Friday, October 31, 2008

The Monkey Skin Cloak

This story was originally published in the Tattered Souls anthology (Cutting Block Press). It was inspired by several true accounts recorded in Peter Capstick's books about big game hunting in Africa. It is a period piece, set during an African safari in the early 1920s, so the language and attitudes (including racist and sexist attitudes) fit the era in which the story is told. However, it contains graphic descriptions of sex, rape and bestiality, and plenty of violence, blood, cannibalism, monstrous hermaphrodism, lycanthropism, and a generous bouquet of brains. So turn down the lights, curl up with a glass of Ripple, and enjoy...

She stood suddenly in the flare of our headlamps, eyes bulging in the dark oval of her dark face. Ndaro stood on the brakes, but she vanished with a surprised thud. The lorry slid to a teetering stop, throwing us back in our seats. The dust of our passage caught up to us, swirled briefly in a tawny cloud in the headlamps, then disappeared into the tall grass beside the road to Nairobi.
Our guide, Doc (Dr. Hugh Palmer), barked a question in Swahili to Ndaro. The old native shook his frosty head violently.

“Did we hit something?” Stanci asked, blinking sleepily as she sat up beside me. Doc leaped from the lorry, already running, stopping only to grab his .577 Westley Richards Double Express from the back of the lorry.

“A woman,” I said on my way out the door.

I found Doc forty yards down the road, kneeling over something in the dust. He pointed his rifle at the native woman’s prone body as though pointing with a stick at a dead snake. Moonlight reflected softly on her small breasts and the marble-smooth, bone-angular flesh of her exposed hips. A cloak of verdant monkey skins spread beneath her otherwise naked body, as composed as though she’d been laid out by an undertaker. A few anklets and bracelets of coiled copper wire and gaudy beads completed her costume.

“Dead,” he snarled as he stood. He slapped the dust from his trousers in disgust, then pushed the rifle and a pair of cigar-long cartridges into my hands. “Ndaro! Shadow!” he shouted to his gun bearer and tracker as he stomped away. Stanci stumbled past him, pushing her hair back from her face.

“Did you say we hit a woman?” she asked. I pointed with Doc’s big gun at the upturned, finely-boned face of the dead woman lying at my feet. Stanci paused, her breath catching, then eased around and slid up beside me, hooking her hand behind my left arm.

“What happened?” she whispered.

“That’s what I’d bloody well like to know,” Doc bellowed as his two servants approached. The old gun bearer, Ndaro, glared in horror at the woman lying in our dusty tracks, but Shadow, Doc’s tracker, only blinked at her for a moment before turning his inscrutable gaze to the night-dark bush lining the road.

“What happened? Did you fall asleep?” Doc demanded.

“No, Bwana,” the old native answered.

“Don’t lie to me!” Doc snarled.

“He’s telling the truth,” I said. “I saw the whole thing. There was no time to stop.” Ndaro nodded in agreement.

But there was something else, something I didn’t mention because I wasn’t exactly sure what I had seen. I had been half asleep myself, with a warm bottle of German beer between my knees and Stanci’s head resting on my thigh. But in that glaring instant before the woman went bump, I thought I saw a shadow dart almost from under the lorry and vanish into the tall grass beside the road.

“Why the devil was she walking down the middle of the road in the dead of night?” Doc shouted at no one in particular. “Couldn’t she hear us coming? Why didn’t she get out of the way?”

“Was she alone?” Stanci asked. Ndaro glanced quickly at her, and I knew then that he had seen the same thing as I. Stanci continued, “Aren’t there any villages near here?”

“There’s not another village for twenty miles,” Doc said.

“Maybe she was drunk,” I said.

“How bloody drunk do you have to be not to get out of the bloody road?” Doc roared.

Shadow said something in Swahili that made Doc cut short with a startled snort, and Ndaro laughed aloud, turning away in embarrassment, hands waving above his head.

“What did he say?” I asked.

Doc looked at Stanci and turned red. “I’d rather not say, if it’s all the same to you. These bloody savages...”

“Go on, old man. I’m older than I look, and I was raised with three brothers,” Stanci laughed. “No need to watch your language around me.”

“I’d rather not,” Doc repeated, shading a deeper, ruddier red, though he could not suppress an embarrassed guffaw. “Stinking bloody savages.”

Stanci pushed my elbow to move the muzzle of Doc’s big rifle out of the dead woman’s face. Kneeling beside the body, she sighed. “Look at her. She looks like a queen of Egypt.”

“She is a queen, Msabu,” Ndaro said softly. The old Kikuyu had a fear of dead bodies and looked terrified that Stanci might touch this one.

“Do you know her, Ndaro?” Stanci asked.

“No, Msabu,” the old man denied.

“Is she Masai?” I asked.

“She looks Somali to me,” Doc said. “Probably a prostitute, or some white bwana’s girl. It’s a long way from Nairobi, and the local savages couldn’t afford a girl like that, not even the chiefs. This little accident will cost me dearly, mark my words.”

A lone male lion suddenly coughed and groaned, miles away probably, but sounding damned close in the dark. I quickly chambered the two cartridges into Doc’s Westley Richards and passed the gun to him. He snapped the breach shut, while Shadow’s head swiveled round like a small ebony melon on the skinny pole of his neck, scanning the darkness. His earlobes hung in two loops almost to his shoulders, and he leaned on a long spear as he scratched the back of one leg with the other foot. A dark, oily cloth hung from a knot tied over one shoulder, revealing every muscle and sinew of his narrow chest and long, powerful arms. He was a remarkable individual, silent and savage, inscrutable as the dark continent itself. Not so long ago, he and his kin probably would have speared to death any white man who dared to cross these lands.

“What are we going to do with her?” Stanci asked.

“Leave her,” Ndaro said without hesitation.

“We can’t just leave her here, not with lions prowling about,” Stanci protested.

“And hyenas,” I added as a chorus of howls and whoops broke out behind us.

“Leave her with an offering of beer to appease her spirit,” Ndaro said.

“That’s how the natives handle these sorts of things around here,” Doc said noncommittally. We were all too aware that if the dead woman’s body were to succumb to Africa’s scavengers, it might save Doc a world of trouble with the authorities in Nairobi.

“It’s horrid. I won’t hear of it,” Stanci said. “You men pick her up. We have to do something with her. We can’t just leave her lying in the road. We should try to return her to her people.”

Ndaro refused to touch the body, and Doc didn’t press the matter, familiar as he was with the old Kikuyu’s superstitions. He passed the Westley Richards to Shadow and motioned me toward the woman’s legs while he knelt by her head. I bent and grasped the slim, narrow ankles. Grunting together, we lifted her between us, only to find her surprisingly light, no heavier than a child. What was more, her flesh had already grown cold, though it remained as supple as though still alive.

Stanci picked up the woman’s monkey skin cloak and followed Ndaro to the lorry, while Shadow walked behind us, watching the darkness, the big double-barreled rifle slung over one shoulder and his long spear clutched at the ready.

“What was it Shadow said back there that was so funny?” I asked Doc when Stanci was out of earshot.

“Nothing. Don’t worry about it. Just savages being savages,” Doc said.

“Come on now, old man. Stanci won’t hear,” I said.

“All right, Mr. Curious. Shadow said that before she stood up, this woman was making love to a hyena,” Doc scowled.

“That’s not what he said,” I said, smiling. “My KiSwaheli’s not so good, but I know all the curse words. He never said that.”

“Have it your way, old boy,” Doc shrugged. “He saw her fellating a hyena in the road. Does that make you any happier?”

Strangely, the image this conjured up failed to fill me with revulsion. More like curiosity, especially after what I had seen or thought I had seen darting away moments before we ran her down. I thought about telling Doc about it, but he seemed quite put off by the whole subject, and I didn’t want him to think I was crazy. Our safari was nearly over. In two weeks, we’d be aboard the steamship for America.

Doc walked backward, holding the dead woman beneath the shoulders, so that her eyes, frozen open in death but not yet glazed, stared straight at me with an almost knowing smile frozen on her face.

“Aren’t hyena hermaphrodites?” I asked.

“That’s a nice thing to talk about,” Doc said.

“Well, I heard...”

“From who?”


Doc began to laugh. Stanci leaned out the open door of the lorry, a freshly-opened bottle of German beer foaming over her knuckles. “What’s so funny?” she asked.

“Ndaro’s been filling your old man’s head with stories of bloody Africa,” Doc answered, still laughing.

She looked at the bottle in her hands. “Ndaro says we should offer this beer to appease her spirit,” she said with just a touch of embarrassment.

“He’s been at you with his stories as well, eh? Save the beer for your old man.” Doc laughed as he nodded to me. “Let’s toss her on the roof with the trophies. It’s a couple of hours to our camp yet, and I’m none too willing to share a bench all that way with this fine lady, even if she is a queen.”

Together, Doc and I lifted the woman onto the lorry’s roof rack and laid her out beside the heads of the two buffalo we’d shot that afternoon. I dropped to the ground beside Stanci and took the open beer from her. We stared up at the figure lying on our roof, the dead woman’s proud, almost Semitic nose profiled against the stars. “Hadn’t you better tie her down?” Stanci asked.

“Don’t worry about her,” Doc answered as he climbed into the lorry beside Ndaro. The Kikuyu driver sat at the wheel once more, his face strangely passive. I noticed beads of sweat clinging to his balding pate. Doc laid the Express across his lap and propped his boots on the dash. “Let’s get going. It’ll be midnight before we get back to camp as it is.” I’d never known Doc to travel in a lorry with a loaded gun, but I decided not to say anything for fear of worrying my wife.

Stanci climbed into the back seat, still clutching the dead woman’s mantle of green monkey skins. “Throw that rag out,” I said as I slid in beside her. “It’s full of lice.”

“It isn’t!” she protested. “It’s clean. It doesn’t even smell. I’m keeping it. If we can’t find her village, we’ll bury her in it.”

“We don’t have time to look for her village,” I said.

Ndaro fired the engine and we lurched away, wheels spinning up the dust.

The night grew cold. During the day, the heat beat down on you like hammer, but at night it often became cold enough to see your breath. I sipped the beer as we drove through the dust, watching over Ndaro’s shoulder as the long tawny ribbon of the flint-dusty road uncoiled into the darkness before us. It was easy enough to forget that a dead woman lay above my head, with the hypnotic hiss of the wheels cleaving through the dust putting us all half to sleep. Doc’s 1919 Ford lorry ran like silk, the engine a barely-heard purr; he kept it in immaculate condition because he didn’t like to scare away game with the noise of motors. He was a fine hunter and safari guide, and he kept as good a camp as anyone could want. He rarely mistreated his servants, except when something had gone wrong, like tonight, and he always apologized later and made it up to them. They were loyal and trustworthy because of this; Ndaro had been with Doc for six seasons now, but Shadow had been his tracker for nearly fifteen years. The cook was considered one of the finest camp cooks in all of British East Africa. Doc set a magnificent table and provided the best wine, scotch, beer and cigars that could be had in that country.

We had gone a long way this day in search of buff, the last of the big five game animals on our license, and this was the last hunting day of our safari. Doc hadn’t liked the size of the buffalo in the country around our camp, but it was otherwise a fine spot for hunting all the best game in Africa – lion, elephant, most of the more interesting antelope, leopard, even rhino, though they were sometimes difficult to find, unless you didn’t want to find them.

Now, the drive back to our last night in base camp had been ruined by this accident, this killing of the queen of Egypt in the green monkey skin cloak who fellated hyena in the dark in the middle of the road. All the joy of the day’s hunt had drained out of me with her death, and the beer was doing nothing to replace it. It tasted like tin in my mouth. I was too tired and hungry to feel it.

With only half the beer finished, I’d had enough. As I turned to pass the bottle back to Shadow, I saw something moving through the grass beside the road, just outside the light of our headlamps. I motioned for the electric torch. Shadow passed it up and I flicked it on, shining the beam out into the night. And in that flickering instant when the circle of light struck the racing grass, I saw a huge, hunched shape with a tawny, spotted hide galloping beside the lorry, keeping up with its speed, and less than five yards from the door. Then it was gone, angling off into the moonlit grassy plain, a titter of demonic laughter following it out of sight and hearing.

“That was a hyena!” I shouted.

“What’s that?” Doc asked, turning round in the seat.

“A hyena – biggest one I ever saw. It was running beside us.”

“Away from us, you mean. Probably we surprised him over his dinner by the road.”

I thought about this for a moment, realizing how much more sense it made than my own brief impression – that it was following us. “You’re probably right,” I said at last.

“Of course I am,” he said with a smile. He looked at my wife beside me. “Poor old Memsahib.”

I looked at her. She had fallen asleep again, the monkey skin tucked up under her chin. Her hair hung in strands of spun copper over her eyes, stirred occasionally by the dusty wind swirling through the open lorry. Her face, though ruddy and freckled from a month of African sun, still held something of its otherworldly porcelain beauty. Her lashes long and full rested upon her cheeks. Her lips, pale pink and moist, were parted, revealing the pearl tips of her teeth in the small, satisfied smile I knew and loved so well.

“Poor old Memsahib,” I agreed.


The whole camp turned out in celebration as we rolled off the road and into the short-cropped grass beneath the trees. Ndaro cut the engine and we glided to a stop on the soft, springy turf. They had kept a bright fire burning for our return, and we found the table set and hot baths ready. We climbed out of the lorry, stiff from the trip and the cold. Doc unloaded his gun and handed it to Ndaro, who glanced briefly at the roof of the lorry before disappearing among the shadows of the tents. Doc and I climbed up before the other servants reached us, to keep them from seeing the dead woman among the trophies. Stanci stood below us and refused to give up the green monkey skin cloak, clutching it tightly about her chin.

But we found the rack empty. The meat and trophies were still there, tied down in their bundles and matted with road dust. But the woman was gone. Doc looked at me and shrugged.

“She must have bounced off,” he said. “Ndaro!”

“He’s gone already,” I said.

“I told you to tie her down!” Stanci barked, stomping her foot. “Now we have to go back and look for her!”

“How far back do you think we should look, Mrs. Jackson?” Doc asked. “Ten miles? Twenty? We won’t find her, not with the hyena the way they have been around here since the war.”

“And don’t forget the lions and leopards,” I added. “Like as not, she’ll be long gone before we can turn around.”

“It’s a disgrace!” Stanci said. “Hugh, I think you did that on purpose.”

“Did what?” Doc asked innocently.

With a disgusted huff, she spun and stalked off to the tents, the monkey skin cloak billowing behind her. As she stormed through the press of servants, they glanced in wonder at her odd garment, before continuing on to help us unload the lorry.

Doc drew a sheath knife from his belt and began cutting through the cords holding our buffalo trophies. “Well, at least now I won’t have to pay some bloody bastard for killing his whore,” he said with a wink.

“Remind me never to invest money with you,” I said. “But what about Ndaro and Shadow? Aren’t you afraid they’ll talk, raise a fuss with the authorities in Nairobi?”

He grunted, lifted a head and passed it down to the waiting servants. “There’s no need to worry about Shadow. He’s still bloody African. Ndaro won’t talk for fear that someone will make him pay blood money for the woman. After all, he was driving, and it makes no difference to these bastards who is responsible, just so long as someone pays them their damned blood money.”

The servants crowded around the lorry now. I passed down a bundle of impala meat while Doc lifted the other buff trophy and swung it over the side, grunting and swearing at its weight.

“By the way, old man,” he said as he sat back on his heels. “It goes without saying, but I’d appreciate your not talking to anyone about what happened.”

“Sure, Doc,” I said, a little taken aback.

“I wouldn’t ask, but for the little Memsahib’s outraged sense of justice,” he explained.

“I understand,” I said. “I’ll talk to her. She’ll come around.”

“Thanks,” Doc said with genuine affection. He clapped his huge, scarred hand on my shoulder. “I wouldn’t ask otherwise. It just isn’t done, you know. But she seemed so put out by us bastards tonight.”

“I’ll talk to her, smooth things over. She’ll understand,” I said as I climbed down.

“Thanks, Yank,” he said as he scrubbed his palm across his lips and glanced worriedly at the darkness beyond our campfires.


She didn’t understand, of course, but after the first bottle of wine, Stanci seemed not to care so much. She finished her glass while still soaking in the canvas bath tub. I sat on a trunk beside the tub and polished off the bottle while she scrubbed. Then we changed places. She dressed while I bathed, then left me alone in the tent to dress while she hunted up another bottle.

The bath helped to wake me up and put a keen edge to my hunger, so that when I stepped out of our tent, the sight of the table laid for supper started the juices rushing into my mouth. There sat Doc, swirling a cup of the giant killer between his broad, scarred hands. Stanci stood across the table from him pouring herself a sundowner while a boy waited with water for mixing.

Before Doc stood a man in an oily leather toga, promising an interruption to our dinner. He was a local chieftain of some sort from one of the villages beyond the river, leaning on a stick decorated with bones and tufts of fur from God knows what animal. But he had a noble round skull on his bony neck and a voice that spoke with authority. As I approached, he was complaining to Doc at length in a language I couldn’t understand.

Doc did me the favor of translating without my even asking. “This fellow is a hetman of the local village,” he said while he passed me a tumbler of the giant killer. “He wants us to shoot some hippo meat for them tomorrow. He says they haven’t any meat and they prefer hippo.”

“Will we have time?” I asked, gratefully accepting a glass of scotch from Stanci. “When do you plan to break camp and pull out for Nairobi?”

“We won’t leave until the afternoon,” Doc answered. “If you want, we can pop down by the river after breakfast and see what’s swimming about.”

Stanci edged around the table and sank into a canvas-backed chair, sighing contentedly. The old witch doctor started and glared at her. She nestled down with her glass and propped her mosquito boots on the table. The witch doctor turned and began a new tirade, his voice shrieking to the heavens. For a moment, I wondered what the old fellow was going on about, shaking his stick and rattling his bones, but then I noticed him eyeing the monkey skin cloak wrapped around Stanci’s shoulders.

“Constance, why don’t you throw that thing away?” I asked as the old chieftain continued his dissertation. Doc nodded diplomatically the whole time. “It’s upsetting the native for some reason. Take it off, why don’t you?”

“It’s warm,” she said sullenly.

“It’s hideous,” I said. “We have blankets, if you’re cold.”

“What’s the matter with you? This is an authentic piece of Africa, as authentic as you can get. I think it’s beautiful,” she said, rising from her chair. She struck a regal pose, clutching the tattered edges of the cloak to her breast. “Don’t you think I look like an African queen?” she asked.

The old native paused and glared open mouthed, eyes nearly popping from his brown skull. One quivering hand reached out and touched Doc’s knee. The witch doctor bent close and whispered fiercely into Doc’s ear.

“You’re likely to catch an authentic African disease,” I said to Stanci. “Something you may not be able to cure.”

“Theo, you’re no fun,” she muttered sullenly as she sank into her chair. “You ought to try to live a little. Don’t be so cautious. Just for once, try to let a little adventure into our lives.”

“Adventure?” I exclaimed. “You’re the one who didn’t want to come to Africa. I practically had to drag you onto the boat.”

“So I was wrong. I love Africa now,” she said. “Did you want me to hate it?”

The old witch doctor grew louder and shook his stick at Doc. “What is he saying?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” Doc answered. “It’s something about trouble with a pack of local hyena, but I’m not sure what it’s all about. I think he wants us to kill some hyena that have been sneaking into their village at night and carrying off children and drunks.”

“That means I’m safe,” Stanci laughed. “But you and Theo had better watch yourselves.”

Doc smiled at her. “That’s a good one. Have another and you’ll feel better.”

“I feel fine. I’m in fine spirits, thank you very much” she said.

“Who do you think is the child and who is the drunk?” Doc asked me.

“Both of you,” Stanci answered. “You’re both children and you’re both drunks, but I love you both. Hopefully soon.”

“She’s tight,” Doc said. He turned to Stanci. “Mrs. Jackson, I believe you are tight.”

“Quite,” she said with a smile. “Good of you to notice, Hugh. Ask me again later.”

The witch doctor shouted something and shook his stick.

“What did that bastard say?” Stanci asked. She seemed more put out than either of us by the witch doctor’s presence. She pouted prettily, but she seemed to be avoiding looking at the old man.

Doc frowned at her. “He wants to use his magic on our bullets,” he said. “He says our bullets are no good without his magic.”

“Tell him we’ll shoot his hippo without his help,” I said, more perturbed with Stanci that I was with the witch doctor. I’d seen her drunk before, but she had always been a nice drunk – a little tipsy and she was ready for the pillow. But then again, I’d never seen her drink scotch, and she was already pouring herself a second. And that on top of half a bottle of wine back in the tent, during our baths.

“It isn’t the hippo he’s worried about,” Doc said. “It’s Fisi, the hyena. He thinks our bullets are no good against him.”

“Has he seen those buff we shot? Has he seen our lion skins?” I asked. “What does he really want, Doc? What do you suppose is his game?”

Doc asked him diplomatically, and the old man answered. “He wants one cartridge from each of our big guns. Probably for the gunpowder to mix in his potions.”

This surprised me, as I thought he was only after baksheesh. Feeling more generous, I said, “Is that all? Tell Ndaro to give him one from my .375, unless he wants Msabu’s Winchester as well.”

“He says Msabu’s Winchester is our little gun and his magic can’t help it,” Doc said. The old man nodded as though he understood and agreed.

“Go on and give him what he wants,” I said, “so we can eat our supper in peace. I’m starving.”

Doc summoned Ndaro out of the shadows between the tents. The old gun bearer appeared, eyes wide in awe as he gazed at the wizened old chieftain. Doc told him what was wanted and Ndaro hurried off to fulfill the order. With a trembling hand and bowed head, he offered the bullets to the old man – one of my .375’s and one of Doc’s big No.2 Nitros. The witch doctor took them in his bony claw and stalked off into the African night, sticks and bones a-rattle. Ndaro watched him go, obviously shaken by his visit.

Read Part 2

No comments: