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BLOOD & MILK



By

N.R. WALKER




Copyright:


Cover Artist: Sara York

Editor: Labyrinth Bound Edits

Blood & Milk © 2016 N.R. Walker

Publisher: BlueHeart Press

Smashwords Edition



All Rights Reserved:

This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission.

This is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or business establishments, events or locales is coincidental.

The Licensed Art Material is being used for illustrative purposes only.

All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.



Warning:

Intended for an 18+ audience only. This book contains material that maybe offensive to some and is intended for a mature, adult audience. It contains graphic language, explicit sexual content, and adult situations.



The author uses Australian English spelling and grammar.



Trigger warnings: Homophobic violence. Reader discretion advised.




Trademark Acknowledgements:


The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of the following wordmarks mentioned in this work of fiction:


Morris Minor: Morris Motors Ltd

Google: Google, Inc.

Jumanji: 1995, Tristar Pictures

Lion King: Walt Disney Pictures

Land Rover: The Rover Company Ltd

Colgate: Colgate-Palmolive Co.

Styrofoam: Dow Chemical Co.

Coke: The Coca Cola Company





Pronunciation Guide:


Alé: Ah-leh

Damu: Dah-mu

Nkorisa: En-kor-issa

Kijani: Key-yar-nee

Kasisi: Kah-see-see

Mposi: Em-poss-ee



Glossary

Common terms used throughout:


Manyatta/Kraal: Maasai village, surrounded by an acacia thorn fence.

Shuka: Traditional red shawl worn by the Maasai

Rungu: Wooden club, used/thrown as weapon

Diviner: Tribal witchdoctor

Uji: Thin, milk-like consistency drink made from water and maize.

Ugali: Water and maize mix with the consistency of mashed potatoes.






Author’s Note:


At the date of publication, June 2016, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, or ILGA, lists 73 countries with criminal laws against sexual activity by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people, punishable by imprisonment, torture, or death. 33 of these countries are in Africa, Tanzania being one of them.


To my African friends who read my books, I am truly honoured, and incredibly humbled. Your strength encourages me, and to know my words give you hope and happiness is a gift that will stay with me forever.


Nawatakiya amani na upendo.



The African Human Rights Coalition does some amazing work for LGBTIQ people, and donations are always welcome.






DEDICATION:


To Santa Aziz,


For helping me with true Maasai ways, diet, language and culture, and for giving me the courage to publish this story. But especially for reminding me why words are important.

This book is for you.





A Very Special Mention:

To the many pre-readers and beta-readers who helped and guided, suggested and corrected. You made this book better, and I thank you.





PROLOGUE




It was twelve months on. A full year had passed, yet my world had stopped completely. The men who stole my life were charged and would serve time for their crime. No one called it a hate crime, but that’s what it was. If I was expecting some sort of finality to come with the court findings, I didn’t get it.

I was still hollow. I was still numb to the world, and I was still alone.

I was also awarded damages, civilian victim and medical.

A nice healthy sum that meant I could pay off my debts after not working for twelve months, and more. Though no amount of money would make this right. No amount of money would bring him back.

My mother came along for the final hearing, though I could only guess why. I had barely spoken two words to her in the last year. Maybe she came so she could vie for the sympathy card with her friends. Or maybe she thought she could have one last twist of the knife…

“Now it’s all over,” she said, nodding her head like her words were wise and final. “You can put all this homosexual nonsense behind you.”

I looked at my mother and smiled. I fucking smiled. I raged inside with a fury to burn the world, and maybe she saw something in my eyes―maybe it was a ferocity she’d never seen before, maybe it was madness―and my words were whisper quiet.

“You are a despicable, bitter human being, and you are a disgrace to mothers everywhere. So, when you go to your church group, instead of praying for my soul, you should be praying for yours. You have only hate and judgement in your heart, and you are doomed to an eternity in hell.” I leaned in close and sneered at her. “And I hope you fucking burn.” I stood up and stared down at her. She was pale and shocked, and I did not care. “If you think my words are cold and cruel,” I added, “I want you to know I learned them from you.”

I walked away, for the final time. I knew I’d never see her again, and I had made my peace with that.

I didn’t care for the money. I didn’t care for anything. I longed for sleep, because in my dreams, I saw him. And that night, almost one year to the day since he was gone, in our too-big bed, in our too-quiet flat, in my too-alone life, I dreamed of Jarrod.

He sat on our bed and grinned. I longed to hear his voice, just once. It’d been a year and I craved the sound of his voice, his touch. But when I reached out for him, even in my dream, as in my waking nightmares, he was gone. I sat up in our bed, reaching out for nothing but air. He was gone, really gone.

But in this dream, on the bed where he’d sat, was a plane ticket. Mr Heath Crowley, it said. One way ticket to Tanzania.



CHAPTER ONE


The flight from Sydney, Australia, to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, was long, though I didn’t remember much of it. Much like the last twelve months of my life, zoning out and staring into space for undetermined lengths of time made my days bearable. My connecting flight to Arusha, with a fly-by view of Mount Kilimanjaro, was much less pleasant.

The Australian couple I had the misfortune of sitting next to were off on some great safari, glamour camping trip, according to their never ending attempt at conversation.

“You have odd coloured eyes,” the woman said bluntly, like I might not have known. She stared into each of my eyes like she was looking to see if she could find a way to fix them. “One’s brown, one’s a greeny-hazel colour.”

“Ah, yes. I know. Heterochromia. Don’t worry, it’s not contagious.”

She snorted rudely. “My sister had a dog with odd eyes.”

I repressed a sigh. Funnily enough, most people made a similar comment when they first met me. You’d think someone having different coloured eyes was the most absurd thing they’d ever seen, but, to me, it was as obtuse as me telling her she had blonde hair like it was some kind of disease. She clearly didn’t pick up on my want for silence.

“Are you travelling alone?”

“Yes.”

“In an organised tour?”

“No.”

“Are you meeting someone there?”

“Yeah.”

She visibly relaxed. “Oh, that’s good. I hear it can be very dangerous if you’re not in a group tour.”

I didn’t explain that I’d made one phone call and, for a nominal fee and something akin to a breath of hope, would be meeting a man whose name I couldn’t remember, and he would be taking me to a remote tribe of Maasai who had no clue I was coming.

Why? Because I’d dreamed of this.

Not dreamed of, as in a bucket-list aspiration kind of dream. But literally dreamed it. I’d had many instances, where my dreams foretold events that would inevitably shape my life. Not like normal dreams. These premonition-type dreams were the ones that woke me with a piercing weight on my breastbone. I would wake up in a cold sweat with vivid images screaming through my mind. Then, in the near future―a day, a week, a month―the dream would happen in my waking life. I couldn’t explain it, and only a few people ever knew about my talent.

Or curse.

I had a dream that told me I must go to Tanzania and that I would live with the Maasai. So, with absolutely nothing left to keep me tethered to my life in Sydney, I made a phone call, booked a ticket, and boarded a plane.

The woman beside me was still prattling on, her ignorance and naivety keeping company with her good intentions. “You read the travel warnings, yes? I’ve heard all the horror stories of people who come to these far-off countries by themselves. You must be so careful, or you might find yourself not coming back at all.”

“It wouldn’t much matter if I didn’t,” I mumbled. “Waking up in a bathtub of ice with one less kidney isn’t so bad. I’ve lived through worse.”

She blinked back her surprise and stopped talking to me after that. I smiled internally, put on the headphones, and closed my eyes, grateful for the peace and solitude.

When we’d landed, and even as we made it through the concourse and were herded out to the blistering heat of East Africa, I still kept to myself. The majority of other people were ushered onto tourist buses to the right. I went to the left, armed with no more than the backpack I brought with me. The sun was blinding, so I kept my head down and almost missed the guy waiting for me.

“Are you Mister Cowley?”

I looked up to find a man, a few inches taller than my five ten. He had short hair, nubbed at his scalp, dark brown skin, and a smile that showed almost every single one of his teeth.

“Crowley,” I corrected, not that it probably mattered. No one else here knew I was coming, except the one person I’d given my name and flight details to, the man who would drive me to the Maasai. “And you are?” I was expecting an Eric, I thankfully remembered, but I wasn’t naïve enough to give a stranger the name of the person I was waiting for.

“I am Eric. I wait here for you.” His English was broken, but he nodded enthusiastically. “You want to go to the Isikirari people. I take you.”

I offered him my hand, which he shook with just as much enthusiasm as he smiled. “Heath Crowley.”

“You come with me,” he said. His smile never faltered, and without one iota of concern for my safety, I followed him. He stopped at a car―if it could be described as that―and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

The car itself was an early 60s model Morris Minor, held together by rust and goodwill. But inside the car, piled into the backseat, were two other men… and three goats.

“Um.” I wasn’t sure what the hell to do.

“You get in front,” Eric said. His grin was somewhat reassuring.

I did as he asked and climbed in. The smell inside the car was an unholy mix of sweat and piss―human or goat, I couldn’t tell. And for the next hour, Eric drove west. The scenery was beautiful, just like I’d imagined it to be. Arusha was green with Mount Meru as a backdrop to the north, and the countryside as we drove was mostly farmland.

I had no idea where he was taking me, and it occurred to me that I didn’t really care. We went through a few smaller towns, and I tried to take in as much as I could. I felt so removed from the fact that I was actually heading toward the Serengeti. Well, I hoped I was. Eric asked me a few questions and pointed out a few landmarks, and the two men who both eyed me warily in the back with the bleating, stinking goats, never said a word.

Eventually we came to the large gateway to the World Heritage’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area. It was a name I remembered from the maps I’d studied, so I knew Eric had at least taken me in the right direction. There were a few mudbrick buildings and a flow of safari buses that surprised me but then we passed a huge, westernised looking tourist safari hotel and I understood why.

This really was the gateway to the Serengeti.

Then, at a turn off in what looked like the middle of flat grassland, Eric brought the car to a stop. I was almost hoping we’d lose the two silent guys and their goats but that wasn’t what happened at all. Eric stopped in the middle of the road and the two guys got out from the backseat taking their goats with them. Then Eric held out his hand. “Pay now.”

Right. I paid him the eighty-thousand Tanzanian shillings I’d agreed to, which equated to about fifty Australian dollars. I folded up the rest of my money and slid some into my backpack, some into my sock, and some into my shirt pocket. I’d travelled enough to know to separate my money. “Where to now?” I asked.

“You go with them,” Eric said, pointing in the direction the two men had gone. They were already a hundred yards ahead and were, by all accounts, walking into the middle of nowhere. “They take you.”

“The two men with the goats?”

“Yes, yes,” he said, still with the grin. “Hurry, hurry.”

Shit. I grabbed my backpack and scrambled out of the car. I waved my thanks as I ran after the two men. There was no turning back now. Eric was already driving away and I had to run to catch up to my guides.

“I’m coming with you, yes?” I asked them.

One man, the shorter of the two, turned his head in acknowledgment, though he never spoke. Actually, they never even looked directly at me, but they never stopped or said no, they never hunted me away, so I assumed it was okay to follow them. I stayed a few metres behind, and we walked. And walked, and then we walked some more.

I had no clue where we were going, or how long we would be walking for. From the direction of the setting sun, I deduced we were heading west. The sun was hotter and brighter than I thought possible, probably because we were walking directly into it. Though I was surprised by how green everything was; the grasses were long and danced in the breeze. I’d always imagined Africa to be arid, much like central Australia, but this was very fertile land.

Still walking, I sipped at my bottled water sparingly. I resisted the urge to complain or even speak. The two men remained silent, but from what I could ascertain, they were happy in their camaraderie, and as we continued to walk, I wondered if they were indeed brothers. They looked alike: both tall and lean, thin even, with dark skin and short, nubbed hair. But it wasn’t even their looks. They walked the same: long, confident strides, moving purposefully, yet there was a stillness about them.

And we walked.

I took in the scenery and kept reminding myself that I was walking the Serengeti. The landscape was beautiful. Remote and so removed from anything I’d seen in regional Australia. This was a foreign vastness, a different kind of isolation, than anything I’d experienced back home. The trees that spotted the scenery were no longer eucalypt, as they were back home, but were flat-top African acacias, which were so typical in photos of Africa. A herd of some kind of bison were off in the distance, and I tried hard not to wonder if there were lions anywhere close by.

The two men strode easily over the rocks and tussock grasses. And for the hours I walked behind them, I studied them as well. Their sandals were made from old tyres. Crude and elementary, but functional. Their clothes were threadbare and dirty: not a judgement, merely an observation. They had beaded loops instead of earlobes and I could see necklaces hidden by their shirts.

Were they Maasai or just villagers taking me to the Maasai? I had no idea.

I merely walked behind them, thankful the setting sun had taken the baking heat with it. But the cool change brought with it another element I’d not expected. Darkness.

The men in front of me were obviously familiar with their environment, and as evening became night, their silence as they walked became eerie. Thankfully the noisy goats kept me on track and just when I couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face, and just when I was about to ask the men how much further, a faint orange light came into view.

When I’d booked my ticket to come here, I had done some research. Well, all that Google and travel forums would allow. I knew the village itself was called a manyatta or kraal, with a wall built of thorns to surround and protect the people and livestock within.

In an otherwise all-surrounding blackness, the flickering of orange I didn’t realise until we were right up on it, was the fire I was seeing near the thorn walls of the kraal. The two men ahead of me stopped and faced me. “Stop,” one of them said.

The other man disappeared through the narrow gateway with the goats, and I stood there under the watchful eye of the other guy. Just a short moment later, I heard voices, then a long line of people filed out of the manyatta. They formed a half-circle around me; my back to the wall. And within half a minute, I was surrounded by dozens of people. Maasai people, tall, imposing, and intimidating. I could barely make them out―the night was too dark―but there was an air of concern and danger to them.

I didn’t need to speak Maa to know they were alarmed at my presence. Outraged even. A tall man, well over six foot, confronted me, draped in red cloth and wielding a long spear, he spoke in my face. His eyes and teeth looked yellow in the lack of light; his disposition was formidable. “What you do here?”

Quickly recognising he was a respected tribal man, I kept my head down, knowing my place here was well beneath his. “I mean no harm,” I said, surprised by the strength of my own voice. “I have come to live with your people. If you would have me. Please. I want to learn your ways.”

Conversation swept through the village, murmurs and rumbles of unease. The man before me raised his hand and a silence hushed over the people. He gripped my chin and forced my face upwards so he could see my face.

His eyes went wide, and he yelled something I couldn’t comprehend. Was it a name? Was he calling for someone else?

I should have been afraid. I should have run away. But instead I stood there, without any thought of self-preservation, under the scrutiny of a man who might possibly kill me.

Then another man, much older and smaller, wearing a headdress of some sort―I couldn’t quite make it out in the darkness―draped in red, with beaded necklaces, appeared in front of me. The crowd moved for him, a clear mark of respect. He came to stand in front of me, and when he saw my different coloured eyes, he let out a long gasp.

He spoke words in Maa I could not begin to understand―a quiet timbre to his voice, but with strength as well. From his reaction, I could see he was excited and even amazed. Waves of disbelief and murmurs spread through the people encircled around us. Whatever he called me, the words I didn’t understand, must have meant something to them.

The small village elder smiled at me by the firelight. Then he spoke in broken English. “Broken man. Incomplete, but he brave. No fear.” I wasn’t sure what to make of that. But then he said, “He dreams.”

Well, I understood that. “Yes. My dreams told me to come here.”

The first man, the angry warrior guy, didn’t like that at all. He spoke harshly to the elder, stomping his spear to the ground. I made no sense of his words, only his demeanour. He didn’t like me or want me here.

The elder stopped him with just his raised hand. A silence so profound settled over the kraal, and the elder looked at me. “He stay. He be ghost of Kafir.” He nodded sagely. “He stay with Damu.”


CHAPTER TWO


The people in the kraal buzzed in conversations and excitement. Someone at the back started to sing, and I wondered briefly if I was being welcomed or if I was about to be speared.

The tall, angry warrior eyed me, not even trying to hide his disdain. He was only a few feet from me, thumping his spear into the dirt as he spoke to other men. Some women stood back, further into the darkness, and some smiled and giggled behind their hands. Some sneered.

While my fate was being decided, I took a moment to look around. The night was dark, given the moon was no more than a sliver of light in the sky, but my eyes had adjusted somewhat. I could see the people surrounding me were all wearing shukas, the traditional red shawl the Maasai were famous for. Some of the shukas were blue, some a mix of both, but there was mostly red. They wore beaded earrings, beaded necklaces, and most of them were barefoot. Some wore the same tyre sandals the other men had worn.

I noticed the smells then. The fire, of course, but the unmistakable odour of cattle and cow shit was the most prominent, plus the faint smell of food cooked hours before.

“Damu!” the angry warrior yelled, short and clipped.

The crowd of gatherers whispered in surprise and amusement as a man weaved his way through from the very back. He was tall, had a shaved head, and stared at the ground. The warrior spoke down to him, angry words that, once again, I could not understand. It was very clear, even to me, this man was not held in any regard by his peers. I briefly wondered what he’d done so wrong, what terrible crime he had committed, to be spoken to in such a manner.

Then Damu, still with his head down, turned to me. He glanced up for just a second. He beckoned me with his hand, and the angry warrior pointed in the direction Damu wished for me to go. “You go. Go with him.”

I bowed my head, in what I’d hoped was a sign of respect, and quickly followed the man named Damu. Only once we’d got through the gateway and were away from the fire, I couldn’t see a damn thing. I was following him blindly, in every sense of the word.

I stopped walking. “Uh,” I said, loud enough for Damu to hear me and hopefully quiet enough that the others didn’t. “I can’t see.”

Then, silently, a hand touched my arm. “This way.”

He kept his hand on my arm and led me a short distance, where he stopped. My eyes had adjusted a little, and I could see we were in front of a small hut. Damu bent low to get through the doorway, and putting my complete faith in a man I’d not even been introduced to, I followed.

If I thought the African night sky was dark, then inside the hut was a blackness I’d never imagined before. I literally couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face. It was warm inside the hut, and it stank. I couldn’t stand up; the ceiling was far too low. I crouched down and slung my backpack off to the floor, which I now realised was dirt. I had the sense of being enclosed in a room far too small to contain me, let alone two men.

“Sleep here,” Damu said. His voice was soft and kind. There was an edge to his tone, like he was uncertain but didn’t want to offend me.

“It’s very dark.”

“Yes. It is night.”

I smiled, grateful he couldn’t see me… hoping he couldn’t see me. I didn’t want to offend him either. “You speak English.” Very broken, very literal English. It was a shame my profound use of sarcasm would never be used here.

“Some.”

“I am grateful. Thank you for allowing me to stay.”

“It not my decision.”

Oh. “I am grateful nonetheless.” I had so many questions. Like what were the names the elder man had called me, who was Kafir, and why was I his ghost?

“Lay. Sleep.”

Okay then. My questions could obviously wait. Figuring if there was a bed for me, I’d have been shown to it, so I assumed I was to sleep on the floor. I sat down, edging my back to the wall. I pulled my backpack under my head and curled into a ball. I closed my eyes, not aware of how tired I was, though my mind was still pedaling a thousand miles an hour.

What the hell was I doing? Did I really just fly to East Africa, and walk for the better part of a day across the Serengeti? Did I ask the Maasai warrior wielding a spear if I could stay? Was I really lying in the dirt, on the cold hard ground, in a hut with a man I didn’t know?

I resisted the urge to laugh out loud, then I blinked back tears.

Sleep crawled over me, like a slow mist with spindly fingers, wrapping around me and taking me under.

* * * *

I woke to a large hand on my shoulder, shaking me, and a whispered, urgent voice saying words I couldn’t understand.

I sat up, my mind in a fog, my heart hammering. The vivid dream of Jarrod’s smiling face swirled through my conscience, evaporating like smoke until it was gone. I tried to keep it close, I tried to tell him to stay, but it was too late. Damu was in my face, his hands on my shoulders, and from the concern on his face, I realised I must have been having a nightmare. It was still dark in the hut, though early morning light shone through the door opening. If African summer mornings were anything like Australian summer mornings, I’d guess it was about five a.m.

“You dream,” Damu said.

“Sorry,” I said, my voice croaking. “Did I wake you?”

He shook his head and moved back away from me as far as the space in the hut allowed. I could see inside the hut now, though only barely. There were no windows and certainly no electrical lighting, so it was still dark. The hut was no more than six feet by four―I’m sure I could touch the walls with my arms outstretched. The ceiling was about five feet off the ground, made from what looked like sticks with mud. The walls were the same, though from my very brief online research I knew the Maasai made their huts from sticks and cow shit. Which would probably explain the smell.

Inside, the hut was divided into two areas: a bedroom and a kitchen, if they could be called that. There was a bed of sorts, which looked like an old inch-thin mattress on the dirt floor along one wall. On the opposite wall there was what I assumed was a kitchen. Well, there was a bowl on the floor and an old dirty bucket, and there appeared to be a mudbrick fire pit in the corner, where I imagined some food was cooked.

If there was an image used to describe basic, almost ancient living, this could be it.

Yet, I was here to learn, to observe with an open mind, not to judge.

I scrubbed my hand through my hair, suddenly feeling the ache in my back and neck from sleeping on the ground. “Thank you for waking me,” I said to Damu. He looked at me warily, and I could only assume my dreaming―or nightmares, as they tended to be―had scared him.

Damu nodded toward the door. “No be late.”

“Okay,” I said, kind of crawling to the door. I had no idea what I wasn’t to be late for or where I was to go, but I had no option but to put my trust in Damu. Only when I was outside could I stand up to my full height. Every vertebra in my back cracked with satisfaction when I stretched, but then I took notice of where I was.

Morning was breaking over the manyatta. The sky was light blues and pinks, the air was cool and fresh, and I still could hardly believe I was in Tanzania with the Maasai. There must have been twelve or fifteen other huts all close together up on end of the enclosed village, yet the hut I’d slept in, Damu’s hut, was removed from the other huts. I wondered what that meant but dared not ask. There were animal pens within the walls of the manyatta, filled with cows and goats, and some Maasai, wearing their traditional red shukas, were tending to them.

I couldn’t help but smile. I was smiling, truly happy for the first time in so long. It felt strange on my face.

“We go,” Damu said. I turned to find him pointing in the opposite direction, toward the huts. “Come.”

It was then I noticed Damu. I’d only seen him in the darkness. He’d guided me in the darkness by kindly taking my arm, and I’d slept in his hut, but I hadn’t yet really seen his face. Until now.

Damu was, at a guess, six foot three inches. His skin was a deep, dark brown and perfectly smooth, his head shaved to the scalp. He had eyes the colour of onyx, and when he caught me staring, he smiled. He wore the traditional red shuka, though it was open through the chest, and I could see he was thin and muscular, without one ounce of fat on his body. His earlobes bore white and red beads. He wore a string of necklaces made from wooden and black beads, and bracelets which, unlike his necklaces, were of bright colours, and he had a wooden club holstered in his belt. He really was a very striking man.

I felt a strange calmness around him. Which was absurd, because I’d never noticed any such thing before. Some people always gave off angry vibes or nervousness, but I’d always assumed that was from how they were behaving.

But Damu was different.

I felt calm beside him, a gentleness, which surprised me.

As we went around the back of the first hut, we came across a small child. I had no clue whether it was a boy or a girl―it truly didn’t matter―who wore westernised clothes. Well, a long shirt, five sizes too big, that had holes and stains, and little sneakers. As soon as the child saw us, they stopped, looked at me with something akin to horror, then let out a scream.

Damu put his hand out, speaking rapid fire words I couldn’t begin to understand, but the child’s mother quickly appeared, along with several other women, and snatched up the child.

There was now a line of six women staring at me, all wary but curious. They wore dresses of red and blue with dozens of brightly coloured necklaces. They had shaved heads and long drooping earlobes filled with beads like Damu’s. Other children hid behind their mothers, peeking at me, then quickly hiding again. I had no clue what they were saying, but I knew a scared kid when I saw one.

I wasn’t sure what the cultural etiquette was in this scenario, but I wanted to reassure them. So I bowed my head and smiled, aiming for friendly. “Hello.”

The women turned and scurried away, ushering their children before them. Jesus. I looked up at Damu. “Did I do something wrong?”

Damu stood at my side like a poor kid designated to show the new kid around at school. “No white man.”

I blanched. “They’ve never seen a white man before?”

Damu shook his head and he smiled. “Women, yes. Children, no.”

Oh dear God. No wonder they were scared. I must have looked like an alien or something.

Damu took my arm and pulled me along. “Come. We not be late.”

There was a meeting, of sorts, around the fire that had burned last night. The entire Maasai tribe was there. They were split in two groups: the men, and the women and children. Some of the men had shaved heads, some with long hair in tight braids that were held in ponytails by metal clasps. They sat on the ground with their spears and long sticks, with military discipline. They all wore the traditional red shukas and were―there were no other words for it―a formidable sight. The women sat on the ground too, the babies strapped to their backs and the small children jumping and clapping happily around them.

It was like I’d woken up on a movie set.

A group of men, who I could only assume were the tribal elders, sat at the front, and the angry warrior from last night was the first to see me. He stood and thumped his spear into the dirt, yelling fierce words in my direction.

Now the entire tribe stared at me. The children cried out and ran to their mothers.

But it was the small elder, the oldest of all the tribal leaders, who stood up and called for calm. He was the same man who called me the ghost of Kafir, the same man who said I could stay. He motioned for me to come forward, which I did obediently. He wore a headdress of beads and feathers and held what I first thought was a stick with a tuft of hair sticking out the end, but I realised, a little belatedly, it was an animal’s tail wrapped with twine of some sort. I couldn’t tell if it was a zebra tail or a warthog’s or a lion’s. God, I had no idea. What I did know was that from the headdress and utmost respect from his tribe, this little old man must be what the Maasai called their ‘diviner.’ Before I knew differently, I probably would have called him a witchdoctor.

It was then I noticed Damu had come forward with me. He stood by my side, facing the elders with his head bowed. I took his cue and did the same.

The diviner pointed his tail-stick thing to the tribesmen who sat to my left, and gave them what appeared to be an order. Without a murmur, they stood and filed out. Then he did the same to the women, and they left, taking the children with them.

“Damu,” the elder said. He spoke to him in Maa, then he shooed him away with his hand. Damu hesitated in leaving me, but the diviner repeated his order, and Damu backed away. I didn’t see where he went. I didn’t dare look.

The diviner smiled, revealing a few missing teeth, and he seemed friendly. He had a kind face, and I liked him. “Sit. Sit,” he said.

I sat right where I had been standing, and the diviner sat with his back to the wall of a hut with the other elders. The angry warrior stood for a moment longer, no doubt to remind me of his status, and subsequently, reminding me of mine.

They talked a little amongst themselves, and I realised this was a trial of sorts. My stay here was still being decided. Maybe even my life. I just sat there, staring at the dirt, and waited.

It was only when they spoke in English that I looked up. “White man,” one of them said. It wasn’t a racist comment, it was merely an observation. I nodded my acknowledgment and looked at each of them in turn, hoping it would show my respect. Of course it allowed them all to see my different coloured eyes, and they started talking amongst themselves again.

“Kafir! Kafir!” one of the men cried. “Eyes of Kafir.”

“He dreams,” the diviner told them.

They talked amongst themselves some more. All the while the angry warrior never took his eyes off me. “Where you come?”

“I’m from Australia. A city called Sydney, in Australia,” I answered.

“You have wife?”

“No.”

“You no wife, no children, no cattle?”

“No.”

“You come here for wife?”

“No.” Even if I wasn’t gay, finding a partner was the last, last, last thing I wanted.

He stared at me, like my life and intentions were unfathomable.

So I said, “I want to help you. I want to live here and help, be a part of your people.”

“How you help our people?” the diviner asked.

I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out a wad of notes. It was probably fifty thousand Tanzanian shillings or about thirty Australian dollars. I had more money stashed and figured buying my way in for thirty bucks was money well spent. I held out the money. “For your people.”

Apparently this was a good thing. They were pleased, even the angry warrior seemed mollified after he’d snatched the money from my hand. So, while I was in their good graces, I needed to know some names. Diviner and angry warrior were apt and all, but hardly polite. Not that they’d made any attempt in asking me my name―I guessed they didn’t care.

I kept my head bowed. “May I ask your names? I would like to know what to call you.”

After another brief meeting amongst themselves, the diviner nodded. “Kasisi.”

Angry warrior’s name was Kijani. And the other elders were Makumu and Mposi and Lomunyak.

I put my hand to my chest. “My name is Heath Crowley.”

“No,” Kasisi said. “You are Alé.”

The other men laughed, but they nodded. “Alé. Alé.”

Right then. So apparently my name was Alé. It sounded like Ah-leh, and I had no clue what it meant. Probably Stupid White Man, but as it meant they’d accepted me even as an outsider, I just smiled and nodded.

Then Kijani pointed his spear to the left. “Damu. Go to Damu.”

They found something funny about that, repeating “Damu and Alé” as they laughed. I didn’t care. I took my leave with a bow of my head.

And under the warm African sky, I shed my name of Heath Crowley, along with my old life, and for the briefest moment, it was the lightest I’d felt in over twelve months. From that day on, I wasn’t Heath anymore. There was no dark cloud hanging over me, there was no all-consuming heartache, there was no devastating loss. I was Alé.

And I went in search of Damu.



CHAPTER THREE



Damu was coming out of his hut with his bucket in hand. “Damu,” I called. “Kijani said I was to find you.”

Damu gave me a hard nod. “Yes.”

His English wasn’t great, but I was grateful he spoke any at all. I knew English was common in Tanzania, but I hadn’t realised just how difficult it might have been if they spoke none at all. I had to make an effort to learn more Maa words. I doubted I’d ever be fluent―it seemed so fast and very foreign, but I was determined to at least try. I motioned to his bucket. “Where are we going?”

His voice was quiet, his whole demeanour was placid. “Water.”

“Oh, of course.” I looked around, seeing nothing but thorn fencing, mud huts, and dirt. “Where do we go?”

He nodded over the thorn fence and started to walk. Of course I followed, and as we went through the small gate, we headed in the direction he had nodded. Outside the kraal was something else. When I’d arrived the night before, I couldn’t see any of my surroundings. Now it was a perfect summer day: the sun was still hovering over the horizon and the sky, well, I’d never seen a sky so big. The landscape was flat, undulating to low rolling hills on the horizon. The grass was knee-high and browning off, a sign of the blistering heat. There was a line of greener trees to the west, and in an otherwise dry environment, I assumed the thriving vegetation meant water.

I must have assumed right, because we headed in that direction. There were some women walking a few hundred metres ahead, their laughter carried when the wind blew towards us. Damu and I walked without speaking, and yet, I didn’t mind it. It was a peaceful silence.

I was still wearing the clothes from yesterday, and I hadn’t eaten since… I couldn’t remember. The plane flight from Sydney?

“So, what do you eat for breakfast?” My voice sounded loud in the silence. Damu looked at me, confused, so I broke it down and put my hand to my mouth. “Food?”

“Yes, yes,” was all he said.

Okay, then. So maybe there would be breakfast after we got water? I had no clue. Now that I’d thought of food, my stomach growled in protest. If Damu had heard it, and I assumed he had, he said nothing.

We walked the rest of the way in silence. It must have been a kilometre away, and as we neared the small river, the women who had been ahead of us were walking back. They carried plastic containers of water, and their chatter and smiles died away when they saw me. They spoke in passing to Damu, pleasantly enough, but it got me thinking…

All the other males had gone, herding their cattle. I’d seen them off in the distance―not only the cows and goats, but the striking tall dark figures draped in red were pretty hard not to notice.

As was the man beside me. So why wasn’t Damu with them?

“Were you told to look after me?” I asked, not knowing if he’d understand. “Did Kijani make you mind me?”

Damu eyed me cautiously but stayed quiet as he approached the edge of the river. Just when I thought he hadn’t understood me, he said, “Kijani make you responsibility for me. I do what Kijani tell me.”

Despite his broken English, I understood him just fine, and I was right. Damu was my babysitter. I couldn’t even be offended. I’d much rather spend my days with Damu than Kijani, the spear-wielding warrior with anger management issues.

But it can’t have been good for him. My presence had taken him from his daily work with the other men. “I’m sorry.”

Damu’s gaze shot to mine. Was he shocked at my apology? “Why you be sorry?”

“Looking after me is not what you want. I trouble you?”

“No, no,” he said, then stepped down the muddy bank and waded into the water. He filled the bucket and left it on the bank, then went back into the water downstream. He washed his face and cupped his hands in the water and drank.

I sat down and pulled off my sneakers and socks, pulled up the legs of my pants and followed him out. The water was cool and a little muddy, and I paused, wondering if I should drink unboiled water, but considering I hadn’t had anything to drink since my flight here, I drank it anyway. And it was good. I hadn’t even realised how thirsty I was.

After standing in the cool water for a minute or so, I guessed now was as good a time as any to start with the dialect. “What is your word for water?”

Damu smiled. “Water. Enk-áre.”

“Enk-áre,” I repeated. The ending sounded a little similar to the name Kijani and Kasisi had called me. “What does Alé mean? The elders called me that. The leaders, that’s what they called me.”

Damu almost smiled. “Milk.”

Oh. “Because I’m white?”

Damu gave an unapologetic nod and walked out of the water.

Fair enough, I thought. The Maasai people lived the way they had for thousands of years, almost untouched by time and what we called “progress.” Being politically correct to a strange white man was not on their cultural radar. Nor should it be. I understood there would be very few similarities between their world and mine long before I’d set foot in Tanzania. It was half the reason I came here. I wanted no reminders of the world I’d left behind.

Damu was waiting for me on the river bank, so I quickly got out and pulled on my socks and shoes. He waited patiently, and I made a mental note to be more aware of those around me, their ways and practices.

I stood, my wet feet now uncomfortable in dry socks and shoes, and I wasn’t really looking forward to the walk back. “Why is the village so far from the river?” I asked. Then I corrected my phrasing. “The manyatta, why is it so far from the enk-árê?”

And just as I’d finished speaking, I swatted a mosquito on my arm, making Damu laugh. It was a contagious sound, but then I had to swish another mozzie from buzzing near my face. “I see why.”

“Yes. Yellow… Yellow?” He looked unsure of his wording.

Yellow. Yellow… Oh shit. “Yellow fever?”

“Yes!” Damu said with a bright smile.

Well hell, I certainly didn’t want malaria or any other mosquito-borne disease. Even though I’d just gulped mouthfuls of river water. Shit. I’d had a dozen different shots before I came here, but still. “Water make me sick? Enk-áre make me,” I pretended to dry retch.

Damu only laughed, which wasn’t too comforting.

“Should I boil water?” I asked. Then something else occurred to me. Damu had his water, what the hell was I going to drink. I pointed to the bucket he was now holding. “Ah, your water. Where is my water? I didn’t bring a container or a canister.”

Damu looked at his bucket. “My water, your water. Responsibility is you to me.”

“Then allow me to carry it,” I offered, holding out my hand.

“No. Responsibility is you to me.”

Okay then. I was his responsibility for all things.

He turned and headed back the way we’d come, and I had to jog to catch up. His long legs strode much quicker than mine. I wondered how much I’d slowed him down already.

“Any mals,” Damu said. “Also why we build great far from river.”

“Any mals? Oh. Animals? What kind of animals?” Because truly, Australia had some scary critters, but we sure as hell didn’t have lions and hippos and rhinos.

Damu laughed at my expression. “Animals need water like we need water.”

“Are there lions here?” I asked, given he’d not freely given up what kind of friendly wildlife we could encounter.

“Some.” He pointed one hand further to the west. “Serengeti. Some here.”

Holy shit.

“Mostly beasts.”

“Wildebeests?”

Damu nodded. “Yes. Wildebeests come. Many wildebeests.”

Oh good. Because if the odd lion here and there wasn’t scary enough, stampeding wildebeests kind of was. I shook my head, dumbfounded that I was in a real life game of Jumanji. “Do you see elephants?”

His brow furrowed, so I made a trunk from my arm and made some lame elephant noise. It just made Damu laugh. “Il-tomíá.”

“Elephant.”

Damu repeated the English word and seemed happy with this exchange, so I kept asking questions. “Giraffe?” I pretended to elongate my neck. “Long neck. Giraffe.”

He grinned, his white teeth a stark contrast to his skin. “E-mára.”

And as we walked back to the manyatta, we swapped the names of relevant things: all the animals I could think of, trees, birds, day, night. I didn’t expect to remember them all but the conversation was good.

“You speak good English,” I told him as we neared the familiar thorn fence of the manyatta or kraal. “Did you go to school?”

“No,” he replied. “No school. I learn by others.”

Wow. He was self-taught. “Do you go to the towns?”

Damu shook his head. “No. I not leave.”

“Ever?”

He didn’t answer with words, but his silence told me all I needed to know. Jesus. He’d never left the manyatta in which he was born.

“How old are you?” I asked.

Damu didn’t answer and the look that crossed his face was one of confusion. Did he not understand my English? I tried rewording my question. “How many years are you?”

He shook his head. “No.”

I didn’t know if he didn’t know what the answer was in English, or if he didn’t know what a year was. I had to think more laterally. I had to forget what my culture had taught me and look at it from Damu’s perspective. “What are your seasons here?” I asked instead. “Where I’m from, we have summer.” I waved my hand at my face like a fan to imply it was hot. Then I pretended to shiver and rub my arms like I was cold. “And winter. And we have spring, when the baby animals are born, and autumn when the leaves fall.”

This he seemed to understand. He practised the names of the seasons with me and it was very clear he liked to learn new things. “We have nkokua, means the long rains,” he said. “Oloirurujuruj is the drizzling season, and oltumuret for the short rains.”

They really did live their entire lives around the land. “Three seasons,” I said, holding up three fingers. Damu nodded. “We have four.”

He smiled happily, and I couldn’t help but like him. Well, the very little I knew of him. “What is your wooden club?” I asked, nodding toward the weapon tied off in his belt.

Rungu.” He pulled the wooden club out and held the handle end. It looked like a short, golf driving club or even a wooden human thigh bone. It was smooth and about forty centimetres long. He pulled it back and motioned to throw it, almost like a boomerang. “Mposi not want it. Say it not good, but I have it.”

I ignored the fact he only had it because someone else didn’t want it. “You throw it?” I asked. “At animals?”

He grinned and stopped walking. He put the bucket down and pointed to a tree about thirty metres away, then motioned to the low branch.

“The low branch?” I asked. It stuck out at about ninety degrees, lower than the other branches. “Wait,” I said, putting my hand up in a stop signal. I ran over to the tree and pointed up above my head to the branch in question, but also to a discoloured knot in the branch. I wanted to see how good he really was.

He grinned and waited for me to come back to him before he aimed. He walked back about ten metres, simply felt the weight of the rungu in his hand a few times, pulled it back over his shoulder, and taking a few long strides in, he launched it at the tree.

And he hit it, right at the part I’d pointed to. Perfect aim.

I stared, speechless. “Oh my God!” I cried. “You got it!”

He let out a laugh but hurriedly went to retrieve it. He checked it for damage and seeing none, he slipped it back in his belt.

I was still staring, not quite believing what I’d just seen. “Remind me to never make you angry.”

“No, no,” he said, waving his hands.

I laughed, hoping he meant he wouldn’t ever throw his rungu at me, and so we talked the whole way back to the kraal. I wanted to learn as much as I could, and Damu was very patient with me. “You have many questions,” he said as we neared the thorned acacia fence that surrounded his village.

“Do I annoy you?” I asked. “Like mosquito?”

Damu laughed and as we walked back in through the gateway, we were met by Kijani. Damu’s laughter cut off abruptly. He stopped walking, and he put his head down. Kijani barked some order at him, and from what I could tell, Damu was in trouble for being late.

“I slowed him down,” I said, then realised all too late that it was not my place to speak.

Kijani glared at me with fire and ice in one look. He didn’t speak to me, but rather he murmured something low and threatening to Damu instead. If Damu was responsible for me, any anger I caused the warrior leader would fall back on Damu. I wouldn’t make the mistake of speaking out of turn again.

Kijani snapped another order at Damu and Damu grabbed my arm and quickly led me back to his hut. Only when we were inside, in the absolute darkness of his home, did I find my voice again. “I’m sorry if I caused you trouble. I won’t speak out of turn again.”

My eyes burned as they adjusted to the dark, and I strained to see. I was on my knees because of the low ceiling while Damu crouched easily. He carefully put the bucket of water in the corner opposite his bed, then mixed a white powder with water in a small bowl and handed it to me. It looked like glue paste. “Eat.”

This was probably the most hideously disgusting looking meal I’d ever eaten, but I was starving hungry and very, very grateful Damu had given me food. “Thank you.”

He grabbed my hand. “No. This hand. Never that hand.”

“Oh.” I bowed my head. “Sorry.” Jesus. I had so much to learn, but I was grateful I’d not offended any of the leaders or, God forbid, Kijani. I had read somewhere it was taboo to eat with your left hand―it was, after all, the hand used for wiping one’s arse. Apparently. But I’d simply forgotten. As I ate the ground oatmeal goo with the fingers on my right hand, I briefly wondered what would happen if I’d been left-handed…

I wolfed down half of the porridge and held out the bowl with the remainder. “For you?”

My eyes had adjusted, and I could see the smile on Damu’s face. He nodded at me. “Eat.”

I didn’t want him to go hungry, but wasn’t going to argue because I had no idea when I would eat again. He was obviously waiting for me to finish using his one and only bowl, yet even in the darkness of his hut I could see the confusion on his face. “You offer me the food?” he asked.

“Of course.” I mean, seriously, he’d offered it to me first. I was just being polite. He’d given me shelter, water, food, and conversation.

“Alé has kindness.”

Oh. He’d used the name I was given, which was now, I assumed, my Maasai name. “Damu has kindness.”

His grin was instantaneous, his teeth gleaming in the darkness. I held out the empty bowl. “Do I clean?”

He ignored that, whether he didn’t understand or if he was just in a hurry, I wasn’t sure. He simply added more ground meal and water to the bowl and ate his breakfast.

I figured it was a good time to freshen up the best I could, so I rummaged through my backpack for a clean shirt. I rolled on some underarm deodorant and, peeling off my shirt, pulled the new one on. When Damu was done eating, I followed him outside and he pointed to one of the houses. “You this way.”

I went blindly, wherever he was telling me I had to go. We walked to one of the far off huts where there were ten or twelve women sitting on the ground in a bit of circle. Each of them was busy, either stringing beads or weaving threads, and their conversation stopped as we approached.

Damu spoke to them, words I couldn’t understand―though I think I heard the name Kijani―before he turned to me. “You be here.”

Okay then. So Kijani had said that I was to sit with the women. I nodded, indicating I understood, and without another word, he walked away. I stood there with twelve women staring up at me, their faces neutral. They didn’t seem to hate me, but they weren’t exactly welcoming either. I knew it had to be me who bridged the gap. I found a place in the dirt, shaded by the hut. “May I sit here?” I asked, patting the ground. Some spoke in Maa, but others nodded and I knew without doubt, if it weren’t for Kijani’s instruction, I wouldn’t have been welcome.

I must have been truly bizarre to these women, even a little frightening. So I gave them a smile and put my hand to my chest. “I am Alé.”

Of course this made them laugh. I’d just called myself milk. But their smiles were contagious, and it seemed to break the tension because they went back to their conversation like I wasn’t even there. Except for one woman who nodded at me. She had a shaved head, beaded earlobes, and from the number of necklaces she wore, I gathered she held some kind of rank and respect amongst the women. She wore a red tartan dress, had bare feet, and sat on an animal hide. She was smiling at me now. “Kafir. Eyes of Kafir.”

I put my hand to my eyes. “I have two different coloured eyes,” I said, using two fingers on the number and pointing in turn to each eye. I didn’t know if they all spoke English, so I hoped they understood what I was saying. “Who is Kafir?”

The woman spoke in very broken English, but I was very grateful she was even speaking to me. “Kafir roam our land. No kill him; he protect us.”

Oh, some guy protected them so they didn’t kill him. That was nice. The women started talking again as they continued with their handiwork, breaking out in laughter and song as they made bracelets and clothes, and it truly was a privilege to watch. They were such a happy people. They literally lived with the barest of things, such primitive means, but to this outsider, they seemed content.

I tried to imagine the women I’d known in Australia, and even the men, living like this, and the idea was comical. Most of the people I knew thought they wouldn’t survive without Wi-Fi, the latest model phones, and their morning hit of over-priced, over-rated “organic” soy latte.

The woman beside me finished a strand of white beads. I nodded toward it. “Very beautiful.”

They all laughed again, and I didn’t even mind that they were laughing at me. One of the women across from me picked up a single strand of string. “Alé make beads.”

I grinned at her. “Can I?”


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