Fiction Fiction 2009

The Laugh

Neal had believed all the myths about hyenas. He believed they were cowards until he saw them fight, scavengers until he saw them kill; and after the first time they cornered him in the Jeep, he began to take more notice of the local stories: their big-eyed curiosity, their unnerving persistence, the relative ease with which they let themselves into gated villages.

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?”

“No.”

“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.

“Listen.”

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.

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