He's the man from that Coke ad. He has a generous belly, and big gold medals. He is the President. He is seated in a deck chair, surveying the open plains in front of him with corpulent satisfaction. And I cannot persuade him.
Me, I am dumbfounded. Why on earth? Numb.
But he is insistent, smug.
He is going to plant alfalfa. All this wild wasteland will become agricultured, tamed, greened.
But these are the salt pans of Chibembe. These wide open plains, where you can walk for three days in one direction and you won't see another human being. Where lions lie in shallow bleached grass, their yellow eyes hooded as they laze. To the east, mopane forests, grey and scrubby. These are the salt pans of my youth. There is no more wilderness like this. You can't just -
"Yes," he joins his sausage fingers together over his stomach. Binoculars round his neck.
"It will be good. Can you see it? Green farmlands. I can feed my people."
But. Wait. This soil, its salty. Your crops won't grow. Rather build a lodge. I'm telling you - people would pay, they would come here, to be in the wilderness - such empty space, at night you can't even see an electric light. You could charge $1000 a night. Come on, you could charge $10 000!! You could feed your people with that.
He won't be persuaded.
I turn away from that precious horizon and look at him. He has a crew of militarised dancers, about to perform for him. They are suited and jacketed and about to do drum majorette style acrobatics in his honour.
I want to go walking, one last time, to find the lions before they are all shot.
Now it is night, and I have been walking so long here, I have merged into the memories of my childhood on these plains, looking for lion. Now I am lion. There's a spotlight, wiping the darkness away in big strokes. Sweeping the bush. I must be still. It will find me. They will find me. I must close my eyes or they will find me by my eyes. I turn away. My eyes have become huge, I take in all the distance, the bush and the scrub and the tiny movements of mice. I take in the man in his safari suit and medals and his tumbling crew of cameras.
Now I want a camera. I want to record this place, capture it on film. Go to the papers. Something. But I have no camera. No one has a camera for me. When I find a clutch of them, they are old, outdated, falling apart. No match for Mr Alfalfa man.
But in that same room where they show me the cameras, I notice a pile of clothes. Old, second hand clothes, once glamourous sexy clothes. There - that one on top, its my dress. That's my red dress. Its kind of soiled and shredded, but I recognise it. I pick it up, hold it. Put it back on the pile and watch as they are carted away, to be destroyed.
This dream, for me, is very clear. Its about wilderness, wildness and losing your wild spaces inside. Last night I had dinner with Billie, who has know me since high school, through university, through craziness and many wardrobes. We are laughing about those times, about parties under the stars and me with my black cowboy boots claiming Grahamstown streets. The late nights that she had to walk home alone because I was who knows where in my red dress or my cowboy boots. Throughout my twenties I always seemed to have a red dress in my wardrobe. I remember the soft flowing one I wore to lectures in the day. And another one I had, later, that fitted like skin, that always seemed to bring out a fire in me. She looks at me over her glass of wine, and with true Billie honesty says, "I prefer that Tamara to the one now." I know what she means. Tamed, domesticated me who worries about the dishes in the sink and the month end debits. It hurts to hear it, but I know what she means.
"Is she still there, somewhere?" asks Billie. And I think of the motorbike I sold, that I used to ride, at dawn, still drunk from the night before, shouting at mopane trees for jumping into the road. Running down to the river at dusk to watch the elephants cross. Taking the landrover out at 3 am to look for aardvark. Casually non-committal to all the boys who wanted a piece of it. Wild kisses under the moon. My collection of stories, the Red Dress, unshelved in some box somewhere.
I don't know.
I'm a nicer person. I don't break hearts any more. I don't drink tequila like I used to. Of course not. We have other things now. And what I've learned about love in the 15 years is so much more valuable to me. But the lions in the dream are about something else - the one inside who doesn't want to be nice. Hunted and threatened, by...by alfalfa!! By rolling green pastures.
A sense, when I woke up, that this is the trouble with where we are in the world. With land use policies. Environmental impact assessments. Biodiversity. Investment portfolios. We are losing our wild spaces faster than ice can melt, but we just don't really get it. And the reason, I think, is because we are not in touch with the wildness in our selves. The way a glimpse of a lion's yellow stare can fundamentally shift your chemistry.
We are being regulated out of existence. ID books and credit checks and driving licences and the way we gratefully hand over our freedoms because its for our own safety. CCV cameras and spyware.
But I know that wildness doesn't go away. That if its ignored and asked to be civilized and rapped on the knuckles and told to be seen not heard, it might go to sleep for a while, it might yawn and turn the other cheek. For a while.
But that's also when it subverts. Meekness turns into passive aggressive manipulation. Contentment masks boredom which masks a pacing snarl. The goddess will find her way out if you don't give it to her. She'll take it. I'd rather stumble on a lion in the bush than a lion that's been in a cage for ten years.
Sure we can deny our wildernesses, incarcerate our wild spaces, tame our flaming hearts. Sure we can. But isn't that when they become really deadly?
Your thoughts, o wild ones?
pics courtesy of Freya Reder.