Crows

I needed to escape. The memories and the pressure were… too much. I’d come back to Nairobi from a tough assignment, covering civil unrest (PC for hidden-under-the-carpet civil war) in the north of Kenya, spending weeks in the bush. I’d been trying to get an interview with the rebel chief, whom, of course, the Kenyan Government insisted on calling a shifta, a bandit. I had hardly turned in my piece, and the paper wanted to send me south. And of course to finish up two articles due… last month. It was time to take a break, a holiday. The great advantage of that newspaper, and almost the only one, were the vacations, no time limit, not arguable. Later obviously they got your blood back for that.

As I arrived at the office on a Monday, I notified the Editor in chief (not God but close) that I was going on holiday for an indefinite period of time.

“What?” he said. “How dare you? You just came back!”

“From work, chief. Now I’m leaving. On va-ca-tion.”

“But you love the bush! Don’t you like safaris anymore?”

“Safaris?! Look, Simon. If you’d read my article, you might’ve noticed the conditions in which I spent the last few weeks. 4 days in a military lorry all the way up to the Turkana zone. Then, 4 days in a Pokot village, sleeping in a a Pokot hut. The neighbouring tribe, remember? Staple food? Curdled milk mixed with camel blood. Curdled COW milk mixed with COW blood is all right, but CAMEL blood!? Then three days’ walk to the rebel Turkana settlement. When we got there, we almost got killed, because the stupid guide got mixed up in his dialects when we were asked to identify ourselves. He spoke in Rendille, for God’s sake! The hereditary enemies of the Turkana!”

“Rendille, Turkana, Pokot?” Simon said. “Those are tribes, right? Is there such a big difference?”

“There is,” I said, “especially for them. Anyway. I-am-going. Ho-li-day. Know the concept?”

“Okay”, he said. “I got it. You’re going on vacation. Where to?”

I hesitated for a split second. Wouldn’t be the first time the paper knew where I was going, and they’d pull me out after three or four days to cover an emergency, a flood, an earthquake, or an epidemic, supposedly treating me with a ‘scoop’! But the counterpart of unlimited vacations was that the paper had to know where we were. At all time. So I said between my teeth: “To Lamu. Tonight.”

“Lamu”, he said. “Excellent. We haven’t done much on the coast lately. Bring me something from Lamu. 3,000 words.”

“Simon! I, am, go-ing, on, ho-li-day! En vacances, if you’ll pardon my French.”

“Yes. Of course. Of course! I’m not that daft. You don’t have to work there. Just write everything down in your head, like you always do, and dictate two columns on your return. Now, who the hell am I going to send south? We need to cover the ‘unrest’ before it ends on us.”

“Why don’t you send Emile? He loves unrest. He’s very good at unrest. The most unresty journalist here!”

“Great idea, great. And with you two out of here, I can take a break. And how are you going to Lamu? By plane?”

“No. I’ll take the train to Mombasa. Then rent a car.”

“Excellent! Excellent! Write me a column on the railroad situation.”

“What?!! This is a vacation! For God’s sake! I don’t want to do anything. The only thing I want to write is my signature on the bar’s vouchers.”

“I’ll pay for the train ticket.”

“Ah! Thank you. Asante sana! It costs 150 shillings. A bargain.”

“Stop whining. I’ll pay for the hotel in Lamu. The hotel, not the bar. Just bring me the bill. Okay. Done deal. Now… Where is Emile?”

I ran out of the Editor’s office before he asked ten columns on the recession in the fishing sector in Lamu!

Crows02

Turkana girl (c) Heidi Lange

So I took my vacation from the Standard. One of the best papers in Nairobi. We covered pretty much what we wanted without too much political pressure: guerilla, corruption, extreme poverty. But that last trip up north had left me… empty. Too much violence. Too much everything. Too little hope. I felt like… my soul had been emptied. The best solution? Clean my head. Maybe decide about staying in or leaving Africa. Think about something else. Take the slow road to Lamu. A small island off the coast of Kenya. Way up North, almost on the border with Somalia. You know, where the pirates are.

I took the train from Nairobi to Mombasa. I could have taken a direct plane  to Lamu, but…  the Train with a capital T! ‘Was much better. It’s an institution, over there.

*

The Nairobi-Mombasa train is a remnant, a vestige of the British Empire. The English built the railroad at the end of the 19th century to transport the agricultural products from the Kikuyu highlands, coffee in particular, to the harbour of Mombasa, on the Indian Ocean coast. Nairobi, the capital of Kenya is in the highlands.

The train leaves Nairobi every night at 8PM, more or less sharp, standard deviation of one hour, and arrives in Mombasa the next morning, if all goes well, crossing one of the largest concentrations of wildlife in the world: Tsavo National Park. When the railroad was under construction, around 1898, two lions made the headlines. Five columns: “Another coolie devoured in his sleep”. I have a copy of the book “The man-eaters of Tsavo”, by Lieut.-Col. Patterson, D.S.O. (Does anyone remember what D.S.O. means?). 1907 edition. When Colonel Patterson (Disguished Service Order) eventually killed the two poor buggers, they found out they were old, very old lions, so old they’d lost almost all their teeth, so old the only thing they could chase and eat were the railroad construction workers, the coolies imported from India. Only the Indian workers, never an Indian foreman, never a British engineer. God forbid! Those lions had a sense of hierarchy. Let me quote Colonel Patterson, D.S.O. : “the two man-eaters earned all their fame; they had devoured between them no less than twenty-eight Indian coolies, in addition to scores of unfortunate african natives of whom no official record was kept”. Scores of unaccounted for natives, my foot! At least they qualified as unfortunate. It is a common occurrence with old lions: lose their teeth, can’t run as fast as they used to, start eating a cow or two, much easier and slower than a zebra, then an old Masai or Kikuyu left by his tribe in the open to die alone or to serve as breakfast for another relic, the odd, I mean, old lion.

The night I left Nairobi for Mombasa, the railway station was prey to the usual chaos. Nothing like Grand Central or Victoria Station. African chaos. Families from the coast going back by the cheapest route. Indian families going to visit relatives. Men with a cap and a whistle, alternatively blowing into one or the other. A few tourists ready for the big African adventure. There was a young European couple, waiting for a seat while their two little daughters were fast asleep on a bench. I managed to find my car listed on a board. A few Shillings transferred from palm to palm made sure I would get fresh, starched bed sheets and a clean flea-free blanket. “Sawa, Mzee?” (Sure, Old man?) “Sawa, sawa, kijana”. Kijana means young man, which I was, Mzee means Old Man and is the polite way to address older people. Like above 40! The steward looked about a century old, so he qualified.

I got on the train. I’d reserved an entire compartment of four berths. Simon was paying for the ticket, I might just as well take advantage: the last time I had taken the trainto Mombasa, I’d shared the compartment with a Pakistani family, mother, father, and their daughter. Twelve or fourteen, couldn’t be older. Very nice people, with the typical Indian chanting accent and this anatomically impossible way of shaking head and neck left to right. I tried it once, no dice. I had to wear a surgical collar (neck brace?) for a week. Jolly good people indeed, my Indian-Pakistani-Pendjabi fellow travellers but when bedtime came, no way to turn off the light, no pajamas allowed.  “No, Sir, I mean, what about the women? That would be a shame…” Add to that the fact that the Pakistani gentleman started to snore merrily while his wife stood guard, lest I should make an improper move on her nubile daughter, or worse even: talk to her. I spent the rest of the night on the floor outside. Fully clothed.

On this trip, the compartment was spacious. The sheets clean and the blankets reasonably so. I sat at ease to read the book I’d brought to put myself in the mood: The discovery of the sources of the Nile, by Speke and Burton. Richard Burton. The explorer, not Liz Taylor’s late 14th husband. That other Burton is better known for translating, and adapting a wee bit, The Arabian nights. Everything was peachy. Perfect. Brandy and perhaps a cigar would come after dinner. The train started on time. Fifteen minutes late is considered on time.

At nine sharp, I went to the dining car. My favourite moment of the trip. Sitting at a lone table in the restaurant car, I felt transported back to the Queen’s Empire. Victoria, of course, not today’s Sissy the second. The waiters impeccably dressed in white uniforms, complete with copper buttons and white gloves. The silver was silver, with the Queen’s monogramme. Well, not all the silver was indeed silver: I suspect the odd traveler or tourist sometimes can’t resist the urge to lift a souvenir. Tea spoons apparently were in high demand: mine was stainless steel and read: Made in Korea.

The young tourist family with the two little girls was having dinner a couple of tables away. The eldest daughter had dark brown hair tied in a pony tail. Looked seven or eight. Her little sister would be, what? Around four or five I guess. Her hair slightly lighter, with rebel curls. I was wondering what the little girls would later remember of this trip to the heart of Africa. The little one was kinda sleepy. She got up, holding a felt parrot in the crook of an arm, and a half eaten toast in the other hand. She started touring around the dining car. Suddenly, she tripped and fell on the floor next to my table. I got up to help her get back on her feet. She wasn’t even crying. Four or five but tough. The older girl ran to us, even before her parents could get up. I helped her lift her sister and said:

“Don’t worry. Your sister will be all right. What’s your name?”

“Je ne parle pas anglais,” she said.

“Ah! Comment tu t’appelles?” I said, pulling my French out of some forgotten drawer.

“Alexandra. J’ai huit ans.”

“Oh. Great,” I went on in French. “You’re eight.” And turning to the other little girl I asked her:

“Et comment tu t’appelles?”

“Gini” she said. To which Alexandra added:

“Her name is Virginie, but we all call her Gini. And since she’s little and speaks funny I’m the only one who can understand her. I’m her interpreter!”

I bent down to the little girl, Gini, and asked what her parrot’s name was. She said:

“Y s’appelle Minou.” Waved the parrot at me.

“Minou? Pussy cat? That’s more a name for a cat! Not for a parrot?”

Alexandra, on her little sister’s behalf, went into a long explanation for the parrot’s unseemly name that ended up with: “And I’m going to be a Doctor.” Big smile. One tooth missing.

By then her parents had joined us. Thanked me. The father took the little girl in his arms. She fell asleep instantly.

I went back to my table. The silver was mixed but the food was good. I decided to have my Brandy at the Bar. Met a Brit there, nursing his snifter. He asked me:

“Are there any mountains down this way, mate?”

“No,” I said. “There’s the Ngong hills near Nairobi, just hills. Not mountains. Where Karen Blixen had her farm. Never mind that. There’s Mount Kenya, but it’s the other way round. Up north. Kilimandjaro to the West. But that’s in Tanzania.”

“Good,” he said. “I don’t want to see another bloody mountain in my entire life.”

Obviously, I asked why. Ever the journalist in search of a story.

He told me a great story about recently climbing Mont-Blanc, the highest mountain in France and Europe with a bunch of friends from all over the place. How they’d nearly died caught between the fog and a snow storm. But finally they’d made it back safely to Chamonix.

“Name’s Thompson, by the way. How do you do?” he said, extending his hand.

“Stephens. How do you do?” Funny thing (one of many) about the Brits: depending on the school – he’d played a bit of rugby at Eton, then gone to read something or the other on the wrong side of the river at Oxbridge. I went to Oxbridge but on the right side of the river – most times we call each other by last names. Not by first name. Thompson. Stephens. I understand the French do too, in some of their schools. I actually only learned his first name, Jim, when we stumbled across each other in cyberspace later on.

Brandy was good. Chat was nice. Thompson, in his story of Mont-Blanc never told me that he’d actually saved the life of one his mates, another Pete. Most people brag about they have (not) done. Thompson didn’t. Good chap. Shame he’d gone to school on the wrong side of the river, though. Nobody’s perfect.

The bartender warned us that the bar was about to close. Thompson told him:

“Fine, mate. Just leave the bottle here and we’ll take over.”

The bartender, a somewhat humourless Kikuyu, said it was out of the question. “Absolutely not, Sir. Ever so sorry Sir. It’s against regulations.”

“Don’t worry, Mate,” Thompson said. “Just leave the bottle here, here’s a few quid.” He dropped bills on the counter. “We’ll lock up when we leave. Don’t you worry a bit, mate.”

The Kikuyu guy was offended. Started a row, called the Chief Steward. I had to calm everybody down, explaining in Swahili that this gentleman here had meant no harm. Okay, he was a mzungu (white man) even worse, a Kingereza (a mzungu of the English variety), but regardless he really was a decent chap. I skipped the fact that he’d gone to the wrong school. No point. A few shillings switched hands, under the counter. That was Thompson’ smistake: never over the counter, that’s offensive, always swap notes discretely. One has one’s pride.

We set ourselves at the task of finishing the bottle. Swapping anecdotes. When Thompson learned my father was Irish, he asked, out of the blue:

“Do you know a song called ‘twenty-seven shades of green’?”

“As a matter of fact, I do.”

“You’re shitting me!” he said. There has been as of late some permeating influence of American vernacular into proper English.

“I shit you not.” (I’m very adaptable linguistically.)

“See, there’s this friend of mine, name’s Pete, the one I sav… one of the blokes I climbed Mont-Blanc with. He always claims he can sing ‘twenty-seven shades of green’ and I don’t believe him. No matter how pissed, smashed, drunk we get him, no matter how many pints of beer we pour into him, he refuses to sing the song. Which is why I believe there is no such song. I mean, the Irish are crazy bastards, no offense to your father, (none taken) but who on earth would write a song about twenty-seven shades of bloody green?”

“How many pints of beer do you normally pour into this bloke?” I asked.

“A lot.” Thompson said. He had black curly hair, very clear blue eyes. Mischievous blue eyes. He was getting wasted but maintaining composure. A true gentleman.

“So, your friend, this Pete, he holds his beer steady?” I asked.

“Very steady.”

“Very commendable,” I said. “However, there is such a song. My father doesn’t know it, neither do my brothers. It was passed on to me – exclusively – by my grandfather, who was a crazy bugger, in a Dublin pub, where he had me taste my first sip of ale at the illegal age of nine.”

“My compliments to your grandfather. Nine’s a bit old to start, but he did the right thing. Now if you know the bloody song… Then sing it!” Thompson said.

I looked around. We were the only ones left. I looked at my snifter. Almost empty. I gave us both a refill. I tried to calculate the equivalence brandy sifters-pints of beer. The fact is one has to be really pissed, knackered, smashed, out of one’s depth, borderline drunk, pre-comatose, to actually sing twenty-seven shades of green. I decided I scored high on all counts and started to sing. By the end of the first refrain, Thompson was joining me. We got kicked out of the bar by the Chief Steward before we could finish the twenty-third verse. We staggered back to our respective compartments, lending each other a hand. One has to lend a hand to a fellow human being, especially a drunk human being.

The night was peaceful. The train only stopped thrice. Twice for fog. Mist rather, but there is fog in Africa. I’ve seen it in the hills in the morning. The third time was to wait for a large elephant herd to clear the tracks. Believe me, even a train waits for elephants to clear the way. The steward woke me up for early morning tea, an old custom brought back from India by the Brits. I lifted the curtains, pulled the window down. I could feel the sea close by. The heat, heavier, damp. About one hundred and ten percent humidity. A few crows were flying in the distance circling for garbage or carrion. I closed the curtains until Mombasa. Did I mention I don’t like crows? Especially after… after… never mind. We reached the station, a low building, painted some sort of yellow any time in the last century, and I really mean the nineteenth century. I’d booked a rental car to drive to Lamu by road. I figured 4 or 5 hours drive. Just on time to take an apéritif  by the sea at sunset.

The road was almost empty. The odd overloaded lorry carrying stuff from one place to the other and back. A few vans transporting tourists to one of the many hotels scattered between Mombasa and Malindi, along one of the largest and most beautiful beaches in the world. Facing the Indian Ocean and the coral reef. Over there yonder lies India. A few Swahili women walked by the road, carrying a ton and a half on a huge basket perched on top of the head. The waswahili are descendents of Arabs who came all the way from Yemen,  or Oman, wherever: Arabia, in the twelfth or thirteenth century, and mixed with the African tribes of the coast. The women were covered from head to toe by a chador-like black cloth, leaving only the eyes, hands and feet visible.

A few years back, the women of other tribes, those who were not Moslems, wore a single piece of cloth, called kikoy, tied around the waist, exposing the breasts. Now, with the unwielding advance of civilization, breasts are covered, most times with just a worn-out bra, a symbol of status. One sometimes still sees a withered, wrinkled old woman, sticking to tradition and proudly displaying her empty tits elongated down to her navel. Nowadays, the only ones who uncover their breasts are the European: French, Italian, German and so forth, tourists who catch horrible sunburns on the beach. Ah! Also the young local dancers, who unveil at the hotels to perform traditional dances for the tourists to later proudly show photos to their friends in Copenhagen, Rotterdam or Clermont-Ferrand when they come back from the Black Continent. “Facebook here I come. We did Kenya this year. Food’s better than when we did Thailand. Less spicy.”

I made it to Kilifi, to take the ferry. I was in no hurry which was just fine, because one of the two ferries that cross the river had been damaged. Totally out of service. One of the crew members told me that suicide crows had crashed for no apparent reason on the ferry’s deck, that one crow had gotten tangled in one of the pulleys, and they had to dismount everything. Stupid crows!

The river at Kilifi is quite wide, crossing over took about one hour. An hour to enjoy Africa, the colour of the sky, the hard heat of mid-day, the slow waters, the engines’ rumble.

After Kilifi, I followed the coast north. Passed Malindi, a somewhat more exclusive resort than Mombasa. It was almost dusk when I arrived at Lamu after taking another boat, a wooden relic that smelled, literally of Burton’s Arabian nights. Ten minutes from Manda on the coast to finally get to Lamu.

Lamu looks like an Arabic island stuck on the coast of Africa. White houses with the windows and doors filled with moucharaby, intricate wooden lattice designs fixed to windows to let the air come inside and keep the heat outside. The locals are Waswahili, those who invented the Swahili language, a mixture of Arabic, Hindi and Bantu vocabulary. The men wear long white robes, and a small white cotton skull cap as good Moslems should. Do not show the naked top of your head to God. The men with more Arabic blood grow a small pointed beard. The children’s head is shaved following Arabic custom leaving only a long tuft of hair so that Malak-al-Mahut, the Angel of Death of the Quran, can grab them easily if they die to transport the child to heaven. The women, as I mentioned before, are dressed in a black chador sometimes held closer biting it with the whitest teeth, showing only the kohl-painted eyes and the mystery behind. The women’s hands are painted with henna in elaborate Arabic motifs. The streets are narrow, three, four feet wide, another way to control the sun and heat. No cars, only donkeys, who piss everywhere, the smell competing with the perfume of  jasmine flowers.

Crows03

*

Crows04

The hotel at Lamu *

The hotel in Lamu was a modern affair, Arabian nights style. All white cupulas. Wooden balconies. Rooms had a terrace with a view, dhows on the sea, beds on the terrace, under the shade, lots of cushions. Bougainvillea everywhere. The Mosque was right next door. I literally had the muezzin in my ear calling for the five (or is it six?) daily prayers. Starting at 5 AM. Allah u Akbar! God is great. Arabian nights again. I should have brought the latter book, rather than Speke and Burton’s Discovery of the source of the Nile which was proving to be a bit tedious.

There was a swimming pool, crescent-shaped, under the shade of palm trees, between the hotel and the beach. I’d lost lunch, but sunset is the right time for a beer, by the pool, facing the sea. A light breeze was blowing in the palm trees. The Arabic dhows, with their triangular sail, called, God knows why, a Latin sail, drifted slowly between the darkening sea and the red sky. The moon appeared, very Arabic, one tiny first moon sliver. A good invitation to go for a swim.

Crows05

Dhow in the sunset *

I swam for about an hour. Not straight toward the horizon. That’s for morons. Parallel to the shore is the way to do it. (I used to do the opposite. Straight out to the open sea. I learned the errors of my ways from Archie McNally). The sea was fresh. As black as night. I went back to my room, showered and changed. No black tie or tuxedo as Sommerset Maugham’s characters used to wear for dinner in the Malaysian jungle. Thank heavens for modernity. Light trousers and a short sleeve shirt. There were few people in the hotel: a few European families of undetermined origin, a group of Italians, a Sikh family complete with sari and turban. I went to bed early, I had arranged an early fishing trip at 5AM. I went to sleep to the song of the sea.

Crows06

I slept badly. The hotel was literally invaded by the bloody crows. By day, they were a plague, by night, it looked like the buggers never slept, their cries covered even the thunder of the waves. We went out late for fishing. I missed a blue marlin three yards away from the boat. He snapped free of the line. Anyway… The old pirate who handled the boat told me:

“Don’t worry, kijana, we’ll catch a bigger fish tomorrow.”

Went back to the hotel, showered, shaved, changed. Dropped at the restaurant to eat a delicious curry that drew tears.  The hotel was filling up. The Italians were putting a spontaneous party, dancing in swim suits by the pool, fighting the crows for the potato chips.

At sundown, I settled on the hotel terrace, facing the sea, to enjoy a tall draught beer. Five yards away from me, on the low wall separating the hotel from the beach, three women were sitting, wrapped up in a black chador. Waswahili? Pakistani? The face was not covered. Clear  brown skin, dark eyes. No way to tell. They were old women. Looked like three grandmothers? How can a family have three grandmothers? They were arguing, shouting in a language I couldn’t quite identify, with shrill voices. Worse than the crows.

I sat on the terrace, watching the three harpies, trying to imagine where they were from, what could their argument be about. The black clothes were slowly blending into the night. After a while, a man joined them. A young man, mid twenties, dressed in wide white trousers, a long white collarless shirt on top, a black Moslem beard, a white embroidered skull cap. The man looked angry. He started shouting at the old hags, showing the rooms with an extended arm. At once the little group started running to their rooms, the man in white and the three black harpies.

I stayed a while, until the sea and night merged into black. There was a crow at a distance finishing the Italians’ chips. I went to dinner.

In the dining-room, the three women in black and the man in white were eating hastily, without a word. When they were done, they took food to the room on a tray.

Crows07

That night was even worse than the one before. To my disgrace, the three hags had the room next to mine! And the arguments and the shouting didn’t stop until five in the morning, even covering the cries of the crows. (Aren’t crows supposed to sleep at night?) There was another voice in there, younger, or maybe just softer. Was someone locked up? Held prisoner by the old witches?

Crows08

In the next few days, I convinced myself that they were hiding someone in that room. Hiding or jailing? A woman, judging by the voice. I started to write a new article in my head: “Sequestered in Lamu”. Or another: “Traditions die hard, forced marriage is still a sad reality  on the coast”. It was a game to invent a complicated, mysterious intrigue. Kept my mind away from other things. Away from recent memories. A way of passing time. Another article could have been “Invasion of the crows”. But no, been done already. Somewhat. Hitchcock.

The crows were… a menace? A bloody nuisance? Every day they were more starved and bolder. Attacking the tables like black German WWII Stuka fighters. They attacked a Dutch tourist who wouldn’t let go of her sandwich. The cries of the crows were superseded only by the fights of the three women in black. Who did look like malevolent black birds, draped in their chador  in lieu of black wings. I would look at them from the corner of my eye. Their hands and feet were completely decorated with henna. My curiosity, or my imagination, or maybe it was Burton’s remote influence, made me imagine a tale of the Arabian nights: they held captive a beautiful young woman, of black eyes, and long, black, slightly frizzled hair!

Every time I went to my room passing by theirs, I tried to confirm my wild theory. No way José! The curtains inside their room were always drawn. (Journalists tend to be nosey) Couldn’t see a thing. Only once did I hear someone crying inside that room. Could it be that my wild guess was not so wild?

Even the bloody crows seemed to have made a pact with the harpies. Once I was passing by their room, two crows attacked me swooping down, without touching me, just grazing my head with the tip of a wing, as for a last warning. I thought about asking the hotel manager what he planned to do about the crows, and ask him, by the way about la belle inconnue.

As for me, I was mentally ready to go to the black market, buy a gun and make a carnage of the black nuisance. The crows, not the old hags.

Crows09

My old pirate’s fishing boat *

I went out fishing for the entire day. Didn’t catch much. Just lied on the deck, basking in the sun, thinking of nothing. Just feeling the slow rhythm of the waves.

When finally I got to the hotel terrace, beer in hand, facing the sea and the setting sun, I hadn’t talked to the manager about the mysterious captive. And there were my harpies. Four of them, clad in black, from head to toes. Four? One more? At last I would know who the beautiful hostage was. A few crows were flying above. La belle inconnue looked frail, minute, fragile. Sometimes they get forcibly married at twelve, even earlier. I could already imagine my article. Would get Simon off my back for a couple of weeks. Well maybe a couple of days.

The three old women appeared to support the fourth black shape, or maybe make sure she wouldn’t escape? They settled her on the wall facing the sea, her back turned to me. I couldn’t see her face. A crow attacked my peanuts, upsetting the plate that crashed on the floor. The noise made the fourth woman turn her head towards me. I could hardly refrain a muffled cry. She was an old, old, ancient lady, deader than alive, her face the color of ashes, with sunken black malevolent eyes. She had an immense crooked nose with a large blood-red ruby encrusted in the left nostril, a vestige of a time and beauty long gone. I felt a deep cold invading me. I stood and left the peanuts to the crows.

Crows10

Disappointed sails in the sunset *

They left the next morning at five. The day was nice. A cool breeze by the pool. I finished Speke and Burton’s book, laughing at my own tale. Poor little old lady, whom I thought a helpless maiden forced into marriage! She probably was too old and not feeling well enough to leave the room until the last day!

When the sun started to go down, I sat at my usual place on the terrace. What colours were they going to invent today? When the sky started darkening, I saw a single large crow walking towards me on the terrace wall. When it came to a distance of a yard, it stopped, looking directly at me. I shivered. On the immense, curved black beak, on the left side, a large red ruby was encrusted.

Mwisho (The end)

Crows11

Le corbeau by Manet

Author’s notes

Crows is possibly the first short story I ever wrote – or dared to write –.  I wrote on site (almost: in Mombasa rather than Lamu) and in French. Mother tongue and all that. Then many many years later, wrote it in Spanish. I live in Mexico: when in doubt write in the local language. Each version is therefore a wee bit different. Which will be fun whenever and if, I post all three. The idea came from the crows plaguing the hotel in Mombasa. After writing unrelated short stories for years I started to connect the dots. Some stories (short or long) use the same characters or relate to other stories. Crows and its part 2 (Crows reloaded) now belong to my second novel, Foglines, soon to be published on Amazon.

Text © BMO and Equinoxio

All illustrations marked with a *, courtesy and © Gini. She actually shot them in Zanzibar, not Lamu. Same difference.

Turkana girl © Heidi Lange, a wonderful artist who captures the beauty of Kenya tribes in a very distinctive style.

Le corbeau by Manet was the cover of an early French edition of Poe’s Raven, translation by Stephane Mallarmé. Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

All other unmarked illustrations are inspired by the work of Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher’s in their book African Ark ©. Carol Beckwith and Angela Fishers are extremely talented photographers with a keen eye for Africa.

Visit them at carolbeckwith-angelafisher.com

Last but not least: anyone having a “beef” with copyright, (maybe I should say an “issue”, right?) please contact me so we can deal with the issue in a gentlemanly or gentlewomanly manner.

 Asante sana. Thank you (for your time!)

29 thoughts on “Crows

  1. When I initially commented I appear to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox
    and from now on each time a comment is added I get 4 emails with the exact same comment.

    Is there a means you can remove me from that service?
    Appreciate it!

    • Hi.
      Sorry for the inconvenience. I can’t undo it but I believe you can. Go to your last received comment email. Bottom right is a link that says “subscription options”.
      Click on it you will get to a page called “Comment management” or sthg like that. Same line as my blog to the right is an “unsuscribe” button. Click on it that should do the trick. Let me know if it works.
      (So far I’ve tried like four or five times to reply!)

      Thanks for visiting Equinoxio. ‘hope you liked the story.
      Stay tuned for more.
      Brian

    • I am a cultural “mongrel”. Born in Pakistan, raised in Africa. It helps to add tiny details, the “couleur locale”. Reality, to me, is what adds weight to fiction. 🙂

    • Thank you Paul! It was one of my first posts. (Also one of my first shot stories) So I decided to reblog it. Glad you enjoyed it. (Have you been to Kenya?)
      Kwaheri sassa. 🙂

      • Hi Brian, I’ve only been to Kenya once, working in Nairobi and then a few days amongst the beasts of Masai Mara. Would love to go to the coast though, the photos of boats reminded me of Mozambique. Happy memories indeed!

      • Masai Mara is gorgeous. Spent many a safari there. The last one in a camp in the midst of the bush. The coast is lovely too. From Mombasa to Malindi to Lamu, there is a very long reef. And yes, I imagine the boat style would be similar. Actually those boats are from Zanzibar. Took a liberty. 🙂
        Have a great week-end Rafiki Paul

  2. My goodness. What a marvelous writer you are. You built me a vision of Lamu and I didn’t even know it existed. Thank you. And yes, I clicked the link to see it. Your timing is impeccable as is your dry wit. I like it very much and I’m so grateful to have read you.

    • Thank you Janet. (Asante sana)
      Truth? I’ve never been to Lamu. 🙂
      When we lived in Kenya it was almost unaccessible. My eldest daughter has gone recently during a stint at Médecins sans frontières.
      I borrowed some of her pictures. The rest, sensations and “couleur locale” are based on personal experiences in Malindi, down the coast from Lamu.
      But I understand It is worth the trip.
      Cheers.

  3. A roller-coaster ride of a story, Brian. So well paced, and full of ‘atmosphere’. Definitely the early morning imam’s call. But donkeys and cats and hens making a row on Lamu rather than crows – at least when we were there.

    • Thank you Tish. So glad you liked it.
      Actually the crows “come from” Mombasa. They were crowding the hotel in Mombasa.
      Gave me the idea for the story. I just united the crows and the Lamu setting.
      Lamu is more… mysterious.
      I hope you are enjoying the British summer.
      I was in London for a snappy 3 days Early August.
      Nice and hot.
      Kwaheri sasa Memsahib.

    • “There once was a city at the edge of the desert of Sindh, fighting an endless battle against the sand and wind. The city is long gone now. The ruins of a lone tower standing below the stars. Only very old men still remember its name, and will not say it out loud…”

    • No worry. Pas de souci. Happens to me increasingly. Particularly with double consonants: same words in English and French obviously follow different rules. It would be too easy. So I find myself wondering: literally? Ou littéralement? 1 or 2 t’s? 1 or 2 l’s? When in doubt, I just Google the word. Pas de souci.

  4. Pingback: Crows reloaded | Equinoxio

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s