the official website for the writings of ralph robert moore
Always Again is Copyright © 1998 by Ralph Robert Moore. All Rights Reserved.
Return to fiction - novels
the birds wake up the monkeys
excerpt from the novel Always Again by ralph robert moore
The birds wake up the monkeys.
Trees that were motionless all night twitch now with branch jumpings. A fruit drops.
One lion lifts his head up out of the antelope long enough to see what made the noise.
The grass around the lions is turning slowly phosphorescent with the dawn. Dew forming on the spilled blood catches the light, and for a moment it looks again like a fresh kill.
The hyenas, having brought the antelope down, wait stiff-legged under the noisy trees for the lions who had chased them there to finish and leave.
There's a half-hearted effort by the lions to drag what's left of the antelope along with them, but their jaws are tired, their stomachs are full, and the big sun is already warm on their backs.
After the cats move off, the hyenas advance cautiously, tensing their legs each time a maned head looks back with a low rumble. The largest hyena, reaching the kill, dips down, touching the carcass with her front teeth, jerking her head up at once to peer again at the departing lions' slowly swinging tails.
Then she settles in.
He opens his eyes.
Her sleeping face is huddled next to his, eyes switching under their lids, brown furrowed. He blows gently at the smooth black cheeks, the swath of gray at each close-cropped temple.
Their eyes meet.
His stomach hurts more this morning than it did the night before. She helps him up out of the palm fronds. He rises unsteadily, wincing, not quite able to stand his full six and one half feet.
He limps across the small clearing to the nearest tree, his long erection wobbling ahead of him. Bracing one hand against the bark to steady himself, he squats down slightly and defecates.
Above him, monkeys leap about in the branches. Bits of twig drop down on his hair.
She passes to him the leaves she has plucked off a berry bush. He turns them over in his hands, checking for parasites. Brings them up to his nose to sniff their scent, clowning. She slaps his arm, but lightly. He wipes himself, dropping the used leaves on his stool.
She squats where he did. He hands her the remainder of the leaves.
He leans against the chattering tree while she checks the wound in his haunch. Her thumbs press along either side, prodding, until he throws his head back and makes a silent, white-toothed grimace.
Today there's discharge.
Using the side of her foot, she covers their piles with dirt. He distributes the fronds, sticking them back in the trees they had last night pulled them from. The last frond she uses as a broom, sweeping out every trace of their stay before replacing it.
Their eyes meet.
They listen for a moment, trying to pick up any sound which doesn't belong in the jungle.
They exchange a few hushed words.
He goes over to where the night before he had arranged a large water-filled leaf within a ring of rocks. There's a wide beetle floating on its back in it now. He plucks it out, splits it quickly in two lengthwise. One half is slightly larger than the other: he offers it to here, but with a shake of her head she points to the smaller half for herself.
They start out again into the jungle, she helping him to walk. Both know his wound is slowing them down dangerously.
When the messenger left they merely sat on the floor, stunned at what they had heard.
She started weeping.
He touched her forearm.
--So we flee.
They pulled off their clothes and strapped belts of food and weapons around their waists.
Outside, a tiny branch broke.
They hurried down the back field to the stone wall bordering their land. He motioned silently for her to jump up first, glancing back over his shoulder.
A warrior stood with his feet spread far apart at the rear of their home, looking down the field at them. His left hand held high Raffia brooms and feather bundles he had yanked from their doorway.
She jumped up onto the wall.
The warrior shook the talismans he clenched, yelping derisively. Birds flapped out of the vegetable garden between them.
She jumped off the wall onto the far side.
The warrior stood sideways to his target. He locked his left arm, raising it slowly as the tall man landed on top of the wall.
He sighted down the length of his arm, moving his hand horizontally until the middle fingernail was centered over the other's distant back.
The tall one bent his knees to leap off.
The warrior crooked back his right arm, bracing his feet in the dirt, then flung the long arrow forward.
It hit in the left buttock, pitching the tall man face forward off the wall onto the far side.
The warrior's face split into a toothy grin. His head bobbed up and down a few times.
He withdrew another long arrow from the supply bristling on his back.
He advanced slowly towards the wall.
His feet barely lifted off the wet grass so he wouldn't be caught off-balance. When his toes snagged in weeds or tuber tops he kept moving forward without looking down.
He mumbled prayers to himself for courage.
By design he reached the wall about ten feet to the left of where the man had fallen.
He poked his head up over he top, pulling it back down again as quickly as he could. Immediately he backpedaled in a crouch five feet further away. Waited.
He peeked again. Tendons stood out on his neck from the tension.
The tall man lay sprawled face down on the other side of the wall, fifteen feet away in a pile of leaves. The long arrow was still sticking up out of his buttock.
The warrior jumped up on the wall now; walked sideways along the top until he was directly behind the fallen man.
He stood still for a full minute, looking down at him.
Then his face broke into a wide grin as the tension left him. He sang a brief prayer of thanks under his breath, bobbing his head up and down.
He jumped forward off the wall.
It would not occur to him that the man might still be alive. All his experience and that of his tribe had been that a man would not just lie on the ground unmoving unless he were dead or dying. There was not much poison on the head of the long arrow, but enough to at least cause great pain. No one in his experience would deliberately leave such an arrow in himself, rather than pull it out and either try to hobble away or beg for mercy.
The poison used was a mixture of ground-up plant leaves and mud. It was kept in a pouch tied to the thigh, where the head could be quickly swirled around. He had this as he was running to the rear of the house with the arrow he had thrown. None of the other arrows he had, including the one in his hand, had any poison on them. The paste dried up and dropped off with the least handling. He and his tribe were very poor.
For the same reason of economy he didn't throw a second arrow. Since the man was already dead, it would be a waste unless thrown in sport to test his aim, which had been too low with the first one. He might have used a second arrow for this reason alone, but there was always the danger that the head would wedge itself between two bones, and require a lot of cutting to work it free.
He had no fear the woman might return to attack him. When their men were killed the women fled, if they could. In his tribe and in all the tribes he had traded with, only the men fought.
So as he jumped off the wall his only bad feeling was a slight dread at having to touch a corpse to strip it of any items of value.
In the disorienting moment when the warrior's feet first hit the ground, the man lying face down in the pile of leaves flung his outstretched hand around, flinging the rock concealed in it.
It was a bad throw. It hit the warrior in the shoulder, and bounce harmlessly off. But it confused him for the blink of an eye.
In that moment's confusion the woman sprang out of the bush to his left and knocked him over sideways, sprawling on top of him as they landed.
Immediately she crawled across his chest, using her knees to bear down the full weight of her body on the warrior's arms.
Instinctively the warrior knew the first thing he must do is get his arms free.
She stabbed him in his left eye. Putting the heel of her hand on the bottom of the knife, she pushed the iron blade all the way up through the socket into the brain.
She stayed on top of him until his convulsions stopped.
She pulled the knife out of his face and wiped it clean on his hair.
Grasping stones on the wall to keep from crying out, the man stared straight ahead while the woman dug at his buttock.
Once the arrowhead was out, she straddled his abscised and urinated on the wound. She forced it open with her fingers to get the urine inside.
Where her urine dripped down his leg to the ground, she made a paste out of the mud and dabbed it carefully over the wound.
Though like the poison on the arrowhead this paste too would quickly dry up and drop off.
Now there are more spaces between the trees. The jungle is thinning out.
Their bodies are slick from the heat and the running.
He stumbles again. She grabs at him to keep him on his feet, but his forearm slides out of her grasp.
As soon as he falls he pushes himself up off the ground, brushing tiny brown spiders from his chest.
They no longer have the hope there will be enough time, once they reach the river, to build a raft. And float away, living on fish, traveling night and day, without leaving a trace.
Their new hope is to at least cross the river and hide on the opposite bank.
They run at a trot now. Each stop to catch their breath takes longer.
Behind them, their pursuers move through the woods like fire.
The path they hoped would lead to the shore peters out at a watering hole. They splash across it. On the far side she drops to her knees and vomits from the exertion. She feels his strong hands under her armpits as he yanks her back to her feet.
They keep running. Behind them they hear the water erupt under the soles of dozens of pounding feet.
And then they burst into a clearing where cool air buffets their bodies.
For one wild moment his jaw drops with exhilaration. But then, spotting the river to his left, he realizes it's on a much lower level than where they're standing. Instead of arriving at the shore, they've ended up on a bluff overlooking it.
They turn to each other, trying to decide what to do next.
Yelps start up in the jungle behind them.
They hobble forward to the lip of the bluff and look over the edge. It's a straight drop of about fifty feet. No way to tell if the water down there is one foot deep or one hundred.
Their eyes meet.
He found her in Walata, where he had traveled after his own people had driven their cattle down the Blue Nile headwaters into the land of green mountains southeast of Lake Kivu.
She was shopping naked in the marketplace, as was the custom of the women there. She caught his eye and then ignored him, cupping melons up to her spangled ear and rapping them with her knuckles. He happily maneuvered among the merchants so he could appreciate not only the erectness of her spine, but also the plumpness of her buttocks.
He had her than night in her family's hut, while her parents chuckled on a nearby mat over a bubbling millet mixed with honey and milk. From what he knew of the people of Walata, he took their meal as a sign, and spoke later with the father.
After he bought her from her parents, they traveled together about Northwest Africa, selling the goods from one village o the inhabitants of the next; neither serious enough to strike the best bargain, so that some nights they slept under curved roofs, and some nights in the fields.
They were an odd pair.
Eventually he was granted, in an audience with the district ruler of the Songhai Empire, a commission as geographer-historian.
Thirty years ago.
He smiles at her, remembering this life.
--We were young, and we were in Timbuktu.
She lowers her head not to cry.
They do not kiss, because kissing is unknown to them. She reaches out and touches his hair.
He takes her hand in his.
A blast of wind turns them slightly sideways as they fall. They clutch tightly at each other, their faces grimacing with fear and the impact of the wind.
The rushing air burns his eyes, but he opens them long enough to see, past her, miles away in the distance, a small waterfall bubbling down onto a terraced shelf, this whole blue and green tableau rising rapidly past her shoulder. That's where they should stop tonight, he thinks.
He looks at her face. She's looking at him. Their eyes lock as their soles hit the water.
Eight warriors emerge into the clearing. Each has a white stripe painted across the forehead, and another down the bridge of the nose. All are shorter than the man and the woman.
The leader moves forward first, spear held horizontally in his hand, jerking it back and forth in the air so he can throw at an instant's notice.
He stalks slowly forward to the lip of the bluff, alternately crouching down and rising up on tip-toe, craning his neck. The other warriors behind him fan out, glancing nervously at each other.
At the edge of the cliff the leader peeks quickly over, then sticks his head out for a longer look, ready to pull back at any moment.
Fifty feet below, two massive pools of blood have merged on the surface of the muddied river, reflecting sunlight off its surface; both pools sliding in an eddy towards the far bank.
His face splits in a teeth baring grin. He raises his arm, pumping the spear up and down several times. The other men come over to look, laughing, nodding their heads, tapping the bottoms of their spears against the ground.
Then one by one, the leader first, they straggle back to the beginning of the jungle, flopping down in the shade to rest before starting the long walk back.
background on the excerpt
Always Again was my first novel.
Mary and I were living in California when the idea occurred to me, based on a conversation we had in bed one day about what we would do if something terrible happened to one of us, an idea I developed into a plot as we traveled by car across country a year or so later, to live in Maine.
After being in Portland three months, during the coldest part of Winter, both of us alone together 24 hours a day, talking, cooking, reading to each other, making love and listening to music, we realized with sadness we had to start getting back into the world, for money. Mary volunteered to find work first, so that between her salary and what we still had left in savings, I'd be able to stay home a few months and write the first draft of Always Again.
Prior to this novel I had only written a handful of short stories, so I was definitely nervous about walking across anything of this breadth. I thumb-tacked our back bedroom walls with dozens of sheets of typing paper on which I broke down the plot of Always Again into chapters, scenes, paragraphs.
Mary's first day on her new job I drove her there through the snow, got a coffee from the nearby McDonald's, then sat parked in her company's lot, looking in the rearview mirror at the doorway where she disappeared, then down at the blank, lined, yellow legal pad on my lap. For the next two hours, I kept thinking of the same vision, a veldt in Africa, but it was all pictures, no words. I started to fear I wasn't a writer after all, that the task was too big, and then, thinking about the wide African dawn for the hundredth time, the trees, the distances, the sky, the words at last arrived. The birds wake up the monkeys.
For the next four months, while Mary worked, I returned to our weird-angled apartment each morning after dropping her off, sitting in an armchair that came with the place, writing in longhand, coffee and cigarettes my only companions, creating fresh draft in the morning, rewriting it each afternoon after returning from lunch with Mary. At night, at the kitchen table, I'd read aloud what I had written. Sometimes we'd cry, holding hands across the table, at the more painful sections.
Always Again has never been published. I actually had an agent for it, someone who agreed to represent me and try to sell it, but the arrangement eventually fell through when I refused to compromise on the changes to the text she wanted me to make, changes which would have made Always Again less unique, less upsetting.
Because it was written in the early eighties, Always Again exists in hardcopy form only. Someday, one day, I'll retype it all onto the computer, go in and edit it, then try again to get it published. There's probably not a day goes by I don't remember a scene, a description, or a phrasing from it. And what it meant back then, to us.