I was listening to music and mulling billiard balls, both to a small involuntary shiver that I hoped wasn’t the first stage of the malaria paroxysm. It wasn’t. It was the first stage of something worse, something incurable. But first the music: Beethoven’s Sixth, because that’s all I had because that’s all I packed, because of weight limitations, but mainly because Irene gave it to me, along with the Electrohome 78-record player. A lifetime ago, an eternity in heart’s mind.

Irene was a demi-vierge music major with Cupid’s bow lips and a taste for marivaudage and jazz. How I felt about her, in my earnest callowness I never knew ‘til later, when how I felt about her had run away with me and it was too late to do anything about it. “At Last” we could whisper, she and I, by heart, and did, dancing in the dark, a thrill I’d never known that I could press against my cheek in the soft silvery night, always to Etta James.

But that’s not what Irene sent with me to Africa. Why? Why the Sixth and not Etta? Frankly, being as I was—in the poet’s words—one-and-twenty and in full possession of my imbecility, it never occurred to me to ask, not until then, some fifteen or sixteen months into my stint. That’s when, in a torpid moment of gentle melancholy, curiosity crossed my mind’s eye like a floater, a shadow of an etiolated memory as old as misfortune itself, a matter of choice, then as quickly, riding its own logic, settled and drifted out of its line of vision, as Locke’s billiard balls angled in.

John Locke opined—and I use that word advisedly, mind you, because, y’know, like physicians, philosophers offer opinions, no more no less, which the fog of their erudition can obscure as much as does a stethoscope draped over a white smock. And, as with the children of Hippocrates, a second opinion, and more, is sometimes in order, certainly in grave philosophical matters. Anyway, it was, y’know, the “Father of Liberalism” who opined that one of the things that distinguishes us from billiard balls is choice, a power Locke called “will.” A billiard ball can’t choose to move or to act, but you and I can. Fine. But here’s the rub, the weighty thing I was lightly mulling as I leaned back in the scored and bruised sea-green Naugahyde chair that, Shoe said, the Capuchin had died in, of “sleeping sickness”: what shapes will? That was the question I was weighing to the “Awakening,” as Liza always called the first of the Sixth, and always with a voice in a husky key. My eyes, at the time, restless and I’m sure, could I see them, sun-veined, were traveling, perhaps as were the febrile friar’s at the end, out through the failing framed window into a low-cloud scud, the color of an African grey parrot that had slipped in, shrouding the legendary vitreous expanse that is the source of the Nile. Then—presto! With theatrical suddenness, Teko’s broad, coal-colored face, tense as a thread and awash in pathos, plugged a smeared pane.

Teko was a Karamajong; that is, a member of the warrior pastoralists who for centuries have inhabited a land in Uganda bordering Kenya and the Sudan called Karamoja. Astonishingly, he had trekked, barefoot, from Moroto Town, at the foot of Mount Moroto, 130 miles by rough road to Mbale, then another 275 miles by the macadam of a second-class road to the capital, Kampala, then a final fifty miles of tarmac east to Jinja, magnet for factories thirsting for electric power generated by nearby Owen Falls Dam, whose intake ducts soon would be blocked with bodies that Idi Amin dumped into the turbid Nile. That’s where I met him, Teko, at Jinja College, where I was teaching. About the whys and wherefores of his presence so far from—well, I never inquired, no more than in my youthful blunder and greenness I did of Liza’s for that matter—I mean what had abandoned the itinerant British expat at the headwaters of the world’s longest river. For my part, “McNamara’s War” had, perhaps—or, more immediately, perhaps a difference of opinion with a doctoral advisor. “Perhaps” because, y’know, who’s to say for sure of our choices for coming or going or staying? Certainly not Locke. Thus, “abandoned”—as in “dropped,” “left,” “deserted,” of where our so-called choices leave us.

(“Unfortunately,” “Herr Schlockmeister”—Liza, it seemed, had a name for everyone—kept insisting of my fondness for A.E. Housman, “you’re finding what you’re looking for, but, unfortunately, what you’re looking for is you.” Then, sucking at the inside of his cheeks, “That’s why you can’t see what’s there.” To which I could only respond, in a trembling voice, “Duende! Duende!” which for some reason had stuck from high school Spanish. I meant, y’know, that which mysteriously swells in a work of art that moves us beyond words? “Duende” is all I could muster in defense of my interest in A Shropshire Lad.

“Yojo,” Liza called it, her large grass green eyes drawing about two straight lines of retrohaled blue smoke playing idly over the surface of her rosy filbert nails. “That’s Japanese,” she added, with a cough-punctuated low liquid voice, before meeting my blank stare with, “You know, love, what it was you were trying to communicate?” Then, with a sly hissing laugh, “What was it again, the bollocking that old Schlockmeister gave you?”

“Pish to your pasch,” I quoted. “Brilliant!” she said. Then, to her high thin laugh, I subjoined, of Schlockmeister of my ardor, “Adolescent and vulgar…the shallow drivel of the working class.” “Did the wanker mean,” she burst out, “you or Housman?” then laughed till tears ran down her flushed cheeks—framed, they were, in strands of hair sun-turned the color of macadamia oil—all the while cackling a catarrhal, “Scrummy, scrummy!”

That’s when I went ABD, which, y’know, is sort of the academic counterpart of AWOL—All But Dissertation.)

From Teko, animistically, “Sir, my head pains me.”

I placed a cool palm against his broad furrowed brow bulging above great sad eyes set in the bone-rimmed sockets of a thick-jawed face lined with ritualistic facial cicatrices. I could feel the blood mount.

“Take one of these,” I said, offering him the gift of the Sumerians and the Chinese and the Greeks, with, of course, a dyspeptic contribution of the Germans. Who would think that eighteen months out the unopened travel size medical kit that the Peace Corps had provided during pre-service training could contain so much civilization?

But, alas, Teko returned, still ailing, I still observing, though now unobscured, albeit over swampiness of bushland and thicket, the grand shallow depression that is Victoria, beneath whose flat, placid surface Nile perch feasted darkly on cichlids and other native species, thanks to the voracious fish’s introduction a few years prior, as part of the second great wave of colonial cupidity.

I plopped into Teko’s eager, fronded palms two more aspirin, then later still, three. That’s when, in the voice of a man all cried out at the end might utter dry-eyed, “Mama,” came in Swahili from Teko, “Maumivu ya kichwa,” which I appreciated, the Swahili I mean, since I had at least a smattering of the lingua franca of East Africa, but nary a word of Teko’s indigenous Ngakaramajong, save for the meaning of the word itself: “the old tired men who stayed behind.” That I had picked up in training, as I allowed to Liza, over the clink of glasses and a convivial “Cheers,” along with the Karamojongs’ intense affection for cattle, theirs and neighbors’, which included a “love bite”: tapping a cow’s jugular with a spear, then collecting the jet of arterial blood in a calabash and mixing it with an equal amount of milk before drinking. “No malnutrition in Karamoja land,” Liza said freely with a sharp cracked laugh, clasping in one hand, impressively, a Gin Sling and a Sportsman with arched fingers. Her props from a drawing room play, I now configure in life’s lengthening shadows, in her project of making a man of her man-child, of helping him vault the limitations of his immature, Catholic-hobbled pubertal development and guilt. How? How did this—this blaze of full womanhood make me feel with “snort and snout,” her words for drink and smoke, always, that I was telling her something she didn’t already know? By doing, I now see, I think—or is it but a valedictory mirage, an aspect of the floating ignis fatuus I can no more shake than my shadow, dogging me as I slog along deeper and deeper into the territory of the enemy?…No, no, there was, definitely—or was there?…No, there was something in her of—of gramarye, of Morgan le Fey. A power, I mean, of hiding her experience, her—her inscape, of late, I’ve come to call it— and, sorceress-like, becoming a companion of my youth…Yes, yes, in the camera obscura of memory, I’ve grown to like this take.

Asante sana,” I thanked Teko, for the Swahili, though it violated the school’s monolingual “English only” policy, then dispatched “the Lad”—Liza’s appellation—for a pro forma consult with Adi Pamarti, whom Liza thought “more barber than physician,” though his little duka separated his two practices equally with a beaded curtain with green leaves. Sometime later, after the Gujaharti trader did his leechdoms, Teko, his megrims and fantods unrelieved, muttered plaintively, first in the indigenous tongue of his warrior kin, “emuron,” then in Swahili, “mganga,” both in the presence of Shoe.

Of Shoe, his proboscis, Father Abrams’, headmaster of Jinja College, Liza said, in a high-octane, winsome tone, “His nose! His nose, love, don’t you see? It’s exactly like a shoebill’s!—except, of course, for the puce bleb at the tip.” Then bursting into ringing laughter, “Don’t you see: he’s a shoebill with yellowish eyes behind owl round specs!” I’d never seen a shoebill, but I went along with her excited “Shoe!” for the gelid headmaster with watery eyes and titubating head.

He never wanted to admit the leathery-footed Teko in the first place, Father—Shoe—said he was older than he said he was, Teko, fifteen, the cut off for admission. “His feet,” Shoe kept clattering, with knobbed and tipped silver walking stick poking the russet soil just centimeters from Teko’s splayed foot. “You can tell, you know,” he explained, not a bit confidentially, “by their feet, hmm?” Bare, they were, Teko’s feet, and murram-dusted. But his imposing height, not feet or age, is what struck me, and I said reflexively, “Duende.” Then Shoe, knotting his low, indrawn pigeon-grey brows, as he always did when consternated, said something that sounded like, “Saywhatahuh?” Then I said, “They look to me,” of Teko’s feet, “about—what? fourteen, fourteen-and-half?” and added, of the rouncival youth, an inspired “A well-built goalie at that.” That got him in, because for sure Shoe took football—y’know, soccer—more seriously than sin itself. Later, when we improbably won match after match—thanks to Teko’s gifted patrolling between the sticks, stopping shots, coming off the line or staying, punching or catching—well, Shoe dubbed Teko “a natural sweeper-keeper,” and dared to dream, Shoe did, like a theist with the courage to doubt, defeating for the vaunted “Challenge Cup” the Uganda Rifles, a benthic band of conscripts from General Amin’s pseudonymous army of gasconading droogs and dross, erstwhile the proud King’s African Rifles.

“Don’t be foolish,” Shoe said derisively before swatting down like an anopheles Teko’s limpid request for a Karamajong healer. Then, with head bobbing, Shoe gnarred, “Believing in such codswallop,” wizards and wangateurs I guess he meant, then went volte-face, leaving me to do a noiseless dance of rage. That’s when—well, let’s just say I strenuously oppugned his opinion. There then followed between us, Shoe and me, a fusillade of words that, frankly, now escape me, except—and this I distinctly remember—Shoe’s, as it were, Shoe’s shot on goal, “Game! Game!” and my, so to speak, save, “Pain! Pain!” Our priorities, in short, shouted at each other like a couple of fishmongers.

That’s when Shoe really “lost the plot,” as Liza termed it. With flailing stick, he accused me of “cosseting” Teko and encouraging “the very wooly-headed floccipend notions that do nothing for the behoof we are here to dispel!” The tone, if not the meaning of his words, was clear enough, and I returned fire, but not before—gobsmacked—Shoe hurled a bug-eyed, “Don’t be a plonker! He might never come back!” That’s when, straw-grasping I admit, I accused Shoe of, of all things, “grimthorping,” a word I’d never used before and haven’t since, and knowledge of which, though frankly not its meaning, I can only attribute to preparation for the GRE, y’know, the Graduate Record Exam. But, somehow, it seemed right at the time, so that’s what, you could say, I spot-kicked, and, against all odds, scored. Shoe, startled white with rage, sighed, “Lavo manus,” and, with stick jabbing the air, marched off like a drum major in search of a band.

“It might be better, love, mightn’t it,” Liza said, “for the Lad to be treated by someone who bespeaks his needs?” His emeron, she meant. “Mightn’t it, love?” Then after a pause, “Let’s do him a nice one. What do you say?” I didn’t know whether she meant Shoe or Teko: or both.

With gin-gilded tipsiness justifying the ways of God to man, amid peals of distant thunder fast on the heels of a great storm of lightning and sheets of rain that sent up winged ants to dance and mate choreatically, we gave friend Teko a handful of shillings, Liza and I did. Then, spurning gravel outside the late lamented friar’s small square house of happy lassitude, sending crepuscular bats flapping out of its chimney confusedly to stitch the plum light, Liza’s roho sputtered off amid  stridulations of crickets and cicades and quocking of fish eagles nesting near the river’s source, carrying us three tantivy to the Jinja busstop, where we deposited the barefoot ephebe, whom I imaged “a smart lad, to slip betimes away,” and appended oddly, “Godsend,” which was, y’know, Shoe’s laudatory epithet for Teko’s keeping a clean sheet. Then, our work done, Liza said defiantly, “There now: I feel proper chuffed,” adding, “you should also, love.”

On the way back, me now behind the wheel, our Mawu a brindled gibbous moon soon to surrender to the first trembling light of dawn, a fuddled Liza kept repeating, “Where are the nightingales, quails and cuckoos?” To which the sole rejoin was the solitary unison call of two pair-bonded crowned cranes elegantly stilt dancing across the road, as if on a stage lit by our headlamps. “You know, love,” Liza whispered, her head declining on my shoulder as the cranes with their fugitive call faded into the gloom, “the Scene by the Brook?”

Back, among the spatter of wild Egyptian geese and a warningless stiffening wind, we made love on the beloved brother’s grey mettle bed with faux cotton mattress and no headboard, six feet beneath a moth-stalking gecko stuck to a simple wooden wall cross. Then afterward, amid what she always called wistfully, “the obligatory post-coital blue scatter and ash-veined whorls of cigarette smoke,” came hoarsely from Liza of the Sixth, “The Shepherd’s Hymn of Thanksgiving,” and from me, now two-and-twenty plus and under the influence of a quarter as many Gin Slings, “The world’s a complex toy, fashioned for a barefoot boy.” Then my brooding mind drifted back to Irene and Etta James, and, with a small involuntary shiver, I wondered why I left. I mean, y’know, chose to leave: really. And, too, why Irene had sent me off with—well, when the Lad returned, pain free and absent two front teeth, to put away the Rifles one nil to Shoe’s “Godsend!” well, then I thought I knew, neatly at last, but no—I framed, I jiggered, I invented, I created—I now see, I now see is what I did, and do still, as we all do, imagine, not know, for all that we do or don’t do, all the journeys begun or never started, the lives lived or unlived. A self-revelation it was, imagining I mean, imagining really, why I left, and why she sent me, Irene, not with Etta but with what Liza always referred to as the Pastoral. And do still, imagine I mean, at this remove in time, of the one who is dying old, as I, “absolutely gutted,” as she would make it, cradle her with the inward silent sobs of the strengthless certain knowledge that she’s gone, gone, to come back no more…I imagine it’s true, I mean, y’know, the old proverb—“Before you begin the journey, you own the journey. Once you have begun, the journey owns you.” I imagine that’s true.