An African Story by Roald Dahl
In East Africa there was a young man who was a hunter, who loved the plains and the valleys and the cool nights on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. In September 1939 war had begun in Europe and he had travelled over the country to Nairobi and was training to be a pilot with the RAF. He was doing quite well, but after five weeks he got into trouble because he took his plane up and flew off in the direction of Nakuru to look at the wild animals when he should have been practicing spins and turns. While he was flying there, he thought he saw some rare animals, became excited and flew down low to get a better view of them. He flew too low and damaged the wing, but he managed to get back to the airfield in Nairobi.
After six weeks, he was allowed to make his first cross-country flight on his own, and he flew off from Nairobi to a little town called Eldoret two thousand meters up in the Highlands. But again he was unlucky; this time he had engine failure on the way, due to water in the fuel tanks. He kept calm and made a beautiful forced landing without damaging his aircraft, not far from a little hut which stood alone on the highland plain with no other building in sight. That is lonely country up there.
He walked over to the hut, and there he found an old man, living alone, with only a small garden of sweet potatoes, some brown chickens and a black cow.
The old man was kind to him. He gave him food and milk and a place to sleep, and the pilot stayed with him for two days and two nights, until a rescue plane from Nairobi found his aircraft, landed beside it, found out what was wrong, went away and came back with clean petrol which enabled him to take off and return.
But during his stay, the old man, who was lonely and had seen no one for many months, was glad of his company and of the opportunity to talk. He talked a lot and the pilot listened. He talked of his lonely life, of the lions that came in the night and of the elephant that lived over the hill in the west, of the heat of the days and of the silence that came with the cold at midnight.
On the second night he talked about himself. He told a long, strange story, and as he told it, it seemed to the pilot that the old man was lifting a great weight off his shoulders by telling it. When he had finished, he said that he had never told that to anyone before, and that he would never tell it to anyone again, but the story was so strange that the pilot wrote it down as soon as he got back to Nairobi. He wrote it in his own words, although he had never written a story before. Of course he made mistakes because he didn’t know any of the tricks that writers use, but when he had finished writing he left a rare and powerful story. We found the story in his suitcase two weeks later when we were packing his things after he had been killed in training. The pilot seemed to have had no relatives and because he was my friend, I took the story and looked after it for him. This is what he wrote.
The old man came out of the door into the bright sunshine, and for a moment he leaned on his stick and looked around him. He stood with his head on one side, looking up, listening for the noise which he thought he had heard.
He was small and over seventy years old, although he looked nearer eighty-five because of illness. His face was covered with grey hair, and when he moved his mouth, he moved it only on one side of his face. On his head, indoors or outdoors, he wore a dirty white hat.
He stood quite still in the bright sunshine, his eyes almost closed, listening for the noise.
Yes, there it was again. He looked towards the small wooden hut which stood a hundred meters away in the field. This time there was no doubt about it; the cry of a dog, the high, sharp cry of pain which a dog gives when he is in great danger. Twice more it came and this time the noise was more like a scream. The note was higher and sharper, as if it were torn from some small place inside the body.
The old man turned and walked across the grass towards the wooden hut where Judson lived, pushed open the door and went in.
The small white dog was lying on the floor and Judson was standing over it, his legs apart, his black hair falling all over his long red face, sweating through his dirty white shirt. His mouth hung open in a strange lifeless way, as if his jaw were too heavy for him, and there was spit down the middle of his chin. He stood there looking at the small white dog which was lying on the floor, and with one hand he was slowly twisting his left ear; in the other hand he held a heavy wooden stick.
The old man ignored Judson and went down on his knees beside his dog and gently moved his thin hands over its body. The dog lay still, looking up at him with sad eyes. Judson did not move. He was watching the dog and the man.
Slowly, the old man got up, rising with difficulty, holding the top of his stick with both hands and pulling himself to his feet. He looked around the room. There were dirty bedclothes lying on the floor in the far corner; there was a wooden table made of old boxes, and on it a blue pot. There were chicken feathers and mud on the floor.
The old man saw what he wanted. It was a heavy iron bar standing against the wall near the bedding and he went over to it, thumping the hollow wooden floorboards with his stick as he went. The eyes of the dog followed his movements as he walked with difficulty across the room. The old man changed his stick to his left hand, took the iron bar in his right, came back to the dog and, without pausing, lifted the bar and brought it down hard upon the animal’s head. He threw the bar to the ground and looked up at Judson, who was standing there with his legs apart. He went right up to him and began to speak. He spoke very quietly and slowly, with a terrible anger, and as he spoke he moved only one side of his mouth.
‘You killed him,’ he said. ‘You broke his back.’
Then, as the tide of anger rose and gave him strength, he found more words. He looked up and spat them into the face of the tall Judson, who moved back towards the wall.
‘You dirty, cruel coward. That was my dog. What right have you got to beat my dog, tell me that. Answer me, you madman. Answer me.’
Judson was slowly rubbing his left hand up and down the front of his shirt and now the whole of his face began to tremble. Without looking up he said, ‘He wouldn’t stop licking that place on his leg. I couldn’t stand the noise it made. You know I can’t stand noises like that, licking, licking, licking. I told him to stop but he went on licking. I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I beat him.’
The old man did not say anything. For a moment it looked as if he were going to hit this creature. He half raised his arm, dropped it again, spat on the floor, turned round and went out of the door into the sunshine. He went across the grass to where a black cow was standing in the shade of a small tree. The cow was eating, moving its jaws regularly, mechanically, as it watched him walk across the grass from the hut. The old man came and stood beside it, stroking its neck. Then he leaned against its shoulder and scratched its back with the end of his stick. He stood there for a long time, leaning against the cow, scratching it with his stick, and now and then he spoke to it, whispering quiet little words, like one person telling a secret to another.
There was shade under the little tree, and the country around him looked rich and pleasant after the long rains, because the grass grows green up in the Highlands of Kenya, and at this time of the year, after the rains, it is as green and rich as any grass in the world. In the distance stood Mount Kenya with snow on its head, with a thin stream of what looked like white smoke coming from the top where the cold winds made a storm and blew the white powder from the top of the mountain. Down below, on the slopes of that mountain, there were lions and elephants, and sometimes during the night one could hear the roar of the lions as they looked at the moon.
The days passed and Judson went on with his work on the farm in a silent, mechanical way, taking in the corn, digging the potatoes and milking the black cow while the old man stayed indoors away from the fierce African sun. He only went out in the late afternoon when the air began to get cool and sharp, and then he always went over to his black cow and spent an hour with it under the tree. One day, when he came out, he found Judson standing beside the cow, looking at it strangely, standing with one foot in front of the other, gently twisting his ear with his right hand.
‘What is it now?’ said the old man.
‘The cow’s making that noise again.’
‘She’s just chewing the grass,’ said the old man. ‘Leave her alone.
Judson said, ‘It’s the noise. Can’t you hear it? It sounds as if she’s chewing stones, but she isn’t. Listen to her. The noise goes right into my head.’
‘Get out,’ said the old man. ‘Get out of my sight.’
At dawn the old man sat, as he always did, looking out of his window, watching Judson come across from his hut to milk the cow. He saw him coming sleepily across the field, talking to himself as he walked, dragging his feet, leaving long dark green marks across the wet grass, and carrying the petrol can which he used for the milk. The sun was coming up and making long shadows behind the man, the cow and the small tree. The old man saw Judson put the can down and he saw him fetch a box from beside the tree and settle himself on it, ready for the milking. He saw him suddenly kneeling down, feeling under the cow with his hands, and at the same time the old man noticed that the animal had no milk. He saw Judson get up and come walking fast towards the hut. He came and stood under the window where the old man was sitting, and looked up.
‘The cow’s got no milk,’ he said.
The old man leaned through the open window, placing both his hands on the sill. ‘You dirty thief! You’ve stolen it.’
‘I didn’t take it,’ said Judson. ‘I’ve been asleep.’
‘You stole it.’ The old man was leaning further out of the window, speaking quietly with one side of his mouth. ‘I’ll beat you for this,’ he said.
Judson said, ‘Someone stole it in the night. Perhaps it was a native. Or maybe the cow’s sick.’
It seemed to the old man that he was telling the truth. ‘We’ll see,’ he said, ‘if there’s any milk this evening; now, get out of my sight!’
By evening, the cow was full and the old man watched Judson take good thick milk from her.
The next morning she was empty. In the evening she was full. On the third morning she was empty again.
On the third night, the old man went to watch. As soon as it began to get dark, he positioned himself at the open window with an old gun lying on his lap, waiting for the thief who came and milked his cow in the night. At first it was dark and he could not even see the cow, but soon a three-quarter moon came over the hills and it became light, almost as if it were daytime. But it was bitterly cold because the Highlands are two thousand meters up, and the old man pulled his brown blanket closer around his shoulders. He could see the cow well now, just as well as in daylight, and the little tree threw a shadow across the grass, since the moon was behind it.
All through the night, the old man sat there watching the cow, and except when he got up and went back into the room to fetch another blanket, his eyes never left her. The cow stood calmly under the small tree, chewing and staring at the moon.
An hour before dawn she was full. The old man could see it; he had been watching it the whole time, and although he had not seen the movement of the swelling, all the time he had been conscious of the filling as the milk came down. The moon was now low, but the light had not gone. He could see the cow and the little tree and the greenness of the grass around the cow. Suddenly he moved his head quickly. He heard something. Surely that was a noise he heard? Yes, there it was again, right under the window where he was sitting. Quickly he pulled himself up and looked over the sill to the ground.
Then he saw it. A large black snake, a Mamba, nearly three meters long and as thick as a man’s arm, was sliding towards the cow. Its small head was raised slightly off the ground and the movement of its body against the wetness made a sound like gas escaping from a jet. He raised his gun to shoot. Almost at once he lowered it again – he didn’t know why – and he sat there not moving, watching the Mamba as it approached the cow, listening to the noise it made as it went, watching it come up close to the cow and waiting for it to strike.
But it did not strike. It lifted its head and for a moment let it move gently from side to side; then it raised the front part of its black body into the air under the cow and began to drink from her.
The cow did not move. There was no noise anywhere, and the body of the Mamba curved gracefully up from the ground and hung under the cow. The black snake and the black cow were clearly visible out there in the moonlight. For half an hour the old man watched the Mamba taking the milk of the cow. He saw the gentle movement of the snake’s body as it sucked at the liquid until at last there was no milk left. Then the Mamba lowered itself to the ground and slid back through the grass in the direction from which it had come. Again it made a soft noise as it went, and again it passed underneath the window where the old man was sitting, leaving a thin dark mark in the wet grass where it had gone. Then it disappeared behind the hut.
Slowly the moon went down behind the mountain in the distance. Almost at the same time the sun rose in the east and Judson came out of his hut with the petrol can in his hand, walking sleepily towards the cow, dragging his feet in the wet grass as he went. The old man watched him coming and waited. Judson bent down and felt the underneath of the cow, and as he did so, the old man shouted at him. Judson jumped at the sound of the old man’s voice.
‘It’s gone again,’ said the old man.
Judson said, ‘Yes, the cow’s empty.’
‘I think,’ said the old man slowly, ‘that it was a native boy. I was sleeping a bit and only woke up as he was leaving. I couldn’t shoot because the cow was in the way. I’ll wait for him tonight. I’ll get him tonight,’ he added.
Judson did not answer. He picked up his can and walked back to his hut.
That night the old man sat up again by the window, watching the cow. For him there was this time a certain pleasure in waiting for what he was going to see. He knew that he would see the Mamba again, but he wanted to be quite sure. And so, when the great black snake slid across the grass towards the cow an hour before sunrise, the old man leaned over the window sill and watched the movements of the Mamba as it approached the cow
He saw it wait for a moment under the animal’s stomach, letting its head move slowly backwards and forwards half a dozen times before it finally raised its body from the ground and started to drink the milk. He saw it drink for half an hour, until there was none left, and he saw it lower its body and slide smoothly back behind the hut from where it had come. And while he watched these things, the old man began laughing quietly with one side of his mouth.
Then the sun rose up behind the hills, and Judson came out of his hut with the petrol can in his hand, but this time he went straight to the window of the hut where the old man was sitting, wrapped up in his blankets.
‘What happened?’ said Judson.
The old man looked down at him from the window. ‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘Nothing happened. I fell asleep again and the native came and took the milk. Listen, Judson,’ he added, ‘we have to catch this boy, otherwise you won’t have enough milk. We’ve got to catch him. I can’t shoot because he’s too clever; the cow’s always in the way. You’ll have to get him.’
‘Me get him? How?’
The old man spoke very slowly. ‘I think,’ he said, ‘I think you must hide beside the cow. That is the only way you can catch him.’
Judson was scratching his head with his left hand.
‘Today you will dig a shallow hole beside the cow. If you lie in it and if I cover you over with cut grass, the thief won’t notice until he’s beside you.’
‘He may have a knife,’ Judson said.
‘No, he won’t have a knife. You take your stick. That’s all you’ll need.’
Judson said, ‘Yes, I’ll take my stick. When he comes, I’ll jump up and beat him with my stick.’ Then suddenly he seemed to remember something. ‘What about the noise the cow makes when she’s chewing?’ he said. ‘I couldn’t stand that noise all night.’ He began twisting at his left ear with his hand.
‘You’ll do as I tell you,’ said the old man.
That day Judson dug his hole beside the cow. The cow was tied to the tree so that she could not wander around the field. Then, as evening came and he was preparing to lie down in the hole for the night, the old man came to the door of the house and said, ‘Don’t do anything until early morning. He won’t come until the cow’s full. Come in here and wait; it’s warmer than your dirty little hut.’
Judson had never been invited into the old man’s house before. He followed him in, happy that he would not have to lie all night in the hole. There was a candle burning in the room. It was stuck in the neck of a beer bottle and the bottle was on the table.
‘Make some tea,’ said the old man. Judson did as he was told. The two of them sat down on a couple of wooden boxes and began to drink. The old man drank his tea hot and made loud sucking noises as he drank. Judson kept blowing on his tea, drinking cautiously and watching the old man over the top of his cup. The old man kept sucking at his tea until suddenly Judson said, ‘Stop.’ He said it quietly, and as he said it, the corners of his eyes and mouth began to tremble.
‘What?’ said the old man.
Judson said, ‘That noise, that sucking noise you’re making.’
The old man put down his cup and looked at the other quietly for a few moments. Then he said, ‘How many dogs have you killed, Judson?’
There was no answer.
‘I said how many? How many dogs? Judson!’ the old man shouted. Then quietly and very slowly, like someone to a child, he said, ‘In all your life, how many dogs have you killed?’
Judson said, ‘Why should I tell you?’ He did not look up.
‘I want to know, Judson.’ The old man was speaking very gently. ‘I’m getting interested in this, too. Let’s talk about it and make some plans for more fun.’
Judson looked up. A ball of spit rolled down his chin, hung for a moment in the air and fell to the floor.
‘I only kill them because of their noise.’
‘How often have you done it? I’d love to know how often.’
‘Lots of times long ago.’
‘How? Tell me how you used to do it. What way did you like best?’
‘Tell me, Judson. I’d love to know.’
‘I don’t see why I should tell you. It’s a secret.’
‘I won’t tell. I swear I won’t tell.’
‘Well, if you promise.’ Judson shifted his seat closer and spoke in a whisper. ‘Once I waited till one was sleeping, then I got a big stone and dropped it on his head.’
The old man got up and poured himself a cup of tea. ‘You didn’t kill mine like that.’
‘I didn’t have time. The noise of its tongue was so bad, the licking. I just had to do it quickly.’
‘You didn’t even kill him.’
‘I stopped the licking.’
The old man went over to the door and looked out. It was dark. The moon had not yet risen, but the night was clear and cold, with many stars. In the east there was a little paleness in the sky, and as he watched, the paleness grew and it changed into brightness. Slowly, the moon rose over the hills. The old man turned and said, ‘You’d better get ready. You never know. He might come early tonight.’
Judson got up and the two of them went outside. Judson lay down in the shallow hole beside the cow and the old man covered him with grass, so that only his hand showed above the ground. ‘I’ll be watching, too,’ he said, ‘from the window. If I give a shout, jump up and catch him.’
He went back to the hut, went upstairs, wrapped himself in blankets and took up his position by the window. It was early still. The moon was nearly full and it was rising. It shone on the snow on top of Mount Kenya.
After an hour, the old man shouted out of the window, ‘Are you still awake, Judson?’
‘Yes,’ he answered, ‘I’m awake.’
‘Don’t go to sleep,’ said the old man. ‘Whatever you do, don’t go to sleep.’
‘The cow’s making that noise all the time,’ said Judson.
‘Good, and I’ll shoot you if you get up now,’ said the old man. ‘You’ll shoot me?’
‘I said I’ll shoot you if you get up now.’
A gentle noise came from where Judson lay, a strange sound as if a child were trying not to cry, and in the middle of it, Judson’s voice. ‘I’ve got to move; please let me move. This chewing!’
‘If you get up,’ said the old man, ‘I’ll shoot you in the stomach.’ For another hour or so the crying continued, then quite suddenly it stopped.
Just before four o’clock, it began to get very cold and the old man shouted, ‘Are you cold out there, Judson? Are you cold?’
‘Yes,’ came the answer. ‘So cold. But I don’t mind because the cow’s not chewing any more. She’s asleep.’
The old man said, ‘What are you going to do with the thief when you catch him?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Will you kill him?’
A pause. ‘I don’t know. I’ll just grab him.’
‘I’ll watch,’ said the old man. ‘It should be fun.’ He was leaning out of the window with his arms resting on the sill. Then he heard the soft noise under the window, looked out and saw the black Mamba, sliding through the grass towards the cow, going fast and holding its head just a little above the ground as it went.
When the Mamba was five meters away, the old man shouted, ‘Here he comes, Judson; here he comes. Go and get him.’
Judson lifted his head quickly and looked up. As he did so he saw the Mamba and the Mamba saw him. There was a second, or perhaps two, when the snake stopped, pulled its head back and raised the front part of its body in the air. Then the stroke. Just a flash of black and a slight thump as it hit him in the chest. Judson screamed, a long high scream which did not rise or fall, but remained constant until gradually it faded into nothingness and there was silence. Now he was standing up, tearing open his shirt, feeling for the place in his chest, crying quietly and breathing hard with his mouth wide open. And the old man sat quietly at the open window, leaning forward and never taking his eyes away from the scene below.
Everything happens very quickly when one is bitten by a snake, by a black Mamba, and almost at once the poison began to work. He fell to the ground, where he lay on his back, rolling around on the grass. He no longer made any noise. It was all very quiet, as if a man of great strength were fighting with someone whom one could not see, and it was as if this invisible person were twisting him and not letting him get up, stretching his arms through the fork of his legs and pushing his knees up under his chin.
Then he began pulling up the grass with his hands and soon after that he lay on his back kicking gently with his legs. But he didn’t last very long. He gave a quick shake, twisted his back, then lay on the ground quite still, lying on his stomach with his right knee underneath his chest and his hands stretched out above his head.
Still the old man sat by the window, and even after it was all over, he stayed where he was and did not move. There was a movement in the shadow under the little tree and the Mamba came forward slowly towards the cow. It came forward a little, stopped, raised its head, waited, and slid forward again right under the stomach of the cow. It raised itself into the air and began to drink. The old man sat watching the Mamba taking the milk of the cow, and once again he saw the gentle movement of its body as it sucked out the liquid.
While the snake was still drinking, the old man got up and moved away from the window.
‘You can have his share,’ he said quietly. ‘We don’t mind you having his share,’ and as he spoke, he glanced back and saw again the black body of the Mamba curving upwards from the ground, joining the underneath of the cow.
‘Yes,’ he said again, ‘we don’t mind you having his share.’
– THE END –