The first squeal split the air like a fault line, a fracture in the world. It sang across the acacia trees, the veld of bunchgrass and thorny bushes. Malaya pushed the bridge of her sunglasses higher beneath her camouflage ball cap. Her gloves were fingerless, the knuckles padded to protect her fists.
Another squeal, heart-sharp against the white rising sun. Malaya’s face didn’t twist or scrunch. Only her nostrils moved, flaring like little wings. In front of her, the tracker, Big John, had his pistol out. It was an old revolver, patinaed like a grandfather’s hand-me-down, overlarge in his small dark fist. He was bent to the red grass—rooigras—reading the way it had been canted, the passage of beasts and men. The spikelets rocked back and forth beneath his free hand, tickling his palm. Malaya watched.
“Mkhumbi?” she asked.
Big John nodded, frowning.
The moon was still visible, fat as a spotlamp, hovering low over the green canopies of the acacias. Such a moon drew men like worms from the earth, and they came with guns and knives and saws. Malaya’s team had found a break in the fence just before sunrise, the dawn light puddled in bootprints that crossed the road. A hole had been cut in the wire, the snipped ends snarled outward where men—three of them, said Big John—had slithered into the reserve. The squad of rangers had stepped down from the Land Cruiser and entered the bush on foot, following Big John in his oversized green fatigues, a long blade of grass hanging from his teeth like an unlit cigarette.
Big John rose and waved them onward now, toward the squeals, spitting out the blade of grass. They stepped lightly through the sun-yellowed brush, into the shadow of a leadwood tree. Here was the tree that some called the great ancestor of all beasts and men. The shed limbs could burn nightlong, warding off creatures of the dark.
Malaya made nearly no sound, willing herself into something light-footed, predatory, a creature elided into the bush. On her right calf, she bore the tattooed scales of an eagle’s claw, the triple talons inked over the bones of her foot. On her heel, the black scythe of the hallux. These were the weapons of the bald eagle, the symbol of her nation. On her left calf, she carried the spots of the Visayan leopard cat, native to the islands of her grandfather—a Philippine Scout who’d marched the death-road out of Bataan, when the fallen were beheaded by samurai sword. On the sole of that foot, the paw print of the leopard cat. Here were the bloodlines that rooted her, that sprang her coal-eyed and wild from the earth.
The six-man squad crouched in the tree’s shadow, their shoulders dappled with morning light. Big John cocked his head toward a distant clearing half obscured in green bunches of shrub.
“There,” he said. “Makoti.”
A spiral of vultures, swinging black-winged over the trees.
Jaager, the unit commander, motioned for them to split into two elements, flushing the clearing in a pincer movement. Malaya would lead the second element, she and two other rangers. They rose and began circling the clearing. Malaya thumbed off the safety of her carbine. She hadn’t been in combat since Baghdad, manning the .50-cal on a Humvee, watching her comrades spill wrecked and burning from the remains of their ambushed convoy. Her heart banged in her chest—I-am, I-am, I-am—and she denied its brag. She was cold, heartless. She was blood and bone, unsorry for herself.
The squeal split the air again, glancing off her sternum. The tattoo of a leopard’s fanged face shielded her heart. She raised her left hand and motioned her team to advance. They stepped from the bushes, weapons locked in firing position, their feet moving neatly beneath fixed hips.
It was a bull rhino, gray and hulking like a battleship, fallen on its knees. This double-horned colossus of the veld, square-lipped and gentle as a wolfhound—someone had cut off part of its face. Two bloody stumps rose from the ruin of its head, like trees if trees could bleed, and the animal was still alive, beached in its own gore. Its great ribs swelled against the armor of its hide. Blood bubbled from its nostrils. Long rivulets streaked from its eyes, black as mascara where they cut the dust. This great beast of the field, it wept.
Jaager knelt alongside the animal, placing one hand on its shoulder as he inspected the wounds. The horns were made of keratin, the same as fingernails, but the poachers had cut deep into the quick, excavating the heavy base of the horn. He rose, his khaki shirt blotched dark against his back.
“Kettingsae.” He shook his head. “Fecking chainsaws.”
The horns would be sold to Vietnam or China, ground into a powder believed to cure fevers and strokes and impotence, or to Yemen, carved into the ornamental hilts of jambiyas, the curved daggers worn on the belts of men of status. A single horn could fetch half a million dollars on the black market—more per kilo than gold or cocaine—though the men on the ground would earn only a fraction of the profit.
Malaya squatted in the dust, staring at the butchery. Metallic flies jeweled the open wounds, swirling in glistening clouds. They alighted on her hands, her face, and Malaya didn’t brush them away. She looked into the single dark eye before her, long-lashed in a wrinkled crater of flesh. She’d hunted deer and turkey and squirrel in the Georgia pines of her youth. She’d wrung the necks of chickens for her mother, felt the pop of spine in her fist. She’d shot at men silhouetted on rooftops and balconies and hunted ivory poachers through the bushveld. She was not green. Still, she felt tears searing her eyes.
Big John returned from the edge of the clearing.
“Poachers gone,” he said. “Two, three hours.”
Malaya rose. She inched back the charging lever of her rifle, the wink of a chambered round. The bolt snapped home.
“We better get after them.”
Jaager, still squatting, shook his head.
“They’re gone. We’ll never catch them before they cross the border.”
“We can try. What the hell else would you suggest?”
Jaager stood and unslung the battered Nitro Express rifle he wore across his back—a weapon chambered for elephant and Cape buffalo. A relic of the ivory-hunting era, the heyday of Hemingways and Roosevelts. He worked the bolt, chambering a round, and looked at the suffering hulk.
“Die genade van lood,” he said.
Copyright © 2020 by Taylor Brown