Litro #149: Love – Water-Love


The brochure promises my first underwater breath will open the door to a different world, one where I’ll be free like never before. So I sign R. White on the consent form, pay the price of freedom ($300) and make for the beach clutching the printed promise that if I dared to open the door to my new underwater world life would never be the same again.

“What’s the score so far, Erik?” Paddy asks.
“We’re even I think,” I say knowing for sure it’s true.
“Well this is the last group of the season so winner takes all, eh?” He nudges me, “And don’t you be thinking you’re gonna beat me. Irish charm kicks Dutch free love’s arse this year.”
“Isn’t it luck, not charm, you Irish are famous for?” I ask as we wade across soft white sand towards a makeshift hut high above the tide-line that is the scuba-diving classroom.
“Aye, well, we’ll see.” Paddy jumps through the door ahead of me, the first to charm-smile at any prospective notches for his bedpost.

And there she is. Mid-twenties, blonde hair pulled back into a tight bun, iced milk skin. Blue eyes dart in and out, snatching glances before retreating like clown fish on the reef. Paddy nods in her direction. The game’s on again.

When I opened the door it led me to here: a classroom. Bare except for a single rickety bench (I perch warily between a jagged splinter and an overweight German), a small green chalkboard and a stack of thumb-bruised textbooks whose spines unanimously chorus, ‘Open water diver manual.’ Shadows of my home classroom haunt me; identical rows of plastic-wood desks and straight-backed chairs, computer and interactive whiteboard, shelves of carefully preserved books (Shakespeare et al.). Me in my navy pinstriped suit. A familiar pain spans my forehead.

We are awaiting Sir. Erik and Paddy arrive. Dressed only in knee-length shorts with ragged hems and deep tans.

It’s my turn now. I manage to choke out, “Rebecca, teacher and because I thought diving might be fun,” in reply to Paddy’s questions.

“Well hello Rebecca. And there’s no need to look so terrified. Unlike the sharks, I don’t bite, do I, Erik?”
Erik says, “Time to get down to it, Paddy.”
“That’s exactly what I’m doing,” Paddy replies.
He splits a winks at Erik. I long to run out and slam the door behind me.

Paddy’s comment about biting drowns. Much better to go softly. Don’t stir up the bottom.
I ask them what they think the greatest danger is when diving. Get the usual response: drowning.
“It’s pressure,” I correct, “At sea level we have the weight of one atmosphere on us, that’s the weight of all the air above,” I wave skywards, “When we dive to just ten meters that pressure doubles because ten meters of water weighs the same as all the air. Every ten meters adds another atmosphere of pressure. At forty meters the pressure is five times that on land.”
Rebecca raises a hand. Waits properly.
“Is it safe?”
“Don’t you be worrying yourself,” Paddy interrupts, “Sure, I’ll look after you. Superman of the sea, that’s me, so it is.”
She blushes. I strangle the urge to laugh. Poor Paddy, like a walrus on land he’s clumping around, flattening things. That’s why I won last year. Why I’ll win again this year.

Pressure that can crush us, kill us. Ten meters of water weighs the same as all the air in the world. But it doesn’t weigh as much as forty-five pieces of GCSE coursework on Romeo and Juliet or A-C achievement targets or league table results or the whole of the Ofsted inspectorate. The door to my wide blue freedom stays open.

We drill them all morning; safety stops, hand signals, residual nitrogen. Paddy gets tangled up with an American couple. My chance. I go to mark Rebecca’s knowledge review. Number four’s wrong. I chew on a biro. She should know. It could be dangerous. I put down the cross. She squirms.
“This is strange for you?” I ask, “to be the student?”
She nods. Tries to smile.
“Don’t worry. Nine out of ten. You pass.”
“Thanks.” She doesn’t sound grateful.
Paddy’s still trying wriggle off the American’s hook.
“We’ll be buddies,” I say.
“This afternoon, when we dive,” I explain, “because we are an odd number, you’re on your own, yes?”
“Oh, yes.”
“So I’ll be your dive buddy.”
She tries a bit harder with the smile. Her eyes are sea green.

We stand poolside in our wetsuits under the scrutiny of lethargic bikini-clad sunbathers. A trickle of sweat runs between my shoulder blades. My soft organs, suffocated by the wetsuit, jostle each other for space. A lead belt, jammed down on my hips, hugs too possessively. We penguin waddle to the water’s edge. False blue ripples gently. Freedom is only a giant stride away. Erik puts his hand on my shoulder and nods encouragingly.
“You can jump now.”
I plunge in and float effortlessly. A few seconds later we are kneeling on turquoise tiles at the bottom. Undulating water calms everything. We hover, move in slow motion. I draw air in, let it out, and watch as the bubbles rushed upwards. Happily letting them go. Letting everything go. Erik paddles over to me and makes the O.K. sign. I make it back. The he uses the buddy-up sign to indicate ‘you and me’ before imitating drinking a very British cup of tea, his little finger fully extended. Out of my element and high on underwater freedom I reply with O.K. again.
Politely, belatedly, Juliet cautions me.
“It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
Too like the lightning which doth cease to be.”

She’s sitting on the balcony, at the table, her head bent low. A slick black pen, slimy like a sea cucumber, moves under her direction. I call up and she stops.
“Do you want tea now?”
“It’s a little late for tea,” she says.
“A drink then? Dinner?”
“I’m working.”
“But you are on holiday?”
“Marking,” she calls back, “Coursework.”
She is on the first floor only. I’ve climbed higher many times. I grab the trellis and scale the wall. Leap the railings.
“No work when you are on holiday,” I say. The white leaves of paper are stacked neatly on the table. I scatter them to the wind. They land in the flowerbeds, impale themselves on cactus spikes. “It’s forbidden, you see.”
She leans over the side. I think she might cry. Or jump.
“If I help you pick them up will you promise no more work?”

At Erik’s request we don’t eat in the hotel restaurant.
“You say it’s a postman’s holiday?” he queries as he charges his beat-up jeep over cobbled streets.
I laugh. “Busman’s holiday.”
He flashes me his carefree grin. He really knows how to live.
“And you, are you having a teacher’s holiday now?” he asks.
“You don’t understand,” I say, “Your work is a holiday.”
“But you are here,” he says.
“Yes, but, well, I don’t know whose holiday this is. Not mine, I’m sure.”
Erik stops the jeep, reaches over and puts his hand on my shoulder. His touch burns into my chaste flesh.
“Yes it is,” he assures me.
Juliet reluctantly admits, “You kiss by the book.”

After dinner I take Rebecca to the beach. We lie on cool damp sand. Inky sky covers us. The sea murmurs lovingly in our ears. It always works.
“Have you read Romeo and Juliet?” she asks.
“No. Is it good?”
“Year Eleven don’t think so. I have a copy with me, you can borrow it if you like.”
“Yes, please.” I’m sorry for her. I wish it was different. “We are both teachers but your job is not like mine. Yours squeezes all the life out of you. Do you even like it?”
She frowns. I stroke a finger across her forehead, trying to erase the lines of pressure that stretch there.
“Don’t do that. It makes you look old.”
“That’s how I feel most of the time,” she sighs.
“But not tonight?”
“No, not tonight. ‘Look, love, what envious streaks do lace the severing clouds in yonder east: Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountaintops: I must be gone and live, or stay and die.’ ”
“That’s beautiful. What is it?”
“It’s from Romeo and Juliet. It means that I wish I could stay here forever,” she replies.
Two words, down deep, decide it’s time to make a controlled emergency swimming ascent to the surface.
“You can.”
“You don’t mean that,” she says quietly, “Anyway, I have to go home. My students…I’ve got responsibilities and you’ve got…”
“Your pick from the next lot of holiday makers.”
Moonlight colours everything black and white.
“You’re wrong.”
“Yes because it is the end of the season,” I grin at her.
“Oh. I thought…never mind.”
“And because even if there were more coming I wouldn’t care. You are the last.” I put my arms around her. Kiss her long and slow.

His life is so wonderfully easy. All he has to do is drift with the tide.
We go back to my room.
He is the tide. He takes me out with him. I want to float freely below whipped-cream waves forever.
So does Juliet.
“It was the nightingale, and not the lark…
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.”

It’s morning. I cross the compound to the staff quarters.
“Guess you’ve won,” Paddy says, “So, tell me. What she’s like?”
“Nice? That it? Did she let her hair down, or what? Don’t tell me she kept that bun in.” He laughs.
I flick him the finger and turn to go.
“Haven’t you forgotten something?” Paddy calls. He produces the trophy he made two summers ago from a broken-legged Barbie that had been abandoned by the pool, her one good leg jammed into the bottom of a polystyrene cup with the words ‘Scuba-diving Summer School Shagging Champion’ scored on it in blue biro. And my name underneath, twice. Outside I put it in the nearest bin.

I don’t recognise the bronzed and smiling face framed by lose flowing fair hair that stares back at me from the mirror. But I like her a lot. She’s happy. All her cares have drifted out to sea.
Dives fill my logbook; Erik fills my bed. A chaotic pile of unmarked marking, stuck with prickles, lies washed up in the corner. Days disappear, melting like snowflakes before I can catch them and look closely into their frozen hearts.
Juliet reminds me.
“It is the lark that sings so out of tune.”

I wait by the scuba hut. Read Romeo and Juliet. Act III, scene V. There are silver traces where her pencil has glided, “More light and light: more dark and dark our woes!” I don’t have time to finish it now. She is going home tomorrow.
“Been stood up?” Paddy gloats, “Still, plenty more fish in the sea, eh?”
I’d like to run him through with something blunt.
“Maybe something’s up? P’rhaps you should go find her,” he suggests smugly.
I set off across the sand. When I know I’m out of sight I run.

I see it lying on the mat, in the corridor outside my room: a Barbie doll, her leg wedged inside a used coffee cup. She’s been dumped like trash, best beloved discarded and forgotten. I pick her up. Blue words are scratched into white polystyrene.
Juliet mocks me. She always knew.
“O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?”

I knock first; breathe later. On the other side her sandals clop towards me. She opens the door. I smile. She slaps me.
“You bastard.”
The imprint of her hand leaves sting traces on my cheek like jelly fish tentacles.
“Congratulations. Champion two years running.” She presents me with my trophy.
“Where did you get this?”
“Someone left it for me.”
A leprechaun.
“Please, I can explain.”
“Don’t bother, Erik.”
She slams the door shut.
Romeo and Juliet cower and shiver in my pocket, against my heart.

At least parting will be easy. Was easy. This is not a Hollywood rom-com with a happy ending for one and all. Silly cow.

My suitcase gapes open mouthed and hungry in the corner. I stuff it with everything in the room and wish it would swallow me too.

Erik. On the balcony again. I pull back the curtains but keep the glass between us. He’s holding out my copy of Romeo and Juliet.

“Keep it.”

He shakes his head and taps on the window. I turn my back. Fool.
“It’s very sad. What is the word? A tragedy?” Double-glazing fades his words to grey.
“Please, Rebecca, I love you.”

I look. Erik presses against the glass and pouts like a fat-lipped parrot fish.
Finally, Romeo speaks up.

“Love goes towards love, as schoolboys from their books,
But love from love, towards school with heavy looks.”

Teach Me to be a Writer

Photo by Jeffrey Smith (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Jeffrey Smith (copied from Flickr)

Semantically-minded readers will note the deliberate choice of ‘teach me to be a writer’ rather than ‘teach me to write’ in this essay’s title. Just because a person may have an extensive vocabulary and be conversant with the difference between a colon and a semi-colon, does not mean they have the ability to be a writer. Writing and being a writer are two different things, although would-be authors sometimes fail to recognise this, leaving many labouring under the mistaken belief that being a writer is as simple as putting words on paper or screen. That people can and are taught to write is too long established a truth to debate. But can people be taught to be great writers, whether that be of fiction, poetry, script, journalism or non-fiction?

Perhaps, before launching into my argument, I had best establish my credentials to comment. I am a writer, a teacher of writing and a writing student (see biography for full details). I hope this triad of experience puts me on a sufficiently stable pedestal from which to join the current debate about creative writing degrees and courses.

Manchester Writing School lecturer and author Nicholas Royle – responding to Will Self’s recent Guardian article in which Self claims studying creative writing is a misnomer as there is no studying involved – states his belief that writing courses offer those with talent a valid and valuable opportunity to refine that talent (read Royle’s article here). Royle goes on to say that even those without talent can be taught basic techniques. Royle’s view is shared by Brunel University creative writing teacher Bernadine Evaristo who said, in the summer 2013 issue of The Author (Society of Authors publication), that “writing is a craft, but crafts can be learned up to a point.” She was refuting a contention by Jake Wallis. Wallis agrees with Self’s point that writing is “not an academic discipline” (The Author, Summer 2013). In the debate article between Wallis and Evaristo, Wallis, a writer with a doctorate in creative writing, goes on to state that creative writing is “a soft option” and students would be better served “sharpening their minds with proper study, rather than engaging in lukewarm navel-gazing packaged up as creative writing.” Words that, no doubt, angered many creative writing tutors.

My answer to the question of whether or not someone can be taught to be a writer is simple: yes and no. My explanation is a little more complex.

While a college student, I took an Art A-level. Although, even then, I wanted to be a writer, I had no serious thoughts of achieving that goal and was focusing on a career in publishing through a joint honours degree in Publishing and something else at Oxford Brookes University. Art was my weakest subject but one option for my degree combination was Publishing and Fine Art; I sought my art teacher’s advice. He said (almost twenty years ago, marking how his words struck me and stayed with me) that he believed everyone had a certain amount of natural talent and that, through teaching, they could harness that talent but only to the extent that they were already possessed of it. His words were wise (I will credit him; his name was Simon Jackson) and, I feel, equally applicable to all creative art forms, including writing.

In an educational context where creative writing is becoming increasingly popular, this anecdote suggests, as both Royle and Evaristo claim, that, yes, people can be taught to be writers. But I maintain that my reply is yes and no.

Currently there are over a hundred undergraduate courses offering Creative Writing as either a single or joint honours degree. There are even more institutions with the subject at post-graduate level as well as the new AQA Creative Writing A-level. Additionally there are a number of creative writing courses offered by literary consultancies, writing organisation like Arvon, writers’ mentoring schemes, online/distance learning courses and those organisations that offer feedback services for writers in the belief that they can be taught to improve their writing. Surely those working on such courses/schemes would also answer yes. An organisation like NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education) would not exist if there was not some validity to teaching creative writing.

I don’t wholly dispute their claims but I return to the wise words of Mr Jackson. It can be taught but only to the extent that the student has the capacity to learn. Their progress is dependant on their natural talent, dedication and general ability to acquire the necessary skills. Echoing Evaristo’s view, Prof. Michael Green, Head of Creative Writing at Northumbria University, in a recent interview for BBC Radio Newcastle, likened creative writing to motor mechanics and carpentry, arguing that writing, like other crafts, involves teachable skills. I agree with this assessment.

Writers need to know about character arcs, plot pacing, narrative perspective, structuring and literary devices if they wish to write fiction. Potential poets have to understand poetic form, free verse, rhyme and rhythm. Playwrights must learn the effective use of dialogue, props and stage directions, the importance of entrances and exits and the crafting of a story within the confines of the dramatic genre. These things can be taught through various methods: reading and analysing examples, writing exercises, feedback and workshopping writing. They can be taught. That doesn’t mean they will be learnt. I recently started taking a martial arts-based self-defence class. The black belt instructors demonstrate techniques, watch as we practise and correct when we go wrong. We learn. But I am naturally uncoordinated and clumsy; I will get better but I doubt I will ever excel at it. And potential creative writing students should mark this and consider whether or not they have the innate ability to learn to be a writer.

If they feel they do the single most important part of their learning is reading; in this I agree with Jake Wallis. Nobody would, I hope, attempt to build a car without first studying a working one and understanding how it was constructed. So why would someone consider writing a five hundred page historical thriller without reading similar texts to see how they were constructed? Not that in reading the goal is copying, as it might be with a car, but writers need to know the basics, the rules of the genre, before they can be creative with them. Anyone who has seen Shrek will know that, as a comedy, it is almost totally useless unless audiences are aware of the fairytale conventions it subverts. You could not write something so original without a good grasp of the familiar first.

But being a writer is not just about writing. A good deal of what a writer does is nothing whatever to do with writing. It is to do with self-promotion, networking, doing public readings, time management, organisational skills, IT skills etc. The compulsory first year module on Northumbria University’s joint English and Creative Writing undergraduate degree includes a session led by New Writing North’s director, Claire Malcolm, on the topic of the professional life of a writer and how he/she may earn a living. On my Creative Writing MA there was an entire module called ‘The Life of Writing’ which dealt with such crucial issues, all of which are teachable. How successful a student will be at them, though, depends less on the quality of the teaching and more on the student’s dedication and determination to be a writer. Are they prepared to go to yet another reading given by someone they don’t really like for the chance to make an industry contact? Are they prepared to travel miles to attend an industry event or literary festival? Are they prepared to stay up late emailing their manuscript to every agent in the Writers and Artists Yearbook? I have often thought that the difference between a writer who succeeds and one who doesn’t is nothing to do with the quality of their writing and everything to do with how resilient they are when faced with rejection and failure. Perhaps rather than a writing course, new authors should be partaking of some therapy or meditation practice that equips them to cope with this.

There is also the argument that it is who, not what, you know that will make you a writer, publication success sometimes resulting from the dumb luck of right place/right time. I don’t subscribe to this. If someone really wants to be a writer they make it happen. And they do so by honing their craft, improving their writing through any available means, acquiring every vital skill, never letting an opportunity pass by, no matter how insignificant it might seem, and never giving up. That way, when an opportunity presents itself the writer is ready for it. Luck is best defined as the moment when opportunity meets preparation. Given that, I would argue that there is a genuine role for the plethora of creative writing courses currently running because they help prepare writers for their chosen career.

Hopefully I have clarified my ‘yes and no’ answer. There are teachable skills in writing but that doesn’t mean we can all learn them, just as we can not all be ballerinas, plumbers or quantum physicists. Students should not enrol on creative writing courses expecting to be miraculously transformed into brilliant writers. I found evidence of this when marking Creative Writing A-level exams this summer. Some students achieved top marks; others barely scraped a pass and this among candidates from the same colleges who had the same teachers working through the same schemes of work and lesson plans. As far as experiments go this is probably as close as one can get to a scientific assessment of whether or not all students on creative writing courses come out as good writers. Sadly, some do not and are best served accepting that writing is not for them, either because they don’t have the natural ability needed to augment the teaching and become a truly outstanding published/produced writer or because their circumstances and other commitments do not give them the chance to fully pursue their writing ambitions.

Mindful of these arguments for and against creative writing courses, my advice to aspiring writers would be this: learn the writer’s craft, either through a formal, qualification-led course or an informal writing group/mentoring scheme/retreat etc. Enjoy the experience, uncover the extent of your natural talent and mine it but don’t expect to ‘graduate’ a writer.

Grass Wars

(c) Dan Patterson

The herd wakes me, hungry again and baying for grass, green and juicy. They huddle round the basher, lowing and groaning. Their rolling backsides butt up against the bent branches. Their snot-dripping snouts nose into gaps between the hide-roof and branch-walls.  One snorts right over my face. Hot, stale breath clouds over me; spittle rains onto my cheeks and into my eyes. I sit up and rub my face on my robe. Next to me Shahuri continues to snore. It’s his turn to do the milking. I reach over and shake his smooth black shoulder.  He grunts like a hog and tries to roll away from my shaking hand. I slap his leg.

[private]“It’s light, get up.”

He sits and rubs sleep from his eyes.

“I’m up.”

“Only half-way.”

I crawl out of the basher. The cows have closed us in during the night. The cold keeps them near the fire. The thorn corral is really for the lions. They’d gorge on the herd given the chance. On me and Shahuri as well. I keep the AK47 for them. For the Nyangatom too.  Thieving bastards.

I push tan flanks out of the way. Gentle slaps and sharper prods with my stick if they are stubborn. Squatting over the dead grey ash, I poke around in the embers hoping to find something glowing. I told Shahuri to build it up more last night. If he wants fire he can get his arse out here and get busy with the sticks. I find the faintest breath of heat from right in the fire’s heart. Two handfuls of dry grass, the morsel of heat clutched between them and three soft blows. The grass flares up fiercely as Shahuri emerges from the basher. I feed more grass to the flames.

“Good fire, eh?” he says, “Which cow you want me to milk, Aratula?”

“That one.” I point out one with hanging udders. He takes up the basin and starts pulling on the teats, his fuzzy black head buried in her tan side.

While he’s making himself useful I dismantle the basher. Crushed and crumpled grass shows where our bodies slept. I take up my bow and draw an arrow from the quiver. The arrow is tipped with flint. The point is sharp. Sunlight winks off it. There is no flight. The bow is the length of my forearm, the wood is kalochi, the same as for my prized Donga fighting stick.

My Donga fight was many years ago.

“Give Aratula the Donga.”

“He’s too little still to hold it up.”

“He must start soon.”

“Not too soon.”

“Not too late or he will never be a champion, never win a sagine. Never be granted his own herd. Never find a wife. Give him the stick.”

The long thin pole, its tip shaped like a manhood, the prize for wielding it hardest, was placed in little Aratula’s hands. He held it straight. It reached over his head and up to the sky. He held it still and firm.

“See, I tell you, woman, he’s a natural. Look how he holds it so strong, like he was born with it in his hands. He will be a great champion,” his father said.

Aratula didn’t understand why but he knew his father was happy with him as long as he could hold onto this stick that was twice his size. He squeezed his fists tightly around the smooth wood, felt sweat seeping out between his fingers and his hands slipping down. He ran one hand over the other, up the shaft of the stick, as high as he could reach. He kept them running up; they kept sliding down.

“Like this, Aratula,” his father said, laughing. He took the stick and raised it over his head. He thrashed it down on the grass at Aratula’s feet, whipping and slashing brittle blades until the grass was decimated and the earth scarred. “Only you must aim for your opponent  Try to hit him here,” his father touched the stick to Aratula’s head, “or here,” his shoulder, “or here,” his arm, his leg, his side, his back, “but hard, hard as you can.” His father held the stick out to Aratula. He knelt down in front of the boy, making himself only one head taller than his son. He nodded encouragement.

Aratula raised the stick. It slid from his sweaty palms and speared the ground behind him.

“Too little, yet,” his mother said wisely as she turned back to their hut.

His father clicked his tongue in annoyance. He retrieved the stick.

“You must learn quick-quick, Aratula. If you don’t others who do will knock you on your backside,” he warned.

Aratula took his grip again. He raised the stick, not so far back this time, and brought it down with a crack, onto his father’s shoulder.

“OW!  Well done, Aratula.” His father patted him on the head and grinned broadly showing a mouthful of crooked white teeth through his fleshy pink lips.

Shahuri has got the milking done at last. He passes me the bowl. I drink the warm earthy liquid: grass-juice. Den, who has been off looking for snakes, bounds over. He licks my hand hungrily.

“Yes, yes, your turn.” I jam my heel into the dry earth and hollow out a delve for the last of the milk. He laps it wolfishly. Shahuri drops down beside him and tries to shove his face into the milky hole too. Den growls.

“What are you doing?”

“You give the dog too much. I’m still hungry,” he complains.

“Den will have your ears for breakfast if you try to take his milk,” I warn, “Let’s do the bleeding.  That’ll fill your belly.”

We take a cow, one of my favourites, a little way from the rest of the herd. She comes easily, willingly. Shahuri tethers her to a thorn bush and tightens the tourniquet around her neck. Blood pools in her vein, throbbing to be released. I take the bow and arrow with its flint point and fire it into her neck. Blood arcs out and splashes into the waiting milk bowl. We let the bowl fill half way. Then Shahuri undoes the tourniquet and I squeeze the nick closed with my fingers until its clots seal. We thank her and turn her loose. With one low moo she signals she accepts our thanks and rejoins her fellows.

The bowl is now brimming with frothy red liquid. We sit round it and take turns drinking. The taste is sweet and metallic. We spit out the clots.  It clots fast so you must drink with haste. Our teeth and lips are soon stained red and we are filled up with energy. I sprinkle the last few droplets on the ground to encourage the grass to keep growing. The grass here is very old and tired. It is giving up and dying: surrendering the fight to us.  But the battle goes on, Suri herdsman and cows versus grass and Nyangatom bastards. And we are ready now.

The day of Aratula’s Donga battle dawned. He had waited so long for this: all his life.

He made ready: the mud paint, red, yellow and blue, daubing the spiral patterns he had practised in the dust behind their hut on his chest and arms, the blue beaded cord that all fighters wore fastened around his neck and, wrapped around his waist, the twine that attached to the end of the Donga stick he had spent weeks carving, polishing and shaping from the most flexible kalochi branch his father could find. He took up his Donga and swished it through the air, naming each parry and thrust, ticking off the movements as they sliced imagined opponents with ease and grace. He would win, Aratula was sure. He would be today’s banzanai.

His mother came out.

“For you.” She held out a woven grass helmet of blue and yellow.

Aratula shook his head.

“Wear it,” she pleaded.

“I don’t need it,” Aratula insisted.

His mother pursed her lips, the tight line scarring her face. Her eyes trembled a little. She put the helmet on the ground at his feet. Her back turned Aratula trampled it flat. The scars of a Donga fight are medals of bravery, for wearing the rest of your life to remind the tribe how you fought and won your sagine, your herd, your wife and your manhood. Later you would be able to tell the stories to your children: this jagged shoulder-scar here I got when I muddled a block and received a sharp blow but I came back at him with a whip to the head that knocked him clean out.

Aratula squatted at the fire, the smooth pads of his backside grazing his heels. He scooped up white ash and circled his eyes with it. He up-ended his mother’s best pot and looked at himself in its shiny interior, scrubbed clean over and over. Inside he met the ghoulish fighter that would strike terror into the hearts of all the others that day. He was ready.

Aratula and all the other contesters for the Donga title made their way in procession to the centre of the village. A large crowd had gathered already, old men, young children, the women of the tribe dressed in robes of mauves, indigoes and turquoises that formed a multi-coloured, manmade grass plain. Some wore hats that bobbed as though carried by the long waving tide of grasses. And growing out of this plain was a forest of Donga sticks, carried in honour of the occasion. Aratula stopped and allowed himself one moment to taste the day on his tongue, a day that was sweet with the wild-honey flavour of victory and triumph.

The elder called the village to order. Last minute spectators rushed to the fighting zone. Aratula stepped into the ring, bowed his head as the elder recited the chant that opened the Donga contest and waited with the whispered taunts of a thousand grass-stalks in his ears to face his first opponent.

The fighters paired up. It was Aratula against Laduhuri first. They faced each other and circled cautiously. They shouted their war cries and edged around each other, swinging their Dongas through the air. Aratula taunted Laduhuri to strike out. Then he did. His parry missed. Aratula struck back, drew first blood with a blow to the shoulder. The crowd cheered. Egged on, he hit again, a blow to the head knocking off the grass helmet Laduhuri’s grandmother had made him. Blood spurted and ran into his eyes. Laduhuri wiped at it with the back of his forearm, blocked two blows, took two more and fell prone and crumpled into the waiting grass. Aratula was declared the day’s first victor.

The whip and crack of Donga sticks hitting and missing their mark filled the air all day until it came down to the last match, Aratula and Barguru. Just as the sun was burning low over the grasslands they lined up for final battle. Aratula saw his father in the crowd, his white slash grin wide and bright in the dying light, a stalk chomped between his teeth. Aratula lashed out. Barguru took wounds to the chest, arm and leg. But he fought hard back, landing blows on Aratula’s head and shoulders. They sparred as the sun sank. Neither would give, neither fell. Aratula thought they would be locked in combat forever; the tribe would have to go back to their business, herding, cooking, eating and sleeping, perhaps for days until one lay dead and the other stood triumphant. Their Dongas slapped and whapped on the ground, on their flesh, cutting through skin, painting each other red. Aratula felt no pain, only the red hot flush of fighting anger. He raised his Donga higher than ever before and rained blows down on Barguru with ferocious speed: crack, crack, crack. Quicker than bullets peeling out of the AK47s the men sometimes fired for target practise, in case of Nyangatom raids on the village. Barguru quivered and shook all over like his body was feeling the stampede of a giant wave of cattle. And fell.

Aratula was the banzanai. The tribesmen gathered him up on their shoulders and paraded him around the village.

We round up the herd and set off in the direction of a waterhole that might have drinkable dregs and decent grazing. We walk slowly.  Speed only makes the cows thirstier. And Shahuri complain more.

“Where are we heading, Aratula? Isn’t there some good grass just over that rise? Can’t we stop and rest yet? What’s to eat? Have we any meat left?”

I shrug off his tireless questions. He knows the answers as well as me. He’s young but not stupid. I hope this year he will win the Donga contest, get his own herd and leave me in peace with mine.

We walk until the sun is high. It scorches yellow heat over all the grasslands, turning everything it touches grey and brown. It makes the grass brittle, withers it: defeats it. At the waterhole the sun has beat us to it. There is only a puddle. The cows drink until the ground is parched. Then they lick the earth as if to encourage more water to the surface. There is some shade nearby from a baobab tree. The herd scatters to chew to shreds the cooler, moister grass that lies in its shadow. Shahuri climbs the baobab and drops two fruit at my feet. I split them with my machete and we chew the powdery white flesh inside. It is sweet and sharp. I wish we had water to add to it for a long, clean drink. At least while Shahuri chews he doesn’t talk. I spit baobab seeds and stretch out in the shade. There is no wind today; the grass is silent, sulking. The cows munch it down to the dirt. Shahuri stays hushed up. As soon as he falls asleep he will start to snore. He is never quiet for long. I close my eyes.

“Aratula, Aratula, wake up, man.”

“Leave me alone.”

“Look!  Look, Aratula. Over there.” His voice is urgent. I sit up.

“Have you bullets?” he asks.

“Use your stick or wave some fire. Lions hate that. If you act like a warrior they will run off. Be brave, man.”

“No, no. Not a lion,” he hops up and down on one leg, “Nyangatom. Coming our way.” His eyes are wide, the whites like two full moons with dark craters in their middle. His teeth are bared, an animal, fierce with fear.

“Nyangatom? Here? They are a long way from home.”

“Tell them, tell them.” He keeps hopping. If he was so light on his feet in the Donga battles he would win for sure.

There are five of them. Nyangatom bastards. Coming closer. Their herd is a few scraggy cows. They plan a raid. My cows to fill their bellies with meat and blood. My fingers worry an old scar on my forearm. I won my Donga, the first and only one I ever fought in, for the right to this herd. Now I provide for it, get grass and water no matter how far we search, how long we struggle. This herd is mine, the grass in their stomachs I won for them, the milk in their udders is the victory drink, the blood in their veins keeps us fresh for fighting.

“Aratula, what we gonna do, man?”  Shahuri is running circles around me like a crazed calf. Den sits calmly, watching and grinning.

“Stop, you’re making me dizzy,” I grab his shoulder, “What we gonna do is nothing.” I tip Den a wink. He barks in agreement.

“Nothing?! You’re mad. Shoot ‘em, shoot the Nyangatom bastards.”

“Shahuri,” I tighten my grip on his shoulder, “what you want me to shoot them with? Baobab seeds? We gonna stand our ground.”

“Let’s leave the herd, run for it. They’ll kill us.”

“I’m not surrendering my herd to them so I can run like bloody impala, to save my hide. That’s disgrace. I’m a banzanai. I won’t run and neither will you.” I dig my fingers into the bones of his shoulder, “It’s time to fight, brother. Try to win, eh?”

They are on us. We stand together, Den, Shahuri and I. I tighten my grip on the seedless AK and call out to them.

“You lost?”

The leader laughs. He points at the cows.

“We come for them.”

I shake my head. “Go home.”

He turns to the other Nyangatom and chatters. They caw like crows.

“You will die for your cows and we will take them anyway,” he says.

“I am a sagine champion. These cows are mine. Get your own.” I raise the AK.

“That’s why I’m here,” he replies.

Crack, crack, crack. The clapping of hands. Crack, crack, crack. The stamping of feet. Crack, crack, crack. The beating of dongas. Crack, crack, crack. Something worse, much worse.

The grasses whisper and hush in the stillness that settles. Scattered cows are pulled into a herd, swollen with new members drawn like water from a well into the ranks. The Nyangatom get ready to leave with their prize. A dog howls pitifully. The leader lashed a kick at it.

“So much for your master, the great sagine victor,” he tells the dog. He laughs. All the Nyangatom laugh now. They go for home with their newly fattened herd.

The hard ground in the shade of the baobab tree soaks up their blood, Aratula’s and Shahuri’s, drinking in the life liquid, softening like rusks in milk. Hidden seeds belly up with richness, filling and popping, spilling their germinating guts into the red rivulets, rolling and lolling in contentment. Next year the grasses here will be greener, lusher and sweeter. Where there is blood grass grows verdant and happy. Where there is grass there is life.[/private]