The meaning of human tracks

After a while Henry said, “Fernando’s story reminds me of once when I was wandering around in a very remote stretch of bush in the south of Tanzania. We came across some old human tracks and we were curious about who had walked there in such a distant place and so we followed them. They led to a clearing with a hut where semi-nomadic people lived.”

He shifted his gaze to Craig. “One still finds little groups like that. They clear a small area and build a basic hut or two as protection against the elements and predators and they plant a bit of cassava, and they fish and hunt and snare around until the area is depleted, and then they gather what stuff they have and move forty or fifty or so kilometres away and start again,” he explained as an aside.

He shifted his gaze back to the flames. His voice was graver. “There was woman there. With two small children, cooped up in their flimsy hut.” He grimaced. “They were scared out of their wits and dehydrated and half starved. She told us a lion had ambushed her husband when he left to check his snares. It killed him in plain sight right on the edge of the clearing. She ran into the hut with her children. They could hear how the lion ripped the man’s flesh and crunched his bones as it ate him. Over two days.” He stopped, shaking his head.

Craig felt his spine chilling as Henry spoke. “Fuck!”

Henry’s face was grim. “It gets worse. She thought it would then leave, but after a day it was back. She had ventured out to try and get some water and she only just made it back into the hut. The lion kept grunting around the clearing and every now and then he came to sniff and scratch at the puny structure. By the time we arrived they were half mad with fear.”

“Jeez, sounds like the worst monster story from Greek mythology,” Craig said, thinking of the stories his father would tell him as a little boy.

“Yea. Only its real. The lion moved off when we approached, but the whole area was covered in its tracks. We freed the woman and then we waited for it to come back. But it didn’t show itself. It was probably unsure with so many people around. I had three men with me.”

Henry fiddled with a stem of grass. “So the next day we started tracking it. I had old Philemon with me. He wasn’t quite good enough to track a lion. They’re soft-pawed, so they’re a bastard to track,” he said, nodding to himself.

“Anyway, fortunately it kept hanging around the area. Probably watching us and hoping of another opportunity. Between the two of us we managed. Actually we found the place where it went to drink and we waited for it. Took three days. It was an old male. You could see he had been struggling to survive. Canines were just little stumps.”

Craig wanted to ask how he shot it, but Henry continued with a half chuckle. “The woman wouldn’t let us leave. She was too terrified. We finally had to escort her and her children to a larger permanent village four days walking away where she had relatives.”

The story was followed by another, and another, translated to Craig from Portuguese – fascinating tales of previous wanderings. They flowed unhurriedly, as their time was ripe, and they were told unassumingly and with the in-the-moment reality of someone that had actually been there; some with mesmerizing animation of animal or human behaviour. They drew exclamations of wonderment, or hearty laughter, or caused sad stares into the glow of the fire.

Craig was captivated by the simple sincerity of it all; the ragged-clothed men sitting or reclining around the fire, at times partly obscured by drifts of smoke, then glowing in the dance of the flames. Their stories and comments and laughter were bone-honest, without pretence.

How different it was from the overheated cocktail bar and barbeque contrivances that he had grown so used to hearing – and telling, Craig thought. He was reminded of the feint vibration of his father’s breastbone against his ear as his deep drone spun him the arcane folklore of the San people and heroic tragedies of Greek mythology. A dimension of wholesomeness had been lost from his life. It had become a constant race for success and excitement, aided by ever more fantastic devices and displays, he thought.

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