Shara Sinor


I.  Element

Lions behave dif­fer­ent­ly depend­ing on the time of day. They are one of the most bipo­lar ani­mals on earth. When it’s light out, they gen­er­al­ly pre­fer to be left alone. If you come across them as a pedes­tri­an, as I had had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to do walk­ing tran­sects as a vol­un­teer count­ing her­bi­vores in a Big 5 game park, they usu­al­ly get up and leave, apa­thet­ic over your fleshy vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. But at night they are utter­ly with­out fear. Cognizant of their acute night vision – great­ly supe­ri­or to their prey’s – and of their raw mus­cu­lar pow­er, they attack with the ruth­less­ness borne of supreme confidence.

Anyone famil­iar with the African bush mag­ni­fies their respect for the lion at night. The camp man­agers told us, “If you get up in the night and see eyes in the dark, don’t be curi­ous; get the hell back in your tent.”

If they aren’t killed by anoth­er ani­mal, old­er lions, oust­ed from their pride, will even­tu­al­ly starve to death – when their noc­tur­nal advan­tage begins to wane, their eye­sight weak­en­ing, their mus­cles shrink­ing. The impala and nyala, the duik­er and water buck need not fear an old­er lion, only the vig­or of the young.

I was naïve not to take into account the con­fi­dence of youth, of hand­some youth, of some­one with lit­tle vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty who was in his ele­ment, out­doors beneath the stars in the African bush he knew inti­mate­ly. I was mere­ly a vis­i­tor. I was mid­dle-aged with a hon­ey­comb heart, half of it sucked dry and ren­dered brit­tle by 17 years of marriage.

It was past sun­set, with a half moon crawl­ing up from the hori­zon, when we sat next to each oth­er at the bush camp, nes­tled in the ances­tral wilder­ness. He told me he hadn’t slept well. I asked why. He said he’d been kept awake by “day­dreams,” though it was tech­ni­cal­ly the night he had been try­ing to sleep through. I asked what they were about. “You don’t want to know,” he said. Except I did. I want­ed to know every­thing about him, no mat­ter if it was sil­ly or cru­el, bizarre or beau­ti­ful. I’d only known him 16 days; his nature could still be lurk­ing beneath the sur­face. I want­ed to know if he was a lion, if I should fear him at night.

In my own ter­ri­to­ry, I can be a lioness – con­fi­dent, even defi­ant. A hitch­hik­er point­ed this out to me when I gave him a ride from my home­town, down the moun­tain through the twisty canyon to the near­est city. I was dri­ving my sporty car. I know my typ­i­cal speedy habits make most pas­sen­gers ner­vous if not all out ter­ri­fied, so for the hitchhiker’s ben­e­fit I took the cor­ners rel­a­tive­ly easy. But each time we came to a brief strait where I could get around a slow­er car, I would down­shift and slam down the accel­er­a­tor, and like a sling­shot, dou­ble the speed of the car I was pass­ing. At the last such oppor­tu­ni­ty, though it’s a bit of a blind cor­ner, I pulled into the oncom­ing pass­ing lane to zoom past two cars, a black check­er jump­ing two reds. My pas­sen­ger said, “You have no fear, do you?” But I sim­ply know what my car is capa­ble of. If I were dri­ving my truck, I wouldn’t have tried to pass any of those cars, and if I’d been rid­ing my motor­cy­cle, I would have passed them all with impuni­ty, con­sid­er­ing all dou­ble-yel­low lines irrel­e­vant. In Africa, though, in the rest­less nights of bel­low­ing lions and whoop­ing hye­nas, I didn’t have the secu­ri­ty of machines and speed. I was out of my element.

As the leop­ards and lions are chas­ing down prey all through the night in the sur­round­ing bush, the con­fi­dent man, know­ing his supe­ri­or pow­ers of youth and charm, waits for night to fall. Because it’s dark, you can’t see well the expres­sion on his face, and because you’re whis­per­ing to each oth­er, you can’t hear well the tim­bre of his voice. So when he springs – like a lion catch­ing a zebra on its haunch­es, like a sports car launch­ing past anoth­er as though it’s stand­ing still – the force is over­whelm­ing. The slow car is left in the dust, the zebra’s legs buck­le and it falls down, the woman rest­ing against a tree in the night sur­ren­ders imme­di­ate­ly with­out a tus­sle or protest, for she knows the prowess of her fear­less young cap­tor, and that it’s far more pow­er­ful than she when he asks if he can kiss her.


II. Run

Ngema wants to tell a sto­ry,” anoth­er ranger, Tembe, said to the vol­un­teers. Ngema stood in the crack­ling light of the enor­mous fire pit we were all gath­ered around, and looked direct­ly at the vol­un­teers. Ngema was a griz­zled-look­ing Zulu, wrin­kling at the eyes, gray­ing at his tem­ples, one of the old­er and most expe­ri­enced park rangers. Each vol­un­teer researcher was paired with one armed ranger (whose actu­al job was to deter poach­ers) for their pro­tec­tion from the dan­ger­ous ani­mals. All the Zulu rangers quizzed us reg­u­lar­ly to cor­rect our mis­per­cep­tions: “Who is the king of the jun­gle? The lion?”

No!” we soon learned to reply. “The elephant.”

The spring sol­stice braid­ed moon­light into our hair as Tembe trans­lat­ed Zulu into English. Rainbirds had called out at sun­set, and reports had come in that ele­phants were mov­ing down the hills toward the riv­er, sig­nal­ing the arrival of spring rains.

The sto­ry was about a vol­un­teer Ngema had accom­pa­nied sev­er­al years ago. He act­ed out the scenes with great ani­ma­tion as he nar­rat­ed the sto­ry, and it took a moment for Tembe to catch up with the trans­la­tion. The audi­ence was rapt with sus­pense, wait­ing to hear what Ngema was doing all crouched down with his hands hold­ing his ankles.

He and the vol­un­teer in his charge had been walk­ing down a tran­sect through the park when the vol­un­teer said he need­ed to go to the bath­room. Not the pee­ing kind of bath­room. Ngema said, “OK, go over into those bush­es.” But the vol­un­teer was too scared to leave the ranger and go off by him­self. So he sim­ply pulled down his pants right there in the mid­dle of the trail. As the vol­un­teer was doing his busi­ness, a large bull ele­phant sud­den­ly came around the cor­ner, trot­ting direct­ly at them.

Belago! Belago!” Ngema said to the vol­un­teer. It was a Zulu word we’d all been trained to rec­og­nize. “Run!”

Ngema now stretched out his arms while still crouch­ing near the fire and fell for­ward on the ground. We laughed at the phys­i­cal com­e­dy and wait­ed anx­ious­ly for the translation.

The vol­un­teer was so scared, he grabbed Ngema’s ankles and held on to them for dear life.

Belago! We must run!”

But the vol­un­teer refused to move, gripped by pitiable fear, and so Ngema tried to run for them both; the vol­un­teer with his pants down, frozen in a squat­ting posi­tion, hugged Ngema’s calves, expect­ing him to be able to move like the breath of God. Ngema reen­act­ed for us his strug­gle to walk with a half naked man, mid-poop, grip­ping his ranger’s legs with every adren­a­line-soaked mol­e­cule of his sub­ur­ban American being.

Laughter rang through the clear­ing in the bush as we all secret­ly hoped we would be braver than that. Even Tembe gig­gled, his large white teeth like a half-moon in his face. But Ngema didn’t appear to find his own sto­ry ter­ri­bly amus­ing. He sud­den­ly straight­ened up and stood solemn for a moment. We blinked at the abruptness.

Outside the elec­tri­fied strand of orange wire encir­cling our camp, anoth­er world breached our humans thoughts. Two hye­nas whooped back and forth, try­ing to intim­i­date each oth­er. It was ear­ly spring and water was scarce. Just out­side the wire, nyala and zebra were gath­er­ing at the water hole, break­ing small twigs beneath their ker­atin feet. Somewhere, secre­tive, the res­i­dent leop­ard watched in silence. A troupe of baboons con­duct­ed a silent raid, climb­ing the lad­der to a leak in the camp’s water tower.

Tembe, mim­ic­k­ing Ngema’s mood, now spoke soft­ly, almost reluc­tant­ly, his voice bare­ly sur­mount­ing the pop­ping, crack­ling noise of heat pry­ing open wood. He told us that a week lat­er, a field ranger was killed by that same ele­phant. Ngema then point­ed a delib­er­ate fin­ger at each of us seat­ed around the camp­fire, one by one.

When I tell you to run,” he said, “you run.”

I stuffed a slab of over-cooked meat in my mouth and nois­i­ly chewed the tough flesh. A soft rustling of hoofs, paws, and simi­an hands filled the night air beyond. I had had the chance to leave, to avoid inevitable heartache, the angst of a half-dead mar­riage sud­den­ly and briefly soothed by the lips of anoth­er man. But I had been tak­en by sur­prise, shocked into immo­bil­i­ty – I was unpre­pared for an encounter of this nature.

Maybe that was God yelling to me that night out­side the bush camp’s fence, and He’d sim­ply for­got­ten what lan­guage I spoke. Instead of English, He tried bird lan­guage through the singing of black-col­lared bar­bets, amphib­ian through the repeat­ed rib­bets of frogs, and feli­formia through the whoops of hye­nas. He’s been around long enough to know how these things work; He could sure­ly see it com­ing – how, if I sur­ren­dered myself one night to some­one who would leave me the next day, my heart would be unable to walk the path back to faith­ful mar­riage; I would even­tu­al­ly grab onto His ankles, like an over­wrought, irra­tional child, and plead with Him to drag me back in time to hide inside that night for­ev­er. I could have said, “No, don’t kiss me.” But I sat par­a­lyzed, my mouth ajar, my chest ablaze, while God called out to me, “Run, you sil­ly girl, run!”


III.  Perception

We were qui­et inside the blind, point­ing with­out words. Bright blue birds danced in the dirt beneath the slit in the wood­en build­ing. A female nyala dipped her front hooves into the water hole, her red coat quiv­er­ing, and lapped gen­tly, blink­ing back the sun’s reflec­tion on the water. At the far end of the small pool, the thick­ets rus­tled and my heart sud­den­ly thumped with excite­ment: a lioness approached. She came alone, lay down at the edge and drank for a long while. As though he’d been hid­ing and wait­ing, as soon as the lioness stood up and dis­ap­peared back into the bush­es, a male warthog came splash­ing into the water.

Walking around with con­spic­u­ous­ly large, curly tusks, it’s easy for one unfa­mil­iar with bush ani­mals to assume they are the warthog’s whole pack­age – the flashy adorn­ment for the ladies as well as the weapon with which to fight. Even though he explained to me this mis­per­cep­tion, his South African accent lilt­ing through the warm spring air, I failed to rec­og­nize the dan­ger. The warthog’s curly tusks are not the weapon; their flashi­ness not only hides the true weapon, which are the low­er incisors, but in fact sharp­ens them like a whet­stone when­ev­er it clos­es its mouth. So in the end, when the warthog gets close enough to put his lips on you, you will still be daz­zled by those curly tusks while being impaled from below.


IV.  Mime

Don’t move!” Zenzele Tembe told me. I nod­ded my head just enough to be per­cep­ti­ble to Tembe, my armed escort through the game park, but not enough to be per­cep­ti­ble to the 3‑ton white rhi­no star­ing intent­ly at me 25 meters away. Rhinos have poor eye­sight. If you stand per­fect­ly still, their visu­al cor­tex will blend you into the land­scape. So I stood behind the 6‑inch diam­e­ter aca­cia tree, my only defense against a wicked three-foot long horn, and trust­ed Tembe. He glanced back at me again to make sure I was going to obey him.

Don’t move!” he whis­pered. Again I nod­ded, more with my eyes than my head. I mouthed, “OK,” simul­ta­ne­ous­ly ter­ri­fied and exhilarated.

Tembe stood his ground between me and the rhi­no. As the rhi­no con­tin­ued to approach, Tembe began bang­ing on his rifle with his hand. This was the sec­ond ranger I’d been with who used this tac­tic after stand­ing stock still didn’t erase a rhino’s curios­i­ty. The tac­tic worked. The rhi­no trot­ted off, I emerged from behind the tree, and we con­tin­ued walk­ing. A few paces lat­er we ran into a group of water buf­fa­lo. The buf­fa­lo have a par­tic­u­lar­ly deranged way of look­ing at you, a way that ele­vates your heart­beat quite high. They’re one of the most dan­ger­ous ani­mals and you can see it in their wild eyes; they look half crazed and utter­ly unpre­dictable, rais­ing their horn-capped heads to stare square­ly at you as if dar­ing you to take anoth­er step, huff­ing air out of their smooth, brown noses. Again Tembe intim­i­dat­ed them with a rack­et on his rifle and they moved away.

Looking the oth­er direc­tion, a small herd of impala grazed in the thick­ets ahead. I need­ed to record them and as I held the range find­er to my eyes, Tembe asked me, “Are you OK?”

Yes,” I said.

You’re sure?”

Of course.”

It took a minute for me to work out why he was ask­ing: my hand was trem­bling slight­ly as I held the range find­er. The pro­longed surge of adren­a­line hadn’t dis­si­pat­ed yet. Then I looked at Tembe and gig­gled. I was sud­den­ly a bit gid­dy. When the adren­a­line even­tu­al­ly wore off and my hands stead­ied as we walked on, I real­ized I pre­ferred the trem­bling state of resid­ual fear. I even pre­ferred the fear itself to the calm walk through zebra and giraffe, though I cer­tain­ly admired these crea­tures when they crossed my path.

In the last four months since I’ve returned from Africa, I’ve grown accus­tomed to a phys­i­cal knot­ting of my gut and the men­tal strain of try­ing to keep in check an intense desire to feel again the pres­sure of youth­ful kiss­es on my lips, to quell a dogged faith in a man I knew only briefly to fol­low through on the idea to have me come back to Africa to work with him, all while fak­ing to my hus­band and every­one else a con­tent­ed marriage.

Now my mem­o­ry of that half-moon night – when Venus rose teth­ered to its sil­ver sheen – and all that led up to it has jumped the tracks. Somewhere there is a switch in the line, and things are sep­a­rat­ed into the recent past, where they still affect you, and the dis­tant past where you can only expe­ri­ence them as visu­al videos or audio sound­tracks; they aren’t tac­tile, they’re no longer tan­gi­ble, only abstract. You can describe in words what you know you felt, but you can’t actu­al­ly feel it.

I’ve prayed and prayed for God – in whom, until now when I feel out of con­trol, I’ve pro­fessed dis­be­lief – to take away the pain that aches through my whole being from this lit­tle episode of extra-mar­i­tal pas­sion, but now I see there is a caveat: I don’t want the pain killed like this, sim­ply removed like a cork from a bot­tle. If I leave it all behind now it means I’ve come to accept what four months ear­li­er I could not. It means my yearn­ing for a resus­ci­tat­ed heart has fad­ed away and I pas­sive­ly accept all the old unhap­pi­ness and the unful­filled, dead parts of my heart.

Scientists have dis­cov­ered that peo­ple learn to empathize with and under­stand oth­ers’ emo­tions by mim­ic­k­ing the facial expres­sions of the per­son they’re talk­ing to. They very sub­tly, with minute mus­cle move­ments, form the same expres­sion as the oth­er per­son, and their brain then takes these facial cues from their own face to inter­pret the appro­pri­ate emo­tion asso­ci­at­ed with it. People with botox injec­tions can’t make these sym­pa­thet­ic expres­sions because of the paral­y­sis in their facial mus­cles. You are par­a­lyzed like this when con­fronting the dis­tant past. You can no longer mim­ic that peri­od of time in your mus­cle tis­sue, so you see it dis­pas­sion­ate­ly. Someday my eyes will no longer open wide as saucers in mem­o­ry of encoun­ter­ing rhi­nos and buf­faloes on foot in the bush; my fin­gers will no longer curl in as though clutch­ing an aca­cia for dear life. You would laugh if you could see me now, hold­ing my stom­ach, twist­ing my mouth down­ward, work­ing up tears in my eyes like a mime try­ing to imi­tate a passer­by, but I’m try­ing to imi­tate myself.  Bring it back.


Shara Sinor’s essays have been nom­i­nat­ed for the Pushcart Prize and select­ed as a Notable Essay in the Best American Essays anthol­o­gy. You can read more of her work on Her pri­ma­ry pur­suit in life is trav­el­ing abroad. She’s cur­rent­ly liv­ing in Uganda (through May) as a vol­un­teer at a wildlife edu­ca­tion cen­ter, focus­ing on reha­bil­i­ta­tion for chim­panzees. Follow her adven­tures on