Steven Paul Lansky
Steven Paul Lansky wrote Main St. (2002) and Eleven Word Title for Confessional Political Poetry Originally Composed for Radio (2009), two poetry chapbooks published by Seaweed Sideshow Circus. His audio-novel, Jack Acid (2004), has been available since 2012. His novel, the citizen, has been excerpted widely in both regional and national publications such as The Brooklyn Rail and CityBeat. Most recently, his novella, A Black Bird Fell Out of the Sky, was published in spring 2017 on Seaweed Sideshow Circus.
Lansky taught English at Miami University from 1999-2014 as part of the Creative Writing Faculty. From 1989-1998, he worked as a Social Worker at CRI, while hosting Night Music, a weekly program of music and literary arts on 89.7 WNKU. He earned a MFA in Creative Writing Fiction from The University of Tampa's Low-Residency program from 2013-2015. In 1984 and 1985, he won a neighborhood creative writing contest in the City of Cincinnati and was named Poet Laureate of Over-the-Rhine. He currently lives in Clifton, where he often sits on his porch drinking green tea from a Mason jar.
Nakuru as dusk falls
December 23, 2004.
We arrive in Nakuru as dusk falls. Peter, our Kikuyu guide, a dark-skinned man in a World Safari uniform shirt and chinos, climbs out of the van and disappears into Safari.com to buy cell phone minutes for Mel’s phone. Peter is in his thirties, has worked managing sustainable farmland, and played soccer as a young man. He has a shaved head, wide features, with sometimes evasive eyes. Peter walked with a barely noticeable hitch in his right leg; he mentioned a soccer injury. He had a way of talking that included a partial stutter or hesitation that came and went, the pausing hitch paralleled his gait.
Richard, our driver, has pulled up next to an open market that edges out into the wide street in front of a small hotel. Hardscrabble faces take in our arrival below machine and handmade painted storefront signs. Traffic and a crowd of people in all manner of colorful clothing block the road. A preacher speaks through a megaphone across the street in front of what looks like a mosque. As we have parked, a truck blocks our view of this pale blue building where a small crowd appears to be listening. I open the sliding left side door and step down to stretch my legs. (Richard sits in the driver’s seat, on the right side of the cab. He is a very happy man, who takes his work seriously. The day before when we had a flat tire on a rough dirt road, he changed it in ten minutes, sweat covering his face, and red dust thick on his forearms. In the evening he took the van from our resort hotel where my stone porch faced Mt. Kilimanjaro. He repaired the tire.) Out of the van, I reach above my head and clasp hands lightly easing the stiffness in my shoulders and back. At the edge of the roadway, circled against the corner, men and women are seated on stools with piles of potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and purple eggplants stacked in front of them. A woman with an orange head wrap, a thin face, and light brown skin drinks a steaming cup of kahawa from a white enameled cup. As she sips and grins at me a young vender offers to sell me khaki trousers. I decline.
A big man, bigger than I am, with light leather boots, dark blue trousers and a heavy navy parka steps forward. I stand six-two with long gray hair and a beard. My bright green hemp jacket and wire-rim spectacles attract attention. The sky is cloudy and night will soon be upon us. The big man lifts a small child, wrapped in a blue hooded jacket as a gesture at me. The drone of the man preaching through the megaphone fades as this man sways the chortling child. The child has oval eyes that are not quite symmetrical, he reaches a hand toward me; I return the favor and we clasp hands. Sticky, soft, tiny fingers with a limp grip. The man pulls the child down, as I try to find Peter. The yellow sign of Safari.com is nestled against the far corner opposite the market. Black bicycles, and a throng extend to the edge of the road. Peter is not visible. The American women in the van are talking loudly. Mel asks why Peter had to go in for her. I pull the white sliding door almost shut. The big man is a smoky color, his eyes are a bit puffy and he chats in Swahili with the woman who watches, holding her hot cup. The child away, out of sight behind the produce stands; a second child is offered up to me, this one in a pink coat and hood. Her skin is lighter. For a moment I think the man wants to give me the child. He leans closer, smelling of tobacco and beer. As her eyes focus on me she bursts into tears. The man laughs and speaks to the seated venders in Swahili. There is a chorus of laughter. Faces change shape and I am not sure if they are laughing at me. My head buzzes with tension and fear.
The American passengers behind me laugh, enjoying this at my expense. The preacher’s voice drones. My hair flows down across my chest. A dark-skinned boy with a small square head and angry brown eyes approaches with an open extended hand. “Give me,” he says. “Uncle, give me.” I shake my head. “Where is your mother?” “My mother she is sick, give me.” I turn sour. “Are you a man?” I ask. “Yes,” with a pout. “What are you doing?” I ask, resentful. “I beg. I am begging.” “I have nothing for you.” An older boy leads a man with a cane. The eyes are closed, twitching above a flat van Gogh nose. The forehead is creased with tenderness. Richard tells me to get in the van, his head angled between the seats. “We have to go.” A truck is pulling toward the van from the other side as I close the sliding door and Richard revs the engine. He backs up to let the truck through. Through the window Peter reappears from the Safari.com shop, strolling through the crowd with presence and purpose.
“That would be problem.”
I looked at the dead gazelles.
“That would be problem.” He said it again.I weighed my options. Then with the Matsui 400 in my left hand, cupping the lens, I steadied myself. Cradled between the door and body of therover knees braced as they pushed outward to secure my stance. It was dark enough that time exposures were called for. The through the lens meter was useless—still—there was hope. My weeks with the camera—my comfort with the guide, Ignosi, all had worked.
The smell of blood. The gazelles—three of them—had been slaughtered but not butchered. The wounds were visible only, no only, really only because of the blood. It looked black like chocolate in the pre-dawn veldt. I knew we would wait—we had to wait—but where? Ignosi motioned. He spat a bit to his left. I stood on the right side of the rover—we were off the road several miles. A small copse of acacia trees stood behind the three bodies. There were no other animals around now. Hyenas would come. Vultures, too—and crows—the noise of the carrion eaters would change the ocassion.
Again—“That would be problem.” Ignosi—the guide, turned to Adam, the driver. I suspected the lions would come before the hyenas—we had passed the resting pride a half-a-mile back when we smelled fuel. I was sure the hunters hid their vehicle there and hiked here. They might be watching us. My skin tingled with fear. Nerves. With these photos I couldn’t prove much. I had to catch them shooting their high-powered rifles. A pile of dead gazelles in the dark on the veldt—Who cares? I framed the animals so you could see all three. We were close enough to see their eyes—what do you say about dead open animal eyes. I felt sad—you see death everywhere in Kenya but these gazelles served a new half-life. They were part of a big destructive force. I stopped thinking, clicked the shutter, advanced the film, clicked again—held–counted—a few seconds—can’t wait to see these.
Then I heard it. A distant motor. We were downwind, thank Engai–There was the light, the trembling bouncing beam from the other vehicle. It headed towards us. In this night I estimate we’d be caught if we didn’t work our way behind the copse of acacias in about four minutes.
“Adam—let’s move,” Ignosi said.
And I was in the rover.
Adam fired her up—edged her into the night without headlamps. As we turned into the shelter—the glow of day began on the horizon and with it lions followed by the other men—driving toward the dead gazelles.
No wonder many young animals seem reluctant to come to us. I thought about how the young animals were confused by the sound of the guns—the hunting rifles. The young gazelles were part of the herd. I gazed through the binocs. Could I prove animal behavior was changed by the Kikuyu hunters? No, I didn’t think so. No. It might mean the beginning of new animal studies in the wild. An investigation. But, to even stir the Kenyan government enough. I talked with Ignosi as we traveled. He was sympathetic.
“Well, Steven,” he said. “No concern goes unnoticed. We need the wild life for the safari. For the tourists.”
“If Kikuyu game wardens are feeding the pride…” I started. Peter looked past me. It was early morning on the veldt. We looked together at the carcasses. The smell of blood at dawn drew the zealous loud hyenas—masks—tails short and twitchy—the sound disturbed the vultures and the black and white crows cackled at the hyenas. This wild conversation never seemed comfortable. The song of the death of the grass. As light grew I could see Mt. Kilimanjaro for a moment—a few minutes, between five and five-ten—out of the haze it appeared then blue mist his the pale snowcap again.
“You know the Maasai have the power,” he said. “They are protected.”
I took the Matsui and set it on my knee and clicked some shots off randomly—just pointing. I had set the exposure and figured if I get some random looking shots of hyenas and carrion eaters gorging after the lions….
The clicking drew Ignosi’s attention. We had the doors open—looking out at this wild wild wild. Compared to home in Hollywood, the smell of dung—blood—grass—dew—such an amazing heart. No wonder so many young animals are reluctant to feed—the Kikuyu are using guns when they might better use cameras. If Matsui was right about the mass appeal of the camera—then safaris would be booked round the seasons--
“Ignosi,” I said, “the camera is the Kikuyu’s friend.”
“Steven, you make sense—you have the right idea. But, make no assumptions about those wardens. There may be an explanation. One time is not enough proof to take to the minister or court.” Ignosi rubbed his flat nose with a wide thumb. The wardens were gone. The hyenas would be gone soon, too. When there is death in Kenya—the evidence is not long for any investigators. Nature has its own justice.
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