Ghost Story - N'bembe's Last Hunt
The Sun was up in the sky, the dust was hot on the ground, and everything between seemed to be rushing up to greet N'bembe's face. He pulled the burlap facemask a little higher, protecting his nose and mouth from the dirt, pebbles and insects that were flying at him as he rode shotgun in the rich man's jeep.
"Just a little bit further?" the man was asking their pilot on his cellular phone. Diamond rings glinted across his fist like the Sun's rays on a choppy lake. One ring could keep N'bembe's entire family in food for five years, maybe more. What kind of money did these Europeans have? N'bembe wasn't sure, but he'd seen enough cash trade hands in the last few days to have some fair guesses.
There were ten men on this safari. Three of them were wealthy white people from Germany, one of whom was overhead in the turboprop. The other seven were people like N'bembe: poor Kenyan men from the nearest village who'd jumped at the chance to make some much-needed money.
Right now, they were split into one plane and three jeeps, cruising through the less-traveled paths in the National game preserve. High-power rifles jutted out of the backs of the jeeps like accusing fingers. Everyone knew what they were there for, and N'bembe had no illusions about what the pilot was searching after.
In the distance, he thought he could see rhinos; In a few minutes, there might be one or two less in the herd.
It hadn't always been like this, N'bembe decided when he was a little boy; somehow, things had changed.
Once this land was full of animals and people, and the two ate one another. Yet there never was any danger of one disappearing because of the actions of the other. Man was always a little smarter than the lion, and the lions always knew when to leave and fight another day. It was like a game, almost, and the game was meant to go on forever.
His grandfather had been the storyteller for their village, and everyone would come out of their homes when he walked to the town square and started talking. N'bembe had loved it when he was little, and would sit up front and be enthralled for hours at the great stories the man told. Tales of smart animals, tricky gods and sad people, all bound to one another by the great web of life and death.
When he got older, things were different. The old stories no longer interested him as they interested his parents and the old people. Many young people were concerned with more immediate needs. The Gods weren't going to feed N'bembe's wife and children, and now that the government's men said they could no longer hunt certain kinds of animals, some weeks he couldn't even do it himself.
The old ways were passing. His grandfather was dead, and his father had not become the storyteller, as he was too busy. It was left to his brother, who told a story about as well as he made children, which was not at all. Now, no one listened when he spoke. The children were more interested in watching the television in the sparsely-stocked village store than hearing those old tales, anyway.
N'bembe sighed when he thought of his eldest son, a thin stick with sad eyes. He deserved better than a bowl of gooey, lumpen Western rice a day. N'bembe wasn't sure what all he should have anymore, but he knew it had to be something more than this.
The Jeep pitched and rocked as the European changed direction, teeth glinting with anticipation. That leopard-skin safari hat made him look ridiculous.
"Okay," he said in heavily-accented English, as it was the only language that both of them spoke, "We will drive there. You and your friends will drive these cars around the herd and make them confused. Me and my friend will sit a little ways over there and shoot them."
N'bembe nodded, wondering where this man learned to hunt large animals. If he paid an old man to teach him he should have asked for his money back: making the herd afraid was an invitation to disaster.
"Yes, Mister Schroeder," he said, not wanting to get fired. The money made this worth it. The money made anything worth it, at this point. N'bembe scowled: what had he become?
The seven Kenyans lounged by the jeeps as the two Europeans talked to the fellow on the radio. Off in the distance, maybe two kilometers away on the other side of a patch of brush, were the rhinos. They'd hunkered down by an oasis and were filling their bellies; soon they would move on.
"I don't like this," Kanga was saying, sipping his Pepsi and straightening his yellow shirt: "What if we get caught?"
"We won't get caught," Manango answered, more out of self-delusion than anything else: "You saw how they handled the patrol we ran into."
N'bembe nodded: they all thought that would be the end of it, and then Mr. Schroeder took the patrol captain aside and handed him an envelope. It wasn't too hard to figure out what had been in it, and the safari proceeded on its way a few minutes later.
"Yes, but that was the police," Kanga complained: "What if the Army catches us? Or the park rangers?"
"Then we will go to jail," N'bembe said: "The Germans will pay a fine, but we will never leave."
That shocked the other six into silence, broken only by Manango: "So why are you here, then?"
"The same as you," N'bembe answered, looking off in the distance at the rhinos: "I need the money. And besides..."
He trailed off into silence, watching the rhinos drink and walk around. One shat where it stood, not seeming to mind. Three smaller ones trundled after their mother, proud and quick in the eye of the sun.
"Yes?" Kanga asked after a while, needing closure.
"My grandfather..." he said: "He always used to tell stories about hunting. I guess... I'd like to see what it meant."
The other six nodded. That was all the encouragement they needed.
And yet N'bembe shivered. He couldn't get over the thought that something was watching him and was not pleased at all. He hoped it wasn't his grandfather; He was deathly afraid that it was.
The three jeeps roared and spun dust in their wake, traveling in a line. N'bembe was alone at the front, as he had decided he didn't want to share the ride with anyone. Kanga had stayed behind with the two Germans, back behind the bush with their guns aimed.
The rhinos saw what was coming, and their reaction was immediate. The largest members of the herd trundled forth to challenge these things, while the smaller members and children were ushered off and away. It was the moment the Germans had been waiting for, and over the roar of the engine N'bembe thought he could hear the cracking of silenced, high-calibre rifles. A rhino's skull flapped open and the beast fell, leaking blood from its nose and ears.
N'bembe shrieked with delight as the first kill happened, more out of a sense of duty than real joy. This was a hunt, after all. His heart was beating hard and fast in his chest, his eyes were flashing and his brain was on fire. He imagined himself a proud warrior from one of his Grandfather's tales, brandishing a spear in one hand and a shield in the other as he stalked the wounded beast into the brush.
Of course, things had changed now, but were they really any different? No. No they weren't.
N'bembe made a hard left, preparing to circle around the herd and keep them from running too far away. He laughed as the rhinos were confused and headed back the way they'd came. Yes, this was the hunt alright. Soon the herd would be scattered, the Germans could collect their Ivory and take their pictures, and then they could go back to the village with their money. His son could eat real food. His wife could feed his daughter with her own milk instead of that awful powder.
And, if he could remember how, N'bembe planned on taking some of the meat back home with him. He had no idea what to cut or where, or really how, but how hard could it be? Meat was meat, surely-
A short, sharp shock made his head jerk back and forth on his neck. He thought he'd blown a tire, and then the Sun fell from the sky and his hands could feel nothing. A blackness came upon the world, and he wondered what was wrong. A sense of motion continued on, then a great reversal of direction, then nothing.
For a while, warm darkness enfolded him. He was a child of one or two harvests, suckling his mother at night. He felt safe and happy, wrapped in a dream he hadn't dreamed since he was a baby. How could he have forgotten this much? It was all so real, suddenly. So many things were so clear now.
And then that memory, that dream, and that happiness were all taken away by the light.
There was a hideous, wet sensation, as when the fruit you bite into is revealed to be rotten and pulpy. N'bembe thought he could hear something sodden with worms and wet mud rip or tear, and then he was laying on grey dirt under a grey, cloud-choked sun.
He looked around, unsure of his surroundings. His clothes were gone, replaced with a small lioncloth and belt. The jeep lay on its side, a burnt-out, rusting hulk. Had he fallen asleep for a lifetime? No, surely his friends would have gotten him to a doctor.
N'bembe got to his feet, slowly and haltingly. There was no pain, despite what must have been a terrible fall. Over by the brush, which seemed even more green than it had earlier, two burnt and rusted jeeps sat. The six other villagers were by the lush oasis, helping the Germans carve the horns and feet from dead rhinos. They must have killed half the herd, but one was still moving just slightly.
"Hey!" he said, weakly, waving his hands. No one turned to look at him, and as he stared at them, he was shocked.
Each one of his friends seemed gaunt and emaciated, as though they hadn't eaten in months. A round, circular dot in the middle of their foreheads seemed natural, yet out of place to his eyes. One of the Germans looked only a little better, his face red and swollen and his left eye starting from his skull. What had happened?
"Hey, two-legger," a mocking voice said. N'bembe looked around, wondering who'd said it.
"Look down, fool," it challenged, and so N'bembe looked down.
What he saw almost made him run: a lioness, sitting at his feet. A man's skin was curled up in her front paws, and she was looking at him with a burning intelligence he'd only seen a few times in his life.
"That's better, two-legger," the lioness said, her mouth making sounds no animal should.
"What...?" N'bembe tried to ask, but it all came out as a stammer.
"You can't figure it out?" the animal asked, laughing: "Oh, you poor, poor thing. Didn't you listen when your storytellers spoke to you?"
"Yes... I did..."
"Then you shouldn't be asking me obvious things," the lioness said, scowling and arching her head to look at his jeep.
"Look over there, two-legger. Whose body is that?"
N'bembe looked at the jeep, and saw something that made his heart sink. A skeletal, rotten arm jutted out from the wreck, and despite the ravages he could recognize it as his own.
Dead. He was dead.
"Oh my god..." he said.
"They won't help you now, two-legger," the lioness spat: "You're here, and you're all mine, now. There's no help for you, here."
"Do I have to say it?" the Lioness asked, getting more and more frustrated at his lack of true fear: "You're dead, two-legger. And worse than that, you died sending a lot of us back into the web. But there aren't enough bellies for them to be sent back into. Do you understand that?"
N'bembe didn't want to answer. He stared at his hand, the hand of the dead body under that jeep. Why was it so rotten? Why was the jeep rusting? It was all so strange-
Suddenly N'bembe's head jerked around on its own volition, and he was kneeling before the lioness.
"That's better," she said, holding the man's skin between her paws and twisting it just so. N'bembe saw a very recognizable scar on the left leg, and realized, with a growing horror, that the skin was his. But yet, he had skin...? What was happening...?
The lioness nodded: "Getting smarter all the time, two-legger. Now, you just stay there until I'm done talking to the lady over there. Just kneel... and watch."
N'bembe felt his head move to nod, but it was not his doing. He wanted to flee, to run away as fast as he could, but his legs would not move. He was paralyzed. He almost wanted to laugh from the absurdity of the whole thing, but he couldn't. This was too real. Too deadly.
The lioness padded over to the rhino that was still moving, and N'bembe saw that it looked just like another one of the rhinos that the men were carving up. Another ghost? He'd thought the lioness a vengeful spirit of some kind, the sort his grandfather used to speak about... but was the lioness a ghost too? This was confusing, and he looked closer - as his eyes were still able to move as he wished them to - in order to find an explanation.
He didn't like what he saw. The rhino was kneeling by three dead bodies: the three younger rhinos he'd seen. All had been stripped of their horns and brutally mutilated, but not shot. It wasn't too hard for N'bembe to figure out how they'd died, either: easy pickings for his friends to dispatch with their machetes.
"Sister?" the lioness said to the rhino: "I share your loss, sister. That they are not here with you is a blessing, surely. They have gone back into the cycle that we have yet to attain."
"I know," the Rhino said, the voice of a grief-stricken woman coming from her mighty throat: "That does not help me now... but I thank you for your kind words."
"You are most welcome, sister," the lioness said, looking back at N'bembe: "I gave you back your soul blanket, as is your right... if it pleases you, I have the soul blanket of one of the men who killed your friends and your children right here. I can grant him to you."
The rhino turned and looked at her, and then fixed upon N'bembe with a freezing glance. N'bembe closed his eyes and prayed for mercy, but when he opened them up again the Rhino had his skin between her hooves.
"When you're ready, I can show you the way to the nearest kingdom," the lioness said, preparing to leave: "I'll be over the next hill when you need me."
"Thank you," the rhino said, looking back at her three children. She began to sob, just like N'bembe's wife had when she'd lost a baby in the year of famine. The lioness looked back one last time at N'bembe and then padded away, leaving him mute and immobile.
The rhino's cries seemed to reach a kind of climax. Soon she'd be as angry as she was sad, and then she'd be more angry than sad. From there, it was all downhill.
N'bembe closed his eyes on the cold, grey world he'd been reborn into. He tried to hear the wise, soft voice of his grandfather, telling tales of brave and quick-thinking men who'd tricked the spirits, or made the old gods notice their deeds. But the tales were dead in his mind, and their lessons were worse than impotent. There was no escape.
He opened his eyes. The rhino was charging him. He closed his eyes again and prayed.
Up over the next hill, the lioness listened
to the sound of the two-legger screaming and allowed herself
a slight smile.