Hunting words with my father

For Baba’s 70th

One morning I burst into my father’s study and I said
“when I grow up, I too want to hunt, I want to hunt
words, and giraffes, pictures, buffalos and books”

and he, holding a pen and a cup of tea said, little father,
to hunt words can be dangerous
but still, it is best to start
early
. He waved his blue bic-pen and his office turned

into Nyandarua forest. It was morning, the mist rising
from the earth like breath as rays from the sun fell hard
on the ground like sharp nails. Little father, do you see

him? – my father asked. “No” I said. Look again – the mist
is a mirror – do you see him?
And I looked again and
there was a Zulu warrior tall as the trees, spear in hand.

Shadow him, feign his movements, shadow him until
his movements are your movements. Running my feet
along the leaves I walked to where he was, crouched

like him so close to the earth, feet sinking deeper
into the earth as if in mud, turning and reading the wind
and fading into the mist till I became one with the forest.

For half a day we stayed like this – tired and hungry
I was ready for home. But my father said, I did not say
this was easy – you cannot hunt words on a full stomach
.

And just as soon as he spoke there was a roar so loud
and stomping so harsh that hot underground streams broke
open like a dozen or so water pipes sending hissing

steaming water high into the air. I turned to run
but the warrior stood his ground. As the roar and thunder
came closer, his hair braided and full of red ochre

turned into dread-locks so long that they seemed like
roots running from the earth. When the transfiguration
was complete, before me stood a Mau Mau fighter, spear

in one hand, home-made-gun in the other, eyes so red
that through the mist they looked like hot molten
cinders, the long dreadlocks a thousand thin

snakes in the wind, the leaves and grass and thorns
rushing past him. You must help him, don’t just stand
there, help him
– my father implored but just as soon

as I had closed my little hands into fists, the lion
appeared high up in the air, body stretched the whole
length as the Mau Mau fighter pulled the spear like

it was a long root from the earth. The lion, mid-air, tried
to stop, recoiled its talons to offer peace but it was too
late and it let out another roar as its chest crushed

into the spear, breast-plate giving way until the spear
had edged its way to the heart. Dying then dead
it continued its terrible arc and landed. I waved

and the picture stood still. My father came up to me
and asked, why have you stopped the hunt? I said
“but we killed it – I have what we came for.” I pointed

to where the Mau Mau warrior was pulling his spear
from the carcass but my father shook his head and said
you have done well but look closely – how can you

carry all that in a word? How can we carry that home?
It is too heavy. I laughed and said – “father, you help me.”
But he pointed to the ground, to a steady flow of a bright

thin red river furiously winding down from the grooves
of the spear to the earth. I too pointed unable to speak
– the beauty larger than my imagination. I was confused.

I had no words. Come, let us go home little father.
When you are of-age you shall find the words,
he said.
But always be careful – to hunt a word is to hunt a life.