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.

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.

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Téa Obreht’s first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, will be published by Dial Press next spring.

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