Sunlight creeps over Alice’s face. A beam wends its way up her jawline, over her cheekbones. She lies on her back. Watches it.
The others in the room sleep. Still and silent. Content.
Alice lies still, unmoving, unwilling to wake them.
She stares into the sunlight and thinks of what has happened, what she has seen. Where they are, and where they are going.
The room is strewn with invitations and reminders. Genuine, handcrafted, authentic. They claim. Masks and shields and paintings, daubed onto woven leaves, hang from the wooden walls, nestle into the thatched straw ceiling. They surround the enormous bed, so large that four people are cosily sleeping side by side.
Alice stares up at the ceiling. Wonders. Feels the soft, thick blankets enrobing her. The fine cotton cradling her.
She raises her head and sees the thick luxuriousness of the rug at the foot of the bed. The door, seamless wooden planking against the wooden walls, discreetly leading to the en suite bathroom.
She turns and sees the glass extending along one wall, door and window in one.
The view is uninterrupted high bush, trees and shrubs rolling over foothills. Rich green carpeting the beginning of a mountain range. A lawn stretches out in front of the window, then the ground falls away from where the cabin is perched, toppling down into a valley before clambering back up the next ridge.
It is spectacular. The sweep of the trees artfully hides the road that climbs up towards the lodge. The plumbing and heating are buried beneath a new layer of fresh vegetation.
Alice looks around the modernist interpretation of the bush hut and yawns. She hasn’t slept properly again. Travelling has never been good for her. She sleeps and sleeps and is never rested.
The dreams are strange, as well. She slips out of the bed, thankful that she is to one edge, and pads across the painted concrete floor to her bag. She reaches and fishes out a small cardboard box. She still can’t say the name of the medicine she’s taking to prevent malaria. Her mother knew, or at least knew enough that a stack of small, identical boxes appeared in Alice’s room before she left.
She rummages, through the debris and detritus. A novel, some tangled headphones, pills for headaches and nausea and sleeping. A pen. A notebook, snowily pristine, unmarred.
There it is. A battered cardboard box, crinkled with handling. She pulls it out of the bag. There’s a label on the side, marking it with a pharmacy and an address and her name. Giving it a place. Instructions give it a purpose.
Take with or just after food. Side effects may include nausea, dizziness, hallucinations, vivid dreams.
There’s a number there as well. A price, tucked up in the corner where she can’t see it.
She slides the foil blister from the cardboard and looks down. Neat notations demarcate days and doses, divide her time into discrete units of experience.
Yesterday’s pen mark is pristine. The rest of the days are torn through, foil bursting through the marks her mother made. She is behind.
Well, without food then. It can’t be that bad.
Alice presses against one of the pills, then another. She pops out yesterday’s and today’s into the palm of her hand. They aren’t even pills, but capsules. She giggles. For some reason, all she can think of is Doctor Mario.
She shuffles across the floor, treading as silently as she can. The vista outside glows back at her, tempts her to open the door.
She reaches for the handle. It’s solid cool metal. The thick double glazing is marked with more Chinese manufacturer’s symbols. Alice’s hand looks pale and waifish, ghostly, in the reflected glimmering of the rising sun on the damp trees outside. Thin scraps of mist hang raggedly on branches, have fluttered to rest in hollows among the trees. The sun, burning its way upwards in the sky, blasts them into obscurity.
Alice tugs at the handle. It’s locked, so she slips the catch and hauls again. Nothing happens. She pulls harder, and the door comes free and rushes open with joyous abandon.
Cold air sweeps past her into the room, ruffles the thick sheets the other few are curled under. A few murmurs of protest drift upward, fighting vainly before getting lost in the sudden breeze, blown away. Alice doesn’t know who objected.
She steps out of the hut and slides the door shut behind her. The concrete of the small porch is cool beneath her bare feet. She can feel every uneven contour, every crack and grain of rock or sand. An ant tickles its way over her big toe.
There’s barely any sound on the air. A faint rumble from somewhere, a rhythmic knocking from anotherwhere. She pokes her tongue through her tooth in mischievous joy at the thought. Shakespeare!
She inhales. The air smells damp and musty, full of growing and life. Things are living here.
She skips off the porch and onto the grass, dry at the tips, pockets of damp still hidden in its depths. The blades stab pleasantly at her feet, break beneath her stride. A tickling trembles up her leg.
An ant clings to her skin with its jaws, hangs on grim and red, legs dangling free. She bats it away. It leaves an angry red welt on the milky skin of her thigh, exposed by the shorts she’s been sleeping in. It stings, forms an upset lump. She brushes a hand over and itches it automatically. Then needs to. She claws at the inside of her thigh till her fingers become wet. She takes them away from her leg and sees the red, bloody streaks she’s made. Tattoos streaking down her unmarred skin. Blood creeping up her hands.
Alice snatches her hand away and takes a deep breath. Focuses herself.
She rotates to stand facing the sun. Spreads her feet to the width of her shoulders. Plants herself squarely in the grass, feels herself settle.
She drags a long inhale of the wondrous, susurrating air. Her hands come up to her breastbone, hold at her collar. Then she releases, drops her hands, returns the air.
Begins to loosen muscles and circle joints. Breathes. Stretches upwards. Breathes. Strains outward. Breathes. Balances and twists. Breathes.
She progresses through the poses and positions with the fluid ease of practice. Flows from one to the next to the next, forms shaped from her body before melting into another.
The knocking noise has stopped. She doesn’t notice. She doesn’t taste the air as she pulls it in her mouth, doesn’t feel the tingle of smoke and sap on her tongue.
Her eyes are closed. She sits, focusing on her breathing.
A frown crosses her face. She can never quite manage it. Her mind flits with thoughts, darts from one superfluity to another.
No. Breathing. Tired and confused and scared.
Lost and forgotten.
Here. At the Shinganga lodge.
She’d been brought here.
She opens her eyes. A man is standing, one foot raised in hesitation in front of him. Guilt suffuses his face.
He wears a flat blue overall with the lodge logo stitched onto the right breast. Boots, worn black leather with mismatched laces, are strapped to his feet. Two ends of a branch poke up from the long grass, disturbed, where he broke what they once were. A blade, something like a kukri or a machete but with a kink at one end, hangs limply from one hand.
He gawps at her momentarily, then tries to rearrange his face into placid nothingness. He doesn’t entirely succeed. A corner of his mouth twitches as he tries to force it shut. His eyes dance wildly, fixed on her but scrabbling madly for any other purchase. He has been caught watching her and he knows it.
Alice smiles at him. She breathes and calms and breathes and calms and he stands there silent all the while.
Hi, she says, still breathing. Still calming. Her friends are there, just the other side of the window. He isn’t holding the knife like he wants to use it or attack her yet.
I’m just doing some yoga, she explains, the arc of one hand describing her seated posture and her folded legs and her measured breaths.
You can join me if you like? She tries to widen her smile, although the effort is making her face ache.
He breaks, his head dropping to stare down at his feet.
No thank you, I can’t, the man mutters, I should get back to work.
Alice’s smile falters for a moment as he straightens again and turns around. He heads back over the grass, ducks behind a corner of the hut, and is gone.
Alice stands up. Peers after him, trying to see where he’s gone.
The rhythmic chopping sound starts again. Now that Alice is listening, it sounds like more of a swishing, in the double time of a heartbeat.
Coming to a decision, Alice scampers across the lawn, feels the grass and spots of bare earth cool against her soles, hisses as she lands on the concrete and the roughness sands at her feet, but doesn’t slow, darts up the path laid onto the grass. She wants to catch him, apologise, find out his name and where he’s from and who he is and try and say sorry for the awful, guilty, shamefaced look he had when she saw him. She can make it right.
She rounds another corner. The swishing is louder now. Another hut is beside her, identical to the one she was sleeping in.
Perhaps it is the one she was sleeping in. She follows the sound, frantic and arrhythmic. Palpitating.
He’s standing there, around the side of the hut. She sees him in a half-crouch, bent over a patch of grass, the knife or sword gripped in a hand. He swings it back and forth and back and forth, sweeping it over and over the surface of the lawn. The kink at the end trims the grass to a neat edge. He swings and swings and swings, inching forward in infinitesimal increments. It’ll take him hours to cut all the grass.
Hey, excuse me.
He stops. Stands there, staring at the line of grass where he’s been cutting. The sharp line between the neat, trimmed lawn and the untended, unkempt wilderness is stark, even if it’s only a few centimetres of length. The rich, velvety green lawn has been cut away to reveal patches of starved brown, scorched and malnourished. The shorn grass is spotted with deadness.
Look, I’m sorry, Alice stammers, rocking onto her heels. This was a bad idea.
The gardener keeps his head down, keeps his face blank.
I, I just wanted to apologise for, Alice tries. Then stops. What is she apologising for?
The gardener looks up at her. No problem, madam. He smiles at her with his mouth.
I was just doing some yoga, Alice explains. It’s exercise, like stretching or running or something, I do it every morning to keep fit and relax and, it’s just a kind of sport really.
It’s a sport? He asks, a flicker of interest cracking the blank face. But you weren’t running.
Well, it’s not a sport like football, Alice hesitates, before ploughing onward, But it’s really good for you, helps you stay flexible and relax. I could teach you some stuff, if you like.
He laughs at that, the employee’s mask finally tossed away to reveal a broad, warm grin. His eyes wander downwards from Alice’s face. Meander over her exposed collarbone, short pyjama shorts.
Alice’s arms twitch as she fights a sudden, overwhelming urge to cover herself. She shivers, although it’s comfortable in the open with the sun beaming down.
Thank you, madam, but I have work to do. He gestures at the expanse of lawn before him.
You’re cutting the grass? She asks, looking at the implement in his hand.
Yes, I am doing the slashing, he gestures at the sword. I am one of the gardeners here, he says to her face, his eyes making contact with hers. Bright in the morning sun, fierce and daring.
Wow, just with the… Alice tails off, making the statement into a question. She gestures towards the implement in his hand.
The slasher? You haven’t seen someone using one before? He sounds amused.
No, I haven’t, she apologises again. I only arrived here a few days ago, and we’ve spent all our time in the city ‘til now.
Ah, so I have something I can teach you, as well, he says.
Alice smiles but says nothing, thinks. Then speaks.
Look, are you… can I come back and talk to you while you do the slashing? And maybe you can teach me how to do it?
He nods. Yes, I’ll be here for some time.
Alice nods and darts away. Back up the path, across the grass, bare feet skidding on the concrete. She flashes past a window, and another, glancing in to check if she should be in there instead.
The vista. It opens up before her and she sees the forest, the hills, rolling into the distance, untouched and familiar. She turns around and sees her hut, sees one of her friends moving about with the drowsy sluggishness of the freshly awake.
The sliding glass door is locked, refusing to open when she tugs on it. She taps the glass, waves at the startled, hair whipping head turn inside. Daisy plods over to the door and flips the catch.
What have you been up to? She mumbles as Alice slides the door open and steps inside. The room feels stuffy and close after being outside. She hesitates for a heartbeat before closing the door behind her.
I woke up early and went to do some yoga out on the grass, Alice answers. It was good. Relaxing.
Dressed like that? Daisy casts a disparaging look over Alice’s exposed stretch of leg.
A deep, heated red spreads across Alice’s face. She feels the warmth of her blush radiating outwards.
Alice doesn’t reply. She brushes past Daisy, one hand trying to hide her face.
Someone spot you, then? Daisy giggles, sounding unexpectedly girlish. You got an admirer? Babe, you’re turning out to be much more up for it than I thought you would be.
No, snaps Alice, crouching on the floor, rummaging through her small rucksack. Things fly through the air as she tosses them aside.
There, the spare pants she packed before they got on the bus. Then she puts one arm under the bed, draws out the neatly folded bundle of clothes she wore yesterday.
She undresses and dresses again without speaking to Daisy or any of the other girls, all murmuring or snoring in restless harmony. So much disruption.
Her dressing is perfunctory, functional. She’s done in an instant, loose patterned cotton trousers and a baggy t-shirt thrown on before she can smell them. She runs her hand through her short hair, spreads the grease a little. Eases her feet into her flip-flops and patters towards the door.
What’s going on? You OK? asks Daisy. She hasn’t moved from where Alice rushed past her, just rotated in place to watch her preparations.
Her arms hang loose by her sides until Alice tries to go past again and make it out of the door. Then she raises one, grips Alice by the upper arm, around her bicep. Her fingers are firm, the skin rough and worn, the tips hard, callused nubs. She grips, but not hard enough to hurt. Barely hard enough to turn Alice’s pale skin red.
Look at me. You OK? Daisy repeats, gazing at Alice.
Alice flips her head nonchalantly. Yeah, I’m fine. I’m just in a rush because I said I’d meet someone and I don’t want him to think I’m being rude or something.
Yeah, I was out doing some yoga and one of the gardeners was watching me and I said I’d teach him, but I had to get changed first and- yeah.
Daisy takes a deep breath.
As long as you know what you’re doing, she says, still looking at Alice. Take your phone, though, we’ll probably be heading over to the kitchen for breakfast in a bit. Some of these bitches get hangry in the mornings.
Alice nods. Daisy lets her go, and she skitters as elegantly as she can back to the bedside table, pulls her phone out of the tangle of charging cables and stows it in a pocket.
Don’t worry, I’ll let you know what I’m up to, she beams back at Daisy as she skips out of the door.
Back out across the grass, shoes slapping against her feet as she rounds corners of the concrete paths. The air feels just as good a second time, rich and full and warm.
She drinks it in, stops to stand for a moment there in the sunlight, arms outstretched. It bathes her. The air soothes her, a cool breeze washing over her, ruffling her hair. It carries scents and smells, animal and wild. Alien. Alive.
Alice opens her eyes and starts walking again. The swishing noise again drifts intermittently towards her, a ragged morse code steering her to her destination.
She rounds a corner. He’s there, moved forward a few metres. Still slashing away at the ground, blades of grass toppling helpless at his feet. Silent corpses lying on a battle-scarred field.
Hey, she says, bright as the sun flashing on his blade.
The gardener stops, looks up. He squints, sees who it is, smiles a broad, honest smile. Hello again, madam. You have come back to learn how to do the slashing?
Alice grins, impish. Yes, I have. And you still want to learn yoga?
He looks abashed. Only if you teach me.
Sorry, I never asked your name. Alice steps forward, hand outstretched. I’m Alice.
Gift, he replies, taking her hand firmly and giving it a short shake. That is a nice name, Alice. Is it from the bible? He keeps hold of her hand.
I don’t think so? Alice answers, scrunching her face up in a frown. Maybe? I think my parents just liked it?
Ah, I see, Gift says, releasing her hand. His palm was cool and dry, his hand covered with patches of rough, worn skin. And where are you from, Alice? He is still rolling the name around his mouth, tasting it, wondering at its nature.
I’m from the UK, she says. A small town near London, she adds without prompting, practice giving her the next question before it’s asked.
Ah, I see. Me, I am from here. Gift waves his free arm expansively around the view. As you can see. He gestures towards his arm and smiles shyly up at Alice.
Oh? Alice is confused. Gift continues to grin at her. The silence stretches on.
Then Alice realises he’s talking about his skin and bursts out laughing. It’s a good laugh, a deep one, rumbling up from her belly and shaking her shoulders. She wants to stop, thinks she should stop or shouldn’t have started in the first place, but she can’t.
Gift’s hesitant half-smile blossoms into a full grin again. Although, my cousins say I meet so many whites working here, I’m turning white myself.
Alice is still laughing, giggling now, but Gift sparks her off again. She laughs and laughs and she feels sick, but she still laughs anyway, gasps for breath, stops, heaving and red.
Gift watches her until she’s finished.
Are you OK? He asks.
Yeah, gasps Alice, I think I’ll be fine.
No, no I’ll be fine, it’s OK. Alice takes a deep breath and stands straight.
That was sarcasm?
Kind of, yeah. Understatement, maybe? Why? Alice has completely stopped laughing now.
Because I am good at sarcasm, beams Gift. I learned how to do it from some of the guests here.
They say things they don’t mean sometimes, and they’re jokes, even if they sound nasty, Gift explains.
And you don’t have sarcasm?
No, Gift frowns. Here if someone is sarcastic it means they’re rude.
Really? A smile twitches at the edge of Alice’s mouth. So if I said, like, I really didn’t want to learn how to slash from you because I don’t want to learn anything about the culture here and I want to go home because I hate it here, you’d think I was being serious?
No I wouldn’t, Madam Alice, Gift begins, Because I understand British sarcasm.
Alice has to smile at that, the joke and the genuine pride.
So anyway, Alice says, slashing?
Yes, Gift nods, hefting the implement in his hand. You grasp the slasher by the handle in one hand and swing it like this.
He describes a wide, sweeping, flat arc over the grass, flicking his wrist and his forearm to swipe the length of metal above the lawn. The flattened end lops grass in a neat line. The severed stalks fall and are lost among what remains.
You want me to show you again? Gift asks, looking up.
Please, Alice says.
He slashes again, and again. Alice watches him, notes the flicking wrist. The whip of the elbow.
You want to try now? Gift asks, stopping again.
Yeah, I’ll give it a go, Alice says.
She holds out her hand and takes the slasher from Gift. She grasps the plastic handle at the end. It’s heavy, much heavier than he made it look when he was swishing it around over the lawn. She looks at Gift and sees a thin sheen of sweat coating his face, glimmering in the morning sunlight.
He hands it over and she takes the full weight of the thing. It almost rips itself from her grip, heavy and ungainly and unbalanced, but she wrenches her wrist upwards and holds it out. In front of her, like she saw Gift do. Points it at the ground, lines the flattened end so that it’s parallel to the ground.
She tries to lift it with her wrist and ends up hauling it above her with her shoulder, pulling it high and swinging it down like an executioner’s axe. A big, powerful sweep, the bladed point thrumming towards the ground.
Into the ground.
The slasher is torn out of her hand as it hits the earth and comes to a sudden stop. Alice spins in place, hand ringing from the impact. The blade sticks out of the ground, oscillating with spent force, a faded Excalibur.
Gift looks uncertain whether to laugh or cry. Laugh at the foolish girl who can’t even slash properly. Cry at the divot in his beautiful lawn.
That was too much, he equivocates. You only need a little bit.
Alice looks at the slasher, rubs her palm. Sorry, Gift. I thought I could do it.
Just watch me another couple of times, he replies. Remember to take it easy, it is just grass that we are cutting, yes?
Alice watches again. Rubs her hand. Pays careful attention as she was told to do. Smells the freshly cut grass and the morning dew and the scent of the trees, not far away. There’s just a hint of something else on the air, maybe bacon.
Something glints before the relentless slasher. Tings as it bounces off the blade.
It comes to rest in the carpet of the lawn. It’s a coin.
Alice bends down to pick it up. It’s local, large enough that it’s worth keeping. It’s slightly wet in her hand.
Hey, Gift, you want this? She says, holding her hand out to him. Because if not, I’m going to keep it as a souvenir.
No, Madam Alice, you shouldn’t do that, Gift says, turning to look her full in the face. His hand twitches at his side.
Oh, I should give it to someone else? Are there kids here?
No, you should put it back, says Gift, slowly. It could be cursed.
Cursed? Gift’s expression is the only thing that stops Alice from bursting into laughter. This coin?
Yes, it might have a money curse on it, Gift says.
It’s part of witchcraft, Gift says, explaining as if to a child. The things you come to this lodge to see are not real witchcraft, but the bush magic, out there by the witchdoctors, they can curse you.
I don’t understand. Alice still clasps the coin in her fingers. It is light, warm from her body.
Real witchcraft is powerful, Madam Alice. You know that witchcraft is illegal? But they have never caught a witch, because one got locked up and walked through the wall of the prison and cursed all the guards. And they don’t try to catch them now.
So witchcraft’s illegal? Alice asks. How is this lodge allowed then?
Gift bats his hand dismissively. Because it is not real witchcraft, it is just some men dancing for the tourists. But real witchcraft, people can become very rich.
Gift is speaking fast now, the words rushing out of his mouth. His accent becomes thicker and Alice strains to understand him. In the village, there was a man who owned a shop, a very good and very big shop, and he brought in things from the city and everyone came to his shop. His shop grew and he became very rich, and then last year he died in the night, all of a sudden, with no illness or anything. And he was only twenty-two. So you see, many people suspect that he made a deal with a witchdoctor to gain much money and it was part of it that he only had few years to enjoy it before the witchdoctor could take him back.
And what do you think happened? Alice interjects.
I don’t know what happened, Gift says, pausing. But if that has all happened, then maybe yes.
What about the, what did you call it, money curse?
You can make a deal with a witchdoctor and it will affect you, Gift continues, teaching. But some bad people, they will try to curse you with money. If you show greed and take the money, you will have the curse and bad things will happen to you.
Like bad luck or illness or something?
Like those, yes, but who knows? Better to leave it.
Alice crouches and lays the coin back on the grass. It settles there. Sits pretty and shiny and new. Resting on the manicured lawn.
Alice feels her phone buzz in her pocket.
Do you want to try slashing again? Gift offers her the handle of the slasher.
Um, Alice haws, whips her phone out, swipes a finger across the screen. Sorry, Gift, I’ve got to go, my friends are all going to the restaurant for breakfast.
Ah, OK, Gift says. His eyes are fixed on her face again, avoiding her hands. You will come back later and teach me your sport?
Of course. And I’ll try and do better at the slashing, I’m sorry again about the lawn.
She follows the smell of bacon across pathways, through clustered huts. More buildings. They press in again, block her view. She can’t see the forest. They crowd round her, grey concrete suffusing her vision.
The main buildings shelter from the sun under a circle of trees, arrayed around another garden. This one has sprinklers strewn across it, spraying jets of water into the sky. They are jewel bright, waterfalling diamonds, then they crash into the earth and are no more.
Alice walks around it. The grass here has none of the scorched patches that she saw with Gift. It is short and even and green and perfect.
The smell of cooking is stronger here. Frying or fried bacon is on the air. Grease and bread pervade the small clearing.
He’s right, you know. Real witchcraft is powerful.
Alice spins. Nothing there. The clack-clack-clack of the sprinklers is all that splits the still air.
A breeze ruffles branches around her. The clearing exhales.
A patch, dark and light above her. The branch falls back into place. It is gone.
Then a horny, crabbed hand, knuckles and tendons straining against wrinkled, leathery skin. Fingers that look as if they will shear from the effort of movement. It shoots from the canopy and pulls the branch back again.
Really? Another talking animal? Alice is so surprised, she forgets to be scared.
The monkey looks offended. Inasmuch as it can.
How, who’ve you met already? It snips at Alice.
Um, a crocodile and a rhino. Although the crocodile was in a dream, so I dunno.
Ah, they’re both show-offy forms, laughs the monkey. Full of themselves with their grandeur and portents. As if they don’t shit grass like the rest of us.
I see, Alice says. If you don’t mind me asking, why are you here? And talking? What’s going on?
You’ll find out soon enough, sighed the monkey, peering out from the branches. Its face was half-shadowed by the shifting canopy, fluttering across in the changing wind. For now, I just wanted to come have a look. See what all the commotion was about.
Oh really? Alice glares. Do I measure up to expectation?
Not my place to say, really. There are some pretty large expectations floating around.
Do you British say toodle-pip? Well, toodle-pip.
The branch snaps back into place and there is no sound except the clacking of the sprinklers and the sighing wind in the trees.
Alice stands. Stares. Then she walks over to the tree, grasps the branch, hauls it aside. There is nothing there. An empty cavity.
She closes her eyes. Opens them again.
Still nothing there.
She looks over to the kitchen. Someone is standing there, waving at her.
Without turning around, she walks over to join them.
Thank goodness, I thought you hadn’t got my message. You coming in from breakfast?
Alice shakes her head.
Oh man, maybe something we ate on the bus yesterday? Well, I’ve got some Immodium in my bag if you want some, if it’s like that?
Alice shakes her head again. Sudden nausea roils up, again. A flash of heat passes across her forehead.
She tastes metal on the back of her tongue.
Vomit spills from her mouth. She is forced onto her knees by clawing clenches in her guts. There is nothing left, nothing that she can expel. She heaves. Empty.
Strings of thick bile dribble from her lips at the end of another herculean wrench.
The sprinklers clacker to themselves. A spray of water spatters onto her vomit and the acid is washed away into the soil.
Part 4 is here.