I never knew your name. I don’t need to know it to remember, your wild heart branded my soul.
The first time I saw you, my family and nine other souls working on the construction of a large water catchment project in Kenya were riding in an old armored van given to us by the British Army. We were crossing the Rift Valley on our way back from Nairobi, travelling toward the Aberdare Ranges where we lived. The adults were armed. The Mau Mau Rebellion was at its peak, and recently there’d been a few incidents of ambush along this road. Even our mother was wearing her gun.
It was tense in the tight space. There were no windows in the van. I couldn't see out to what I knew surrounded us – the wild, awe-inspiring animals, a sea of golden grass stretching to the horizon. We sat on hard benches that ran along the van's metal sides. But not you. You stood. I wondered how you managed to stay upright as we bounced along what was not much more than a dirt track. I could smell diesel fuel and the dust thrown up from the vehicle's wheels as the driver forced the old engine beyond its endurance in an effort to speed us through the danger zone toward home.
"It's the whisky. The drink." Whispered the plump Italian woman next to me. "He's a drunk. Irish." She shrugged eloquently, sleek dark hair falling in a curtain across her shoulders.
I watched you, transfixed. You were bright in the shadowy, enclosed world of the van. Your hair, red. Eyes a clear blue. Your body, lithe, almost tumbling, righting itself, moving to a song unheard by anyone else. Except for me. I heard the music you danced to. The rumbling of the van's wheels on the rutted road. The whir of its engine, its burdened heart straining with the effort of getting us to safety. I felt it in my bones.
You turned toward me and, your voice low and pure, began to sing.
"Sing with me child, you know this tune. Forget the others. They think me mad." You laughed and picked an onion from a hessian bag filled with supplies we had purchased in Nairobi. You pulled a knife from your boot and quickly cut away the tough outer skin, then raised it to your mouth and took one savage bite.
"Yes. They think me mad." You stumbled your fire spent. My heart lurched as my father, rising from his seat against the opposite side of the van, caught you, holding you close to his chest as your head fell to his shoulder and you wept.
"Come on mate. Sit here with me, I'll see you right.”
A few weeks later, in a clearing in the Bush, I saw you shoot a large, tawny colored dog. He was your dog and had been lost in the jungle for close to a month. The hair stood up along his spine, and he was so thin his ribs looked as if they had caved in. He was injured and in terrible pain. He was foaming at the mouth. My father said it was rabies.
The shot was loud. The sound ripped a hole in the heavy atmosphere, echoing around the clearing and bouncing off the thick walls of the jungle that enclosed it. It ripped a hole in time as well. Everything suspended, silent, still. The jungle, quiet. It was if all the trees and flowers, all the vines and fruit, insects and animals that lived there held their breath for those few seconds that grew into an eternity.
You stood, head bent, looking down at the dog, your hand still holding the gun, arm loose at your side.
Blood thundered in my ears and my breath seemed to come from outside of me. Suddenly I found myself crouched at the dog’s side. Somehow, I had crossed the six feet from the cab of the Land Rover I had been sitting in to find myself looking up at you. Your blue eyes had turned almost black and glistened with tears. You leaned forward to touch the top of my head, “don’t get too near,” you said as you kneeled opposite me, placing the gun at your side. You took a knife from your pocket and cut a piece from your shirt. Your shirt was white, marked in places with red dust from the Valley. You smelled of the dust and clean sweat. A grown-up man smell. You took the torn cloth and wiped the dog’s mouth. You closed the dog’s eyes and loosened his death snarl. You stroked his matted coat.
Your skin was sunburned. Your fingers long and a white scar streaked like a flash of lightning around your wrist. The hair on your arms gleamed red gold in the sun.
The Irishman hadn’t been seen for a couple of days. This wasn’t unusual, as he would occasionally disappear on drunks with some of the tribes men that he worked with on the construction site. They drank Changaa, a cheap, noxious brew that was 50% alcohol. Badly made, it was high in methanol, and pretty much drove anyone who consumed it insane.
I’d always felt the Irishman harbored an insurmountable pain. I don’t know if it was personal, or if he drew his torment from a more communal well. The plight of the oppressed, the dispossessed, the shackled was very important to him, and he went to extreme lengths to try to bring some balance, some light into the lives of those he considered to be the enslaved. He included himself in this congregation – in fact, he included us all in what he called a motley crew of damaged beings that made up humanity. He said he knew there was a better way, but most of us just hadn’t figured it out yet.
I wondered where he was. I couldn’t feel him in those liminal spaces where I could usually find him and began to hurt for him.
They found him lying on one of the jungle tracks leading to the site. Laid out on a rough stretcher hastily made from branches and an army blanket, they brought him to the clearing, the same clearing where he had shot his dog.
I watched as my father kneeled at the Irishman’s side, his hand gently wiping the hair back from his forehead before covering his friend’s face with the small cotton scarf he wore around his neck. It was a faded blue, striped with red dust.
I stood rooted to the spot. I felt heavy, as if my veins were filled with lead. Vines grew out of the earth, wrapping their tendrils around my legs, pulling me down, down into the dark soil. On my knees, I vomited a thin clear stream of pure agony.
The Irishman told me he thought I was born with a crack in the walls of my heart and that I would have to learn to work with it as I grew.
He said that having a crack in the walls of my heart was a blessing, if I wanted it to be. Depended how you looked at things he said. Cracks meant things were breaking open and that if I listened carefully to the wind, and the sea, the trees and flowers and the earth, it would nurture the star that lived there and keep my eyes bright.
I still hear his song whispering from the roots and trunks of the trees in the woods near my home. I hear his voice in the rain and the call of foxes that live in the gardens along my street.
I remember, and I am grateful.