Tip of the Iceberg
Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin
The African bushveldt is no place for cats.
Jonas and I thought ours were safe when we left them in the suite the morning of the safari drive. None of the guests took their animals on the drives, of course. The lodge didn’t allow it. The tattooed man with the wolf hybrids was turned away from the game truck when he showed up with his dogs. “Stupid,” I muttered to Jonas as the man argued with the guide before stalking off.
When we returned, replete with sightings of wildebeest and hippos and a lone shaggy-maned lion, we found the cats, Luis and Dean, lounging by the veranda door. They had escaped their harnesses.
Jonas frowned and scratched his head, raising a bristle of cowlicks. He looked very young and tired as he inspected the harnesses.
“Did they break?” I asked.
“No.” He considered the two tabbies gravely. “Wonder what’s gotten into them. They’ve never slipped out of their gear before.” He tossed the straps on the bed.
At dinner in the main lodge that evening, we sat at a table with nine of the other guests, several of whom had their dogs with them. One couple was accompanied by a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. To our surprise, the man with the wolf hybrids was dining without his animals. Jimmy, the lodge manager, took a seat near Jonas and me.
“Mr. and Mrs. Corwin, where are your cats tonight?” He brushed a crumb off the table.
“Upstairs.” Jonas took a sip of bottled water. “They got out of their harnesses earlier, so we thought it best to keep them in the room.”
My fork paused halfway to my mouth at the look on Jimmy’s face. “Is something wrong?”
“You’ve traveled with them before?”
“Sure. St. Thomas, Vermont, Santa Fe. . . .”
“But never to Africa? Any part of it?”
We shook our heads.
“The brochure says cats are welcome,” I said. “And safe.” I recalled that when we had checked in we were told ours were the only felines staying at the moment.
Jimmy hesitated and glanced at the wolf-hybrid owner, who was sneaking a slice of eland to someone else’s Weimaraner. He lowered his voice. “I know it’s the way of the world now, but personally I don’t believe pets should travel with their people, despite the synthetic gene.”
“The KDN2A gene?” Jonas sat back. We had thoroughly researched the genetic modification process before adopting Luis and Dean. “What about it?”
Jimmy waved the question away. ”Animals are not children.”
I looked down at the table and said very quietly, “For some of us they are.”
Jimmy considered my words. “I apologize. I didn’t mean to sound insensitive. But in a way you’re supporting my point. I think scientists should focus on deciphering this blight that has afflicted young women and stop messing with animal genetics. We know less than we think. Never mind what any of the brochures or lodges say. I’m speaking from what I’ve seen.”
He leaned closer. “Especially cats. Cats are not like dogs or other animals. They tap into something here. It’s their spirit that does it and they have no choice.”
He was interrupted by the chef signaling to him from the kitchen.
“Excuse me.” Jimmy rose. “You should examine them after dinner.”
Jonas and I looked at each other. Jonas got up, bunching his napkin onto the table. “I’ll be right back. Ask them to keep my food warm.”
“Can’t we wait?” I glanced at my watch.
But Jonas was already leaving the table.
He came back fifteen minutes later, hair awry as if he’d run his hands through it. He pulled the photo pad out of his pocket and handed it to me. He’d caught the cats standing, leaning their front paws against the glass door of the veranda. They resembled lynxes, broad and thick-furred and twice their normal weight.
“What. . . ?” My voice tightened. “We need Jimmy.”
That night we followed Jimmy’s advice and slept with the cats tightly harnessed and tied to the bedposts. Their leashes were long enough for comfort. They could jump on and off the bed and reach the litter box and their water dishes. We latched the bathroom window securely and propped the overnight bag in front of it.
“You’re competing with what calls them from outside,” Jimmy had said.
“Will they get small again?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Has this happened before?”
Jimmy’s silence was all the answer I needed. Anger flashed through me. “Then why does the camp allow guests to bring cats?”
“I run the lodge. I don’t own it or the camp. I can’t control their policies.” The defensiveness steamed out of his voice and he added, “The owners are foreigners. They think everything can be fixed with the push of a button.”
Neither Jonas nor I slept the first few hours. Luis and Dean were heavy on our legs, and it was impossible to find a comfortable position with fifty pounds of cat sprawled across the bed, especially when we were so worried. But sleep eventually took us.
When I woke I lay in the crook of Jonas’s arm a while before realizing no one was on my feet. I peered into the dark, recalling the noise I thought I had dreamed.
When I turned on the light I saw the empty harnesses. An agitated whine escaped me as I jumped out of bed and looked around, then rushed into the bathroom. The overnight bag was on the floor and the window above the toilet wide open. Tufts of stippled gray fur clung to the edges, caught in the escape.
In the morning I pushed Jonas to go fishing at the dam as he’d planned.
“I’m not going without you,” he protested.
I handed him the sunscreen. “We’ve already paid for the airboat, and it’s bad enough that we’re losing my half of the money.”
“I’m staying with you.”
“You’ll be back by noon. I’ll look for them. I’ll be here if they come back on their own.” A tear rolled down my cheek and I turned away. Jonas put his arms around me and I buried my face in his chest.
But they didn’t return on their own. I stood on the veranda most of the morning, broad hat shading my eyes. Through the binoculars I saw two giraffes fighting neck-on-neck and what looked like a large pack of jackals chasing a hyena. The resonant grunting of a male lion tolled like a bell in the distance.
Hot and discouraged, I went down to the main lodge, one side of which overlooked a part of the valley I couldn’t see from our room. I found Jimmy smoking a vitamin cigarette at the entrance to the dining room.
“Nothing yet?” he asked. His deep brown skin gleamed with sweat, and he mopped his forehead with a fresh handkerchief.
I shook my head.
“May I?” He held his hand out for the field glasses, then walked with them to the wood plank porch off the living room. He was careful to pinch the cigarette dead between his fingers before shoving it in his pants pocket.
From here we could see a stretch of land more like savanna than thorny veldt. Jimmy scanned the terrain. “The grass can hide a lot unless you know how to look.”
I’d left my sunglasses upstairs, and the morning’s continual scrutiny of the tawny earth made my eyes feel bleached. I rubbed them with the heels of my hands just as Jimmy exclaimed “I see them!”
Without taking his eyes off the spot in the landscape, he handed me the binoculars and pointed. After a few seconds I found what he was referring to.
They were tearing something apart, ripping tattered flesh from red-soaked bones in a matted indentation of grass.
“They look huge.” I held my breath.
“We’re never going to get them back, are we?” I thought it would break me to say it. The feeling inside was like that of glass grinding into bits.
Jimmy said nothing for a long time. Then, “Maybe there’s something we can try. No guarantees, though.”
The look in my eyes must have been pitiful. “What?”
He touched my shoulder. “I need to talk to someone first.”
By the time I got there they had dragged much of the carcass away, flattening the grass. From the stripes on what was left of the hide it looked like a young kudu, the russet topknot on its shoulders crimped with blood. I followed their path a short while and then stopped. It was dangerous being here. They might take me for someone intruding on their kill. Other predators were sniffing the dead animal’s scent right now, making their way to it. Somewhere in the area a lion’s arunhh, arunhh, unusual at this time of day, continued haunting the air.
I clucked and whistled, and two heads popped up about thirty yards away. I looked at them without the binoculars, wanting them to recognize me. They squinched their eyes in acknowledgment and immediately went back to their meal, ignoring me as they would have done at home in front of their food bowls. Carefully I made my way back to the main lodge.
Jonas would return soon. I stood on the porch from which Jimmy had sighted the cats. Now their presence was indicated only by a slight movement in the grass, a shifting in one spot as they hunkered over the meat. From the kitchen on the other side of the living and dining rooms I heard a loud crash, then another, then raised voices.
The chef stormed through the swinging doors. “I cannot do what you ask,” he said, untying his apron.
“But you’ve done it before, Wande.” Jimmy followed on his heels. “I’ve seen you.”
“It is not to be done lightly.” Wande turned and faced Jimmy. “Look, Mr. McCarthy, I do not mean to be disrespectful. Yes, I have done it, but I cannot do it for every tourist who comes here not understanding the world they live in. It seems to me you too do not understand the power beneath everything.”
Jimmy ran his hands over his face. “I understand more than you think.”
He noticed me, and Wande followed his gaze. The chef hung his head for a moment, then walked toward me. “I did not mean for you to hear that.”
I felt suddenly weary, deflated, and homesick. “This has never happened to us before.”
“This camp needs to change its policies.” Wande’s words were sharp, his bloodshot eyes riveting mine, as if I were responsible for Luanango Camp’s protocol. He swallowed hard. “All right. I will try to help you,” he said, but he looked distressed.
That afternoon Wande came to our room carrying a white plastic bucket and a trowel. “I need something of yours. Clothing. Something you have worn.”
I handed him a sweater while Jonas grabbed a pair of shorts.
Wande eyed them. “Preferably something you will not want to wear again.”
“Oh,” I said. “A pair of socks?”
“Socks will do.”
Jonas ripped off his sweaty tee shirt.
“Place the items in here.” Wande lifted the lid on the bucket and a meaty, stomach-turning odor rose from it. “Quickly.”
Jonas made a face. “What is that?”
“Better that you don’t know.”
I walked Wande to the door. “What are you going to do?”
He shifted the bucket to his other hand, taking care not to let it touch his khakis. “I am going to put this out for them to eat. If it works, it will be within twenty-four hours.”
He sighed. “Yes, most likely. But no guarantees.”
“What if other animals get to it instead?” Jonas plucked a clean shirt from the closet.
“Yes indeed,” was Wande’s reply.
Puzzled, we followed him, averting our faces from the smell when he dug Jonas’s tee shirt out with something that looked like vaguely digested viscera and plunked the heap on the hillside below our suite. Then he led us to the sweep of savanna where they had killed and torn into the young kudu. He scooped out the remainder of the bucket, including my socks, into the grass.
“You may want to watch for them.” He turned and headed toward the main lodge.
Jonas started following him, but I held him back, and we went up to our suite, where we kept vigil the rest of the afternoon.
For hours before dinner we scanned the landscape with the binoculars. No one came to eat Wande’s offerings.
At dinner Jimmy seemed to make a point of sitting at the other end of the table next to a tall, doughy man with eyes that looked dimmed by medication.
“Do you think he’s avoiding us?” Jonas whispered.
“Maybe.” I studied Jimmy discreetly. “I think he put himself out on a limb with Wande.”
“But he’s Wande’s boss.”
“This seems to go deeper than that.”
After dinner we took the binoculars to the porch off the living room and tried to see what we could in the areas bright with floodlights. Later, from our room, we looked also, but visibility was poorer up there in the dark. We went to bed without having spotted our two cats.
When I heard the noise at the door I lay still for a moment because I thought it was in the room. Someone was pushing at the heavy outside door—thud, thud, thud—as if oblivious to the lock. My eyes adjusted as the knob rattled, and I clutched at Jonas.
He woke immediately. We stared beyond the bed before rising. Jonas reached the door first, flipped on the outside light, then pulled the drape away from the window.
He stepped aside so I could see.
They were bigger than before, one slightly larger than the other. Both were thick-necked and strange under the scraggly manes. Their tabby stripes glistened like oil. From their solemn faces to their tufted tails, their musculature carried a gravitas far beyond the one they were born with. The smaller of the two, Luis, stopped pawing at the doorknob and put his face against the window when he saw me, pushing his broad black nose against the glass and leaving streaks. He licked the glass as Dean nudged him aside to extend his own salutations.
I was mesmerized by the sight of the huge tongues lapping at the window, the thick incisors just the other side of the glass, the long whiskers with curled ends. When they opened their mouths to meow, a growl instead rumbled from each and they seemed taken aback when I flinched.
“What do we do?” I whispered. Dean’s ample cheeks flattened against the glass. I thought of all the nights he had jumped onto the bed and pushed his nose into mine, holding it there in prolonged greeting as I kissed his face and rubbed his ears until he settled against my chest.
Jonas took my hand. “We can’t let them in, you know.”
“I know.” We might never be able to let them in again. We might have to go home without them. They had not eaten the food Wande set out for them, or maybe it wasn’t working.
Jonas tried to convince me to go back to bed with him, but I spent the rest of the night sitting up against the door, hearing them stir just on the other side of it, wondering if they could feel my love the way I could feel their confusion. Something pulled at me from outside. I wanted to hold them both in my arms. I wanted to be devoured by them.
It took everything I had to keep myself from easing out the door into their big paws and the loving grip of their astonishing teeth. Eventually I fell asleep.
At morning’s light I woke before Jonas and immediately looked out the window.
Luis and Dean, small and soft and appearing exceptionally tired as only cats can do, slept curled a few feet away. They had reverted to their original selves. To make certain I wasn’t dreaming, I waited a moment before I opened the door and stepped out.
We found Jimmy before the other guests came down for breakfast. He smiled as I held out my hands to him. “You must have good news,” he said.
“How can we ever thank you?” I kissed him on the cheek and Jonas shook his hand. “And Wande—what can we do for Wande?”
Jimmy’s gaze jumped to something behind me, and Jonas and I turned. Wande had come in from the porch. I caught a whiff of whatever he had been carrying in the bucket yesterday. He was wiping his hands on a blue bandana, and when I approached to thank him he said, “No, you mustn’t touch me. I must clean myself first. I am glad it worked.”
His expression signaled a weight on his mind. I ventured, “Wande, would you be insulted if we offered you—”
He shook his head. “No, please, nothing. I could not accept it. Be grateful, and go home.”
A sound of irritation escaped Jimmy.
Jonas touched my arm. “We’ve already talked about that, Wande. We’re leaving as soon as we can make arrangements.”
“It is for your own good.”
“And the larger good.” Wande turned to Jimmy, whose eyes were cast down and unreadable. “I need to show you something.” To us Wande said, “You may come too, if you like.”
We followed him through the kitchen and outside to a rocky area of heavy brush behind the lodge. A small stream trickled nearby. The familiar stench of the bucket filled the air.
“Here.” Wande pushed aside a clump of grass. “Look.”
A small cheetah, its abdomen ripped open, lay on its side. Wande squatted near it while I put my hand over my nose.
“This is not an ordinary cheetah.” He reached for a paw and squeezed the pad until a couple of claws popped out. “See—they are fully retractable. Like a house cat’s. A cheetah’s claws are always out. And look at the short legs, the small wide face. The nose is very broad. This is an ancestor of the cheetah. An ancient predecessor.”
Jimmy put his hands over his eyes and stood with shoulders slumped.
Wande stood up. “We shall have to destroy it immediately.” He looked around as if to make sure nothing was lurking nearby. “Sometimes animals that have not already begun turning go back very far in their evolution if they eat from this ritual. Your cats went back to what they were a few days ago, but this cheetah became what it might have been thousands of years earlier. But that is not the worst thing. Something else has killed and eaten it. The same thing will happen to it. And so on, if we do not find it first.”
My face burned with shame, even though we couldn’t possibly have known this would happen.
“We must start right away.” Wande’s mouth set in a line. “The last time we did this, we were lucky.”
Jonas’s words were barely audible. “What happens if you can’t find . . . .?”
Wande stood up without replying.
I thought of our two little ones in the suite and hoped they were still in their harnesses. I gazed into Jonas’s sad gray eyes. “We should go.”
The hot breeze from the northwest smelled of earth and dry leaves, cuffing our ears playfully but with an insistence that carried an implied threat. We crested the slope near the walk that led to the veranda. Jonas, ahead of me, stopped and held up a warning hand. Beyond the bushes, the backs of two sorrel-hued heads came into view near the sliding glass doors.
People in some of the lower suites had seen animals coming right up to their rooms, but here on the hillside such visits were rare. I crept closer to Jonas. Two creatures with the sloping backs of hyenas but no spots on their coats nosed about the veranda entrance. They were very large and paced back and forth, evidently excited by something inside the room.
That something could only be our cats.
One of the animals rose on its back feet with forepaws against the glass, brawny shoulders tapering to small hindquarters and a long, bushy tail.
I tugged at Jonas and we backed up, watching through a gap in the bushes.
The animal that was still pacing paused to look at us. A hot spasm hooked through my bowels as the glittering eyes above the long, dark snout settled on me. After a moment it decided we were of secondary interest and returned to sniffing along the bottom of the doors, worrying the place where they overlapped.
I turned slightly at the sound of a branch breaking.
Wande, followed by Jimmy, was coming upslope. I held a finger to my lips, and Wande nodded. He carried what looked like an automatic weapon. Jimmy turned briefly to glance at the bottom of the hill, where two men were hauling away the cheetah carcass.
Wande stopped beside us, taking in the scene on the veranda.
I leaned toward his ear. “What are they?”
“Not what they should be.”
As if in protest, the two animals let out a howl that lamented through the sun-drenched air and simmered atop it like an attenuated cloud. One of them started baying and the other immediately followed, both circling frantically, as if frustrated beyond belief. The baying transmuted into the familiar nervous yapping of hyenas harassing prey, punctuated by mournful, looping wails that made the hair on my neck lift.
Wande raised his gun.
“He’ll tranquilize them first,” Jimmy said. “To make sure.”
Jonas stared at the hyenas as if in a trance. “The cheetah. . . ?”
“Probably,” Wande replied, and fired the first shot.
One of the animals yelped and sprang in our direction but then fell to the flagstones with a soft thump. Wande had already fired at the second hyena, which seemed to trip on its own feet before slumping over.
Wande went to inspect the animals. I slid open the glass doors and slipped inside.
I’d expected to find Luis and Dean cowering under the bed. Instead I had to close the door quickly to keep them from bolting out to join the inspection. They were free of their harnesses, complaining fiercely while pawing the door, eyes glinting with an alien thing that all but obliterated the love I usually saw there. Luis shrank from my touch and Dean ignored me except to glare accusingly once.
They coiled around my feet. Jonas gave me a grim look.
That was when it occurred to me that our cats were as interested in the hyenas as the hyenas had been in them.
Jimmy approached the door. I indicated the cats and let him in as they hovered like piranha around his legs. He looked at them in dismay. “I’d keep an eye on them even when you’re back home.”
He avoided my eyes.
“Jimmy, do you think. . . ?”
“That’s a question for Wande, not me,” he said, sliding open the door and stepping out. He gave me a sympathetic look before pulling the door shut.
I knelt to be closer to Luis and Dean, whose protest had reluctantly diminished to an intermittent yowling. Their celadon eyes were luminous in the late morning sun. I offered my hand to them, and they looked at it warily before rubbing against it. I buried my face in the fur of their backs, first one and then the other, and I inhaled the luxuriant, turbulent aroma of the veldt.
Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin’s short fiction has appeared in Bards and Sages Quarterly, Absent Willow Review, and the anthology Skulls & Crossbones: Tales of Women Pirates. Some of her poetry has been published in Shadow Road Quarterly, Rose & Thorn Journal, and Golden Sparrow Literary Review.