I wrote this short story when I was in my mid-twenties for a creative writing course at Harvard. I thought I had lost it, but when cleaning out my office I found an old disk drive with the file still on it that I nearly threw away before checking to see what was on it on a whim. Here it is, twenty years later.
always loved the sunsets in Africa. It
is my favorite part of the day, after the porters have pitched camp, and Henny
whistles to one to set up a folding table with a starched white tablecloth
several yards away from the campfire, preferably in the shade of an acacia, and
I sit with Brock the guide and Henny the head gun bearer and we sip Cape Smoke
whiskey out of tin cups with no ice and smoke cheap cigars Brock found
somehwere in Jo’burg and formulate our next plan of action, which usually
entails Henny and Brock arguing about whether to go into the hills or into the
valley or which spoor to chase or what caliber rifle to use.
been hunting with Henny for twenty years, since I was a pretentious thirty five
years old and already heading my first oil company in Beaumont. He was equally precocious at eighteen, with
the feather headband of the Matabele nobleman around his proud head, and his
chest puffed-up with bravado and greased arms bulging with veins. “I will take you to buffalo,” I remember him
saying to me as I stepped off the ship at Capetown, my first step on African
soil. He said this to my surprise, as
that was exactly what I’d come to do.
The Cape buffalo was the most dangerous of the Big Five to hunt, so of
course I wanted to hunt that first. “I
am not afraid,” he said as he followed me through the wharf. I remember people telling me the air smelled
of spice. That was romantic. But I found the air smelled of dung -- and
sewer, always sewer. “All these other porters
are like little girls with tight legs and yellow backs when it comes to the
buffalo. I will take you, no?”
will take me, yes,” I said as I stopped and turned to him. He smiled wide, his teeth white but edged
with yellow tinge, betraying tobacco and strong coffee. “Pick ten good men for porters, men who are
also not afraid of buffalo. We’ll get
supplied and victualled at Johannesburg.
I’ll find a guide there, too.”
His looked down. But he knew as
well as I did that I needed a white guide to get the necessary concession
papers from the government. I got my
white guide, and my concessions, and my buffalo. Guides came and went, but in
the ensuing twenty years I always hunted with Henny from that time forward.
is as good a guide as I’ve had. He has
guided and outfitted us for the past four years. He’s British, and therefore knows the utility
and value of keeping a civilized camp: a
stocked bar, good linens, tins of truffles, goose paté, and a usually
well-rounded humidor and extra wine wrapped in wet rags to keep them cool. I take much, perhaps overindulgent pleasure
in these delights, particularly now.
Cape Smoke is going down smoothly. Our
usual evening trio is joined this hunt by a special fourth, Louise, my youngest
child and only daughter. Her long curly
brown hair is pulled back into a thick clump with a plastic clip. Her face is tanned to a dark bronze by the
fierce African sun, accentuating eyes the color of boiling honey--eyes that are
wise beyond her twenty years. She is
wearing a crisp white cotton shirt tucked into khaki shorts and hiking
boots. I glance over at her as she rocks
back casually in her chair, her long dark legs propped up on the table as she
listens to the usual banter, an easy smile on her face. She is beautiful.
retorts to something Brock said, “You’re a yapping hyena. The wind comes from the west, so we must run
from the rising sun tomorrow to keep our scent behind us.”
realize that, you ignorant bushman,” says Brock with a half-smile, “but we
can’t cross the Zambezi River. Civil war
going on over there. Bloody nasty. And besides, John’s concession is only for
Botswana.” Young Brock wears the guides’
uniform of khaki shirt and pants with an ammunition belt over his shoulder and
a Colt .45 at his hip. Henny wears
nothing but a leather thong of buffalo hide and a feather headband signifying
that he is of the tribe of Lobengula.
looks to me for help. “We cross the
great river, Babu?” he asks in pleading.
He knows that traveling with the wind cuts our odds dramatically for
seeing game. I reluctantly shake my
head. I would like nothing more than to
cross the Zambezi and to hell with the civil war. But I can’t be careless with the lives of our
porters, or my daughter. He rolls his eyes and throws up his hands in
sorry, Henny. We can risk casting our
scent, but not the war.” I was
soothing. “But maybe the winds will
change. Maybe we’ll see a springbok for
Louise to shoot.”
merde!” Henny says in scorn. He takes a long draw from his cheroot, then
lets the smoke drift out of this mouth as he speaks. “I came to hunt elephant. Maybe I send for my grandmother and she find
springbok for you.”
laughs, “She’d probably pitch camp faster than you could.” Brock pours himself another dram of whiskey. “We’ll break camp at an hour before sunrise,
and head east by northeast. You hear that, Henny, east, so take a bearing
on your compass.”
don’t need white man’s petty machines to know what direction I am going, Mr.
Brock. I am Matabele,” he says simply.
absently slaps at a fly on his neck.
“Well I suppose your Matabelein witchcraft can run those Land Rovers
over there without petrol. But just the same,
I’d appreciate it if your men fuel them up from the auxiliary tanks, if you
please, just to be safe.”
Henny smirks and then mumbles something that I’m sure is vulgar in
Dutch. He stamps out his cheroot on the
heel of his bare foot and walks back to the campfire to give the instructions
for tomorrow’s march to the porters.
Brock and Louise haggle over the menu for the next few days: osterich eggs and boar ham for breakfast,
jerky and bread for lunch, antelope backstrap tomorrow night, etc., and finally
Brock stands up and bids us good evening.
he is out of earshot, Louise strides over to where I’m planted in a folding
chair, watching the sunset. She gives me a sideways glance. I stop her with my hand. “I’m feeling fine. Please, out here can we let it go.”
be happy to let it go if I knew how you were actually feeling.”
put on my best smile. “Like a million
bucks in Krugerants.” I thump my
chest. “Good as gold.”
fine, really, please don’t worry yourself.”
It has been ten years since I’ve had a woman to fuss over me. I miss it.
I think of her mother and have that instantaneous pang I get every time
I think of Laura. Lord, has it been ten
years since she’s been gone? Louise was
nine when we buried her. In many ways
Louise was my rock that got me through it, moreso than my sons.
can tell you’re in pain, and don’t bother denying it,” she says indignantly
while swishing a fly from her cheek.
“But don’t expect any pity from me, especially since you’re running
around in the bush chasing a poor old crippled elephant when you should be in a
hospital getting treatment.”
sit in silence for awhile. The sun is
down, and I can only make out the outline of her face against the endless
horizon. I finally break the silence,
lamely: “He’s not crippled. A chipped
tusk. Look, I don’t picture myself lying
around watching soap operas in a hospital bed.”
I am growing tired of arguing with everyone about how I should spend my
last days on earth. Louise reaches into
her shirt pocket and pulls out a pack of Marlboro Lights and crushes out a
cigarette. I am shocked by this, but I
don’t know why. Certainly she’s old
enough to make her own decisions. I
change the subject, letting the cigarette go.
“Hey, you ready to hunt tomorrow?”
don’t want to shoot a springbok or anything else.”
act hurt. “But honey, you’re on a
hunting safari. Don’t you want to shoot
no!” she cries. “Barbaric. I just wanted to be with you. Enjoy your
company.” One last time, she stops herself
from saying as she puffs away. Then she tries on her little girl voice. “Do you really have to shoot an elephant,
daddy? I mean, they’re so majestic and
wonderful, I really don’t see how you can live with yourself.”
pour myself another dram of Cape whiskey from the decanter. I look out into the bush and say quietly,
“Honey, the elephant is the last of the Big Five for me. This old bull’s given us hell that last
couple of seasons. He’s almost impossible
“Really? Let him be.
This business of hunting elephants gives me a sick feeling. It’s not right.”
twinge of anger burns up my throat, but it cools almost immediately. She’s my daughter. “Sweatheart, let me tell you something. It is
right, it truly is. The Botswanan
government has a good wildlife preservation program. Due to overpopulation, they cull over a
hundred elephant a year. They do it with
machine guns. They carve them up to
feed the poor. I know it sounds ghastly
but if they didn’t do it, those elephant would die the slow death of starvation
and rot in the bush. But the most
important part of this program is to allow hunters to come in and buy
concessions in limited numbers, at the tune of fifteen thousand dollars per elephant,
and they use that money to fund their preservation efforts for endangered
species. So you see, it is the right thing to do. And trust me, the elephant I’m after would be
a fair hunt, and he’s old as Moses -- provided I can find him.”
sits there in stubborn silence for several minutes. She is so much like me at times it makes my
heart swell with pride. Yet she reminds
me in many ways of Laura when she was young:
such an idealist, so headstrong.
Laura would be proud to see her daughter now, so pretty and smart like
a sigh she says, “I don’t like it, daddy.
I wish you’d just leave him alone.”
it go, Louise.” I grasp at my fatherly
authority like a lifeline when I need it.
I can feel the heat of those brown eyes with specs of yellow regarding
me through the darkness with ire.
sit in the dark for another twenty minutes in silence staring at the thick
clumps of stars, African stars, which like everything else here are overly
sublime, and I am convinced by this remarkable spectacle that there is a
heaven. I start to wonder if Laura is up
there gazing down and laughing at me acting like a fool chasing this old bull
all over Botswana. But soon the hyenas
start into their ominous cries, giving the night an eerie quality that stays
with me through my nightmares.
wake at three in the morning in high pain -- not the constant and droning ache
that is becoming so much a part of my life that I hardly notice it, but the hot
needles that stab at my insides and rack my torso until, finally, when I think
I can’t take it anymore and start to fumble for my medication (I try not to
take it too much because it gives me a hangover and makes me itch that’s almost
as bad as the pain), it crescendos, and draws thankfully back to its normal
further sleep is out of the question, I wipe the marbles of sweat from my
forehead with a damp kerchief and step out to rekindle the cooking fire and
brew some coffee. To my relief I find
Henny already involved in that endeavor and he pours a thick black stream into
my tin cup. “I see you, Babu.”
see you too, Henny.” The roasted aroma
of the coffee mixes with that dewy-honey odor of the mornings peculiar to the
bush, giving the cool air a sweet musky smell, like a wet puppy or the sweat of
a child, and it lifts my spirits: for I
am here, I am alive, and I am on a hunt that gives me purpose, a goal; and as
long as I have one I care about I know I can’t die.
sip our java in silence and let the steaming liquid slowly carry the icy clouds
from our heads. Henny speaks first, in
the French, “Es-tu malade? You look old for your years, Babu. You must sleep more.” Henny is unaware of my sickness, but he’s not
stupid and nothing gets by him.
are so clever to observe that, Henny, when I take coffee with you at
three-thirty. I must recommend you to
the dean at my alma mater at Harvard Business School.” I don’t want them to know about my ‘maladie.’
puts a dark cheroot between his teeth and leans into the fire to light it. He rocks back on his heels and smiles. “Is this place you call Harvard a place for
that or a place where people tell each other how wise they are.”
you must have passed many moons there, Babu, for you believe yourself to be
very wise.” It is his turn to be
sardonic, and mine to switch to English.
is your family, Henny?”
“Trés bien, Monsieur. My boys have grown up strong, have married
women with fat cattle. And how are your
boys? Are they selling the black gold
oldest son John has risen fast through the company, on is own merit. The younger boy, Mike, is running around
Europe with nothing but a backpack and a train pass, apparently to find
himself. I only hear from him when he
ha!” Henny spits into the fire. “Europe is not the place to find out your
soul, unless you’re a dressmaker. Bring
him to Africa and leave him with me. I
will show him who he is.” White teeth
gleam at me over the firelight. “What
about your girl, Babu, is she to marry?”
laugh, “Not any time soon, Henny, at least not that I know of. She graduates from college next fall.”
frowns at her failure to marry. “And
then what, Babu?”
consider this and realize I’ve been so busy administering my illness that I
haven’t even asked her what her plans are.
“Who knows what a woman thinks?” I say vaguely, and Henny nods and seems
fire pops and sizzles, and we slip into silence for a long while. Then I ask the inevitable, “Have you heard any gossip about the great
one with the chipped horn?”
puffs on his smoke for a moment, deliberately building suspense. Entertainment holds a high value in the
bush. “Not in a long time, Babu,” he
says finally, trying to dampen my high hopes.
“I fear he has died of old age, like you will if you don’t rest more.”
don’t need a nurse-maid, Henny, just a gunbearer who knows where the great one
is. He’s not dead.”
empty my cup and hold it out for more.
As he fills my cup I say, “Look, Henny, I need this kill. I want this kill. It’s very important to me.”
considers this for a moment while he doodles with a stick in the dirt. “I’ll send my best scouts out today in
different directions to scan the entire valley.
If the great one with the broken tooth has been within one hundred
kilometers of this camp in the last two weeks, we will catch his spoor and we
will track him…if he hasn’t crossed
the river already.” He throws his stick into the fire.
“I want this kill, Henny,” I
looks me straight in the eye and says evenly, “Every kill is important to me,
Babu. If your elephant is alive, I will
and I are riding in the lead Rover of the caravan, sitting high in the seats
bolted on the roof. It is a wonderfully
cool day, with a strong breeze. Within
an hour Brock taps on the roof and we see his hand pointing out the window to
the north, and we spot a group of Impala making their elegant leaps and bounds
through the brush and Grevy’s Zebra grazing on the sweet grass. Louise shrieks with delight and snaps
pictures while I pan the valley below with my Zeiss glasses.
noon we break for lunch. The porters
circle the Rovers and we lay down a blanket and picnic on the soft grass. Henny slices a sweet onion and we eat it with
jerky and tough French bread while Brock takes a bearing and consults his
put down that map and make yourself really useful by opening a bottle of
wine.” Yes, I am very indulgent these
days. Why not? “Fetch the ’81 bottle of Clariche Chardonnay,
there’s a good fellow.” I smile at
Louise, “We’ll just pretend like it’s chilled.”
but it is!” Brock cries. He is clearly proud of himself. “I purchased a portable ice box at Berring’s
that plugs into the cigarette lighter, on your account. I hope you don’t mind.”
speaks through me, “Are you kidding?
Quit talking and pop it open. I’m
a lush. Are you even old enough, my
dear?” I chide.
such laws in Botswana, daddy. And
besides, we’re celebrating. My first
safari.” And so we do. We polish off a bottle and enjoy the warm
mellow feeling brought on by the wine and the afternoon breeze and the
sun. These two weeks have been the best
I’ve ever spent with Louise. I ask her
what she wants to do after graduation.
relations. You remember I interned at
Timberland Sports last summer as a PR assistant. I’m pretty sure I’ll get a job with
in the hell would you want to work for them?
Why don’t you work for Gulf Coast Energy? God knows we need some talent in the PR
daddy, you don’t understand,” she says as she packs up the basket.
much I don’t understand, don’t know. Is
she still a virgin? Has she ever been in
love? What makes her happy, makes her
cry? I ask these questions in my head
like every father but, like other fathers, will never ask them and will never
know. I wonder who she confides in, not
having a mother? Surely she has
friends. I light up a Cohiba, and offer
her a flame for her Marlboro. She smiles
at me and we sit and enjoy our smokes in the sunlight.
am stubbing out my cigar on a rock when a scout runs into the camp shouting
something in Sinebebe. Henny looks up
from his whittling and walks over to meet him.
He starts babbling again and Henny says, “In
French, in French! So Mr. John can
“I crossed his spoor -- the great one with the
broken tooth!” He says with a wide
smile. He is panting lightly after
running several miles.
the setting sun, four or five kilometers.
Over the hill.” He points.
you sure it’s his spoor, and not another elephant’s?” This question is mine and an unnecessary
one. These men are born hunters, and
know the track each distinctive animal makes at a glance. Henny shoots me a disapproving look.
Monsieur, I am certain. I also found his dung. Less than one day old.”
and I exchange glances. This is it. Brock steps up to the hood of a Rover and
yells, “Safari! Safari! Let’s go you snail turds. Safari!”
And in an instant everything is packed and the Land Rovers make their
takes a piece of the dung heap and grinds it in his hand. “Not fresh, Babu. Twenty hours old, maybe more. At least he is heading into the wind.” He looks up at Brock who is panning the
horizon with his field glasses.
“Yea, he’s probably in Kimberley by now
drinking a martini at Diamond Lil’s.”
he could be meandering west only three miles from here,” I reply irritably.
brings down his field glasses and gives me a sideways glance. “Or closer.
There’s no way of knowing without looking, but we need to go on foot
from here. It’s getting late,” he takes
off his hat and wipes his forehead with a linen handkerchief, “but I suppose we
can take a look. Let’s break down our
loads to marching weights, if you please.
hike for three miles before taking a break so that Brock can check the bearing
on his Hammacher-Schlemmer compass.
Henny has been running ahead, marking the spoor and making sure the old
bull hasn’t swung around in a cloverleaf pattern to catch the scent of
is tireless, running ahead and then running back to update me, forgetting her
ideals momentarily in the excitement. I
try to remember if I was ever that young and full of energy. We each carry a small backpack with bare
provisions: water, cornmeal, matches,
and a pup tent in case we must pitch camp before we can get back to the Land
Rovers. I pride myself in keeping in
shape but the sickness has taken its toll, and I can feel the fire burning in
my chest and legs, the small pack becoming heavier with each step.
jogs back to meet us, his gait long and graceful as a gazelle. He is smiling. “Found another dung heap. Two hours old!”
takes action. “Okay. Let’s load up the rifles. Henny, get two of your best bearers and you
and I and John will go ahead…”
not going without me.” Louise cuts him
short. Brock looks up and sees her
expression and wisely decides not to argue.
“Okay. Walk slowly.
No sounds. Crouch when you’re
told and run when you’re told. And for
God’s sake, no heroes.” This last bit of
instruction is in Dutch to the two gunbearers.
break down our packs further and start our slow march in a semicircle
formation. We walk in this way for
another two miles when we lose the spoor in rocky terrain. We continue on straight and come upon the
edge of a cliff, where fifty yards below the blue waters of the Zambezi River
flow. My heart drops. We crawl on our stomachs to the edge and peer
over, watching the swirling waters below.
He must have turned off. I look
to Henny for his opinion. He shrugs.
probably walked upstream to a place where he can cross. I’m sorry, Babu, but he is gone. We would never catch him before he swims
across. He won’t return until after the
rainy season. But he is tough, and we
will get another shot next year.”
exchange a glance with Louise.
shame,” Brock adds either with sympathy, or with the thought that he lost his
stares down at the river and then gazes up into the sky. “You mean he swims across?” she asks to no
one in particular.
says Brock, “elephant walk across with their trunks out of the water to
breath. About two kilometers north is a
gradual sandy grade into the river. He
probably uses that crossing. He’ll be
swept downstream about a kilometer before he reaches the other side. Our only chance would be to walk a kilometer
up river and get him while he’s crossing.”
I shake my head. “We’d have to get him
before he enters the water.”
gets up and brushes the bits of slate off her shorts and shirt and we follow
her lead. Brock explains the situation
to the two gunbearers in Cape Dutch while Henny and I rest on a large
rock. Louise walks a few yards down the
length of the cliff inspecting the edge.
will come back, Babu, and we will track the great one next season?”
sure, Henny,” I say as I trace stars and crosses in the gravel with a stick.
he took this path,” Louise says suddenly, pointing down to a partially hidden
catwalk probably carved by ancients against the face of the cliff.
laughs and says, “Elephant are afraid of heights, would never walk on so narrow
thought you said this one was very wise and clever. Maybe he’s overcome his fears,” she says.
looks up from his map and smiles. “I
didn’t know they taught elephant psychology at Amherst.”
I’m going to take a look,” Louise says with her hands on her hips and her
weight on one leg, just like her mother.
go with you,” I say smiling while grabbing my rifle, inspired by her
stance. “Who knows what an old elephant
half walk, half slide down the rocky path, careful not to slip on the loose
slate to the rocks below. I have trouble
keeping up with Louise, my rifle is cumbersome.
When we are about half way down she stops and points to the river and
says quietly, “Look at that.” It takes
me a minute to get to her and look at the shore below. I see the great one with the chipped tusk
rambling slowly towards the water’s edge, plowing through the sandy loam of the
riverbank, not winning over his fears but tired by them. He looks gaunt and haggard, as if a lifetime
of carrying those enormous tusks have taken their toll and his head drags under
their mass. He swings his weight from
side to side, lumbering through the mud. The breeze is in our face and we put
our hands to our eyes to shade against the evening sun. I may have been able to get a shot off, maybe
not, but I just stand there, staring at him as he stumbles into the water. I feel a pain in my chest, a pain of sorrow,
of lost lives, of old regrets. The current
sweeps the old bull around the bend, and Louise puts her arm around my waist
and we silently start back up the path.
has been three months since Africa. I am
dying a slow death at the M.D. Anderson Clinic in Houston. Louise has just finished reading the
newspaper to me, but I am disinterested in today’s events: so serious, so futile. She tells me she has gained a position with
Timberland Sports in the PR department.
I smile and touch her cool dry hand.
She leans over and kisses my forehead and goes down the hall to get some
pain has worn me down over the weeks, but it is gone now. I am so tired, so dreadfully tired. I feel like I’m in a sort of suspended state
between reality and dream. I’m thirsty
for a glass of water.
thinking about when we were young, we’re sitting on the cannon in Cambridge
Yard and you tell me I should go back to school; John Jr. is born and we are so
broke he sleeps in a drawer. I see
Michael winning the state track mete at Kinkaid, running through the ribbon
triumphant, we are so proud. I see
Louise when she was two, she is sick, her little hands against the oxygen tent
and her tiny breath fogging the plastic, I want to hug her, tell her I love
her, we are so scared we never leave her side for three days and nights. Do you remember that, Laura? I smell spice, and I see a land where
everything is harsh yet beautiful. Can
you see it? It’s so lovely. I see the sunset in Africa.