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African Hunt

FROM A TRAVEL DIARY

I

Old maps used to show Africa as a girl, rough and yet somehow beautiful — and always, always surrounded by wild animals: monkeys swinging over her head; elephants swishing their trunks behind her back; a lion licking her feet; and beside her, lying on a sun-warmed rock, a lazy panther soaking in the bright light.

The old painters didn’t deal with the spread of colonization, or with the building of railroads, or with irrigation, or with drainage earthworks. And they were right: only in Europe do we think that the battle between Man and Nature is over — or that, anyway, the odds are decisively in our favor. It does not seem that way, once you have been in Africa.

Railroad embankments, narrow and precarious, are washed away every summer, when the rain pours down. Elephants like to scratch themselves on the nice smooth telegraph poles — and snap them like toothpicks. Riverboats are regularly overturned by hippopotamuses. The English have been busy conquering the Somalia peninsula for years; they’re still not a hundred kilometers in from the shore. And yet, for all this, you can’t say that Africa is inhospitable: whites can enter her forests just as easily as blacks, and by silent agreement an animal will hold back and let an approaching man come to a waterfall first. Guests, yes — guests are welcomed, but not as hosts, not as masters.

A European who can get through the chain of whining skeptics (most of them petty traders) in seaside cities — who can keep from listening to the ominous warnings of his country’s diplomats — who can manage to put together a caravan of reasonable size, neither bulky nor cumbersome — can still see Africa as she was thousands of years ago, nameless rivers with lead-heavy waves, deserts where only God would dare to raise His voice, rotten forests hidden in high mountain gorges and waiting to fall at the first tiny shock. He can hear the lion, crouching for his spring, hitting his sides with his heavy tail, and he can hear the claw hidden in that tail ring out as it clangs on his ribs. He can marvel at the Shangalians, among whom no woman can walk, in the presence of men, except on all fours. If he is a hunter, he can find game worthy of the princes in fairy tales. But he must also harden himself in both body and in spirit — in body, to hold back fear of desert heat and rotting wet swamps, fear of ever-possible injury, fear even of starvation; in spirit, to keep from trembling at the sight of blood, both his and others’, and to learn to accept this new world so unlike the one we live in, and to accept it as it is, enormous, terrible, and marvellously beautiful.

2

The Red Sea, too, is clearly a part of Africa. And hunting sharks in the Red Sea is a fine way to be introduced to African hunting.

We dropped anchor outside Jedda. There was no going in, since there was plague. I know nothing more beautiful than the bright green coral reefs of Jedda, edged with faintly rose-colored foam. Perhaps the hadji, the Muslims who have made the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, wear green turbans in their honor?

While they were taking on coal, we decided to hunt sharks. We used a huge hook, tied to a strong cable and loaded with ten pounds of rotten meat, as a fishing rod. A log was die float. But we couldn’t see any sharks: either there weren’t any, or else they had swum so far off that their pilot fish couldn't spot the bait. Sharks are very nearsighted, so they always travel with two pretty little fish who steer them to food and then take a share for their services.

Finally we saw a dark shadow in the water, perhaps ten feet in length, and die float whirled around a few times, then plunged underwater. We jerked up die cable — but all we got was the hook, the meat still on it. The shark had just tugged at it, he hadn’t tried to swallow it. And now, upset and angry because his appedzing meal had disappeared, he was charging about in circles, splashing the water with his tail. The pilot fish, confused, were rushing this way and that. We threw the baited hook back in, as quickly as we could. This time the shark rushed at it, not hesitating a moment. The cable pulled taut, looked as though it might snap, then went slack, and out of the water came a round, shining head with small, malicious eyes. I’ve seen eyes like that before, but only on old and particularly ferocious wild boars. There were ten sailors pulling on the cable, and sweating. The shark was spinning madly about; we could hear his tail smashing against the side of the ship, churning in the water like a propeller. The chief mate leaned over the railing, aimed his revolver, and fired five bullets into him. The shark leaped, then went calm. There were five black holes in his head and his whitish lips. The men heaved, and the terrible carcass came to the side of the ship. Someone touched his head, and he clanked his teeth, snapping — not dead at all, in fact quite fresh and resting, bracing himself for the final battle. The mate tied a knife to a long stick and, with a strong, straight, accomplished blow, drove it into the shark’s chest and, straining fiercely, ripped the slit down to the base of the tail. Blood and water came spurting out, and a pink spleen perhaps four feet long, and a large spongy liver, and yards of intestines rolled out and began to rock in the quiet water, like unknown new jellyfish, never seen by man.

It was easier to pull him up, now, he was light and easy and they had him on the deck quickly. Swinging a hatchet, the ship’s cook began to chop at his head. Someone yanked out his heart: still pulsating, it leaped now here, now there, hopping like a frog. The air was full of the smell of blood.

And down there in the water, right alongside the ship, the orphaned pilot fish swam around and around. Just one of them: the other had disappeared, probably making for some distant bay, to hide there his disgrace, his involuntary betrayal. But this one, this one was inconsolable, faithful to the end, jumping out of the water, over and over, as if to see what they were doing up there with its master. Other sharks were swimming greedily toward the floating guts, and the pilot fish swam spinning around them, expressing in every way it could its ultimate despair.

To get at the teeth, they chopped off the shark’s jaws, then threw all the rest into the sea. The sunset, that night, over the green coral reefs of Jedda, was far-flung, bright yellow with the vermilion of the sun at its center. Later it turned to delicate ash, then went green, as if the sea were now reflected in the sky. We raised anchor and sailed directly towards the Southern Cross.

3

There, where the Abyssinian plateau turns into lowlands, and the burning desert sun warms the flat, round rocks, and the shallow caves, and the low shrubs, you often find a leopard, usually a lazy one, lying asleep in the fields near some village. Graceful, parti-colored, enjoying a thousand tricks and whims, he plays in the life of these villagers the role of some glorious, malevolent house demon. He steals their goats and their pigs, and sometimes their children, too. Every single woman among them, if she gets the chance, will come back from fetching water at the spring and report that she saw him resting, high on the cliff, and that she saw him getting ready to spring. Young warriors sing songs comparing themselves to him, and they try to leap as lightly as he leaps. And from time to time some ambitious man goes out hunting him, carrying only a poisoned spear, and if he isn’t crippled for life — and often he is — he brings the satiny hide, traced with its intricate, ingenious pattern, to the neighboring trader, and carries home, triumphant, a bottle of bad cognac. A new leopard comes to settle where the dead one had been, and the whole thing starts again, right from the beginning.

Once, towards evening, I came to a small Somalian village, somewhere on the edge of the Hararian hills. My guide, a quick-legged Hararite, ran at once to the elder of the village, to let him know what an important guest he had, and the elder came out to me as quickly as he could, carrying presents of eggs, and milk, and a nice half-year-old kid. As usual, I began to ask him what there was to hunt. He told me that a leopard had been seen on the slope of a neighboring knoll, and not half an hour earlier. He was an old man, and I could believe him. I drank some milk and set out; my guide pulled the kid along behind him, for bait.

The knoll was covered with faded, burnt-out grass, and small, thorny shrubs; it looked like one of our garbage dumps. We tied the kid in the center of a clearing, I settled down in a bush about fifteen paces away, and behind me my Hararite lay down, with his spear. His eyes were bulging and he waved his weapon about, assuring me that this would be the eighth leopard he had killed; he was a coward, and I told him to shut up.

It didn’t take long — I was surprised that the kid’s desperate bleating didn’t collect all the leopards in the whole province. Suddenly I noticed how a bush in the distance stirred faintly, how a rock fell out of place, and I saw die parti-colored beast coming rapidly closer. He was about the size of a hunting dog, and ran on bent legs, pressing his belly to the ground and waving the tip of his tail faintly from side to side. His blunt cat’s muzzle was motionless and threatening. And he looked so terribly familiar, from books and from pictures, that for a moment I had the absurd notion that perhaps he had escaped from some travelling circus. Then all at once my heart began to pound, my body straightened of its own accord, and hardly aiming, I fired.

The leopard jumped three or four feet, then fell heavily on his side. His hind legs were jerking, digging up the earth; his front ones were tucked up, as if preparing to spring. But his body did not move, his head kept bending further and further to one side: the bullet had broken his spine, just behind the neck. I realized that he would not attack, and I lowered my gun and turned back to my Hararite. He was fires in a ring around their camps. Each stays out of the way of the other.

But once, in one of these forests, at high noon, when I was amusing myself hunting marabou storks, my guide — a huge, knowing Abyssinian with a pockmarked face — pointed out a track at the edge of the water.

Anbassa — lion,” he declared, lowering his voice. “He comes here to drink.”

I was doubtful. A lion might drink here tonight, but who could guarantee that he would come to this same place tomorrow? But my guide picked up a whitish, hard little ball, proving that the lion had been here many times. 1 was convinced. Killing a lion is the secret dream of any white man who comes to Africa; it does not matter if he is a rubber buyer, or a missionary, or even a poet. We discussed the question, my guide and I, and decided to build a scaffold in a tree, and spend the night there. That way the lion could come closer — and shooting from above is usually more accurate.

We found a good spot, not too far away, on the edge of a small clearing. We worked all afternoon, until it grew dark, putting up a clumsy, slanting scaffold on which the two of us could somehow find enough room to sit, with our feet hanging over. To keep from having to shoot, and perhaps frightening the lion off, we caught a turtle, two feet long, and had its liver, roasted on a small campfire, for supper. When it was full darkness we were in our places, waiting.

We waited a long time. At first what we heard was the sound of wild boars, out later than they should have been, turning in the bushes, and then some restless bird cried out, and then it grew so quiet that the whole world seemed to have become empty, deserted, all at the same time. Later on the moon rose, and we saw a porcupine in the middle of the clearing, sniffing the air carefully, and digging a bit in the ground. But just then a hyena gave a loud, rolling cry and the porcupine ran, with mincing steps, into the bushes. My legs were growing terribly numb. We sat like that for perhaps five hours.

Only someone who has traveled can understand what tiredness really is, and how it feels to want sleep desperately. Twice I almost fell from my tower; at last, sour and worn out, I decided to climb down. Better to let the hunting go until tomorrow, better to get plenty of sleep during the day... I lay down on my face, in the bushes, my gun beside me; my guide stayed up in the tree. Exceedingly tired people do not fall asleep right away. First there is a heavy torpor, and I lay unable to move, hearing distant rustling, feeling how the moon was inclining and turning pale.

Suddenly I woke, as if someone had hit me. Only later did I realize that my guide had been whispering, from up in the tree, “Getal Getal” (“Master! Master!”) At the far end of the clearing I saw a lion, black against the background of dark bushes. He was coming out of a thicket, and all I could see was a huge head, held high above a chest broad as a shield. The next moment I fired. My Mauser bellowed incredibly loud, in that utter silence, and like an echo I heard the crash of breaking bushes and the quick leaping noise of an animal running away. My guide had already jumped down from the tree and was standing beside me, his Berdan rifle raised and ready.

Fatigue vanished as if it had never existed. Hunter’s madness gripped us both. Running by way of the bushes, we circled the clearing — not daring, still, to go straight — and began to inspect the place where I had seen the lion. We knew that a lion runs away, when shot at, only if he is either seriously wounded or else not wounded at all. Lighting match after match, we crawled around on all fours, looking for drops of blood in the grass. There weren’t any. The forest wonder had gotten away with his chestnut hide, his voice of thunder, and the immensely imposing bliss of his steel and velvet movement.

At dawn, we ate the rest of the turtle for breakfast.

5

My young and wealthy Abyssinian friend, Lord Adenu, invited me to visit his estate.

“Oh, it’s only two days from Addis Ababa,” he assured me. “Only two days, and by a good road.”

I accepted, and ordered my mule saddled for the morning. But Lord Adenu insisted that we ride horses, and led up five from his own herd for me to choose from.

I understood why, two days later, when we had covered at least a hundred and fifty miles. In two days!

I was tired, and my tiredness made me miserable, so Lord Adenu proposed that we have a hunt, and not just a simple hunt, but a battue, with beaters in the brush, driving out the game.

A battue, deep in a tropical forest — it is a completely new experience, utterly unlike anything else. You stand there, waiting, not knowing what will come out from behind this round bush, what will run flashing between this crooked mimosa and that thick plane tree; not knowing which of those with hooves or claws or fangs will run out at you, head lowered, ready for you to link it to your consciousness with a bullet. Who knows, maybe fairy tales don’t lie, maybe there really are dragons...

We stood along both sides of a narrow ravine, ending in a blind alley. The beaters, about thirty quick-footed Galla people, went deep into that blind dead end. We aimed our rifles at the rocks, there in the middle of the almost vertical slopes, and listened to the voices, moving away from us, now up above, now below, and suddenly all the voices merged into a single triumphant howl. They had found an animal.

It was a great striped hyena, running along the opposite slope only a few yards above Lord Adenu’s head. Behind it, swinging a club, rushed the head beater, a thin, muscular, completely naked Negro. The hyena would turn and snap at him, and he would fall back several steps. Lord Adenu and I fired at the same time. Gasping for breath, the Negro stopped, deciding that he had done his part of the job. Turning a somersault, the hyena flew down within two or three feet of Lord Adenu, snapping at him, in the air, as it fell, then somehow managed to get to its feet and start to trot briskly away. Two more shots finished it off.

In a few minutes there was another shout, another animal had been found, but this time the beaters had to deal with a leopard, and they did not run up so daringly or come so close.

With a few mighty leaps the leopard climbed to the top of the ravine, and from there he could run where he pleased. We never saw him, Lord Adenu and I.

Then, for the third time, we heard the beaters shout, but not nearly so clear, this time, and with laughter mixed in. A herd of baboons came up from the bottom of the ravine, and we did not shoot. It was too funny, watching these half-dogs, half-people, running with that clownish clumsiness that only monkeys move with, in flight, only monkeys of all animals. In back of the herd a few old males came running, grey haired, lion maned, their yellow fangs bared at us. These were animals in the full sense of the word, not like the others, and I fired. One of them stopped, began to bark hoarsely, then slowly closed his eyes and sank down on his side, like a human being getting ready for sleep. The bullet had touched his heart; when we walked up to him he was already dead.

The battue ended. Lying on a straw pallet, that night, I lay awake for a long time, wondering why I felt no pangs of conscience, killing animals for my own amusement; wondering why my blood tie with the world became stronger, not weaker, because of these killings. And when I slept I dreamed that, because I had taken part in some Abyssinian palace coup, and the coup had failed, they had chopped off my head — and I, bleeding profusely, had applauded the executioner’s skill, rejoicing that it was all so simple, so good, and not at all painful.

[first published August 1916, date of composition unknown]

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