Mathieu weaves through the underbrush near a stream in Kasungu National Park. Ziggy isn’t far behind. They’ve been patrolling zone five of the park since seven in the morning. It’s nearly noon. The men are covered in sweat and dirt.
Mathieu leads Ziggy away from the stream. A fetid stench hits them about fifty paces into the brambles. Twenty feet ahead they break into a clearing to find a baby elephant lying on a mat of drying, fly-speckled blood. Two thick crevasses split its face into three chunks.
Mathieu looks upon the mess of flesh the dead animal has become and swears under his breath in French. He paces around it. He tries to kick a stone in his path, but misses and connects with the elephant’s foot instead. He swears again, kicks again, continues to go through the motions of grief.
Mathieu is a soldier. He was born to a Moroccan accountant and a French schoolteacher in Paris and served in the French marines for twenty years before retiring. Now he fights for the Kurds in Syria for fun, takes bodyguard jobs protecting supermodels and spoiled billionaires for money, and spends the rest of his time here, at the park in central Malawi, training villagers like Ziggy until they are courageous, dedicated park rangers. A rifle rests on Mathieu’s shoulder. A machete dangles from his belt. Holstered pistols hug both hips.
“I’m sorry Ziggy,” Mathieu says. “You’d think I would be used to it by now, but it’s still so sickening.”
“I understand,” Ziggy says.
Ziggy is scrawny and bald, with long teeth and short fingers. He holds his rifle at arm’s length, as though to avoid contamination. He is the oldest of seven children, and studied to be a priest at the Catholic University of Malawi on scholarship before he was kicked out for drinking too much beer and breaking into the rectory to beg for forgiveness.
“So let’s begin,” Mathieu says, squatting down next to the elephant carcass, “the elephant was shot here, here, here,” he points to the three bullet holes scattered across the animal’s neck, “and then they ripped,” Mathieu imitates the motion with his hands, “the tusks out of the young face.”
Mathieu dips a finger into the blood, brings it to his nose and sniffs.
“The blood is not yet completely dried. I would say this animal hasn’t been dead for longer than four hours. Here, smell.”
Mathieu holds out his blood-tipped fingers toward Ziggy. Ziggy sniffs, trying not to gag.
Mathieu rises out of his squat, scanning the ground, “there,” he descends back into a squat and observes a set of footprints. He finds another.
“Two poachers, due to the footprints. With a wheelbarrow,” he points to a rivulet carved into the earth. “The tusks are not heavy. Maybe fifteen kilos each.”
Mathieu rises and scans his surroundings. A coat of golden grass covers the plain for a few hundred meters, rippling like water. Tufts of forest rise from the grass sporadically for miles. Beyond are the hills, and then the wetlands, and then the Zambian border.
“With the tusks weighing them down, it will take them five hours to reach the border, even with the wheelbarrow,” Mathieu says. “It will take us an hour to catch them.”
Mathieu smiles and smacks Ziggy on the shoulder, then takes off running along the trail of footprints the poachers left. He feels his arteries open. His heart starts to burn. The sensations drive him forward. The grass ends and the trees begin, and his paces change into hops and short bursts. He thinks about how the men probably laughed when they finally gouged the tusks out of the elephant’s face. Their laughter was probably high pitched. Maybe they even drank a beer to celebrate the carnage.
Mathieu looks to his right and left. No Ziggy. He slows to a jog and turns around. Ziggy is stumbling along after Mathieu about fifty paces back. Mathieu watches Ziggy trip over an exposed tree root and hit the ground. He stays down.
Mathieu walks back to Ziggy and yells: “Do you want to pass your training or no?”
Ziggy grits his teeth and struggles to his feet. Mathieu takes off running again.
Thirty minutes later, Mathieu is still running, slower, not only because he’s fatigued, but because he knows the poachers are near. He considers the battle scenarios: how they are armed, if they expect pursuit, how fit they are, how experienced. Analysis consumes his brain. Nerves grip his stomach. What if this is the last time? What if he is missing a massive vulnerability? What if they have the high ground? He smiles.
Mathieu and Ziggy break into a clearing, and Mathieu spots the two men splitting the effort of dragging the wheelbarrow, each carrying a pistol in their non-wheelbarrow hand. Mathieu raises a finger to his lips and motions Ziggy to get down. They both drop to the ground.
“Together,” Mathieu whispers. “I will take the one on the right. Remember, non-lethal. Breathe deeply. Just like playing pool. Squeeze the trigger, don’t pull. On the count of three… one… two… three.”
They fire. Mathieu’s shot pierces his poacher’s calf, and the man crumples to the ground. Ziggy misses. The poacher on the left spots them and shoots. Bullets spray dirt around them.
“Stay down!” Mathieu yells, placing a firm hand on Ziggy’s back. When the poacher is out of bullets, he takes off running.
Mathieu stands and takes aim just as the poacher disappears into the woods on the other side of the clearing. Mathieu shifts his aim back to the poacher on the ground, infuriated that he let one get away.
“Don’t move!” Mathieu shouts.
The wounded poacher shoots at Mathieu. Mathieu leaps left, rolls over, lands in a kneeling position and fires. He hits the poacher in the arm. The pistol topples out of the poacher’s grip.
Mathieu launches into a full sprint, his muscles working double time but his breathing slow and steady. He kicks the pistol away from the poacher and sets his boot down on the poacher’s chest.
“Are you with a gang or a militia?”
“We arrest him now, yes?” Ziggy asks, taking out his pair of plastic handcuffs.
“Answer the question,” Mathieu says. “Are you gang or are you militia?”
The poacher tries to glare at Mathieu, but the pain turns his expression into a grimace. Mathieu rests a knee on the poacher’s chest and lowers his face until their noses are touching.
“Gang or militia?”
The poacher spits in Mathieu’s face.
Mathieu stands on the poacher’s chest and turns to Ziggy. He’s smiling.
“This is good, Ziggy, very good experience. Whenever we find one who is desperate, who is hungry, who is sorry, who can be trained to be a park ranger, we arrest them. For this kind, we have another way.”
Mathieu unholsters one of his pistols and shoots the poacher in both arms and both legs, then he drops to his knees, takes out his machete and plunges it into the poacher’s stomach. Various animals shriek in response to the poacher’s screams.
Mathieu presses his forehead into the poacher’s.
“Look at me,” Mathieu says.
Mathieu takes a butterfly knife out of his belt, holds back the poacher’s head and drags the blade over the man’s throat, slitting it open. Mathieu then covers the poacher’s eyes with his palm and sets to work. He plunges the knife into the poacher’s gums over and over, blood and saliva and mucus spraying everywhere.
When Mathieu is done, he stands and turns to Ziggy, his hands, chest and face covered in blood.
“You see, if the poacher is not useful, if he does not repent, if he will never become a park ranger, you must make an example out of him.”
Mathieu’s expression is delirious, exhilarated, high.
“Hold out your hands,” Mathieu says. Ziggy complies.
Mathieu drops two flesh-encrusted canines onto Ziggy’s palms.
“Two meat teeth for you, and two meet teeth for me,” Mathieu walks past Ziggy.
Ziggy can’t stop staring at the mess of flesh the poacher has become.
The day is done. Mathieu returns to his room in the rangers’ quarters, a circle of one-room huts near the park’s main visitors’ center. He disarms and disrobes, then bathes with the communal hose. After washing, he does pull-ups, pushups and sit-ups. By the time he’s done, he’s once again slick with sweat.
He takes the poacher’s meat teeth out of his pants pocket and sets to work: he grinds the flesh off of each one with a fingernail file, then punctures each one with a pointed silver dowel rod from his gun maintenance kit. After making the holes, Mathieu slides the teeth onto a necklace sitting on his dresser. They are the thirty-second and thirty-third teeth he has collected.
As is his ritual every time he adds teeth to the necklace, he walks to the bar in town with his head down and his hands in his pockets five feet away from the road. Every time a car approaches he closes his eyes and wonders if this will be the car that hits him, and when the car whooshes past him he opens his eyes and follows its tail lights until they disappear.
An hour later he walks into the bar, a dim room full of people drinking beer or plum wine and betting on dice or tossing horseshoes. The whole place quiets down when Mathieu enters. The locals know who he is. No one looks his way.
He sits at the end of the bar and orders a beer. The bartender slides it down to him without opening it, so Mathieu cracks it open with his teeth and takes a long swig, letting the foamy liquid sit in his mouth so the smell slides up his sinuses and makes him as drunk as possible before he swallows.
“Where’d you learn to open a bottle like that?”
A woman stands next to Mathieu. The curves of her nose, lips, neck, shoulders and hips catch his stare in sequence. He has not slept with a woman since he was in Paris three months ago.
“My father taught me,” he says through another mouthful of beer.
“Aren’t you afraid you will hurt yourself?”
“No. If I were afraid of getting hurt, I wouldn’t be here.”
She sits on the stool next to him.
“Do you really believe that you protect the park because you love the animals?”
Mathieu gargles a sip of beer like mouthwash, his eyes tearing up from olfactory inebriation as he considers the question. He thinks of the elephant’s face in chunks. It was a baby. No older than five. It had rumpled skin and toenails and hair on its tail. It had a mother and a father. It probably had a favorite food and a favorite time of day.
“I do,” he says. “The animals in the park are free, incredible creatures who are at peace with the earth.”
The woman sips her wine. Mathieu gulps down the rest of his beer and asks for another. The bartender slides another bottle down, and Mathieu bites off the bottle cap and swigs.
“I love war,” he says, slurring his words a bit. “Do you know why?”
“No,” the woman says.
“War, you see, is natural,” Mathieu says. “War is a tree growing from the ground. For thousands of years we have been killing each other. We hate those who are not like us, and we kill them. It is in our DNA. It is who we are. War is the earth keeping man in his place.”
“You believe this?” she asks.
“There is less war now than there has ever been,” Mathieu continues. “There are nearly seven and a half billion people on this planet. And what is happening? The earth is dying. We are suffocating it. The less war there is, the more people there will be, the faster the earth will die. And then, sooner than we think, the earth will take its revenge. The water will wash over us. Winds as strong as gods will sweep us away like cobwebs. The earth will cleanse itself of the human race. And it will go on living. It will be just fine. But we will be gone. And then no one will be alive to wish that we had just kept fighting and killing each other.”
“You just like killing people,” the woman says.
When he turns to her, he finds her eyes wide and gleaming. She stares into his eyes, at his shoulders, at his crotch.
“You protect the park because you like doing things to the poachers. Because you hate people. Not because you love the animals.”
Mathieu’s stiffening erection is clouding his thinking. He wonders if she’s right or wrong, but he’s too distracted to care.
“I don’t know. I don’t—”
“Come home with me,” the woman says.
Mathieu blinks and shakes his head.
“Come home with me. Share my bed with me.”
Mathieu glances around the bar. Everyone has stopped paying attention to them. No one will notice if they leave together.
“I’m going to piss. Then we go.”
“Ok,” she says.
The wall of the bathroom stall is covered in wood etchings of initials inside of hearts and crude drawings and tribal symbols. As he urinates, Mathieu thinks of what he will do to the woman when they get into her bed. Mathieu decides he will have her please him with her mouth. That is the safest way.
Mathieu emerges from the bathroom, finishes his beer, and walks past her out of the bar. He looks up at the stars and thinks about how far away they are and how hot they would be if they were inches from his face. They would blast the skin and flesh off of his body and then melt his bones, surely.
The stars grow blurry. Mathieu looks back at the bar and realizes that his vision is dissolving. He takes a step toward the bar and staggers, then falls. The last thing he sees is the woman’s upside down smile.
A halogen light cracks on, so Mathieu wakes up blinded. He can tell the room is full of people because he hears them breathing. His brain is still drowning in confusion, but he soon determines that his feet and hands are bound together with rope. His back feels cold. A stone floor? He presses the side of his face against it. It isn’t stone. It’s metal.
“You let one of us live.”
The woman from the bar appears above Mathieu.
“You slit a man’s throat and cut out his teeth while he was still alive. That man was our brother. Do you have any idea what we’re going to do to you?”
Mathieu feels a dozen or so bodies approaching from all sides. Hands, then, each clutching some kind of sharp make-shift weapon: a screwdriver, a blade made out of a shard of glass, a machete, an animal horn shaped like a crescent moon.
“You did not do this out of your love for animals. You did this because you love to kill.”
And it begins. Plunging, over and over, into every exposed inch of his body.
Mathieu reacts the way most people react when they cross the thin divide between life and death: he shits and pisses himself. Simultaneous ejaculatory excretions. And they are, truly, ejaculatory: in fact, he has never felt a more tremendous pleasure. The pleasure carries him far past the realm of multiple orgasm. It isn’t long before he realizes that he is feeling relief. His body is opening to the world, and his conscience is free of his memory. The images and thoughts he carries around inside of him have grown so painful. Every new opening brings Mathieu an inch closer to salvation.