It’s dusk and no one’s coming.
The damn beast wasn’t supposed to charge me. I paid $45,000 to come hunt it, an albino rhinoceros with a nice horn. They made me sign a waiver. This land is owned by a diamond mining conglomerate, and when Pavel looked at my signature he told me I was going in alone. Once I kill the rhino, contact him by satellite phone.
The phone. In the tall grass, maybe still working, or maybe in pieces along with the rest of me because when the rhino charged I was not prepared. Animals have never acted hostile before. You should see the lions. They tear apart wildebeests and buffalo calves, but when they see me they just lay there as I squeeze the trigger.
My arm is aching. I’m trying not to move but my arm. I shift a little. My gut explodes in pain. Blood attracts predators and there’s a difference between a healthy man aiming a gun and a bleeding man under a tree. One’s an anomaly.
The other’s prey.
I went on my first hunt was when I was twelve. My uncle took me to Yellowstone Park and before we set off he pulled me close and said, Congratulations. You’re now part of the food chain.
I haven’t thought of that in years.
Funny what your mind coughs up.
I have some pills but I dare not take any. Night has fallen and I’m alert. I have a .357 Magnum with six shots, well, five. Five for the hyenas.
One for myself.
They sound close. I raise the gun, ignoring the pain. It’s stupid, of course, as hyenas hunt in packs. The best I could do is scare them and if that doesn’t work?
One bullet will.
Hyenas can bite through anything. They’ll start at my legs, ripping me apart beneath the clear savannah sky.
At which point do you die? In the middle or does it happen last, after you’ve been mostly eaten?
Night passes. No hyenas.
I’m getting weaker. I sip the canteen. There’s enough water for a day, maybe two if I space it out but it’s hot. The sun breaks through the leaves and a fly crawls around my mouth.
The satellite phone is ringing.
Beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep. The sound of salvation I spot it in the tall grass, green light flashing.
I’ve spent the day making arguments against going for the phone. My uncle’s words keep coming back, circling me like the flies. I’m already part of the food chain, and it didn’t happen when the rhino charged and I stood there like a doofus, too shocked to do anything. It happened the moment I stepped out of the jeep.
A caw. I look up.
A vulture cruises overhead.
I close my eyes. Vultures can smell the dying from miles away.
I open my eyes and reach for my gun. The vulture. I stare at it, my eyes burning in the unfiltered daylight. The vulture spreads its wings and perches on a high branch.
It’s staring down at me.
I tilt my gun skyward, , aligning the barrel with the bird. I do a silent Mississippi-count to five.
The bird drops down beside me. Its wings spread open, covering my legs and I look down and scream, brushing it away and igniting a new series of pain.
I shove the dead bird as far as my arm will allow and close my eyes. The smell. A messy infection below and I can smell myself rotting and I can’t hold it in. I turn my head.
Laughter cuts through the night. My eyes flip open and I grab the Magnum.
Congratulations. You’re now part of the food chain. I had slipped away to somewhere just beneath the pain. My uncle was leading me through the jungle to where the rhino stood waiting in a long field. I lined up to take my shot while the rhino charged and I took it down, one shot. Dead.
Their laughter makes me want to laugh too and I let go of the gun. I cover my mouth with both hands. I laugh, pressing my hands tighter as they approach.
The hyenas move with purpose through the tall grass. Their eyes shine like migratory starlight as they rush their prey. I know they can see me and smell me but do they understand and I know I should grab the gun because this is it, but I don’t.
I just laugh.
And I’m still laughing when the hyenas ignore me. An elephant herd is on the move. I’m laughing when the hyenas slip between the great beasts’ legs, separating a baby elephant from the herd. I’m laughing when they start with the trunk, one hyena tearing it in half and the rest ripping it off. The baby elephant is screaming as the pack swarms and I have my answer: you die at the very end. The hyenas eat the baby elephant to the bone.
I’m laughing so hard I have a coughing fit.
The pain is bad and the smell is worse.
The pills are part of the standard first aid kit they issue all hunters. They give you a vacuum-sealed pack of six. One a day.
I tell myself it won’t come to that. I look up. The sun hasn’t crossed the midway point yet and the predators hunt at night. I look out across the savannah. The baby elephant’s bones. I feel a laughing fit coming on and I jab my tongue against my cheek. The laughter rises, falls back. I hold my tongue there until I no longer feel like laughing.
I peel one of the pills free.
It dissolves on my tongue in seconds. I lean back, close my eyes and listen for the phone.
I open my eyes.
I close them.
I’m awake. For a second I think there is a bear in the tall grass, guarding the satellite phone. I have to concentrate for several minutes, readjusting my mind to the time and the shapes around me.
It’s night. I slept all day.
I wasn’t supposed to sleep all day. God damn pills are only supposed to knock you out for five hours. But you’re also supposed to eat with them and I have no food. The three emergency MREs they give you are out in the tall grass somewhere, assuming the hyenas haven’t gotten to them.
Flies crawl on my forehead.
I turn my head to puke but only dryheave. I have nothing to throw up.
I’m awake all night, thinking of my rifle.
My uncle taught me how to shoot. We hit targets on his property. And in Yellowstone, he taught me the importance of stealth.
Since we’re part of the food chain we gotta act like it, he said, outfitting a silencer to his rifle.
We tracked the bear and her cubs for days. We weren’t dumb enough to carry our rifles out in the open and once we were in position for a good shot, my uncle handed me his rifle. He showed me how to steady the aim. The cold cylinder in my hands. The weight that decides death.
I can still see the bear. She looks right at me when I line up my sight. My uncle would have laughed so I never told him but I know what I know, and what I know is that bear saw me. She knew I was there to kill her.
Her cubs squealed afterwards. They crowded around their mother, sniffing her, trying to lick her back to life. My uncle told me not to feel sorry for them: turn the tables, and the bears would have me for lunch.
Let’s go, my uncle said.
We’re not taking it?
Where? To who? He gave me a light smack on the back of my head. Yellowstone’s got too much stick up their asses for that.
We left the bear to rot, her cubs to mourn and on the way back home we bought ice cream.
A fly lands on my cheek buzzing I brush it away more on my forehead
I drift off and wake up hearing the bear cubs sobbing for their mother. What ever happened to those cubs? Male bears will kill cubs that aren’t their own but the bear would eat me if the tables were turned and besides we’re now part of the food chain so we have to act like it.
I cough. Flies. I can’t wave them away. Something is stalking me through the tall grass. I can’t make it out. Hyena? Lion?
Where the hell is Pavel? They should have come for me by now. The satellite phone is working, I heard it beep (yesterday? day before?) so they know I’m here.
Where are they?
I don’t have the strength to move but I do have the strength to think and see and combined I think I see what’s out there in the tall grass.
I grab the Magnum. The movement startles the flies but doesn’t scare them away.
Five shots left.
Laughter and it’s not coming from the hyenas.
It’s coming from the bear.
Mama bear is laying in front of the satellite phone. She keeps her paws to the side of the phone so I can hear it ring.
Laughter. Sounds like hyenas but it’s that fucking bear. Congratulations. You’re now part of the food chain.
Fucking bear. You haven’t moved all day. The sun sets and I need another pill for the pain and the flies the itching is driving me crazy the smell makes me gag. I dryheave.
The bear laughs.
And this is it. I won’t survive another day out here. Pavel isn’t coming. I need to get to the phone. That’s him calling. Their equipment is broken. They can’t find me unless I answer.
The bear laughs.
Your cubs are dead, I whisper. My voice sounds like it belongs to someone else.
My uncle is beside me. He swats me on the back of my head and hands me his rifle. The rapport might knock me down, but at least mama bear will die and this time she will stay dead.
I stand up. Something’s coming closer. A small stampede. The laughter grows. The bear doesn’t raise her head. I aim the rifle as something tears at my legs. The flies have scattered. I try to squeeze the trigger but my finger is too weak and I no longer feel it.
I feel teeth.
I hear laughter.
And somewhere, the satellite phone is ringing. Beep-beep.
Travis Lee lived in China for two and a half years, where his short story ’The Seven Year Laowai’ went viral among the expat community. He currently lives in Japan, working as a weather forecaster. Find out more at https://www.travis-lee.org