Tales from the African Bush
Her face felt warm and flushed from the hot flames that sparked skyward off the braai. The meat smelled rich and good, she wasn’t sure what animal was being roasted, but she knew he had caught it just that day. His wife was quiet, as always, tending to her bredie, or slow cooked stew, tonight made of succulent water lilies she had harvested from the pond and its fecund banks. The smells from the meat and stew along with the warmth on her face and chest made her feel a bit light-headed. He grinned, as he watched the shadowy flames flicker across her eyes and held out his hand.
“Here,” he smiled, filling a glass and cupping it between his palms. “This will make you see the bush like never before,” he laughed, “through the eyes of animals and trees.” She smiled back, trusting him completely, and took the glass. “What is it?” she whispered, dipping her head toward the liquid to better see and smell it. “It is from a very special part of the marula tree. It is secret. Very special. Drink."
“Well, I’ve had marula wine and marula cream,” she announced, studying the color of the liquid by holding it above her head to better catch the flickering light of the flames. “But, this color is very different, murkier, not as clear as marula wine, and the smell is nothing like I remember,” she paused. “This smells almost gamy,” she grinned, cocking her head towards him and narrowing her eyes. “Animal-like with a hint of the bush, to be more exact, like the baobab’s scent, you know, its flower, the one that smells like carrion when it blossoms.”
“Yes,” he giggled, an orange glow highlighting his smooth, dark features. “You have a good nose. You are right, it doesn’t especially smell good, but not bad either, huh? Like the scents you catch riding on a warm wind, of the bush, of the animals, of the wild.” She nodded. His wife was watching out of the corner of her eye, pretending to be absorbed in tending to her simmering water lilies, a hint of a grin worming across her lips. “Go ahead,” he coaxed. “Here, look, I will join you if that would make you less anxious. Believe me, it tastes better than it smells. Sweeter, not unlike the fruit from the wild date palm. As we sip it together in anticipation of our delicious meal,” he smiled at his wife, “I will tell you stories of this drink, and myths of the bushveld that my father told me and his father before him. We will drink together, yes? And as the night wears on, you will understand the magic of the marula.” “Everything is connected, you know,” his black eyes twinkled. “Everything.” He gingerly turned the meat on the braai, carmelized and smoking, and nodded approvingly. “Let us drink."
She lifted the glass to her lips, timing it perfectly with his own movements, yet making sure the pungent liquid was first to touch his lips and tongue, watching the liquid fill his mouth, his throat filling with the swallow. She sipped the liquid ready to taste the bitter game-like scent she smelled from the glass, but to her surprise, it was warm and sweet and soft. It tasted like what she imagined a fresh spring flower petal dipped in honey might be like, or a rosebud covered with dewdrops.
The night closed in and the ribbons of coral and pink that had streaked the darkening sky, disappeared into a wash of deep violet, illuminated by a million stars. From somewhere in the trees a hornbill made one last harsh call against the night, then settled in for its evening roost. From the dry riverbed close by, parched leaves and twigs cracked beneath the weight of some unknown animal making its way to the waterhole. A slight breeze had swirled in from the east, and lifting her nostrils skyward, she thought she detected the scent of impala heading for a cool drink.
“The baobab is a most wonderful tree,” he chuckled, settling back against an outcropping of rock. “They call it the benevolent giant of the bushveld. All knuckles and knots and twisted limbs reaching to the heavens.” He sipped. “The elephant and the baobab are forever connected. Giants, beautiful giants. Each massive, ponderous, heavy of root and foot, yet silent and graceful. Myth says that the baobab’s maker got the tree and the elephant mixed up and formed the tree with the elephant’s skin and limbs.”
She nodded, seeing the comparison and truth as she visualized the striking beauty of both animal and tree. She sipped again, now enjoying the warmth of the liquid. It had become even smoother and sweeter. From somewhere above her, in the scrawny limbs of the mopane tree, she thought she detected a slight rustling. Something sweeped above, a flash of a glowing red eye – a bushbaby, perhaps? He didn’t seem to notice and continued with his story.
“As they say an elephant never forgets, the baobab is the wise old sage of the soil, and they, too, never forget. They can live to be two, three, four thousand years old. They have earned their wisdom over the millennium, seeing and experiencing all the changes of the bushveld, the violent storms that have ripped their limbs, the never-ending drought that has left its leaves parched and withered. And just as the elephant finds sustenance from the baobab’s bark and leaves, the baobab finds lifeforce from the elephant. A tiny seed when sprouting takes sustenance, moisture, from the fecund elephant dung from which it has sprung, surrounded by an otherwise parched land. And then, with time and fortune, the baobab begins to grow, sometimes over twenty feet in just ten years. When the earth and heavens are all in favor, the benevolent giant can reach heights of fifty feet or more. And this is why myth says that man came to earth by sliding down the baobab’s trunk.”
He stopped for a moment, listening to the high pitched shrieks and grunts from a hyena somewhere along the riverbed. His eyes were glistening, almost glassy, as he finished his drink and adjusted his back against the rocks. His wife sat quietly in the darkened corner, her arms folded across her lap, head resting against one of the hand hewn posts which supported the thatched roof of the verhandah. Watching her take the last tiny sip of the marula potion, he grinned and continued his tale.
“Now in November come the baobab’s most beautiful white blossoms. You have seen them, yes?” “Yes,” she smiled, “I have seen them.” “As you know, they bloom only in the evening, just as the sun disappears and the last of the daylight is swallowed into the night. Giant, white petals, opening, slowly, then suddenly the once fresh night air is permeated with the smell of raw meat. The smell of the baobab blossom.” She nodded. “The flowers only live for twenty four hours, thank goodness, as the smell of carrion blossom is wildly pungent. Legend says that anyone who picks a flower is doomed to die in the jaws of a lion…” his eyes widened and she watched the flames jump skyward and pop in their reflection.
She smiled. He loved telling her tales, sometimes embellishing, but not always. He had lived in the African bush all of his days, it was what he knew best, every animal scent, every tree and bush and rock, every pile of scat. What he had become was born of the soil and the stars and the creatures that lived and died beside him. He had earned his right to tell the tales of the bushveld, and even without his embellishments, they were rich and intoxicating.
“You have partaken in the gifts of the marula tree. Much as the elephant does. While we enjoy the wine made from the marula’s fruit, the elephant enjoys the tasty fruit as well. All things connected, you see,” he grinned, wide enough to reveal the absence of many teeth. “The elephant eats the marula’s fruit then he enjoys the baobab’s bark, all of this leaves him, and in its aftermath, the baobab’s seed sprouts. All things connected.” He seemed happy by this statement as though he had just given her some ancient and prized insight into the secrets of the bush.
“Okay,” she nodded, her eyes heavy. “I understand that all things are connected somehow, but where does the ‘magic’ of the marula come in. What is it about this special wine or potion you shared with me that makes it different from the wines I’ve drunk? You say I will see things through the eyes of animals and trees. What does this mean? Is this simply a stronger spirit, concoction, maybe? Does it get one drunk quicker than if one slowly sips on the usual marula wine?” She swallowed and looked around the camp, looking puzzled by the once familiar sights surrounding her. “My eyes, that’s funny,” she stopped, “my vision seems sharper. I’ve never noticed the veins running through the mopane’s leaves before. Not even in the daylight. Now, they are very distinct, like the blue veins in my hand rushing beneath my white skin.”
“Yes, they have always been there, the mopane’s veins. It is a living thing after all. It is alive,” he said. “You’ve never looked close enough.” “This may be true,” she agreed, “but it’s more than that. My senses feel keener, the sound of your voice seems stronger, as does mine. The once warm breeze now feels sharper against my skin. I see the mopane’s veins. I smelled an impala making its way down the riverbed. This sounds crazy, but I swear I detect the scent of a leopard nearby, perhaps making its way to the waterhole. Could this be true? Is this the secret of the marula? Why do I feel so acutely aware of everything around me? I can hear the blood pumping through my veins. My God, I can hear your heart beat…” she stopped and looked at him for a very long time. “Should I be afraid?” she asked. “Do not be afraid," he comforted.