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The Heartbreak of O.J. Mayo, Part IV: Tilting at Windmills

The trail goes cold, and Mayo's faith begins to falter.

This is the fourth installment in a five-part series. You can read previous installments here:

[Author’s Note: The following is a work of (mostly) fiction. It is dedicated to IKC.]

Today’s soundtrack is: “The World is Not My Home” by Charlie Parr and the Black Twig Pickers


January 9, 2017

Outside of Arusha, Tanzania

At the first sign of light the next morning, Mayo, having already breakfasted and loaded his tent and backpack into the Jeep, takes up Eris’ leash and leads him on a march around the camp site.

They return when the Jeep has been loaded. “Looks like he lost the scent,” Mayo says. He nods toward the city. “Maybe we should head into town.”

The Babu shakes his head immediately. “No, we must not,” he says. “There are too many people, meaning there is too much bad luck. Go into the city, you will only waste time chasing after curses that are not yours.”

Mayo considers for a moment. “Alright,” he says as he climbs into the Jeep, “but before we do anything else, I want to go back to the place we first caught the scent last night. If there’s anything left of it, might as well try to make use of it.”

The guides exchange a look, but whatever concern they share doesn’t warrant a remark, so the Jeep backtracks, retracing our steps from the night before. But once there, Eris, even given another sniff of Thabeet’s jersey, probes without so much as a growl. Nearly an hour later, Mayo decides he’s seen enough. “No use wasting any more time,” he says, shrugging. “Time to move on.”

For Mayo, last night’s success still outweighs this morning’s failure, and the smile that he wore as we set up camp last night has not yet faded. Even after each failed stop, he maintains a loud, vocal confidence that the next stop will be “The One”.

Instead, the Jeep crawls south, past the eastern shore of Olgarwa Shambarai, with no word from either Eris or the Babu. Camp is set up outside a small town called Ngasumet and Mayo cooks dinner over a fire he’s set up.

As we eat, I keep throwing glances at Mayo, expecting at any moment for him to groan, to bemoan the failures of the day. But the only emotion Mayo expresses to me is that of mild disappointment. “I thought we’d be able to build off what we found last night,” he says around a mouthful of rice, “but we'll keep pressing forward.

The rest of the meal is eaten in silence. Then, just before he heads to his tent for the night, he tells me with a smile, “The Lord helps those who help themselves. Sometimes you have to help answer your own prayers.”


January 10, 2017

Ngasumet, Tanzania

Prayers unanswered.


January 11, 2017

Korogwe, Tanzania

The last 48 hours have borne witness to Mayo's unraveling.

Since the lost trail three days ago, every sniffing of the undergrowth by Eris has proved fruitless; every conversation with villagers produced nothing; every divining by the Babu resulted in a shrug and an apologetic shake of the head.

To this point, Mayo had greeted every disappointment with absolute self-assurance, certain that his answer would come. But it seems he’s finally reached his breaking point. Now, each empty-handed grasp tugs the edges of his smile slightly lower. Every failure is a crushing blow to his steadfastness.

The humidity, combined with the heat, has only served to shorted Mayo’s temper. After a particularly frustrating stop this afternoon, during which Eris appeared more intent on sniffing out a place to take a piss than taking a whiff of Mayo’s musty shred of jersey, Mayo cursed the dog and aimed a kick at his tail. When he climbed back into the Jeep afterward, Mayo simply stared out at the horizon, refusing to speak.

Now, camped in the shadows of the East Usambara Mountains on the outskirts of a small town called Korogwe, Mayo’s turned his sole focus to his dish of nyoma choma that he purchased from a street vendor earlier. When the guide and the Babu sit down across from him, Mayo doesn’t even bother acknowledge them.

“I think we are needing to talk,” says the Babu.

“About what?” says Mayo, still not bothering to look up. “Shouldn’t you be using this time to look for clues about this curse?”

“This is what I wanted to speak to you about,” says the Babu. “I am not sure the best way to tell you this. But I am thinking we are not going to find the answers you are looking for.”

This gets Mayo’s attention. He looks up, and, around a mouthful of food, says, “The f— you talking about?”

“I have dealt with spirits for great many years. I have seen my share of curses, even ones like the one I sense hanging over you. But, to this point on our journey, I have seen nothing that resembles your curse. The dark cloud haunting your spirit has no traces left in this land.”

Mayo’s eyes narrow, brow furrowing into a look of skepticism. “How can you possibly say that? Eris just found something three days ago,” he says. “You saw it yourself. That dog definitely found something.”

“I think,” says the Babu, “this was only his smelling of another dog. I searched the area myself. The only traces of your curse there were those on you and on that scrap of cloth you have in your pocket. I believe now that our search is only going to continue in the same way it has. There are no other signs of your curse in this world. It has been too long with you.

“If I were you,” the Babu adds, “I would give up this chase and do my best to find peace within yourself.”

In an instant, Mayo is on his feet. The last pieces of his dinner are on the ground, and the empty wooden bowl he’d been eating from has been snapped in two. Mayo flings the broken pieces of the bowl at the feet of the Babu. “No one’s forcing you to be here,” he says. “If I were you, I’d find someone else to sell my bulls— to.”

And with that, Mayo storms off, disappearing into the twilight without another word.


January 12, 2017

Come the dawn, Mayo is back in camp, wearing the same disheveled robes from the prior day, his eyes rimmed with the red veins of sleep deprivation. He executes his morning routine silently, eating a cold breakfast and stowing his tent and supplies into the Jeep with a glass-eyed stare.

The Babu, on the other hand, is nowhere to be found. While Mayo is busy packing, the guide explains to me where he went. Last night, after Mayo wandered off and I was sleeping, he drove the Babu into the town, where, later today, he’ll be boarding a train that will return him to his hometown.

“Your friend is very mad at him,” the guide says. “I think this is for the best.”

When our trip resumes, Mayo, refusing to even acknowledge the Babu’s absence, orders me to take the front seat. With the back to himself, he sprawls across both seats, staring up into the sun as the Jeep slowly, steadily zigs and zags its way south. At each stop, Mayo tightly clasps the seat backs and uses them to haul himself upright, every movement punctuated with a beleaguered groan.

Out on the trail, the change to Mayo is unmistakable. Last night’s explosion of anger has burned away the last of his resolve. His time is no longer spent searching for shadows and omens on the horizon, but instead for staring, wide-eyed, into nothing. The glint that had inhabited his eyes at the trip’s outset has faded, replaced with the solemn stare of hopelessness.

An hour after lunch. Mayo finally decides that he’s had enough. Just across the Mbiki River, he announces that today’s search is over. The guide pulls off the side of the T2, the Jeep is unloaded, and camp is set up with the afternoon sun still beating down on us.

Mayo spends the afternoon much like he spent the day, wandering idly around, lost in the dark thoughts of the hopeless. Once darkness has settled in comfortably for the night, he plants himself by the cook fires. He’s still there, staring blankly into the dying embers, when I finally retire to my tent for the night.

Hours later, I’m shaken from a shallow slumber by the sounds of Mayo’s muffled sobs, carried through the night air on the summer breeze. And between gasps, I can hear him muttering the same one word question to himself, over and over and over again: “Why?”

Story concludes tomorrow...