walking down the dirt track back to the lodge. We were about halfway there when we saw the paw print.

It was fresh, and very large. There was no question it was a lion. As I stood over it, my heart was beating so hard my ears felt like they were shaking to its rhythm. I turned to Mike, beaming with happiness. I then began following the prints, motioning for him to join me. He held out for a while, then said he thought it was wise to return to the hut, and left me.

It was only later that night, after returning from the lodge with six boiled eggs and some water, when I understood the recklessness of my actions. But guilt paled against the lion. Though I never spotted a lion on this trip, the prints were enough for me. So was the roaring that woke us up that night. Everything I had ever thought was swept aside by the deep vibrations that ripped open the humming darkness around us. This was the sound of the earth’s old strength defying everything trying to kill it, even the lurking poachers. I lay still on the cot, dizzy with a strange kind of remembering.

 

end

© 2012, Rick Gray

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