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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.
The mercy of lead.
* * *
Malaya was born under a full moon—so said her grandfather. In the mythology of the Visayan Islands, the moon was Libulan, son of Lidagat, sea-bride of the wind. He was made of copper, melted into a planetary orb by the sky-god’s thunderbolt. Malaya was an aswang, said her grandfather—a nightly shape-shifter, capable of becoming a bird, a wolf, a cat in the dark. That is what they’d called him during his time in the Philippine Scouts, when he’d hunted Japanese officers under the moon, piercing their livers and hearts. Aswang. These things, he said, they were in the blood.
Members of his unit, the Philippine Scouts, were granted full U.S. citizenship after the Second World War. He went on to serve more than twenty years in the United States Army, teaching guerrilla tactics at the Army Infantry School and fathering one son who would carry on the military tradition, earning the tab of a U.S. Army Ranger. That’s how Malaya came to be born beneath a full moon outside Fort Benning, Georgia—home of the 75th Ranger Regiment.
In high school, Beau Tolley, captain of the football team, asked Malaya if Filipinos had sideways pussies like other Asians—something he’d read in a magazine swiped from his older brother. This was on the quad, at lunch, amid the chuckling of boys with letterman jackets and glistening, acne-pocked faces. Linebackers and cornerbacks and wide receivers, their hormones fairly oozing from their skin. Malaya kept walking toward the lunchroom to collect her tray of square pizza and chocolate milk. Her cheeks blazed. She could feel their eyes as she passed, each imagining what was beneath her skirt.
Tolley, an all-state quarterback, drove a black Z71 pickup with a whip antenna, chrome exhausts, fancy mud tires treaded like alligator hides. He liked to play Tupac and Lynyrd Skynyrd with the windows down, his subwoofers pounding across the practice field, his seat cocked back while he fiddled with the dials. That afternoon, he found his tires stabbed flat in the school parking lot, four neat slits.
After that, Malaya saw fear in the boys’ eyes when they passed her in the hall, as if they were looking at a creature of some uncertain species.
She saw respect.
Malaya went into the army after graduation, like her father and grandfather before.
* * *
The moon was slightly ovate, like an eye just beginning to shut. It drew her from bed, from the dark of her platform tent set like a raft on the swell of grazing land. The bush was alive. The whoop of hyena, sounding the night, and the rifle-crack of broken tree limbs. She could feel heavy beasts shouldering through the dark. Elephants traveled at night, long herds of them rolling like boulders through the bush, leaving bent and broken trees in their wake, and there were black rivers of buffalo out there, huddled against preying eyes. The leopard hunted at night, the lion. Prides of golden cats, some of them man-eaters, ambushed kudu and eland, even giraffes, toppling them like four-legged towers of the wild. On dark nights, they hunted Mozambican refugees, tattered flights of them crossing the bushlands. Some said thousands had been killed. Lone bull rhinos stalked the fences, longing for moonlit crashes of females—cows—on the far side. Two thousand miles to the north, Kenyan rangers kept a northern white rhinoceros, last of his species, under round-the-clock guard.
Malaya was all of these creatures. She was none of them. She entered Jaager’s tent without knocking. He was reading by lamplight when she came in, his hair cropped close to the skull, his chin shaved clean. He’d been a Recce Commando in the South African Defence Force, fighting in Angola, the Congo, and Iraq before taking command of the reserve’s anti-poaching unit. The rangers called him Impisi White. The “White Wolf.”
“You didn’t knock,” he said.
He closed his book. “Wat?”
She sat on the edge of his bed, her hand next to his boot.
“The moon’s out. We should be on patrol.”
Jaager shook his head.
“Bravo Team is on tonight. If they detect anything, they will radio us.”
“I can’t stand around all night.”
“You can sleep, like everyone else.”
Her fingers had begun walking up his shin. They stood now on the bony dome of his knee.
“Sleep’s for the dead.”
“I told you, no more.”
Her fingers kept on, crossing the lower head of his quadriceps, finding the trouser seam that climbed the inside of his leg.
“Ek wil jou naai,” she whispered.
Her hand was high up the inside of his thigh now. She could feel him uncoiling to greet her. The leopard and eagle, they took their victims into the trees. She would clasp him in her thighs and wing him high into the black night of the mind, moon-eyed and awestruck, like something she’d killed. Her finger touched the tip of him.
His teeth glistened, wet and sharp, as if to bite.
“My wife,” he said.
Malaya retracted her finger, curling her hand into a fist.
“Jou vrou didn’t seem to bother you the first dozen times. In fact, you failed to mention her, didn’t you?”
He slapped her hand away, hard.
Malaya rose and walked to the tent flap. She peered out. She could almost see them, the legion eyes of the night-veld. The beam of a flashlight and they would hover white-fired in the bush, some constellated in herds, the eyes of killers orbiting the weak like cruel moons. Her arms hung at her sides, her hands curled into fists.
“Malaya,” said Jaager from the bed. “Don’t have your feelings hurt.”
Malaya said nothing, walking out.
Copyright © 2020 by Taylor Brown