Image: Kim Wolhuter/National Geographic Stock
Interview: "I Dreamed of Africa"
Téa Obreht describes how National Geographic shaped her writing career.
They were talking about the funeral when the lights went out. They had been sitting on the porch for almost two hours, and Neal, still on his first gin-and-tonic, was telling Roland about the priest he had found in Longido to do the services. He was telling Roland about how the priest, Father Abasi, had once been watering the garden in shorts and clogs when a man came by from the village and asked to see his boss, and how Father Abasi said “I’ll go get him,” and turned off the hose and went inside and changed into his cassock and came back out and then went to bury the man’s daughter.
Neal was talking, and Roland had his hat on his knees and was pouring himself another gin. They had brought Femi’s coffin back from Longido around noon, and Roland had been drinking steadily since then, except for the 20 minutes before dinner when he had gone upstairs to bottle-feed Nyah and put her to bed.
“I think Femi would have liked this priest,” Neal was saying. “I think she would have tolerated him.” Then the porch went dark.
Neal needed a moment to realize what had happened. He was already turning in his seat to call for Mrs. Halima, the housekeeper, to tell her she’d turned the porch lights off by mistake, when he realized that he couldn’t see the house behind him, couldn’t see the tourist bungalows or the gate lamps. The generator, he realized. The generator had blown in the heat. A bright half-moon clung to the side of the main house like something unfinished, and Neal could see the fever trees that lined the drive, thick with roosting vultures, bald-headed and silent, and the rolling tilt of the hills that clustered on the horizon and then dropped off into Ngorongoro.
The darkness, the sudden crippling of his senses, brought back his awareness of the wildebeest. They had been on the move since last week, and now the smell of them on the dry wind made the air rancid and dense. He could hear them on the plain beyond the lodge gate, hundreds of stragglers from the main herd spread out on the veld, swarming the dirt trail that led down to the water hole. The light, he realized, had given him the illusion of distance, and now that it was gone the night felt crowded with soft grunts, the insistent, rubber-soled scraping of their voices. Last night, lions had brought down a bull by the water, and the screaming before the windpipes gave way had been extraordinary. In the morning, Neal had found the red domes of the rib cage swarming with vultures. In large part this was why he had relocated his tourists. He was glad, more than ever, that he had.
Roland hadn’t moved at all, but now Neal heard him say, “Where’s the dog?”
“Upstairs,” Neal said. “With the baby.”
“I sent him home,” Neal said. “We don’t have any tourists to guard.” He heard Roland lower his feet from the porch railing and push the chair back. “Let’s wait for the generator,” Neal said. “Let’s wait and see what it does.”
Roland was leaning forward in his chair. Neal could hear him drinking the gin, the ice in the glass clinking. Neal’s eyes were adjusting now, and the moon seemed brighter. He was beginning to make out the slope of the trail leading down from the lodge, the grass shuddering over the hills, the distant glassy surface of the water hole. Roland groped for the end table and put the glass down. Neal heard shuffling footsteps, and then Mrs. Halima came out onto the porch, carrying a large square candle. She put it on the table, picked up Roland’s empty glass, then reached for the gin bottle beside the chair. She was a thin Swahili woman with a serious face, a widow. She had been working for the previous owners of Harper’s Lodge when Neal bought the place three years ago, and the first day he met her, she’d said to him: “Breakfast is at seven, and I told the staff they’ll be turning the sheets down same as they always have.” He’d realized then she wasn’t going anywhere.
He was more grateful for her than ever now. Mrs. Halima had carried out all the preparations for Femi’s wake herself. All morning he had allowed himself to be mesmerized by the methodical necessity of what she was doing, the way she boxed up the tinsel and ribbons that had been up around the fireplace, the velvet mistletoe above the door. She found some comfort in taking last week’s celebration out of the house, some quiet reverie he could not find for himself. He had sat in the living room, watching her prepare the table for the casket, watching her line up candles on the mantelpiece, trying to absorb some of that stoicism until it was time for him to go and pick up the coffin. She had shown emotion only once, briefly, when he had been halfway out the door. She had grabbed his sleeve and said: “You tell Mr. Roland everything’s ready, you tell him we’ll take good care of him and his little girl.” He had promised to, and then she’d looked at him with something he couldn’t name in her eyes and said, “Do you think it will be terrible—what’s in that coffin?” He hadn’t been able to answer.
But now, on the porch, in the darkness, she was back to her old self. “Nyah’s still asleep,” Mrs. Halima said. “Egg sandwiches are in the kitchen.” She stood there, behind them, for a few minutes, while the sounds beyond the gate rolled up the slope and across the porch: a zebra’s yelp, the wings of some large bird passing by, the sandpaper hum of the cicadas in the long grass. Mrs. Halima said, “I think the electricity is out down in Longido, too.”
“We may be the only ones,” Neal said. “Our generator may be out. This heat is too much, even for January.”
“I think I’ll go down and check on it anyway,” Roland said.
Neal said, “Give it a few more minutes, it’ll come back on. This has happened before, it’ll come back on.” He didn’t want to mention that the last time they’d had a power failure, it had been the fault of some idiot teenagers from San Diego who had wandered out in the middle of the night and found their way into the generator shed with the brilliant plan of ruining the night for their parents back at the lodge. Neal remembered how they’d looked, those teenagers, after spending the night in the generator shed, afraid to cross back in the dark, their faces red with tears, when he’d driven out in the Jeep to find them. And Femi—Femi had a place in that memory. She had come in from Vibanda to look them over, to check for injuries, to give them sedatives. He remembered her bedside manner, the way she had smiled at them to make them believe she sympathized, when, in fact, she was furious. Then Neal remembered the hot-air balloon, felt the blood rush to his face, and he rubbed his forehead with his knuckles. “I can’t see anything with this on,” he said, and blew out the candle. Some melted ice water was in his glass, and he drank it down.
“I’m going,” Roland said, and stood up.
“Mr. Roland, I don’t think you should,” Mrs. Halima said. “These last few days have been too much. Just stay here.”
“Don’t worry,” Neal said to her. “We’ll take the Jeep.”
“I’m walking,” Roland said.
Neal looked at the bald outline of Roland’s head. “We should drive,” Neal said, after a minute.
“I’m going to walk.”
“Mr. Roland,” Mrs. Halima said, “stay here.”
But Neal could already hear Roland’s footsteps moving to the back of the porch, the sound of Roland picking up his rifle, the sliding sound of the strap going over his shoulder. Neal felt his way over to the porch bench and opened the seat. He rummaged around inside until he found two flashlights. He heard Roland go down the porch steps. “Don’t worry,” Neal said to Mrs. Halima. “Just stay inside. We’ll only be a minute.” At the bottom of the stairs, Roland was holding a rifle out to Neal.
The generator stood at the water’s edge, in a shed where the previous lodge owners had kept their boat during the rainy season, when the water hole, usually a turbid, red-brown dent in the plain, filled up and spilled leisurely into a small stream that fed the savanna. The shed lay almost a half-mile down the slope of the lawn, past the gate, in a long thicket of umbrella thorns, where the trail tapered out around the water hole.
Roland walked ahead, the rifle on his shoulder, and Neal followed him with a flashlight. They went down the trail along the twisting avenue of acacias, past the fire pit where the evening buffet was normally held, past the now-deserted croquet lawn. Neal was sweating. A film of moist salt gathered above his mouth, and he licked it off every few seconds. But it appeared and reappeared, and eventually he just gave up and let it run down his face. Femi would not approve of this, he thought, she would never have let the two of them come out in the dark without a vehicle, not with the herd roaming about just outside. Roland was drunk. He was being careless. But Roland, Neal thought, had the right to do what he wanted—just as he had the right to have the wake at Neal’s lodge, even though that meant losing a week’s worth of profits. Because the thought of Roland sitting over the casket alone the night before the funeral—rocking Nyah to sleep, and then, with the lights dimmed and the mounted heads in the parlor for company, sitting up with his wife’s coffin until he finally gave in and opened the lid to look inside—made Neal sick. It made him sick, and made him think of Femi in the hot-air balloon before she died, and he walked behind Roland wiping the sweat off his forehead.
“Slow down,” he said to Roland, but Roland said nothing. Halfway down the trail, still hoping that the lights would come back on, Neal stopped and looked back at the lodge, the moon crawling up the dim gables of the main house, the squat bungalows behind it. He could see a dim flicker of something—a candle—and he thought, Good, she’s gone upstairs to be with the baby. But the more he looked, the more he realized that the light was coming from the wrong place.
“Wait,” he said to Roland. “Where’s that candle lit?”
He heard Roland’s footsteps stop in the darkness ahead of him, and then Roland came back. He was breathing hard, and he smelled faintly of gin and sweat. Neal heard him take off his hat and rub his head.
“I think she’s still on the porch,” Neal said.
Roland was rummaging in his pockets. “She’s gone inside, she’s probably in the kitchen.” In a momentary flash of fire, he saw Roland’s face, and then the bright red tip of a cigarette.
“I’m telling you, she’s still outside,” Neal said. Bats were in the glade behind him, and he could hear the strange, persistent sound of their flight. He thought of the first time he had met Femi, the first time Roland had introduced Neal to her in the neon heat of her family convenience store at Vibanda. She had closed up shop, and the three of them had sat on plastic chairs in the dirt yard outside, sipping sweet tea, chickens scratching around at their feet, blue rain clouds filling the horizon in the east, until the sun dipped and bats swarmed out of the scrubland trees, rising like fog.
His shirt was soaked with sweat, and he shifted around in it. He suddenly realized that Roland was looking at him. The light from the cigarette tip was spilling out over the creases under Roland’s eyes, the big bridge of Roland’s nose. Roland looked haggard, more haggard than he had looked after he came back from volunteering at that malaria hospital in Zimbabwe, where he had first met Femi.
“I don’t like this,” Neal said.
“I don’t either,” Roland said. Then he turned around and kept walking, out from under the acacias and toward the gate.
Neal stood there for a few moments, while Roland’s footsteps receded away and away, the trill of the cicadas following him in waves of silence and sound. The widening darkness tugged at Neal’s gut. He put his flashlight between his teeth and brought up the rifle from where it rested against his thigh. He lifted the bolt pin, opened the chamber, and looked inside. The chamber was empty.
“Roland!” he said. “This gun’s not loaded, we have to go back.”
But Roland said nothing, so Neal shouldered the gun and pressed on after him.
Since Femi’s death, Neal had found himself thinking about her more often than usual, but most often in the long moments before sleep. The nights were quiet then, and he would find himself in a kind of waking dream, subdued by the mosquito net draped above him, the rhythm of the savanna sounds and the fan, and the dull thumping of Baviaan’s tail on the rug under the bed.
He would think about her as she was at the Christmas party. He would think about that because he tried hard not to think about anything else, about how his memories seemed stupid, pointless, wasted, because he had not known that they would be memories. He thought about the white dress she had worn and the stew she had brought from home, about how she had sat on the couch with Roland’s arm around her, glowing with enjoyment and wine, laughing with Mrs. Halima in Swahili. He thought about how he’d gotten drunk and drifted off only to wake up hours later, the house still, the lodge staff gone, and Femi awake and smiling at him from where she and Roland had fallen asleep on the rug in front of the fire. He thought about that: he and Femi, the only ones awake, even the tourists in the lodge bungalows sound asleep; and he thought about how they had stolen away into the kitchen and made cucumber sandwiches together.
Or he would think about other things, about when he went to visit her for the first time at the convenience store at Vibanda—but in those memories everything was vivid, except for Femi herself. He could remember the number of meat cans he dropped off, the price of the gas, the feel of the paper bills in his hand. The paraffin stove in the corner where she made coffee. How he’d realized she was probably just being polite, but how he had sat down anyway on the mattress in her one-room bungalow behind the store. How Femi had talked about the weather and the crops and the low number of kudu out on the plains, and how he had looked around, feeling sheepish. He remembered how Femi had told him not to worry, that he had done a great job fixing up that little lodge, that the money would come soon enough. He remembered the spice rack and the steel mini-fridge, the chest of drawers, the desk where several binders were neatly stacked against the rear wall of the hut. Nyah, much smaller then, dozing in her crib by the bed. The fact that Roland wasn’t there.
He remembered that the bed was small but clean, and he remembered thinking about Femi lying there with Roland, even while she was handing Neal a plate of fruit and making fun of him for his inability to cope with what she called “real coffee.” He remembered wondering, while she talked about the tourists who had stopped by on their way to Kilimanjaro, what she had been like before she’d met Roland.
He would remember all these things, and then he would begin to drift. He tried not to, but he found himself doing it anyway, drifting into sleep and watching Femi walk home across the plain in the yellow hush of twilight, dust-filtered air rising slowly, and his eyes on her from some place low to the ground. He would watch her for what seemed like a long time, and then, slowly, without even realizing it, move closer and closer to her, until he started awake, sweating, almost on top of her, flush against the hem of her skirt, and then he would sit up and rub his face until the blood came back to it, the hum of the fan above him useless and far away, Baviaan’s tail on the floor steady and uninterrupted. He wondered, in those moments, whether Roland ever had the same dream, and if he did, whether he got up to check on Nyah, asleep in her crib, padded with pillows on either side.
For hours after those dreams, while he made breakfast or did paperwork, going over bookings in the study overlooking the yard, Neal would think of Roland: Roland on the veld when he got the call, Roland in the Jeep on the way to the police station. He had known Roland for years. He had seen Roland stand his ground and fire, systematically and without flinching, into a charging male hippo. He had seen Roland help a mother whose baby had been half-eaten by a rogue baboon bury her child. But the image of him arriving at the coroner’s office, hat in his fist, refusing to take Nyah from Mrs. Halima, would stay with Neal forever.
By the time Neal reached the gate, Roland had already opened it and was walking into the herd. Neal brought up the flashlight, which blazed a trail through the grass, catching eye-shine from the wildebeest. They turned away from it, opening and closing around him. He could see the dim outline of Roland’s back, his legs lost somewhere in the grass. The air was thick and humid, moist with the privacy of savanna darkness, the smells of birth and death and shit. Neal was running now, and all around him the herd was making its low, incessant calls, the night as resonant as the inside of a shell.
“Roland, stop!” Neal shouted. “Don’t be an idiot—slow down.”
He swung the light back and forth into the confused, black faces of the wildebeest. He couldn’t see Roland anymore, but he had a strange and terrible sense that the two of them had walked into some infinite kind of closed space, and that out here, with the night on them, with Roland drunk and half-crazy, they could no longer rely on even themselves. And Femi’s face, the last time he had seen it—perhaps the last time anyone had seen it—in the hot-air balloon, her eyes wide and soft. The heat, the closeness of the herd, was suddenly overwhelming. He stopped and put a hand to his ribs in the dark and just stood there, the useless weight of the rifle on his shoulder and the sound of Roland’s labored breaths filling the air to his right.
He could smell something dead close by, or maybe far away. He raised his flashlight again. He could see the first of the umbrella thorn trees that made up the little grove where the shed stood, opening up some 20 yards ahead.
“My gun is empty,” he said to the darkness.
“Mine’s not,” Roland said.
Neal’s scalp felt strange. “It’s all right,” he said. “The shed’s only a little way. We’ll make it back with just one.”
“I know,” Roland said.
Neal let the silence stretch between them. Then he said, “I’m sorry.” He realized a moment later that he shouldn’t have said it, so he said: “Don’t—don’t do that anymore, please. Don’t run off like that. I don’t know what you were thinking. It’s so dark, and we only have one gun. Please.”
“My wife is dead,” Roland said.
“I know,” Neal said. “I’m sorry.” Then he said, “But you still have Nyah.” Roland didn’t say anything, so Neal said, “You have to tell Nyah about her. You loved her very much, everyone loved her.”
“I know,” Roland said. Neal rubbed his hand over his mouth.
“We have to go forward or back,” Neal said. “We shouldn’t just stand around here.”
“With your gun empty,” Roland said, in what sounded like agreement.
“To the house?”
“To the generator.”
“I don’t know,” Neal said. “I think we should go home.”
Silence, then chortling from the zebras somewhere on the endless plain. Roland said, “I need a minute.” And he heard Roland crouch down in the grass. Neal stood by dumbly, with his hand in his pocket, waiting for the thump of the rifle butt hitting the dirt. It didn’t come.
“Are you throwing up?”
“What are you doing?” Neal said.
No answer. Neal fumbled for his flashlight. He turned it on again and found Roland with it. Roland was crouching in the trampled dirt of the trail, his bald head clenched in his hands like some kind of buffed fruit. The rifle lay across his knees. He looked up at Neal, and Neal turned the flashlight off.
“I’d want you to take Nyah,” Roland said suddenly, “if anything happened.”
“Don’t say that,” Neal said. He felt a new wave of heat on his face, and he put his fist up to his forehead and pressed it there.
“I keep thinking,” Roland said. Neal heard him thrum his fingers on the rifle butt. “I keep thinking about that coffin.” The sound of him dusting the hat off, putting it back on his head again. “It’s light.” Standing up. “The coffin—don’t you think it’s light?”
Neal said, “I don’t know.” He didn’t want to think about it.
“I keep thinking maybe I should have had her cremated,” Roland said. “Maybe she would have liked that.”
“Maybe,” Neal said. He wanted to say something comforting, something generous, something that would have meaning. But he couldn’t think of anything to say.
Suddenly Roland said: “Do you hear that?”
“No,” Neal said.
A warthog family was rooting around in the dirt somewhere nearby, snorting softly—the sound, like everything else in the bush, muted by a coarse layer of dust. Wildebeest grunts. Somewhere far behind them, a heron was calling from the riverbank, a strange, echoing cry that made Neal feel exposed.
“I don’t hear anything,” Neal said.
Roland was still listening, so Neal listened too.
The cicadas went quiet, and then came back in again, louder than ever, hissing like a current through the grass. He heard the muffled clamor of the herd, the indistinct click of hooves in the dirt. Moments later, he heard a low moaning rumble over the hills, a sound like a foghorn.
“Lions?” he said. “They’re miles away.”
He suddenly realized that he had underestimated his own anxiety. He wanted a cigarette, water, something to calm his nerves, anything, because Roland was saying, “No, not that—listen,” and Neal still couldn’t hear what he was being told to listen for.
He closed his eyes and thought of Femi. He listened. Then he heard it, a high-pitched singsong, melancholy, almost human, almost too indistinct.
“What is that?” he said. Again. Low, then rising.
Roland’s voice was quiet. “Hyena.”
“Are you sure?” he said. The cry sounded like something else to him, something closer, like the creak of the porch swing at the house, or the wind, maybe, the wind whining in the branches of the jackalberry trees outside his window. He could feel the sweat gathering on his back, the coarse feel of his shirt where it clung to his skin in wet patches.
Roland’s breathing in the darkness had grown fast and shallow.
“Where’s it coming from?” Neal said.
“I’m not sure,” Roland told him, and started walking back up the trail through the grass. He could hear Roland’s boots on the dirt, and he ran to catch up. They entered the thick of the grove at the bottom of the hill and started up, through the trees, toward the gate. The smell of the wildebeest was sour. At the top of the slope, the house was still dark. He wanted to see candles, he wanted to see that Mrs. Halima had gone back inside. But now he saw nothing, and that empty feeling, the empty feeling of the house and the dark and the long drive winding up the slope, jolted him, and then he heard it—up ahead of them, somewhere close, certain and loud: the laugh.
One late afternoon, a year after Neal had bought the lodge, while he sat on the wicker swing with a book across his knees, comfortable in the knowledge that his first group of tourists was out on safari somewhere with Roland, he had seen Baviaan stand up, apparently unprovoked, and trot out to the gate, where the dog stood perfectly still for a long time watching the plain mist over. Mrs. Halima had come out with the laundry, and she, too, noticed Baviaan there.
“Kingugwa,” she’d said.
“I’m sorry?” Neal said.
“Kingugwa,” said Mrs. Halima, resettling the laundry basket on her hip. “Hyena.”
Neal remembered taking offense at this. “He’s a bloodhound,” he told her gently.
But she only laughed at him. “No. It means hyena,” she said, and pointed. “He’s standing at the gate to listen. You can’t hear them, but look—they’re calling his name.”
It had taken him a long time to get used to almost everything: strangled lion cubs by the gate at dawn, drowned wildebeest damming the river, baboons in the kitchen stealing dog food and granola, scattering coffee grounds, making off with cans of Pringles and, when they could get their hands on it, toilet paper, which he would afterward pick out of the acacia groves for days.
But he had never gotten used to the hyenas. He hadn’t seen them when he first came to Africa. He had been a photojournalist then, charged with the unhappy task of filming the mating rituals of hippos. He had often thought since that if he had seen hyenas he might not have bought the lodge and moved out here in the first place, not the way he had, anyway, or the way most people did: on a romantic whim, like a fool. He got to know them during the first migration he spent at Longido, when they followed the wildebeest up from Ngorongoro and onto the plain. He remembered mistaking them briefly for wild dogs—he was still picking animals out of the manual he kept in his pocket at the time—but then he had recognized, even at a distance, the stooped haunches and the low-slung head with the mane curving back over the rift between the shoulder blades. Like everyone he had ever known, he had been perfectly happy to believe the myths he’d heard about them. He believed they were cowards until he saw them fight, scavengers until he saw them kill, and after the first few times they cornered him in the Jeep while Roland was out tagging elephants in the bush, he began to take more notice of the local stories about them: their big-eyed curiosity and unnerving persistence, the relative ease with which they let themselves into gated villages and made off with children and young mothers.
What he noticed most was not the eyes or the hunchbacked lope, not even the smell: it was the sound they made, that whining yelp, like a child’s voice rising. It was the laugh that made his stomach turn, and they laughed all the time, every night they were there, as if they knew their laugh made him wonder, made him want to come outside to them in the dark, or, otherwise, put a gun in his mouth. Whenever he heard it he remembered those stories Roland had told him about ancient travelers huddling in their camps while the wailing night rose around them, until they folded to the sound and drifted from the fire, one by one, into the range of the stilling gaze.
He had been thinking about the laugh while he was ignoring the warning signs the month before Femi’s death. Afterward, he blamed it on transportation limits, the postboy, the fact that the newspapers were three or four days old by the time he read them over toast and coffee. But he’d been aware, all along, of the attacks that had started just 90 miles away in Ngorongoro and moved slowly toward them, following the herd east—he had read first about the teenage cowherd who had been found at the bottom of the mountain with most of his abdomen missing, and then about the daladala driver and his companion who had stopped at a watering hole to cool off in the unseasonably hot weather, and finally, about the rhino poachers who had risked arrest to bring one of their own, torn open from the midsection up, into an Arusha hospital—so that, when the call came a few days after Christmas, he knew, felt in the deepest part of his gut, what had happened even before Mrs. Halima handed him the phone.
Roland was running, the sound of his footfalls frantic, pounding through the darkness ahead of him. Neal tucked the gun into the crook of his arm so he could hold up the flashlight, and the wildebeest, dumb-eyed, bearded, startled by the light, darted across the trail around them and bellowed. They jumped the gate and ran on, up the path toward the sound. A hundred yards from the house the smell was unbearable, the garbage-heap stench of hyenas, and he felt it tear into his lungs. And then he saw her, Mrs. Halima, running toward them across the plain, and Roland stopped instantly. Neal swung the flashlight up, streaking the field behind her with light, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Roland raise the gun to his shoulder and aim, and he thought, My God, not really?, unable to imagine Roland taking the shot with Mrs. Halima in his line of fire. But seconds passed and nothing happened, and he watched the distance between them close as she ran, her skirt wrapping around her ankles, her face drawn and desolate. At 20 yards, he saw the baby in her arms, and by the time she reached them, Roland was already holding his hands out for Nyah, and Mrs. Halima was shrieking: “It came in! It came in! It came in the house!”
“Kingugwa,” Mrs. Halima said. “It came in, it came in to take her!”
He thought of the coffin, and it hit him all at once—the dark and the stupid helplessness he felt. The plain fell silent, and his knees felt strange. The light he held up shook with the force of his breath where it fell on Roland and Nyah, and on Mrs. Halima, who was bent at the waist and sobbing.
“I knocked it down,” Mrs. Halima was saying. She squatted in the grass and began to rock back and forth, sobbing with her head in her hands. “I knocked it down, I knocked it down, I’m so sorry, I knocked it down.”
“What?” Roland said. “What?”
“Her,” Mrs. Halima said. “I knocked it down—I knocked down the coffin when I ran out.”
Roland put an arm around her, and Nyah, pressed between them, began to whimper. Neal rubbed his eyes, his stomach wadded up against the bottom of his ribs.
“I’ll go,” Neal said.
“You mustn’t,” Mrs. Halima said, grabbing his leg. “It came in to take her, it’ll kill you.” Her eyes were wide.
“I’ll be all right,” Neal said, and he turned the flashlight on the dark porch of the house.
“You shouldn’t,” Roland said, but he didn’t move. Nyah’s shrill, throbbing wail rose like a siren. “I’ll do it.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Neal told him. “The coffin fell—think of what you’ll see.” He turned and strode through the grass, the sound of Nyah’s screams fading behind him and the light ahead shifting in lines over the carved banister of the veranda, the throw cushions on the swing, Baviaan’s bowl and plastic chew toys underfoot as he climbed the stairs, the porch swing creaking.
Neal stood near the door for a moment, resting the muzzle of the gun against the handle, and then he pushed it open.
She had been walking home at twilight. The ranger who found her told Neal what he could read from the ground, that she had cut straight through the herd, a terrible mistake, because the topi antelope were nearing the end of their rut and the hyenas, there to pick off the weaker males as they collapsed from exhaustion, were waiting for her at the crest of the hill. There had been a chase—she was small enough, and the whole clan had been on the hunt. They had her within 40 yards of the convenience store. Then they dragged her out onto the open plain, where the matriarch and her daughters fed first, and the jackals waited their turn for more than an hour before a ranger on patrol found her. It was at that moment—while the police captain was giving this gravely overdrawn narrative, before Roland arrived at the station—that Neal thought of his tourists and the safaris he had led, and remembered, in absolute detail, the outspread ring of blood that tinged the top of the grass, the reddened jowls, eyes that looked straight ahead while the jaw descended on bone, and he turned in place and threw up all over the police captain’s desk, which he afterward volunteered to clean, but was dissuaded by a mild-mannered deputy who escorted him outside before he could do any more damage.
At the mortuary that morning, the coffin had already been closed.
Neal stood in the doorway for a minute, then two.
He called for the dog. “Baviaan,” he said, then louder: “Baviaan!” There was no sign of him.
The flashlight beam darted around the room and caught the edges of furniture—the table legs, the vintage telescope and tripod they kept in the parlor for the amusement of guests, a broken lamp and, several feet later, its rose-printed shade. The tabletop was empty, that much was certain, and when he swung the light onto the floor and followed the dim outline of the wood he found it, the coffin, upturned and resting on its half-open lid in the middle of the room. The moment he recognized it, he thought he saw something—a hand, a piece of cloth, anything that may have been left of her—and his stomach lurched forward. He stumbled back against the wall and dropped the flashlight. It rolled away from him and the beam settled on the hallway leading into the kitchen, the bags of flour, delivered that morning, standing in rows by the oven.
“God,” he said, and waited for the laugh.
It didn’t come. He couldn’t see the hyena, but the stench of it was there, the stagnant reek of meat and sweat and piss. He thought he felt it move closer, but minutes went by, and the faint sound of Nyah’s distant shrieking receded. He got up slowly and, with his eyes on the floor, inched to where the flashlight had fallen and picked it up. He aimed it at the shadows of the fireplace and sideboard, and finally at the screen door, which had been wrenched open and now hung precariously on its hinges over the stairs leading to the back porch. He got to his feet and went over to it, tried to close it, but it just shuddered and creaked, and he eventually gave up and moved back toward the middle of the room, where the coffin was.
He touched one corner of it with his foot, and it made a hollow sound. He raised the light again and passed it over the room one more time, searching for eye-shine. Then he squatted and, with the thought of Femi—bright-eyed and smiling, brewing sweet tea with her glasses high on her nose, rocking Nyah to sleep in the porch swing before the Christmas party, the jasmine in the window box in bloom—pushed to the forefront of his mind, he pulled up the coffin and turned it over. It was empty.
“Oh my God,” he said, and turned, but there was nothing, just the empty room and the staircase leading up to the landing, and the big African moon in the window. He put the gun and the flashlight down on the end table. The yellow ring of light trembled against the back of the brick fireplace.
He tried to remember how heavy the coffin had been that morning, the weight of it spread out over his left shoulder as he helped Roland carry it up the stairs and into the parlor, the shape of Roland’s back, hunched in front of him when they set it down on the table. How heavy had it been, the coffin? He thought of Roland’s hands, patient and calloused, clasped around the waist of the little white dress that was laid out for Nyah in the guest nursery, the little white dress and the little white shoes sitting on Roland’s lap at the funeral tomorrow, and the empty velvet in the pine box going into the ground; Mrs. Halima’s words, It came in to take her, no blood anywhere, anywhere at all, and the stagnant heat of the African night coming in through the windows and doors and the cracks in the floor. He went into the kitchen and dragged one of the flour bags out.
That was when the light came back on. He heard, almost felt, the distant hum of it pulling through all the wires and cables in the house, and when it blazed on, illuminating the chandelier above the parlor table and the yellow sconces in the kitchen, he stopped and covered his eyes with his hand, the weight of the flour bag resting against his leg. When he finally looked up, he noticed the face in the window.
He knew what was there even before he looked at it, and he leaned forward and reached for the gun. The gun. The gun was empty. He’d come in with an empty gun. His gun was empty, and Roland had watched him walk in with it empty—even though he couldn’t have known, how could he have known any of it?
Femi had never been in a balloon before, and Neal had offered to take her up that evening—because the wind was pleasant, because he had just brought the tourists back and the launching crew was still there to help, because Mrs. Halima had the baby and Roland had gone on a game count and wouldn’t be back for days. Femi had stood aside and watched him pump up the burners before the canvas envelope filled and the blue-and-white drape lifted out of the grass, swollen with air. It was late afternoon and the sun was melting into the red haze over the savanna when he helped her into the basket and fired the jets and tossed the sandbags over the side. He wondered if she had been afraid at first, going up in that little wicker basket with the hills falling away. He wondered if the sight of the crowded rivers of wildebeest below had instilled in her the same feelings of exhilarated panic he had felt on his first visit there, that vitality of the cradle he had searched for all his life, the push and pull of the wind, the birthing grounds and killing grounds, endless and unyielding, that allowed him to somehow reassemble himself. He couldn’t remember quite what had happened, but he knew he had reached for her. He had put his hand on the small of her back, or pressed himself against her where she stood holding the ropes, and she had indulged him, for a moment or two, perhaps out of kindness, or because it was unexpected and she didn’t quite know how to react. But then she had stepped away with a forgiving smile, the laugh that came with it embarrassed, and she had stayed against the opposite end of the basket while they sailed on and eventually came down in a stretch of grassland where the antelope were in summer rut. She had climbed out by herself and walked home.
He finally made himself look through the window at the face outside on the porch, and when the lamplight eyes caught his look, the black lips pulled away from the teeth, grinning, and the hyena laughed. For a long time, Neal stood there thinking he would raise the empty gun, turn it in his hands, reach for a knife from the block. But the face that stilled him did not move, and the hyena did not come back inside.
He would think about it afterward, at the funeral, and then again after the service in the parlor, where Mrs. Halima would put out pictures of Femi and serve wine and tea until everyone was finished and had gone away; he would think about it that night, as he took Roland and Nyah home. He would think about the flour bags and how he had laid them there, in the coffin, and he would think about the coffin, with earth smoothed over it, lying near the church in a plot overlooking Mount Longido, with the flour bags inside. And when he set off that evening from Roland’s place, the lights disappearing behind him, the gun over his shoulder, all the forward-facing eyes in the darkness coming on, pair by pair, while the moon came up over the wind-rubbed plain, the laugh—her laugh—would follow him all the way home.