An African Story (2)
It seemed to the old man that he was telling the truth. 'We'll see,' he said, 'if there's any milk this evening; now, get out of my sight!'
By evening, the cow was full and the old man watched Judson take good thick milk from her.
The next morning she was empty. In the evening she was full. On the third morning she was empty again.
On the third night, the old man went to watch. As soon as it began to get dark, he positioned himself at the open window with an old gun lying on his lap, waiting for the thief who came and milked his cow in the night. At first it was dark and he could not even see the cow, but soon a three-quarter moon came over the hills and it became light, almost as if it were daytime. But it was bitterly cold because the Highlands are two thousand meters up, and the old man pulled his brown blanket closer around his shoulders. He could see the cow well now, just as well as in daylight, and the little tree threw a shadow across the grass, since the moon was behind it.
All through the night, the old man sat there watching the cow, and except when he got up and went back into the room to fetch another blanket, his eyes never left her. The cow stood calmly under the small tree, chewing and staring at the moon.
An hour before dawn she was full. The old man could see it; he had been watching it the whole time, and although he had not seen the movement of the swelling, all the time he had been conscious of the filling as the milk came down. The moon was now low, but the light had not gone. He could see the cow and the little tree and the greenness of the grass around the cow. Suddenly he moved his head quickly. He heard something. Surely that was a noise he heard? Yes, there it was again, right under the window where he was sitting. Quickly he pulled himself up and looked over the sill to the ground.
Then he saw it. A large black snake, a Mamba, nearly three meters long and as thick as a man's arm, was sliding towards the cow. Its small head was raised slightly off the ground and the movement of its body against the wetness made a sound like gas escaping from a jet. He raised his gun to shoot. Almost at once he lowered it again - he didn't know why - and he sat there not moving, watching the Mamba as it approached the cow, listening to the noise it made as it went, watching it come up close to the cow and waiting for it to strike.
But it did not strike. It lifted its head and for a moment let it move gently from side to side; then it raised the front part of its black body into the air under the cow and began to drink from her.
The cow did not move. There was no noise anywhere, and the body of the Mamba curved gracefully up from the ground and hung under the cow. The black snake and the black cow were clearly visible out there in the moonlight. For half an hour the old man watched the Mamba taking the milk of the cow. He saw the gentle movement of the snake's body as it sucked at the liquid until at last there was no milk left. Then the Mamba lowered itself to the ground and slid back through the grass in the direction from which it had come. Again it made a soft noise as it went, and again it passed underneath the window where the old man was sitting, leaving a thin dark mark in the wet grass where it had gone. Then it disappeared behind the hut.
Slowly the moon went down behind the mountain in the distance. Almost at the same time the sun rose in the east and Judson came out of his hut with the petrol can in his hand, walking sleepily towards the cow, dragging his feet in the wet grass as he went. The old man watched him coming and waited. Judson bent down and felt the underneath of the cow, and as he did so, the old man shouted at him. Judson jumped at the sound of the old man's voice.
'It's gone again,' said the old man.
Judson said, 'Yes, the cow's empty.'
'I think,' said the old man slowly, 'that it was a native boy. I was sleeping a bit and only woke up as he was leaving. I couldn't shoot because the cow was in the way. I'll wait for him tonight. I'll get him tonight,' he added.
Judson did not answer. He picked up his can and walked back to his hut.
That night the old man sat up again by the window, watching the cow. For him there was this time a certain pleasure in waiting for what he was going to see. He knew that he would see the Mamba again, but he wanted to be quite sure. And so, when the great black snake slid across the grass towards the cow an hour before sunrise, the old man leaned over the window sill and watched the movements of the Mamba as it approached the cow.
He saw it wait for a moment under the animal's stomach, letting its head move slowly backwards and forwards half a dozen times before it finally raised its body from the ground and started to drink the milk. He saw it drink for half an hour, until there was none left, and he saw it lower its body and slide smoothly back behind the hut from where it had come. And while he watched these things, the old man began laughing quietly with one side of his mouth.
Then the sun rose up behind the hills, and Judson came out of his hut with the petrol can in his hand, but this time he went straight to the window of the hut where the old man was sitting, wrapped up in his blankets.
'What happened?' said Judson.
The old man looked down at him from the window. 'Nothing,' he said. 'Nothing happened. I fell asleep again and the native came and took the milk. Listen, Judson,' he added, 'we have to catch this boy, otherwise you won't have enough milk. We've got to catch him. I can't shoot because he's too clever; the cow's always in the way. You'll have to get him.'
'Me get him? How?'
The old man spoke very slowly. 'I think,' he said, 'I think you must hide beside the cow. That is the only way you can catch him.'
Judson was scratching his head with his left hand.
'Today you will dig a shallow hole beside the cow. If you lie in it and if I cover you over with cut grass, the thief won't notice until he's beside you.'
'He may have a knife,' Judson said.
'No, he won't have a knife. You take your stick. That's all you'll need.'
Judson said, 'Yes, I'll take my stick. When he comes, I'll jump up and beat him with my stick.' Then suddenly he seemed to remember something. 'What about the noise the cow makes when she's chewing?' he said. 'I couldn't stand that noise all night.' He began twisting at his left ear with his hand.
'You'll do as I tell you,' said the old man.
That day Judson dug his hole beside the cow. The cow was tied to the tree so that she could not wander around the field. Then, as evening came and he was preparing to lie down in the hole for the night, the old man came to the door of the house and said, 'Don't do anything until early morning. He won't come until the cow's full. Come in here and wait; it's warmer than your dirty little hut.'
Judson had never been invited into the old man's house before. He followed him in, happy that he would not have to lie all night in the hole. There was a candle burning in the room. It was stuck in the neck of a beer bottle and the bottle was on the table.
'Make some tea,' said the old man. Judson did as he was told. The two of them sat down on a couple of wooden boxes and began to drink. The old man drank his tea hot and made loud sucking noises as he drank. Judson kept blowing on his tea, drinking cautiously and watching the old man over the top of his cup. The old man kept sucking at his tea until suddenly Judson said, 'Stop.' He said it quietly, and as he said it, the corners of his eyes and mouth began to tremble.
'What?' said the old man.
Judson said, 'That noise, that sucking noise you're making.'
The old man put down his cup and looked at the other quietly for a few moments. Then he said, 'How many dogs have you killed, Judson?'
There was no answer.
'I said how many? How many dogs? Judson!' the old man shouted. Then quietly and very slowly, like someone to a child, he said, 'In all your life, how many dogs have you killed?'
Judson said, 'Why should I tell you?' He did not look up.
'I want to know, Judson.' The old man was speaking very gently. 'I'm getting interested in this, too. Let's talk about it and make some plans for more fun.'
Judson looked up. A ball of spit rolled down his chin, hung for a moment in the air and fell to the floor.
'I only kill them because of their noise.'
'How often have you done it? I'd love to know how often.'
'Lots of times long ago.'
'How? Tell me how you used to do it. What way did you like best?'
'Tell me, Judson. I'd love to know.'
'I don't see why I should tell you. It's a secret.'
'I won't tell. I swear I won't tell.'
'Well, if you promise.' Judson shifted his seat closer and spoke in a whisper. 'Once I waited till one was sleeping, then I got a big stone and dropped it on his head.'
The old man got up and poured himself a cup of tea. 'You didn't kill mine like that.'
'I didn't have time. The noise of its tongue was so bad, the licking. I just had to do it quickly.'
'You didn't even kill him.'
'I stopped the licking.'
The old man went over to the door and looked out. It was dark. The moon had not yet risen, but the night was clear and cold, with many stars. In the east there was a little paleness in the sky, and as he watched, the paleness grew and it changed into brightness. Slowly, the moon rose over the hills. The old man turned and said, 'You'd better get ready. You never know. He might come early tonight.'
Judson got up and the two of them went outside. Judson lay down in the shallow hole beside the cow and the old man covered him with grass, so that only his hand showed above the ground. 'I'll be watching, too,' he said, 'from the window. If I give a shout, jump up and catch him.'
He went back to the hut, went upstairs, wrapped himself in blankets and took up his position by the window. It was early still. The moon was nearly full and it was rising. It shone on the snow on top of Mount Kenya.
After an hour, the old man shouted out of the window, 'Are you still awake, Judson?'
'Yes,' he answered, 'I'm awake.'
'Don't go to sleep,' said the old man. 'Whatever you do, don't go to sleep.'