by Michael Robbins
This story is dedicated to my father.
Kiana had been in the wilderness alone. It was against protocol, and exactly what she needed. That’s what she told herself anyway. Lions came to nuzzle her belly, rumbling softly, perhaps due to that acute animal instinct for knowing when something was wrong. Usually they scattered when the Old man came around.
The first time was on the first day of the month, on the first hour past noon. Of course it was. He popped around a tree on those sand scattered Kalahari plains and waved. Kiana started, then bent over the hand-held UV monitor in both her mitts and muttered, “It’s not real.”
On the second day, at the appointed hour, he climbed into the sun-screened Jeep with her with a cheery “Hello!” Her grip tightened knuckle white on the steering wheel. “You’re not real,” she repeated, almost as a mantra. Her bright green eyes shunted her off onto a vision, flashing to the live-feed six weeks past, to the same man, now more emaciated than he’d been at their last contact, seemingly plied with ever-more tubes in every vein. She blinked, jerking to the side, but the man was gone, at least for now.
Twice more she saw him, at a distance paralleling her as she did her job, collecting genetic samples from the indigenous wildlife. It wasn’t normally dangerous work, but it was always better to work in teams. Especially on the Kalahari with its hundred-degree-plus temperatures, sparse grasses, pale sand pans and gnarled camel thorn trees clawing infrequently at the sky. On the sixth day, it almost cost her.
Kiana had sampled some weaver birds but hadn’t been paying enough attention to her surroundings. Which was how the cheetah had stumbled into her. They literally tripped over one another. Luckily Kiana rolled one way and the spotted cheetah the other. Her heart hammered at her ribs with startling ferocity. That was nothing compared to the snarl issuing from the big cat.
Its eyes were cloudy. It must have an older cat who stumbled carelessly into the noonday sun and been blinded. With all the other adverse effects of climate change it couldn’t have been helped. This was not helping her at all, though. Her limbs were still trying not to move. She didn’t seem to have much control over her shrill breathing, something the cheetah’s ears tuned in on with terrible accuracy.
That’s when the Old man stepped around her, waving both long arms and yelling, startling the cat enough that she could get off a shot with her tranq pistol. It took a couple of shots to flatten the agitated beast, but it was done.
The pistol thunked to the brittle yellow grass as the Old Man swung back to her with that familiar grin. “That’s why you shouldn’t be out here by yourself,” he said. “Baby? What’s wrong?”
“…please stop,” she whispered, her overflowing eyes burning. “…god, please stop…you can’t be here…”
“I don’t see why not. The cheetah seemed to agree with me.”
“B-but, Poppa, you’re gone. You’re…y-y-you’re…”
It all came spilling out, all the tears dammed for the past six weeks, all the suppressed emotions, stealing her breath, choking her. The Old Man returned from the truck with a paper bag for her to breath into. He held onto her with soothing words as she hunched over herself, hyperventilating for how long, an hour? All she was able to choke out in all that time was, “forgive me.”
“What for, baby?” he asked.
“I-I wasn’t there, Poppa. I-I didn’t come for the end.”
“The cancer was pretty far along this time. There wasn’t a lot anyone could do.”
As he’d done when she was younger and brought home every stray dog in the neighborhood, teary-eyed, he now dabbed her cheeks with a kerchief that was the same safari-brown as his sleeveless shirt and shorts. “It’s okay, Baby. Say what’s really bothering you.”
She could look at him now, into the smiling eyes that had raised her, the face now smoothed of all aches. “Is heaven real?” she asked.
“It’s better than heaven,” he shrugged. “Go on. You can do it.”
“What, the little girl who frolicked with lions? That’s not who I remember.”
“That’s just it. I didn’t want to remember you like that, all wasted away. I wanted you to be strong in my memory. I wanted to remember all the fishing trips with you and Momma. I wanted to remember that big hug you gave me when I came home from my mission.”
“You can still have that. Nothing wrong with that.”
“But I-I’m not ready.”
“I wasn’t. Nobody’s ever ready. That’s okay. I have faith in you, baby.”
“Does Momma hate me, for not coming home?”
He blew a raspberry out the side of his mouth. “Never. ‘Worried’ is more like it. You should give her a call.” Together they stood. “I’ve been allowed this one visit. I’ve probably overstayed it already. Why don’t I help you load that cat in the cage before I get back?”
This was done in no time at all. As she slammed the metal cage shut in the back of the Jeep, he tipped her chin up, chucking her on it. “I’m proud of you, baby.”
She ducked her head with a smile. A stiff breeze whipped through her bones and he was gone. In the depression in the grass where he’d stood, there remained a small red book of Psalms, the one he’d always carried with him for forty years. The one Momma swore she’d buried with him.
How do you progress with a character you adore? Trust me on this, as the author and creator you are the last person with any objectivity on this subject. I’ve been carrying the soul of my OC Jamai since my high school days, which isn’t saying much considering way back when she was second banana to her lover Youssou’s predecessor Conan-the-Barbarian wanna-be. Oh yeah, they were white too. A white barbarian tribe in Africa. That’s how much work I had cut out for me.
Well, yes. I brought that on myself. Fortunately, I was connected with some friends in a Seattle group that called itself Writer’s Cramp. I’m trying to remember all the details; forgive for if I get a few wrong. I was invited to one such meeting, in Kent I believe, and as we were leaving for home, Fran asked what I thought. I just spent two hours reviewing the works of five people who were considerably more talented and imaginative than I was, who took considerable pleasure in ripping their precious works to shreds. All I could say was, “You guys are vicious!”
That kind of breaking things down from the ground up was exactly what I needed. It was a hard couple of years, but I am grateful to all my friends for the grueling education in improving your science fiction writing that I acquired. What this meant for Jamai was that I had to take a few months off to do a hard reset.
For starter, that whole ‘white barbarians in an African setting’ b.s. had got to go. Second, and in no way would I suggest there was a stark moment of enlightenment that drove my thinking at this point. Doesn’t really happen in writing, folks. Sorry. At some point, however, I started putting Jamai face-forward, as she seemed to be the stronger character, even with the shoddy works I’d been showcasing her in before.
So where did that leave us? Well, now we had a new problem, something you may have noticed with most TV programs and comic book characters. Namely, that at the beginning of each story Jamai wound up at the same point she started at in the last fekking story! My strategy, such as it was, would be to lead up to the big life-defining conflict she’d face as an adult. The new stories began in childhood and would lead her through her teens. My friends in Writers Cramp pointed this weakness out to me, and honestly, I didn’t want to hear it! I knew what I was doing! Heh heh, I thought did, anyway.
Took a while for the lesson to sink in. Things happened. I lost contact with Cramp, and in the Double-Oughts, the ever-lovin’ 2000’s, I was engaged in a self-engaged quest to raise awareness for the issue of the slave trade in the Sudan. I was proud of the work I did with my fictional team, the Emancipation Posse; I think I did some of my best work with this book collection. I loved these people: Kate, Fong, Quench and Dru. And about three stories in, I added my favorite OC to the mix.
This wasn’t the same girl I’d ben writing tales for before, though. This was Old Jamai, hereafter known as Granny. I liked Old Jamai. She was confident, self-assured, a spiritual guide who did not suffer fools. I needed that time apart in her narrative to jog my brain cells and figure out how that young lady grows into the goddess she would become. And in a way I’m still exploring that issue.
Butterfly & Serpent
in paperback and Kindle
available at Amazon.com
I was expecting more. The follow-up to Kurt Vonnegut’s breakout novel Slaughterhouse 5 reads more like a Target Doctor Who novel from the 70’s-80’s, by which I mean it’s an easy read. IF of course a Doctor Who novel covered such topics as wide-open beavers and crazy used-car salesmen with bad chemicals. ‘Bad chemicals’ would be Vonnegut’s meme fir mental illness. I’ve heard some doctors refer to depression as an imbalance in the brain’s chemistry. I’m not sure if Vonnegut had been ahead of his time or simply being a smartass.
Curiously the author had also chosen to fill his book with his own simple illustrations, including ducks, ‘beavers’ and assholes. I had a feeling there’d be a lot of Fourth Walls breaking since the author, despite all the conventions of written storytelling, frequently takes the opportunity to personally intrude on the narrative. The plot revolves around the unhappy meeting of Kilgore Trout, a frequent cameo character in Vonnegut novels, and Dwayne Hoover, the crazy used care salesman in question. The mayhem takes place at the Midland City Festival of the Arts in 1972 in the American Midwest. He also drops in references to other past characters like Eliot Rosewater, the hero of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
African Americans are not portrayed in a flattering way. I’m not comfortable with that or his frequent use of the ‘N’ Word. At first I thought it might be an attempt at making we the readers uncomfortable, in the same vein as Mel Brooks would in Blazing Saddles. If so it’s a rank failure. In Vonnegut’s hands it’s unnecessarily gratuitous.
This is probably not his best work but it has its amusements. We have the truck driver whose brother works in a factory making napalm for dropping on Vietnam. His truck is also dumping poison gas into the atmosphere and that the planet is turning into pavement so his truck can deliver 78,000 pounds of olives to Tulsa. Observing all this, the nameless driver says, “Seems like the only kind of job an American can get these days is committing suicide in some way.” Another cutaway remark is how one of the most expensive things a person could do in this country was for a guy to get sick. Some things never change….
In fact the relevance to current events never seems to end, as with the destruction of the countryside in West Virginia in the name and authority of the Rosewater Coal and Iron Company. Let’s have one last reference: “Trout couldn’t tell one politician from another one. They were all formlessly enthusiastic chimpanzees to him” [Chapter 10, page 88]. To be honest, I find this an insult to chimpanzees.
[Kurt Vonnegut, c. 1973 for the Playboy interview]
My mother bought me my first Beatles bootleg. She’d gone back east to New York City to visit my Aunt Poca and Aunt Mary. Among the gifts she came home with was a live LP with a plain blue cover entitled The Beatles Last Live Show. I don’t know if she was aware that this was an unofficial release, bootlegs being a relatively new concept in the bright spring or summer of 1972. I didn’t care either way; I was an 8-year-old indiscriminate Beatlemaniac. I imagine at some point I’ll get an email correcting any details in this blog I mess up. Looking forward to it, Mom.
Please also note that, as an 8-year-old, I didn’t take very good care of this precious LP. The disc itself survived me, but I’m afraid I kind of defaced the cover trying to scribble what I thought the track listing was. Things to know before we go too far: this is definitively NOT the Beatles’ last live show. That was be performed a year later at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on August 29, 1966. Still the show I’ve got was impressive enough. The actual concert was taped for TV broadcast at New York’s Shea Stadium on August 15, 1965, before what was the largest audience anyone had performed to up to that time. Count ‘em, 55,600 screaming maniacs. The LP begins with the last track, “I’m Down’, and ends with the same. The bootleg would be taken from a recording of this TV broadcast. Now, as they say on Doctor Who, this is where it gets interesting.
The concert was broadcast twice on the BBC in 1966 and once in the USA on ABC-TV on January 1967. Unfortunately the audio was so atrocious that the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein and personal assistant Tony Bramwell decided this needed some overdubs. So the band shuffled in on January 5, 1966 for shall we say some touch-up work at CTC Studios in London. Two songs, ‘She’s a Woman’ and ‘Act Naturally’ were not on the soundtrack; I’ll get back to the latter song in a bit. Although ‘Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby’ also was not on the soundtrack, it did see release on Anthology 2 in 1996. Let’s go through this, track by track.
–‘Twist and Shout’, the 1st number, was not even taken from the Shea concert but from the August 30 concert at the Hollywood Bowl, which would be officially released on the 1977 live Hollywood Bowl LP.
–‘I Feel Fine’ is a new version recorded at CTS, January 1966 to make up for the poorly recorded original live track.
–‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’ features an overdub of Paul’s bass parts as well as a new organ track by John
–‘Ticket to Ride appears as it was
–‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ also features a bass overdub by Paul
–‘Baby’s in Black’ received another bass overdub
–‘A Hard Day’s Night’ was untouched but still obscured by interview fragments by John, Paul, George and Brian Epstein.
–‘Act Naturally’ was probably the laziest ‘overdub’ as it’s neither a new version but simply the studio recording we all know with audience screams layered over it.
–‘Help!’ was a new version recorded at CTS , January 1966.
–‘I’m Down’ has overdubbed bass by Paul.
Please don’t take these observations too critically. I loved that LP, despite the above deficiencies which I wasn’t aware of as a kid. Admittedly I’m not the most discriminating Beatles listener and I’m grateful that my mother thought of me when she bought it.
While some volumes are especially instructive, sometimes in my early researches into African culture and ecology, I may have sampled a few too many books that would give you an altogether wrong picture of the ‘Dark Continent.’
Let’s just start with that descriptive right here. The very expression ‘Darkest Continent’, ‘Darkest Africa’, whatever conjures up fearsome images of cannibals, savages, wild lions and snakes ready to fall on every convenient [preferably] blonde nubile maid. Perhaps it would help to know that Africa is not one big jungle from one end to the other. A variety of habitats, from savannah to desert to river ecosystems to fertile deltas to, yessss, swamplands, exist across the breadth of the land. At least three ecosystems are to be found in the nation of The Sudan alone. So there.
The books I started with unfortunately, were the kind written in the 40’s and 50’s, featuring the brave explorer with the requisite pith helmet on his brave white head. Attilio Gatti’s South of the Sahara from 1945 for example, or Cherry Lander’s My Kenya Acres (1957). I wonder if I should include Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa on that list?
I found these in used books stores, and there’s a reason for that. They’re kind of like Jim Carrey’s 1995 comedy Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, which was funny as hell. Until you step back and realize its portrayal of Africa, the real Africa, is hopelessly, terribly, horrifically out of date by at least 30 years. Sorry, there were no British or any other colonial officers running any African nation by 1995.
One wonders whether Africans were testing the credulity of these so-called white explorers. Case in point; in his 1996 book No Mercy, intrepid explorer Redmond O’Hanlon travels to the Congo in search of the legendary lost dinosaur Mokele-Mbembe at Lake Tele. Over dinner by a campfire Redmond asks one of his guides, “So, Doubla…why did Marcellin swear he saw the dinosaur?” “Don’t you know?” Doubla smiles. “It’s to bring idiots like you here. And make a lot of money.” (That said, it’s a pretty funny book with ‘slapstick, existential dread and brilliant digressions on everything from the sex life of the pygmy chimpanzee to the best method for killing a sorcerer’.)
The tendency of such books is to be condescending towards Africans, an Outsiders view not so different from Victorian times where each tribe was charming in and of itself, and yet, due to their lack of the civilizing influence of Christian values, these people always inevitably must be savages. That’s the mindset we have to get away from, one our President unfortunately snuffles every night.
I have tried to shake these colonial misconceptions. It’s taken years and it has not been easy. That conditioning is burned into our thoughts and minds with every safari rerun on late night TV, every Tarzan movie ever made and remade. Word of advice? Don’t believe Edgar Rice Burroughs. The man knew nothing of Africa.
I spent endless hours watching Tarzan movies at my mother’s house as a kid. Today I look back and think of them the way Richard Pryor did. Here’s what he said in Live on the Sunset Strip (1981): “Tarzan wouldn’t last a week in Africa. Either that or they’d think he was a crazy white man. ‘Where’s Tarzan?’ ‘You mean the crazy white man? He’s up the trees with the baboons!’
I have developed through painful experience a simple rule when it comes to these books: if it was published before 1970 it’s probably not accurate. especially when it comes to Africa. The further back in time you go, the less accurate the information will be and the more biased it becomes. Think of all the advances we’ve made in the last 50 years. Can you imagine writing a term paper on Mars, based on the knowledge we had before 1964? You’d be crowing about canals and laughed out of university!
If you’re open there is a treasure trove of African literature waiting to be discovered, and its really not that hard to find. There are historical and cultural treatises such as Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya, memoirs both personal and historical. Novels galore from such talents as Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche await your attention, just as two examples. There are stories of hope and despair, war and renewal. All this is waiting for you, if you only reach out your hand and grasp it.