It was one of those sultry days which are almost timeless and everlasting. The minutes dragged their lackluster seconds across the dreary surface of the morning, suspending moments in somber anticipation of that final, final goodbye.
The urn rested on the little table in front of the pulpit. It only arrived that morning by special flight. The pilot just touched down and handed the urn to a ranger and flew off again; saying something about picking up another passenger; but we knew he couldn’t wait to get rid of his cargo. Wallace used to be such a mischievous menace on those small airplanes and we knew the pilot didn’t want to spend môre time with him than necessary.
The doctor in Dar said his death was from “Natural causes”, but couldn’t say why. Wallace had some personal business to attent to and was due to spend a single night in the Holiday Inn. Someone said he was seen at the bar, chatting to a blonde lady, but that is Wallace for you. Give him a bar, a blonde and a glass of brandy and you get the best stories you ever will hear. Anyway, the next morning they found him dead in bed, no apparent reason, but definitely n foul play.
The night before the service had been quite hectic, of course. Then the time sped by in a blur of drunken faces, each telling and retelling the story of Wallace Wilberforce, ranger extraordinaire. A favorite was his encounter, so many years ago, when he –as a rookie ranger – stared down an elephant bull in season. The amount of lives saved by that heroic deed had multiplied over the years; but that didn’t matter, because it still required an awful amount of guts to just stand there, waiting for the elephant to trample him to death. A trembling Japanese tourist had videotaped the event and the footage was due to be shown that afternoon at the funeral.
Not that the grainy, shaky video was new to anybody in the little chapel at all. Once a year, usually at his birthday party, Wallace would pretend his annoyance when the video was put on and everybody waited for the moment when the elephant – with flaying ears and trunk up high – stops mere inches away from Wallace, who stands with his right hand raised, like a traffic cop at an intersection. There is a cloud of dry dust raised by the charge; the trumpeting trunk held – first majestically but later almost uncertainly – stretched outward and upward; and the right front foot of the bull raised to take the final step to crush the young man in front of him.
For some reason the charge had stopped right there. The scene remains like that for a few indeterminable moments and then the bull slowly puts his big foot down, hesitating and coming to a decision; before slowly, slowly taking a step backward. The trunk gets lowered to the ground and with a resounding snort; the bull turns around and ambles off into the bush. The highlight of the video lies in the fact that the tourist, at that moment, lowered the camera but continued taping. Inadvertently the scene then moves on, across the dry earth of the veld, to finally come to rest on the vehicle filled with frightened and agitated tourists. Some of them are pointing, one elderly lady has her hand to her mouth, and the man with the dog collar is fingering a rosary. In all, the images on the video seemed to fade as the years went by, but the story just grew and grew, creating the foundation of the legend Wallace had turned into over the years.
The little chapel was filled to capacity. The fellow rangers were all seated right in front of the little pulpit, everyone dressed immaculately in ironed khaki, their green epaulettes displayed on broad shoulders. There was no immediate family – nobody knew much about Wallace’s next of kin. Someone said that he spoke of a previous relationship once but that had been late one boozy night and nobody could remember any detail afterward. He never received any mail, was never interested in the outside world and never made any calls from the telephone on the reception desk. After a dusty day of driving the tourists around, he would sit next to the fire in the boma, sipping a lonely brandy until somebody else joined him. Then the smile would come out, the mood switched to jovial chat and the evening would fly by in a procession of anecdotes and stories.
He was great with stories, Wallace was. He could draw his audience into his imagination, creating landscapes, animals, events and adventures that enthralled and fascinated the minds around the late-night fire. He made the three-legged lion stalk prey in the flickering light of the flames; an enraged rhino charged unsuspecting listeners and the lurking crocodile became alive again as it lay in wait for the child playing in the shallow pool. He didn’t tell stories, really; he made you live them. He drew you into his telling, made you see the pictures of his words and feel the blessed relief of a narrow escape. There, next to the dying embers of the fire, he transported his listeners into the boundless theatre inside his head, made you generate emotion and hope, despair and fear; caused you to laugh or shudder. He was a past master in putting you right at the center of the stage of the drama he was relating. You could smell the first rain of the season when he spoke of it, feel the drops on your skin, made you shiver as the droplets ran down your back.
Behind the rangers the admin staff of the lodge sat sniffing into their tissues. Some of the ladies had hoped, over the years, that they might be drawn into his own story but somehow none of their imaginations had been vast enough to harness his dreamy world of stories and make-believe. It was as if they never could be real enough to enter into his mind – maybe they were just too scared by what they saw in there, anyway. Maybe they just couldn’t compete. We once thought that a lovely Austrian blonde might make the grade, but she had a castle and a family in the Alps, so she went back, never to return. For some time Wallace didn’t sit at the fire at night and we missed his stories. When, after hat spell, he returned to the fireside, his stories changed somewhat. Before he told of adventures ending with happy, if somewhat surprising endings. You’d literally sit on the edge of your seat, shifting nearer, drawn deeper, until the narrative ended with you feeling drained, relieved and believing that the world wasn’t such a bad place after all. But, after Heidi (that had been her name) had gone back to her castle, the tone of his stories changed. Hyenas grabbed at sleeping figures and spiders got into sleeping bags. The boot always contained a scorpion in the mornings and a mamba made its sliding way across the rafters in your room.
In the last pew the kitchen staff sat, silently crying with shaking shoulders and heaving chests. How often he would sneak into the kitchen to take a bite here, a sip there. Always with a joke and a smile, and they’d forgive him and offer him some more. And then after he had gone patrolling the area, they’d find a fillet, a liver or the rump of some young and juicy antelope – always found in a snare, of course (or so he said), and not fit to use for guests (you never know if the poachers used some poison as well – or so he said) – but guaranteed to feed a family for a few days.
But we never imagined his stories would become as real as it did in the end.
As the priest opened the book on the pulpit to start the service, there was a movement, a disturbance at the back of the chapel. Heads turned and in walked Heidi, dressed in a light summer dress, her hat at an angle and some flowers in her hair. She was smiling radiantly and had a spring in her step as she walked up to the pulpit. If you didn’t know it was a funeral, you’d swear she was dressed for a ..wedding?
“I’ve come to take Wallace home, Father.” She said it with happy confidence as she turned to the audience. “I know you have all come to grieve and say goodbye to dear Wallace, but I have come to say hello. I so wished I could have come earlier, but that was impossible. But now I’m here, and now the impossible has become possible.
“So, if you don’t mind, I’ll take the urn and you can go on with your service. Thank you so much!” And with a wave, a flurry of the light dress and a smile, she walked out of the chapel into the sunset.
Of course we were all stunned. For a full, slow, minute everybody just sat there, trying to make sense of the events. Then the one ranger got up and walked back to the door. We could see him looking this way and that, eventually turning around with a puzzled frown. Heidi, it seemed, simply was nowhere to be found.
Only later did we learn that the pilot was in such a hurry to take off again that morning because he was constantly aware of someone giggling in the back of his airplane, even though his only passenger was safely sealed in his urn. Speaking of which: we never found the urn, either.
Oh, yes, and Heidi? She was killed in an accident in the Alps six months earlier. Or the authorities think she was killed. Apparently she fell from some height and disappeared into a deep crevasse. Nobody actually saw the accident. Her footprints in the snow ended with a skid mark over the edge of the cliff, leaving her scarf and mittens as clue to who the victim was.. Strangely, her body, too, was never found.
What killed Wallace? Well, to tell the truth, we’re not so sure he’s dead. It’s nice to think that he simply vanished into his imagination, and the he is living a dream of his own. Maybe the story of his death represents the climax of his ability to make you believe everything he says is true – and nothing more. But let me tell you – the day an ageing ranger walks into the bar with a magnificent blonde at his side, I’ll be the first to offer a drink. In the skeptical, cynical, unbelieving world we live in, it is the exceptional story that grabs the imagination.
Oh: Wallace, if you read this, please let me know how you did it? And what happened to the life insurance money Heidi’s lawyer had forwarded to that Holiday Inn in Dar. How did you manage to cash that cheque? (I checked – it was deposited in Nairobi in the account of one Leo Smart. The money was withdrawn a day later…and the account closed, Clever, that.) It’s not that I want to write about it or anything like that; but you never know when such a story may come in very handy, indeed.
I’m still trying to figure out why Heidi collected the urn that morning. Were you afraid that we’d check and find only the ashes of your last camp fire? Or was it superstition – maybe you only wanted to be scattered over some lonely plain…once only? Or was it simply to give us a clue about how real your stories can be?
Whatever the reason, I tip my hat. The best stories, you always said, have no ending. A good story must supply just enough information for the the listener to create the last chapter.
You sure did that, Wally.