A Desert Dirge

 

The noise was deafening, trumpets of pain against the staccato background of gun fire. The ground rumbled with the stamping of many heavy feet and moans of terror too low for the human ear. Every few seconds a giant would fall, a hollow boom that sent an expanding cloud of white dust into the air.

Willem took a deep shuddering breath. He concentrated on stilling his shaking hands. He aimed down the barrel of his rifle and fired. The kick hurt. Willem levered another bullet into the chamber. The dust was making it hard to see. His eyes were watering. Just watering, he told himself. He tried to stand more firmly, to breath more evenly. Aim. Fire. Lever. Repeat. He managed to get off another three shots before it was all over.

He only threw up once.

Four kills. Out of two hundred and eighty-seven. His father would not have been impressed. Or surprised.

Willem didn’t know who had made the final decision or given the order. The other rangers had been muttering around the campfire; some for, some against. He was new, and no one cared enough to ask his opinion, this boy fresh from the city.

But when the time came he was still given a rifle and a magazine of heavy blunt nosed bullets. He knew how to shoot. He’d spent school holidays with Johan, his best friend since childhood, on their family farm. Once he shot a rabbit. Johan’s mother had cooked it for dinner. It had tasted amazing.

Willem shouldered his heavy pack of food and gear. He joined the procession of stoic men and slow moving trucks. Every step broke through the salt, each vehicle trailed a plume of dust. The men did not make eye contact with each other and barely spoke. There wasn’t much strategy to discuss anyway: aim for the head, the lungs or the heart, shoot the matriarch and older animals first to disorient the herd and prevent escape.

Willem hadn’t been in Namibia long. After high school Johan had helped him pack his entire life and his dog Sam into Johan’s old truck. Together they’d driven up from Johannesburg.

They’d taken their time with the trip. They spent two nights with Willem’s aunt in Uppington, but mostly they slept under the stars. Under a sky bigger than any Willem had seen before. They watched the grasslands of the Savanna slowly become the arid Kalahari. Flat and red, with only the occasional thorn tree to break the horizon. They drank sweet tea out of tin mugs and ate potatoes half burned by the fire. Sam slept beside him, curled inside his sleeping bag.

It was exactly what Willem had dreamed of, sitting on the dam wall at Johan’s farm, listening to the jackals sing.

It had been magical. It had felt like being reborn.

It convinced Willem he’d made the right decision.

Then they had arrived at Etosha National Park, and after a brief goodbye Johan returned home.

Left him to this new job that he had begged and pleaded for. An assistant game ranger position Johan’s father had arranged for him through an old army friend. A job his own father expected him to fail at. Wanted him to fail at. So that Willem would follow in the family footsteps. Make something of himself.

Etosha – the Great White Place – an expansive plain of flaky salt whose bone dryness was eased for just a few weeks each year during the rainy season.

But the rains had stopped coming.

It was all anyone seemed to speak about in the first weeks Willem was there. The drought. The Great Drought some of them called it.

Sam had taken to his new home immediately. He chased small lizards and dug up insects. Some nights he roamed far onto the pan, only returning when Willem used a piercing whistle to call him home.

It was harder for Willem. He struggled to join in the camaraderie of the other rangers. They were hard men, not unkind, but shaped by sun and wind into something tough and unyielding. They weren’t here because it meant freedom, an escape from a life so well mapped out that it felt stifling. They were here because there was no where else they could possibly be. This was where they belonged.

Willem wanted to belong.

So he hadn’t said anything and had fallen in behind everyone else.

They had to travel far. The site couldn’t be within 10km of another herd or they could cause wide-spread panic. They followed the tracks of the scout vehicles, whose passengers would even now would be setting up the field abattoir.

They reached the natural gully that would help to funnel the herd. They were assigned positions around it and told to wait for the signal. The actual culling was over surprisingly quickly. The other rangers faltered less and were much better shots than Willem.

The butchering took a long time. A nightmare of ropes and pulleys and red blood on white sand.

The walk back home was quieter still. It gave Willem lots of time with his thoughts. He only started crying that night, back in his bunk with his face buried in Sam’s fur.

A few days later Willem hitched a lift into the closest town with the delivery truck. He phoned his father. Swallowed all his pride, told him that he was right. That he’d decided to go to University and study medicine. That he wanted to make something of himself.

His father sent one of his brothers to come pick him up. The life he repacked into the truck felt smaller, somehow diminished. Sam whined when they put him in the car.

He was an old man before the dreams stopped. The ones where he was unable to see the stars, because the entire sky was choked with white dust.

Entry for NYCMidnight Flash Fiction 2014 competition

Prompt: Genre – drama, location – a funeral procession, object – a dog whistle

Revised version based on forum feedback

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