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  • Robert L. Giron

Issue 23 — Julie Wakeman-Linn

Julie Wakeman-Linn

This is Chapter One of the novel Chasing the Leopard; Finding the Lion

{Please note that after this chapter was originally published on ArLiJo the novel was published in Africa and is now available as a Kindle ebook.}

Harare, Zimbabwe

June 24, 1997

Under the canopy of pink frangipani blossoms, President Mugabe’s pair of razor wired gates were closing on Chancellor Avenue, the city’s only east-west thoroughfare, cutting Harare in half. Isaac Mtonga braked the old Volvo wagon and checked his watch — it was only 5:45 — the gates shouldn’t close until 6 p.m.

Two guards signaled him past the first of the two gates of the Presidential Palace compound, an entire city block surrounded by concrete walls, an interruption in Chancellor’s Avenue’s residential gardens of red and white lilies. Just ahead the second gate was already shut. Isaac was stuck. Was this a ‘go-slow’ for a quick bribe, he wondered, or were they looking for people from the Seke Flats protest?

If he didn’t get through this pair of gates, he’d be trapped on the wrong side of Harare, unable to get to the lodge tonight. He tucked the protest flyer deeper into his jacket pocket. He coasted behind an old Mercedes sedan which was stopped ahead of him at the second gate.

Isaac rubbed his leg. No blood visible on his torn pants leg, which had snagged on the thorn bushes of Seke Flats. He checked his eyes in the rear view mirror. He’d only gotten a whiff of tear gas; his eyes weren’t bloodshot. Even if they found the flyer, they could prove he’d been one of the rock throwers.

Two cops in the red-and-gray uniforms of the Presidential Guard approached the Mercedes. One, older with a wrinkled neck, carried his gun ready across his chest, and the other, younger and thinner, his gun slung over his shoulder, carried a clipboard. If they were gathering information, he could try to talk his way out of this. If only Brett was here, glib crazy Brett who could talk his way out of anything.

A woman, a housewife type in a yellow dress and matching headscarf, got out of the Mercedes and alternately yelled at the kids in the back seat and shaking her finger at the thin cop, scribbling on his clipboard. She wheeled on the other cop, screaming about hungry kids and dinnertime.

Then the old wattleneck cop cracked the butt of his gun against her car’s headlights. Isaac heard glass shards hitting the pavement. The kids’ wailing echoed off the concrete walls. The thin cop motioned her to drive out and signaled another guard to open the gate.

Isaac clicked on the radio, stretching his fingers to stop their shaking. He’d never been stopped by the cops after a protest before and he wished he wasn’t alone with this destructive pair. There was pride and strength in numbers in a protest.

“Your license,” the wattleneck cop demanded as he approached. The thin cop recorded the wagon’s license plates.

Isaac handed over his license and started tapping his fingers on the steering wheel in time to the radio, trying to distract them and pretending he was calm. “Know of any good jazz spots this weekend?”

“These are Mashonaland district plates.” The thin cop looked to be in his mid-twenties like he was. “What are you doing in the city today?”

“I’m getting supplies for my boss. Auto parts, timing belts for Bumi Hills Lodge.”

“Where were you this afternoon?” The thin cop’s pen pointed at Isaac’s chest.

“Mbare Market, hunting for auto parts.” Mbare’s stalls back onto Seke Road, but it was the only possible answer—there was no other market out Chancellor Avenue. Isaac shifted, sweat had stuck his shirt to the car’s leather upholstery.

“New or used parts?” Wattleneck scanned the back seat.

“New, some used.” Isaac shrugged. Now they would suspect stolen goods — many goods in Mbare market were probably stolen — and they’d have legal reason to search the wagon. The telephoto lens he’d found for Brett was certainly a stolen item. Shit, these two were ornery and he had to trick them out of linking him to the protest. “If I don’t get these parts to the lodge tonight, I’ll get fired. Took me all day to track down a lousy timing belt. What’s up with the shops these days?”

“How in hell would I know what’s with the shops,” the thin cop snapped. “Can anybody verify your whereabouts today?”

“I was just getting auto parts. I’m a lodge mechanic.” Isaac kept his hands still on the wheel.

“Mtonga.” Wattleneck’s chest was a colorful row of insignia. Apparently he’d been in Mugabe’s service a long time. Maybe since the war. “Are you Noah Mtonga’s son?”

“Yes, I am. He used to know President Mugabe quite well.” Isaac rested his arm on the car door. This guy was as old as his dad. Maybe they served together sometime during the revolution. Maybe an old friendship would help him out of here. “Do you know him?”

“I heard he took up with some bastard Rhodie farmer in Mashona after the war,” Wattleneck squinted, his eyes almost disappearing. “Cunningham or something.”

“No, you’ve got it all wrong.” This ass had never met his dad if he thought Owen, his dad’s best friend and Brett’s dad, was a Rhodesian. Owen was British born.

“Those whites are not going to have those farms much longer.” The thin cop’s breath smelled of strong mint and burned onions as he bent closer. “After we clean up those traitors from Seke, they’re next. Those protesters are traitors, same as the Rhodies. Was your dad in town today?”

“No.” Isaac raised his palms. He must keep the dads and the farm out of this. His father’s old political connections had backfired. Political protests were not the actions of traitors. How could this guy his age see the political mess so differently? “My dad grows tomatoes and onions on a small farm. There’s no Rhodie. My father hates them all.” A tiny lie would distract these two. “I think the guy, the Rhodie, is, um, dead.”

“Get out of the car.” The thin cop jerked the door open.

This guy should be less concerned about the past and old warriors. They’d both been little kids in 1979. Maybe he could calm the guy down if he acted all breezy and nonchalant. “Nice evening, isn’t it?” Isaac unzipped his jacket as he leaned against the wagon and the flyer with the MDC opposition party logo fluttered from his pocket.

“Not in town, you say,” the young cop snapped.

Isaac bent to pick up the flyer. “Somebody stuck it under my windshield wiper.”

“Like father, like son.” Wattleneck said. His rifle smacked Isaac’s shoulders.

Isaac fell, his hands flat on the ground. An ache spread like oil spilling down his back, only interrupted by another blow to his head. He tried to focus his eyes. The pain in his collarbone howled, a message to keep still. He wanted to protect his head but he didn’t dare move. Isaac heard safety latches click off. He stared at the thin cop, whose eyes were blinking through the gun’s targeting sight.

“Hang on.” Isaac willed his back to straighten. He crouched on his heels and opened his hands skyward. “What if I had — something for you?”

Wattleneck lifted his gun for another blow, but the thin cop grabbed his partner’s arm. “Names?”

Keeping one hand up high, Isaac dug his cash out of his pocket. He’d never turn in his friends or his family. He waved three hundred Zim dollars. “I swear I don’t know anybody. My dad doesn’t know any white guys.”

Wattleneck snorted and snatched the bills. “This one is stupid like his dad. Give him back his license.”

“If you’re lying to us, we’ll find you. We’ll find all those traitors.” The young cop tossed the license to the pavement.

When Isaac stretched to pick it up, his collarbone crunched. It was surely broken. He scuttled toward the license, keeping his head down.

“Get out of here.” Wattleneck signaled the guard at the far gate. “Don’t come back. Tell your old man not to come back.”

Isaac crawled into the driver’s seat, clicked the ignition and accelerated through the concrete wall corridor and past the second gate. He clung to the steering wheel, keeping his back from touching the seat. His shoulders seemed to be the worst. He’d throw away the Volvo’s license plates so they couldn’t track him as easily. He’d tell the boss they were stolen. He’d warn the folks tomorrow.


Bumi Hill Lodge, Zimbabwe

June 25, 1997

Brett Cunningham captured the moon’s reflection in the waterhole. Through his camera’s viewfinder he glimpsed a tail. Too thin for a dog. Leopard — amazing. He lowered his camera and the cat, a medium size baboon dangling from its mouth, sprang from a wooden deck chair onto the lodge’s retaining wall. When it passed him, he saw no balls. A female, only about sixty-five kilos. The leopard threw a backward glance, grinning around the baboon in her jaws, almost sexy. Under the lawn torch, her yellow fur turned cream, deepening her black spots to purple.

In his five years as a game guide, he’d seen a leopard in mowed grassland only once. Brett hit auto focus. The clicks startled her and she jumped off the one meter wall, landing lightly in the waterhole clearing. He fired his standard burst of three shots, catching the baboon swinging side-to-side as the leopard lengthened her stride.

Brett mounted the wall and scanned the clearing’s acre, the waterhole, the edge of the veld. Empty for the moment. Probably any snakes would zip out of his way. Hyenas weren’t interested in him unless he surprised them. Lions — he didn’t hear any at the moment. Lions would be a problem. No time to go grab a gun. He had to follow, no matter how insane it was.

He jumped down after her, ticking off the lessons of Ba-Noah, Isaac’s dad: a leopard with her prey was tougher than anything when cornered. Hell, he didn’t plan on cornering her, only getting to know her a bit better.

The leopard skirted the waterhole, heading to the trees. Brett paused at the trail head where he often led tourists on walking safaris, but that was in full daylight. Even though he loved the veld, day or night, in the dark it was her territory, not his. Following her was probably his craziest stunt ever but he doubted he’d ever get another chance like this.

A distant bark sounded like a hyena pack. If they smelled the blood of her kill, they would try to steal it. Her tail curled; she was a pissed off cat. He’d be careful not to upset her further. She darted to an acacia tree at the trailhead. She jumped, her claws sinking into the bark. The baboon’s body swayed and fell to the ground, barely three meters in front of him. He didn’t breathe—any movement, even backing away would likely trigger her attack—but it was terrific to be so close.

The leopard dropped from her tree with a twist of her spine, glared at Brett, snatched the baboon, and leaped higher on the trunk. Her claws pulled her up, her tail straight down for balance. Brett clicked a full body shot and then focused on her teeth, holding the snapped baboon neck. If he did this right, these were the photos of a lifetime.

He stayed out of the moonlight. Never challenge a leopard, Ba-Noah always said. Brett listened to her chewing, a tearing of muscles, some sucking on bone, amid the quiet buzzing of insects. Brett reset to slower shutter speeds.

A perfect night — no boss ordering him about, no tourist asking questions, no father nagging about wasting his time — the animals undisturbed and his camera full of film.

A whistle, a familiar three shorts and a long, carried on the stillness. Brett shrugged it off. Couldn’t be. Isaac wasn’t due back until tomorrow. Again, their signal echoed, the one they’d used all their lives to summon each other. The full moon was reflected in the huge dining room windows, the main building and the two side wings were dark, but Isaac stood by the lawn torch, motioning him to come in.

What the hell. Something was wrong or Isaac wouldn’t be back from his crowd-chasing and jazz hunting in Harare, but it could wait a second or two. God only knew why Isaac thought bloody stupid politics were fun. Brett waved and refocused on the leopard. Isaac whistled again, shrill and fast.

Then Brett heard a huffing sound, dry-throated belchy grunts. Lion. Brett closed his eyes to listen as the noise grew. It was his breeding sound so the male wasn’t alone. Bret considered a run through the trees to the safety of the game viewing platform where he could watch them, but it was at least a kilometer away. Too far in the dark. He’d never make it.

Leaves fluttered from the acacia. The leopard was preparing to escape. Brett hated to disturb her, but he clicked on his flash to grab three last shots. The leopard roared, her own kind of roar, softer but more serious than a lion or hyena.

Brett entered the clearing, waving to Isaac, and wondering where in the hell the lions were. Their two dads were split on the leopard’s place in the world. Brett’s dad fumed about stolen chickens on the farm, while Ba-Noah taught Brett the order of the veld. But nobody disagreed about how fast and deadly lions were in the dark.

Then the big lion huffed and two more eager roars answered him. Lions liked running prey. He’d escaped a young lioness one morning a year ago when he was on foot inside the Hwange national park. He’d backed away smooth and slow but that trick only worked because he saw her first, and she was an inexperienced hunter.

The lodge’s lawn was fifty meters straight ahead. Isaac gestured to the south. Brett inhaled the musky dank odor of lion. Near the south edge, vervet monkeys scurried into the trees. Cape doves and nightjars burst out of the grasses. Damn, they’re close. He’d hug the treeline to the north end of the lawn’s retaining wall, a longer but hopefully safer path. There he’d have a clear sight of the area and it was only steps to the dining room door.

Under the last of the trees, Brett scanned the ten meters of half grown grass at the base of the retaining wall. He didn’t see any lion break, so he made his dash.

“You idiot, you could have been their midnight snack.” Isaac squatted on the wall, balancing on his fingers, his back straight. “The lions were on the lane when I pulled in. I’ve been looking for you. What in blazes were you doing out there?”

“Tracking a leopard. Nabbed some terrific shots.” Brett handed Isaac his camera and vaulted the wall. Brett rolled on the grass and came up laughing, at the idea of himself, the game guide as prey and at the lunacy of chasing leopards alone and unarmed. Under the torch light, Brett could see Isaac’s left eye was swollen half shut. “What happened?”

“Tangled with the Presidential Guard.” Isaac handed him the camera but winced. Isaac normally towered half a head over him but not when he was hunched up like this.

“Why couldn’t you hang out with your old girlfriend? Have some fun at a club?” Brett watched as Isaac swallowed and held the back of a chair. Isaac’s politics were about the only thing they didn’t have in common. “Did you get arrested?”

“They just roughed me up, but the bastards asked about the dads,” Isaac whispered. “It seemed like they were going to arrest me and then didn’t.”

“Where did they hit you besides the eye?” Brett asked and waited. Isaac turned away, his way of dodging questions.

“Mugabe’s thugs shut down three more independent newspapers so we marched.” Isaac’s voice rumbled over his shoulder. “And Nshuma — she dumped me. Threw me over for her sister’s boss. Didn’t like me running with the opposition guys I know. Never liked jazz either. None of that’s important —we must go home to the farm tomorrow. Here.” Isaac handed Brett a telephoto lens. “You owe me.”

“Thanks. I only wish I’d had it thirty minutes ago.” Brett tried a laugh but Isaac didn’t respond. “So a rotten trip all the way round—no girl, no fun.” Brett guessed Isaac’s back took the worst of the beating because he stayed standing, he didn’t stretch out like usual on the deck chair. “Going home tomorrow is going to be tricky. I’m scheduled for the morning game drive and the sundowner.”

Isaac faced him. “I have to see the folks. I’ll hitchhike.”

“You can’t do that. We’ll bum a vehicle off David. Tell him we’re road testing the alignment on the Jeep’s tires or some stunt.” Brett doubted Isaac could walk to the main road to catch the first ride, much less cover the hundred kilometers of walking and hitching. “How can Harare business affect the folks?”

“The Harare business affects us all. I lied and if the bastards find out, I just don’t know what will come of it.” Isaac sounded so tired.

“No worries. I’ll handle David. He’s in an awful mood. Bookings are lower than ever. Get some sleep and be ready to go right after the dawn ride. I’ll cut it short somehow.”

“It’ll be good to be home for a bit, won’t it?” Isaac asked. Next to Harare, Isaac was probably happiest at the farm, tinkering with old beat up engines and generators.

“Sure, I’ll tell your father about my leopard.” If his own dad didn’t nag him about coming home to farm. “Look,” Brett pointed to the waterhole where the old male lion was drinking. So bulky and heavy compared to his leopard. Isaac was already gone, inside the lodge’s side door. The Harare cops would never bother Isaac here in the veld. He unzipped his camera bag for a filter and tried it on his new telephoto. The moonlight was just right.

Copyright © 2008 by Julie Wakeman-Linn.


Julie Wakeman-Linn edits the Potomac Review and teaches at Montgomery College. This excerpt is from her novel, Chasing the Leopard; Finding the Lion which was a finalist for Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize Literature for Social Change 2008.

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