I never could tire of watching this spellbinding sunset, no matter how many times I witnessed the spectacle - the fiery ball hovering precariously close to the surface of the Indian Ocean, before suddenly becoming extinguished, as though it had fallen from the heavens to be engulfed by the turquoise brine. The curtain of night falls quickly at the equator, with very little time being wasted on twilight.
The East African coast attracts sun worshippers, yet strange as it may seem, I'm not one of them, but rather, a creature of the night.
The Nissan Urvan minibus dropped me off an hour or so after sunset, just as the tourists abandoned the site. It was a perfect evening, the moon shining full and bright.
My eyes adjusted to the gloom, the silence being broken only by the incessant buzzing of mosquitoes. Now that the sun had ceased to burn off the moisture from the air, the humidity rapidly increased, causing me to perspire. The rise in body temperature attracted even more of the heat-seeking bloodsuckers; like female vampires, the dusk made them stir from their arboreal lairs, thirsty for the life-force of others. I slapped the back of my neck repeatedly. 'Kwenda uko,' I cursed in Kiswahili, as though they might be more responsive to the native Lingua Franca.
I was in the periphery of the Arabuko-Sokoko Forest, which stretches along the edge of the Kenyan coastal plain. Still, in the gloom, it seemed as though I was exploring the heart of the Dark Continent. The baobab trees appeared weird in silhouette, as though they had been torn from the ground by giants and replanted the wrong way round, roots taking the place of branches. I'd been longing to have the place all to myself, when the harsh light of day could no longer diminish its magic.
A sound made me freeze in my tracks, a faint cry, not unlike the yowl of a leopard. I'd heard the sound before, further inland, but never this near to the coast. I craned my neck and concentrated, waiting to see if the cry would be repeated - nothing - it must have been the wind bending a tree-trunk and causing it to creek or something like that.
The proboscis of a mosquito breaching the seat of my light-weight cargo pants stung me into action once more - I slapped my backside. To stand still, particularly among trees, is to invite the parasites to a feast. I increased my pace, becoming rather clumsy, and tripped over several times or stubbed my toes through the suede walking boots. Leopards terrify me - unlike lions there is nowhere to escape from the jungle cat; it could follow you anywhere, a cat that had perfectly evolved to hunt and kill primates, as testified by the fossil record.
Like a lost city in a Rider Haggard novel, the walls of Gede appeared ahead, abandoned to the encroaching lowland jungle. In modern terms it was no more than a citadel built in the midst of the forest, purposely hidden away by its builders, who practised an early Africanised form of Islam and feared persecution from more orthodox sects. Yet the mound of Hissarlik itself was hardly any more enigmatic than this town that was ghostly and mystical, even when it was still bustling with life. Throughout a century of Portuguese occupation of the coast, the colonists at Mombasa in the south and Malindi to the north had remained completely oblivious to its existence.
The moon became visible above the canopy to my right, appearing much closer and larger than at home in the northern hemisphere, more yellowish. As I moved along the edge of the ruined town, my shadow loomed large on a wall, its shape elongated and contorted into a macabre apparition with clawed hands. I watched the movements of my own shade with fascination.
What I saw next made me shudder. My heart seemed to be trying to force its way up my throat, suffocating my lungs. My shadow was not alone, but was being stalked by a large feline shape. Stupidly, I quickly glanced behind to see what was following me - nothing. Then I realised, I should be looking to my right. From a thicket formed around a stand of tamarind trees, glared a pair of oval yellow eyes matching the moon above. Every hair on my body seemed to be standing on end as I backed up against the wall, gasping for breath, the sweat turning cold on my body, despite the humidity.
How long I stayed petrified against that wall, I couldn't say. A few minutes, or perhaps an hour passed, locked in a mesmeric gaze with the eyes of a panther. Then, suddenly, the eyes had disappeared back into the darkness, leaving me staring at shadows.
A sound snapped me out of my reverie, causing me to glance to my left: 'Meow.'
I looked down at a yellow-eyed black cat, the domestic type. Gasping a sigh of relief and feeling foolish, I almost laughed; hadn't I always been a victim of my own over vivid imagination? The setting, the circumstances, all had contributed in the creation of a monster in my mind.
The cat moved off slowly, heading towards the corner of the ruined wall. I followed.
I rounded the corner in the wake of the feline, to be startled once more; the cat was nowhere to be seen, but I was not alone - a human shape reclined against the wall, obscured in shadow.
'Habari yako,' I mumbled the greeting nervously.
The anticipated reply was not forthcoming; the stranger remained silent, leaving me feeling foolish once more.
'Mambo ...?' I tried.
The figure stepped forward into the moonlight, revealing itself as a young woman. She was slightly taller than I, slim and lithe-limbed with very short peppercorn hair; wrapped around her lissom figure like a towel, from breasts to mid- thigh, was a silky black leso.
She stepped closer so that moonbeams illuminated her face, allowing me to see that her skin was very dark, almost ebony in hue. The whites of her wide almond-shaped eyes contrasted starkly with her complexion and the surrounding gloom, reminding me of those depicted by Ancient Egyptian artists. The small nose was short and snubbed with slightly flared nostrils, her cheekbones high and proud. I was struck breathless by her beauty, which lacked softness or orthodox prettiness, but was rather stern and aristocratic. There was nothing to be read in her countenance, no emotion or clue as to what she might be pondering. Her full lips parted slightly to reveal pearl white teeth, from between which the tip of her tongue flickered across her lower lip.
'Nani wewe?' I attempted to coax a name from her.
She walked up until our noses were almost touching and began to sniff my face. Her reticence made me feel extremely nervous and self-conscious. Moving slowly to my right with effortless grace, she continued to sniff my cheek, before passing out of sight behind me. Her body rubbed softly against my back, and I could have sworn I heard her purr. I waited for her to reappear to my left, but nothing happened. When I turned around searching for her, she'd disappeared.
A sense of utter loneliness and desolation overwhelmed me as I found myself alone once more in that eerie place, the chorus of insect song representing the only other sign of life. I walked along the dirt track heading for the main road, subconsciously searching the surrounding shadows for any sign of glowing predatory eyes.
Out on the road, I headed back towards Watamu, skirting the crumbling edge of the tarmac surface. Before long, I came upon a roadblock manned by two khaki-clad police men; we exchanged greetings as I passed. Throughout the rest of my walk, I sensed I was being followed, but when I turned to look back, nobody was there.
After perhaps half an hour, a yellow Suzuki jeep pulled up, occupied by a couple of young jovial German guys. They were heading for Mombasa and offered to drop me off along the way.
As I approached the village along a sandy track, I considered visiting The Mushroom Club for a nightcap, but decided against it. Something about the experience at the ruins had given me the urge to seek solitude.
The cottage I'd rented was best described as a colonial era bungalow with a corrugated tin roof, fronted by a long veranda and set in a small garden surrounded by mottled evergreen hedging.
I poured myself a glass of mango juice from the fridge, and then set about the nightly ritual of fumigating the bedroom. The windows consisted of louvre panes, protected from burglars by steel bars and the intrusion of mosquitoes by a green mesh screen. I closed the windows and lit a mosquito coil before vacating the room and leaving the door wide open.
I took a shower, gasping for breath, until my nervous system became accustomed to the cold water. The strange woman preoccupied my thoughts; I found it frustrating that I had no name to put to her face. I wondered if she was mute, or perhaps she'd only recently arrived from Somalia, and as yet had no grasp of either Swahili or English. Watamu was a small place and if she was a local I would have no doubt noticed her before. For certain, I wouldn't have forgotten that face.
Wrapped in a beach towel, I returned to the bedroom and closed the door behind me, before extinguishing the smouldering coil and opening the windows to clear the pyrethrum fumes. After switching on the electric fan, I reclined on the bed, intent on making sure I memorised the stranger's hauntingly beautiful face.
The stillness of the night was broken by the incessant barking of dogs - the outbreak followed closely by the sound of someone knocking on the front door. I opened the bedroom door just sufficiently to pass through, and then quickly shut it behind me to ensure that no mosquitoes re-entered.
'Who is it?' No reply ...
I figured it was still too early to worry about robbers and opened the door to be confronted by the very thing I'd been unable to stop thinking about.
'Come in,' I said, as though running on automatic pilot.
At the time, it never seemed to register that I was developing an over-familiar relationship with a stranger I'd never even communicated with - it all seemed so natural, and sort of fated. Of course, automatic intimacy is commonplace between foreign men and local girls on the East African coast, but is usually preceded by some form of verbal intercourse. As though entranced, I led her to the bedroom.
I sat on the edge of the bed and patted the mattress to my left, indicating that my guest should sit beside me. She approached, but seemed somewhat uncertain about sitting. Then she stooped to place her hands on the bed, easing her right knee on to the edge of the mattress. Slowly, she climbed on the bed on all fours before lying on her left-hand side, spine curved and knees slightly drawn up, facing me. She noticed the black panther tattooed on my left bicep and stroked it with her right hand, a smile almost forming across her lips.
'Where do you come from?' I said, barely above a whisper. No sign of response or recognition of the question troubled her impassive features. I eased myself into position behind her; she shifted posture to accommodate me, so that we were both aligned lengthways on the bed. As I embraced her, I felt myself becoming aroused, yet some instinct warned me to resist the urge. I found myself filled with an overwhelming sense of well-being, such as I'd never experienced before, like I'd partaken of the mother of all recreational drugs. The sensation must have promoted a state of narcosis, as I could remember nothing after that point.
The sound of cockerels crowing revived me from my stupor as dawn broke. I woke to find myself alone and the euphoria of the night before replaced with a deep sense of loss, akin to grief. I couldn't even be sure that the previous night's events hadn't been just a dream. The slight hollow in the mattress before me was still warm, and as I brushed a palm across it, fine black hairs stuck to my clammy skin. I curled into a ball and hugged my knees.
I was wandering through the forest searching for something, though exactly what the object of my quest was seemed unclear. The smells and sounds of the sylvan environment filled my senses, the verdant foliage, rotting leaf-litter, and the cries of the birds which fled at my approach, warning the other denizens of the woodland to beware. Then I saw the supple form of a woman running ahead of me. Increasing speed, I attempted to close the distance. The more effort I expended, the further away she seemed to draw, until she disappeared into a thicket in the near distance.
I kept my eyes fixed on the point where she had vanished from sight, and forged ahead until I plunged into the foliage in her wake. I entered a small clearing in the middle of the thicket to be greeted by a throaty growl. The panther drew back its lips in a snarl, displaying its sabre-like canines. The gaping jaws clamped on to my face.
'Are you gonna stay in bed all day?' I heard my mother's voice enquire. I rolled on to my back to look up at her. The scream stuck in my throat, striking me dumb. The black woman was crouching over me, her cat's head snarling.
I sat up soaked in sweat, heart palpitating wildly as I tried to catch my breath. Something urged me to get out of the house and seek the company of others. I ran to the front door and fumbled clumsily with the locks, before flinging it open and rushing out to the veranda. The sight that loomed large in my vision brought me to a sudden halt; only inches from my perspiring face hung a red-backed spider, as large as a hand. The arachnid shifted position in anticipation, staring at me with its numerous eyes. It seemed incredible that such a large web could have been spun from the clothes-line overnight.
I stepped back and regained my senses enough to grab a bamboo stick that was leaning against the wall. As I raised the stick to take a swipe at the spider, a voice called out, 'No, Mr Joe, don't do that.'
It was Samuel, the teenager who lived next door with his family. He was returning from the village, carrying a couple of brown paper bags bursting with groceries; his only garments were a pair of cut-off jeans and heavy-duty sandals fashioned from old car tyres. After depositing the bags on his own veranda, he collected two flat pieces of wood and joined me in front of the web. Expertly, Samuel raised the batons either side of the web and flattened the spider between them. Then holding the pieces of wood together in one hand, he used them to clear away the web.
I slumped into a wicker-style chair fashioned from strips of young saplings and mumbled my gratitude.
Samuel gave me a beaming smile. 'Are you all right, Mister Joe? You look white … I mean, more so than usual.'
'Yeah, sure,' I tried to reassure him, feeling like a tourist. 'I had a bad dream then walked out to see that thing.'
I liked Samuel, but couldn't help feeling irritated by the fact that he spoke better English than I did.
'Did you hear or see anything strange last night?' he asked. When I shook my head he elaborated. 'The night watchman found leopard tracks.'
'Really ...?' I tried to appear more surprised than I actually was. 'Isn't that unusual?'
'Very. Don't worry, though, it was probably after dogs. Dog is a delicacy for a chui.' Samuel bid me good day and returned home grinning.
A shower made me feel somewhat better. I dressed to head into the village.
It was almost midday and the sun was burning at its fiercest. A brown and white mongrel dog, belonging to one of the neighbours, approached me warily, wagging its tail and hanging its head submissively. I gave it a reassuring pat on the head and walked on to the eating place I frequented.
The surest way to get food poisoning was to patronise the hotels and tourist restaurants; the places used by the locals were little more than shacks, but the food was fresh, clean and cooked to order, not to mention delicious.
The hard-packed dirt streets were bustling with tourists, both regular and backpacking, rubbing shoulders with African holiday makers from Nairobi and the local Bajuni, who dressed in a similar fashion to Arabs. Most of the Africans who worked in jobs related to the tourist industry were migrants from the interior, drawn here by economic necessity or the laid-back coastal lifestyle. Bar-girls, swathed in brightly patterned leso wraps, checked out the men who had recently arrived.
The village consists of a collection of old colonial period buildings, mostly single-story, modern souvenir shops and traditional African cottages with thatched roofs and clay rendered walls, set amongst coconut palms, banana plants, papaya and mango trees. Simple kiosks and stalls lined the dirt roads. The beach and tourist hotels were only a short walk away. For the past five months it had been my home, the reason for settling here being that I was seeking motivation for writing stories.
My favourite place to eat was housed in a simple structure consisting of a wooden-poled frame topped with palm thatch, the sides screened with woven grass matting, except for the open front. I took a seat, acknowledging the nod and smile from the cook who was busy slaving over his gas bottle-fuelled cooker and charcoal burning stoves. He was young and cool, wearing a red beret and clean white apron.
'The usual?' he called over. I nodded. 'Mbuzi ama Kuku?'
'Mbuzi, tafadhali,' I replied, choosing the goat meat.
The cook soon came over, balancing three plates and a metal platter on hands and forearms.
'Nyama choma na sima,' he said, placing the steaming food before me.
'Asante sana,' I thanked him before tucking in.
The platter was heaped with charcoal-roasted goat meat, the vegetable dish consisting of spinach boiled in fresh chopped tomatoes with ground and fresh coriander. Accompanying the main dishes were the ugali - maize flour boiled whilst slowly adding water and constantly stirred until it formed a moist savoury cake, and a side-dish of chopped onion, tomato and chilli pepper in salt and lemon juice.
With my right hand, I broke off a piece of ugali and worked the pliable doughy lump into a dumpling-like ball before indenting its side with my thumb and scooping up a small piece of meat and some spinach.
'Meow ...!' I glanced under the table to see the scrawny stray tabby cat that often came around begging. Once again, when I tried to hand feed it a piece of meat it just arched its back and hissed, until I gave up and threw it the offering. The locals, particularly the Bajuni, had some kind of strange reverence for cats, some kind of taboo against ill-treating them.
'Hodi!' a feminine voice called out from the entrance, 'Ebu?'
'Karibu,' I replied, inviting her to join me.
Wanjiko slid into the chair opposite and began to mould a piece of ugali. She seemed famished, so I waited until we'd eaten before instigating any conversation. Jiko was petite and cuddly, in a voluptuous sense, quite pale-skinned with a cute face. Her shortish, brushed-back hair looked dry and frizzed from excessive use of electric hair straighteners. She wore a white blouse, which was too small, and a yellow leso printed with black leaves wrapped around her waist.
When the food was demolished, Jiko thanked me very politely and rubbed her stomach. A waitress brought over a steaming bowl of water and a flannel, for us to wash our hands.
I indulged in some small talk with my guest, listening to all the gossip about the other bar-girls. Usually, I loved to hear Jiko tell me all about the quarrels and love affairs between the local sirens. Her sweet melodic voice sounded sexy in either Swahili or English, but today I found myself preoccupied and struggled to concentrate on her warbling. Along with her friend Ngeri, Jiko was the first person I'd befriended when I arrived. As usual, Ngeri was busy trying to find money to pay her rent.
Jiko drew my attention to a Masai warrior and his European girlfriend. The odd couple had paused at a makeshift ethnic jewellery stall across the road. The tall moran was traditionally attired in tartan to match his red dreadlocks and carried a wooden staff in place of a spear. The woman had given him her large handbag to hold while she perused the goods. The warrior looked embarrassed about holding the bag and glanced about nervously, obviously hoping nobody had noticed.
'When he brings his wife into town with him, she has to walk at least five paces behind him,' said Jiko, leaning forward to take me into her confidence. 'Look at him carrying that Mzungu's handbag.' I had to laugh at her wicked sense of humour. 'When are you taking me to Ulaya with you then?' came the question she always asked.
'I heard that someone took you to Germany not so long ago, but he soon sent you back.'
She looked shocked and pulled an indignant face. 'He was too old. He worked all the time and didn't want to go to night clubs every night. I'm far too young and beautiful to sit at home every night.'
That was Jiko all over, a good-time girl. There was no point in a man falling in love with her, at least not until she matured and calmed down. Having eaten half my meal and put a smile on my face, she stood up to leave, informing me that she had an appointment with the Chief. Another girl, whom she'd shared a house with, had accused her of stealing some furniture when she moved out.
As she walked off, I asked if she was guilty. She just shrugged and said, 'Who cares?'
'Mbaya wewe ...' I let her know how wicked she was.
She paused, still with her back to me, placed her left hand on her shoulder and lifted her right leg slightly, before flicking her right buttock at me, then walked off with an exaggerated roll of the hips for my benefit.
I briefly considered going to the beach to do some body surfing, but abandoned the idea. The heat prickled my skin and irritated me, so I opted to go home and relax in the shade.
Before long, I was honoured by a visit from Ngeri. She was petite like Jiko, but not quite as curvaceous, her complexion was darker and her face more angular, and yet, she was every bit as attractive as her friend, but more sultry than cute. Long, plaited extensions had been woven into her natural hair and decorated with silvery beads. She was swathed in a purple, black and white leso, with flip-flop sandals on her tiny feet.
'It must be rent day,' I said with a knowing grin.
We went through the motions of our regular ritual, Ngeri being one of those women who isn't happy unless she's sulking.
She turned her back and began to leave, 'Ufikiri mi malaia?' Ngeri accused me of insinuating she was a harlot.
'Hapana, malaika, wewe.' The best way to sweet talk Ngeri was to call her an angel. I hugged her from behind, grasped her wrists and crossed her arms across her chest. 'Na ku penda, bibi.' Stooping to rest my chin on her shoulder, I rocked her gently from side to side.
'Ha, you only love yourself,' she retorted. 'Anyway, loan me the shillings and I'll pay you back.'
'I'll give you the money for a kiss.'
I released her to take money from my pocket. She snatched the notes and gave me a quick peck on the cheek before turning to leave, so I gave her derriere a smack as she walked away. As Jiko had done earlier, she twitched her right buttock at me, 'Mbaya wewe.'
'Twende,' let's go, I said.
'Wapi?' where? she paused in the doorway to reply.
'Tu kaiba,' to steal...
'Tu ki shikwa,' and when we get caught?
'Mimi siko,' I'm not there.
'Mkora mkubwa, wewe.' She disappeared from sight. Ngeri didn't seem as enamoured with bad boys as Jiko was.
The rest of that day requires very little narrative, its theme being highly repetitive. I was possessed with a restlessness that prevented my relaxing or taking any enjoyment from anything, pining for something I refused to admit to. Frustrated and impatient, I waited for that subtle golden aura to tinge the landscape like burnt sienna, heralding the coming sunset and the arrival of night.
It was the frantic barking of dogs that revived my spirit. In my mind, the din seemed to promise the onset of something wonderful. I waited impatiently before being rewarded with the sound of knocking at the front door. I ran to answer the petition, not caring that I left the bedroom door wide open.
The moon framed her head like a halo, reinforcing my belief that she must be some kind of angel. She attempted to return my smile, weakly - yet the effort filled me with joy. I took her by the hand and led her to the bedroom. This time she seemed more at ease as she crawled on to the bed, her shoulder blades rising and falling alternately as she prowled gracefully across the mattress. I joined her on the bed, and couldn't help getting the impression she was stalking me. She reached between her breasts to pull at the fold in the leso - the flimsy garment slid down her back and hips and fell to the mattress.
I gazed upon her nakedness, awestruck by the physical perfection of her lithe form. Her skin possessed a sheen like polished jet, supple muscles flowing beneath the surface. I tried to take it all in at once, the sensuous feline curves of her hips and buttocks, the slender yet powerful-looking thighs, the smallish pert breasts hanging like pointed cones. I hurriedly tore off my clothes, eager to experience the sensation of that silky smooth skin brushing against my own.
She pounced, pinning me to the bed. I had the feeling that, even were I to resist, it would be futile - she would toy with me as a cat would a captured mouse. Her nails sank into my shoulders, sharp and inflexible. The upper surface of her tongue felt like fine grade sandpaper rasping along my cheek. As our tongues came together in a passionate struggle, I tasted my own blood, but didn't care. Her mesmerising eyes bored into mine, the pupils dilating to become even wider, the irises shrinking to narrow slits. I could feel her chest softly vibrate against mine as she purred her pleasure, and I was surprised to hear myself echoing the sound. Then she paused to look at the bedside lamp, which seemed to be bothering her. I reached out and switched it off.
In the midst of sexual abandon, we were interrupted by the sound of someone knocking on the front door. I ignored it and returned to sating some primal urge which went far beyond the normal attempts to scratch the itch that temporarily satisfies the libido.
'Hodi, Joe, are you there?' It was Jiko's voice. She was standing outside the window trying to peer in.
A low rumbling growl began to rise from deep within my strange guest's chest.
'Shush!' I implored her.
I was relieved to hear Jiko's footsteps fade into the distance. The cat-woman embraced me tightly, almost squeezing all the breath from my lungs, clinging to me in desperation as though fearing she would lose me. There was something about my strange lover, perhaps her musk, something to do with hormones, which acted as an aphrodisiac on me. Into the early hours of the morning, the animalistic mating ritual continued.
This time I wasn't surprised to find myself alone when I awoke, but the sense of loss and despair was even more intense than it had been before. A glance at the alarm clock informed me that I'd slept into the mid-afternoon. I was famished, and so I skipped the shower and simply dressed, before heading off to satisfy my appetite. The sun seemed particularly bright, so I slipped on a pair of wrap-around sun glasses.
As I passed the brown and white mutt that had befriended me, I was about to give it a pet, when it curled up its lip to snarl at me before moving warily away.
The cook looked surprised when I asked for meat only, even more so that I requested it be lightly cooked and very rare. When he placed the platter before me, it was with a disapproving look. I could feel something brush against my leg, and looked under the table to see that it was the stray tabby cat rubbing itself against me and purring ecstatically. I coaxed the feral feline on to my knee and fed it titbits in between my own mouthfuls. The cook stared at me in disbelief.
I was halfway through the platter when Jiko showed up. She showed no desire to join me in the feast, but just sat sulking until I'd finished.
Jiko wanted to know where I'd been the night before - did I have a new girlfriend, had I turned into a butterfly wanting to taste all the girls, and so on. I'm not sure if my denial of seeing another woman constituted a lie, anyway. How could I possibly explain that I was seeing a woman who couldn't speak and whose name I was ignorant of?
Then she said something surprising, something that indicated she was concerned about more than my simply having slept with other bar-girls. 'Uchawi exists here, you know.'
She was talking about witchcraft. I ignored her speculative probe, assuring her she was the only girl for me, along with Ngeri, of course. Her response was to tell me to prove it by spending the day with her. We moved on to a small ramshackle bar, where I insisted on sitting inside in the shade. Jiko did something I'd never known her do before, buy me a drink. The waiter brought a Tusker lager for me and a small bottle of Woodpecker cider for Jiko. It soon became apparent that Jiko intended to get me drunk.
I found myself taken on a bar crawl and the rest of the evening became something of a blur. At some point, Ngeri joined us and I vaguely remember Jiko explaining something to her while glancing at me often throughout the conversation. Whatever it was, Ngeri seemed to take it all with a pinch of salt and failed to share her concern. The last thing I remember was being helped home and put to bed.
I awoke the next morning to find I was sandwiched in between the girls, wearing just my boxer shorts; they were both wrapped in lesos. My head throbbed and my stomach ached something chronic. I eased myself from the bed and cautiously climbed over Ngeri, I went to the toilet. Then I showered and cleaned my teeth. After making a mug of strong coffee, I returned to the bedroom and gave both girls a slap on the backside.
'What's going on? Why did you get me drunk?'
Ngeri groaned, but failed to stir otherwise. Jiko rolled over to look at me with bleary eyes. 'We're looking after you. Not that you deserve it.'
'What do you mean, you're looking after me?'
She just rolled to face the wall and went back to sleep. I took my coffee into the living room and reclined on one of the twin sofas, trying to think. The alcohol had numbed my sensibility allowing me to relax with a blank mind for some time.
Slowly but surely, the yearning began to return. Like an addict craving his fix, I longed for the strange woman I'd met in the forest. Had she come last night? Would she be upset? I had to make sure I was there alone that night, ready to greet her.
Before long, the girls began to stir. They showered and made themselves tea, and soon joined me, sitting on the opposite sofa.
Neither of my companions seemed as bubbly and humorous as usual. I got the impression they were both conspiring against me at Jiko's instigation. Ngeri was sent off on an errand. Jiko set about tidying and cleaning the kitchen in time to reggae music. I paced about impatiently, frequently muttering to myself and earning strange looks from my self-proclaimed housekeeper.
Ngeri soon returned with a bag of groceries and helped Jiko prepare a meal. The day seemed to pass in slow motion for me - minutes like hours, hours like days. Jiko produced a joint of grass, which was another surprise; I'd never known her bother with it before. She said it would help my appetite for when the meal was ready. The girls only took short, shallow drags before passing it back to me. It did seem to help take the edge off my other cravings.
After consuming a meal of rice, diced beef, onions, and potatoes boiled in fresh chopped tomatoes, with chapattis, the girls kept plying me with the hallucinogen. As with the night before, they seemed intent on getting me stoned, while barely indulging themselves. Eventually, I found that I was able to relax and the atmosphere became much more amiable. By the time the sun set, I was no longer constantly pondering over how I was going to get rid of the girls.
Jiko and Ngeri disappeared into the spare bedroom for a while, and then returned well-groomed and wearing make-up. Naturally, I assumed they intended for us to go out again, but was wrong. It soon became apparent they had a night of seduction planned, and who was I to be ungracious?
We retired to the candlelit bedroom and an awkward moment followed when Ngeri pulled off my T-shirt to reveal the long scratch marks running the length of my back. I expected the girls to give me a lot of grief, but the revelation just seemed to strengthen their determination to show me a good time. Even the competitiveness, which tended to possess them during our trysts, was absent; rather, they seemed intent on cooperating with each other.
They were soon smothering me with their womanliness and filling my mouth with their probing tongues. During a pause for breath, I told them how sweet they tasted, 'Tamu wewe na wewe, kama sukari na asali pamoja.'
They replied by telling me how bad I was.
It must have been around midnight when the dogs started barking. We were resting when Ngeri suddenly sat up and gasped, 'Look, did you see that, eyes at the window, like the eyes of a chui.'
By morning the craving had returned, I wallowed in it, refusing to anaesthetise myself with any more smoking. I eventually managed to convince my guardians everything was fine again, thanks to them, then lied that I had to spend a couple of days in Mombasa having my visa extended, promising we'd get together when I returned. At last I was alone again and anticipating the coming of night.
In the evening, I waited in eager expectation for the sound of dogs barking and a knock on the door. Hours of restless pacing followed before I resigned myself to the fact that there would be no visitation. I forced myself to retire and spent a feverish, restless night, tossing and turning before finally drifting off as the sun was rising.
It was late afternoon when I surfaced again. I took a cup of tea out to the veranda and waited in the hope of getting a word with Samuel, amusing myself by watching the yellow gecko lizards hunt flies on the white washed veranda wall. Two reptiles in particular caught my attention, one small, and the other large. They were both eyeing up the same fly. Just as I was wondering if the smaller gecko was the other's baby, the larger lizard pounced and virtually swallowed the other. Only the narrow tip of the small gecko's tail remained visible, lashing wildly as it protruded from its consumer's mouth. I found my own naïveté rather shocking.
The chance I was hoping for came as Samuel returned home and I persuaded him to join me.
'Samuel, you know at home we have these stories about people who turn into wolves …'
'Werewolves, yes I've seen some of the films.'
'I was wondering if you have similar stories, maybe about people who turn into cats.'
'Kind of, there are spirits known as the jinn who are said to take the form of cats. Why, have you seen one?' He was grinning in jest.
'No … Of course not, it's just that I'm interested in those kinds of stories. Could you tell me what you know about them, please?'
'I don't know a great deal about it - just what I've heard old women say about the jinn. There are stories about cats that take the form of beautiful women to lure men into graveyards and kill them. They're feminine spirits that feed off men's life force, sucking it out of them. But, you know, everyone has a different take on it, what they are, where they come from, what they're capable of doing. Even if they were real, how would anyone know for sure?'
It was all very interesting, but hardly helpful. What was I supposed to do - frequent graveyards until I found her? Then he told me what I needed to hear.
'Oh, yeah, I forgot, you only see them if your mind is clear, no drugs or alcohol.'
I was so grateful for the knowledge that I gave him a thousand shillings before heading back inside. The rest of the day was spent drinking water and eating onions in a bid to purify my bloodstream.
What could be wrong with our dark romance? The jinn were some kind of primordial spirits, such as had inhabited the earth since before humans evolved. Who was to say what differentiation there is between angels and demons? After all, what is a demon, but an angel that was cast out of heaven? The jinn were not evil, simply misrepresented by ignorant superstition. It brought to mind the stories in Greek mythology, when men and women consorted in illicit affairs with the gods. I was being gifted a truly spiritual experience and felt immensely honoured.
Shortly after sunset, I heard an urgent knocking on the door. I rushed to answer it, heart beating like a love-struck schoolboy. It was Samuel, wearing a grave expression. 'Mister Joe, it's your friend Jiko.'
I followed him through the village to the simple clay-walled thatched cottages where many of the girls lived. A police officer appeared carrying a limp body in his arms. As I drew closer I could see it was Jiko. In death, her pallor was almost white. The thing that struck me most was her mouth, wide open with the lips pursed, as though she had been trying to gasp in air. I sunk to my knees and threw up the onions.
The coroner's verdict was heart attack, but it seemed obvious to me that it was death by asphyxiation. When Samuel called round to check on me, I broke down and told him everything. I expected him to be totally disbelieving, but he absorbed the information without expressing any doubts. Afterwards, he offered to introduce me to someone who could help, and we set off through the village to its outskirts.
We eventually arrived at a circular thatched hut set in a clearing in the forest. Samuel disappeared inside for several minutes before inviting me in. Wood smoke stung my eyes and pungent fumes filled my nostrils as I stepped inside. A small fire burned in the centre of the hut, set between three rocks supporting a large steel pan with a rim in place of handles. Strips of tree bark were being boiled in water to produce an infusion the colour of red wine. Sprigs of herbs were hanging from the roof and walls, drying. A cot formed from interwoven saplings was the only significant piece of furniture, beneath which were crammed bottles of potions and jars of herbal medicines.
The mganga was a wizened old woman adorned in a white dress and matching head scarf, sitting in a small, sapling frame arm chair covered in goat skins. Something about her demeanour told me she'd seen and heard it all before.
'Karibu, bwana, ka hapa,' she indicated for me to sit on a tiny three-legged stool.
My command of Kiswahili was still at a fairly rudimentary level, and my sagacious host spoke too quickly and in an unfamiliar dialect. Accordingly, Samuel had to translate most of what she told me. The mganga chastised me for succumbing to the charms of the jinni, saying it was because of men like me that the problem arose in the first place. Without such fools, the jinn would not be able to interfere in human affairs. She spat in the fire and let out a long sigh. The witch became lost in thought for a while, staring into the flickering flames of the fire. I was beginning to think that she'd forgotten about our presence.
Suddenly, the mganga looked me in the eyes and continued. I had given myself willingly to the spirit and it had laid claim to me. The jinni would defend its claim against anyone who challenged it. Jiko had interfered and paid the price for attempting to protect me. Now it was Ngeri who was in grave danger; only I could break the spell and save her before it was too late.
As we were leaving, the mganga said something very slowly so I could understand, 'Maisha ni ma tamu na fupi - ama chungu na mrefu.'
I thought little of it at the time.
I was armed with a magic charm and the esoteric knowledge necessary to break the spell cast over me by the jinni, and couldn't thank Samuel enough for his help, which seemed to make him uncomfortable. Throughout the walk home he remained uncharacteristically reticent.
Back in Watamu, I hired a jeep for a couple of days, then went home to prepare for the exorcism that would free my soul and save Ngeri's life. I stood in front of the mirror to place the charm around my neck, a small leather pouch around an inch square and sown shut all the way round, dangling from a leather necklace. Whatever was stuffed inside the pouch had an aromatic scent.
I saw Ngeri's reflection in the mirror, standing behind me. At first, I thought I was seeing things, till she greeted me. Then I remembered I'd left the front door open. Embracing her, I hugged her tight, overcome with the urge to protect her. I begged her to return home to Nakuru for a while, just to be safe. She told me what she'd told Jiko, she didn't believe in Uchawi. I followed her to the door. Pausing on the threshold, she said it would be better if we didn't see each other again. Then she was gone.
The sun was setting as I drove to Gede to confront the demon in the same spot where we'd first met. I played the scene over and over in my head, me rejecting the jinni, protected by my magic charm. I found the wall and squatted down to lean against it. An hour passed and I began to worry that she wouldn't appear; perhaps the necklace would keep her away. Barely conscious of my actions, I ripped the charm from my neck and threw it into the undergrowth. Shortly afterwards I must have drifted off.
The panther rubbed its flanks against me and purred contentedly. I ran my fingers through its velvety pelt, feeling the power of its rippling muscles, particularly around and between the shoulder blades. Wrapping my arms round its narrow waist, I held the cat in a tight embrace and immersed my face in its fur. Then it pulled free to lock eyes with me and lick my chin. Suddenly it dawned on me that I was no longer dreaming - the jinni was staring into my soul.
I rose to my feet and the cat backed off a short distance, growling. When I tried to move forward, it snarled a warning. Somehow, instinctively, I understood that our unholy affair was over. It was I who had been unfaithful.
I awoke to the dawn chorus of birdsong. Someone was shoving me with the toe of their boot. I looked up to see a ranger standing over me; he was carrying an FNL Self Loading Rifle.
'Hey, Mzungu, you crazy...? Ku lala hapa ni hatari sana, una skia hatari.'
'Dangerous,' I said. 'Na skia.'
I groggily made my way over to the jeep and drove off in a daze.
As I entered the village it was to find the road blocked by a crowd of people coming from the direction of the beach. I stood up in the jeep to see what was happening in the centre of the slowly moving throng. A blue-uniformed hotel askari was carrying a wet corpse. Then I realised it was Ngeri, her face contorted in the same fashion as Jiko's had been.
I jumped from the vehicle and ran for home, temples pounding furiously. Then I met Samuel coming the other way; he'd obviously heard the news. He stared at me as if I were a ghost. 'You …You should be dead. How …?'
His head began to shake slowly from side to side. 'You didn't reject it, did you?'
I hurriedly entered the gateway to my house. 'There's nothing here for you any more,' Samuel called after me.
The realisation hit me; there had been no protective charm. I was supposed to reject the jinni and die, sacrificing my life for that of Ngeri. No anger towards Samuel or the old woman welled up inside me. I'd had the opportunity to do the right thing and failed miserably.
So here I am watching my last sunset, the fool who wanted it all, but ended up losing everything. I came here to write a story: historical fiction, romantic adventure; little did I realise that the story would be my own tragic tale. It's the end of the line for me now - there's no way I could continue to live with myself after all that's transpired. To be completely honest, I don't know if that's because of what I did to my friends, or that I can't live without 'her' - perhaps both. What the old woman said to me in parting keeps repeating in my mind: 'Life is short and sweet - or long and bitter.'
They say that drowning is a peaceful way to die; at least, I'm in the most beautiful perfect place to seek such solace.