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.
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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!”

“What?”

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.

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