An African Story (1)
In East Africa there was a young man who was a hunter, who loved the plains and the valleys and the cool nights on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. In September 1939 war had begun in Europe and he had travelled over the country to Nairobi and was training to be a pilot with the RAF. He was doing quite well, but after five weeks he got into trouble because he took his plane up and flew off in the direction of Nakuru to look at the wild animals when he should have been practicing spins and turns. While he was flying there, he thought he saw some rare animals, became excited and flew down low to get a better view of them. He flew too low and damaged the wing, but he managed to get back to the airfield in Nairobi.
After six weeks, he was allowed to make his first cross-country flight on his own, and he flew off from Nairobi to a little town called Eldoret two thousand meters up in the Highlands. But again he was unlucky; this time he had engine failure on the way, due to water in the fuel tanks. He kept calm and made a beautiful forced landing without damaging his aircraft, not far from a little hut which stood alone on the highland plain with no other building in sight. That is lonely country up there.
He walked over to the hut, and there he found an old man, living alone, with only a small garden of sweet potatoes, some brown chickens and a black cow.
The old man was kind to him. He gave him food and milk and a place to sleep, and the pilot stayed with him for two days and two nights, until a rescue plane from Nairobi found his aircraft, landed beside it, found out what was wrong, went away and came back with clean petrol which enabled him to take off and return.
But during his stay, the old man, who was lonely and had seen no one for many months, was glad of his company and of the opportunity to talk. He talked a lot and the pilot listened. He talked of his lonely life, of the lions that came in the night and of the elephant that lived over the hill in the west, of the heat of the days and of the silence that came with the cold at midnight.
On the second night he talked about himself. He told a long, strange story, and as he told it, it seemed to the pilot that the old man was lifting a great weight off his shoulders by telling it. When he had finished, he said that he had never told that to anyone before, and that he would never tell it to anyone again, but the story was so strange that the pilot wrote it down as soon as he got back to Nairobi. He wrote it in his own words, although he had never written a story before. Of course he made mistakes because he didn't know any of the tricks that writers use, but when he had finished writing he left a rare and powerful story. We found the story in his suitcase two weeks later when we were packing his things after he had been killed in training. The pilot seemed to have had no relatives and because he was my friend, I took the story and looked after it for him. This is what he wrote.
The old man came out of the door into the bright sunshine, and for a moment he leaned on his stick and looked around him. He stood with his head on one side, looking up, listening for the noise which he thought he had heard.
He was small and over seventy years old, although he looked nearer eighty-five because of illness. His face was covered with grey hair, and when he moved his mouth, he moved it only on one side of his face. On his head, indoors or outdoors, he wore a dirty white hat.
He stood quite still in the bright sunshine, his eyes almost closed, listening for the noise.
Yes, there it was again. He looked towards the small wooden hut which stood a hundred meters away in the field. This time there was no doubt about it; the cry of a dog, the high, sharp cry of pain which a dog gives when he is in great danger. Twice more it came and this time the noise was more like a scream. The note was higher and sharper, as if it were torn from some small place inside the body.
The old man turned and walked across the grass towards the wooden hut where Judson lived, pushed open the door and went in.
The small white dog was lying on the floor and Judson was standing over it, his legs apart, his black hair falling all over his long red face, sweating through his dirty white shirt. His mouth hung open in a strange lifeless way, as if his jaw were too heavy for him, and there was spit down the middle of his chin. He stood there looking at the small white dog which was lying on the floor, and with one hand he was slowly twisting his left ear; in the other hand he held a heavy wooden stick.
The old man ignored Judson and went down on his knees beside his dog and gently moved his thin hands over its body. The dog lay still, looking up at him with sad eyes. Judson did not move. He was watching the dog and the man.
Slowly, the old man got up, rising with difficulty, holding the top of his stick with both hands and pulling himself to his feet. He looked around the room. There were dirty bedclothes lying on the floor in the far corner; there was a wooden table made of old boxes, and on it a blue pot. There were chicken feathers and mud on the floor.
The old man saw what he wanted. It was a heavy iron bar standing against the wall near the bedding and he went over to it, thumping the hollow wooden floorboards with his stick as he went. The eyes of the dog followed his movements as he walked with difficulty across the room. The old man changed his stick to his left hand, took the iron bar in his right, came back to the dog and, without pausing, lifted the bar and brought it down hard upon the animal's head. He threw the bar to the ground and looked up at Judson, who was standing there with his legs apart. He went right up to him and began to speak. He spoke very quietly and slowly, with a terrible anger, and as he spoke he moved only one side of his mouth.
'You killed him,' he said. 'You broke his back.'
Then, as the tide of anger rose and gave him strength, he found more words. He looked up and spat them into the face of the tall Judson, who moved back towards the wall.
'You dirty, cruel coward. That was my dog. What right have you got to beat my dog, tell me that. Answer me, you madman. Answer me.'
Judson was slowly rubbing his left hand up and down the front of his shirt and now the whole of his face began to tremble. Without looking up he said, 'He wouldn't stop licking that place on his leg. I couldn't stand the noise it made. You know I can't stand noises like that, licking, licking, licking. I told him to stop but he went on licking. I couldn't stand it any longer, so I beat him.'
The old man did not say anything. For a moment it looked as if he were going to hit this creature. He half raised his arm, dropped it again, spat on the floor, turned round and went out of the door into the sunshine. He went across the grass to where a black cow was standing in the shade of a small tree. The cow was eating, moving its jaws regularly, mechanically, as it watched him walk across the grass from the hut. The old man came and stood beside it, stroking its neck. Then he leaned against its shoulder and scratched its back with the end of his stick. He stood there for a long time, leaning against the cow, scratching it with his stick, and now and then he spoke to it, whispering quiet little words, like one person telling a secret to another.
There was shade under the little tree, and the country around him looked rich and pleasant after the long rains, because the grass grows green up in the Highlands of Kenya, and at this time of the year, after the rains, it is as green and rich as any grass in the world. In the distance stood Mount Kenya with snow on its head, with a thin stream of what looked like white smoke coming from the top where the cold winds made a storm and blew the white powder from the top of the mountain. Down below, on the slopes of that mountain, there were lions and elephants, and sometimes during the night one could hear the roar of the lions as they looked at the moon.
The days passed and Judson went on with his work on the farm in a silent, mechanical way, taking in the corn, digging the potatoes and milking the black cow while the old man stayed indoors away from the fierce African sun. He only went out in the late afternoon when the air began to get cool and sharp, and then he always went over to his black cow and spent an hour with it under the tree. One day, when he came out, he found Judson standing beside the cow, looking at it strangely, standing with one foot in front of the other, gently twisting his ear with his right hand.
'What is it now?' said the old man.
'The cow's making that noise again.'
'She's just chewing the grass,' said the old man. 'Leave her alone.'
Judson said, 'It's the noise. Can't you hear it? It sounds as if she's chewing stones, but she isn't. Listen to her. The noise goes right into my head.'
'Get out,' said the old man. 'Get out of my sight.'
At dawn the old man sat, as he always did, looking out of his window, watching Judson come across from his hut to milk the cow. He saw him coming sleepily across the field, talking to himself as he walked, dragging his feet, leaving long dark green marks across the wet grass, and carrying the petrol can which he used for the milk. The sun was coming up and making long shadows behind the man, the cow and the small tree. The old man saw Judson put the can down and he saw him fetch a box from beside the tree and settle himself on it, ready for the milking. He saw him suddenly kneeling down, feeling under the cow with his hands, and at the same time the old man noticed that the animal had no milk. He saw Judson get up and come walking fast towards the hut. He came and stood under the window where the old man was sitting, and looked up.
'The cow's got no milk,' he said.
The old man leaned through the open window, placing both his hands on the sill. 'You dirty thief! You've stolen it.'
'I didn't take it,' said Judson. 'I've been asleep.'
'You stole it.' The old man was leaning further out of the window, speaking quietly with one side of his mouth. 'I'll beat you for this,' he said.
Judson said, 'Someone stole it in the night. Perhaps it was a native. Or maybe the cow's sick.'