By Michael Logan
Published in The Telegraph
When Johnson hauled his old bones outside to start the daily trudge to the village for milk and bread, a silver Mercedes filled the dirt track running past his farm, hemmed in by the thorny green vegetation that had raked deep scratches into its dusty flanks. It looked as out of place as his bandy legs and second-hand clothes would in one of Nairobi’s fancy hotels.
He edged past it and froze at the sight of a middle-aged man in a rumpled blue suit sitting on the Red Lion. Ribbons of cigarette smoke curled around the stranger’s sunglasses like spectral claws as he stared through a break in the foliage towards Nairobi’s skyscrapers, distant and indistinct in the morning heat haze, and then back down the track, as though searching for something. The pregnant stomach of a successful businessman protruded from the jacket, yet his shoulders were slumped and the cigarette trembled as he raised it to his mouth.
“You mustn’t sit there,” Johnson said. The man jumped, the cigarette tumbling from his fingers. When he saw Johnson, he puffed out his cheeks.
“The Red Lion is said to be a dangerous spirit.” The man snorted: “It’s just a rock.” He turned back towards the city, his voice soft.
“The real lion is in Nairobi, and he’s hungry for blood.”
Johnson’s father first told him the legend of the Red Lion when he was three: how a young village girl had fled her father’s fists and sat on it at dusk to scratch her name in the stone. The rock-become-flesh devoured her for the disrespect she showed the spirits and elders. Even though in the next 60 years the Red Lion remained dormant, its raw physical presence – as red as the earth, a suggestion of coiled haunches ready to pounce – kept Johnson wary of its brooding menace. Until his death last year, his cautious father offered up meat once a month. The next day it was always gone.
He said nothing of this to the lost city dweller. Even his own sons – now swallowed up by Nairobi’s promise of a better life – laughed when he repeated the tale to his wide-eyed grandchildren on their visits home.
“I’m Alfred,” the man said, jumping to the track.
“I imagine you don’t get many visitors.”
“No. Why are you here?”
“I need somewhere quiet to stay for a few days. I can pay.” Alfred produced a leather wallet and counted out notes. “Ten thousand shillings?”
Johnson’s gaze locked onto the brown bills, his unease momentarily forgotten. The money was more than he earned in three months of selling the surplus maize and kale his land produced.
“Just for a few days,” he said, and held out his hand.
That evening, long after Johnson had returned from the village with the new radio he had been coveting, he prepared a simple meal of ugali and sukuma wiki on the camping stove. Alfred took a few grimacing mouthfuls before flopping onto the battered floral sofa in the small room.
“Your land is very good,” he said. “Have you ever thought about selling? You could buy a place in Nairobi with the profits.”
Johnson stabbed his fork into the leftovers. He had visited his eldest son last year, his first trip to the city in five years. Across Nairobi, where once had been green space, scaffolding and cranes threw up concrete apartments that jutted from the earth like broken teeth.
“This was my grandfather’s land,” he said.
“But you live here alone now?”
Alfred puffed on his cigarette and said nothing more.
Johnson lay on the sofa, half-listening for the sound of paws padding softly through the night beneath the whisper of bushes and trees. All he heard was Alfred speaking furtively from the bedroom. He got up and pressed his ear against the thin plywood door.
“Tell the mzee I’ll get his money,” Alfred said.
A short silence later, he said, “It wasn’t my fault. The contractor cheated us.”
There was another pause before Alfred spoke, his words a jumbled rush. “I wasn’t running away. I’ve found a great plot thirty minutes up the highway to Nakuru that would be great for a resort hotel. The views are amazing. It belongs to this crazy old farmer. We could buy it cheap, even take it. We’d make millions.”
Alfred’s breathing grew ragged as seconds ticked by.
“Please,” he said. “Give me another chance.”
After that, there was only stifled sobbing.
Johnson returned to the sofa, pulse thumping in his ears, and prayed for the Red Lion to bare its teeth.
The next morning, loud snoring came from the bedroom. Johnson tramped down to the village and returned with a hunk of beef. He placed it before the snout of the Red Lion.
“Meat every day for a month if you devour this man who would take my land,” he said.
The Red Lion remained mute and immobile, as it had throughout Johnson’s lifetime. He returned to the house, a frown creasing his weather-beaten forehead.
When Alfred emerged from the bedroom, just as the sun began to lower towards the horizon, his eyes were red-rimmed.
“I’m going out for a while,” he said.
Johnson waited a few minutes before entering the bedroom where Alfred’s mobile, far sleeker than his own taped-up Nokia, lay abandoned on rumpled sheets. Johnson could almost sense the ravenous city gobbling up bush, tree and rock as it drew ever closer. Nothing could stand in its way.
The breeze carried in a hint of cigarette smoke from where Alfred sat defiantly on the rock. It slept on, if it had ever been awake in the first place, leaving his arrogance unpunished and his greed unchecked. But, as Alfred had said, there was another lion. Johnson picked up the phone and fumbled with the unfamiliar touch screen, scrolling through the last numbers dialled until he found what he was looking for.
When he had finished talking, Johnson padlocked the front door and sat down to wait. Alfred remained outside as darkness swiftly replaced dusk, smoking and muttering to himself.
The scream came just after seven o’clock, rending the night air before choking off. Heavy panting and thuds followed. Johnson crossed to the window. The moonlit bushes briefly shuddered and heaved. Then all was still.
The next morning, the rock sat where it ever had, the slab of meat nowhere to be seen. Alfred’s sunglasses lay in the dirt, at the head of a set of drag marks leading off down the track. The lion had fed.
Johnson patted the new mobile nestling in his pocket. Today he would walk to the village to buy a prime cut of beef, for his step felt light and springy. Tomorrow he would drive his new Mercedes. He picked up the sunglasses, slid them over his grin-crinkled eyes and set off down the track.