|The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
They say the first year of marriage is the most difficult. A first year of marriage which takes place in a new country away from what is familiar, presents a further challenge. Still more trying is when your husband has already established a life in that country without you.
When we first moved to Kenya I tagged along to John’s music evenings. On one occasion, a number of different groups played nice folksy music—the same music John listened to during his university days. Not at all the music I listened to when I was a teenager. And isn't the music of our youth the music we gravitate to as we get older?
At seventeen, I listened to rock turned up full blast at my friend’s house. While his parents were out, we’d careen down the stairs and leap first onto the couch, and then from one chair to the next and back up the stairs again. We had fun. That was before we had sex. I wonder if we stopped leaping around the house when we started having sex? The sex certainly wasn’t as fun... but maybe it never is at seventeen.
I eventually stopped going to the music evenings. I did try to like them, I really did. But sitting in chairs next to a crowd of nice people clapping politely and singing along to music which didn’t move me wasn't, well... it wasn’t fun.
Fun. After seven years of being a workaholic in Egypt and burning out in my publishing and photography career, I had only vague ideas of my version of fun. But I knew I wanted outrageous, out-of-your-mind, non-thinking experiences. But, how do you do this as an adult I wondered.
I decided to make a list. It wasn’t easy. I’d become what every adult is supposed to aspire to—a responsible human being. After much soul-searching, I finally came up with twenty outrageously fun activities and looked forward to pursuing them—until I realized that almost every single item involved purchasing some piece of equipment or spending money before the act of having fun. This was a problem. We had no money. Even bicycling involved an initial investment. What remained was walking with my new dog, who I named Dog. We could walk anywhere, and it cost nothing.
Beyond our house adjoining the Ngong Road Forest lies land belonging to the Churches, whose horses were ridden in the film, Out of Africa. An illustrator lives on the Churches compound, but he’s gone for the afternoon. Instead Dog and I are greeted by a Labrador named Rigby and a lean greyhound-like dog. I call him Turkana-Dog, after the Northern region of Kenya where he was found.
Within minutes of meeting, Dog and her two friends are playing maniacally, reveling like children whose parents aren’t around. They bite with abandon, bumping forcefully into each other. The interchange becomes complex when Rigby’s friendly advances are rebuffed by Dog who bristles, before chasing after the fast and feisty Turkana-dog. Jealousies, angers and moments of sheer exuberance between them shift so quickly that grudges are only momentarily held. Their motto is; feel it, act on it and move on. So, this is Dog’s life when I’m not around, I think. This is FUN.
“Go Dog, go!” I yell like I’ve placed money on her at the track. Instead, I’m the only person in a large, empty field.
But like any social exchange, there are rules. Dog doesn’t have a chance of catching Turkana-dog, and when that becomes a little too obvious, Dog walks away with a snarl and snort. Turkana-dog, realizing he’s overstepped the boundaries, stands forlorn fifty yards away. After a few failed attempts at coercing Dog into chasing, the rules of the game change. Turkana-dog, despite his natural speed hangs back. From now on, Dog must be the winner—always.
“Eofke!” I scream, as Dog throws her body against mine, her way of including me in the fun. But she’s impatient when all I do is laugh. Dog wants to play with abandon and unadulterated roughhousing. As do I. But I’ve forgotten how. And I’m a thin skin. One wrong step, one unguarded moment and I’ll land on the ground cut and bruised. I feel happy for the dogs, but sad for me.
Back at the house, I shower off stray bits of mud and dirt. Slowly I dress. It’s Fish and Chip night at the Karen Country Club and a few teachers who earn higher salaries due to teaching for many years at Hillcrest School, have splurged on membership fees. Seven poorer teachers and myself are their guests. After a rambunctious afternoon with the dogs, the thought of spending the evening to just talk, talk, talk over drinks suddenly sounds... less than fun.
“How are you settling into your new house, Lorraine,” Cathy asks.
“Well, it’s totally different than where...”
“Oh, just a sec..., ” Cathy interrupts before turning away to pick up a conversation with another teacher. Their Friday get-together dissolves tensions after a stressful week filled with Asian, African, colonial and expatriate teenagers.
“I don’t know how many times he’s been in detention... ”
“Do they really think it’s attractive?”
“These kids! Dyed purple?!”
“I know! And can you believe what she wore underneath?”
“Does she really think anyone will see it?”
“Well maybe someone will see it!”
“At her age I’d never have...”
I would’ve... and I did. I sit back and drink my Tusker beer from the bottle, ignoring the glass handed to me. After a few minutes, one of the all-African staff comes to the table. He wears perfectly creased black pants, and a red vest covering a spotless white shirt. Leaning discreetly towards me he murmurs politely, “Excuse me, but I have to ask you to use the glass for drinking.”
Sipping a beer that doesn’t taste as good from a glass, I feel I fit in less here than with the dogs in the field. But I don’t really belong to either pack. The teachers are lively and animated but despite the smiling faces, I notice everyone’s hands are on the table, in their laps, or clutching their drinks. I look towards the bar just as one man slaps a friend on the back, leaving his hand there only momentarily. Their physical contact goes no further. Turkana-dog licked the insides of the other dogs mouths intently, tasting their gums to learn who they were, while Dog hurled herself at me and the other dogs. Is that what slam dancing was all about, I wonder, reminiscing about the club scene from my early twenties. Was throwing one’s body against another an unconscious attempt to replicate what dogs do naturally in play?
At the end of Dog’s day she’s exhausted and fulfilled in a way I’ve never known as an adult—except in bed. But Dog seems to have a clear understanding of the difference between physical contact and sex. To Dog, sniffing and shnuffling at this body part and that body part leads to FUN-play. Sex-play is an entirely different thing.
I wonder what would happen if I said to my friend, “Hey, let’s go romp around your garden! Have a bit of a wrestle.” No, as liberal and fun loving as she is, she’d definitely think I’d gone mad and question my sexuality. Romping (even the word is the British slang for sex) and playing with a man inevitably leads to sex. And with a woman? Oh my goodness...
The next morning while nursing a hangover brought on by desperation instead of joviality, I notice the vervet monkeys have taken almost all the ripe pomegranates from the trees. “I’d like just one pomegranate to eat, so I can say it’s from my own garden,” I mutter. But these monkeys come by our house so infrequently that the fruit is a small price to pay for their company.
While holding firmly onto Dog, I watch as one monkey climbs up the back ladder of the Land Rover before leaping to the roof of the house. Dog doesn’t have a chance at catching them and they know it, but a few chatter in mock alarm for effect. Two juveniles clamber inside the car through an open window. Rummaging through a plastic bag they discover and devour an apple mango . Getting inside the vehicle was easy, but they become anxious when they can’t find their exit. As they run frantically up and down the length of the dashboard, their mother looks through the windshield in alarm and begins pacing back and forth across the hood. Dog follows the scene with her mouth wide open, panting with excitement. Dragging her between my legs, I approach the Land Rover and slowly open the door. The two juveniles, their feet and hands barely touching the roof of the house, escape to the trees.
The kerfluffle signals their time to end their visit for today, and one scales the wrought iron front door as a shortcut up to the roof. When I walk inside the house from the garden, I’m just in time to see a long tail disappearing down the hallway into the bedroom. I laugh. What fun.
Dog grew up in this area which is a mix of old rural land and new development bordered by forest. She was the one who greeted me on the doorstep of this new home a few months ago, starving with seven hungry mouths to feed. She isn't likely to wander away from the most regular meals she’s had in her life, but what if something were to happen to her? I reluctantly place a collar around Dog's neck, our cell number written clearly on the leather band. She's never before worn a collar. The Maasai tribe she was raised by don't put identification on their dogs. If you live in the bush and your dog goes missing, tribal people connected by a loose but reliable network of verbal exchange inform you if they find your missing animal—or keep if for themselves. But I'm not part of a tribe. I ease the end of the tan strap through the metal band and securely fasten the clasp. I'm scared this collar symbolizes the first step in a downward spiral into civilized domesticity. I fear a collar will lead to toys, and then hours at a grooming salon. I want Dog to remain an animal.
It's after four o'clock in the afternoon, and Dog's regular walking companion hasn't shown up. So with Dog in her new bondage, I decide to give Blackie, a young and ill-disciplined German-Shepard mix another chance. Blackie seems mellower in the weeks since I've last seen him and I hope for the best. I watch Dog walk along the forest path ahead of me, the symbol of ownership around her neck spoiling the smooth glide of fur that runs from her head to her tail, and interrupting the flow of her muscular, streamlined body. But Dog doesn't seem to mind the collar. In fact she barely takes notice at all.
As we walk through the neighboring forest my view of the trail ahead is obscured from time to time by the natural undulations of the land. Dog and Blackie who trot ahead of me, are spotted by a Sykes monkey who gives an alarm cry from his perch high in the wooded canopy. The rest of his troop who are foraging on the ground leap straight up into the trees that surround them, while one younger than the others shoots across the path. Blackie and Dog race excitedly to the scene. I chuckle. What characters the two dogs are. Shrieks from the monkey troop surround me while soft afternoon light filters through the trees and onto the dusty path. I listen to the sounds of the forest in dreamy reverie—sounds becoming so wonderfully familiar. Then I freeze. The monkey shrieks should've stopped by now. But instead, the cries are escalating. Something is wrong. I run frantically down the path.
Just a month before, Dog and I walked through here one Saturday morning and had been ambushed by baboons. Dog had blazed into the bushes in excitement, barking brazenly at two large baboons only to retreat in fear when long, sharp canines flashed in retaliation. First two, then three, then many more baboons slowly and steadfastly loped towards us from over a rise in the hill, until more than twenty baboons faced us. I'd grabbed a long fallen branch and backed away in fear while Dog ran away in panic. I knew I didn't have a chance against even one of those primates. We were on the very same path once again. Is this what I was going to encounter now? Monkeys attacking dogs?
I can hear a commotion on the other side of impenetrable scrub. I can just barely see Dog and Blackie. They're playing tug of war—with a monkey's body. A baby. The monkey who'd run across the path... the monkey who hadn't climbed up the trees with the others. Blackie's mouth is clasped over the monkey's hind quarters, and Dog is at the head. They're trying to rip the baby's body apart. “No!!!!!!!!” I plung through sharp brush that rips at my skin, scrambling on my hands and knees towards them. Why hadn't the monkey climbed straight up the tree like the others? Why hadn't I come sooner?
Dog is suddenly a savage animal and views me, running breathless towards her, as wanting to join their hunt. To be part of the pack. I’m sure the dogs interpret my shouts of excitement as the desire to share in the carnage. Instead, I leap into their midst and wrestle with both dogs at once to stop the pulling, trying to make either dog release their grip. Now they must figure I'm trying to steal their prize, and they tug harder and more fiercely. The baby shrieks frantically. I scream in frustration as the dogs maneuver away from me, pulling the monkey with them. I fling my body on top of Blackie, pinning him down. My hands free, but shaking with the surge of adrenaline, I grab hold of Dog's muzzle and pry her teeth apart. The body of the monkey falls to the ground. Two round eyes stare up into mine.
The two dogs breath loudly, as the three of us stare down into the baby's eyes. Her fists clench and unclench, her dark fingers grasping the air as she pants in pain and shock. Such tiny fingernails and knuckles... I want to reach out and hold them. There is no sound from the trees. And the baby doesn't get up. There is no blood, but the torso is soaked with Blackie's saliva and the pelvis looks wrong. I sit catching my breath, stalling. I don't know what to do. I can't keep holding both dogs, I tell myself. But I need my hands free to help her. I need to release one of the dogs. Blackie, I know I can't trust. Dog, in our time together seems acutely intuitive of my needs and wants. I don't think she'll attack again. I let Dog go.
As soon as my hands release their hold, Dog grabs the baby by the neck and carries her away, and the frenzy I've only just stopped resumes. I stumble once again through thick bush, half dragging, half carrying Blackie with me, not daring to let him go too. We catch up with Dog, who sits guarding her prize underneath the lower limbs of a tree. Suddenly I realize I can't leave a gravely injured monkey lying on the forest floor. I'm not at all certain the other monkey's will come down and take her to safety once the dogs and I are gone. Only the fittest are allowed to survive. Dog stands motionless, with the baby's neck in her mouth, watching me. Waiting. I can barely look at this animal who means so much to me. A decision has to be made. And I have to make it. I have to let Dog finish this carnage. I force my eyes to meet hers, and give her a silent sign of agreement. Seconds pass and when Dog drops the body, it falls lifeless onto the forest floor.
Still shaking, I grab Blackie by the scruff of his neck, and Dog by her new collar. The dogs let me lead them away from the scene as if nothing has happened. I don't want to be here. I don't want to be associated with this bloodshed and pain. The screams surrounding me as I'd run to the scene have ended. But as we walk from the forest, as a pack, I can feel eyes watching me from high in the trees.
The next day Dog leads me to the spot where we abandoned the monkey's body. It's only because of Dog’s keen sense of smell I know where to look. The area is devoid of blood or fur. But close-by are the fresh foot prints of a hyena.
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