“The P. H.’s used to take bets on who would be the first
to bed the client’s wife.”
Former professional hunter, talking about Africa
He was an old man, self made, who had hunted all over the world, but always he had been drawn to Africa, to the freedom and beauty of Africa, and now he wanted one more safari, one last carefree adventure. He hadn’t been back since his first wife had died, more than twenty years now, partly because he associated Africa with her. They had discovered it together, explored it, hunted it together, his wife plump and pretty with cameras slung around her neck recording each new adventure. He was young then, strong and restless as the animals he hunted and death was somewhere else, waiting for someone else. They had raised a son and a daughter and then had stood holding hands as they buried the remains of what may or may not have been their or someone else’s son, Viet Nam, friendly fire. They had married their daughter twice, watched her divorce twice and slide into alcoholism. They had helped her climb back onto the inconstant dry ground of sobriety. And then he had watched his wife die, cancer, and stood finally with no hand to hold at her graveside and Africa faded into memory.
When he remarried, his new wife had no interest in hunting or the outdoors and she had had enough of travel, but she was loving and attentive and he was wise enough to content himself with what was and not try to duplicate what had been. But now it was time and there was little of it left.
It wasn’t at all what she had expected. She had thought it would look like California in the summer, rolling hills and golden grass dotted with oaks. Not this endless flat, monotone scrub. Twice she saw roads, unpaved, going nowhere, fading off into the unending bush like bits of frayed string. Once they flew over a tiny village, a dozen or so little huts, some round, some square, a few with thatched roofs, the rest tin, and no people. She had expected lions and zebras. There was nothing. Finally she did see in the distance a long flowing black line beneath a cloud of dust and the Old Man turned around in his seat and pointed. “Wildebeest,” he said and he looked happy. And then again there was nothing but sameness and light so bright it made her head throb.
The banking of the little plane woke her to a different world. The land was the same dreary flatness, but the first thing she saw was two giraffes running through the scrub and she realized with delight that what she had taken for slow motion on television was just how they ran. The plane was very low now, dropping as it banked, dropping and straightening. As they shot along the clearing, great clouds of earth rising around them, she caught a glimpse of men, white and black, standing by two open Rovers. The land had been empty for so long that the sight of men and machines was a jarring incongruity. The plane slowed and turned and she saw them again: two black, two white, two vehicles, waiting with predatory stillness. She put on her sunglasses.
When the door opened the combination of heat and light was overpowering and dizzying, but the Old Man moved down the steps with bounce and looked better than he had for months. The two white men moved forward to meet them. One introduced himself as their professional hunter. He was almost as tall as the Old Man and looked stronger and more feral than any animal she expected to see in Africa. The other was little more than a boy and was introduced as an apprentice, not yet licensed. The two black men were not introduced, but started loading the bags and gun cases into one of the Rovers.
The Old Man had said that Africa was a land of extremes and she had seen the contrast between the slums—townships, they called them—and the concession owner’s comfortable and walled suburban home. But now in the camp which looked just as the Old Man had said it would she was unprepared for the impression of luxury. Wall tents and canvas folding chairs and hides of unknown animals spread over grass mats became an enclave of comfort for them, an island in the bush. And they, the P.H., the boy, the Old Man, even she, moved through the alien island as their rightful place in the world, while the blacks waited on them, diffident and deferential, as if they belonged neither to the little island nor to the surrounding bush.
The Old Man went off with the two hunters to sight in his rifles while she took a shower and here too she was surprised. What she had expected to be primitive and uncomfortable was titillating: to have warm water flowing over her under an open sky; to have only canvas hiding her nakedness from Africa.
That night they dined under a canopy by a great fire that took little of the chill out of the air. The long table was set with a white tablecloth and silver and they ate impala and drank strong Cape wine until at last in their tent they fell into exhausted sleep. Once she woke, dreaming of lions, but it was only the Old Man, snoring, and she slept again.
“She’s quite the piece, eh?”
They were in their tent, lying in the dark. They could hear the Old Man and, more distant, Khulu, the head tracker, matching him snore for snore.
“She looks like a film star.” The boy was on fire. He’d never seen anything so beautiful. “They’re from California. Do you think she is?”
“We’d have heard of her.” The P.H.’s voice was soft and husky in the dark.
“What’s she doing with an old geezer like that? He’s got to be twice her age. How old is she? How old do you think?”
“Forty! Not possible. She doesn’t look forty. Do you think she’s forty?”
“She’s American. They all have face lifts.”
The boy lay thinking about that. Way off, barely audible, he could hear a hyena. At last he said, “Are you going to ride her, then?”
The P.H. laughed softly. “Yeah.”
“Do you think she will?”
There was a moment of silence before the P.H. answered.
“It’s why I love it when the old ones bring their trophy wives. They’re bored. The rich are always bored. After a week she’ll be so tired she can’t think straight and more bored than ever. Then I’ll send him out with you and, yeah, I’ll ride her.”
The boy was burning hotter now just thinking about it. Forty? Couldn’t be. She didn’t look anything like it. Jesus, his Ma wasn’t much over forty.
“And then I’ll take him out again,” the P.H. said, “and you can have a go at her. Put a notch on your wanger.”
The thought of it made the boy’s skin feel too tight. “Do you think she will, then?”
“How much do you think she’s getting now?”
The boy lay still for a long time. At last he said, “Do you always ride them? The pretty ones? The trophy wives?”
“Sure.” The P.H.’s voice was heavy with sleep. “It’s another form of hunting, isn’t it? The old ones go out after game, I go after their wives.”
There was silence then, only the distant sound of frogs down by the river. The boy lay in the dark, thinking of her, of the faint sweet smell of her he’d caught as they shook hands, burning, until at last he too rode off to sleep.
The P.H. was puzzled. They had hunted hard for days—at least they went out early, covered miles and miles of Africa, glassed countless animals and came back late and tired and dirty—but the Old Man showed a strange reluctance to shoot. On the second day he had shot a lone cow eland with a broken and festering leg—
She: “What happened to it?”
“Poachers. Wire snare. You can see a piece of the wire still caught in the joint. Here.” The P.H. passed her his binoculars.
“Oh,” a quick intake of breath, “What will become of it, her?”
“Hyenas will find her tonight.”
“Oh,” again, smaller this time.
The Old Man stepped down without a word, rifle in hand, and glanced at the P.H. For a moment they looked at each other, then the P.H. nodded and the Old Man brought the rifle up and shot quickly, easily, without hesitation. The cow jumped forward, stumbling onto its nose, then onto its side, kicked and was still.
—but then he passed up animal after animal, some really good specimens. He clearly knew what he was doing, he had paid a prince’s ransom for this safari, but he seemed content to glass and stalk.
On the third day the P.H. asked him to shoot a hartebeest for the camp—Perhaps he holds back for her or some other reason and this will start him—and the Old Man did it easily and cleanly and went right back to glassing.
And every day she went with them, uncomplaining, enduring the heat and dust and fatigue. Once a baboon had chattered at them and the P.H., on impulse and without thought, had chattered back at it, provoking it to frenzy, and she had laughed and giggled long after the baboon was out of sight. But mostly she was very quiet, none of the usual American wives’ look-at-me talk. When he or her husband would point out an animal to her she would glass it dutifully, but she said little. She thought the impala were lovely, leaping like ballet dancers, and when they came unexpectedly on a small herd of zebra that wheeled and turned in confusion before they ran off she gave a little cry of pleasure. Beyond that she voiced neither enthusiasm nor discontent, as self-contained as a cat. And her quiet puzzled him as much as the Old Man’s not shooting.
“When you’re at home, do you have a career?”
She waited a moment for him to add, “or are you just a housewife?” But he didn’t.
They were sitting in one of the Rovers. It was the day the P.H. asked the Old Man to shoot the hartebeest and they had gone off, the Old Man, the boy and three of the blacks.
“I used to be an airline stewardess, but I quit when we got married.”
“We thought you might be a film star.”
“A movie star?” She looked at him to see if he were teasing. She was used to men reacting to her in a certain way, but no one had ever said that before. He was playing with the keys, still in the ignition, his arm stretched out, cords of muscle moving under black hairs as neat and straight as if he had combed them and when he glanced at her there was no humor in his face; it was just a statement.
“God, no. I didn’t even move to California until we got married.”
“Where were you from, then?”
“That’s not in California?”
“No.” She smiled at him and saw his eyes leave hers and go to her mouth. “It’s in Louisiana. In the south.”
“Ah. So that’s a southern accent, then?”
“Yes. And your accent? Is that how everyone talks here?”
There was a shot in the distance that might have come from anywhere. He raised his head and waited, listening.
“One shot,” he said finally. “That’s good.”
“Why is that good?”
“One shot usually means a clean hit or a clean miss. Not always, of course, but he’s a good shot, your husband.”
“How did you become a professional hunter?” It seemed such an extraordinary life-choice, like saying I’m going to become a hit man or a cowboy or an astronaut.
“It’s all I ever wanted. My Da had a ranch just a few hundred k from here.” He gestured to the east. “I was raised in the bush.”
He told her about his childhood, growing up not unlike an animal himself in an Africa that was now fast disappearing. He told her of pets he had had as a boy, a three-legged gazelle, an orphaned zebra with a foul temper and quick hooves that terrorized everyone for miles around, an eland that grew to the size of a small horse and wandered through their house in search of apples. He told her of his introduction to hunting with his father’s rifles when he was still so small that nearly every shot knocked him down. He made her laugh at things that would have appalled her had she witnessed them, charming, self-deprecating, making even death, the end result of his way of life, a bumbling, slapstick, comic figure.
She was laughing when the Old Man and Khulu and the boy came back into the clearing. The head tracker sat on the front of the Rover, pointing their way through the bush over a mile to where the hartebeest lay, the boy telling what a fine shot the Old Man had made, and he, her old husband, winking at her, neither proud nor flattered.
She had watched the Old Man shoot the dying eland, but they had simply left it where it fell. Now they stood around the red coat and strangely crooked horns and she was struck by the unreality of this dead thing. There was no bullet hole that she could see, not even blood, just this strange looking animal, not beautiful, lying on its side. ‘We will eat this tonight, this that was alive just a few moments ago, served to us by black hands with pink palms like those I knew as a child, but so different, so foreign here.’ Already the blacks were gathering around, pleased and excited, waiting to put the dead thing in the truck, to carry it back to camp.
At the end of the week they spotted a greater kudu of marvelous size, four full spirals of horn, maybe sixty inches in length, and the Old Man became a man possessed. Day after day they went out after that particular kudu, passing up several in the fifty-inch range, ignoring scores of other fine animals, and always they came back empty handed. Twice the wind betrayed them and twice his tracks simply vanished, leaving Khulu scratching his head and the P.H. cursing under his breath and the Old Man happier and more excited than before. And still she went out with them, rising early every morning, stumbling exhausted to the dinner table at night, until one afternoon the Old Man came back to the Rover and found her with her safari jacket pulled up around her head against the tiny unrelenting black sweat bees, a look of despair on her face.
“That’s it. We’re quitting.”
“I’m all right.”
“We’re quitting. Tomorrow we’ll just hang around camp and rest.”
And so it was that they were lounging under the canopy after breakfast when two local villagers strolled into camp and said that they had just seen a kudu bull bigger than any they had seen before, bigger than any man had seen before, bigger than any in the memories of their fathers and they would show where it was in exchange for a lift.
The P.H. was holding the big truck’s carburetor in his hands and he glanced at the Old Man.
The Old Man looked at his wife. “You stay and rest. We’ll be back before dark.”
“Take Khulu and as many as you need of the others.” The P.H. turned from the boy to the Old Man. “Good hunting.”
They tracked the kudu all morning through the bush, following prints that meandered without purpose as he browsed randomly. The Old Man and the boy walked together a few respectful feet behind Khulu who pointed out minute disturbances in the sandy soil, depressions and ridges so vague they might have been anything. Khulu would point with the crooked twig he carried and the boy would nod or grunt and Khulu would take a few hesitating steps and point again. Other times he would stop looking altogether and walk very rapidly thirty or forty yards at a time, the filthy woolen German Army coat he wore in defiance of the heat flapping as he sped to a point picked… How? Yet always there would be a print. After a time the Old Man came to believe there was some kind of understanding between Khulu and the bull—animals are unpredictable but knowable; it is people who are predictable but always unknowable, each of us locked behind the walls we present to the world—as if every step of this day had been rehearsed before by man and beast so that each knew what the other would do, knew too what the outcome would be.
At midday they stopped and ate sandwiches in the sparse shade of some unknown tree. He must have been far more tired than he realized for when the boy shook him awake part of his sandwich was still uneaten in his hand.
“We’ve found your bull.”
A surge of excitement went through him, but what his heart and spirit felt couldn’t be conveyed to his exhausted body. Each limb was twice its normal weight as he struggled to his feet and stumbled stiffly after the boy. It wasn’t far, a few hundred yards, to a vast shallow pan that tilted away to the north where Khulu and two of the others were waiting, pointing as he walked up. He could see nothing.
“Right.” The boy’s voice was shaking. “Use this tree as a rear sight and that tall one, the tallest tree, as your front sight. Now go out about three hundred yards. There’s a sandy patch. He’s just at the edge on the left side, in the shadow.”
Still he could see nothing. Even through binoculars he could see no trace of hair or horn. Then an ear twitched and like one of those trick pictures where an image is only visible to the unfocused eye the entire bull materialized, great gray body with cream stripes, wide spirals of horn, even the ivory tips, their movement exaggerating the slightest shake of head.
The eye’s field of view is limited only by the turning of the head. Even binoculars bring a large area in for examination. But a scope distills and focuses the hunter’s world down to a moment of intimacy, two separate beating hearts connected through metal tubing.
When did she know? At what point did she think, this isn’t just polite conversation, the paid guide keeping the paying client amused? The paying client’s wife. And what told her? The way his eyes kept going to her mouth? Some subtle excretion of pheromone? Whatever. When realization came, she understood her mind was only now catching up with what her body already knew.
A bird was calling in the bush, had been calling for some time now, metallic and monotonous. She asked what it was.
“A gray lourie. We call them go-away birds for their call, but they sound more like the Cowardly Lion. Remember in The Wizard of Oz? ‘Come on! Come on!’” He put his fists up like a boxer from a hundred years ago. “’I’ll take you with one paw tied behind my back. Come on!’”
She laughed and he laughed with her.
It was flattering. She was used to the attentions and desires of men, and it was always flattering. Now, from this man, not handsome but attractive, made attractive by his confidence and easy authority, it was flattering and more. She felt as she had that first afternoon in the shower.
He was easy to talk to. A careful blend of interest in her, her life, thoughts, feelings, concerns, mixed with judiciously relevant anecdotes of his own adventures, a few famous names dropped with exquisite casualness, a diplomatic anonymity kept for the Famous Actor who ran like a rabbit from an equally frightened Cape Buffalo. Oh, yes. It was very flattering. But as the morning passed she became aware of a direction, a focus. There is a difference between a man who wants and a man who wants badly enough to pursue.
“Another gin and tonic?” He was on his feet, her glass in his hand.
“God, no. I’d be sloshed.”
“That’s all right. It’s what one goes on vacation for.”
“To get drunk?”
“To let go a bit.”
He was amusing. ‘They’re not very subtle, men.’ She stretched and yawned, graceful as a cat, one paw over her mouth.
“I think I’ll go lie down for awhile.”
He stepped close to her and the body heat that emanated from him was shocking, not sweaty heat, but life itself, as if vitality could be measured in degrees Celsius. A touch, a big dry hand on her shoulder, light and delicate, as a man might touch a rare and frangible thing in a shop. She could feel the quick thudding of her heart in her ears, her breath squeezed into her throat, the hairs on her arms suddenly alive.
“No.” Her voice was ragged and foreign in her ears.
He smiled, lips apart, and inclined his head just a little, his breath the clean smell of gin. His face was pink and tan, his forehead gleaming white above his eyebrows.
His hand left the neutral harbor of shoulder and moved lightly, easily down her back, her skin jumping like a horse’s under his touch. It came to rest gently above the swell of buttock. “Come on.” The lourie bird.
“I think not.” Her claws came out, displayed for just an instant, all that was necessary.
For a moment they stood like that, a moment of anticipation captured in marble. Then:
“Right.” He withdrew his hand. “Well, then. Beg pardon.” He moved stiffly away.
When the Rover and the truck pulled in they all gathered around and admired the great bull. There was laughter and hilarity, white teeth against black skin. Even the young one with the sullen face and the fez who stoked the night fire was smiling and joyful. They clapped the Old Man on the back and ran their hands along the four deep curves of horn, testing the ivory tips with their palms, calling excitedly to one another. The boy told how the shot was 320 paces, how they had glassed it and stalked it and tracked it to that final moment in the sandy clearing. The P.H. thrust a whisky into the Old Man’s hand and when she asked the Old Man if it really was a big one the P.H. translated and they all laughed and Khulu gestured with his hands to show her the length of horn of other, lesser bulls.
And through it all the Old Man was happy and uneasy. How? Why? If an animal can smell a man’s fear, can we not somehow smell deceit? Perhaps there was just a shade too much formality, an embarrassment that had not existed before, a careful not looking at each other, some change of energy too subtle to quantify. She put her arms around him and all was well, but when he went to shower and change little doubts and insecurities, like bright pieces of glass, niggling dis-eases he could not identify, turned in his stomach.
At the long table under the canopy, as they dined and celebrated, he tried to push his feelings away from him even as he looked to confirm what he feared. But it was while his mind was in fact on something else entirely—a question of the boy’s about hunting bear in America—that the kaleidoscope stopped turning and the myriad green and red pieces of glass suddenly fell into a recognizable pattern. The P.H.’s glance lingered just a fraction too long, hers turned away a fraction too quickly and all he thought, could think, was, ‘I am old.’ At night he would lie awake sometimes feeling and listening to his failing body not in sorrow or in anger but with a kind of wonder that it could no longer perform as effortlessly as it once had, knowing that soon even the most natural tasks would become intensive labors, but even then he had not thought of himself as old. Dying, yes, not old. But now, as if looking at a photograph, perhaps a candid snapshot taken by her, he saw himself, his own lanky frame from which the muscles were already wasting away, skin pinkly blotched by the unaccustomed sun, knees and elbows large and lumpy as grapefruits, standing next to the P.H. with his broad shoulders and well-muscled sun-browned legs, hair black and glossy as a Labrador’s. ‘Yes. I am old. She looked so happy, and young, when I came back after the hartebeest, when he made her laugh at the baboon, so young, so young. I am old.’ Both thought and admission caught him by surprise.
And later that night, lying in his cot: ‘If I am old, how can I blame her?’ He remembered a time long ago when he had followed his own imperfect desires. ‘Do we judge one sex differently than another? Particularly, should I? It was I who chose to leave her behind, who told her to stay behind. If I had asked, she would have come.’ And so he had achieved something almost like comfort when suddenly, unbidden, came the memory of an early date when he had run his hand through her hair and his hand had burned like a flame he wanted her so, and with that memory came grief that was physical pain. He covered his mouth with his hand, the same hand he had run through her hair, mottled coldly now with liver spots, and stopped the grief inside him.
In her cot, across the tent, across the skin of some animal she could not identify: ‘Perhaps I should tell him. Not now, not here, but after we are on the plane or maybe at home. I won’t tell him I was tempted. Only that the offer was made and refused.’
The Old Man made a small sound unlike any he made in his normal sleep and she became alert, but he did not make it again. She lay thinking with satisfaction of the gift of her own virtue and she was almost asleep when suddenly: ‘No. Why tell him at all? Why cause him any distress? If I tell, he may think this happens whenever he is out of my presence and that would only upset him. Trotting out my strength and fidelity like halter horses for him to admire makes me feel good, but will only hurt him. I love him and the best is to keep my mouth shut and him free of pain.’
Across the tent the Old Man made the same small strained sound again. For a time she lay listening, but he was quiet and eventually she slept.
“What a bloody strange safari.” The P.H. started the Rover. “You just can’t tell about Americans.” The little plane was still climbing, banking away to the south. “Italians will shoot everything in sight. You have to watch them so they don’t shoot the trackers and the cook. The Germans only care about how their damn toys work, their rifles with all those pop-up bells and whistles. The English have to kill everything the right way or it doesn’t count. Japanese don’t care what it is or how they get it if it’s the right size. And Arabs don’t care if they kill anything or not as long as there is enough whisky in camp. But Americans… They’re impossible to predict. Fourteen days and he’s going home with one damn trophy.”
“They were nice though.”
A rhinoceros trotted out into the track ahead of them and stopped, its ears focused on them like leather cornets. The P.H. quickly put the Rover in reverse and backed up a hundred feet or so and they sat, waiting, until it finally walked on into the bush.
“And people say they’re unpredictable. God help us if they ever breed an American rhinoceros.”
“Did…” The boy stopped.
“Did you ride her?”
The P.H. drove on for awhile. “Well, let’s just say the whole safari wasn’t a total waste.” He smiled at the boy. “Bad luck you didn’t get your turn. Can’t be helped. It was a damn strange safari.”