Saturday, 25 September 2010

NATURAL SELECTION By Eugene Gramelis

NATURAL SELECTION

Bertus Cronjé parked the old Land Rover in its usual place behind the Baobab. The tree’s stout, fleshy trunk and surrounding shrubbery hid the four-wheel-drive well. He killed the engine, opened the Rover’s door, hopped out; shut it behind him with a clunk.

Lifting the straw hat off his brow, he scratched at his nose. He still felt a little green about the gills from the smell of the rotting impala he’d passed by the side of the road on the way down.

There was nothing odd about road-kill in this neck of the woods: the blacktop was a danger the animals had not learnt to avoid. But there was something about the way the antelope’s head had been torn clean off the torso and left to shrivel beside the bloated carcass that bothered him. Poachers would have taken the antlers as a trophy, and if this were the work of scavengers they would have picked the bones clean. Contrary to the laws of the jungle, it was as though the predator that had brought this animal down had decreed its flesh inedible — off limits to all, including the maggots.

No, they would never have let us come back in if that stuff was still out there.

Cronjé didn’t trust politicians. Except for Mandela. Even though Cronjé was white, he could tell Mandela was a good man. He liked Mandela because the old Madiba had gone to jail for something he didn’t do — just like Cronjé. If Mandela had said that the park was safe, Cronje would have believed him. But he hadn’t. It had been the other politicians who’d said it. They were no good. Some of them had been the very persons responsible for sending Mandela to prison.

He pulled the tip of his straw hat down to shield his eyes from the blistering sun and tsetse flies. Even during deepest winter the tropical South African plains managed to produce dry, sweltering days followed by clammy, wind-swept evenings. Cronjé rubbed at his temples. He could feel the seeds of a tension headache germinating behind them.

A low reverberating purr sifted through a partly-open window at the rear of the Rover. Something yellow swished inside. He moved to the back of the vehicle, released the latch and flung open the tailgate. He was greeted by a thin, bearded muzzle sniffing at his pink face.

‘Alright, sweetheart,’ he said, scratching behind the aging leopard’s ears. ‘It’s okay, Gogo. Almost time for the show.’ Gogo — the name of the big cat — was Zulu slang for Grandmother.

A distant army chopper hovered against the late afternoon sun, like a raptor circling for field mice among the Kruger National Park grasslands.

Probably searching for more of those nasty canisters, Cronjé guessed.

A three-day-old copy of the Pretoria Times was wedged under the sweat stain surrounding Cronjé’s armpit. He enjoyed ogling the pictures between performances, especially the snapshots of the page-three pin-up girl.

LEAKED DEFENCE DOCS CONFIRM SARIN BUNGLE: GOVT MAINTAINS DENIAL, the front-page headline read. Cronjé had asked Tony Volker, one of the tour guides, to read the article to him during breakfast back at HQ. Cronjé had been diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of eight and had never learnt to read. By fourteen he had dropped out of high school. At nineteen he had been sentenced to a term of twelve years imprisonment for a murder he hadn’t committed: the driver of an old pick-up truck who had offered Cronjé a ride out of town had shot and killed a highway patrolman after they were directed to pull over. The driver then promptly decamped, and when back-up arrived they found a blubbering Cronjé standing over the patrolman’s body as well as a mountain of elephant tusks in the back of the truck. Not surprisingly, the vehicle had been reported stolen by its owner.

Volker had read the article out loud to Cronjé over a steaming cup of coffee. The story claimed that a Tsonga tribesman had stumbled upon a forgotten stockpile of sarin nerve gas left over from World War II in one of the game reserve’s many unexplored caves. Cronjé remembered seeing long columns of army trucks (carrying men who wore gas masks that made them look like they were half human and half hog) roll into the park a few weeks back.

The Inspector-General denied the discovery of any canisters in front of the probing microphones and glaring camera-lights and reopened the park to the public several days later, citing routine military drills as the reason for the park’s closure; the Tsonga tribesman was arrested on charges of public mischief.

‘The shelf life of sarin is relatively short compared to other biological agents. It’s a very unstable gas,’ a chemical-weapons expert interviewed on SABC assured viewers. ‘Even if the alleged canisters really do exist, I doubt very much they would still present a hazard to human life or native fauna.’

Cronjé snapped a lead onto Gogo’s collar, and with some encouragement the great feline leaped from the back of the Rover, kicking up red dust as she landed. She lifted her noble head, amber eyes staring far into the distance, nostrils flaring, tasting the air.

He didn’t need Gogo to tell him that there were other cats in the area. But wild cats were unpredictable, and often too lethargic to make an appearance; tourists too impatient and unforgiving when it came to the promises made by tour companies in their brochures — especially guarantees of sighting the big five: lions, elephants, buffalos, leopards and rhinos — in return for extortionate sums of money.

Static crackled from the walkie-talkie hanging from his belt. ‘This is Safari One,’ came a deep voice with an Afrikaans accent. ‘Station Three are you in position?’

He slid the walkie-talkie out of its casing. His headache was getting worse, and so was the nausea. ‘Roger that. ETA?’ He liked radio talk. It made him feel important.

More static, followed by: ‘Sixteen hundred hours. Station Two is having problems with Tsotsi. We’re going to bypass the elephant and come straight to you. We’ll catch the Big Fella on the way back.’

That Tsotsi was playing up came as no surprise to Cronjé. Since the park’s reopening, some of the animals seemed a little skittish. The other day he’d stumbled across a grounded wagtail beneath the baobab. Its tiny orbs were empty red pits. Something had gouged out its eyes. The little bird had fluttered about helplessly, attempting to take wing at the approaching footsteps. In an act of mercy, Cronjé had wrung its neck.

And then of course there was the mystery of the headless impala…

There might be more canisters out there, he worried, hidden in caves, waiting to be discovered by some unsuspecting bush-walker. They could be leaking. That expert fellow on TV did say sarin was unstable. Maybe it was doing something to the animals, making them act all crazy. Maybe it was making him feel sick.

But animals tended to be more sensitive than humans when it came to this kind of stuff. He’d heard stories from an old black miner called Mabuza that in the early days they would carry canaries in birdcages into caves and mines to determine toxicity levels. ‘Yebo, if the bird croaked it, or went befok — big trouble! Good chance you next. Better balega out of there,’ Mabuza had said, his generous lips parting to reveal yellow, uneven teeth.

It can’t be that, he assured himself. The politicians might allow an ex-con like me back in the park; I might be considered — what was that big word they sometimes used in movies? Dispensable! But they’d never allow tourists to enter a contaminated area.

Sure, another voice whispered inside his head, unless…

Slowly, he turned in a circle, taking in the thicket of shrubs and trees that now seemed to encircle him; he was beginning to feel exactly like a canary in one of those cages. A deep feeling of unease was beginning to creep past Cronjé’s tough veneer, but as the saying went, The Show had to go on.

He looked at his watch. Fifteen minutes.

When the time comes, he will release Gogo from her bonds, toss a raw horse shank into the dry grass and hide in the bushes as the zebra-coloured mini-bus squeals to a halt. Chattering sightseers—mostly Japanese—will take as many snapshots of the ferocious predator gorging on its kill as their precious, fee-paying hearts desire.

It was a lousy job paying awful money — not much better than selling snake oil — but an ex-crim couldn’t afford to be too choosey. One day he might go back to school, get a proper education and a proper job like his mother had wanted before she was taken by a stroke. He thought, Wouldn’t that be a laugh? Imagine that: old Cronjé, who can’t even spell his own name, a man of letters!

Something rumbled, and this time the sound did not come from Gogo.

He looked down at his belly and his bowels growled a second time.

Cronjé raised his watch again. It was now ten-to-four.

He looked in the direction of the dirt road. Nothing. He cocked an ear and listened for the distinctive drone of the Safari bus. Still nothing.

Decisively, Cronjé dropped the newspaper — the pin-up girl all but forgotten. He looped Gogo’s lead around the Rover’s tow-bar and ambled toward a nearby bush-willow, farts squeaking from his khaki shorts as he hurried along. He fumbled for his belt, dropped his shorts around his ankles, squatted and allowed his bodily processes to take over.

The stench was intolerable. Cronjé gagged. Surrounding him were soiled, maggot-ridden piles of toilette paper buzzing with large green blow-flies. A cluster of warring dung beetles faught for possession of a dried, black turd. He had used the bush-willow in similar emergencies many times before, had even hung a roll of yellowing toilette paper from an over-hanging branch. There was no better place to take a dump—at least not one where he could wipe his ass while taking in the panorama of the Kruger National Park wilds. Cronjé looked around warily, but mostly savoured the feel of the fresh savannah air on his bare butt.

Then he thought he heard the sound of a vehicle approaching on the dirt road, and he reached for the branch. He had expected his fingertips to snag the roll of paper, but got a fistful of soft fur instead.

With his heart thumping violently against his khaki shirt, Cronjé slowly turned his head, expecting to come face-to-face with the King of the Jungle, or worse still, the Queen protecting her young.

‘Gogo!’ he breathed with relief. ‘What are you doing here, sweetheart? I thought I left you over by the Rover.’

The leopard gazed back at him with old, unhappy eyes. She tilted her head to one side and allowed him to scratch her behind the ear before lunging forward and clamping her powerful maw around his throat. A stifled scream erupted from Cronjé’s crushed larynx in a series of gurgles and squeaks. The great cat thrashed, relaxed, then came in for a second chomp, the whites of her eyes shimmering behind long porcelain incisors. Cronjé’s brain registered two more sounds before losing awareness; both sounds came from the walkie-talkie hanging on his belt: a gravelly scream cut off by Tsotsi the elephant’s fierce trumpeting.

***

‘There’s one!’ a German tourist in a floral shirt pointed as the safari tour-bus squealed to a stop. A Fuji hung from a strap around his neck. Two teenage boys — apparently he was vacationing with his grandchildren — stood on either side of him, attentively; matching grins lit up their face. ‘I think it’s a tiger,’ one of them said. Instantly a gaggle of Japanese sightseers tilted one end of the lorry, cameras snapping.

Volker got out of his seat and looked over the bus’s rail toward the usual spot. He was not feeling himself today; a tad-bit woozy. ‘It’s not a tiger,’ he corrected with his best tourist-guide smile. ‘It’s a leopard. See the black spots?’

‘They looked bigger in the brochure,’ a burly man with an Australian accent called out from the far end of the bus. He was seated beside a lady who was looking very embarrassed and cradling an infant swaddled in pink. She nudged her husband.

‘What?’ The man complained to his wife. ‘It’s true. We paid good money for this. I want some action. So far we’ve seen a sleeping lion and the ears of a buffalo sticking out between branches. What happened to the “adrenaline rush” they promised us back at the ticket office?’

Volker knew the guy’s type well: wise guy; thinks he knows everything. If it wasn’t for the fact that he needed the money to put food on the table for his three children— one of them a Down-Syndrome Child — Volker would have dealt with this Joker the old fashioned way: by making him walk through 350 kilometres of savage jungle to get back to the hotel. See if he still wanted an adrenaline rush after that.

‘It’s dragging a carcass.’ The German — whom Volker had affectionately nicknamed Hans — seemed enthralled. ‘Looks like some kind of baboon.’

‘Now that’s more like it!’ the Australian shouted, rubbing his hands together as he stood up to rubber-neck. He turned to his wife and laughed. ‘If that’s a monkey, it must’ve had a fetish for straw hats.’ She ignored him and made faces at their baby.

Volker cupped his eyes to shield them from the glare of the westering sun, and caught sight of the leopard just as it disappeared behind a bush-willow with its prize. ‘Straw hat!’ he muttered. He’d have to talk to Cronjé about his practical jokes when they got back to HQ.

High above them, the army chopper circled like an inquisitive celestial eye.

For a fleeting moment, Volker thought he had seen a pair of water-fowl dogfighting across the blood-orange curtain now draped above the dim savannah skyline. They were normally placid birds and not very territorial at all.

Something about this place wasn’t right. Not today, and not since the sarin scare.

He could feel the onset of a migraine. The long hours are starting to get to me, he thought.

To make matters worse, the driver leaned over and whispered in his ear. Apparently the bus’s radio had gone on the blink. With any luck Station 4 would be ready to go. ‘Okay everyone, finish up,’ he called out. ‘We’ve just been informed that some rhinos have been sighted not far from here.’

Volker gave a tired nod to the driver, who crunched the shift into gear; the tour-bus lurched forward into the lengthening shadows.

‘Oh, how wonderful!’ Hans clapped. He lifted the Fuji and gave one of the boys a pat on the head. ‘I promised my grandchildren close-ups.’

BIO:
Eugene Gramelis is a widely-published, award-winning author of suspense and dark fiction. When not writing, he practises law as a barrister in Sydney, Australia, where he resides with his beautiful wife and three gorgeous children. He invites you to walk with him at http://gramelis.blogspot.com/

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