Out of the Rain
Day lurked just over the hills. Noel and Frank stood next to Mbombo's dormant coffee stand, profiled against the strip of deep red developing along the horizon. Frank wore his typical safari khakis, trading long pants for shorts. He rubbed his hand over his cleanly shaven face and lit a cigarette. He put on a safari hat and sunglasses.
Mbombo arrived carrying a large plastic bidon of water on his shoulder. He set the water down on a flat rock and then wiped his hands on a towel produced from under the tarp-like cloth covering his table and materials. He greeted each man straight-faced and then set about his work. He pulled back the large cloth and folded it. There was a wooden table set over top of a large pot and a small fire pit. Three chairs were set around the table, stacks of bowl-like cups and a smaller pot sat on the table. He moved the table and chairs aside and started a fire under the pot. Then he added some water to the pot, which still contained damp grounds in the bottom. He motioned each to take a chair and then, with a flourish, he tossed three handsful of fresh grounds into the water.
—I awoke early for you today, patron. I want to bring good luck to your hunt.
He smiled for the first time when he said this, for it was a kind of a joke. The phrase "good luck" might be better translated as "good medicine," as in medicine of a voodoo variety. This was pure facetiousness, as Mbombo had never made claims regarding powers that his coffee might yield in the spiritual realms. The three laughed. It was, however, well known that, in the physical world, the coffee that he served at his roadside table, from sunrise to early evening, was superior. Twice a year, he traveled alone to Bangui, to the capital, and brought fresh beans from Arab vendors in the labyrinthine marketplace at kilometer cinq. They were strong, lowland beans from the south. He roasted them himself.
Soon the pot was simmering, and the red strip on the horizon was spreading upward. As the sun broke into the sky above the hills, Abdullah arrived with the guide, a young African man. The man wore only thin pants that used to be white and a tee shirt. Introductions were made, to which his only response was a bowed —Njoni, patron. Frank sent him to get David, and the four men drank coffee in silence.
David showed up with sleep in his eyes and refused coffee. Frank shouldered his gun, and they set off. David lit a cigarette but put it out after a couple of drags. David did not carry a gun because he was not licensed. Away from the village, he could take a shot, but Frank would claim any kills.
—Feeling not so good, no?
—You should get up to drink coffee.
—Mbombo makes excellent coffee. Strong. Good for the hangover. Frank knocked on his temple with a fist.
Frank looked at David from under the brim of his safari hat. David hadn't shaved, his eyes were red, and he was sweating. He walked with his eyes down.
—I think your very own Mr. Steinbeck says that a hangover should be accepted as a consequence of chosen actions, not as a punishment for something you should not do. I like that. I think that Mr. Steinbeck is to me a real American. You have read Steinbeck, no?
—Hmm. I think so.
—I like to think that America is like he tells of it in his books.
—Have you ever been to America?
—You should visit.
—Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe I like it better in the books.
By this time the sun was up and hot. The sky was clear of clouds, but the humidity was building. Every minute of sunlight burned off more of the water collected in the leaves and in the soil and added to the humidity building in the skies. The guide walked ahead and did not talk, save to point the way and to assure Frank of many, many birds just ahead. David's head pulsed. His sweat soaked through his shirt, through his pants, dripped down his face and arms and thighs. Frank's dog stuck to the path but ran ahead repeatedly, sniffing out new scents and chasing unseen animals.
As they moved up past the yakas of the village and further up the slope of the first and smallest of the hills, the pathway became more overgrown with fresh greenery. Tall grasses formed walls on both sides, hanging over and obscuring the path completely. It was necessary to bend down and to feel the ground with their hands to find the old path, to push the tall thick mat of grasses aside. Vines grabbed at them, raising welts on David's cheeks and hands and wrists.
They continued for an hour. Conditions worsened, with again and again the guide stumbling into a gully or a thicket of vines and searching on his hands and knees for an opening to the reclaimed path. David hung back two or three steps to avoid branches and vines snapping back in his face, and he said nothing for fear of worsening his headache. His throat burned from thirst.
At last Frank spoke. —Eh! Where's your machete?
He turned to David. —No machete. He faced forward again. —No machete?
—Oui, patron? A guide with no machete. This is bullshit. A guide in the bush with no machete. Are you stupid?
—It's broken, patron.
Frank turned again to David, —This is no good. This one is stupid. Better than a dog? We'd be better with goat.
On they trudged: guide first, on his hands and knees when necessary, then the dog, who no longer ran ahead, then Frank with gun upright and close by his chest to avoid shagging the barrel, and finally David, sweat stinging his red and swollen eyes. They moved down into a small valley between the hills.
The grasses here were accompanied by trees that were large and full enough to block direct view of the sun. The path was soaked and muddy. Open puddles covered large sections in their way, and the direct heat of the sun was replaced by a stinking, sodden greenhouse heat. Their feet stuck to their boots. Frank and David stopped often to scrape large chunks of mud from their boots, only to sink in again with the next step.
The path, if it could still be called a path, turned up again at a grade that would have made a comfortable challenge for walking were it not for the water and vines and mud that now covered it. They slipped, sometimes falling to a knee or a hand in the muck.
—Damnit! Frank swore a continuing litany under his breath in at least three different languages. —It's no good, wiping his brow with a handkerchief kept tucked in his hat. —Damnit! Get going! with a kick at his dog who now refused to walk ahead of his master.
—This one (jerking head forward) is no good. He talks and talks of good hunting. So many birds he says. Does he think I'm hunting for parrots? Get me out of this goddamned forest, you monkey! Damnit, dog! Get up and get moving!
The dog continued to move under foot, the mud deepened, and the forest—barely a month before a meager gathering of trees, now a lush carpet and canopy of green covering three small hills—the forest filled them with a sticky, sour smell of new life and newly rotting old life. Humid heat radiated off leaves that reached out to them, grabbing at their shirts and pants and arms, scratching their faces, taunting them as they slipped to their knees and struggled up and moved on.
The sickly sweet smell of green gave way to something foul and musky. The dog dropped to the ground with hair raised on his neck but did not utter a growl or a whimper. The men stopped. The air stopped. Then the smell went away, and everyone relaxed.
It's hard to say how much they could see as it happened. It happened fast. The elephant charged the African guide, scooping him up with his tusks and throwing him into a mash of thickets. The tusks did not gore the guide, but instead broke his right femur. The break was a clean one, right through the bone. The guide was knocked unconscious, either from shock or from landing on his head. No one saw him land.
The elephant reared and trumpeted. Frank tackled David and rolled with him into a deep covering of grasses and vines. The dog followed. Frank pinned David to the ground, hissed into his ear that any motion or noise would be death. The dog did not need to be told.
The elephant reared again and trumpeted. They could feel the ground shake. The elephant could not see them or the guide in the brush. He did not charge. Again, he reared and trumpeted and shook the ground. But his challengers remained unseen. He stood and waited.
The thick, musky smell filled their nostrils, mixing with the sour smell of the mud they lay in, one on top of the other. Mosquitoes buzzed in their ears and landed on their faces and bit them. Ants crawled over them, sometimes crawling up their pant legs and biting. David started to fade in and out, aware vaguely of the weight pressing him into the hot mud and restricting his breathing. The butt of Frank's shotgun pushed between them and cut into their flesh, in the small of David's back and into the appendix side of Frank's abdomen. David could hear his heart smashing in his ears. And the elephant stood his ground.
He was a rogue male, a loner, a wanderer. The nearest herd of elephants was two, perhaps three hundred kilometers away. He had no territory, no young, no mates to defend. The men had simply surprised him. Alone, with no herd, without any elders, he was easily spooked, and now he wasn't turning his back. It may be hard to imagine, but a forest elephant can be impossible to see in his natural surroundings. It was dumb luck, purest chance that the group had stumbled upon this one, lone elephant in the forest.
This stalemate lasted an hour. The guide slowly regained consciousness. At first, it consisted only as dull, constant pain in his right leg and a heavy, sometimes sharp throbbing in his head, and numbness everywhere else. Slowly, he became aware of the mosquitoes, the ants, the stink, the blood dripping and coagulating thickly over his head and face. He still was not certain where he was or what had happened. He had not yet been able to process that memory, the surreal flash in his mind of an elephant bearing down on him faster than he could even yell. Then he shifted ever so slightly, and sharp pain starting at a point in his right thigh burrowed throughout the core of his body faster than his consciousness of it, like the flash of an explosion still a fraction of a second ahead of the percussion. The pain almost knocked him back out. As he fought through the tunnel of awareness and vision, he somehow threw his weight onto his left side. The pain subsided again to a deep, dull, and constant discomfort.
He stood on his good leg with his back to the elephant, so he had no way to know that it was the swift, deft charge of the sulking brute that killed him an instant later. The elephant sunk a tusk into the man's lower back. It entered under the rib cage and traveled up, ripping through the liver and exploding the right lung and the heart. The force of the goring threw the man ten feet into the air, flipping him over one and a half times. He landed, already dead, on his head.
Frank had jumped up as soon as the African had stood. He jerked David to his feet and flung him back in the direction from which they had come. Then he ran after. The elephant did not follow; fortunate, or their running would have done absolutely nothing for their situation. Instead, the elephant stood guard over the dead man's body for the rest of the day, the entire night, and into the next morning.
For the villagers, the day had been much like the one previous, meaning sunshine with no rain and no clouds and much good hard work in their gardens. The skies remained clear into the afternoon hours with little haze, and many felt certain that at least part of the next day would be clear for working. Those who were confident in this forecast stopped work for a meal and a siesta during the accumulated heat of the afternoon when the body is baked not only by the sun overhead but by the ground underneath radiating like a good, stone oven wall.
Many villagers were comfortably lounging in their huts or underneath a good shade tree when the two men and the dog stumbled to the midst of the gardens. How they managed to find their way back, running through that tangled mess, is unknown. Perhaps the dog sniffed out a scent. They were scratched and bruised, covered as well with mud. Their faces were grotesquely swollen from mosquitoes, and their lips were cracked and dry with thirst. Their voices sounded like whimpering mutts.
Someone brought them water. They drank and then began to talk, the words pouring out in a confused and frantic jumble. Elephant guide killed waiting killed horrible elephant…
—Oui! Tongo so… And Frank demonstrated where the tusk had entered and how far it had penetrated and the way that the guide had been thrown by the tremendous impact.
David passed out. This brought the villagers around from standing mesmerized by Frank's hoarse elocution and into action. Young men sprinted toward the village while the women and older men revived David and helped the two down into the village. They made their way slowly, like a procession, and from the village the sounds of funeral wails started up like sirens.
The village had no telephone, nor newspaper. They had no need of such networks. News passed efficiently and quickly by word of mouth, as it had for thousands of years. Normally, it would take no more than an hour for the news of a birth or a death or the agreement of a bride-price to be transmitted to every man and woman in the village. Children knew soonest.
Today, the entire village gathered at the bar by the time the two were escorted into the village and deposited into chairs in the shade of a mango tree—everyone, that is, except the mother and sisters of the dead guide, who had immediately taken up the wailing funeral lamentations that the family would continue for the next three nights. Some of the men in the guide's family were suspicious that three had gone out and only two returned, without the body even, and furthermore, the one was one of ours whereas the two were not; and these men stood around the perimeter of the gathering with daggers under their shirts and grim faces that would await an explanation before either grieving or exacting a blood payment.
Jean-Noel stood in front of the two survivors and faced the crowd, looking into the eyes of the men around the perimeter to let them know that he saw them, that he knew their agenda and the instruments they quietly carried. But first there would be a hearing. His face, too, was grim. He waited for his uncle to sit at his side, and then he extended his arms to the crowd, palms down, and waited for quiet. He turned to the two men and listened as, slowly, with few interruptions, they told their tale.
It was confirmed by a network of young boys stretching out from the village bar to the hills that the elephant indeed stood watch over his kill. This regiment remained to keep distant watch until nightfall. The grim-faced men went home, hid their daggers under their sleeping mats, and made preparations for the mourning rituals. They needed coffee and tea and firewood and bread for three nights and many visitors.
The old Chef and a few of the elders remained and sat in silence as the crowd cleared away.
—This is not normal.
—Yes, but we have heard of it from other places.
—It's true. When an elephant kills a man, he watches over the body.
—But why? What does it mean?
—How can we know?
Abdullah took the two into his family's large house. Jean-Noel followed. The women of the house brewed tea and lit the propane hot water tank above the shower. The men bathed and then put on clean, comfortable Arab robes. Someone set out a bottle. Frank took a large swallow of whiskey and obliged Abdullah's request for a repeat of the entire story.
—Praise Allah, you are alive.
—We got damn lucky, I suppose. You know, Jean-Noel, we can get a license on that elephant.
—The sous-prefect has already radioed Bangui. The license should be ready tomorrow.
--There is little time. He will move. The rains will start again soon.
--Tomorrow will be fine. After that, who knows?
Shortly after dark, David became chilled and fevered and went to bed. Noel and Frank and Abdullah walked to Frank's truck. Noel declined a ride and walked on to his hut while Frank and Abdullah drove back to the big house to prepare for the next day's hunt. The lamp burned in Abdullah's window long past sundown as Frank cleaned and inspected his big game rifle. Abdullah listened to his plans and rounded up requested supplies.
There was no moon and most of the village slept a deep and simple sleep following a morning of hard work and an evening of excitement. But on opposite sides of the village, two night fires burned, illuminating Mbossembelli against the vast darkness stretched over the savannah and the hills and against the hazy, starless, moonless sky. At one, Michel squatted and grasped his club and stared into the embers. His eyes watered. From the other fire, wails of grief lifted up and floated across the village to Michel. Each one caused him to shiver. He drank from his gourd to warm his insides. But the wails would rise and fall again and again, and each one turned his mind to the body lying alone in the forest in its own blood with no relatives to comfort it and to lay it restfully in the ground and release its spirit after singing and drumming their grief out into the night as was their custom and as was good. He drank from his gourd to quiet his head and, eventually, he slept. None of the guide's relatives slept that night.
The night remained dark, the moonless, starless sky covered in a haze. The air was thick and heavy, palpable, as the rains built back up in the sky. The drummers continued throughout the hot, still night, gripped by the fury of their ancestors, indignant over the body lying alone, unattended.
Just before dawn, the horizon shone red. The drumming crescendoed. The red glow crept around the horizon, and the sky above turned grey. In the night's last moments, in the still pause before daybreak, the drumming reached a frenzied apex.
A small truck pulled into the village and parked by Mbombo's. No one else was in the street, and the truck made a dark silhouette against the red horizon. A man sat at the wheel of the truck and pressed his hands against his sinuses and listened to the drumming. A couple of hours earlier he had stood by his truck in a village a hundred kilometers to the north, drinking a cup of burnt coffee, and had listened to another ritual drumming off in the distance. When he killed the ignition, the sound of the drums overtook the expected silence. He could never get used to the drumming in the night. He lived in the capital city, and he was spooked by the wide open darkness of the savanna nights. He was a doctor.
The drumming stopped, on a beat, suddenly, and the sun broke over the horizon. With the passing of a moment, a breath, it was day. Light and silence poured over the village. The doctor looked up and shuddered. He climbed out of the truck and stretched. He had come to hunt and kill the elephant.
There is a list of experienced game hunters who are called to exterminate individual animals from normally protected species who have become a nuisance. Killing a man typically qualifies an animal as a nuisance if it happens close to a permanent settlement. One pays quite a lot to be on the list and quite a bit more if he is called into action. The carcass, under this sort of license, including any trophies, belongs entirely to the government. Both Frank and the doctor were on this list.
Mbombo arrived with his bidon on his shoulder. He nodded to the doctor but remained silent and intent on setting up his table.
The doctor extended a greeting to him. —Balalla, baba.
—Ala a yeke njoni?
—No, all is not njoni, patron. At this Mbombo stood up and continued in very stiff and correct French. —It is absolutely necessary that you kill that brute. The body must be recovered. This is not good, not at all.
Frank pulled up. He had been to pay respects to the guide's family. There, he had pulled the father aside and had pressed into his hand money for all the food and coffee that they would be providing to the mourners. This had not been necessary on Frank's part, but he was accepting the role of the dead man's patron. It was a respectable gesture. The family wished him luck on the hunt and warned him to utilize strong medicine. He had promised to return later that night or the next day to sit awhile with them. This again was generous as he was an outsider and not expected to participate in their rituals.
Here, on the street, he shook the doctor's hand.
—I was not sure they would reach you in time.
—It just made the end of the night's radio broadcast. I was already in my hut for the night. One of my men ran over to tell me that Bangui was on the radio for me.
—Bien, we have little time. The rains will start soon.
He finished a cigarette and lit another, drank a cup of coffee, and started to draw a crude map of the area on a piece of paper he laid out on the hood of his truck. Abdullah arrived with four other men carrying machetes. There were already trackers in the hills, keeping watch over the elephant who had not yet moved from his post. Frank directed their plan of attack. He and the doctor would break off from each other, one following the trail to the elephant's current location while the other flanked around the hills to gain a vantage point on the area of retreat. He insisted that the guides and trackers stay close on the trail. —Pay attention to the wind. Our scent spooked him before. The wind shifts and you're dead. That's it. No, no vehicles. Not even as far as the gardens. Carry water, and, of course, take your goddamn machetes! You and you stay with me, and you and you go with him.
In the midst of Frank's planning, a young Arab boy ran up to Abdullah and insisted on his ear even after Abdullah shrugged him off. Abdullah's face dropped, and he went over to the doctor.
—Vous êtes docteur?
—Ah, that is good. The young American, he caught fever last night.
—Well, perhaps, but you see there are complications.
—Yes, well, you see, all rather embarrassing for me. He was staying in my house, a guest. In the middle of the night—he was up all night with the fever—he sent a servant to his house for a bottle of pills.
—Against the malaria.
—Oui, naturellement, but you see he took the pills and then went crazy.
—Yes. Mad. Wandering around, mumbling, crying. As I said, this is rather embarrassing for me. He is in my house, a guest, you know.
—Bring me the bottle of pills.
He looked at the bottle of prescription pills and instructed Abdullah to get David ready to go. He would pick him up at their kitchen door in fifteen minutes. And somehow, to find his passport! The doctor explained to Frank that, unfortunately, this was a medical emergency and he would have to miss the hunt.
—You cannot miss this. An elephant, mon ami, imagine. You will not have this chance again, I can tell you.
—I cannot simply leave the boy here. He needs medical attention.
—He has fever. What can you do? You, a doctor, you know this. He will recover or he will not. He is in good hands in this house. What more will you do for him, in a truck, on these roads?
The doctor knew this to be true. He also knew that, even after so many years in Africa, it was difficult for him to be comfortable with this attitude of what will be will be. His training went against it. He knew the drug in the little bottle of pills and knew that things might become ugly with David. He did not want to be known to his American friends as the doctor who left a sick PCV alone while he went off on a hunt.
The doctor took Frank's hand and shook it. With his other hand he grabbed Frank's shoulder. —Good luck, mon ami.
—You Americans, you are too sentimental. I do not understand.
—Good trip, then, Frank said, and then broke away to go back to the guides. He revised his original plan. —Only one hunter, then, we'll have to beat him out. I'll take one guide with me around the flank. The rest of you go down the path and beat up one helluva racket. Take sticks, machetes, drums, whatever you can find, and go slowly. You make a big-big noise and he'll turn and go the other way. Just don't get close to him!
* * *
David had taken a massive dose of Larium. Larium is the trade name for mefloquine hydrochloride, an anti-malarial chemo-prophylactic drug known the have many undesirable side-effects—including episodes of psychoses. It is also the only anti-malarial drug sanctioned by the United States Department of Health for travelers in this area of the world, so the Peace Corps gives it to their volunteers. There are other drugs available, but for whatever reasons the Health Department prefers this one.
David had stopped taking the drug. For it to be effective, one is supposed to take a small dose regularly. This, ostensibly, keeps a cumulative level of the drug in the blood to fight off the parasite. David had stopped this regimen because he was having vivid nightmares and occasional vertigo, as well as spells of nausea. That night, however, after the ordeal with the elephant and the raging fever that developed, he became confused and panicked and downed a dose of mefloquine equivalent to two months' preventative dosage. Normally, a "shock" dosage like that is indicated for symptoms of acute malaria—especially when accompanied by a severe fever—in patients who are already on a preventative dosage program. He should not have taken the medicine, as he knew already that he suffered side effects.
David was out of his mind all the way to Bangui. When he woke up the next morning he did not know where he was, nor did he have any recollection of getting there.
The Peace Corps agreed to let the doctor see David in their offices even though he wasn't their doctor. They were keeping a close eye on David.
—So, you've probably heard already. David sat still, his face pale.
—They're sending me home.
—Who knows? For some evals.
—Because you caught malaria?
—Hell no. Psychological evals. They didn't like that little breakdown.
—But that was just the Larium. You'll be fine with a little rest and a new prescription.
David shrugged. He pulled out a cigarette and tossed the pack on the table between them. —You smoke?
—Yeah, you're a doctor.
—I used to. Gave it up when I came here.
David lit up and dragged deeply.
—Yeah? I didn't think doctors did that shit.
—You'd be surprised.
David smoked, and neither of the men talked. Outside, two women with baskets of vegetables balanced on their hand stopped to talk with the guard at the entrance to the compound. The guard said something, and the two women laughed, their laughter ringing out in the quiet road. The two Americans watched them walk on around the corner, toward the market.
—Well, Frank got him yesterday.
David laughed. Actually, he guffawed.
—Great. The guide's dead, I'm getting shipped out, and Frank got his elephant.
—You know, Frank probably saved your life.
David lowered his head and looked at the doctor. He pulled out another cigarette. The doctor stood and offered his hand.
—Have fun in DC.
He shook it.
—Thanks. And thanks for getting me here.
—Come by the clinic when you get back.
Frank's plan had worked. The beaters spooked the elephant into retreating into the forest. By noon, the elephant came out of an opening in the forest between the hills. Frank was high up on one of the other hills, looking down into the gap. Frank shot and hit him in the shoulder from one hundred and fifty meters. This didn't kill him though. They were forced to track him. He retreated deep into the weeds and brush. For hours they gingerly followed his blood trail, and Frank bagged him with two shots at close range, ending the lost brute's misery. The expedition returned to the village after dark.
The following day broke grey and rainy. The temperature had dropped a bit, and there was not a hint of wind, just a straightforward downpouring of rain from uniformly grey and sunless skies. A company of soldiers started out in the mud to find the carcass and return with the tusks. Frank and Jean-Noel embraced in the doorway of Noel's hut, and Frank climbed behind the wheel of his truck and pulled off into the rain.
The guide's family sat around the body in their hut. The men had gone out the day before to recover the body after word came down that the beast had moved on into the forest ahead of the hunters. It was crowded in the hut, but they were all happy to have the body in before the rains. The burial would have to be done in the rain, but that was okay. At least, now, they could properly mourn. The initial wailing had given way to the traditional sitting. Family members came out in the rain to sit together in silence around the body, under a single roof. Later, in the night, the drums would be played and they would sing and dance around the body, giving its spirit a proper send-off. For the daytime, they would sit and listen to the rain.
The rain drummed loudly all day long on the tin roof over the bar, where a few dogs found shelter. They lay at the wooden feet of Nzini and the elephant and the crocodile. Later, perhaps, they would venture out to Michel's fire pit to check for scraps, but for now they would sleep, lazy with the contentment that comes from finding a dry space out of the rain.