Published by Open Road Review (November 2013).
The open-top khaki-colored Jeep jostles down a sage-lined dirt road amid the chirp and rattle of insects in Africa’s bush, and from the back row of seats I silently name each of the students under my care—turning my eyes to the back of one head, then another, then another. Checking the last one from my mental list, I scratch my stubbled cheek as my waking moments creep back into my consciousness: when my hand, reaching for Richard’s in the bed beside me, met the edge of the mattress and the gauze veil of a mosquito net barely showing white in a still-dark morning. I sat up, careful not to break the thick silence though unsure why, orienting myself as I became more awake: the smells of wild sage and cool open air; the trip with the local university I was chaperoning while Richard stayed in Idaho because his boss—who lingers on the phone after teleconferences and coyly asks “I know Richard’s told me, but what do you do again?” at every plus-one business event—needed him for “a last-minute trip,” despite—as I pointed out—Richard having confirmed the time off three months ago; and the lips—each like a fresh, wet slice of plum—of Zayd, the native guide, as he told us a few days prior in his thick, smooth Botswanan accent, “Remember, you must now be more careful, more alert. Never make yourself apart from the group; don’t let yourself be vulnerable.”
The Jeep turns toward a shallow river, into a small clearing that’s part of a plain filled with dry, leafless bushes the size of small cars. About halfway in, Zayd taps the driver’s shoulder and motions off into the bushes as the Jeep slows down. “Watch,” he says, “for a lioness and her cubs.”
I see nothing for five minutes as the Jeep rumbles slowly forward, and just as I assume they have moved on, a dull gold shines between two bushes—and then two cubs bumbling behind, young enough that they still have faint, leopard-like spots on their legs.
“She is on a morning hunt,” Zayd says. “Probably curious about what we are doing. They look to be heading at the water up ahead.”
As the students hop onto the sandy river soil of the clearing, I shield my eyes from the sunlight glaring off the water and look around from within the Jeep, picturing the lioness watching us through the bushes’ thin branches—god, that attack on a wildebeest we saw yesterday: the lions’ speed, decisive lunges, snouts daubed with blood—and her cubs close behind her, watching how to approach prey so that it never sees you coming, never recognizes that a threat is present. Richard’s light brown eyes and smooth jawline pop into my head, bringing back glimpses of last night’s nightmare: a huge maze of a house I recognized but didn’t know my way through; him walking away, through door after door, his back always to me as I reached out for him, called his name; and then him disappearing around a final corner—one last pitying smirk back at me—his hand in someone else’s, someone who had vanished with him by the time I caught up. My feet make contact with the sandy ground, a lump forming in my throat as I think of Richard’s face from the dream, the cool expanse of the cotton sheet against my hand when I woke up.
I step toward the students—thinking of how seven days on the other side of the world can stretch to eternity when you imagine the ten still ahead, the long-distance fees the school won’t pay for, the argument Richard and I had the night before I left about him sharing a hotel room with his boss in my absence—then turn to my right and slip behind the nearest bare bush as I start to cry, my mind echoing with the image of Richard’s back moving always faster away. I bring my hands to my face and sob as quietly as I can, thinking embarrassedly of the students reacting to my tear-streaked face, telling myself that this has to be part of the nightmare, that I’ll soon wake up in Idaho to a warm indent in the bed beside me from when Richard got up moments before.
A timid, “Uh, mister Dowing?” from Zayd startles away my tears as I turn to him. “This is lion territory, and you must be careful. Come back where it is safe.” He glances nervously around, puts his hand on my shoulder, and looks into my eyes. “You must protect yourself. Lions might sit nearby; that is a threat you cannot ignore.”
I swallow hard and nod, remembering the moment of attack yesterday—the taut muscles in the lions’ shoulders, the blood streaming down the wildebeest’s side, the fear and pain in those wide, dark eyes. “Okay. I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
He pats my shoulder. “It is all-right. Sometimes we all drop our guard—but we must know when to have it up.”
As Zayd turns and I step with him toward the group, I smear the remaining moisture across my cheeks and picture the lioness crouched in the dirt behind a nearby bush, my head snapping toward her as she bolts forward, her claws extended, gold eyes blazing and focused on me, her mouth twisted into the same smirk Richard wore.