Malaika, p.1

Malaika, page 1



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  This is a work of fiction. The events and characters described herein are imaginary and are not intended to refer to specific places or living persons. The opinions expressed in this manuscript are solely the opinions of the author and do not represent the opinions or thoughts of the publisher. The author has represented and warranted full ownership and/or legal right to publish all the materials in this book.


  All Rights Reserved.

  Copyright © 2010 Van Heerling

  V2.0 R2.1

  Cover Photo © 2010 JupiterImages Corporation. All rights reserved - used with permission.

  This book may not be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in whole or in part by any means, including graphic, electronic, or mechanical without the express written consent of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

  Outskirts Press, Inc.

  Outskirts Press and the “OP” logo are trademarks belonging to Outskirts Press, Inc.


  In the end we are either loved or we are not.

  No matter what one has done it is never too late

  to press the soles of one’s feet back toward a path

  of rightness, of goodness and of forgiveness.

  -Tarn Williamson


  To my father, I wish you were here.

  I wish you could have read this story.



















  I’d like to thank my mother for allowing me to become my father’s son and not faulting me for it. To my wife for navigating the countless storms I have caused. And finally to Matthew my editor. For his skill and insight clarifies my voice.



  The first time I saw her I was dazed but recovering from a hellish sleep of nightmares. Not sure if it was the scent of coffee lackadaisically meandering across the Serengeti that brought us to our serendipitous moment (do big cats drink coffee?), or if it was that she had told me she’d be here soon. I generally don’t have conversations with animals—other than the human kind. I suppose if the dialogue occurs while dreaming, you aren’t crazy, right?

  As far as how I came about to live just inside Kenya at the Tanzanian border overlooking the Serengeti, well, that is another lifetime dappled with hurt and a lost love elsewhere in the world—I won’t bore you with the details. I wanted to get as far away from that pain as I could. The ’geti is about as distant as I could travel. Funny, no matter how far one travels the past is just a moment, just a thought away.

  I will not taint this story with that past. This is a story of a more recent past, of a friendship—the most important friendship I’ve ever had.

  I live east of a village. I am the only white man for probably twenty miles or more. I suppose there could be a few around or many in town, but I haven’t seen any. This life can be hard to adapt to, especially when one is accustomed to the rote American life of excess for its own sake. Pressure. That is part of the reason why I left. No, this is a lie. It’s not why I left, but I promised I wouldn’t scar this story with my American past. There may be a trace of it betrayed here and there, but I will do my best to check such impulses.

  Where was I? Oh, yes—life is slower here; not in a dimwitted way, but in a take-a-deep-breath-and-live kind of way. Speaking of breaths, I promised that I wouldn’t start smoking again. But that was in my old life. I made a lot of promises then; this is now. I don’t smoke processed cigarettes—Western market contraband. No, my good friend Abasi is a tobacco farmer. Did I say he’s a good friend? He’s a great friend, genuine, forthright, and not afraid to smack the hell out of you when you need it, or deserve it. More often than not, I am the latter. Who would have known I’d have to travel halfway around the world to find a friend that wasn’t a sycophant. One of his virtues is that he doesn’t know the meaning of the word.

  I teach Absko, his son, English in exchange for fresh tobacco, among other things. Truth told, I’d do it for free. He knows this. Sometimes I work the fields with him. Wielding a machete and tying bundles is unbearably taxing at times, but I try not to let it show on my face—though everyone knows—I’m not fooling anyone. One could say I’m paying for my deep-seated American complacency, I suppose.

  I must make one point very clear: I am not “anti-American way”. Far from it. This is, like I said, just a different way of life. It is nothing here to slaughter your own food, or dig your own latrine, or hear of children starving to death, despite Doctors Without Borders. Unsheltered is what I’m saying. Far from texting and iPods. I will one day go back. Maybe.

  The weight of my waking body sagged as my hand dangled off the beaten plastic armrest. My fingertips stuck to the lip of an American coffee cup, mostly because of the moisture clouded in my palm, rather than my grip. My God, she was quiet. Had I been her culinary eye’s desire, I definitely would have been it. For some reason I had the nostalgic disco beats of the seventies circling the air ducts of my mind. In hindsight perhaps this was a coping mechanism. It seemed that I had been through more in the last couple years than I cared to think about.

  My other hand gingerly held a loosely rolled cigarette—in the early mornings I am not as motivated as most of the workforce, no doubt readying themselves for their day’s toil.

  I rolled the tobacco up to my lip, my eyelids shut to the cresting sun over Kenyan mountains. The fiery smoke warmed my throat from the morning chill. This African tobacco chars more tender throats, but my once-virginal uvula and esophagus toughened up long ago. The fire these days simply continues to callous the linings of my ever-embattled breathing pipe. It’s an acquired taste. It is earned, I suppose. An argument for my ex-wife? Perhaps.

  It was to be a very clear day. January usually is, and hot of course, but this goes without saying—I wasn’t yet used to the opposite seasons. The only ones to complain about the heat are foreigners, so I complain—God, do I complain.

  I readjusted my back for a moment, lifting the slipping cup of joe to my mouth, and then lowering it back down to its roosting spot a foot or so off the ground, dangling from my fingertips.

  She was quiet. When you live in the wild and your hand is pushed into the air by what can only be bad, you notice. You notice real fast. I wasn’t sure if I was leaping from the foldout chair when I heard the guttural sniff or if I was already standing. This was a beast. At least three hundred pounds—a big cat. She paid little attention to me at first. Sniffing the spilt coffee as it contoured to the cracked earth. Pawing it, she sniffed and lapped up what she could find. Then licking her chops, she raised her head squarely at me. The sun looming over the mountains reflected in her eyes. Her body language was uninhibited, relaxed even, but those eyes—burned fierce.

  Swiftly I realized that neither one of us was moving. Not good. I had frozen at five feet away from her with my cigarette hand pressed out toward her as if the fiery cherry were a shield. I didn’t want to be the first to move. Then I remembered “deer in the headlights” syndrome, and thought– shit, move your ass! Just as I was about to shift my body weight backward, her eyes flickered toward my intended route. Smart. They’re not known as killing machines because they are guessers.

  Lions never
hunt alone . . . I was a goner for sure. Knowing this was it, I figured that I better take another drag. When Abasi found what was left of me, he’d discover the last remnants of his sweet, sweet tobacco. I gently pulled my cherry shield back to my lips. I wasn’t dead yet or being dragged into the jungle. Good sign. So I sucked. It was the best smoke I’d ever had. Still not dead. Even better. I exhaled quietly as the smoke billowed from my mouth. She tilted her head up toward the expanding cloud of “Kenyan’s Best,” and, sniffing the air, her nostrils flared. She shook her head and huffed some from the foreign and relatively concentrated dose.

  Not that I wanted to see my disembowelment chasing me up, I did look, however, albeit slowly, to my right and my left. No other interested visitors that I could see. I wasn’t about to turn my back on this feline, but, even though I was sure to be dead in less than five minutes, I did gaze toward the house. It was wide open, both doors and all three windows. Even if I could manage to get in, she’d be on my heels or through a window before I could grab and cock my shotgun. I’d be wrestling a full-grown lion in a four hundred square foot sand brick hut. That is, if I could even make it through the door.

  She never took her eyes from me as she sniffed the air again. I billowed out yet another tobacco cloud. She sniffed the air a third time, but didn’t recoil from the smoke. Placing one paw toward me, her eyes continued to deadlock on mine but now lacked the fierceness of before. She sniffed the air again, I puffed again, and now another step toward me. Too close. I panicked and feebly pushed the cigarette from my hand where it landed just in front of her fuchsia and ebony-edged nostrils. I took two steps back. She noticed, but preoccupied herself with my token expression of “please-don’t-eat-me”. Huddling in front of the smoldering tobacco, hunched down, she investigated the curious object.

  “Careful. It’s h—” Her tongue peeled from her massive mouth and pressed against the ember. She yelped loudly and hissed, bouncing backward. “—ot,” I finished. She shook her head angrily in my direction, as if to say, how about a little warning next time . . .

  “I tried to tell you but—” This was when I realized I was talking to a lion. I’m not sure why, but I do know that she didn’t eat me. Her composure came back somewhat as she began to cautiously pull her body forward. She was proud. Head high, shoulders and back straight. Really just a marvelous creature. The muddled russet coat was truly brilliant to behold, especially so close up.

  I held my hand out palm up because I’m an idiot, I know, but it seemed like the proper thing to do at the time. I was right. She tentatively pressed the crown of her head against my knuckles. I wasn’t ready for the sheer power. It didn’t hurt because her push was a “gentle” push. She pressed her body against my pant leg, nearly knocking me to my butt. I pressed my hand against her fur. It was surprisingly soft, but thick and rugged—if it is possible to be these at the same time. She circled me two times. I didn’t move much. Then she treaded her footsteps back to my chair, sniffed at the coffee-sodden ground again, and trotted back into the jungle.

  I felt ashamed about wanting to take her down. Although I’m sure it crossed her mind once or twice, so maybe we were even.

  By the time Absko showed up, it was late morning, coming upon noon. He was a strong boy. His body well into the advances of puberty: that awkward period where you’re not sure where or what is growing. He approached shirtless. It wasn’t hot for him and truth be told, vanity was setting in these days. His upper body was now able to bear two heavy bundles of tobacco with little effort.

  My door was always open, more or less. It wasn’t like I had a dead bolt or anything, or even a lock. Anyone coming out this far would be intending to see me, and I haven’t as of yet made any enemies that I know of. The screen door yielded its familiar whine as the coiled metal spring flexed—subsequently slapping the door shut as Absko entered. He set his books on a small table accompanying a worn book of Emerson, headed for the icebox, and popped open an A&W. I had just gotten them in. My favorite.

  “Absko,” I said, “what did you learn today?”

  “At school or in life?” he replied, anticipating my answer.

  “In life, my boy, in life!” This was routine talk between us; somehow, it hadn’t run its lot yet.

  “I learned today that I could lie to my father and get away with it.” He waited, testing me to see if I’d approve or rebuke such a discovery.

  “Hmm, I see. Yes, very good—learning the art of deception. However, don’t be surprised if that doesn’t come back to haunt you one day. Especially if your father never finds out.”

  “Don’t you want to know what it is about?”

  “And there it starts . . . nope, Absko, I most definitely do not want to know about it. That is yours alone.”

  “What ‘starts’?” he questioned.

  “You’ll find out soon enough. I’ll give you a hint, though. Deception is a wicked instrument, and when used against the ones we love . . . well, like I said, you’ll one day learn a new lesson.”

  “Are you going to tell him?”

  “No, Absko, but you might.” He took a sip of root beer as he brooded over this. As a bright boy, I knew he basically understood my warning, but the full circle of understanding wouldn’t hit him until life pressed it on him.

  “Nah, I don’t think he needs to know, not about this one.”

  I pulled a root beer for myself and traded a wry smile with him. Abasi was my best friend, but only if it were dire enough would I break the confidence I had earned with his son. I had a feeling Absko’s deceit in this case was child’s play (I was wrong). I grabbed my tobacco pouch and some papers and headed to my dilapidated but trusty chair just out front. Absko followed silently, grabbing his yellow, faded foldout, and set up next to mine.

  “So have you learned anything today?” he asked.

  “Hmm, yes. I learned I might not be as safe out here as I thought I might be.”

  Absko raised his head from the back of his chair, a bit frightened. I had never spoken of such things. He waited for me to continue.

  “I was visited by a lioness, ’bout three hundred pounds.”

  “Ha, OK, funny, you got me. You’d be shredded.” When I didn’t reciprocate his playfulness, it sunk in. “A lioness? Are you serious?”

  “Yep, gorgeous too. Check the paw prints at your feet.” He did, his eyes wide open. “She knocked my coffee—”

  “You didn’t shoot it?”

  “Oh no, first of all, I was done for had she so desired. Plus, the gun was in the house. But I have to tell you, she looked right at me. It was almost like she just came by to say hello.”

  “How many were there?

  “Just her.”

  “No, that is what she wanted you to see. When they hunt, there could have easily been five or six stalking you.”

  “She wasn’t hunting,” I said plainly.

  “How do you know?”

  “Well, Absko, I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”

  He fell quiet. He didn’t like what I was saying. No one was a friend with the felines. Most of the time the cats were killed on sight if they entered the villages. Most probably knew not to enter, and the ones that didn’t know usually learned with their lives. Absko’s cousin was killed by one of them. An all-out hunt was summarily dispatched against the nearest pride. Perhaps the saddest thing besides the loss of his cousin was that no one was sure if the particular pride subsequently slaughtered was the offending family. No matter, of course, to men of revenge and reckoning.

  “Well, I don’t like it. Have you told my dad?”

  “You’re the first person I have seen today. When you see him, ask him to bring some passion fruit and bobby beans that he had last week. I’m all out.”

  “No problem. You should lock your door tonight.”

  “Don’t have a lock. I’ll be all right. Like I said, it was just the one. Hey, Absko, let’s keep this between us for the time being.”

  “Sure. I learned another thing today.

  “Yeah? What’s that?”

  “I think I’m going to need a new English teacher,” he said, straight-faced.

  “Well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been dominated by a pussy,” I retorted. It was immature I know, but I knew it’d get a rise out of a sixteen year old. “Cheers,” I chuckled, as we clanked tin cans together and drank the sweet nectar they call the “Beer of Root”.

  I slept fully, unlike most nights. And unlike most nights, I dreamed. I prefer nothingness while sleeping in place of the nightmares, of course. But up until last night, I had nearly forgotten the pleasures of dreams without horrifying qualities. She came back to me. We sat next to each other and watched the sunrise. I put my hand on her back and petted her golden coat—speckled with a rusty brown and slivers of ebony. And for some reason, to my right lay my wife on her own foldout chair. She was young like when we first met, sunbathing, rubbing oil on her arms and neck. Smiling at me like nothing had happened, she was happy. Then I woke up. The sun would show soon.

  I held my coffee as before at the tips of my fingers. I half-hoped, crazy as it might seem, that she would come back and that the dream was more than a random projection of my own desires. As I sipped my coffee I trembled at the thought of her, the cat, coming back—not my wife. Two different creatures altogether. The cat could disembowel me after all—well, now that I think of it, the ex could, too.

  The foldout chair creaked and twanged under my weight. The peeking sun was just beginning to caress the mountaintops. I took another sip as the golden light splashed across my face. If not for the overpowering taste of the coffee, I could have smelled this light. I looked to my right and saw not a sun-tanning twenty-five-year-old other half, but an empty meadow, flush with wild grasses, the tips of which were painted by the light—kissing them with auburn and blond hues.

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