With grace and mystery, Lion's Teeth navigates the landscape of the African plains and the complexities of grief. The story reminds us that the work men choose to do has both personal and public consequences.
- Michelle Richmond

Lion's Teeth

By Aneesha Capur

Nick was having his last drink at Black Feathers. He sat at the bar staring at the stars in between the few wooden logs nailed above him. His suitcases were packed and waiting in his rental car parked outside. He had the house keys to give to Sykes if and when he showed up. 

Black Feathers was built on an ostrich farm. A year ago, Duncan, a third-generation white settler, had cordoned off some of the ostrich farmland, hauled in some timber logs and constructed an outdoor bar. He had cleared area for a dance floor as well. It was outlined by four wooden sticks and covered with old canvas formerly used as sails on dhows. Pretty resistant so his guests could dance under the skies no matter the weather conditions. He’d strung up some old, battered speakers that were connected to an old boom box housed at the end of the bar. The music streaming through was eclectic: Pink Floyd, The Gypsy Kings, David Bowie, Miriam Makeba, Wham!

Nick looked closely at the ostriches over the fence. Their long legs and necks had always disconcerted him. The threatening way they swayed their bulky bodies from side to side. They were aggressive buggers. Amin would insist on coming here whenever they returned to Nairobi for a few nights. Amin loved everything about Black Feathers: the open space, the beer, the food, the women waiting at the bar. Nick was turned off by the menu the first time Amin brought him here. There was nothing but ostrich: Spicy Ostrich Wings and Roasted Ostrich Strips for appetizers; Sautéed Ostrich Chinese-Style, Ostrich Burgers and Ostrich Steak for entrées. Nick had told Amin he wasn’t comfortable eating ostrich meat with the live versions staring at him over the fence.

“Forget the sons of bitches,” Amin had said. “And besides, I took my pilot’s physical last week and the Air Medevac told me to watch my red meat intake. So I need to eat some of this vegetarian shit.”

“Amin, man, ostriches don’t come from bitches and they aren’t exactly vegetarian either.”

“My point exactly.” Amin had replied as he ordered two Tuskers and a plate of ostrich wings.

●               ●               ●

Nick had met Amin on his first courier assignment in Africa. Amin was to oversee Nick’s first flight up north to the Somali border.

“Don’t believe any of this ‘Food Supplies’ and ‘Refugee’ shit they label on this stuff,” Amin had warned him, “It’s all explosives and drugs. Maybe some foreign exchange thrown in.”

“Hey, I’m here to fly and collect my paycheck, is all. I’m not asking any questions.” Nick replied.

They had become friends immediately, despite the fact that Amin chain-smoked during the entire flight.

“Uh, don’t you think that’s a little risky, us being in this prop that might be packed with explosives and you smoking like this?” 

“It’s the only thing that keeps me in focus, and this is the only thing that keeps me sane,” Amin had replied as he opened a bottle of Tusker and passed it to Nick. “No worries, man.”

Nick hadn’t worried. Amin exuded confidence. He was the best pilot Nick had ever flown with, swooping high and low, maneuvering through the sky with incredible ease, always in control of the plane.

●               ●               ●

Where the hell was Sykes? He always kept you waiting and never apologized when he did finally show up, as if it was a privilege of his African heritage. Sykes was Amin’s closest friend. They were best buddies since primary school. An immediate alliance had been formed: they were both on the rugby team, both hopeless at Maths. Sykes was the son of a corrupt politician. In spite of his failing grades, he had gone on to study at a university in Britain. He returned to manage his father’s properties: a coffee farm, a sisal plantation, a tea estate, a few petrol stations, countless commercial and residential properties. He expected to join his father in politics in a few years. Amin had come from a poor Indian family. His father owned a textile shop in town and didn’t have the money to send him to continue his education. Amin had started taking flight classes while he worked odd jobs at Wilson Airport. He finally managed to put together enough savings to get his pilot license. There was big money in flying cargo across the border to Somalia.

It was high-risk since they were flying planes over war zones. Any faction (a warlord or a rebel group) could shoot you down at any point. This was why they were compensated so well. And nobody asked any questions about the cargo they flew across. Nick had come specifically to fly across the border so he could make a substantial pile of money. He had planned to stay only six months. A year later, he felt he had stayed too long. So much had changed that it was difficult to imagine how he would explain it to anyone who wasn’t there to see it unfold.

Amin died fifty-three days ago. His plane had blown up in flames, leaving bits of explosives, spare bullets, shards of metal, and parts of himself scattered on both sides of the Kenya-Somalia border. The courier company had stated his death was caused by an engine failure. The insurance company paid out a hefty sum to Amin’s family. The file was sealed. No one asked any questions.

When Nick was told about Amin’s plane crash, he had stared blankly at the bearer of the news, blinking stupidly as the weight of it, its gravity, seeped into him. And then he had felt nothing. Periodically, his throat would close and his chest would tighten, teasing him to the verge of a catharsis. But he would experience no release. And Nick would have to focus on taking in large breaths of air and expelling them slowly to ease the weight on his chest and the tension in his stomach. Gradually he would regulate his breathing and continue to endure his inability to grieve.

So he turned his energies to making preparations to leave: he terminated his flying contract with the company; he walked to the city library and stared at the large globe that stood in the middle of the lobby displaying a map of the world. He spun it a few times and then decided on his next destination: Southeast Asia. It had busy cargo routes, isolated beaches, exotic drinks and beautiful women. The perfect opportunity for work and play with no attachments. He phoned Sykes and asked him to terminate the lease on his apartment. He bought an airline ticket.

Three weeks later the courier company DHL-ed Nick, Amin’s designated co-pilot, a package of remnants of objects that Amin had on his person the day he blew to bits. In that package were two lion’s teeth that Amin used to wear around his neck strung on a string of leather.

●               ●               ●

 “James Kariuki Sykes. Nicholas. These teeth belong to the two of you should anything happen to me. They once sat in the jaws of a Man-Eater – the spirit of Tsavo. Man, don’t mock me. I believe in this shit,” he had said one night at Black Feathers as he twirled and stroked them between his two thumbs and index fingers. Amin had his own legend about The Man-Eaters of Tsavo:

He had been out in the bundu one night with some buddies, deep in the vast wild space that was Africa. They had been drinking around a fire, had smoked some miraa, a heady grass weed. They were enveloped in a shroud of black atmosphere. There were no sounds except for the occasional hooting of an owl or the snapping of twigs in the bushes nearby.  And then they had heard a massive, skin-ripping roar. Something was flailing in the bushes. Amin and his friends lit flame torches and rushed to the sound. They found him: a luminous mass of mane and muscle reduced to quivering, whimpering remains as he snorted his last breaths.

They radio-ed a Kenya Wildlife Society Warden to send a Land Rover in the morning to pick up the lion’s carcass. The awful spectacle of the great beast overcome by his own weaknesses, unable to conquer his own mortality, had stricken each man. A cloud of unease rested over them. Amin and his friends retreated to the campfire and spent the rest of the night in a shaky silence.

The lion’s body was gone the next morning. There was nothing but a damaged area of bushes and brambles. The others left, eager to return to town. Amin waited for the KWS crew to arrive. The wardens searched the area for poacher tracks but found none. Amin groped hopelessly unable to provide adequate answers to the park officials’ questions. An irritated KWS warden told Amin how tired he was of these prank phone calls. The KWS Land Rover sped away covering him in red dust.

Amin sat at the edge of the area where the lion had lain the night before, unable to walk away. He was certain he could feel the raw energy of the beast, smell the acrid mixture of blood and hide, see his presence still there. Then Mwangi, Amin’s driver, came up to him and placed two sharp, flat objects in his palm: lion’s teeth. Amin stared at them incredulously as they quivered in his palm. He could feel heat radiating from them; they felt alive. Mwangi told Amin, “These Bwanas of Tsavo will never let themselves be handled by men. He left with his spirit and body. His teeth are the only things that remain. And you are the only one who stayed today, still believing, so he has surely left them for you.”

Amin swore (on Allah; his grandmother’s one good eye; his ability to give a woman multiple orgasms) that the story was true.  From that day he believed in the spirit of Tsavo: the myth of the Man-Eater who manifested periodically but remained elusive. And from that day he wore the lion’s teeth around his neck, declaring with unswerving conviction that he had been chosen to leave in the same elliptical manner: diffused and incapable of being roped in. He would leave little of himself for those he left behind. Nothing to keep, nothing to hold.

●               ●               ●

Nick finally broke down when he examined the contents of the package and found the lion’s teeth. A wave of nausea, sweat and tears surged through him. He clung onto the stunned DHL deliveryman as he sobbed and sniveled into the rough khaki DHL bush shirt. His knees buckled under him and the deliveryman had to hold him up until Nick calmed down enough to sign for the package. 

Nick and Sykes had worn the teeth around their necks for the first time at Amin’s funeral. To the dismay of Amin’s family, they had lit cigarettes and opened Tuskers in honor of the man they had loved as they viewed the closed coffin ready to be buried underground. When Amin’s remains were being lowered, Sykes turned to Nick, his jaw tight and his shirt soaked. Nick had understood: it should have been one of them instead of Amin. How could it have been otherwise? They were the bumbling fools, Amin was their seer. Sheer chance had caused his death, it could have been any one else flying that route that particular day. Just bad luck.  

So Nick had decided it was time to move on. He would move to Thailand. Fly the Southeast Asian skies for a while. He had stayed in Africa too long.

●               ●               ●

Sykes briskly walked towards Nick. He inclined his head and said by way of apology, “I was having a drink with a Cabinet Minister at the Karen Country Club.” Sykes felt no further explanation was needed – a business deal should always take precedence over any friendship obligations. Nick watched Sykes as he loosened his tie and unbuttoned his shirt. The lion’s tooth was now open in clear view. Nick kept his own hidden beneath his cotton T-shirt. He had the feeling that Sykes was taking care of his lease and seeing him off at the airport because it was what Amin would have wanted.  He searched Sykes’ face to decipher any telltale signs of grief: any indication of the creases that had wedged themselves into his own face after Amin’s death.

Sykes met his gaze and raised his eyebrows inquiringly, “Are you hungry?” He clicked his fingers at a waiter, “Two Tuskers and a plate of ostrich wings.”

Nick started. Had he intentionally placed Amin’s order so casually?

But Sykes had moved on. He was watching a woman sitting at the bar. She was stunning – her olive skin and long black hair in stark contrast with her white halter top and tapered skirt; a thin gold chain clasped around her bare midriff. Sykes sauntered up to the woman and said something to her. He ordered two Sambuka shots for both of them. He downed his; she didn’t touch hers, so he drank hers too. She said something to him and pointed to the lion’s tooth. He took off his chain and started to put it around her neck.

Nick walked up and grabbed it. “What in Christ’s name are you doing?”

“What the hell’s your problem?” Sykes was drunk already.

“How can you do this? You know how much it meant to him.” Nick was shaking with anger.

He looked at Sykes and the woman and saw unconcealed pity in their eyes.

“Easy, Nicholas. I’ll see you back at our table okay?” Sykes said smoothly, now surfaced from his Sambuka-soaked haze. He turned away to order another round of shots.

Nick walked back to the table still shaking. Where was the anguish he had seen in Sykes at the funeral? How could he so callously continue with things as if it didn’t make a difference that Amin had gone?

Nick continued to watch Sykes’ dismal attempt to woo the woman. He was drinking the next two drinks by himself as well. It had always been this way. Until Amin would have to get up and rescue him. Amin would put his arm around Sykes and make as if he was wanted elsewhere. He would save Sykes his loss of pride, the walk back alone to the table for all to see. They would return together, Amin’s arm still around Sykes’ shoulder.

Amin would then cajole, “Sykes, you have a beautiful, educated African wife at home. What are you doing, rafiki?”

“What’s that supposed to mean? I’m not a fucking a priest, you know.” Sykes would snap back.

Amin would raise his palms and shrug his shoulders, shaking his head and smiling as he backed down.

And sometimes both Amin and Sykes would go up to the bar. They were perfect together: masculine power in balance. One exuded charm, the other wealth. These occasions usually led to something else. A deal was struck, a transaction made, a hotel room arranged. Sykes would point a questioning chin towards Nick. But Amin always stopped Sykes from expressing his thoughts. Amin felt the edges of Nick’s distaste for the paths that materialized: donations in the form of flattery, cocktails, fancy rooms, brash doles of notes even, that were wielded in exchange for the brief interludes of bucking and thrusting entirely lacking in intimacy. The absolute materialism of it cast a bitter veil over the entire interaction if one chose to peer through the half-light and see the hard truth that lay beneath. So Nick would leave unobtrusively, removing the obstacle in their quest to fulfill their lust.  

But this time Sykes returned to the table alone, his shoulders bowed, his chin on his chest. There was no Amin to pull through for him.

●               ●               ●

Nick and Sykes walked past the swaying ostriches towards the parking lot. They had a few hours before Nick’s flight was scheduled to leave and decided to drive through town together one last time. Nick bumped something as he backed the car out of the parking lot.

“Jesus, you pilots are just the same – you drive cars like women. Why are you stopping the car?”

“I need to see what I’ve hit.”

“It’s nothing. Drive on.”

“No, Sykes, I have to check it out.”

Haya. Your car, your shauri.”

Nick got out of the car and walked to the area where he had heard the thump. There was a man fiddling with his parked bicycle. The handlebar was bent. As soon as he saw Nick he threw down the bike.

“It is broke.”

“No, I don’t think so. Just bent up a little.”

“You broke it.”

“I think we can fix it.”

“No. You give me lift. It is middle of night.”

“OK. I can take you where you want to go. We’ll strap your bicycle onto the boot.”

“You pay for damage.”


“Five hundred shillings.”

“Isn’t that a bit much?”

“Five hundred shillings. You broke it.”

“Okay. Fine.”

The man stared at Nick. His eyes, hard and toneless, declared: You Owe Me.

Sykes rolled down his windowpane and stuck his head out of the car. The man’s resolve wavered when he saw him.

“Eh, Bwana, this man broke my bicycle. He said he drive me. He said he pay.”

“Nick, what the hell…”

“Sykes, let’s just take the guy where he needs to go, OK?”

Sykes shrugged, rolled back his windowpane, settled into the crevice between the door and the passenger seat, and closed his eyes.

They drove out of the parking lot in silence. The man sat sprawled across the entire backseat, humming and stroking his moustache, now visibly unconcerned about his bent bicycle. Nick knew he had been duped. And that both Sykes and Amin would never have fallen for a trick like this. Sykes would have yelled and threatened. It would have taken him less than a minute to shout, “Do you know who I am? I’m James Kariuki’s son, motherfucker.” The passing offender would have vanished instantly. Amin would have laughed, patted the man on his back, come to some sort of compromise. He would probably have straightened the handlebar and sent him on his way with twenty shillings for a matatu fare.

The man started talking endlessly. His name was Jeremiah. Did the two gentlemen want some action? He knew some local bars that rich men go to, tourists even. Did they want to gamble? He had drugs: hashish, miraa, cocaine. He could show them places, people, pleasures, that only surfaced in the night. Did they like strippers, exotic dancers? What about women? He would find girls for them. They would be young, brand new, unspoiled. Ten years old if they wanted. They could play rough games with them. Anything they wanted, for a price. 

“Christ,” Nick said, “Is there any way we can get him to stop talking?”

“Just drive him wherever,” muttered Sykes. “Fast.”

They stopped shortly afterwards at the edge of town, mainly because Jeremiah sensed that his overtures were unrequited. He licked his fingers as he counted out the notes that Nick shoved at him. With a satisfied smile, he finally stepped out of the car and disappeared into the darkness.

“I don’t feel good about that,” Nick said, “I hated that bastard.”

 “You know, Nick, we’ve all been there. Who knows, maybe he’ll use that money to send his children to school. But more likely, he’ll buy booze. Nothing we do can change the way things are here,” Sykes said quietly. “Anyway, let us enjoy the rest of the drive at least.”

They drove to the airport in silence. It was the time that was neither night nor day. Steam was rising from the streets and unfurling in the air. There were shadows in the mist floating by in an eerie quiet. Surrounded by the sleeping indifference of privilege, the workers of the city had stirred and were making their way to their functions in poverty, silence, acquiescence: they drove by askaris in uniform either traveling to or from their guard shift; mechanics and engineers riding by on bicycles; cooks and servants waiting for matatus.

The road into the airport was deserted. They could see the metallic glints of the tarmac reflected in the silvery petals of bougainvillea that lined the road. The departure lounge was dark and silent. Nick checked in and gave Sykes the keys to his house and car.

Sasa, You’re sure you want to do this?

“I need to leave, Sykes.”

“Know that you will always have a home here.”

When the two men embraced, the lion’s teeth dangling from their necks locked. They were connected once again, just like when Amin had been there. They laughed uncomfortably as they fumbled to untangle the teeth. There was nothing more that needed to be said, no more spare words, sparse sentences. Things had run their course, and all that was left to do was part.

The sun was rising as the plane raced down the runway. Its rays cast a golden hue on the bare plains below, the burnished beige that should have been bright green but for the drought that year. As the plane took off, Nick saw ostriches racing alongside the runway. They were magnificent, their speed belied their girth. As Nick ascended, he saw that the land beneath was riddled with them racing in different directions. They became streaming black, white and silver splashes across the dry savannahs. And as he rose higher and higher, a spirit soared with him, leaving the rescinding shards of black shadow that splintered across the brown canvas of Africa. Looking down he saw the continent slip away beneath him until there was nothing but clear blue sky.