Death of An Impala by Susan Hurley
Susan Hurley is a health economist and writer. Her research has been published in numerous international journals including The Lancet and her articles and essays have appeared in Kill Your Darlings,The Big Issue, The Australian and Great Walks. Susan is currently working on a novel that originates from a disastrous drug trial. She lives in Melbourne with her husband and labradoodle. The Death of an Impala was shortlisted for the 2017 Peter Carey Short Story Prize.
Death of An Impala
The animals were standing in a clearing under a cloudless early-morning sky, a dozen of them, more or less.
‘Impala,’ Max said. He braked and turned to face his guests. Max’s vehicle didn’t have a rear-vision mirror, or a windscreen, or a roof. There were ponchos for the guests if it rained. Max’s vehicle didn’t even have doors. Being close to the animals, with no barrier, made the safari experience more authentic. Provided the guests didn’t do something stupid, they were safe.
Max had only two guests today: Judith and Bob. They weren’t a couple. ‘Hi, I’m Judy,’ Judith had said to Bob that morning in the dining room, the sun not yet risen, the air still so cold it stung.
Yet when Max asked, ‘May I pour you coffee or tea, Judith?’ like the lodge manager insisted guides must ask guests, she hadn’t said, ‘Call me Judy.’
Now, Max saw Judith look away from the impala.
Boring, she thought. More antelope. She hadn’t come all this way and spent all that money just to see a bunch of Bambi look-alikes. The guide, this Max, was making a pathetic attempt to make them interesting. ‘We call impala the McDonald’s of Africa. Ya,’ he said, pointing out the ‘M’ sign that their black rear markings and tail appeared to make. Bob laughed, so she laughed too. Geez Louise, she’d come all the way to Botswana—and Botswana was even more expensive than South Africa—she’d splurged on a private game park, not to mention a lodge that the travel agent assured her was superior, and now she was laughing at an antelope’s bum.
‘Make her happy, Max,’ the manager had said that morning after the staff briefing. The singing, the dancing and the praying after the briefing were the best part of Max’s day. Blessing from kitchen department led the singing and he, Max, he led the dancing. But today, after they’d heard which guests were leaving, and after the guests who would be flown in after lunch had been assigned to guides, just when the singing was about to start after Blessing had clapped her hands and ululated for all of thirty seconds, like only Blessing could do, loud and so beautiful just like he hoped she would do at the mokgolokwane for his wedding, when he and Patience finally married, the manager had pulled him aside. ‘I need a word, Max,’ he said.
Every evening at dinner, the manager, whose name was Nathan, visited guests at their tables. ‘And how has your day been?’ he would ask.
The previous evening, Judith told Nathan she was disappointed. She hadn’t seen that much on her first game drive. She’d come all this way and it was just like the Singapore night zoo.
Nathan tried to fob her off. He asked about Singapore, a place he’d never been. He was South African, with that clipped New Zealander accent they have. The rest of the staff were Botswanan, but their English was good.
She’d done Singapore en route to Bali for her bestie Kylie’s wedding. ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ Judith told Nathan, ‘I adore that zoo.’ Judith knew Nathan didn’t care how her day had been, but she was eating dinner alone. She was travelling solo and this lodge didn’t do communal seating at dinner, or even lunch. The table was candle-lit so it was too dark to read. Nathan could listen up and earn his keep.
‘We did see some elephants, some giraffes, and a few zebras,’ she told him. ‘Oh, and antelope—the common ones. What are they called again?’
‘Impala,’ Nathan said.
Max had shown Judith a dazzle of zebras yesterday, not just a few. Max loved to make his guests laugh at the collective nouns for the animals: a tower of giraffes, a leap of leopards, a soar of eagles. But Judith hadn’t smiled at the dazzle of zebras, she hadn’t seen even one leopard, and the giraffes hadn’t moved. If they had Max would have told her, ‘They’re called a journey of giraffes, now that they’re walking.’
The elephants, the giraffes, the zebra and impalas had not made Judith happy. She wanted to see some action, she told Nathan. She wanted to see the animals doing something, because that’s what a safari is all about. That’s what the American woman who’d deigned to talk to her at the bar before dinner said too. Judith had dressed for dinner. She hadn’t frocked up—just back skinny pants and her off-the-shoulder crimson silk blouse with the ruffles—but she looked pretty damn good, even if she did say so herself. The American woman was still wearing her sweat-stained safari gear, and didn’t introduce herself. She told Judith she’d just arrived from Momba lodge, which was such a special place. The experience of a lifetime. She and her husband saw a leopard with a kill there. The woman whipped out her iPhone and played a video of the leopard sitting in a tree, dangling the impala carcass for its two cubs, who toyed with it like a plaything. Judith had agreed with her: the video was amazing.
Today, Max needed to do better. But all he had to work with so far were the impala. They were standing in an almost perfect circle. ‘See how the animals are all facing outwards,’ he told Judith and Bob. ‘Ya. They’ve got a three-sixty-degree view. And see how their ears are up. There’s a predator nearby. But they’ve got the area covered. Ya. These animals won’t be attacked.’
Bob was sitting behind Judith. He snapped some pictures. This was his first time on safari, he’d told her over their breakfast coffee. His camera’s lens was so big he had to attach it to a fancy tripod thingy that he’d strapped to the bar behind her head. Click, click, click. Bob must have taken more than twenty pictures already. The clicking was driving her crazy, and they were only impala, for God’s sake.
The two-way radio crackled: ‘Gee to Max.’
Gee was Max’s friend. He was also Patience’s brother, so one day, soon Max hoped because Patience was becoming impatient, Gee would be his brother-in-law. Gee was on duty at the lodge today, coordinating the vehicles out on game drive. He had promised to help Max make Judith happy. The guides worked together to track animals, calling in any clues they saw or heard. A troop of baboons screeching was a sign that a predator was hunting nearby—a lion, a leopard, or a cheetah if you were very lucky. A congregation of vultures up a tree meant that the predator had made a kill. The birds were waiting for their turn at the carcass.
Working as a team made sense because this game park was huge—twenty-one thousand hectares—so the predators that all the guests wanted to see were hard to track, even if you knew the paw prints of lions as well as the lines on the palm of your hand. But manager Nathan had made a new rule: only two vehicles at a time were permitted at high-profile sightings such as a kill. This was a superior lodge. Guests expected exclusive sightings and they wanted photos without other safari vehicles in the frame.
The new rule had not worked out well for Max. The week before Judith’s arrival he saw a lioness on the move and called it in. The lodge put the sighting out on the radio. Ralph and Ping were closer, upwind from an impala that the lioness was hunting. Their guests got to watch her disembowel the impala and feast on its innards, while Max and his guests waited the respectful hundred metres away, like manager Nathan insisted the third vehicle at a sighting must do. When Max’s turn finally came the lioness was sated and sleeping. Max did not get good tips that day.
‘Turn your radio to channel four,’ Gee had told Max this morning, ‘I’ll give you a heads up before I put any hot sightings out to the others on channel one.’
Now Gee was making good on his promise. ‘Wild dogs at Linyanti crossing, some heading east, some west,’ Gee’s voice said. ‘Prince called it in, he’s following the eastbound dogs.’
‘Copy that.’ Max put his vehicle in gear. He would go west.
Max turned to face Judith and Bob. ‘Hold on,’ he said. ‘Bob, hold on to your camera please.’ Bob looked like he’d be a good tipper, but not if his camera got broken.
Max floored the accelerator. The track was sandy and his vehicle swayed from side to side. In just a few minutes he came across three dogs, circling a mopane tree where a leopard was perched on the lowest lying branch.
‘Amazing,’ Max said. ‘This is amazing. I’ve only seen wild dogs and a leopard together once before. And I’ve been a guide ten years.’ The leopard hissed. The dogs yapped back.
Judith wasn’t a dog person. The wild dogs looked, well, like dogs actually—spotty, mangy ones—but at least this was some action. ‘Will they attack the leopard?’ she asked.
Max laughed. ‘No, wild dogs can’t climb trees.’
Judith felt her face flush. What was so funny? The branch wasn’t even that high off the ground. She hadn’t come all this way to be made to feel a fool. Curtis had done that often when they were still together, one time even embarrassing her in front of Kylie, telling Kylie that Judith was ‘just fat’ when Kylie asked if it was a baby bump she could see profiled beneath Judith’s figure-hugging dress. ‘And barren,’ Curtis had added, so quietly only Judith heard.
Four more dogs trotted up the track to join the three who were harassing the leopard. ‘A pack. A hunting pack,’ Max told Judith and Bob. The dogs were thin, hungry, but Max didn’t point that out. The dogs would need to make a kill today, but he wasn’t going to raise his guests’ expectations. ‘When you’re following a lead to a high-profile sighting, don’t get the guests excited too early. Remember how easily things can go pear-shaped,’ manager Nathan had told the guides. ‘Under-promise and then aim to over-deliver.’
One of the dogs lifted his leg and peed a dribble, marking his territory, then the pack trotted off, leaving the leopard in peace. Max got on the radio: ‘Max to Gee. A female leopard, up a tree two k west of the crossing.’ The leopard was a good sighting. Max would follow the dogs though. A kill was a much rarer, much higher-profile sighting than a leopard.
‘Copy that,’ Gee said. ‘And Max, an impala, a female, is running for the river. Dogs in pursuit. Prince is on it.’
Max knew what had happened. The impala would have been hiding in the thicket at the edge of the flood plain, standing still, trying to make herself invisible, but failing. The dogs Prince had followed had picked up the impala’s scent, and the impala, sensing the dogs’ movement as they closed in, had made a run for it. If the impala got to the river before the dogs she might manage to swim to the safety of the island. The dogs would bail at the river. They were scared of crocodiles.
Max swerved his vehicle right, into the bush. He would take a short cut. ‘Mind the branches. Please put your heads down, Judith and Bob,’ he said.
The three of them hurtled through the scrub. This guide is a maniac, Judith thought. His vehicle was flattening bushes, ripping branches off trees. Sure, he was permitted to go off-road for high-profile sightings because this was a private game reserve—he’d explained that yesterday—but didn’t these people care about the environment?
The branch of a thorn bush snagged the arm of the cream shirt she’d bought especially for the trip. Max was too busy destroying the landscape to notice her squeal, but Bob reached forward and un-snagged her. ‘Are you okay?’ he asked gently and gave her arm a little rub. She felt herself start to choke up. It was almost a year since a man had touched her, not that she was keeping count.
When Max drove out of the thicket he could see Prince’s vehicle across the flood plain near the river, parked by a clump of papyrus. He could hear the dogs yelping in the reeds, but he couldn’t see the impala.
‘What’s happening?’ Judith asked. All this hooning about had better be worth it.
‘A safari?’ Kylie had said. ‘Really? Why not go to Thailand? Sit by the pool, sip cocktails, have a holiday fling!’ But Judith had wanted to do something more unique than Thailand. A safari had sounded perfect. It was an indulgence, absolutely—it had cost a big chunk of her alarmingly small property settlement with Curtis—but she had wanted to treat herself, and also, truth be told, show Curtis she was quite capable of travelling to new places, dangerous places, without him. This lodge had a reputation for danger. Only a few years back a lion had killed a guest, a woman, and Judith had asked Nathan the night before for all the details.
‘It happened at the lodge,’ Nathan told her. ‘We were outside in the boma having a barbeque dinner, and she apparently decided to go back to her room to change her shoes.’ He shook his head, still appalled at the woman’s foolishness. ‘She should have asked for an escort,’ he said sternly. ‘It’s one of the lodge rules. We have security staff, with flashlights, to escort guests to their rooms at night.’ Were lions scared of flashlights? Judith had wondered.
Max knew the impala was down. Snippets of information about the dogs would hopefully distract Judith and Bob from the fact that they’d missed the kill. ‘Wild dogs are an endangered species,’ he said. ‘There are only about three thousand left in all of Africa.’
Max drove across the flood plain, slowly now. He parked facing Prince’s vehicle and pointed to the spot where the papyrus was shaking violently. The dogs were eating the impala. Every thirty seconds or so one of the dogs lifted its head above the rushes. The dog’s face was tomato-red from the impala’s blood. ‘It’s checking for predators,’ Max told Judith and Bob. ‘At a kill, dogs are easy prey for lions.’
‘Lions lick their prey before they eat it,’ Judith announced. Nathan had told her that the night before. The lion licked the woman who left the boma unescorted. Nathan said the woman had been wearing a short, skimpy sundress and the lion licked her leg, all the way from her foot to her torso. But lions have very rough tongues. The licking ripped off the woman’s skin.
‘The woman’s husband and a security guard went to see why she was taking so long,’ Nathan said. ‘They disturbed the lion and brought the woman back to the boma. She was still alive then, but she died within the hour.’ Nathan sighed. ‘One of the other guests that night was a doctor, but he wouldn’t touch her. Said it was a law suit waiting to happen.’
Neither Max nor Bob heard Judith mention that lions lick their prey. Max had secured a good position for the sighting. Max was happy. Bob was click-click-clicking, getting good shots. Bob was happy too.
The day was heating up and Judith felt herself becoming sweaty. She needed to take off the thermal vest underneath her safari shirt. If Curtis had been with her, and if it had been one of their good days, he would have held up his coat so that she could get undressed without Max and Bob having a perv.
‘These dogs will eat as much of the impala as they can fit into their stomachs, then they’ll run back to their den, fast, and regurgitate the kill for their pups,’ Max said. He did not hear Gee call out the sighting of lions heading in the direction of the impala kill. Gee made the call on channel one, but Max’s radio was still tuned to channel four.
The lions racing toward the kill site had been purchased from another game park, to replace the pride that was shot after one of their number killed the woman who left the boma to change her shoes. ‘A lion that’s tasted human blood must be destroyed. Otherwise it might start to hunt people,’ Nathan had told Judith. The lodge didn’t know which lion was responsible so they had to shoot the whole pride.
One of the dogs, now slicked with blood from its head to its hind legs, backed out of the rushes, dragging a piece of the impala. Judith felt her stomach churn.
The dog hauled its plunder over to Max’s vehicle. ‘Oh, the impala was pregnant’ Max said.
No shit, Sherlock, Judith thought. She could recognise a foetus when she saw one. Bile bubbled up her throat.
One by one the other dogs leapt out of the kill site, leaving the impala to the vultures. They trotted over to Max’s vehicle and began to devour the delicacy. ‘Unbelievable,’ Bob said. ‘I’m shooting video of this.’
Judith slid over to the other side of the vehicle, away from the carnage. She was going to throw up. No way was she doing that in front of Bob and Max.
The lions had reached the edge of the thicket. They could see the dogs. But Max did not see the lions. He was thinking about Patience. He had already saved half the dowry that Patience’s father was asking. Today, his tips would be good. By Christmas he would have the entire dowry if he had more good-tip days like this. Ya, that would make Patience happy.
Max did not hear Judith slip out of the vehicle.