A Black Rhino with the H&H
At noon you took the rhinoceros in your sights, a hook-lip with eyes full of stupid glory. A string of oxpeckers perched across its back, chattering in voices like the ringing of chisels on stone. Don’t take him too soon, father, I whispered. I won’t, Kermit, you answered. What I shall do is wait for him to take a step with that foreleg, then I’ll blast a hole in his heart.
The wind sang through the grass and our game did not move. We lied in a swale sixty meters off. Our Swahili porter lurked beneath a fever tree, his skin of the same taupe richness as the rhinoceros. When the wind broke, the tickbirds lit from the rhino’s back to turn circles through the air, spilling music. All else was stillness, heat.
Then the beast shifted its leg and a gunshot sounded. Through the smoke I saw the birds take flight as a spout of blood sprang from the rhino’s chest. The great animal sighed. Its knees buckled as it sank into the golden grass and died there.
Fetch the Smithsonians, you shouted to our porter, your face ablaze with joy. You split your shotgun at the breach and hung it over your arm. Together we walked toward the carcass, the smell of fresh gore wafting toward us on the wind.
Do you know that’s just how it was in Cuba, Kermit, you said over your shoulder as I followed, when I doubled up that Spaniard boy. Shot him in the gut and he wilted just as gently. I make of that a fine portent. I think this continent will be the theater of great doings for us.
I agreed, while our porter sprinted fast as a sable antelope through the grass, carrying the word of the President. I agreed, having already witnessed the power of the place. We had not been in Africa a month, and already you’d been revived from the melancholy that seized you after leaving office, the sense that your vital hour had passed. So why shouldn’t I believe the wilds could cure my own sickness—my bad conscience, as you called it. The fading warmth of my soul.
A Kermit’s Barbet on the Route to Kitanga
We caravanned across the sloping hills of the hinterlands in a rigid file befitting the military air of our safari. You rode at the head of the column atop your horse, Tranquility. Next rode our manager, the Great White Hunter, R.J. Cunninghame. I trailed you both on my own horse, Haundaw, wearing a mackinaw jacket and gloves—still as pale as I had been at Harvard, still cold in a way the African sun could not reach, but feeling better with every day that brought us deeper into the continent and some new form of action.
After followed our Smithsonian sponsors, riding their more-practical-but-less-elegant mules, and then our team of Swahili porters, dark Muhammadans we’d chosen over oxen to carry our supplies. Barrels of curing salt, crates laden with cartridges, oilcloths of the hides we had already claimed, a case storing our pigskin library, and for one elect Swahili, a satchel containing the huge American flag that was to be raised nightly over your tent. They balanced these impedimenta on their heads as they followed in our tracks, barefooted, dutiful as shadows.
We killed the birds that crossed our path as one might idly pick flowers along a hiking trail. Pipits, starlings, weaver finches, grass owls, francolins, night-jars, lovely sunbirds and spiderhunters. We shot them as they rose from the hills, our porters dropping their loads to race out and collect the remains for our inspection.
Look here, Kermit, you said, leaning off your horse to better see what the Swahili child offered. A tiny barbet leaking blood along the gullies of the boy’s hand. One of my shotgun pellets had ripped through its breast, another had shattered a wing.
Well, you laughed with happy bewilderment, is this fellow not the spitting image of a Kingfisher in miniature? What do you make of that, Cunninghame—has the animal a name? If not, it should be christened in honor of its discoverer. A Kermit’s Barbet. How do you feel about that, son?
Cunninghame clicked his tongue at the Swahili boy. I did not know it then, but our safari manager was the Devil’s answer to Moses—a small man with the physique of a crone, his shoulders humped and his limbs sinewy thin, his witchy eyes judging death on all they saw. He would not stoop in his saddle so the Swahili stood on tiptoes to show him the dead animal. Cunninghame regarded it from the shade of his pith helmet. “It is nothing,” he said. “It has no name.”
At this, the young Swahili spun away from Cunninghame and strode toward me. He stood high on the balls of his feet to show me the small bird I had killed—the first game, in fact, I had shot down myself in Africa. Glaring over the rim of his palms, he spoke a word in his language that I will not attempt to relate, a word that has found no semblance in my memory, and that I doubt I could have repeated even in that instant, staring into the child’s eyes as blood dripped between his fingers to the dust of our path.
After a moment, one of the porters who stood watching flung up his chin and made a harsh noise. The boy shrank away from me with sudden diffidence. But as he returned to his place in the caravan he glanced back and repeated the word slowly, letting its Bantu syllables broaden like the hills that rippled around us, then pitched the dead thing into the weeds.
Ostrich Steaks at the Captain’s House
Captain Arthur Slatter had you seated to his left, the side on which the Englishman still had a hand to gesture with. I sat at Slatter’s right, on the side where his arm terminated in a flap of skin tucked like a shirt cuff. A crystal chandelier dangled from the plaster ceiling. While you and Slatter spoke, I studied the Captain’s stump and listened to the flocking of his ostriches in the plantation beyond the windows. You were pleased to find you had much to discuss with our host of the evening, both being keen on the subjects of war and empire.
And what, Captain, are your feelings towards the Dutch? Having fought this contest with the Boers for rights to the southlands, having yourself been unmanned, do you believe your peoples can work together to add this continent to the domain of civilization, or shall there be more bloodshed?
Beyond the walls, our Swahili porters cried around a bonfire. They sang under a sky where all our constellations hung upturned, spooking the Captain’s ostriches so they charged the fence in herds a hundred strong. Hearing them, my heart felt small and cold in my chest.
Moments of repose have always been painful for me. While at Harvard, without you for the first span of time, I discovered that my soul will not sustain itself in desuetude, that my heart is a toy I must keep winding. Without action or strong drink, my pulse slows until I fear it will stop. I begin to drift from myself, like my flesh is finally being exorcised of the ghost named Kermit Roosevelt, that false phantom.
None in our family would speak my condition’s true name. Kermit’s bad conscience. Kermit’s gray tempers. But you gave the diagnosis perfectly when, in moments of distraction, you would call me by your brother’s name. Uncle Elliott, who must have felt, as I do, this hollow where the vital stuff of his person should be. The golden child turned rotten fruit of our family tree, who found his final peace in a plummet to the pavement, in a rancid burst of champagne and blood.
An ebony arm set a plate before me. On it, a slab of ostrich and a mound of carrots. I made a project of devouring the lean meat, loading it into my jaw with such speed I cannot give a satisfying report of its taste, other than that it was very close to beef.
Alas, Arthur, no. Although I’m sure there will be bully good sport in it, our expedition is primarily scientific, gesturing with your knife at the Smithsonians as a trail of thick blood ran from the corner of your mouth. With myself being fresh out of office, and Kermit needing a respite from the college doldrums, we offered our services. This is no trophy hunt, sir—no vanity trip. Together we’ll stock all the museums of America, put a generation of taxidermists to work. And I see to it myself that no scrap of meat is wasted, slapping your belly, ha, ha.
After dinner, Slatter showed us a bulletin from the Governor declaring African lions to be vermin, hostis humani generis, due to their slaughter of livestock. Firelight gleaming in his eye, the Captain begged us to spare not a single cub that passed before our sights.
A Fever Dream on the Loita Plains
There passed five months of breathless blood sport—of lions shot as they lazed regally in the shade and sheared of their golden mantles, of hippopotami that reminded you so much of Taft you couldn’t resist their genocide, though we’d met our quota of skins—before I fell into a fever.
For a whole week our caravan was halted in the crease of a shallow valley. Were I sensible enough to track the passage of time, I would have been ashamed to cause such a delay. But my mind wasn’t fit for much beyond delirium. The sickness came upon me suddenly, over the course of a morning. It began as an icy sweat that sequined my skin and developed into a lightheadedness that toppled me from my saddle, caught by the strong arms of a Swahili.
Cunninghame was dispatched to the nearest colony in search of a doctor. He returned with a grim physician from the Kaiserreich who listened to my heart and deemed it satisfactory. Prescribed pills and bedrest, I was left in our command tent to convalesce.
The Smithsonians accepted an invitation from the German to return with him to Musoma, where he kept a collection of the heads of Herero rebels he had brought back from a research lab on Shark Island. A fine set of specimens he said might be of instructive value in their own taxidermic efforts. The rest of our party awaited my recovery.
Of this time I remember only boredom and bad dreams—our great flag snapping like a whip above my sick tent, driving the wind that sang nightmares into my head. But I know you lack patience for fantasies, father. So I will spare you all but one.
It was a dream that seemed to last for days, mingling with my waking reality. Cocooned in blankets, I felt the last trace of heat ebb from me. By the stillness in my chest, I knew my heart had stopped. The pulse of warmth given by my terminating heartbeat fled its source, and once it escaped the outer layer of my coverings, my mortal time would be over. But you refused to allow it. Holding my face in your hands, you spoke sharply to the Swahili child, who stood outside the pale of firelight. Bring the skins, you commanded. Bring all of our skins for poor Kermit. There’s a chill settled in him. And so they were brought. One by one, the hides of a hundred animals were heaped on me. The downy coats of cheetahs, coarse elephant pelts, the lion’s golden mantle. All were used to build my cairn. And they would serve to hold my last pulse of life a little longer, but could never reignite the broken engine in me. Still you ordered Cunninghame to gather more. So the Great White Hunter culled the whole savanna, and when even that did not suffice to enliven me, you sent him on a hunt for Swahili. Our porters scattered from the camp in all directions, but none escaped. Cunninghame caught them and flayed them where they fell. You watched across the fire as the child, the only one brought back alive, laid his people’s beautiful, empty skins across my body. And yet I remained cold and pale as marble. When all other life had been exhausted, you led in the Swahili boy. He bled from the hole you had made in his chest. Kneeling close, the child caught his steaming blood in his hands. As he lowered his cupped palms to my lips, I drank deep and felt my heart shudder.
But soon enough my fever broke. Shortly thereafter, the Smithsonians returned from their detour with tales of German hospitality. When I was fit to ride again and the whole party was reassembled, we struck camp and continued south in search of the vast herds that ran there.
A Cape Buffalo with the Winchester
Tropic daybreak on the mountainside, staining its peak crimson as I drove my heel into Haundaw’s flank, chasing our buffalo into the shade of Kilimanjaro. To my right R.J. rode an interception route. Even at that distance I knew he could bring the beast down, but had decided to allow me my chance. The buffalo had been injured by your errant shot, and I could tell by the way that he threw his head he was crazed with fear and pain. We must be ready for his charge, I shouted into Haundaw’s neck as spume flew about my face, my rifle rattling in its scabbard.
We passed together through a line of acacia trees onto a clearing bare as a baseball diamond. There the buffalo made his play. In a balletic move, he reared on his haunches and spun around, lowering his helmet of bone. Then he rushed, and Haundaw did not balk, not until the last possible moment when he swerved the bull’s horns. I stood in my stirrups, drew my rifle, fired.
Pierced through the lung, the buffalo carried his charge a few more strides, not yet knowing he was dead. Then the great bull sneezed blood and fell to the dust, suddenly empty of himself. I raised my Winchester over my head and yipped like an Indian, spinning in my saddle to look for you.
You came through the acacia, waving your helmet with one hand and firing your H&H into the air with the other. Well done, Kermit, you called as red clay billowed in your wake. Well done, young lion. Your teeth flashed. Your spectacles glowed like perfect suns for me.
Cunninghame shot our photo seated atop the carcass. In it, you sit with your arms tightly crossed, your rifle balanced against your knee. I sit to your right with my jackboot kicked up on the buffalo’s shoulder, gunstock planted proudly in the ground.
It’s a precious thing, this photograph, and unique because I myself am its subject. For once my face commands the image, not yours. So young, pale, and strong, staring straight into the lens, confident of whatever future watched me through the glass. And the old lion there, proud of his blooded cub. I have it here on my desk, and you wouldn’t believe the comfort it’s been at my post in the Chugach mountains, this bleak northern station where I’ve been sent to marshal the Aleut and Eskimos for war, where it is too cold for sport and I’ve no soldier’s work to do.
Why did cousin Franklin play this trick on me, father? Where are the Japanese? I was rescued from the sanatorium to lead an army of Inuit against the Samurai, but there is no action and the tribesmen are deserting. I tried to teach them, to show these indigenous Alaskans what all sons of great men know—the nobility of submission to a mastering spirit—but they would not perform their drills, refused to wear their uniforms, obeyed their elders before my lieutenants, and when three months had passed with no sign of Japanese incursion, they all vanished from their barracks. Alone, I warm myself over the past like the natives burning muskox dung, because the only thing else to do is listen to their songs echoing on the mountains, a music of awful beauty and pain. My soul is now as cold as it has ever been—always too much like Uncle Elliott’s, too little like yours—and I believe I’ve finally fed the sad ghost enough blood and liquor. But before I vent my phantom, I would’ve liked to find some life left in its memories. Beneath the joy of the hunt, wasn’t our safari a quest for preservation? Didn’t we sow slaughter in the uncivil continent to save it? Didn’t we kill its creatures to invest them with the West’s immortality? But father, I have been to those museums. I’ve seen the Smithsonians’ work. There is no truth to it, nothing living. Furloughed, drunk, politely ignored by the children passing by, I’ve sat for hours watching my buffalo atop its pedestal, bony crown lowered for the charge. But a steel shaft in his heart holds him fast, and from the floodlit maws of our lions issues a silence I know too well.
What a bad lie it was, father. I have tried to look back on my days to find their vital substance, but I suspect it fell forgotten in the dust, like the flayed carcasses we left for dung-flies, like the bloody viscera that was after all the true stuff of the beast, made ridiculous by our attempt at apprehension, ruined by our desire for possession—simply, utterly dead. Like you.
But I see the sky paling now. In my last moment before day breaks over lesser mountains, I imagine an Africa where you are alive and I’m with you, my soul brighter than the sun cresting Kilimanjaro, the happy hunting grounds where you could’ve run a shaft of copper through my heart and produced a current to light the whole savage continent, melt the bleak snows of Alaska.
An Unworthy Son with his Service Revolver
Tell my mother it was a heart attack.
© Perry Lopez
[This piece was selected by Valerie Waterhouse. Read Perry’s interview]