ZHARA’S CHOICE

Photo by Sergey Pesterev

Now that the sun had set, and it was quickly getting cold, Zhara’s ungloved fingers tingled against the metal of the rifle in her hands. From her makeshift hide, the grassland of Nairobi National Park stretched out below and she could still see much of the natural landscape, lit as it was by the purple and red sky. Black silhouettes billowed theatrically in strange shapes across the hills, and though a plane on final approach whirred an unpleasant and tonal whine, Zhara chose only to notice the beautiful dancing shapes that she knew to be large collections of animal life; they moved freely over the undulating terrain, like the shadows of fast-moving clouds.

Rumours of a new poacher team operating were being circulated, and her lions had been missing for three days. “I’ll do what I have to,” she thought, though with less of the relish she and her fellow recruits had shown recently when posturing during ranger training. With 30 minutes until total dark, she scanned left and right in search of her pride, or the poachers, or both. She looked right to the north where the park halted at the edges of the city and the buildings of the financial district loomed upwards like watchtowers. From the corner of her magnified scope she saw what might be two men and spun the rifle toward the shape, her hands clutching the weapon too tightly.

She held her breath.

Nothing. Just the movement of some distant bushes that flapped in the breeze. All at once she missed her daughter Layla more than at any time so far during her first two-week field patrol, and she wished to be safe and at home and able to care for her, the way she did now for the lions. She scanned toward the west where a flock of pelicans took flight. They crossed the dark purple bar of dirt and soot that rested just above the horizon like a lid, and climbed upward into the clear air.

Wait! There!

Below the birds Zhara spotted her pride emerging from the bushes, and she peered back into her scope for a better look. The males, females, and cubs: She noted each as they entered the open area until all were accounted for – everyone was there and safe! She opened her diary and with slightly numb fingers manoeuvred her pencil to note the sighting time and location. Looking again through her scope to watch their behaviour, she noticed an unusual movement in a large swathe of silvery blue grass a hundred metres upwind of the pride. The lions were less playful too, and more aware.

Then she spotted the two men. Their outlines were mostly well hidden, but each time they moved the long grass around them waved, as if to her, so that their presence was now unmistakable. The dust twisted around in the breeze, and Zhara smelt a dryness that she could not quite explain; it tasted as if the dirt from the floor were at the back of her throat. She watched as the men crept forward on their bellies.

She wished desperately that they would back off, think better of it, and go. They writhed closer still, and she gently cradled the trigger with her hooked index finger. A sickly shiver of unease expanded outwards from her stomach. She waited without breathing, and they crawled closer and closer.

They were nearly in range of the lions now, and she needed to take the shot.

At this distance the bullet would drop slightly, and so she had to be careful; exactly as she’d been taught in training. She tilted the muzzle upwards slightly and tried to calm her breath, which was now erratic and came in little gasps.

She squeezed the trigger gently.

Paused. And fired.

The sound of the gunshot slapped against the distant hills, and a group of wildebeest that had been resting nearby scattered in a flurry of hoof-churned dust. Zhara could barely hear their grunts above the thumping of blood in her temples.

Slowly, she lowered the aim back down toward where the poachers had been.

Her shoulders slumped, and the barrel dropped; the men were running away.

The warning shot had worked.

*

She regrouped with her two squad mates who arrived soon after the shot, and together they set up camp. The fire burned orange as they lay on olive sleeping mats. With their packs for pillows they looked upward, and the flickering light drew pencil lines of the spindly acacia branches under which they rested.

“You should have shot them,” Abuya said, dismissively flicking an apple core into the leaping flames. “I would have.”

“But they were scared off – there was no need to shoot them,” Zhara said.

Abuya sucked a long hiss of air through her lips and shook her head. “They’ll be back. If I’d been there we’d have chased them down.”

“I joined up so I could care for the lions, not kill people.”

“It’s one or the other.”

“But why do we have to choose at all?” Zhara sat up from her mat with her legs crossed, and the fire warmed her face. Above the flames, small orange diamonds floated upward and were gone.

“They made the choice when they entered the park,” Abuya said. “You made yours when you swore an oath to protect the animal life in it.”

Nadia stepped over Abuya to the other side of the fire where their evening meal was boiling over the edges of the blackened cooking pot. She and Zhara were junior to Abuya and took it in turns each night to cook. As she passed behind Zhara she brushed a hand across her shoulders. Zhara watched her as she carefully ladled out three mess tins of stew in equal measure. She remembered her previous job here as a safari guide; all the tourists from around the world who were mostly happy and polite.

“I wish it didn’t have to be that way,” she said.

“No point wishing that.”

“Will you stop?” Nadia said, handing out the tins before taking a seat between them. “You’re not helping.”

Zhara stirred her fork around the thick brown stew. The food was salty and hot, and when she ate, the liquid warmed her from inside out. After a moment Abuya was talking again and Zhara knew she was being watched for the reaction in her face.

“Believe me,” Abuya continued, “it gets real clear that first time, when you watch a guy cock his rifle or notch his bow and he’s in for the kill; when he’s up close, and you can see the buzz in his eyes, and you feel what he feels, and you know there will be death because you can smell it like shaved bones being boiled. And then it’s just a numbers game; hundreds of remaining lions here versus billions of people.” She rolled onto her side to face Zhara. “And then…” she wiggled her index finger in the air like a worm, “you tell me you don’t have to choose.”

Nadia reached over Zhara and spooned some more stew into the tin discarded at her side. “Here,” she said, “eat – we’ve got a big day tomorrow.”

As the dying light from the embers flickered in the darkening night, Zhara could see the distant lights of the city. She thought of Layla for some time, and then of her mother who looked after her now, and her younger siblings, too. They were all at home and protected in the safety of that artificial glow. A wind in the trees stirred the branches above, and she pulled her sleeping bag up around her shoulders.

The other two slept soundly in their beds.

*

They broke camp the following morning and went in search of the lions. The pride was roving much more than they once had; Abuya said it was because they knew something was up. It was hard to disagree.

Heading north initially, they skirted an almost entirely dry watering hole, visited these days by just a few parched birds pecking in the soggy mud that remained.

Abuya then led them west as the hazy sun rose higher at their backs. Zhara was glad for the hat which gave shade to her neck and shoulders and, when they stopped in the shadow of some trees, she took it off and fanned the warm air around her face. The sweat that glistened across her head and cheeks felt cool for a moment, and the buzzing flies that were their usual companions moved away in search of another resting place.

An hour later Zhara picked up the clearly outlined paw prints of two adolescent males. They led towards a thicket of greenery that stood alone in an area of otherwise arid grass. Placing each foot silently in front of the other, she followed them to the entrance of a narrow track through the bushes.

“Definitely two tracks!” she said, waving to her teammates behind her. They both peered around the landscape at first before running lightly to fall in behind her at the entrance to the bushes. Zhara crouched to avoid the tangled branches above as she entered the dark space, shaking off the thorns pulling at her shoulders. Somewhere out of sight was the angry buzzing of a million flies. She turned a corner that led to a clearing, and the noise grew louder.

There they were; two lions from the pride…

They were facing away from her, and their limbs pointed out at strange angles. It was then that Zhara saw what had caused that uncomfortable feeling of wrongness as she’d approached: Their feet had all been cut off so that each was left with four chubby little stumps for legs. She circled around them and through the noisy black cloud of flies to where she could now see the bloody gash where their faces had been hacked off.

She turned and vomited in the trees as the others rushed in behind her.

“Oh God,” Nadia said. She stood behind Zhara and put a hand on her back.

Abuya ran past the lions’ crumpled remains, her boots stained by the blood congealing in pools below each animal, and out toward the clearing’s exit. There was the crackle of the radio as she called it in. “HQ, we’ve got two dead lions. Looks like they were killed early this morning. Poisoned then cut. Request their extraction.”

Zhara was still kneeling in the dust. Their faces! They were sliced flat off. How awful that incomplete look was. How strange that it would have been better somehow if they’d been fully decapitated. But they only wanted the teeth and the claws of course – no point carrying the whole head.

The sound of Abuya’s footsteps approached and each sickeningly wet squelch was an accusation of what she’d failed to do; that she wasn’t good enough. She stared at the floor and knew Abuya was standing over her because the sun no longer beat against the skin on her neck.

“I’m sorry,” Zhara said, though her words went unheard, drowned out below the noise of the flies. Abuya and Nadia were looking down at her. “I…I should have…” She dropped her head.

“It’s not your fault,” Nadia said and reached down, pulling her up from the limp position on the floor.

“But it was them! And I didn’t shoo – ”

“It’s not your fault!” Nadia said again.

“I’ll do better next time, I swear.”

“You’re doing fine,” Nadia said. She led Zhara away to give her water while Abuya radioed the pilot and told him where to collect the bodies.

*

That night was the last of their rotation. Nadia insisted she would cook again in spite of Zhara’s protests that she was fine.

“Nothing prepares you for the first time you see something like that,” she’d said. “Please; let me cook.”

“It’s not natural what they did,” Zhara said as she lowered herself to her mat. “It’s so hateful. How could someone do that?”

Abuya was writing up the patrol notes and gave a hollow laugh. “Money,” she said. “That’s how.”

“Money alone can’t be enough.”

“Lack of money then.”

“I hate them all.”

Abuya laughed again, though this time it was a full laugh. Nadia smiled a little, too, and continued chopping. “It isn’t about hate,” Abuya said.

“So you don’t hate them? You of all people?”

“How could I? Most of the poachers are our own from the city; they’re only doing it because they have to. And then there’s all the farmers to the south that poison the lions to protect their own – should we hate them as well? All they’re trying to do is make their own living, same as the poachers or you or me. The truth is the world is getting squeezed on all sides – more people; less space, less money.”

“But all the conservationists and tourists I used to give tours to said things are going to be different now Covid is gone. They said the world is going to be more caring, with more protection and respect for the wild; they said the world would change.”


Now Abuya really laughed, and the sound seemed to fill the big sky. Even Nadia was laughing along.

“Oh good,” Abuya said once she’d stopped. “So long as they’re saying that I’ll sleep soundly at night.”

Nadia spoke in the same way that she always did; quietly, though with a certain sense of honest conviction that meant people always stopped completely to listen to whatever it was she was saying. “The way I see it, all of us are the same: those men, the lions, us; we’re all part of some whole that is bigger than just people.”

Zhara looked up at the inky black through the trees. “What if you’re wrong?”

Abuya dropped her pen loudly to the pad of paper she was writing on. “So long as our world is run by money we will always be separate from nature. Money can’t ever care about nature in the same way that nature can’t ever care about money. One is entirely made up. It is used to track and control, to marginalise and to sort winners from losers. The other…” She stopped and tapped her fist hard on the ground in front of her several times. “…is this. It is real, and earthy, and solid. Sometimes it is beautiful and sometimes it is violent and ugly, but that’s not the point. It exists. And money – or any other abstract lie – will never get it. So you can keep your rich tourists with their donations and their offsets, and your politicians with their taxes and their eco-friendly investments, because it’s all just fancy ways of moving money around.” She pounded the ground one last time. “Any attempt to protect this that puts money as the answer will only ever fail.”

Zhara rolled over, and tiredness eventually stole her away from such difficult thoughts. The sporadic breeze turned the smoke lazily around the camp, and the smell of charcoal reminded her of cooking at home. She watched Nadia scrubbing at the pots and tried not to think of the lions and their faces and the men from before; or the money that they would get for the teeth and the claws.

Tomorrow night she would be home, bouncing Layla on her knees until she laughed and laughed, and she would hold her so tight and she would tell her mum all about the patrol: the way the smell of the bush seemed stronger when you were a ranger rather than a guide and the quiet of it all at night when a tourist camp wasn’t set, and of Nadia’s cooking, and Abuya, too, with her stern moods and capable hands. She would say they were all now friends, and that in spite of everything she could not wait to do it again.

*

The following morning was colder than before. They rose before dawn and, by the time they got moving, the clouds were pulling each other magnetically together into a low grey sky. They fanned out over a kilometre on their final patrol back to HQ, hoping for the best chance of spotting the lions one last time so that they could deliver a final position report before their time off.

Zhara went to the left with Nadia right and Abuya the central lead. Zhara descended alone into a little culvert that depressed itself into the ground and lost the reassuring sight of Abuya in the distance.

There was a growl from a lion somewhere up ahead, a playful sound from a younger member.

She crawled around for a better view and, from where she now lay, she could see them through a gap in the trees. The whole pride was there, but they seemed different; the cubs weren’t playing as they normally would, and many of the group lay quite still with their heads unusually downcast, as if aware of a pain or loss. Then something glinted in the bushes nearby. As quickly as it flashed it was gone, and she sighted down her scope to where it had come from.

One of the poachers!

His rifle was slung over his back, and the barrel glistened again where it extended carelessly out of the shrubs. Zhara adjusted the scope into focus as she saw the reason for his strange positioning; he had a bow and arrow tensed in his arms. As her fingers fumbled around the cocking mechanism, he released the arrow and she gasped. She scanned across to the lions but saw that the arrow had missed, falling quite short.

Now he was attaching another arrow. Right then, and quite without deliberate thought she made her choice; he would not get a second chance.

She readied her rifle and began to range the target through the scope.

She paused. Slowed her breath.

The gunshot went off.

The lions scattered like alley cats, and a flock of small birds that had been dancing through the branches nearby took flight. Amongst all of it, her world stopped for a moment.

Something was wrong: Why was she lying on her gun?

It felt like she’d been smacked with a sledgehammer, and she struggled to breathe, sucking at hollow air. She rolled onto her back and looked up at the thickening cloud. The patter of distant gunshots crackled, and several whizzed nearby.

It was then that the man who had shot her in the back ran past.

He stopped to look down at her. His eyes were thick, and the blood that she was coughing up stopped her from being able to say anything. He ran.

The lions had run to safety. They must be safe, she thought. They must be.

She thought of their regal heads and proud shoulders and lulled her head from side to side, sputtering some sickly iron taste from her lips. And then her mum was there and she was proud, too, and holding her hand. Except now it was Abuya, and she was stroking her hair. Everything was darker, and she could see the warm glow of home in the distance. There were tears on her face.

“I did it?” She said, tucking her chin tight to her chest to keep from the increasing cold.

“You did,” Abuya said, and a tear fell from her face onto Zhara’s head. “You saved them.”

Tom Reynolds

Tom Reynolds is a writer and commercial pilot - though only one allows him to soar in absolute freedom. Published in several places, he’s excited to have finished his first novel and a short-story collection, both of which examine our changing relationship to technology & nature, meaning, and modern life. To contact him about agency representation or publishing his work please email tomreynolds396@gmail.com (Because social media destroys the beauty & complexity that is genuine human experience you won’t find Tom online… Oh, and if you work for - or are involved with any of these companies then fuck you)

Tom Reynolds is a writer and commercial pilot - though only one allows him to soar in absolute freedom. Published in several places, he’s excited to have finished his first novel and a short-story collection, both of which examine our changing relationship to technology & nature, meaning, and modern life. To contact him about agency representation or publishing his work please email tomreynolds396@gmail.com (Because social media destroys the beauty & complexity that is genuine human experience you won’t find Tom online… Oh, and if you work for - or are involved with any of these companies then fuck you)

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