Joy Reid is 34 years old, married, and lives on a hundred and thirty five acre property which borders a state forest in South Gippsland, Australia. She teaches, dreams, reads novels, writes poetry and loves red wine and smelly cheeses. Her work has been published in AntiMedia, Solas, Sparks, Poetry Future Express, Snakeskin, The Empty Shelf, Dream Forge, Ygdrasil, Neologue, Pauper, Eternity and others.
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by Joy Reid
Nothing comes close to the wonder of images slowly revealing themselves on paper. There's a joy in their discovery similar to an adventure unfolding. You may suspect that you have captured something rare and beautiful, but you can never be certain until the evidence is exposed before your eyes. It's a form of magic I never grow tired of performing.
I photograph wildlife, the great cats by preference. But don't be tempted to conjure up romantic images. I'm no Indiana Jones with a camera slung over my shoulder instead of a whip. Unfortunately, far too much of my time is wasted attending evenings sponsored by chinless, diamond-bedecked socialites. Those patronesses of the wilderness, whose idea of communing with nature is a visit to the stables carrying lumps of sugar. Which draws me like a staked goat draws a leopard to the opening of my story -- a tale as unlikely as the spell-binding narratives that unfold in a whisper as the camp fire is nervously heaped up, and the jungle moves in the uneasy darkness behind.
That evening began like so many others with the expectation of intense boredom. Madeleine Belleview, surviving wife of the late founder of the Belleview Publishing House; who distributed her favours with all the panache of a stray cat on heat; Madame Belleview would need to be wooed, flattered, mollified. Yes, the old cat would need to be stroked; stroked long, hard and convincingly. That is, if I expected to receive her continued financial support.
I remember wondering if I was up to it as I struggled with an uncooperative bow tie which was beginning to look more and more like a limp bat hanging by a claw from a power line. The night was damp and strangely tropical. Faint smudges of perspiration had already soiled my shirt Perhaps I was suffering the ill effects of jet lag. Perhaps I had been spirited out of the jungle before ready to adjust back to the demands of this particular prowling zone. Perhaps I was just tired. In any case, as I stood muttering obscenities, the primeval odour of an African evening was stalking the parameters of my mind. I could feel the shadows lengthening behind me and a stealthy hush descending, while the unquiet darkness grew.
In this state of ... of displacement I guess you could call it, I entered Madame Belleview's pretentious little party. Madeleine pounced on me the instant I'd cleared the vestibule.
"David, darrrling," she simpered, jiggling her recently acquired bust implant in her haste to requisition my arm. "You're late, but I forgive you."
Her breasts were huge and unnaturally hard as she pressed them against my elbow and presented her cheek for kissing. I obliged, and even managed to suppress a shudder as she smoothed the bodice of her dress, pulling the unsuitably low neckline, down further still. "Do you like my outfit?" she inquired, attempting a girlish pout. What she really meant was: "What do you think of my beautiful new breasts?"
"It's lovely," I murmured as non-committally as I dared. I was looking at a solid bank of sequins and beading sturdy enough to substitute for armour.
"You say the nicest things," she gushed, thrusting an ocean buoy more urgently into my arm.
"Come and meet some people," she urged, pulling me forward, "I've invited a nice crowd of celeb's." The thought depressed me, and I whisked an elegantly tapered glass from a passing waiter's tray and took a long, heartening draught as Madeleine swept me onward. Madeleine always was a generous provider -- of many things.
The lights stung my eyes and the laughter jarred my thoughts as I was led to a ring of stiffly standing people. The circle unlocked like a hand cuff as Madeleine approached, and we were snapped shut within its confines. I don't remember the names, I don't remember the faces. I do recall unenthusiastically giving details of my most recent trip as I watched the passing shapes of black-clad women moving through the yellow-flung light like panthers. Why must women insist on wearing black? It drains them of colour and highlights any flaws. Wherever I looked, I saw versions of the same black dress.
Thus it was that when she entered on the arm of Theo Pappadopoulos the gossip columnist, she arrested my attention, immediately.
Had she chosen to wear the obligatory black, chances are she still would have achieved a similar response. It is not every day that you are witness to something so intrinsically and vibrantly lovely. Botticelli's Venus would have wept with envy. Of course, it helped that Theo provided the perfect foil. Short, rotund and balding, Theo is the epitome of the man who is fully aware that the gods have been cruel and is embittered by the knowledge. Only in his column could he salve his hurt and vent the poison that brewed in the venomous sacs of his snakish personality. He hated my guts. He also flattered himself that I was unaware of this.
On spying the circle over which, in his soured interpretation he assumed I was holding court, he hurried over like a cobra slicing through the shadows in order to reach a kill. The vision in red-gold accompanied him, searing the atmosphere, extinguishing conversations.
"David," he purred unconvincingly, "Long time, no see -- in print or otherwise."
"And Madeleine, our charming hostess, looking lovely as ever."
"Why, thank you Theo," Madeleine replied, visibly preening herself. She had already assessed her adversary and, with the stunning miscalculation of which women are capable, had decided she was no threat. Poor, middle-aged Madeleine of the bouffant hair, excessive make-up and ridiculous bust had measured herself up against true beauty and dismissed it. For a few brief moments my heart wrenched with complicated sadness, then I returned to myself.
I had missed something. The group was breaking up, drifting away. She had her back to me. Her hair, red-gold like her dress, flowed in a wave down her back ending in a taper that almost reached her ankles. It was magnificent. It shimmered in the chandeliered light appearing almost alive. The tail-end of it was positively feline. As she spoke, it flicked as a cat's will when it feigns sleep yet is perfectly aware of your scrutiny.
"I said, how's the new book coming along?" Theo growled, drawing my attention back to a topic I couldn't remember opening.
"Fine." Theo raised an eye brow quizzically.
I could see that there was little point in lying. "Actually, there was a bit of a set back. It's put me behind schedule --"
"Actually, I'd heard it was a monumental fuck-up. That the film was exposed at customs during a drug search, that you spent three days trying to talk your way out of a detention order, that --"
"It wasn't quite that dramatic."
"But you will need to return and re-shoot."
"Rather more probable than possible, I would have thought. After all, your coffee table productions rely entirely on their visual appeal. Any chance of another bankruptcy ... claim ... in the near future?"
"That depends on funding." Theo was getting to me. His sharp teeth had found their mark, there was no shaking off that cruel observation. I made a mistake then. In my nervousness I glanced at Madeleine. Funding? Funding meant Madeleine.
"What did you say?" Theo began slyly, "It depends on fucking? Fucking who, I wonder? Not the delectable Madeleine by any chance?"
I was furious. Madeleine didn't help any by turning at that precise moment and endowing me with an adoring smile and a girlish wave of her fingers. Theo was sniggering. Somewhere along the line he had acquired a glass of red wine. Over the rim he now smirked, taking small sips, enjoying my discomfort. I tried to screen my anger by drinking from my own glass, but the contents had been long consumed.
"Speaking of fucking," his eyes, cunning as a cobra's, shifted sideways, "how would you like to fuck that?" I didn't need to turn. There was only one woman to whom he could be referring, but I looked anyway. Her hair was flicking warningly and there was a tension in her shoulders, a certain bunching of muscles.
"Great little arse. Urrph!" He gestured crudely but appropriately. "Tight as a drum. Keeps it that way through constant exercise. She's in your line of ... occupation, you know. She enjoys shooting animals as well -- only she prefers a high-powered rifle. Delicious little breasts too, as pert and pretty as you'd find on any sixteen year old. Someone you can lose yourself in, David. Someone who wouldn't care if you tore their clothes trying to get at them."
What was he getting at? He seemed to be confusing my former wife's tastes for my own. God only knows what he'd heard on the circuit. In any case, I wouldn't be the first man whose physical appearance had been confused with his sexual prowess. As Theo's vile observations continued my eyes roved the full length of her body, it was then that I noticed she was wearing no shoes.
I barely had time to register my surprise when the object of his lasciviousness turned to face us, eyes afire, that gorgeous mane of hair flung impatiently behind.
"Do you claim to have known me?" she queried, her voice low and thrilling. Her use of the biblical interpretation of the word surprised me. Theo spread his hands out, palm upwards in that universal gesture of appeal, "Sweetheart," he began.
"No. Don't evade me," she growled, narrowing her lovely eyes to dangerous slits, "answer the question."
"I ... I was discussing your lovely form --"
"My 'drum-tight arse,' you mean."
"Your beautiful, sculpted buttocks."
"Save your silver-tongued compliments for fools," she spat with a ferocity that shocked me. It was then that she looked at me, calculating the extent of my connivance. Those unusual, golden-brown orbs glittered menacingly. "What do you have to say?" she inquired without masking the savagery of her contempt.
I don't know what prompted me. I'm not usually good with comebacks, and I don't court confrontations, but something about her challenged me to say: "I think you're the most magnificent creature I have ever laid eyes on."
Theo snorted rudely , but he failed in his intent. My admiration was genuine and unmotivated by any sleazy impulse.
For a brief moment, I thought she was going to slap my face. She certainly raised her hand, but instead of striking me, she rested five sharp points provocatively against my cheek. Her touch was playful, but it contained power. I had a keen sense of what it must be like for a creature caught in the clawed clasp of a cat. With a small nod, obscure in meaning, and an odd little smile, she raked her nails down the side of my face, slowly, languidly, sensually. She then turned and walked away, her magnificent red-gold hair swishing rhythmically behind her.
"The bitch! She bloody well assaulted you," Theo spluttered, outraged and completely unaware of the irony of his words. "Look, you're bleeding, it's soaking into your collar. Shit!"
"It doesn't matter," I murmured, raising a hand to my injury. Theo continued, oblivious to my objection, orchestrating a scene, drawing attention to us. I didn't want people fussing about me, I wanted to think, I wanted to trap in my mind the memory of her touch and the exotic colour of her eyes. I wanted to record her scent whose warm, musky odour I now recognised by its absence. So I escaped Theo's ministrations and excusing myself vaguely, left for that one refuge in a party
The cool, bronzed tiles beckoned, inviting me to rest against them, but I ignored their siren calls. My shirt lay soaking in one basin while I leaned across another toward the gilt-edged mirror dabbing at my scratches with wadded toilet paper.
I was chuckling. Partly because of Theo's reaction, partly because I could clearly visualise Madeleine's face when she learned of the uncivilised behaviour which had taken place beneath her roof. Of course, I'd be held accountable. No woman savages a man who has behaved as a gentleman. Besides, it was highly unlikely that Theo would bear me genuine witness. Far more likely he was currently feasting on the invention of a suitably lurid tale which would appear in the scandal sheets tomorrow. What a way to sabotage your own career.
I was scrubbing away almost cheerfully at the crusty remnants on my collar when I noticed a slight movement in the mirror. It was she. Her comfortable pose assured me she had been there for some time. Somehow, she had slipped inside unnoticed and now lounged in the far corner between the towels and the brass urn adorned with a fatuous palm. Her long golden arms blended almost imperceptibly into the dim, unlit area. Her hair of golden fire should have betrayed her, but it lay behind her, almost invisible. The only traitor to her existence was her dress. Made of orange silk shot with gold, the metallic threads threw tiny sparks that pinpointed her presence. I chuckled. Obviously she wanted a show. What the hell, I was in the mood for one.
I have a good body. I have to work at it, though. Not because I'm vain or or a fitness fanatic, but because you rely on fitness in my line of work. You try scaling a cliff face to reach an eyrie five hundred metres above sea level hauling the equipment necessary for a successful shoot. In any case, I am not unaware of the effect my physique has on women, but I can honestly say this: it was the first time since my adolescence that I'd taken deliberate advantage of it.
As I said, I put on a show. I won't embarrass myself by going into details and I won't try your patience by attempting to excuse myself. I don't know what had got into me that night. I've never had to angle for sex. You get used to rationing yourself when you're a thousand miles from home and the most attractive potential recipient is an Orang-utan. In any case, sex has never been my primary passion. That's partly why I lost Sallie.
The nature of my blatant exhibitionism was not lost on my female voyeur. In the middle of my performance she detached herself from the shadows. She had a way of moving that masked her approach. The clickety-clack of heels that accompanies most women intent on displaying their sexual appeal, was not evident in her case.
"Very nice," she murmured, tracing a long finger down the length of my neck. Where she touched, there was heat and the flame of desire scattered reason. I was transfixed, mesmerised by her teasing touch and taunting tone. When her searching hand reached my chest, she looked up, gauging my reaction. Pleased, she curled back her lips exposing strong, white teeth. "I don't bite ... " she informed me, twisting the sensitive hairs around my nipples " ... much!" With an abrupt movement, she yanked out a good handful. I gasped and grabbed her wrist and it was at this point that Theo walked in.
"Well, well, well." his loathsome, knowing voice intruded, "What have we here?" Suddenly, the room felt impossibly cold. He stood, arms folded, his evil sense of satisfaction delighting in the scene before him. "Bring out the Tarzan in you, does she?" he queried wryly, "or should that be ape?" he corrected. "Tut, tut, my dear, if I had known you had a taste for gorillas, I would have taken you to the zoo."
"You didn't bring me," the tall beauty corrected, turning to face him, "I chose to come."
"Is that so?" he responded vaguely, fascinated by the flush upon her cheeks and throat, unmistakable signs of lust. For a moment he seemed lost, then he shook himself and his customary waspishness returned. "Fancy being so outraged a moment ago, so ... easily offended when David and I were discussing your attributes ..."
"Don't include me in your perverted remarks," I growled, but Theo merely raised an eyebrow and continued. It was clear that I was no longer his primary target. " ... when all along you had this little rendezvous in mind."
"This isn't what you think it is," I began lamely, trying to salvage the situation. Over his left shoulder, Madeleine's tight face appeared.
"This isn't what you think it is," I repeated, drawing strength from my partner's cool assurance. Madeleine's pale, haunted gaze panned slowly from face to face. "This young woman ...." I halted, gesturing vaguely.
"You haven't even the decency to ask her name before you rip your gear off," Theo crowed triumphantly.
" ... walked in while I was in the middle of cleaning my shirt," I continued, glaring at the saboteur while I wrung out the evidence in preparation to donning it. Better a wet shirt than the horrible exposure I was experiencing.
"You were in the middle of fondling each other, when I walked in."
"Oh for God's sake," I blurted out in exasperation, throwing the sopping garment to the floor.
"This has gone far enough," my fair companion interposed. "Theo," she accused, "jealousy has addled your brains. I can see why you hate this man, but that should not affect the truth. I came here to seduce him, I was forestalled. That is all." Her eyes stapled her point to each forehead in turn. There was a long, awkward pause while everyone stood absorbing this information. Then her patience reached its end. "You will excuse me," pronounced regally and turned away, leaving in her wake a sea of turbulent emotions. Theo, who must be a worse fool than I gave him credit for, ran after her. That left Madeleine and I.
"I'll get you a clean shirt," she offered, eyes downcast. I'd never seen her so deflated. "One of Graham's."
"Madeleine," I began, trying to approach her cautiously.
"No, David. Don't."
"Madeleine, please, it isn't what you think." That phrase was beginning to sound more improbable every time I used it.
"I don't know who I thought I was kidding," she sighed hollowly. "I guess I managed to kid myself for a while, anyhow."
"Oh, don't worry, David," she commented with a small, dry whisper, "I'll still sponsor the re-shoot. You're really very good you know. A natural. Your book deserves to be published." She had reached the door and stood there with her back to me, her shoulders hunched and fragile looking. "Cynthia will bring the shirt. I'd appreciate it if you left directly after you've dressed."
It was the last time I set eyes on Madeleine. The cheques however, appeared regularly till the shoot was completed. I also hear she attended the launch -- guess someone needed to put in a showing. Of all the regretful entanglements in which I've managed to become involved, my association with Madeleine is the most disturbing. It's almost laughable, but for all her foolish behaviour, there remains something vulnerable and appealing about Madeleine. I comfort myself with the knowledge that her investment was rewarded and her faith in me justified: Bathing with Leopards received universal acclaim.
It also left me at a loose end. Pride and a sense of decency dictated that I return the pricey purchases Madeleine had provided for the expedition while Theo's manufactured scandals and dogged insistence on pursuing my movements dissuaded me from returning. I decided to take a break, grow a beard, enjoy anonymity, exorcise the past.
I bummed around for a bit. Freelanced by selling my stuff under an assumed name. I still had my battered old Hasselblad and with it I returned to basics, relearning the techniques which had been my bread and butter before I earned international recognition. Eventually, I got a job in South Africa with a small newspaper taking snaps of visiting politicians, celebrating centenarians, that kind of thing. It was mind-numbing work and the pay was a pittance, but nobody was interested in my past. Stories lacking stimulation were churned out each week with their accompanying visual. Stories within a prescribed range of predicability which voiced a reliable set of morals, posed a standard series of questions and only occasionally revelled in the limited sensationalism available to a backwater. It was the promise of this last essential ingredient which ushered me in the direction of my crouched and waiting fate.
There were reports, rumours really, that the corpses of large herbivores had been discovered littering the region about an isolated village in Zaire. Nothing strange in that, poachers are an escalating problem where dwindling stocks of exotic medicinal substances are in high demand, but low supply. Huge profits can be amassed in a very short period of time. There was more, however. The villagers claimed that something roamed about their huts at night, something no one, not even the elders could identify. An unidentified creature, an evil spirit, a monster that preyed upon humans.
It seemed too good to be true; still, my editor thought I might like to nip out and take a few photos. No point in sending a reporter, that would be an unconscionable waste of resources. No, if the pictures proved to be interesting, a suitable story could later be concocted. Besides, this unsociable photographer with the extraordinary talent accepted any task without complaint. Actually seemed to prefer obscure assignments and often hitchhiked or walked to his destination, saving the paper a bundle.
I went with no real misgivings. Bivouacking in a native hut infested with blood maggots is not a condition I relish, but I've experienced worse, much worse. There's something about the permanency of human habitations that attracts a multitude of parasites, and I don't just mean your grass hut variety. The vermin to be encountered in the penthouses and board rooms of some major cities are more filthy in their habits than the honest maggot.
Things were about as I expected. The half-starved skulking dog and ragged array of runny-eyed children provided an accurate illustration of the fortunes of this community. The dog seemed pleased to see me; the children scattered before the tall, oddly-attired stranger. I gave the mutt's ear a friendly pull, hoping to win their confidence, but the brute yelped in fright and scurried away, tail between legs. Not a prodigious beginning. It wasn't difficult to unearth the village elder, he appeared as I was sizing up the various dwellings. As he shuffled forward on spindly legs, he was escorted by one of the assorted urchins who functioned as a prop.
I squatted as a mark of respect. God knows he deserved it, the old fellow must have been near to a hundred years old. The old man's adam's apple bobbed nervously. Perplexion inscribed his features and fear haunted his eyes. When he laid a shaky hand upon my shoulder and bade me rise, I already suspected his interpretation of my arrival gave it more meaning than was warranted.
"You have come to rid us of this beast?" he inquired; sadly, quite serious.
"No Elder, I come to make the lightening images so that the Forsaken Ones might know of your trouble."
"And will they then remove the evil that preys upon us?"
"Perhaps, Honoured Grandfather, but first, they must have lightening images so that they can see for themselves that your people suffer."
"Cannot my word be taken for proof?"
How could I answer? How convey the concept that this worthy ancient would be viewed as a doddering old fool by a society which had grown to view the elderly as valueless.
"You need not answer, " the old man cut across my thoughts, "your face is like a trail left by a passing herd of wildebeest. The smallest child could interpret it." The elder's brow was furroughed yet deeper, his eyes mirrored concern marginally more weighty, "So, it would seem we must continue as before. Still, you have brought some small hope, and perhaps when you return, you will unharden the hearts of the Forsaken Ones and they will come to our aid."
"May it be so, Honoured Grandfather."
"May it be so," he echoed less certainly. Momentarily, the wise man brooded, then mindful of his duty declared, "You will require rest following your long journey. This young one will accompany you to your domicile. Accept no rudeness from him. He is a wily one, prone to mischief." Affectionately, the old man tugged at the youngster's curly locks. "When darkness draws upon us, the fires will be lit. Then we will talk further. Now I must rest. It will be a long night." With a curt nod, he stepped a few paces to his right, lifted the matting which formed the door of a hut and disappeared.
Shouldering my backpack, I took off after the youngster who moved with the speed and agility of a gazelle in flight. When he too disappeared from sight, I began to wonder what measures I would need to resort to, in order to identify my lodgings. Yet when I rounded the corner of an abandoned dwelling, I saw him poised before an entrance way.
"In here," he announced.
I entered a well-kept abode, neatly swept, provided with all the essentials necessary for a comfortable stay. This could not be a guest house. There was too much of an air of recent use.
"Whose home is this?" I queried, looking to the silent boy. For a brief, uncomfortable moment, I thought he was going to spit at me; then he seemed to recall the elder's words and in accordance with his wishes controlled his ire.
"It is my own."
"Your family's, you mean?"
"No. Mine, alone."
"Where then is your family?" There was ample evidence that a whole clan of people had recently occupied the space in question. Again, the young man visibly fought with himself. "They were eaten."
"Oh." That possibility should have occurred to me. I tried to cover my embarrassment with earnestness: "May their spirits rest easy," I murmured hoping to placate him with this traditional response.
"Their spirits," he answered, stretching to obtain full height, "will never rest until the beast is killed."
In his eyes burned the savagery of his hatred and an unquenchable lust for revenge. It sat unhappily upon his childish features.
"You have a name?"
"Yes," he responded.
"Might I know it?"
The young man shuffled uncomfortably before answering, "I must go, Grandfather waits."
"Go then, boy who will not reveal his name. I wish you well."
He left, leaving me with the eerie knowledge that I would sleep that night in a house where all but one had met their death. Such thoughts are not conducive to rest and though I badly needed an hour or two after the long hike to the village from the drop off point, there was little likelihood that I would find it there. Besides, now was a good time to explore, to gain a few impressions, snap off a roll or two of film. Consequently, I extracted a small day pack and my battered Hasselblad and prepared to sneak out of the unsettling premises.
Strangely, this was a great deal more simple than I would have expected. It was around five in the afternoon. The young men should have been returning home with the day's kill, their arrival hailed by the delighted squeals of children. The matrons should have been clustered in companionable groups preparing vegetables, the old men criticising their work and being laughed at good naturedly. Where was all the activity that came with village life? They couldn't all have been eaten. I stopped behind another lifeless hut and stood moodily analysing the problem. Some must have fled. Perhaps all that remained were those too feeble or stubborn to leave, those orphaned and unwelcome elsewhere. It seemed very likely. The sound of children's voices broke into my thoughts. Children are always a welcome distraction so I decided to investigate.
Five shabbily dressed children squatted in the dust. Among them, acting as a leader of sorts, was my earlier guide. They were concentrating fiercely while "Noman", as I'd dubbed the plucky youngster, delivered some form of explanation that was accompanied by illustration in the dirt. I needed to get closer. I didn't really think of my actions as spying at the time, but essentially that was what I was doing. Instinct took over. Before I knew it, I had worked my way around to a perfect position and even had my camera unslung, protective lens cap off.
" ... and this you see, is how the creature came to us." He was pointing at an image I couldn't quite make out. As the boy's narration continued, I edged in for a closer look. "This, the form it took the night my family was taken." He paused, letting the information sink in, glaring fiercely at his four companions. Their backs were to me, but they were huddled over the image, blocking my view. Only one possibility remained. Raising the camera in one hand, I took a chance on the angle and focus and snapped off a few silent shots. Then he spoke those words which have haunted me ever since. "And now, another has come. A mate perhaps. As evil as the first, though not so clever. He asked me my name ...."
My cry of protest, a small strangled noise, but deafening to their ears attuned to danger, scattered them. Only Noman remained, defiant, his feet straddling the drawing. Much of it had already been hastily erased, but about the edges vague outlines remained. I stood, guilty, wordless, while Noman stared me out, daring me to do -- what? I don't know how it would have ended had not a graceful figure emerged from a neighbouring hut. "Come here, boy," she addressed Noman with self-assurance. Without taking his eyes from my face, he backed towards her. Now, I can't swear to this, but it seemed to me that as he withdrew, he made certain to obliterate what little evidence was left of his sketch by deliberately dragging his feet through it.
When Noman reached her side, she bent and whispered to him, her hand resting lightly on his shoulder. With a frown, he then left, unable to resist favouring me with a ferocious scowl as he vanished between two huts.
"Please excuse him," the lithe beauty pleaded, stepping forward. "He was not always so."
"It is I who should ask for his forgiveness," I responded. "As a stranger here, I must learn to know my proper place."
She closed her fine eyes in polite recognition of my admission. Such a simple gesture but containing a multitude of meaning.
"Tell me, how exactly did his family die?" Arching her eye brows a little, her lovely face grew sad, "Perhaps we could walk a little." Her gesture indicated a path leading away from the village. A good choice, I felt I needed to breathe in an atmosphere untainted by mystery. For a while we walked in silence, enjoying what was left of the late afternoon sunshine. Our silence was companionable and had not there existed the need to gather information, we could have continued in this fashion indefinitely.
"My intention was not to offend."
"I know it."
"You need not tell me anything which causes you pain."
"Sometimes it is more painful not to tell."
There was no answer to this and for a few moments we strolled once again, in silence.
"Noman told me that his family were eaten."
I shrugged, "It is the name I have given him because he refused to give me his own. I took it from an ancient story in which the hero cleverly deceives a monster and escapes unharmed. In that tale, the hero would not give his true name."
"It is apt, then."
"Yes, it is. But how did he manage to escape the 'beast', when the rest of his family perished?"
"He learned of the creature's deceptive abilities when he witnessed his sister being taken. Or rather, he heard her lured away, then eaten."
"How do you mean?"
"The creature called to her as she crouched by the water hole filling her container. Called to her with the voice of her betrothed."
"But that's impossible!" I had stopped, too shocked by her revelation to continue.
"I only repeat to you what was told to me." She spoke demurely but confidently and she continued to walk on, forcing me to hurry after her.
"The tales of boys are often fanciful."
"This tale has more than one teller to confirm its truth."
"Of course, forgive me."
"At first 'Noman' was not suspicious. He did not begrudge his sister a stolen kiss. He sat in the long grass and smiled to himself as he stripped the seeds from a grass head. He listened to her searching for her young man, calling his name, laughing at his reluctance to show himself. Then he heard her terrified scream. Noman leapt to his feet, horrified. Did she cry out in truth, or could it be a game? Surely, they were toying with him. Any moment now, his sister would burst out of the undergrowth laughing at the fright they had given him. He would not give them the satisfaction of knowing they had stopped his heart and frozen his marrow. Noman waited. He waited long. Finally, he called his sister's name, quietly at first, then more and more urgently.
"Noman saw movement, strange, stealthy movement that came from the region of his sister's scream. Whatever travelled towards him however, was not his sister, for it moved with inhuman agility. Noman heard his sister call, 'Brother, I have cut my foot. Help me please, I cannot walk.' Noman stood his ground. 'Brother, I bleed, help me please,' but though the voice continued to plead and lament, he remained unmoved. He felt its power to draw increase, dragging at him with long tendrils of persuasion, but still he resisted. Two things saved him. The first was the creature's inability to name him. His sister would never have called in this fashion. The second, the knowledge that his ever laughing sister would never, could never resort to the plaintive, mewling tone he now heard. Covering his ears, he ran for his life.
"When he reached home, Noman tried to alert the villagers. He was scoffed at. Who would believe his story? He was known for his imagination and eagerness to invent mischief. Late that night, however, when the two lovers had not returned, he was summoned by the elders and questioned. Still, they would not accept his tale. It was decided that the couple had run away together, unwilling to await the prescribed time. The incident was forgotten. Then, some time later, whilst Noman sat with his mother, late at night the others already asleep, his sister was heard to call softly from outside. 'Mother, I have come home, will you come out and embrace me?'
"Noman trembled. He knew it couldn't be his sister. He knew it was the creature which had haunted his dreams ever since his sister's disappearance, the beast which had destroyed his capacity to sleep. The young man wrestled with his mother. He begged her not to go, but the fever was upon her. She chided him, accused him of jealousy, of cruelty, and finally struck him with a fire stick. Noman was lost to darkness. In the morning, it was found she had disappeared. All that remained were two sets of footsteps outside which led into the jungle."
"Could one pair have belonged to Noman's sister?"
"Perhaps. Had they retained their human nature, I would have accepted them as such. But I know better, for I followed them as far as I dared, and I saw. When the second pair of footsteps reached the undergrowth, they transformed to those of a great cat." Her words chilled me.
We had gained the summit of a small rise and now looked down upon a substantial water hole. "Down there did Noman's sister disappear." There was nothing sinister in the sight yet the hair on my nape insisted on stirring. I shivered. "The night draws on, we had best return. A water hole is not a healthy place to stop as evening approaches."
Briskly now, we retraced our steps, the mounting coldness spurring our pace. "What of the others?" I asked, trying to control the urge to chatter.
"Yes, and the rest of the villagers."
"The beast returned, again and again, each time resorting to a new and subtle means of luring its next victim. Those who could, left. Those who stayed, lived in fear as the beast continued to reap its bloody harvest."
"Why weren't traps laid out for it, or watchers set?"
"At first, nothing was done because the disappearances were not taken for killings. Then, when the number had grown so great the truth could not be ignored, traps were constructed. But the creature seemed to have more than animal cunning in it and seemed to delight in mocking us by showing its contempt for these devices. Finally, men took turns to guard the village at night, but these too disappeared. Now, we wait together at night in a ring of fire. Our ears are stopped with rags. One is chosen to sit, hands and feet tied together. Him we watch. When he struggles to reach the darkness as a fish struggles to regain water, then we know the beast is near. Sometimes, a trussed animal is thrown into the darkness and this satisfies the creature. Sometimes, the villagers rush into the darkness with torches, hoping to drive the beast away. These are our only defences."
As the sad but welcome sight of the village came into view, a young man stepped suddenly from the surrounding vegetation. It was Noman. I can't say why, but I had the distinct impression he had followed us all the way to the water hole.
"The time of choosing draws near," he informed us, "will the stranger take part?" The challenge was thrust at me though he directed his comments to my companion.
"It is not necessary that he take part," she scolded, using an elegant gesture.
"All who take shelter in this village must take part," the boy responded adamantly. Arms crossed, legs astride the pathway, he looked as if he intended to bar our entry. His out-thrust lower lip underlined his determination.
"I am happy to take part."
For the first time, Noman directed his gaze at me. His face was awash with a myriad of emotions; fear, relief, suspicion and something far more sinister. Abruptly, he raised his right arm, eyes still locked with mine. From all around us, tiny rustlings announced the emergence of an unlikely foe.
"You go too far," the furious young woman at my side announced. She was ignored, as she was bound to be. These children, bereft of proper guardianship, had mobbed together for protection. They were now the warriors of this village, and warriors do not concern themselves with the opinions of women. Gently, I touched her arm, hoping to calm her; one does not make sudden moves when in the presence of a pack.
Hoping to defuse the situation, I opted to confuse with politeness. "I thank you for your kind concern," I began, cautious with my choice of words, grateful for my mastery of the language, "as demonstrated by this ... " here, I struggled somewhat ... "assembly." Noman frowned, assessing the quality of my words, searching for irony or hidden meanings. Finding none, he signalled to his motley band and we moved as a group towards the community. There, preparations for the night were under way. The village elder was busily overseeing the construction of wood piles, but he turned at our approach.
"Where have you children been? Come, come, no time for games now. Go, gather wood." The troop reluctantly dispersed, slinking away like chided curs. Some of the fires had already been lit and the drifting smoke made the old fellow cough. While he struggled for breath, he beckoned me closer. The wood must have been wet, green even, to burn so poorly.
"You see what we are reduced to?" he complained wiping rheumy eyes. "No decent wood lies within easy distance of the village any longer, and there are only old people and children left to scavenge the rotten remains. I fear that if the beast is not killed soon, we will be forced to leave for that reason alone."
"Would that be so tragic, Grandfather?" I waited for my answer while another round of coughs spasmed his body. When he'd wiped his lips, he answered, mustering his earlier dignity. "It would be tragic. While a handful remain, the village survives and with it survives our culture, our identity. If the village is abandoned and the children of this valley scatter, then we as a people die. I have been south to the dwelling places built by your people, those structures that reach to the sky. There is nothing there, except misery. I returned here and here I will remain and I will give my life if need be in order to protect what I know in your eyes appears shabby and not worth saving, but for my people, is their only hope."
I bowed humbly, acquiescent. "I will help gather wood."
Time passed quickly. An air of urgency made feet hurry and mouths consume food with little concern for taste or texture. Thankfully, the smokiness of the ill constructed fires had settled to a tolerable level by the time the remnants of a once thriving population drew within their protective boundary. As I sat awaiting the "Choosing", the ritual which had evolved to cope with the ongoing raids, I counted heads. Thirty seven. Six elderly, including the ancient who ruled nominally as their chief, nine women, one with a new born, a crippled middle-aged man, two teenaged girls, myself, and seventeen children ranging in age from four to perhaps eleven or twelve. Not exactly a force equipped to deal with a ravening monster; but then again, this was not a monster which resorted to aggression, but rather to deception and stealth.
When the moon rose above the tree line, the old man rose from the mat upon which he had been resting. Solemnly, he surveyed his people. As he had struggled to his feet, the male members of the group had moved forward and sat down wordlessly at his feet, I followed their example. The women, meanwhile, continued in their tending of the fires. Tension, if that were possible, increased. I felt like a violin, if the peg were turned any further, the string would surely snap. Above us, the old man now raised a gourd offering its contents to the supervision of the spirits. For a moment, I thought it must contain liquid of some description, but it contained something far more significant. In turn, each one was offered the gourd and each took from its hollowed centre. Each kept what they had drawn hidden in his clenched fist. When it came to my turn, I too drew out something, something which felt like a large bead.
"Reveal your choice," the elder commanded, and hands opened, and eyes showed relief. All about me, boys and men turned to examine their neighbour's seeds. All it seemed were identical, all were brown in colour. Behind me, a voice I instantly recognised as Noman's, queried, "And what of your choice, stranger, what colour seed did you choose?" In witnessing the excitement that surrounded me, I had forgotten to check the contents of my own fist. Now I uncurled my fingers, anxious to discover the result. In my palm lay a fat, red seed.
"Bind him," the old one commanded, his voice suddenly weary. Hands went about the task apologetically. They were gentle, but then, I was unresisting.
"No," cried a female voice, "this is not right. He is not one of us, he shouldn't be made to --"
"Be silent, woman, lest you be sent from the circle." Obviously, it was a threat guaranteed to gain submission. Though I heard muffled crying while the tying took place, no other protest was made by my friend.
Once I was trussed, all returned to their mats and prepared themselves by stuffing their ears with rags. I in no way resented their precautions, nor did I resent my situation. After all, I was not unreasonably uncomfortable and the beast might not even come tonight. What I lost due to a few hours of restriction, would be made up for in the confidence and respect I gained. Besides, I was curious. I recalled that heroic Greek's experience at the boat mast and distracted myself for some time by attempting to reconstruct the story. Was it Jason or Ulysses or some other? I simply couldn't remember. So much for a classical education.
Time passed slowly. There was little to entertain me except the crackling of the fires. All around me sat villagers. though I might as well have been alone for they were eerily silent. Soon, I began to forget that they were there at all. I was like a castaway clinging to wreckage in inky waters. In the heaving darkness, their presence became that of ship wrecked ghosts.
Memories returned to haunt me, memories of Sallie. Sallie running towards me laughing, holding out a handful of carnations she'd plundered from restaurant tables while I'd been dutifully paying the bill. She'd hidden them beneath her coat, then slipped out the back through the kitchen. It didn't matter that I could have bought her roses, it was the possibility of being caught which motivated her. Sallie in that breathtaking negligee she'd worn whenever she'd hoped to secure my assent in a wild new scheme. Poor Sal', she never really understood that I would have given her anything, anyway. I didn't need to be seduced.
For a brief moment her image hung before me provocatively, then it faded as a rainbow fades, droplet by droplet, leaving a sense of loss. It made me groan and thrash ineffectually before I gained control. This was not the way to pass time, the next thing I'd be dredging up recollections of that night at Madeleine's. I didn't need that sort of self-flagellation. I started to whistle, soft and low. I would have sung if I could have remembered the words to a single song. Anything to distract my thoughts and counter the return of those disturbing images. It didn't work. While my tuneless meanderings desperately increased in volume, they stubbornly took on flesh.
Blood coursed noisily through my veins as I re-entered the world of that night. The light was strange, other worldly, and where it refracted, as it did when it struck the glass I held, it burst into shards of colour. I did not need to interpret the glances of those around me, I could hear their thoughts clearly. When She entered, I did not need to be alerted to her presence, all my senses responded as iron filings will when a magnet is placed near. "I've waited long for you," she told me, full red lips forming the words I felt, rather than heard. "Now, come to me." I would have gone too, but I was held back.
How I fought. It seemed to me that jealous arms held me, kept me from her. I fought them off valiantly, thrashed and kicked while she approved my efforts. "I have need of a man of your strength," she whispered to me and I screamed out in rage that anyone could be so cruel as to detain me. I would have torn them limb from limb had I been able to rend my bonds. "Soon," she promised, "we will be together."
Eventually, I lay exhausted, sobbing wretchedly; the fever left me and I knew the world again as it truly existed. I became aware that someone held me and soothed me. I realised it was daylight, that my wrists and ankles throbbed painfully, that people stood looking down on me with pity. When the ropes that held me were cut, I threw my arms around her, the beautiful young woman who had shown concern for me, and wept as a broken-hearted child.
I was humble. I allowed myself to be led away without a murmur. I took the food they offered uncomplainingly. I answered their questions obligingly. I kept my eyes downcast and none suspected I think, except perhaps Noman, but in him, it would be strange if there was no suspicion. I bided my time. When all had drifted away to duties undefined, I shook off my compliant stupor.
Sly and certain, I skirted the edges of the village and reached the jungle undetected. Or so I thought. But as I stepped into the undergrowth, a young boy's voice challenged me. "Where are you going, stranger?" Startled, I swung around, crouched and ready. It was Noman. I had been right, he was impossible to fool.
"Nowhere you can follow," I returned, equally abrupt and threatening. My body was positioned in wrestler readiness. The boy held a knife and while it spoke clearly of his intention to detain me whatever the cost, his eyes were even more poignant. There would be no avoiding confrontation.
"You're going to her," he hissed, the last word given a bitter emphasis it didn't deserve.
"What concern is that of yours?" I spat back. He'd been itching to rid the village of my presence, why this sudden urge for my company?
The young man rocked a little on the balls of his feet. His hand, which already gripped his weapon with such ferocity that the veins stood out, tightened its hold. For a moment, I thought he was going to spring at me. I was ready. Then he seemed to change his mind. I chuckled, a nasty sound intended to humiliate.
"Go back to the village," I told him, "go back to your collection of stinking hovels. Don't tamper with what you don't understand."
He lunged at me then. Came at me snarling like the brute he was. I caught his knife arm and with a deft movement, broke it using his own momentum. It snapped with a satisfying crack.
Knife in one hand, foot on my fallen enemy's chest, I gloated. How easy it would have been to end his life, how simple to draw the weapon across that pulsing throat. He must have seen the thought pass across my features for he paled visibly. Again, I laughed.
"Don't worry, Noman, I'm not a killer." His lips were shaking with pure terror, but not inspired by me for though they started, their gaze was bent in another direction. I looked over my shoulder, yelped, and barely had time to throw myself to one side when a huge striped beast flung itself upon its quarry. I didn't tarry. I ran, the screams of the boy urging me to greater effort.
Run, run, my mind shouted, but my legs demanded a halt. Fear found a compromise and I slowed to a steady jog. Where was I headed? What madness had inspired me into the jungle? I had not even brought my gear with me. I had no food and no means to obtain it, except the pilfered knife. I couldn't go back, couldn't bear another night in that village with the screams of Noman still ringing in my ears. I couldn't face any of them knowing what I had done. Thoughts swirled in a maelstrom of horror and confusion, but my senses remained alert, honed by my training and years of experience. So it was that I became aware that I was being followed.
Instinct leapt to the fore and before I knew it, I was climbing a tree with the agility of a pursued primate. Tigers could not climb trees of that I was certain. Tiger? Tiger! Tigers did not exist in Africa. As I fought to control my thudding heart and shaking hands, my mind shuffled through the possibilities. Escaped from a zoo? Impossible! Even our poor excuse for a local rag would have received some kind of report, but there'd been none. Circus derailment perhaps? Come on, this was no Hollywood script. Released mascot of a foreign army? Possible, but still unlikely -- there hadn't been a war for fifteen years.
Adrenaline made my movements awkward and weak while the shock of what I'd witnessed had made me faint, but I persisted. I needed to secure myself. Having removed my belt and looped it under an arm, over my head and around a branch, I felt some what calmer and safer. I settled down to think. Strange how the mind will operate when under stress, suddenly, it focussed unbidden on the image Noman had been leaning over. For a brief moment, I clearly saw the creature the young man had sketched, then it was erased in a white hot fireball and I knew no more.
How long I remained thus, half strangled by my own handiwork, I cannot say, but I awoke with a start and the conviction that someone had called my name. Completely disorientated, I almost swung out of the tree at great risk to my neck While my fingers worked at the belt buckle, my eyes scanned the area but apart from the shadows having lengthened somewhat, nothing had changed. Still, the echoes of that voice lingered, distracting my thoughts. I had almost made up my mind to climb down when a slight alteration in the pattern of the surrounding vegetation caught my attention. Something had moved. My heart leapt in fear, then joy, then fear again. It was she of the red-gold hair. How she came to be there, I did not question, my first thought was to warn her of danger.
"Look out," I shouted, waving my arms frantically, almost upsetting my balance in my alarm, "there's a tiger below."
"Tiger?" she mocked charmingly, gazing nonchalantly upwards, "tigers don't exist in Africa. I thought you of all people would know that."
"I'm serious," I insisted, almost falling again in my anxiety to convince her and having to resort to ridiculous manoeuvres to save myself. "There's something down there, a large cat of some kind." Highly amused laughter followed this assertion.
"Well then," she answered, "let's frighten poor kitty away."
And with that she lifted the rifle I now saw she carried, and fired a deafening volley.
The deep, booming sounds echoed in all directions. By the time she'd finished, I was standing beside her, quite sheepish, having slid down the remainder of the trunk and skinned my thighs in the process. She stood, feet pointed away from me and torso twisted slightly in my direction. An odd smile played about her lips. The expression in her eyes was indefinable.
"My camp's this way," she informed me, then strode off at a cracking pace, never checking to see that I followed.
The dim light beneath the canopy into which we now plunged made it difficult for me to copy her confident movements, as she picked her way through dense vegetation without the aid of a trail. In her wake I blundered, guided largely by the swish of foliage resettling itself after she had passed. She moved not only wordlessly, but soundlessly and the jungle that engulfed us, fell silent in awe. On and on I lurched as if in a dream. I felt as if I was running away from something, but what? The leaves whispered stealthily as I pushed through them and seemed to cling, holding me back I had the disturbing notion that they could tell me something if I could but stay a moment, but I could not stay a moment. I was in pursuit of a fast-moving will o' wisp figure.
When we burst through into a clearing, I was astonished. The solitary tent could not possibly be the sum total of her provisions. My expression must have betrayed my thoughts for she answered without my having to question, "I prefer hunting alone and with minimal equipment."
"Have you ... experienced much success?" Her shoulders stiffened and she paused in her unloading before answering, punctuating the word when it was spoken with a thrusting home of the bolt -'sufficient'. A strange answer, non-committal. My eyes roved the site curiously, but not a sign existed of a kill; no salted skins, no drying trophy heads. I recalled her random shots into the jungle - surely not the response of a serious shooter. Her casual treatment of the expensive rifle confirmed it. No hunter would sling their weapon to the ground like a discarded umbrella.
"Why do you hunt?"
"I hunt because it is in my nature to hunt." With this comment, she unzipped her tent and entered.
Her movements glimpsed past the unsecured tent flaps showed me that she was in the process of disrobing. I felt I shouldn't look, that I should show more pride, walk away, ignore her teasing display, but I was captivated, willing to sacrifice my self-respect in order to devour an occasional glimpse of her perfect form. A minute later she partly emerged on all fours, long red tresses screening most of her beauty. "I need to rest now." Too bad that a hint of shyly peeping breasts seemed to argue otherwise, I was dismissed, left to my own devices. The cruel sound of the zipper made it final.
Activity was what I needed, something to occupy my mind. I stood up and set about that perpetual task about a camp site, the collection of wood. I soon had a good armful, available quite close, but on returning, I became confused. Nowhere could I discover the remains of a fire. Arrow must be in the habit of shifting camp daily, I reasoned. Where had that come from? Arrow ... it suited her perfectly, sleek, silent ... deadly. My perplexity continued as I scanned the area with the eye of experience. I would at the very least have expected to find a few coals and charred sticks from breakfast. No matter, I had time to kill.
I cleared the site of debris then built a pile of crisscrossed limbs, laying beside it ample supplies for the night, then sat down and awaited the re-emergence of my companion. There was little to occupy my mind except the anticipation of her return. Occasionally, vague images hovered at the periphery of my memory; a dark-skinned, noble beauty, a boy in pain, a stooped, grandfatherly figure. But the images held no meaning and were easily swatted away. I sat and revelled in the expectation of her praise, while the shadows lengthened and the night drew near.
When the moon had risen above the tree line and my desire for her had grown intolerable, she emerged. From the confines of the tent she stepped in complete nakedness. I leapt to my feet, all my senses awake to her invitation, but she merely pushed me away and striding to the wood pile kicked my careful work to pieces.
"What is this?" she inquired haughtily. I looked at what represented an hour of loving labour with dismay. How could I have been so stupid?
"It's wood ... for fire."
"To what purpose?"
"There is nothing in this jungle that I fear."
"For warmth then."
Her glare of utter disdain shrivelled my self-confidence. With a contemptuous flick of her hair, she turned brooding eyes upon the dismantled heap at her feet. Beneath a foot, she impatiently rolled a small branch. "I had forgotten your weakness," she commented after a pause. Her tone deflated what had remained of my ego.
Returning to her tent she fished out an object. Squatting with her back to me, after locating a narrow, pointed stone, she began to hammer at what sounded vaguely metallic. Drawing close, I recognised it as a rifle round. Her purpose was soon revealed when a succession of blows loosened the projectile so it could be removed. Scraping together a small pile of leaves and litter, she poured the powder out, then placed the empty cartridge on top. Another brief search located a large, flat rock.
"Step back," she commanded and then flung it. A bang, a flash and a whoomp was followed by small, curling wisps of smoke.
"Your fire," she advised me, "had better be kept small. In a moment, I go hunting and I would not appreciate the frightening away of game that would occur if a bush fire's worth of smoke and flame were ignited."
"You're going hunting?"
"I have said." Her tone was one a cranky teacher might use with an argumentative student.
"Can I come?" I begged, unwilling to be left behind.
"You would be a hindrance." The combination of regret and surprise upon my face softened her enough to say, "You could not go where I go, as I go. Wait for me, my mate, your wait will be rewarded."
"I am a hindrance. I must wait here," I told myself repeatedly in the form of a chant as I settled beside the smouldering fire and began to tempt it to life. "I will be rewarded on her return." What that reward would constitute accounted for the smile on my face. So powerful was her hold on my mind that many minutes passed before I registered the incongruous existence of the rifle and even then, it effected me in no other way than delight, for here was my mate's possession, somehow left behind.
"I must polish and prepare it for her next hunt, I must win back her favour," I told myself. Never did the fact of her venturing into the jungle without the protection of clothes or weapon disturb me for a moment. I knew my mate would return from her hunt successful. I understood this and accepted it as profoundly unquestionable. Thus I occupied myself with my self appointed task as time crept ever onward and the moment of her return approached.
But the wait was long and wearying. I fell asleep. The first completely dreamless slumber I had experienced since setting foot on the continent. In the void I had entered, nothing disturbed me, it was as if all my memories had been stripped and all that remained were prenatal sensations of floating in a blood warm sea of protection.
I awoke with the sensation that someone had shouted. It was still dark but not midnight black, more the type of darkness which exists in the pre-dawn when true light has not yet surfaced but a hint of its expected arrival exists. Vague outlines of tree trunks stood like the grey legs of a prehistoric herd shrouded in a fine fog. I stretched cold, stiffened limbs and bent to rekindle the fire. Pressure on my stomach made it rumble. No matter, Arrow would return soon with food. The remaining coals were easily coaxed into small spears of darting flame. Blowing gently, I lay twig after twig returning the fire to boldness.
While occupied this way, she returned, announcing her presence in a manner guaranteed to rekindle a fire other than the one at which I knelt. The first I knew of her was her hot breath on my neck. I decided to ignore her, partly because I'd had enough of her teasing and partly because this subtle approach to sensuality was a delight outside my experience. What would she do next? Ever playful, hot puffs of breath were directed at each ear in turn accompanied by loin-stirring sighs. When she began to nuzzle more urgently while pulling out the back of my shirt, I thought my flesh would dissolve with pleasure. I wanted nothing more than to turn and take her in my arms. This I tried to do.
With shocking brutality, she bit me then savagely tore the shirt in two. Backwards was I then yanked by the hair. Before I could recover, she had climbed atop, a knee pinning each arm. Her mouth, salty with warm blood was forced against mine. Her hands clawed at my clothing and when I had been laid bare, continued to rake my flesh. When I entered her, her howl of triumph caused my nerve endings to tingle with aversion. My mind cried out against the horror but my flesh continued with mantis-like determination. At the point of climax, I blacked out, for she had latched onto my windpipe, nearly asphyxiating me in her passion.
I was a sorry mess and would have died from my wounds, had I not been discovered quickly. How my fair friend convinced the villagers to come after me, I don't know. Their concern was certainly unwarranted. The murderer of Noman deserved no special treatment. Not that the blame fell to me. It was clear to all that Noman had fallen foul of the beast. In effect, however, it was I who murdered him, murdered them all by luring her there in the first place. For of course, she came for me. I accept that now though it took weeks after my rescue for me to face the reality of my experience.
Can you believe it? I was actually encouraged to believe that my nightmares were the result of the traumatic savaging I'd received. How patient and understanding was the kind doctor who prescribed rest and sedatives and explained away my terror with text book justification. How I wanted to believe him, too. But the truth was soon made horribly clear. While I lay in a coma, the roll of film was developed by my editor in the hope that I had shot something newsworthy. I hadn't. At least, not according to his evaluation. What could I have possibly been thinking taking shots of village boys scrabbling in the dirt? What indeed?
Sadly too, for the newspaper, at least, who had sent out a speedily recruited photographer, the killings ceased with my mauling. Though the village was staked out for days after my removal to the city base hospital, nothing further occurred. Besides, the villagers were such an uncooperative lot, hostile to strangers and unforthcoming with information that my replacement returned, quite disappointed. Determined to salvage some merit for his efforts, however, he came to see me. At least an opportunity still existed for an interview with the sole survivor of the beast, he reasoned. But I was more gruff and uncooperative than the villagers. The story died before it had a chance to live and never even reached the attention of the international press, though it deserved their notice.
I left Africa and returned home. I had lost my taste for exotic landscapes and anonymity no longer suited me. No longer able to physically over-exert myself, I concentrated my energies on establishing my own modest publishing company. Photography was still my greatest pleasure but I was damned if I would play court to anyone in order to obtain a slice of the market.
A chance remark propelled me into a area which had never before occurred to me. Three quarters of the world is covered by oceans, much of them only partially explored and one doesn't need exceptional stamina to search out and photograph the wonders of the deep. This led eventually to the successful launching of Underwater Wilderness.
I took up shell collecting. Their diverse and gorgeous forms have a fascination few people fully appreciate, so fragile and so powerful as they can be, so beautiful and often so deadly. Strange how it is the most beautiful works of nature which are often the most deadly. A coned spiral form lying peacefully on a sandy platform can contain a sting as potent as a cobra bite.
I haven't forgotten Arrow and I am uncomfortably aware that she has not forgotten me. When deep in drink, late at night, with the ocean pummelling the coast and the wind prowling about the perimeter, I think of her. I am not fearful at these times. I know that I would sense her approach long before she came near and I have chosen my retreat well. There is only one possible approach over land. I do not think she would hazard a visit by sea. Though tigers can swim, she would not enjoy its cold, indifferent embrace.