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.
“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!”
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.
“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.
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 SharaSinor.com. 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 SKJtravel.net.