for Bruce Chatwin
Like others before and since, the greatest French poet, Rimbaud, first began dying in Africa.
In Kenya, if you wish six sodas, of say the flavor called Bitter Lemon, you need six empty bottles, plus about a dollar. To take away a bottle you must first bring one, straight exchange. It need not be the same brand or flavor. Only in hotels can credit be extended; it is assumed that you will leave the last bottle when you are done, and you are bought a drink on trust.
Rimbaud, having gone home to France to finish dying, could talk only of a blue stone cup stained by fig juice, and of watching the bearers eat an elephant under dom palms.
On a Thursday in the Samburu Desert one July several years ago I saw a dead elephant under a dom palm. Dom palm is the only palm to have a branching trunk; the main stem is thin, like that of a tropical yucca, and two thirds of the way up forks into two or three thinner stems, each with its own spread hand of fronds. The elephant had been dead a month, the hide collapsed like a discarded carpet over the bones, splashed everywhere flat white by vultures. It smelled like dust. There was nothing to take a picture of, and because of the possibility of lions we did not get out of the van. Overhead a small flock of striped swallows was feeding in the still sky. Their shadows shoaled across the pale dirt under a hard noon sun, then shrank to dots then to nothing as they lifted on a thermal. Driving away, the van swayed crossing dried ruts, the bottles in our Thermos chest clinking together harshly with each lurch.
The most common beer is Tusker. Even at a game lodge a single bottle costs only sixty cents cold. The label is white and gold and black, with a trumpeting, poorly drawn bull elephant positioned between two generalized barley ears. Because they are reused for years, the bottles are thick and worn, squat and baobab-shaped brown glass with a faint band of white abrasion on all of the body's rounded edges. As you sit with one loosely balanced on your leg, picking at the label like a scab, little pulpy strings of paper will pile up where your shorts meet your thigh.
Rimbaud would close his eyes, and when he opened them would speak deliberately and exactly, as if to dictate an encyclopedia. One day he said nothing except to describe a species of Abyssinian porcupine the size of a brood sow. These would wander into cornfields, he said. His sister pleaded with him to go to church, she applied damp cloths, she prayed. He was dying under dom palms.
That day had turned windy but ended calm, and in the moonless night the shooting stars stood out like flares. After dinner the jackals had come, loose hipped as coyotes. Later that night, at midnight, in my tent, I heard a scops owl. I took my flashlight and journal, following the hoot like the lowest notes of a tenor recorder whispered out on failing breath. At the main lodge I found the source of it, but not an owl, just two bird-tour leaders, British expatriates, each drinking beer and imitating owls and waiting for an animal to come drink at the floodlit pond in front of the verandah. One had filled an ashtray with stained butts; the knee-high stone wall they rested their feet on held a week's collateral of bottles. They sat at the edge of the lounge on a tiled floor, under a tall thatched roof like a circus canopy, looking out over the grass and acacias, feet up, waiting. I opened a Tusker with a pocketknife and sat down with them, my journal on my lap. A hare was feeding on the lawn. We traded a few sentences but mostly sat resting, just watching the everything of nothing, slowly rubbing the labels off the bottles, slowly taking long sips. It was late and I was dog tired, but nothing seemed more important than just holding the bottle, sucking in the cool, wild-smelling night air, just waiting for a leopard or a zebra or a mongoose to hunt by or come drink. The book remained closed. I didn't need it. This was the real thing, watching the night, waiting. This was writing, this was writing the deep texts, this was learning the things that will shade me on that faraway day when my sister will have to swab my forehead, and when all that my lips will be able to do is quarry an encyclopedia word by word, an encyclopedia more glorious than any other, while the swallows course around the crown of the dom palm, and somewhere far off an owl starts calling through the gathering dusk.
Charles Hood teaches at Antelope Valley College in California. His book, The Xopilote Cantos, is an account of the Spanish Conquest of Costa Rica.
The Journal of African Travel-Writing, Number 4, April 1998 (p. 66).
Copyright © 1998 The Journal of African Travel-Writing