When Zho signaled for me to stop, I gladly put down the 60-pound forest antelope strapped to my back and collapsed to the ground. The dirt and blood and sweat that had saturated my clothes now acted as camouflage as I sat against the dark brown bark of some gigantic tree. I concentrated on the flies hovering around the dead antelope scrounging for something, anything the antelope’s blood could give to stay alive for their already short existence. Aren’t we all like flies, I thought. Zho still hadn’t moved after he signaled for me to stop, his back still to me, his hand still raised. I closed my eyes and when I opened them he was gone.
Zho was a fascinating man. His white hairs and shortness were completely swallowed by his tough muscular frame that it made his age questionable. His physical pygmy attributes were so unlike anything I’d seen that he was ageless to me. He never went to school, never visited the capital, never wore shoes, never ate with a fork. Zho had spent more of his life sleeping next to trees or on palm leaves or against rocks then he had in an actual bed. He once ran for one hour straight after a wild boar and exhausted it to death.
The flies jumped as I stood up to look for him. The running of a stream and a few birds yapping were the only clatter muting the eerie somewhat magnificent sound of being nowhere. The enormity of the leaves and trees blocked my vision in every angle as I looked for my best friend. I noticed an army of fire ants heading towards the antelope carcass and quickly moved it, saving our dinner, as the dark sea of billions of ants would devour the entire animal within a few hours. I put the antelope back in the basket and began to strap it to my back when Zho appeared holding a decapitated viper. C’est pour manger ce soir, he said. And indeed we would eat the massive snake that evening once we returned to our encampment, two hours from where we were. Zho twisted the snake and folded it into my basket on my back on top of the antelope and we continued on, like nothing had happened at all.
Zho would ask me many questions when we were alone. He would ask about my family and money and food and other sorts of things he’d heard about. One night around a fire Zho brought up the moon. I explained how far away it was and what I could about the sun and stars and planets. Like a child to a storyteller, he stared at me. There was a long silence when I finished. The fire blazed as I sat and watched Zho take in what was said. He stared at the moon for minutes. He finally told me that he hoped one day someone would make it to the moon to see what was up there. I looked at him and wondered if he would believe me. Moi aussi, I said. Me too.
We had been away from the village for a week, maybe two. Time became as insignificant as cleanliness as our nights were spent hunting and days sleeping with the only worry of what we would encounter that night and how quickly we could eat it. I would get drinking water from the nearby stream and Zho would climb trees and get fresh fruit. I wrote in my journals and Zho laughed at how quickly my pencil moved. Frogs would jump into our cooking water and Zho would just add them to the insane list of animals we would be eating that night. Quietly, half-naked, caked in dirt and grime we would feast until we fell asleep and were rested enough to go back into the jungle. Our existence was that of complete simplicity; feeding off the magnificence of the Central African equatorial jungle, needing nothing more then a full stomach.
We had been walking all-night and rested against a fallen tree right before sunrise. Zho kept his gun loaded by his side as we were in the area where he once killed a panther. As soon as I fell asleep, Zho heard another flood of fire ants and we continued on, succumbing to the most violent beasts of the jungle. Still dark, we found a gazelle sleeping nearby. Zho did not want to waste a bullet so he took my machete and slowly walked over to it, blinding it with my flashlight. He struck the animal so hard that it began to run in circles and with no light I could only hear it running. It’s right horn gashed my calf so badly that I screamed and woke a troop of mandrills sleeping above us. On the ground frightened and bleeding next to the half-dead gazelle, Zho ran to me. I was quiet as he looked at my calf and found vine to stop the bleeding. Then he began to laugh.
Once back at camp, Zho made a fire and prepared dinner as I cleaned the wound and slept for a few hours. Zho had tapped a palm tree earlier and brought back a few liters of palm wine for us. I finished my meal and threw the rest of the porcupine bones to the dogs. There was a scuffle between them and Zho laughed again. We both sat against the remaining firewood drinking our palm wine, as I watched the flies gather around some dried blood on my leg. As Zho began to drift off, exhausted after a full night’s hunt and a liter each of palm wine, I caught him staring into sky. Lying in the dirt, covered in dried animal blood with leaves and mud in his hair wearing nothing but old jean shorts, Zho began to smile. It was quick; the kind of smile only experienced when completely alone. I couldn’t stop staring at him. He radiated a certain warmth from his body that made me shiver. I felt like I had so much to learn from him. His bright brown eyes stared deep into the clouds and his eyelids became heavy. He slowly passed into a deep sleep and then I realized that I was next to a man at peace. The gash on my leg was minimal compared to the disease and suffering that Zho experienced everyday of his life. He handled what came into his life with grace; A man who had completely accepted the life that was chosen for him. I was next to a hero.
I woke earlier then Zho the morning we left. I heated the remains of the antelope from the previous night then left in search of fresh water. When I returned Zho was packing the smoked bush meat we were bringing back for the others at the village. We extinguished the fire, loaded our backs with our winnings and left.
The walk back to our village was over six hours. We would stop and drink or eat and slowly make our way through the endless maze of vines and swampland. Zho pulled a leach off one of the dogs and then noticed I had one on my arm. We sat and rested a minute and I took the bandage off my calf and looked at my now infected wound. Zho cracked a contagious smile and I couldn’t help myself. Ca va aller, Zho said. It will be ok.
We eventually came to a clearing then the small dirt road that led to our village. Zho and I had spent almost three weeks in the bush together. I thanked him again as some children caught sight of us walking towards the village. I felt proud to walk with Zho. The children ran to me and shook my hand and grabbed on to my legs and hair. I gave them a few things to carry and soon they felt proud to walk by me. Dressed in rags and bare feet, I was constantly struck by the spirit of the children in my village. The condition in which they lived was a tragedy, but their spiritual wealth was so powerful that in the end, I wondered who should feel sorry for whom.
Zho and I spent several more adventures together before I returned to the States over a year ago. I think of him often now. I gave him my dogs and my machete before I left and although he would never admit it, we both cried. I look for my friend all the time out here. I look for him because sometimes I think we need him in our lives. Because somehow, he was always right.