IN LOVING STRANGLEHOLD by Brecht De Poortere

Harry is eating grilled tilapia when he hears a scream in the distance. He knows there’s trouble, but he decides to finish dinner first. He doesn’t want his guests to panic. 

There are only two of them tonight—a couple from New York. They sit at a table in the opposite corner of the open-air dining room. Recently married, shedloads of money; they could have afforded any honeymoon in the world. But they wanted to experience authentic Africa, so they ended up here, in the middle of the Kenyan bush. Within an hour of arriving they had complained about a gecko in their room and the tap water’s rusty colour. Harry told them the gecko was a biodegradable mosquito trap and that the lodge used recycled rainwater. “Is rain really brown in Africa?” the American had asked. Harry couldn’t tell whether he was joking. He hates tourists, but he needs them to survive. 

From the corner of his eye, Harry sees the couple frozen in their seats, cutlery mid-air. They look in his direction, expecting an explanation. But Harry continues to eat as if nothing happened. His fat, nail-bitten hands search the fish’s carcass for bits of meat he might have missed. He brings the morsels to his mouth and sucks the salt and oil off his stubby fingers with smacking noises. Then he grabs his grease-stained glass and downs the last of his beer. With the back of his hand, Harry wipes the foam from his moustache and reaches for a toothpick. 

Meanwhile, Innocent, the young servant with albinism, has shuffled up to Harry’s table. The harsh neon lights hanging from the corrugated iron roof deepen the scar on Innocent’s forehead where the witch hunter’s machete slashed him years ago. 

Harry will never forget that night. He was driving back from the brothel in Mbinguni, belting along to an old Joe Cocker tape, when something jumped out from the elephant grass and into the headlights. He stamped on the brakes and skidded several yards down the dirt road, raising a cloud of red dust that rolled over the car like a wave. Then a pale, blood-covered face appeared as the dust settled. Harry got out to help because he thought it was a white man. By the time he discovered his mistake, it was too late; he had seen into the terrified eyes of the boy. To leave him there would have been a death sentence: albino body parts are highly prized in this region of Africa. So Harry took the kid back to the safari lodge and offered him a job as a waiter. He dressed him in a butler uniform; the tourists were bound to find that amusing.  

Harry hears a gunshot in the distance followed by another scream. His gaze travels from Innocent’s scar to his eyes which, magnified through the thick lenses of his Coke-bottle glasses, shake more vigorously than usual. Innocent fumbles with his pale hands, shifts his weight back and forth. He opens and closes his mouth like a fish gasping for air. Harry knows what the boy wants to say but, instead of helping him, he watches him struggle with his awkwardness. 

After a few painful seconds, Innocent manages a barely perceptible croak, “Boss?”

With his tongue, Harry flicks the toothpick from one corner of his mouth to the other. “What is it?” he mutters. 

“Boss,” Innocent says in a low voice. “Those screams, Boss. Maybe it’s one of the twins?” 

Of course it’s one of the twins. But Harry doesn’t want to engage in a conversation about it right here and now. He can still feel the American couple stare at him from across the dining area, probing his face for hints. Moths flutter overhead, thumping against the dusty neon lights. 

“Get the torches and guns,” Harry whispers. “And meet me by the huts.” 

Innocent rushes off. Harry places the unused fork and knife across his plate to indicate that he has finished eating. He picks up a napkin and dabs his lips. Then he stands up, wets his fingers with saliva to adjust his combover, and grabs a cigarette from his shirt pocket. Shielding his mouth with a hand, Harry lights the cigarette, takes a deep drag and blows a puff of smoke upwards into the air. 

He turns towards the couple from New York and a gigantic smile appears across his face as he starts singing, “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.” 

The Americans’ eyebrows raise, their mouths morph into little o’s.  

Before they can ask any questions, Harry picks up his Breton hat and disappears into the night, “Aweem away, aweem away…”

When he reaches the huts, Innocent is waiting with the torches and guns. Mosi, one of the identical twins, is there too. Harry can tell it’s Mosi because of his torn A-Team t-shirt (Banji, his brother, wears a MacGyver one). So the screams must have been Banji, Harry concludes. Mosi’s bottom lip quivers and he doesn’t know what to do with his hands. Like nervous flies, they whiz through the air and land all over his body. 

“I’m sure he’s dead! Oh God, I’m sure he’s dead,” Mosi whimpers. “What do you say, Boss? Is Banji dead?” 

How the fuck should I know, Harry thinks and he wonders why he ever hired these twins. At the time, he was looking for an askari—a night guard. Word spread and, one day, two skinny teenagers reported at the gate. They had thin, elongated faces that seemed to consist only of huge ears and wobbly, protruding teeth. “I just need one of you,” Harry had said, but they insisted they both wanted the job. So Harry suggested they share it, working alternate days. The next evening, they both showed up for work, and every evening since. They shared the pay instead. Even then, Harry thought it was a bad deal because they were lazy as lions.

“So, it looks like Coca Cola lost tonight?” Harry jokes, trying to diffuse the tension. 

He refers to the game of checkers the twins play every evening with rusty old bottle caps. Mosi is Sprite, Banji is Coca Cola. Whoever loses, does the rounds to check for hippos that might have strayed too far. It’s rare for the animals to venture near human habitat, but Harry prefers not to take any chances with the crops he relies on to feed himself and the guests. So every day at sundown, the twin who loses the game heads off to the lake. He takes a gun, just in case, but his main weapon is a torch: shine a bright light into the eyes of a hippo, and the beast goes rushing back into the water. 

By the vacant expression on Innocent and Mosi’s faces, Harry gathers they are in no mood for jokes. 

“Alright,” he snorts, “let’s go look for Banji then.” And they start off in single file: Harry in the lead followed by Innocent and Mosi trailing at the back. 

The lake and the fields are under a mile away, about a ten-minute walk through grassland, flanked on either side by thicket. The ground is wet from days of rain and the men’s boots squelch in the mud. But it’s a beautiful, clear night. The Milky Way spans the sky like a plume of silver dust and the crickets scratch soothing melodies on their wings. 

The night reminds Harry of when he arrived in Mombasa all those years ago, carrying just one suitcase and a heartbreak. “I don’t know what it is with you, Harry,” Iris had said. “Either you’re incapable of love, or you’re afraid to show it.” Then she’d slammed the door of their one-bedroom flat in Liverpool and gone back to live with her parents. “Slag,” Harry had mumbled to himself—which had made him feel better for a while. But when he found himself piecing together a photograph of her he had torn up, he knew something had to change. So he took a job as a sailor on a cargo ship, travelled half the world, and eventually set foot in Mombasa, where love was easy, and cheap, to find. He took out a loan, bought a crumbling safari lodge near Mount Kenya, fixed it up, and then he was trapped—relying on fickle tourists to pay off his debts. Still, under the boundless heavens, Harry found some respite. Though the empty feeling never left. 

A faint sobbing behind Harry brings him back to earth. It’s Mosi worrying about his brother. 

“Oh please, God, please let Banji be OK …” 

The moaning is relentless and gradually grows in volume until it can no longer be ignored. Harry can’t even hear the crickets anymore. Fuckin’ ‘ell, he thinks, as if my night wasn’t bad enough

It’s Friday evening and this should have been Harry’s night off. After dinner, he normally leaves Innocent in charge of the guest house and drives the Defender down to the brothel in Mbinguni. He has a couple of beers and ogles the girls sitting in a corner. Perched on burgundy ottomans, they look miserable and bored. A disco ball scatters rainbow colours around the room and cheap speakers tremble to the sound of Congolese soukous. When Harry’s had enough to drink, he picks one of the girls and takes her up to a room. It’s always the same scenario. He unzips and orders the girl to suck his balls while he jerks off. He cums on her face and loves the sight of his semen on her skin. Then he feels a little guilty when he wonders why she’s doing this and whether he would lick an old man’s balls to pay for medicine or a bag of rice to feed some hungry siblings. Avoiding eye contact, Harry slips the girl her fee and some extra. Then he gets out the Dettol to disinfect his scrotum as he tries to convince himself that it’s just life and that she needs this as much as he does.

“Oh God,” Mosi cries. “I just hope he isn’t dead! Please, let Banji be alive. Please!” 

Harry would like to turn round and tell Mosi to shut it. How are they supposed to listen out for signs of Banji with all that whining going on? But Harry grinds his teeth and marches on. What would be the point of telling Mosi off, if they might soon find his brother mauled to death? Since the screams and the gunshot it’s been ominously quiet. Besides, Harry’s started to worry a little himself. Not so much about Banji—at least, he doesn’t think so—but about what would happen if the American tourists found out. This place, the people, Harry complains about it all. But could he live without them? 

“I know,” Mosi exclaims. “I know. It’s the evil spirits that got Banji! It’s him, Boss,” he shouts, running towards Innocent and shaking a finger at him. “It’s his fault! I should have known that working with a zeru was going to bring bad luck!” 

Harry stops to face Mosi, who spits out a big gob of mucus that hits the ground like a poisoned dart. Harry has no idea what a zeru is, but it’s clearly not a nice word, since Innocent has bounced forwards and is cowering at his side. The boy breathes hard and his eyes wiggle and wobble like those googly eyes kids use in crafts.

“A zeru?” Harry asks.

“Yes, Boss, a ghost,” Mosi says, waving his machete at Innocent. 

“A ghost?” 

“Yes, Boss. He is white, Boss!”

“But… So am I?”

“Yes Boss, but no Boss. You’re a white-white. He— ” and he points his machete in Innocent’s direction, “he is a black-white, Boss, and that is no good. It brings bad luck!”

“Bad luck?” 

You just can’t make this stuff up, Harry thinks. Every day for the past two years, Mosi and Banji have feasted on the food—the ugali and ghiteri, sometimes even mutura—that Innocent prepares for them. When they are sick, they cry like babies for the potions and creams that Innocent concocts. They trust him to shave their hair with the corroded clippers he picked up at Kongowea market in Mombasa. Never has his albinism been an issue. But now, at the first sign of adversity, all the blame gets put on him. Bad luck? Harry almost bursts out laughing, but he holds himself in because Innocent is hyperventilating behind him. The memory of the witch hunt is not far off. 

“Mosi,” Harry says, trying to keep a straight face. “You have a simple choice. Either you continue with that nonsense and look for Banji all by yourself. Or…” and Harry hesitates as he considers the second option—something about sticking together, like a team, because they are stronger like that. It makes him cringe. But there is no need for him to formulate these thoughts because Mosi has already calmed down and is looking at the ground. His machete hangs limply by his side.  

“Sorry, Boss,” he says.

“Sorry Innocent, you mean?” 

“Yes, Boss. Sorry Innocent, Boss.”

Harry turns towards Innocent, who appears to have accepted the apology. He’s no longer breathing hard and his eyes have stabilised. My God, Harry thinks, these people are worse than children

Then he urges his companions on, “Alright, let’s get going. Time is running out.” 

The men resume their walk with Harry in the middle now to keep Mosi and Innocent apart, just in case. He can tell they’re approaching the lake because of the growing number of bugs crisscrossing through the beam of his torch. Fruit bats swoop around his head in search of dinner and he can hear the croaking of the pixie frogs—nasty little beasts that bite if you’re not careful. Cannibals too. Once, Harry found one with the legs of another dangling from its mouth. 

Something stirs in the thicket. Harry aims his torch and, for a second, he thinks two eyes shine back at him, but then they’re gone. To be sure, he runs the light up and down the twisted roots of a gigantic strangler fig, looking into every nook and cranny. The fig is wrapped around its host in a loving stranglehold. One day, when the strangler gets what it needs, it will stand alone—a knotted latticework of roots and branches, empty at the core, where the host tree used to be. 

Harry recognises the tree. It’s where the twins come to worship. It’s also where Innocent finds ingredients for his remedies like that root tea he made when Harry had come down with malaria. Harry had never felt so ill in his life. He shivered like he was naked on top of Kilimanjaro at first. Then a fever gripped his body and, after he had vomited himself inside out, he passed out. Harry has no idea how long he was gone for but, when he came to, the sick had been cleared off the floor. Tea had appeared on the bedside table, along with a bowl of sorghum porridge. Harry hated that local mush and pushed it aside, but he sipped some tea and dozed off again. Each time he woke, the tea had been replenished. Harry drank and slept and drank and slept until, gradually, his health improved. He even tried some of the porridge. When he had recovered, he had to admit that Innocent was a decent kid. So Harry made him head housekeeper. But he never thanked him. Show these people any signs of weakness, he thought, and that would be the end of you.  

“Psst, Boss!” 

Harry turns and sees that Innocent and Mosi have overtaken him while he was looking at the tree. They’ve reached the cornfield and they’re beckoning him. When Harry catches up, he notices the trampled plants. A large animal has been here. 

“Banji?” Mosi calls in a soft voice, “Banji?” 

But no one answers. 

The flattened crops cut a path through the field. Harry looks at his companions and, with a sideways nod, he signals he is going in. Despite his corpulence, Harry moves like a leopard, each step cushioned and soundless. The beam of his torch slices between the stalks, and his head moves from left to right and back again as he combs the field for signs of the missing twin. When he is a few yards in, Harry hears the squishing and sucking of Mosi’s and Innocent’s boots in the mud. A cloud shifts across the moon and the night turns darker. No one says a word. 

It isn’t long before they emerge at the other end of the field and the view opens onto the lake, its surface smooth as lizard skin. Along the shores, the blackened trees stand like silent guards. The air is heavy with the smell of wet grass and earth. 

“Banji?” Mosi tries again, “Banji?” 

But the only response is the baritone croaking of frogs and the soprano churring of nightjars. Harry suggests they split: Mosi to the left and Innocent to the right while he will have another look back in the field. 

Harry waits until his companions are out of sight. Then he walks up to the edge of the lake and unzips. The beer he had earlier has made its way through his system and he needs to “spend a penny,” as they used to say back home. He watches the jet of urine, silver in the moonlight, cascade into the lake, where it splishes and splashes like a water feature in a Japanese tea garden. Harry leans his head back, stares at the stars, and sighs with relief. Then there’s a loud grunt behind him.  

Harry doesn’t need to look; he recognises a hippo when he hears one. The arc of urine turns into a trickle down his leg. Harry knows that, whatever you do, you should never stand between a hippo and the water. He’s frozen, but his brain is on speed running through all his options. There’s no point trying the torch trick now—by the groans and growls, Harry can tell the hippo is distressed. The slightest movement would make the animal panic and attack. Harry’s palms are sweaty. There’s no way he can grab his gun and shoot in time—these beasts run bloody fast. Besides, one bullet would never be enough. So his only option is to make a dash for it. There are some guava trees a hundred yards away. Can he outrun the animal? Can he climb the tree fast enough?

Before Harry has a chance to make up his mind, the animal’s feet thump and the ground shakes as the hippo charges. Harry doesn’t flee. He stands there, paralysed. 

He had always thought that, just before dying, he would see his life flash before his eyes: buying cider for Dad on the way back from school, paying ten pence to touch Fat Annie’s breasts, eating soggy chips the morning after going on a bender. But, no. All he can think of at that very moment is, Oh fuck, so this is how it ends. Trampled by a hippo in the African bush… Harry closes his eyes, readies himself for the impact. Everything turns black and he feels light, like he’s about to faint. A last thought goes to Iris. 

Then he hears a bang, another bang, and one more, followed by a loud crash. He turns to find the beast collapsed inches away from his feet. 

“Boss!” someone shouts, “Boss!” 

Dazed, Harry tries to look, but a torch blinds him and he shields his eyes with his forearm. He’s not entirely sure whether he is dead or alive. Through a squint, he sees a figure running towards him in a halo of light. He knows this is ridiculous, but for a second he wonders whether it’s an angel. The beam is lowered and Harry recognises the t-shirt with Hannibal, B.A. and Murdock. 

“Boss, are you OK?” Mosi asks as he comes to a standstill and slings the gun over his shoulder. 

Harry stares at Mosi, then at the hippo at his feet, and back at the boy. He raises his hand and touches Mosi to check whether he is real. A warm feeling flushes through his chest and the hairs on his arm stand up.  

Harry’s about to say something when Innocent shouts somewhere to his right, “I found him, I found him!” 

Mosi dashes off and leaves Harry, mouth half-open. 

“Wait!” Harry attempts, but Mosi is either too far ahead or too excited to hear him. 

Harry watches Mosi’s shape blend into the night. Then the peaceful chorus of crickets and frogs returns. A mosquito whines right by Harry’s ear. He tries to squash it, but misses. He lifts his Breton hat, rearranges a few strands of thin hair over his balding head, and jogs off into the direction of Innocent’s voice. 

“He’s alive!” Mosi snotters when Harry arrives at the scene. 

Mosi is cradling his brother’s head in his arms. Banji is unconscious and he is lying in a black puddle. Then Harry notices he’s missing half a leg. Innocent has torn part of his shirt and, with the help of a stick, is applying a makeshift tourniquet to stop the bleeding. 

“Everything will be OK, Banji, everything will be OK,” Mosi whispers while stroking his brother’s face and then, turning towards Innocent, he asks “He will, won’t he?” 

Without a hint of doubt, Innocent replies, “Yes, of course he will.” 

A stream of tears flows down Mosi’s face. He throws an arm around Innocent and rests his head on his shoulder. “Thank you, Innocent,” he sobs, “thank you!” 

The sight of the boys locked in embrace makes Harry uncomfortable. He feels a little left out. He looks away and brings his fingers to his mouth. His teeth catch a bit of nail and, as he pulls, the skin tears and starts to bleed. But Harry feels no pain. He spits out the nail and licks the blood off his finger. Then he turns to face Innocent and the twins. 

“Alright,” he interrupts. “If we want to make sure this kid doesn’t end up as tilapia food, we’d better get him to the hospital.” 

By the looks on their faces, Harry realises his tilapia joke might have been a little misplaced. “I’m sorry,” he says. “It’s just that…” 

Innocent and Mosi stare at him, but Harry can’t find the words to express what he feels. There’s relief that Banji is alive, gratitude for Mosi saving him, and admiration for that kid Innocent who’s always there to help, no matter what. Harry gazes up at the Southern Cross shining bright in the sky like blue-white diamonds. Then his eyes are drawn to the Coalsack Nebula—that dark smudge in the Milky Way. A lump appears in his throat. 

“What is it, Boss?” Mosi asks. 

“Yes Boss, what is it?” Innocent adds.

Harry turns to look at them. He takes a deep breath as if he’s about to launch into a difficult speech, but he traps the air in his lungs as he hesitates long enough for his words to suffocate deep down. 

“It’s nothing,” he says. “It’s nothing. Let’s get Banji to the hospital.” 

In no time, Innocent and Mosi have risen to their feet and picked up Banji. Harry watches them as they stumble off into the cornfield carrying the injured boy. 

Just before they disappear out of sight, Harry shouts after them, “Lads!” 

They turn their heads towards Harry. “Yes, Boss?” they ask in chorus.

“Please,” Harry says, “Please, make sure the Americans don’t see this.”


Brecht De Poortere was born in Belgium and grew up in Africa. He currently lives in Paris, France. His writing has appeared in the Baltimore Review, Consequence and Emerge Literary Journal, amongst others, and has been nominated for Best Small Fictions and Best Microfiction. You can follow him on Twitter @brecht_dp or visit his website.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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