Soon the Predators
Today my father takes me to the Mombasa tusk man.
Our village is a full day’s drive from the city and longer to walk. We are nearly there when a white man says we can ride in his truck. My father is wary, but then he picks me up and places me in the back. He says this is uncommon, but the white man has a pleasant face and does not question the Red Cross duffel bags we carry. All the white man asks about is what my father does for a living. My father says he is a farmer, and he is. Then the white man asks my father to fill out a survey but my father refuses because he cannot write. The white man fills it out for him.
The white man drops us off outside the Mombasa limits and keeps driving. My father says all the whites are blind to people like us. “They don’t understand you, Khumbu,” he says. He stabs my chest with a bony finger. “They see your skin and tell you what you need. They don’t think about us. They think about cheetahs.”
Everything in the city is new and bright and hurts my ears. We learned about the city in school, but it is one thing to learn and another to see and listen and feel. I think of my sleepy village and how exciting the city is, but the people here are mean and never look you in the eye. I ask my father if the people in jail are as rude as the people in the city. He does not want to talk about jail.
“You must do everything for family,” my father says. He’s said this many times before and it is always boring, but I like listening to my father’s voice so I always let him finish. “Without family, there is no life. Sometimes you must do foul but necessary things to save your family. Only you can do these things, Khumbu.”
I ask my father if we have to fight the drought in our village. He says yes. I ask my father if I can hold the elephant gun he keeps in the guitar box by his mattress. He says never.
My father leads me to a quiet place in the city. The sun is peeling the paint from every wall. My father calls it “decay.” We don’t have decay in my village, except for the truck some white people left behind in the grass before I was born. My mother told us to never play around the old truck. One morning my older brother Tali disobeyed and played on the old truck and pierced himself on a rusty edge and died two days later.
My father knocks on a crooked door and it opens and an old man looked out. His face is dull and scabbed like the rusted metal that killed Tali. My father doesn’t like the old man. He opens one of the duffel bags and the old man nods and lets us through the crooked door.
We set the bundles on the floor. My father tells me to go outside and call my mother. I go out and call her on the mobile. We are the only family in our village to have two mobiles and it makes my mother feel very rich. I tell her we are in the city and will come home tomorrow. I tell her my father wants a good meal when he returns. My mother weeps and says another goat has died.
I wait. My father leaves the crooked house and joins me outside. He has money in his hand and in both pockets. “This is yours,” he says, and gives the money in his hand to me. I count five hundred shillings. “Keep it secret. If I am ever taken, you must use it.”
When we return to my village, my father does not tell anyone about his money. He tells my mother he went to buy chickens but the chickens were diseased. I bury my money in the clay under my sleeping mat. My father buys a new goat and my mother gives milk to me and my brothers and sisters. My mother and father are very happy.
Some time later, men from the government come and take my father and all his money away. I tell my mother I will go to Mombasa to find him. My mother says my father is a criminal and will not come back. My mother never smiles again. Even when I offer the five hundred shillings under my sleeping mat, she does not smile and calls me a criminal. Then she asks for the money.
I buy many things for my family. I buy maize seeds to replace the dead crops, and I buy three goats. I buy new uniforms for my brothers and my sisters to go to school. I am now the father of my family, and I have no time to waste in school. I give my favourite book to my sister because I no longer have time to read. Reading is for full bellies. Still, I cannot give the book away easily. It is my only book, and a gift from my father.
I buy too many things. I enjoy making my brothers and sisters smile, and I want to make my mother smile again. I wish to buy rain, but they do not sell rain in the market. The maize dies and two of the goats die. The other people in the village are leaving. Their crops and animals died long ago. My mother says the white people will come to help. The white people do not come, and we have to eat the third goat. My mother cannot stop crying.
My father’s elephant gun is still in the guitar box by his mattress. The guitar box was left behind by a white woman years ago. She took the guitar and left the box behind. One night I watched my father take the elephant gun out of the guitar box and leave and not return until morning. As my family settles for bed, I spend a long time thinking.
Tonight, there is no moon. I take the gun out of the guitar box and whisper a prayer to my mother and leave my village. I walk the trackless plain and search for elephants. Hyenas do not laugh the way you imagine. What scares me more than anything is the thought of running into a pack of wild dogs. I have my knife and my father’s elephant gun but the dogs have numbers and speed and fangs.
I find the elephant before dawn. She is nestled in the shrubs near a dying pond. Somehow she does not see me, or maybe she does not care. She is large and beautiful, with great tusks set wide apart.
It is easy to shoot an elephant when your family is hungry and dying. You raise the gun, brace your shoulder, close one eye, and pull the trigger. In the gathering light, I see the elephant’s head is split in two. A smile spreads across my face. My family will eat tomorrow.
There is rustling in the shrubs and my heart skips and I think of wild dogs, but it is just a baby. He trots over to his mother to see what is the matter. When he starts to cry for her, I cry with him. It is not easy to shoot a mother.
Dawn breaks, and now there is not much time. I shoo the baby away, but he stays nearby and we stare at each other. Nothing moves except his floppy ears twitching to keep the flies away. I cannot look him in the eye. He trumpets for mother and finally wanders off, and I hope he grows up strong and does not have nightmares.
I do not know how to remove tusks from a dead elephant. My knife is dull and ivory is thick. I regret killing the mother at the water because other animals are gathering. Soon the predators will come.
The sun is rising quickly and I wish for shade. Sweat drips into my eyes as I work and I want to rub them dry but my arms are slick with blood up to my elbows. I nearly have one tusk free when I hear the truck rumbling along the plain. The sweat stings my eyes and I’m blind, and all around me the truck engine grows louder. I think of Tali and the old rusted truck. I saw the ivory faster now, only stopping to pry tendons loose from the flesh. As I cut, I dream of moving my family to a new village and sending my brothers and sisters to a new school. I dream of seeing my mother smile again...
A man shouts in Urdu. Then there are more voices in English. I look up. There is a long truck filled with white people wearing dark glasses. They point and scream at me. They look like demons, and I am very afraid. Two wardens run toward me carrying rifles and the white people are cheering them on.
I cannot go to prison. If I go to prison, my family will die. I hear boots pounding behind me. I have to move quickly. I muster my strength and hack at the bone, slash the tusk free and tear it from the flesh. I stumble and meet the mother’s gaze of death from a glossy eye swarming with flies. Then I turn and run with the tusk dripping blood over my shoulder. It is heavy. I abandon my father’s elephant gun.
There are screams and a terrible crack like thunder.
I am looking up at the sky. I lay at the edge of the pond and the dust settles on the blood-spattered tusk nearby. I cannot move my legs, but I can still move one arm and I reach for the wet gaping hole in my chest. I listen to the English voices screaming and wailing. This is what hyenas sound like.
I see. . .Tali. He is laughing. He wants to play. . .
I hear the boots running to me. I turn my head and gaze at the bloody tusk in the dirt. They will take it to Mombasa and sell it and give the reward to my family. They will set my father free so he can take care of my mother and my brothers and sisters. My mother will smile again. . .
My father will be free, and my mother will smile again.