The Last Savanna — Excerpt

ls178x267-fwTHE ELAND DESCENDED four steps down the grassy hillside and halted. He glanced all the way round the rolling golden hills, then closer, inspecting the long grass rippling in the wind, behind him, on both sides, and down to the sinuous green traverse of acacia, doum palms and strangler trees where the stream ran. The wind from the east over his shoulder carried the tang of drying murram grass and the scents of bitter pungent shrubs, of dusty, discarded feathers and glaucous lizard skins, of red earth and brown earth, of old scat and stones heating in the midafternoon sun. He switched at flies with his tail, twitched his ears, descended five more steps, and stopped again.

Thirst had dried his lips and eyes, tightened his throat, hardened his skin. Already the rain was drying out of the grass and soil pockets; here only the stream remained, purling between volcanic stones, rimmed by trees and tall, sharp weeds. He circled a thorn bush and moved closer several steps, his spiral gray horns glinting as he looked up and down the valley from north to west, then south, then up the slope behind him.

The shoulder-high thorn bushes grew thicker near the stream. The downslope breeze twirled their strong, dusty scents among their gnarled trunks; the sour smell of siafu, warrior ants, prickled his nose. He waited for the comforting twitter of sunbirds in the streamside acacias, the muffled snuffling of warthogs, or the swish of vervet monkeys in the branches, but there were none.

Licking his dry nose with a black tongue he raised his head and again sniffed round the wind, batting at flies with his ears, dropped his jaw and panted. There was truly no bad smell, no danger smell, but the wind was coming down the valley behind him and to get upwind he’d have to cross the stream and there was no way except through the thorn and commiphora scrub, which was where the greatest danger lay. He glanced back over his shoulder, gauging the climb necessary to regain the ridge and travel into the wind till he could descend the slope at a curve in the stream and keep the wind in his face. The sun glinting on the bleached grass, bright stones and red earth hurt his eyes; he sniffed once more, inhaled deeply, expanding the drum of thin flesh over his ribs, and shoved into the thorn scrub.

A widowbird exploded into flight from a branch on the far side of the stream and the eland jumped back, trembling. The sound of the stream pealing and chuckling coolly over its rocks made his throat ache. The heat seemed to buzz like cicadas, dimming his eyes. Shaking flies from his muzzle, he trotted through the scrub and bent his head to suck the water flashing and bubbling over the black stones.

The old lioness switched her tail, rose from her crouch and surveyed the eland’s back over the top of the thorn scrub. She had lain motionless watching his approach and now her body ached to move; the eland’s rutty smell made her stomach clench and legs quiver. She ducked her head below the scrub and padded silently to the stream, picked her way across its rocks without wetting her paws and, slower now, slipped a step at a time through the bush and crouched behind a fallen doum palm part way up the slope behind the eland, only her ears visible above it.

Far overhead a bearded vulture wavered in its flight, tipping on one wing, and turned in a wide circle. The eland raised his head, swallowing, glanced round; water dripping from his lips spattered into the stream. He shivered the flies from his back, bent to drink, raised his head, water rumbling in his belly. He turned and scanned the slope behind and above him; this was where he’d descended and now the wind was in his face and there was still no danger smell. His legs felt stronger; he licked his lower lip that already seemed less rough from the water filling his body. He trotted back through the thorn scrub past the fallen doum palm, bolting at the sudden yellow flash of terror that impaled him on its fierce claws, the lioness’ wide jaws crushing his neck as he screamed crashing through the bush. With one paw the lioness slapped him to the ground but he lurched up and she smashed him down again, her fangs ripping his throat, choking off the air as his hooves slashed wildly, and the horror of it he knew now and understood, dust clouding his eye, the other torn by thorns; the flailing of his feet slackened as the sky went red, the lioness’ hard body embracing him, the world and all he had ever known sliding into darkness.

The lioness sighed and dropped her head, the stony soil hurting her jaw. After a few moments she began to lick the blood seeping from the eland’s throat and mouth and the shoulder where her claws had torn it, then turned and licked her left rear leg where one of the eland’s hooves had made a deep gash. Settling herself more comfortably among the thorn bushes, she stripped back the skin along the eland’s shoulder, licking and gnawing at the blood and warm flesh beneath.

Crackling in the brush made her lay back her ears; she rumbled softly, deep in her throat. Heavy footsteps splashed through the stream and she growled louder, her rope tail switching. The male lion came up to the eland, lifted his lip and snarled.

Still growling she backed away slightly, lowering her head to grip the eland’s foreleg. The male sniffed the eland’s shoulder, crouched, ears back, and began to chew it. Then, gripping the shoulder in his jaw, he dragged the animal sideways, the lioness crawling after it, still holding the leg. Baring his teeth, the male leaned across the eland’s shoulder, bit down on the foreleg and pulled the eland over to get at its belly and flanks. Carefully the lioness edged round the carcass, reaching tentatively for a rear leg. With a roar the male flicked out a huge, flat paw that caught the side of her head. Her neck snapped loudly and the lioness tumbled back into the thorn brush, one rear paw trembling briefly.

The Samburu warrior rose from his hiding place among the rocks high up the slope, stretched his stiff legs and picked up his spear. From the shade he watched the lion’s thick black-maned head burrow into the eland’s belly. Since dawn, when the Samburu had begun watching the two lions, the young male and old female, they had mated nearly three times ten, but now he had killed her, giving the Samburu a possible solution to the problem that had been bothering him all day.

THE SAMBURU WARRIOR climbed to the ridge, keeping out of sight of the lion a half mile below, his bare, thick-soled feet soundless on the raveled, stony earth, his goatskin cloak soundless against his slender limbs. Once over the ridge he broke into a run, down a long, wide valley with a laga, a dry sandy stream-bed, against a line of umber cliffs bloodied by the afternoon sun. Where the cliffs became a scrubby talus slope he ascended to a large, spindly desert rose bush with red flowers. He waited till he’d caught his breath, unsheathed his simi and began to draw its blade up and down the head of his spear, till both edges glittered and easily shaved the few hairs on the back of his wrist. He sheathed the simi and knelt beside the desert rose, cut a downward slash in its stem with his spear, and waited.Soon a bubble of white sap had collected on the slash. He fitted together the two halves of his spear, thunking the shaft against the earth to seat the top section firmly in the steel haft of the lower one. Then very carefully he drew both edges and the tip of the spearhead along the bubble of sap. He went back down the slope, careful not to touch the spearhead against the brush or bring it near himself.

A gerenuk standing on hind legs to munch at the twigs of an umbrella acacia dropped to all fours and scampered away, halting to look back over her shoulder, but the Samburu ignored her. He reached the laga and turned north, walking fast but not running, stepping once over the groove in the sand where a puff adder had crossed his earlier tracks, and he reminded himself to be watchful among the bare rocks warmed by the afternoon sun.

He climbed out of the valley to the ridge and down part way, smiling when he saw the lion was still there, far below. The lion had dragged the eland’s intestines, stomach and lungs to one side, eaten the liver and both rear legs and flanks, and was now lying belly down and holding the eland’s head and chest with his paws as he ripped strips of muscle from its neck.

The Samburu checked the sun now a forearm’s length above the western hills. He sniffed the wind, which had scurried round and now came upstream from the lion, towards the thick scrub below him. But once the sunlight had climbed above the streambed this would reverse, and the cooling air further upstream would begin to descend from him towards the lion.

Again he estimated the distance from the lion and the eland carcass to a single doum palm standing upstream of them, whose first fork could be reached quickly and whose trunk was strong enough to withstand the lion’s lunge and too vertical for him to climb. And again the Samburu felt doubt and fear and once more estimated the distance between the lion and the tree.

Keeping the spear point well ahead of him, he crept on hands and knees down the slope, into the failing wind. Thorns caught on his skin and sank into his palms and he extracted them noiselessly, breathing as quietly as possible, holding the spear free of the ground so it would not clink on stones, always conscious of the pressure of the wind against his face.

With a crunch of bones the lion severed the eland’s foreleg from the shoulder. The Samburu moved closer, fearing the pounding of his heart, hearing the rip of connective tissue as the lion pulled muscle from the eland’s ribcage and, muttering contentedly, gulped it down. Ahead of him the Samburu could see the doum palm rising above the scrub; the wind in his face died, his pulse thudding in his ears.

On hands and knees, weaving the spear point ahead of him through the thick and tangled thorn scrub, holding down one by one the blades of pale bunchgrass as he moved across them, detaching each finger-length thorn that sank into his skin or cloak, keeping as much as he could to the fiery but quieter stones that seemed to whisper into the soil as he placed his weight upon them, he reached the doum palm as sunlight left the valley floor and began to climb the slope.

A touch of wind ran up his back and he tensed to run, but the lion did not snarl or charge, must not have caught his smell. More insistently the breeze returned, flowing down the stream as the sun dropped it into shadow. The Samburu stood, spear drawn back, the sap-coated point beside his eye. Twenty paces ahead, the lion’s shoulders rippled huge and tawny as he stripped connective tissue from the eland’s ribs, his back muscles flexing down into his thick back legs, his triangular ears kittenish above the mass of black mane. The Samburu darted forward, hurled the spear and dashed back to the palm, his cloak sailing as he scrambled up the scaly trunk to the first fork and the lion crashed roaring against the trunk and leaped up it, a bough above the Samburu’s head snapping with the lion’s impact on the trunk and spinning outwards and splashing into the stream. All this the Samburu saw clearly, slowly, as if it took no time, was timeless, the lion’s huge white teeth, red tongue, yellow furious eyes, the impossibly broad square jaws framed in its colossal black mane nearing as the lion thrust himself up the trunk, his front paws the size of a man’s belly, their yellow curved claws shattering bark as they dug into the wood. The Samburu snatched his simi and leaned downwards, as if to cut this forepaw wider than his thigh, seeing now the spear hanging from the lion’s side, its head sunk between his ribs.

Unable to hold his weight the lion slid back down, wood chunks showering him. He growled, deep and disconsolate, turned and snapped off the spear with his teeth, padded back to the eland and darted a few steps after two black-backed jackals that fled through the bush. He glared at the Samburu, sniffed the eland, and streaked through the scrub to collide again against the doum palm. The Samburu lost his grip as the trunk snapped down then whipped back, his simi flying, bark slipping through his fingers, but he clenched his ankles round his branch, a huge paw whistling past his head as he twisted back up, grabbed the trunk and stood on the branch. The lion slid back to the ground.

Again he chased the jackals from the eland. He seemed to trip, righted himself, jerked his head round and began to lick at his wound. This did not satisfy him and he squirmed to lick beneath his tail, plodded to the stream, drank, fell down climbing the bank, returned to the eland and resumed eating. After a few moments he stood as if hearing something from afar, jerked spasmodically, and fell. He dragged himself on forelegs towards the stream, wavered to his feet, turned his wide-maned, bitter face in a roar of rage at the Samburu, toppled over the lioness, and lay still.

Sunlight had fled to the upper eastern slopes. To the north, across vast, empty Suguta Valley, the sky shifted steadily from cobalt to blood and lavender; doves called from the candelabra euphorbias, “And you too? And you too?” A honeyguide fluttered past the doum palm, alit on a higher branch, and cocked its head expectantly down at the Samburu. “Come with me!” it twittered. “Honey! Honey! Come with me!” A string of puffball cumulus trooped across the eastern sky, nose to tail like elephants, sunset reddening their flanks, as if they’d been rolling, as elephants once did, in the ochre desert dust of the Dida Galgalu.

Furtive, then more assured, the jackals returned, barking their alarm calls at each bird’s flutter or whisper in the wind, glancing often at the motionless lions while they chewed hurriedly on the eland.

The Samburu slipped down the doum palm, found his simi and edged closer to the lions. He threw a large rock that thumped against the male’s head, making the jackals bark, but the lion did not move. The jackals did not back away, one standing proprietarily atop the eland’s ribs. An owl called from the downstream darkness.

The Samburu threw several more rocks but the lion seemed truly dead. Gathering up his cloak and holding his simi before him, he moved closer, the lions now a single fawn-colored mass in the gathering gloom. He poked the simi’s point into the lion’s eye: yes, he was dead.

It took all his strength to roll the lion on to his back. With the simi he slit down the center of the lion’s lower jaw, down his neck, the center of his chest and belly and back to his testicles and the root of his tail, and started to free the skin on both sides from the stomach and ribs.

The moon rose yellow as maize, deformed like a melon that has lain too long on one side. On the ridge beneath the moon a clan of hyenas yodeled like demon children; the Samburu paused to wipe his simi, looked up but could not see them. He dragged the male lion’s carcass free of his pelt, went to the dead eland and sliced long strips of skin and sinew from the two unchewed legs, folded the lion’s pelt, lashed it with the sinew, and carried it on his back to the palm. With a long strap of sinew sections he pulled the pelt up into the fork of the tree, returned and began to skin the lioness.

The hyenas had circled from the east around the southern upper end of the valley, crossing his trail. Now they were coming fast along the west side, halfway up that slope. Soon they would pick up his scent again, and the eland’s, and begin to close in.

Hurriedly he gathered dry leaves from the base of a thorn bush, and with his simi cut thin strips of bark from a small tamarind tree. These he piled near the lioness; then he ran to an umbrella acacia and snapped twigs from the edge of its canopy where giraffes had browsed the leaves and killed the branches. Something black moved through the gray scrub silvered by moonlight—a low, hunchbacked scurrying silhouette, the lead hyena, scouting him. They were silent now, smelling his fear.

He ran back to his pile of leaves and tamarind bark, but the wind had scattered it. Brush whispered as the hyenas drew closer, a moon-pale eye blinking. He scuffed together the leaves and bark as best he could, crunching down the acacia thorns with his hands. Wiping the blood on his shins he unwrapped a small flint from a fold of his cloak and struck it hard against the edge of his simi, the hyenas whining appreciatively as the smell of his blood reached them.

Like a small planet flung from its orbit, the spark flared across the darkness and ebbed against its bed of leaves. The wind fanned it; it burned a hole in its leaf and dropped through, went out. Claws ticked on rocks; more than lion, leopard, even more than buffalo he feared and hated hyenas—skulking, elusive, afraid of man until he’s alone, at night, without fire, when they attack in hordes and tear him apart alive, crush his still-living limbs in their jaws, as they had his cousin Oaulguu’s father-in-law, caught alone in the desert near Ilaut. The Samburu knew now that they would have him too, not just his lion skin; faster and faster he struck the flint, a hyena snickering at its flash, the sparks dying on the wrinkled leaves. He flung a boulder at the closest hyena, who barked sharply and retreated, the others clacking their teeth in anticipation. With his simi he dug more rocks from the soil and threw them till there was only one hyena between him and the doum palm and he charged it, screaming, swinging his simi; the hyena backed away, snarling, then pounced at his heels as he clambered up the palm tree and crouched, breathless, on the limb beside his lion pelt.

In the clear blue moonlight he watched the hyenas circle the eland and lioness, draw closer, then suddenly swarm them, yipping and snarling, crunching bones and ripping flesh. For a while they clustered round the eland, fighting and dragging it first one way then the other, till more hyenas appeared one by one out of the dark scrub, deposing several of the first group who then, growling and whimpering, turned their attention to the lioness. With regret the Samburu watched them, his hand descending often to check the sinew binding the male lion’s pelt to the branch beneath his feet. He who takes more than his share, N’gai says, ends with nothing. This big black-maned lion was N’gai’s gift, to pay the year’s school fees for his sons. He would not spurn or squander N’gai’s gift.

LONG BEFORE THE STARS DIED the birds began to sing—cool rippling doves, loud cheery starlings, the long lilting trills of warblers and thrushes. The hyenas has ceased snarling and yipping around the eland; against the paling stars the Samburu could see the tiny gliding spots of the vultures that had come before dusk and circled all night.Dawn raced like fire across the savanna. Three hyenas still lay with their heads inside the eland’s bared ribcage; another was chewing fleas at the base of his tail; the lioness’ pelt was shredded, her head severed and half-gnawed in the scrub. The first vulture skated down on wide, whistling wings and landed near the eland, cocking its rubbery red head; a hyena ran barking at it and it lumbered off, flapped above the hyena and circled back. A second drifted down and roosted in a thorn bush; another hyena raised its muzzle from the eland’s belly and growled.

The Samburu lowered the lion’s pelt on its sinew and slid to the ground. He steadied the pelt on his head, grasped his spear and trotted eastwards up the slope into the full raiment of the sun.

The lion pelt was still heavy with fat and blood and the lion’s heavy fur, heavier than the stone-heavy podocarpus boughs he had carried often from the banks of the Ewaso N’giro to his mother’s manyatta when he was still a boy and the desert had not yet come. He should stop and skin the pelt cleaner so he could carry it with less exhaustion, but as he crested the ridge he realized the hyenas had left the eland and, yowling, had taken up his trail. Further north, along the stream, the others answered. Glancing back as he ran, the Samburu tried to unsheath his simi; a stone shifted underfoot and his ankle snapped loud as a dry stick in the bright morning air, and he fell face down among the rocks. He lurched to his feet, raised up the pelt, and hobbled forward on the spear; the pelt tumbled from his head, skipped and rolled, spinning awkwardly, downhill. The four hyenas checked their lope to watch it slam into a thorn bush, knocking loose a weaver’s nest that bounced over the rocks and vanished in the scrub.

The Samburu cut a strip from his cloak and wrapped his ankle but could put no weight on it. Using the spear as a cane he sidestepped down the slope; below, the hyenas drew together round the pelt and halted on their haunches, watching him descend. He drew his simi and waved it, yelling, but they did not retreat.

Single file the other hyenas had cleared the scrub along the stream and were hurrying upslope. The Samburu reached the pelt, shaking with pain; the four hyenas glanced back at the rest of the pack and trotted towards him, haunches down, ears back, jaws grinning. His back to the pelt and thorn bush, he fitted his spear together and held it in his right hand, the simi in his left. The pack of hyenas joined the first four, now numbering the fingers of three hands. Whining, eyes darting side to side, long jaws gaping with delight, as if imploring him not to fear, this would all end quickly, they circled him, sniffing the bloody pelt, his fear.

He backed tighter into the bush, its thorns pricking his back and thighs, blood trickling down his spine. The hyenas split up; he sensed some coming up behind, their claws rattling the loose soil, the branches twanging in their wiry fur, their anxious panting. As the three before him darted in, low and fast, he caught the first in the shoulder with the spear, the second across the skull with the simi but the third gashed his calf and, leaping past the simi’s swing, ran to the others and sat licking the blood that spotted its muzzle. Whining, the speared hyena backed away; the second, slashed across the head, crouched beyond reach, ears back. A big female sniffed his bleeding head and, turning her curious, affronted eyes on the Samburu, bolted at him. She leaped back from the simi, then tore his knee and bounded aside as he spun to spear another from the left. He swung the simi at three more coming straight, one leaping for his throat, the massive female soaring at him with jaws outstretched, her breath hot in his face as he drove the spear shaft down her open jaws, ducking, flung her past him, the spearhead going with her. He chopped another’s spine with the simi as it tore into his ankle, jerking the blade upward to slice another’s throat as it snapped for his face, lashing sideways to bare another’s shoulder before it screamed and dove away.

In this moment of death he felt a great calm. Panting, tongues hanging, the hyenas gathered to watch him bleed. He glanced behind the bush, but the spearhead was out of reach. One darted in but sprang back when he raised the simi. With his good foot he rolled one dead hyena towards them, then the other. The big female, bleeding from the mouth, eyes ablaze, slunk nearer, sniffed the first body and as she turned to the second the Samburu jumped forward and cleaved her neck halfway through. But he could not pull the simi free as the others charged him, howling, his simi jammed in her vertebrae by the angle of her neck. He flailed at the others with the broken spear till he could yank the simi free, and the others fell back, watchful, angry.

His feet slipped on the soil muddied by his blood. Sun drummed on his head; the land spun round and round. Attentive and eager, the hyenas crouched cheerfully on their haunches, nostrils and jaws wide, as if it were a game, he thought, about to begin again. He glanced at the blood sliding down his shins: staunch it soon, he thought, or die. Again he saw his bones crunched by them, and he bared his teeth.

The huge sun slid overhead, whitening the desiccated sky and searing the sulphurous soil, the tortured barren scrub. Flies buzzed at his blood; a hyena stood, stretched, sniffed the changing wind, and trotted swiftly northwards, angling downslope. One by one the others rose and followed. Unbelieving, the Samburu waited by his bush, but they were gone, gone away, a new wind raising dust devils and scuttling dead leaves like vipers under the thorn scrub, drying the blood on his lacerated legs and sucking the last moisture from his throat.

He gathered up and reshafted his spear, looked across the undulant, afternoon-hazed bitter brush wavering with heat, but could not see the hyenas. Baffled, he tore apart the rest of his cloak and tried to wrap his legs; it was difficult to walk with this flesh and muscle hanging in strips down the narrow white bones, with his broken ankle lurching sideways at each step, driving impossible pain up what was left of his legs. But N’gai had favored him still with life, this magnificent life with its aromas of bush, soil and wind, its bird songs and buzzard cries, its hum of flies and ants and butterflies and all that composes the cosmos in perfect harmony. And because his youngest sons needed their school fees N’gai had willed that he should live to carry back this lion pelt and it must be done as N’gai willed, to find a way to raise this pelt, steady it atop his head, to lean forward, take a step with these legs baring their bone beneath flags of muddy flesh, to raise this bandaged foot and place it on the crumbly soil, then bear the weight so evenly on the spear shaft, bringing forward the other foot, and all that mattered was to make each step possible, carry it through, then another, then another. He must cross the dead savanna of Lailasai, but if N’gai had spared him the hyenas it would not be to kill him in Lailasai, but to lead him home, where at the duka of Mohammed Amin Sala he would receive four hundred shillings for such a pelt, enough to send the boys to school, and with each step he repeated this thought, under the weight of the pelt and the heat of the sun.

Each time he fell the sun’s heat woke him, and he dragged himself to the pelt and, kneeling, raised it to his head then forced himself up, steadying his stagger till he could again step, then step again, then step again, towards the ridges of the Ol Doinyo Lailasai hovering before him in the late afternoon heat.

Again the sun had died. How cool the land, how soft the violet light, as he crested the last rise and Ol Doinyo Lailasai towered before him like the entrance to an immense mystery he was beginning to understand, in the clarity of pain and early starlight, when the birds are silenced by the sudden wall that falls between day and night and in the very far distance the rock mountain where N’gai was born guarded his manyatta. If the hyenas did not come he’d reach it before the sun grew hot tomorrow, if he walked all night, and yes, N’gai was good to him and his sons for he would reach it now, and taking a deep breath of this dry, chill sunset air he did not understand nor realize the shocking, crushing force that suddenly separated him from the earth and hurled him in scattered awareness among the bushes whose thorns no longer hurt, the pelt’s weight no longer bearing him down, and he tried to remember why he was carrying it, then could not remember what it was, remembering then, only, N’gai has been good, N’gai has been so good.

Finger still on the trigger of his AK47, the young Somali slipped from his cover in the euphorbias and, hugging the dark places between the brush, crept to the Samburu lying gape-mouthed on the tousled sand. He was truly dead, this barbarian; the Somali wondered at the power of the rifle, seeing how the bullet had entered the Samburu’s chest just above the heart, and had come out the left eye, which dangled down his cheek on a trace of tissue; the impact of the bullet had forced brains like the insides of snails out the Samburu’s ears; a pool of near-black was spreading round his head.

An uneven clump, clump-clump of hooves approached; shouldering his rifle the Somali turned to another leading a camel. “Ho, brother! Did I not shoot well?”

The other smiled. “Yes, Warwar, it was well done. Now let’s load your pelt quickly. The shot was loud.”

“It’s a shame to share this with the others.”

“You would live alone?” The other dragged the lion pelt from the bushes where it had tumbled. “Check there’s no money on him.”

“Him?” the young Somali scoffed. “It’s a barbarian in rags—an old simi and a worn spear.”

They lashed the pelt atop the camel and continued leading it south as the last rays of sun receded across the lilac sands. Just before dark they crossed a furrowed trail coming from the northwest. Warwar knelt, fingering a round, deep print. “It can’t be!”

His brother walked alongside the tracks, noting the different sizes and strides. “Three females, one old. Plus a calf.” He scanned the back trail, the rough scar in the earth’s reddish eroded crust shadowed by the fading horizontal light. “The last of the northern herds. Driven by thirst down out of the mountains, headed for the Ewaso N’giro.”

“How many days?”

“Weeks. We won’t catch them till the river.”

“Perhaps they’ll find us a bull.”

“Hush, you dreamer! Don’t bring bad luck.”

“Since when would it be bad luck,” Warwar laughed, “to come home loaded down with ivory?”

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