I’ve seen things few other people in the world have ever seen. And it’s a pretty big world, you know. The expression ‘small world’ is a bullshit expression used to explain coincidence, if you believe in that sort of thing. I know you don’t, Jenny. “Everything happens for a reason,” you said once. As if it’s part of some plan. But whose? I don’t know. I believe in Darwin. If there’s a God, and if He has a plan, then He not only works in mysterious ways but cruel ones too. I’ve travelled a lot of the world in this business, and it’s a bloody big world, and it’s beautiful, absolutely beautiful, but it’s fucking brutal. We’re all part of that.
When the sun came up today I was thinking about how lucky I was to see the things I see. We were looking down at those zebras. You were drinking from a bottle of water. Tony and Eddie were prepping their cameras. The sky was lightening into shades of red and you said, “red sky at night”, which didn’t make much sense at the time because it was morning. Later you told me the rest of it: red sky at night, shepherd’s delight, red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning. You didn’t know what it meant, though. Anyway, I was watching the sun rise and I was glad to see it, and I was watching you, and I was glad for that as well, and all around us Africa woke up. The rising sun brought the volume up with it, wildlife waking in a rich medley of calls and caterwauls. You didn’t have to be a sound technician to appreciate it.
“Beautiful,” you said.
Eddie clapped—“Okay, let’s go,”—and we took our positions. You put one foot on a rock, hands on your knee, and watched the sun fatten into a fuller shape, all for the camera. I remember wondering how many of our future viewers would watch the sunrise and how many would focus on the way your shorts clung to the curves you made in that pose. You knew I was looking. You knew we all were.
“Africa,” you said, turning to face the camera. “Still very much a wild continent, even in Kruger National Park. Perhaps especially in the park. Here, over a thousand different species exist together in a purposeful circle of—”
Tony swore, too. I let the furry shape of the microphone dip into shot while I rested my arms (you take every opportunity) and you apologised to Eddie.
Your face was red in the glow of the rising sun. “Africa. Still very much a wild continent . . . ”
This time you messed up the name of the park.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
“Gee, do we need to have the sun coming up as she says it?” Tony asked.
“There’s always tomorrow,” I offered.
“No,” said Eddie. “There isn’t. We lost too much time with the lions. Come on, go again.”
The sun was almost up, drifting away from the horizon to add a bloody colour to the soil of—
“Africa . . . ”
Tony peered into one of his cameras. Some dirt had gotten in despite his precautions. I remember you covering your ears, claiming, “Ladies present,” though we’d all seen your Big Brother footage and knew better.
“Fucking Africa!” Tony yelled. Fucking Africa got its own back, though, and Tony jerked his head down with a squint and another, “Fuck,” rubbing wind-blown dirt from his eyes.
You laughed, I remember that, too. Tony glared. You covered your mouth with both hands.
The others didn’t like you much. You have to remember, the three of us had worked together for a while, sharing tents and toilet paper in some right God-awful places. Then you came along. “Time to put a pretty face in front of the camera,” they told us. “No more voiceover.” Admittedly, your celebrity status, such as it was, gave us something of an Anti-Attenborough advantage. Tony and Eddie both admitted that much, at least, even if they did call you ‘the tits with the script’. One of the magazines said of Park Life, “I’m sure there will be lots of interesting animals, but most eyes will be on the beautiful creature that is Jenny Friars.” You pretended to hate it, said it was sexist and patronising, but you didn’t mean it. It would get you more work and us more viewers, and you understood that. All we had to do was film the damn thing.
“Calm down, mate,” Eddie said. He was squatting at the stove with a sandwich on a stick, making jaffles. Real food, apparently. Just Eddie being the typical Australian, I suppose, only happy when burning food over an open flame. He was a canyoneer with legs like a rugby player and muscled everywhere else from years of carrying heavy gear. He was spooning something from a can to his mouth even as he cooked.
“I hate this country,” Tony told him.
“You hate every country we film in.”
“Yeah, well, every country makes it difficult for me.” He puffed breath at the lens and tilted it to catch the light.
Tony and I had worked together on a series called Rainforest and after that we’d done Outback. With Rainforest we picked up a dose of dengue fever and botfly. With Outback we picked up Eddie.
“You okay, Tom?”
You asked me that a lot. When you looked up, you smiled. I’d been staring at your midriff as you tied a knot into the front of your shirt. I suppose you must have noticed. I tried to smile back but you had a way of making it feel crooked, like I’d forgotten how.
“Hot enough?” you asked.
A more confident man would have turned that into some sort of flattering joke, but me, I just laughed and wiped the sweat from my brow. My shirt would be soaked before breakfast. You, though, you wore yours with a sort of serenity. Even khaki looked good on you.
“Hey, Tom,” Eddie called, “chuck me my bag, mate.”
Do you remember asking me why I let him push me around? It was the ‘mate’. Every time Eddie said ‘mate’, it didn’t feel so bad. “He’s okay,” I’d told you, “once you get to know him.”
“You just mean he’s a dick but I’ll get used to it.”
I’d laughed. You knew a bit about people and how to put up with them, I suppose. Seemed that way, on Big Brother I mean, but that might just have been the way it was presented. That’s the thing with TV stuff. It’s all about the editing.
Tennyson once wrote that nature was “red in tooth and claw”, and it’s true. I’ve seen it. In Africa alone I’ve seen a baby giraffe pulled to pieces by a pack of hyenas, a wildebeest split apart in a crocodile tug of war, and an elephant brought down by a pack of hungry lions. I know it’s supposed to be a pride of lions but when you’re sitting in the middle of it, ‘pack’ feels far more appropriate. Pride suggests a nobility that just isn’t there. It’s hard to see a lion as the king of beasts when his mane is matted with blood where he can’t lick it clean. If he’s a king, he’s a savage one.
Following that herd of zebra, we were actually hoping for some of that tooth and claw. We’d filmed them interacting, of course, their feeding habits, social activity, but really we were waiting for something else. They’re beautiful creatures, zebra. Serene. Born to be on the screen, it seems, but doomed to be prey. That’s what we were waiting for.
And that was what we got.
You were the first to notice it happening. “They’ve seen something,” you said. “Or maybe they’ve heard something.”
You were right.
Eddie pointed. “Look.”
“Beautiful,” said Tony.
In the grass, rising from the dusty ground, was a motley mix of colour. Orange, red, brown, and black, all of it blending together in dirty patches. Spots of colour like rusty stains.
“And there. Look.”
“How many’s that? Ten? Twelve?”
African hunting dogs. Wild dogs. Lycaon pictus, or ‘painted wolf’. A formidable group of them, too. They’re small, but what they lack in strength they more than make up for in numbers.
By the time we had the cameras on them they were trotting towards the herd of zebras at a steady six, maybe seven, miles per hour.
“They’re picking up the pace,” I said.
The herd saw them and fled.
“Look, look, there they go!” You checked to see which of the cameras was on you and turned back to face the action. I had the boom pole overhead, ready for whatever you might say.
“They’ve singled one out.”
The African hunting dog is a pack hunter. With agile prey like gazelles or impala, they have to be, flankers cutting off escape routes and narrowing the choices of their prey. With the zebra, though, it’s a straight chase.
“Look at them go!”
The pack focussed their attention on one of the young females. When the first of the dogs leapt you startled me with a sharp gasp. The dog tore into the zebra as it landed, dragging its claws across the animal’s hide as it slid back down over the rump. The zebra kicked it away with a rear hoof, but the dog rejoined the chase as a new lead attacked, leaping to grab hold of the zebra’s muzzle. It sank its teeth into the soft sensitive flesh of the zebra’s mouth and clawed at the face. With its head forced down, the zebra slowed enough that the other dogs could attack its hind legs, clawing at the muscle, piling onto its back. They tumbled together in a cloud of dust and a high cry of pain from the zebra. There was a mad scrabbling as the zebra tried to stand, dogs tearing at its flesh, but it was too late. It had been too late from the moment it hit the ground. One of the dogs got hold of an ear, more by accident than design, and tore it free. Worse than this, though, the soft flesh of the zebra’s underbelly was exposed. We watched as the animal was disembowelled alive, the pack clawing out its insides as the poor beast kicked for all it had left. One of the dogs burrowed its way into the stomach. Two others yanked at the legs, making a wide V of them until eventually one was torn free from the body. And still the zebra struggled, writhing and rolling as best it could beneath a mass of dirt-furred bodies. I was relieved when one of them finally clutched the zebra’s throat closed in its mouth and yanked the animal dead.
We actually celebrated, do you remember? Eddie, Tony, you, me: we all gave muted congratulations, hissed a quiet “yes!” of success and high-fived like we’d played a part in the spectacle ourselves. I guess we had, in a way: we’d watched and done nothing. Nothing but film it, anyway. But the African hunting dog, the wild dog, is one of the world’s most efficient and elusive predators and we had caught the entire thing on film. It was amazing, something to put us with the heavy hitters. Shit, even Planet Earth hadn’t caught a wild dog kill on camera. It was just luck, really. Ours, not the zebra’s. We’d been in the right place at the right time, that was all. It would’ve happened whether we’d been there to see it or not.
Although we’d been quiet with our congratulations, something aroused the attention of the dogs. Maybe the wind changed. They looked over at us, a dozen or so all at once. It was eerie, that shared reaction. They didn’t run, not with a fresh kill, but they watched us as we watched them. One of them held the zebra’s severed tail limp in its mouth. It was a great shot.
Nature, red in tooth and claw. Caught on film.
“But the African hunting dog is also a very social animal . . . ”
My words, your voice, right to the camera as we filmed follow up footage. With some animals the violence didn’t necessarily end after the main event—there could be fighting over the carcass—but the dogs, they shared their spoils equally. Even a latecomer who had missed the hunt was provided for.
The remaining zebras stood grazing, not very far away at all. They could probably see what the dogs were doing if they looked but they kept their heads down, safe for the time being as the dogs ate and played and napped.
“Let’s do that again without the but,” Eddie said, covering other editing choices; the kill may have been the first thing we filmed but it wouldn’t necessarily be the first thing you saw by the time it hit the screen.
“Why, what’s wrong with my butt?”
You turned your back to the camera and bumped your behind left and right, shimmying it down in a provocative wiggle. This was the Jenny we knew from Big Brother. A little bit of z-list celebrity, shining through, wanting to be a star.
“Fuck’s sake, Jenny.”
Tony had only been filming for a few minutes but he was already getting irritable. A few minutes feels a lot longer when you’re lugging camera equipment around under an African sun. I was feeling the same strain. I had the sound mixer in my shoulder satchel, cans clamped over my ears, and the boom pole raised so that the armpits of my shirt were exposed for all to see just how much I was feeling the heat.
You did that thing where you wipe a hand down over your face, straightening your expression into something more serious. ‘Emotional re-set’ you called it. Or Davina did. Someone.
“The African hunting dog is a very social animal . . . ”
Occasionally, as you spoke, one of the dogs would raise its head from where it dozed with the pack or look back from where it stood panting in the dry air. Did you feel them watching? I did. I can still feel them, even now. All the way down here. Their breath is hot on my skin.
It happens to everyone at some point, I’m told. This connection between man and animal. A friend of mine once saw an elephant brought down by lions in the dead of night. He watched the whole thing unfold in green-tinged light on a night monitor and it stayed with him forever after. Elephants bleat, did you know that? My friend used to hear that sound in the dark whenever he tried to sleep, an elephant’s bleating struggle as a tawny carpet of lions writhed on its body. Someone else I’d known a few years ago saw a komodo dragon bite a buffalo then stalk it for days until the poison claimed it. You’re not supposed to interfere in this job. You just let it happen and record it, impartial, as nature runs its course. But it gets to you sometimes. I mean, how natural is it to watch something suffer and do nothing?
Not that there’s anything I could have done. Not about the dogs. Not about any of it.
“ . . . prowling for prey in highly organised units, or simply relaxing together, howling in play.”
I liked the rhyme of that. It chimed well. Prowling and howling. Prey and play.
“Good,” said Eddie. “Now the other way around.”
You turned your back to the camera again—“Like this?”—and began reciting the same lines. I don’t know if you were joking or not but Tony made no attempt to hide his frustration either way. “Christ, Jenny, stop pissing about.”
The narration felt clunky second time.
“Okay, cut there,” said Eddie.
I brought my arms down with relief and you stepped away from the descending microphone, exaggerating your dodge and ducking dramatically with a cry of, “Watch it!”
The dogs skittered. They didn’t move far, but they were suddenly alert and looking our way.
Nobody said anything. Your smile disappeared without needing an emotional re-set.
Slowly, one by one, the dogs began to leave. They took as much of what was left of the carcass as they could carry.
“Film me,” you said, motioning us all at you with beckoning hands, “film me, film me.”
But Eddie had his camera up and so Tony followed suit. Eddie said, “The dogs,” and Tony turned to film them walking away.
“The pack moves in single file, the alpha male leading, but for much of the day they will sleep the heat away in the shade . . . ”
And so on, as you improvised a way for us to edit the footage together. Eddie encouraged you with quick hand-rolling gestures and I tried to think some script your way. You even shifted your position, squatting down in the dirt so the shot could look like a separate occasion, gesturing behind as if the dogs were still sitting somewhere nearby. It was good.
“In Kruger National Park, there is a predator easily identified by the blotchy colours of its coat. Shades of orange, brown, and black, with a long tail tipped in white, this is the ‘painted wolf’, better known as the African hunting dog . . . ”
I kept glancing at them. The heat rising from the ground turned them into wavery shapes, phantoms, and before long they were gone altogether.
“You okay, Tom? Want some water?”
You tried to pass me your own bottle but I had little chance to take it, grabbing wildly at the side of the truck instead as we bounced high and came down hard. We always sat in the back with the equipment, you and me, because we were the smallest. Even as cramped as it was we spent a lot of our travel time up in the air and then slamming our behinds. We got banged around a lot making sure the equipment didn’t.
“Woah! That was a good one. Here.”
I took the water, more because you’d offered than because I was thirsty.
“Do you think we got enough back there?”
You were worried you’d screwed up.
“We got enough,” I said. “We’ll probably only use three minutes or so.”
“Yeah. Probably just the kill, and a little bit of what came after. Lucky we were running behind schedule or we might have missed it.”
You smiled, and said, “Everything happens for a reason.”
“Yeah. I suppose it does.”
Eddie slowed the truck. I looked around in case he’d spotted something and I thought maybe—
“What’s going on?” You had to shout to Eddie over the sound of the engine.
“Dogs,” I said.
The sky was taking on a darker hue. The sun was going down, a trick of its light and heat making one end seem squashed as it slipped below the horizon. Shadows were growing long and dark around us.
“Looking for a camp spot,” Eddie yelled back.
“But the caves are so close. We might as well keep going.”
“Not in the dark.”
“You’ve driven at night before.”
“Yeah, but it’s rockier now, and I don’t really want to be fixing a tyre again, not out here. Not at night.”
We were already on our last very-patched spare, and the early hours of evening increased the risk of puncture, maybe worse, thanks to the poor visibility.
“But it’s okay to camp here at night?”
You had a good point. “I’m sleeping in the truck,” I said.
“I’m done with sleeping in the fucking truck,” Eddie said.
And of course, Tony supported that. “Nothing to be scared of here,” he said, “There’s nothing but us.”
“Well, I think I’ll join Tom in the truck.” You smiled. “If that’s okay with you?”
As if it wouldn’t be.
In the early days of the shoot, sleeping had been difficult. Do you remember? We’d been following those lions, sleeping whenever they did, which often meant during the day, which always meant we were hot and sweating and attracting flies and not actually sleeping much at all. In the open bed of the truck there wasn’t much protection against the incessant buzzing of flies or their frequent landings. Not much protection against lions, either, for that matter, though they turned out to be rather dull. Placid. Did you ever play that game, sleeping lions? We used to play it at school. You had to lay down and pretend to sleep while someone else played hunter, moving among the sleeping lions and trying to get them to move. You weren’t supposed to touch them but you could get close and whisper, say things to make them stir. Of course, we couldn’t do that, not with real lions. We took turns napping at night, but following lions over the rise and fall of Africa made that nearly impossible and even when we were able to stop driving for a while the lions growled constantly. A low, throaty sound. Engines in muscled flesh. All of it made everybody tired and irritable. A bit tense, as well.
It was like that the night after the dogs, too. Unpacking the truck, setting up camp, I could feel a building growl, and little irritations flitted around like flies.
“If only we had a heli-gimble,” Tony said, looking back the way we’d come. Thinking of the dogs, probably.
“If only you’d stop saying that.”
That got you the middle finger without him so much as glancing around. From me, a smile, but I doubt you noticed.
“If only we had a helicopter to mount the heli-gimble on, eh?”
That was the best I could do.
Tony was right, though; it would have been a great bit of kit to have. Three sixty degree filming, good long shots, good close-ups from even a kilometre away. . . . But bloody expensive, and we were still low budget. None of this ‘three years in the making’ with us. No slow motion predator action or time-lapse prey decay.
I was setting up a light in the back of the truck, along with a monitor and one of the cameras we did have. I wanted to check the infrared for when we were in the caves. I wanted to distract myself.
“You all right, Tom?”
“Hm? Yeah, I’m fine. Just, you know…” I held up a memory card, titled and dated, adding the details to the index in my notebook. If I didn’t do it, nobody would.
Eddie glanced at us. “He’s not fine,” he said. “That kill got to him. What’s wrong, mate? Tooth and claw and all that shit, remember?”
That annoyed me. Partly because he was right, it had bothered me, but also because until that moment the distraction had been working just fine.
“You’re either spots or stripes in this world. Dog or a zebra. Sad, but true.”
“I’m fine,” I said again. “Looking forward to the caves.”
That was a lie, but I thought it would change the subject because Eddie was looking forward to them. A seasoned canyoneer, much of his campfire talk had been of his hikes and climbs in the Australian Blue Mountains. Sorry, the ‘Blueys’. Not really mountains but a plateau eroded into mountainous shape. Anyway, it worked, although he quickly turned the conversation around to one of his ’Nam stories, climbing around the caves of the Annamite Mountains. He’d also explored some of the Hang Son Doong in Phong Nha-Ke Bang which was supposed to be our next stop after Africa. The Hang Son Doong, or ‘mountain river cave’, is the biggest cave passage ever measured. The Echo Caves, though, are some of the oldest caves in the world. They haven’t been fully measured yet and we had special permission to explore further than any of the offered tours.
“You really staying in the truck?” Tony asked. I was spreading my sleeping bag out on the floor near the monitors. I shrugged.
You tossed your bag to me as well.
“Let us warn you about Tom, love,” Eddie said, but that was all I heard. I looked up to see him making a tiny hook with his little finger. Tony laughed.
“Never had any complaints,” I said.
You gave me your most dazzling smile yet, said, “Tom, you sly dog,” and I remember thinking this is what I need to be like? This is how I get you to notice me?
“Friend of mine did this cave a few years back,” Eddie told us. “For Planet Earth, I think. Gomantong. You guys see it?”
I knew the episode and nodded with Tony.
“Yeah,” Eddie said. “Gomantong.” He smiled at me. “That was full of shit, too.”
Tony roared with laughter.
“No offence, mate,” Eddie said.
I ignored Eddie to look at you. You gave us all a sort of half-smile. “I don’t get it.”
“Gomantong cave,” Eddie explained. “It’s—”
Stealing his pun was the best I could do for retaliation. He scowled at me but recovered quickly.
“Yeah. It’s a shit hole. A cave literally full of shit. Guano. Friend of mine, Scud, good fella, he said that pile of bat crap was a hundred metres high and swarming with all sorts of things. Cockroaches, centipedes, crabs. All sorts of creatures. They never even had to leave the cave. That steaming pile had its own fucking—what do you call it?—ecosystem.”
“You ever get crabs from a dirty hole, Eddie?”
I don’t think you were sticking up for me. You were trying to get involved in the conversation. The new girl still trying to fit in. We’d talked about it before and you’d compared it to that Big Brother house, how it took the group a while to accept anyone new. It’s the same with animals, although with animals it can be even more brutal.
Tony and Eddie barely acknowledged your joke before discussing between them the technical difficulties we’d face filming in Echo Caves. I was concerned about the sound quality but of course they were preoccupied with the visuals. One of them said a rope pulley and counterweights would do it, and the other wanted a crane shot, but either way it was going to be a hassle lugging all the equipment around. You sided with Eddie, and Tony said you didn’t know what the fuck you were talking about, you were just the tits with the script and you even managed to fuck that up. “The script part, anyway.”
I said something pathetic like, “Hey, guys, come on,” but it worked. Enough to create an awkward silence for a while, at least.
Tony, surprisingly, was the one to finally break it.
“Anybody got a beer?”
It was a joke wearing thin—he’d asked every night so far—but this time it was funny again and I think it was sort of an apology. Maybe that’s why you gave me up.
“Tom’s got a bottle of something.”
Were you still just trying to fit in? Or were you doing your bit to accept his apology? Maybe you were simply deflecting the attention away from yourself for a moment.
“Is that true, Tom? You been holding out on us?”
I’d bought a large bottle of mampoer but I was saving it for celebrating the end of the shoot. I busied myself checking the connection between camera and monitor, pretending not to hear the question. Infrared is invisible to most animals, including humans, but the camera picks it up. I was able to see everybody in the camp even with the lamps off. It was sound that would be a problem in the cave.
“What are you doing, mate?” Eddie asked.
“Giving the gear a test run before the caves.”
So much for pretending to not hear him.
“He’s filming us for the DVD extras,” you joked, and everybody laughed. I went along with it, glad some more of the tension was lifting.
“Is Jenny right? About the beer, mate?”
How could I not give it to them?
“Mampoer,” I said. At Eddie’s puzzled frown I added, “Brandy. Sort of. To celebrate our last day in Africa.” I added that as a final attempt to put them off.
I smiled, and nodded, thinking Eddie’s mockery might mean he wouldn’t ask for it. And he didn’t, because Eddie never asks.
“Let’s have it, then,” he said. “This is pretty much the last day anyway.”
Everything is green and black when you film at night. Your skin was green on the screen. Eddie and Tony, too, though their eyes, looking at you, were dark pools of shadow. Shark eyes. You were crouching, doing an impression of Attenborough as if he was stalking around the campsite; good enough so we knew who you were doing but bad enough that it was funny. I’m half convinced it’s how you got this gig in the first place because you did the exact same thing in the Big Brother house for one of their challenges or something. Everybody was laughing.
“And capturing what has never been seen before, not even by us at the BBC, with all our budget and big names like me . . . an African wild dog hunt.”
“Fuck yeah,” said Tony, raising his cup.
And you, still Jenny-Attenborough, “Please, Tony. Watch your fucking language.”
The camera loved you. I zoomed it in.
You seemed to sense what I was doing and struck a provocative pose. “Make sure you get my good side.”
“Which side is that?” asked Tony.
“They’re all good,” said Eddie.
“Aww, thanks, Eddie mate,” you said, exaggerating your vowels, switching to Australian, “Not bad for a sheila, eh?” You turned and posed and turned again. Catalogue poses. Magazine parodies. Eddie smiled with his mouth but not with his eyes, not on the black and green screen.
And then behind Eddie, stepping quietly out of the night, was an African hunting dog. I could see it, panting, just over his shoulder. Behind Tony there was another.
“Yeah, that’s good. That’s your good side,” said Tony. You were on all fours and looking behind with wide-eyed feigned surprise.
One of the dogs, with its head down, made a single bark at the ground. It was how they called to the pack, drawing them to the echo.
“Don’t,” I said.
“What was that, mate?”
You were all looking at me now.
“The dogs are back,” I said. “They followed us.”
Eddie and Tony looked at each other. Eddie took another mouthful of brandy. “They’re miles away.”
“No,” I said. “They’re here.”
You couldn’t see because of the dark, and because of how the lamps had ruined your night vision. Didn’t stop you looking around, though. “Where?”
They were gone.
I checked back and forth between the monitor and the darkness around us. “They were here. They looked . . . I don’t know. They looked hungry.”
Tony exaggerated a sigh. “You’re not going to start quoting Tennyson again, are you?”
“You’re still shook up from the kill,” Eddie said, “that’s all. There’s nothing out there.”
He was right. Or half right. I couldn’t tell. I panned the camera around but found nothing.
“They must be hiding. Waiting. For the right moment.”
“People love to anthropomorphise animals,’ you said. “You know; project human characteristics onto them. Maybe that’s what you’re doing?”
‘Anthropo-what?” Eddie said. “That’s a big word, sweetheart.”
You grinned. “Oh, I like them big. The bigger the better.”
“Seriously,” I said. “The dogs . . . ”
But you waved that away, “Don’t worry about them,” and teased me with, “I’ll take care of you.”
“You can take care of all of us,” said Tony.
For him, you turned an imaginary crank at your fist to raise your middle finger. “Fuck you, Tony.”
He raised his cup. “That’s the spirit.”
You raised your cup as well, but aimed the smile at me. Were you trying to include me? Or were you just posing for the camera? “To nature,” you said. “Red in tooth and claw.”
“And a bitch to get on film,” said Eddie, tipping his cup to you.
Your eyes were vast dark circles, like the empty cavities of a skull. Caves in your face. I looked away from them and searched again for the dogs. I couldn’t see them, not even with the night monitor, but I felt them out there in the dark.
I’ve seen things few other people in the world have ever seen. I’ve seen birds of paradise performing their complicated mating dances, flashing their feathers like capes in a fashion show of arousal. I’ve seen colourful lizards leaping like acrobats to feed on swarms of black fly, a bright rainbow devouring a buzzing cloud. I’ve seen the peaks of the Himalayas, Ayres Rock, Victoria Falls. I’ve seen lots of beautiful things.
I’ve seen you.
But I’ve also seen a crocodile roll its prey. Heard the thundering chaos of splashing and devouring. Seen komodo dragons wait patiently for the inevitable, heard them hiss at a buffalo already dying. I’ve seen a zebra, serene, brought down by dogs that tore at her flesh and burrowed into her body. Seen them shove their way inside and—
“You okay, Tom? Where are you?”
You . . .
. . . you . . .
. . . you.
Now I can’t see anything. The dark here is absolute. But I must be quiet. Sound travels far down in the Mpumalanga escarpment. Down in the Echo Caves.
They exist because of erosion, these caves. Limestone. It covers approximately ten percent of the Earth’s surface. Rain shapes it. Rivers sculpt it. The water, slightly acidic and loaded with carbon dioxide from the soil, slowly eats away at the rock. But over time it builds, as well, depositing calcite to make stalactites and stalagmites. It breaks and it builds, it wears down and it hardens, and all of it is very natural.
I’ll not say a word.
In Deer Cave, Borneo, there are three million bats. Three million at least, all flapping around in the dark. They use echo-location to navigate, hearing to see. Some animals do away with eyes completely in the caves, that’s how dark it is. The Texas cave salamander, for example, devolving so it has no eyes at all. It doesn’t have to see a thing. I envy it. Sometimes it’s better not to see. There’s a cave in New Zealand that has a ceiling of stars, cave constellations held in an underground night sky. These beautiful glowing lights attract insects, drawn in by what they see, but the stars are not stars. The bright lights come from the bodies of glow worms that drop delicate strands of silk to trap their prey, hauling it up like a fisherman’s catch.
Safer, sometimes, not to see.
“Tom? It’s okay.”
But just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there. When oil in the Earth’s crust releases hydrogen sulphide, a cave can be filled with dangerous toxic fumes. Poison you can’t see. And when it mixes with the oxygen in water you get sulphuric acid, eating away at the world around it. That’s how I used to imagine Hell. But Hell is a black and green screen that I’ll carry with me forever. It’s whimpering sounds, grunting sounds, growling away at my insides. Hell is the things I heard with my eyes closed. It’s the sound of wild dogs with prey.
My name resounds in the dark and I hear an echo of it fade like the hiss of komodo dragons.
“You can come out now.”
The ‘now’ echoes in the cave like a series of howls. They surround me. They keep me cowed, hunkered down in the dark.
I won’t say a word.
“What do you like most out here?”
I wonder what would have happened if you hadn’t asked that question. I wonder if, without that to think about, it would have been a normal night.
“The brandy,” said Tony, upending the bottle.
“The wilderness,” that’s what Eddie said. “All this space and nobody around to watch everything you do. The freedom to do whatever you want.”
“How about you, Tom?”
I shrugged. “You?”
You didn’t hear it as an answer, but then you weren’t meant to. You heard the question passed back.
“Same as Eddie, really,” you said. “On Big Brother people watched everything I did, and most of it was stupid or embarrassing and really badly edited. They made me look like a bimbo. I like being a part of something serious now. None of that messing around in front of the camera.”
“You’ve done that,” Tony said.
“I mean you’ve done that out here. Today.”
“Hey, come on.”
Eddie and Tony laughed.
“Seriously, they made me look like an idiot.”
“I thought you looked pretty good,” Eddie said.
Tony nodded. “The Jacuzzi,” he muttered, but you heard him. You were meant to.
“That was part of a stupid game thing, and we were all drunk.”
“We’re all drunk,” Eddie pointed out, though I don’t think he was. Not at all.
“Yeah,” said Tony, “So let’s play a ‘stupid game thing’.” He span the empty mampoer bottle. A teenage game. A Big Brother game for no one to see but me.
I looked out into the darkness for the dogs. There was nothing at first. A turn of the camera, though, and I had them on the monitor. Two of them, maybe three, standing with their mouths open, panting despite the cool night air. Their eyes flashed from empty black to bright green when I moved the camera over them.
“We can’t play that,” you said, reaching to stop the bottle. “I’m the only girl.”
“I know.” Tony moved the bottle away and span it again. “This is just for deciding who’s first.”
You laughed. It sounded false to me, but to the others I don’t think it made any difference.
You stood. “Right, that’s it. Time for bed.”
“See,” said Eddie, “she gets it.”
“Sorry, I’ve been fucked enough by a film crew already. Good night, boys.”
On the screen the dogs were pacing. Agitated. There were lots of them now. Some of them growled. You looked around and I wondered if you’d heard them too but then, “Whoops,” said Eddie as if you’d stumbled when really he’d pulled you down to the ground, into his lap. Maybe it was meant to be playful at first, I don’t know, but then he gave you that crude grope—“Like that?”—and you clearly didn’t; shoving him away should have been answer enough, never mind the way you spat his name. But like I said, Eddie never asked. Maybe he was telling you to like it. Maybe he just meant he did.
“Of course,” Tony said, “It’s only natural.”
“Come on, Jenny, nobody’ll know.”
I heard you from over by the truck so they must have heard you, too. Even when the dogs started yipping and barking I heard you say no, and no, and I heard you say stop.
But Eddie didn’t stop.
And afterwards, neither did Tony.
“Tom? We know you’re in here.”
I just want you all to leave me alone. So I push my way deeper, groping in the dark, forcing myself into narrow fissures of rock. It’s wet, or cold, or both. I can’t tell.
“We can wait, Tom. You’ll have to come out eventually.”
Troglodytes can go months without food. If I go deep enough, maybe I’ll find something hungry enough to end this.
There are plenty of things in here with me. There’s a baby giraffe. There’s a wildebeest. There’s an elephant, a buffalo, a zebra. You brought them with you, you must have done. Or maybe I did. They glow like stars that aren’t stars, and they thrash and they mewl and they kick, fighting tooth and claw against something unseen. Maybe the darkness. I’ve seen these throes too many times. Heard them, too. Nature sounds wonderful when the sun’s coming up, but it sounds very different in the dark.
Crouching in the darkness, hiding in caves we will never film, I hear the echoes of my name. It bounces my location back to you.
I imagine you surrounded by those others I’ve seen destroyed. I imagine you leading them, a procession into the dark to find me. A slow and ghostly stampede. I’ll be mauled, gouged, rendered to chunks by tooth and nail and claw, crushed and broken by hooves and jaws. You’re coming for me, and you’re bringing all of them with you.
Teamwork. It’s the key to successful mammal behaviour.
What I fear most, though, is that you’ll find me and do nothing. That you’ll just look at me. Record it in your memory and remain unsatisfied.
Something down here growls. It may have been me.
I can still hear the smacking sounds of flesh against flesh. I can hear the dogs, howling and barking and rutting in the dark.
It would have happened whether I’d been there or not.
There’s nothing I could have done.
The things I’ve seen, the things I’ve heard. They wear me down, like water on limestone. And they harden me beyond calcite.
These caves are well named: I have become your echo: “No. No. Please. Don’t.”
Don’t . . .
. . . don’t . . .
. . . don’t.
“Don’t worry, Tom. Nobody will know.”
No . . .
. . . no . . .
. . . no.
Rocks scatter under scrambling feet. Yours, mine, theirs. The animals.
“She’s coming for me.”
Laughter in the darkness. “I dunno about that.”
Those sons of bitches.
“Did you film it, Tom?”
You know. You must know. I feel for the memory card in my pocket. Is that what you’re after?
“Something for the DVD extras?”
Your words, but I’m no longer sure the voices down here have been yours. Maybe you’re pretending to be someone you’re not as well.
You’re either spots or stripes in this world. Someone said that once. Was it you? Dogs or zebra. Predator or prey. But they get mixed up don’t they? Plus tigers are striped, so that fucks up the analogy. It helps them hide. Helps them blend in.
But I’m no tiger. I’m a sleeping lion. You’re just trying to get me to move and make a sound. You stir things up, that’s what you do. Something you did, something you said, it stirred something up. In Eddie, in Tony. In all of us. Woke something. A sleeping dog best left lying.
I am Gomantong Cave. I’m full of shit.
“It’s just nature, Tom.”
“Come on, mate.”
Come on. Mate.
I hear the dogs in here with me. They howl. And eventually, just as before . . .
I’ll join in.
Originally published in In Dog We Trust, edited by Anthony Cowin.