The Fall of a Hunter
by Dipita Kwa (Cameroon)
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Two more hawks joined the four already hovering over the heavy cloud of smoke rising high from the forest on fire. Every now and then, one hawk would slant and cock its head to examine the burning surface for any signs of roasted snails or millipedes.
Suddenly, with a swift swooping movement, one of them headed down, straight for what appeared to be a lizard fighting desperately with death. But before the hawk could reach its target, a crooked stone went racing towards it. The bird hastily dropped its hunt and flew off for its life, sounding a warning shrill to its friends.
Jembe cursed, banged a fist of disappointment against his thigh as he watched all the birds soar to safety.
“Thank your old mother for this lucky day!” he hissed and turned his attention to the fire that was voraciously devouring the dense greenery of climbers and shrubs and trees.
Sweat streamed from his face and ran down his naked back and arms. His palms were very wet. He had to keep wiping them on his khaki trousers in order to maintain a steady grip on his spear and machete while waiting for any animal hiding in the bush, towards which the fire was ravenously approaching, to rush out.
When hunting was poor, Jembe became furious. His bushy eyebrows twitched as he glared around him, searching for an object on which to vent his anger. During such moments, his dog Kuli kept his distance and remained as quiet as he could.
Now, with only one mole in his hunting thong, it was clear that they had to wait until nightfall.
“Ah, Sango Jembe the great hunter!”
Jembe looked up. His face was criss-crossed like a buttered clay pot, with distinct lines of rage when he saw who it was. Tanga was carrying a large bundle of firewood over which was strapped a bunch of plantains and a bundle of huckleberry. He was bent double under the weight of the load. Yet he managed to put on a glowing smile – a smile Jembe hated with his soul; it was the unmistakable plea for a squirrel’s leg with which to accompany the plantains he always carried home to his wife and children.
“So how is work, neighbour?” Tanga asked, eying Jembe’s hunting thong that was hanging on a tree branch.
“Carry your ill luck away from here, idiot!” Jembe barked, snatching his bag and flinging the stripe over his neck so that the bag rested safely on his side.
“Ah, ah, Sango Jembe! I was only greeting. Is it a crime to inquire how hunting is faring?”
“I’m warning you for the last time to mind your business. Take your concern away from here before I lose my temper,” Jembe roared, dangerously waving his broad crocodile machete.
“Now what have I done wrong? Jembe, tell me. One greets you and only receives the sting of the wasp. Why?”
“Don’t you know why?” Jembe growled.
“Yes, I don’t know. Tell me. Whenever I come close to you like a neighbour you behave as though I am a rotten thing.”
“Yes, you are a rotten piece of meat. Now leave! I have had enough of your ill-luck and endless begging. Today you are begging for a piece of meat, tomorrow you want salt, the next day you want fire….when will you ever grow to be a real man?”
“I am not ashamed to beg. It is better to beg than to steal. I hope you kill enough animals to feed your poor dog and to compensate for people’s crops your fire is now eating up” Tanga snapped and started away.
Jembe searched around him for a weapon, and ended up with a burning twig which he hurled at the escaping man. But the projectile soon lost its energy and fell short on its way.
“Pay for your mother’s crops! Foolish sheep who eats grass like Ngomba’s goat. Look at your neck like that of a dead tortoise,” he shouted.
Tanga silently hastened away, took a bend on his left and was soon out of sight, covered by tall trees and elephant grass that flanked the path on either side.
On turning around Jembe, not watching, stepped on the stub of Kuli’s tail; Jembe had cut off a portion of the dog’s tail alleging that Kuli could only hunt effectively, and saved from the hands of a chimpanzee, if he had a short tail. Kuli whined in pain, struggling to free his tail from under Jembe’s rough, tough foot.
Jembe dug a kick on the dog’s ribs.
“It’s because of your ill luck that the animals have all disappeared. You and that scallywag, Tanga, have infested this place with misfortune,” he said seriously.
He presently brought out the mole from his bag. Holding the carcass by the tail and waving it about like a useless piece of cloth, he bemoaned:
“Only one mole! What will I do with it? Not even big enough for a mouthful.”
Still holding the dead mole by the tail, he examined it hungrily, licked his lips as he imagined how the animal would taste after a careful, ceremonious cooking. He would put no garlic. Just plenty of pepper, curry powder, onion and little water; this would ensure that the meat absorbed the ingredients deeply to the bones. Oh, how he would crush the skull and hipbones!
Jembe could no longer wait to start realizing this wonderful art – cooking a lone mole after a hard day’s work with hunger.
“Let’s go home,” he said to his dog, replacing the mole in his bag.
It was already getting dark. The partridges’ songs could be heard from across the swamps long after hawks had retired to their nests on the top of tall baobab trees.
* * *
Being a gifted hunter and a good cook, Jembe always made a critical choice of the best parts of meat for his pot. This Sunday morning he realized that the mole he had cooked the day before was now extraordinarily appetizing.
He was just from relieving himself in the low bush behind his house. He always did this to bolster his appetite and to create space before a heavy meal. Now he was whistling as he removed his singlet and hung it on the rail that ran above the hearth over which he smoked his meat. He cooked, dined, and slept in this tiny square room having a half-drum for a chair and an old bamboo bed.
He flexed his arms and legs and frighteningly became conscious that something was wrong. The upturned wooden bowl on the floor jolted him. No, this could not be his bowl of food! His heart beat fast as he kicked it over.
“I will kill this dog today,” he cried, feeling a sudden burst of bitterness, and grabbed a whip stuck between the rotten planks and hurried outside.
Kuli was coiled beside the house, licking his mouth. Before the dog could move, three gapping lines stood on his back where the quick strokes had fallen.
Kuli whined and ran away to Tanga’s compound.
“I will kill you before I can rest in this house.” Jembe was panting as he gave chase.
Tanga’s, wife, Ndome, was from fetching water.
“What has Kuli done again?” she cried as the dog ran past her.
Jembe stopped and regarded Ndome with a scornful look on his face.
“Parrot, can you shut up your mouth and take your concern to your house?”
“My concern is here and now, Mr. Jembe, to see that an animal is properly treated. I don’t like the way you treat Kuli.”
“You must not like the way I manage my house,” Jembe snapped.
“Your house!” Ndome sneered, supporting her bucket of water with one hand while the other hand rested on her waist. “That tattered thing you inherited from your father who inherited from his father is what you call a house? You have no wife, no children, yet even this poor dog left behind by your father, you keep beating as though he was a church drum.”
Jembe’s mouth was now greased with sputum. He was trembling with fury. No woman dared talked to him like this.
“You sharp-mouthed parrot!” he roared, pushing her away. Ndome toppled over and the bucket missed her leg by an inch.
“It is only God who will repay you,” she stammered, sobbing. “You are above Mukunda but God will take care of your wickedness. You will regret all these one day – even on your dying bed.”
“Are you the one to kill me?” Jembe asked, pointing a thick finger at her. “A useless dog eats my food and when I want to punish the thing, you come along opening your dirty mouth to oppose.”
Ndome’s son who had been watching from the spaces between the hedges that separated the two compounds said, “Mami, Kuli did not eat anything. It is Pa Ngomba’s goat. This is it right here.”
Jembe immediately turned his attention to the boy.
“What did you say? That Ngomba’s goat ate my food?”
But the boy had withdrawn home.
“God will repay you,” Ndome said, picked up her empty bucket and headed to her house with water dripping from her wrapper.
Jembe too turned around and went back to his house.
“Lucky enough that I hid the pot in the barn otherwise that wizard’s goat would have made me go hungry today. And that useless dog couldn’t chase the goat away – even bite its leg off.” He climbed on the bed and brought down the hidden pot of the remaining food.
A juicy leg of the mole was now in his mouth as he pulled the rusty, half-drum and tossed it at the back of the door in a position that assured him that no one passing outside saw him while he saw everyone passing. He nestled the black pot of food on his thighs.
Kuli sat patiently, waiting. His eyes followed Jembe’s hand from the pot to his mouth and back to the pot.
Jembe spared no bone because he had a long-established and mastered way of crushing them. After completely crushing the last bone, he licked all the fingers of his right hand, drank a big calabash of water, belched loudly, and wiped his hands on his hair.
Looking now at the rotten planks covered with cobweb and up at the roof smeared with soot from his fire place, Jembe settled backward in his seat, leisurely threw his head sideways, leaned his broad back against the wall, and smiled.
After his father’s death, he had inherited his grandfather’s one-roomed thatched hut and had resolved to make the most out of his freedom and space, not having to share a potentially happy life with a depressing woman for a wife and a team of noisy children. He wondered why men like Tanga had not grown mad or died of heart failure with a wife who must be very nagging as all women are bound to be, and children who wouldn’t think twice before stealing pieces of smoked meat from a man’s barn. He had warned them never to cross those hedges into his compound.
“I am very lucky to be free from all those worries,” he said, sighed and began washing his hands in the pot containing the crushed bones. With the pot in his hands, he looked around the room. It was then that he noticed Kuli. He picked up the washed bones and threw them outside.
“Have these, you greedy thing. Can’t you stay away when somebody is eating?”
Kuli registered the harsh tone, read the look in his master’s eyes, and knew better than to sit around a moment longer. Slowly he walked out of the room and sat himself under an almond tree in the front yard.
Jembe belched one more time, loosened and then retied his belt made from weaved sinews of cover crops. He felt heavy and important. For the past two years he has been noticing, with fascination and joy, the steady protrusion of his belly. How he wanted it to grow more rotund so that all who saw him walk along the street in his coat of hide and baton of chimpanzee’s tibia, would surely know – with much reverence – that a hunter was a rich man!
He removed his once-white and greasy singlet from the bamboo rail. After putting on the singlet and admiring his belly once again, he fetched his hunting thong from a nail on the wall behind his bed. He picked up his spear and machete from behind the door – a position that the weapons occupied for security purpose; he trusted no one; he slept with his mind on his barn of meat and an open eye on his ready weapons.
Jembe closed the door firmly from inside and dragged the heavy bamboo bed to weight it with. Satisfied that nobody could push open the door, he went to the end of the wall facing the backyard and shifted aside a crate containing hides of long-killed animals. This revealed a square hole wide enough for him to crawl out through like a snake. His shoulders brushed against the sides, and his spinal column scraped against the rough top as he forced himself out through the hole. Once outside, he dusted himself hastily before pulling back the crate in place.
“Let’s go, Kuli,” he said “We must hurry before the sun gets too hot.”
Kuli did not budge from his position.
After moving a few steps, Jembe stopped and turned around. Curiously, his gaze shifted first to the door and then to the dog. The bones were still lying there, untouched. And Kuli sat as though carved out of stone.
Jembe suddenly became suspicious. “So you didn’t eat your food?”
Kuli did not look his way.
Since when has this dog learnt to disobey him?
What a terrible, ungrateful animal!
“Just sit there and wait for me,” he called out in a threatening voice as he raced to the hedge of flowers. In a moment he was back with a long hard stem in his hand.
Whack! Whack! Whack! The whip landed on the dog.
Kuli resisted the first three strokes administered on his back. But when the fourth stroke caught his left ear, he uttered a sharp whine and whirled about in pain.
“I thought you are an iroko tree. ” Jembe was panting. “You useless dog! Stop staring at me with those evil eyes before I fall on you like hot charcoal,” he shouted.
Kuli quickly looked away.
The church bell was ringing as Jembe, grumbling seriously, started off down the road that ran from the outskirts of the village of Mukunda to the forest. Kuli waited until he had advanced about twenty meters before he rose and followed.
The two went along. The master hacked his way through the narrow path flanked with wet grass that brushed against his bare feet and shoulders. They trekked for several miles, taking several bends and paths that took them deeper into the forest, away from the area they had hunted the day before.
“Today we are to attack this end of the forest,” Jembe informed his dog. “We must sweep it clean before dark. I had a good dream last night that told me there are many animals in this area.” He smiled. The thought of killing many animals always made his heart burn with delight. He lived to hunt and eat. “More meat every day” was the slogan he carried with him from dawn to dusk, through his sleep, to another dawn.
As they progressed still deeper into the forest without a single sign of an animal, Jembe gradually became annoyed and impatient. He sneered at the birds singing and flying about from one branch to another. Now he tiptoed cautiously towards a tree where a flock of clock birds had just perched and were cleaning each other’s feathers with their beaks. He firmly bit his lower lip. Before the birds knew he was around, he thought, they would all be flapping their broken wings for the last miserable time in his bag.
Quack! He had accidentally stepped on a dry twig. The breaking noise sold him out to the birds that all flew hastily off to another tree.
Kuli ran away to hide under the canopy of low trees, a safe distance away from his master.
Jembe banged his fist against his thigh. He cursed and swore.
“If only I had not forgotten my catapult!” he said. “Why was I even in a hurry to leave the house? All those birds gone!”
To pre-empt another embarrassment, he broke a thick branch from a nearby tree and plucked off all the leaves and twigs. If he had had a weapon like this at least, all the birds wouldn’t have gone free.
“Woof!” Kuli barked.
Jembe spun around only to face an antelope staring at him straight in the eyes. He shook his head to clear an imaginary mist that was forming in his mind.
Slowly, he moved his fingers to clutch his spear. To his greatest disappointment, the only weapon his left hand could offer was the branch he had just broken. He had dropped his tools before crawling after the birds.
“Woof.” Kuli’s bark galvanized the antelope into a gallop for safety.
“Get it, Kuli,” Jembe cried desperately. He snatched his weapons from the ground and swung himself into the thicket.
“Get it, Kuli”
The dense undergrowth presented no obstacle at all. With his strong, stout legs and arms, Jembe tore the shrubs and climbers. He pushed aside branches and prowled forward with the speed of a hare.
He had forgotten of those numerous pits that a banana-producing company had dug during their land-prospecting and soil-evaluation activities. It has been a long time and the holes were now covered with shrubs. As he swerved to avoid colliding with a tree, he stepped on the carpet of grass and landed with all his weight into the nine-foot-deep hole. He uttered a loud cry of pain and horror. As he struggled to stand, he gulped down a few mouth-full of the rain water that had collected in the hole over the week. His left tibia was fractured and his right arm dislocated at the shoulder. He pulled himself to lean on the wall. His entire skeletal system burned with an excruciating pain.
“Help – help – help –” he cried, tears streaming down his face. The silence that greeted his call for aid made him to suddenly remember that it was Sunday and people didn’t go to their farms. Only tappers did but usually very early in the morning and late in the evening. Again he was in a hole in the middle of a forest a long distance away from the main road.
“Help!” This time it was the cry of desperation.
* * *
“All through your life, Jembe, you have been burning in that consuming flame of a revolving-but-never evolving personal glory,” Tanga said. He was sitting on the half-drum which served as Jembe’s table. Jembe was lying on his bamboo bed with his left leg hanging upward by a rope tied to a rafter and his left hand fondling Kuli who was sitting beside the bed.
Tanga and his family had returned from church that afternoon and found Kuli lying on their doorstep. As soon as Kuli saw him, he began whimpering and shaking its stub of a tail and moving towards the road to the farm. After repeating this ritual twice or thrice, Tanga began to understand the sign.
“Something is wrong with Jembe,” he had said to his wife.
“Jembe, our neighbour, of course. How many Jembes do you know?”
“What makes you think something is wrong with him?”
“Can’t you hear the dog’s message? Kuli has come to look for help.”
Without wasting time, Tanga had rounded up two men to accompany him, with Kuli on the lead.
“If it wasn’t for your dog, the dog you treated worse than the mice that eat clothes and things, you would have died and rot in that hole. You have grown up with that poisonous conception that your are the most successful man because you are a hunter; a man who fears nothing; a man who knows that he was born to be master forever; a man who dreams of nothing but of his superiority over all beings, and who only wakes up in the morning with the firm resolve to engrave his status by force in the hearts of those beings he considers inferior and over whom he must lord it; a man who sees no need to add anything to what he has met since you proclaim that all is well as long as it is well with you. After all, you were born to be a consumer and not a producer. And a consumer you must remain. Now look at you!”
He stopped to scold down at the groaning hunter. “Today that cold wind has caught up with your arrogance. How do you feel now after eating a meal of huckleberry?”
Jembe only bit his lower lip and let the tears freely flow down his cheeks.