Sunday, March 11, 2012


Excerpt from The Names of Things

The silence woke him. The sheep and goats were quiet. It was like they’d all died. He raised his head. Small stock were never quiet, not even in the middle of the night, not en masse. Everything was at rest. Even the air was still. He could hear Ali breathing deeply over by Elema’s tent.

He lay his head down and turned on his back and looked up at the black cloud forms against the stars. He remembered that the wind often slowed or stopped in the middle of the night before it started up again an hour or so before dawn. It was the same midday. He thought it had to do with being far, in the earth’s rotation, from the edge of light and dark.

The silence must have disturbed the dogs. Elema’s mutt was standing in front of the tent, looking into the darkness. Something scurried beyond the pens. Rustle of dry branches. Clatter of rocks. The dog whined. Then growled. He raised his head again but could see nothing over the brush. The dog stood and barked, was joined immediately by a chorus of others in the camp, and disappeared into the dark.

At almost the same time, so he wasn’t sure whether they’d been provoked by the dogs barking or something else, the goats and sheep in the pens began to scream and bawl. Their noise was the noise of a traffic jam, everyone honking like the others, no one sure why. The flock jumped and pressed against the thorn-branch walls of the enclosure. They clamored against the near walls. Whatever they sought to avoid was on the far side.

Over the din of dogs and sheep and goats, he heard another more certain sound. It was not a sound reacting to other sounds. It was its own sound, made for its own reasons. A loud whoop, like the blast of a police siren, both mournful and frightening. The whoop was followed by sharp coughs.

He stood but was unsure what to do. He pulled on his sandals and crawled into his shirt. He heard others inside tents. Ado’s daughter whimpered. Ado whispered.

Ali stirred beside Elema’s tent.

Hyenas were attacking the sheep.

He had seen hyenas plenty of times, but never menacing a herd. He knew the threat they posed to the livestock. He was not afraid, not for himself. The hyenas were after the stock, not humans. But they were opportunists. He was horrified and enthralled. He remembered a film on hyenas he’d seen long ago. The narrator said hyenas were masters of confusion. That was their strategy. Create chaos, then grab what they could in their massive jaws and carry it off.

Elema stumbled from the tent.

The hyenas seemed to be concentrating their efforts here, on the northern end of camp. He could hear rocks tumble and whoops and the press of frightened bodies against the thorn branches of Elema’s boma and others nearby. There must have been half a dozen hyenas.

Warabesa, he told Elema needlessly.

Elema grabbed his spear and shouted alarm. He ran out along the edge of the corral. Ali rose, pulling on his sandals, and stood. A boy he knew in camp called for him, and Ali ran toward the voice. Others emerged from tents. Ado came out to see and stood, holding her daughter. He followed Elema, tentatively, with more curiosity than purpose, fearful of hurting himself on the rocks, eager to watch. Men and women shouted. They ran forward into the darkness. Words rang out amid the alarm.

Mirga! Mirga! North! North!

That way!


Ay, ay, ay!

He shouted as well but did not know why he was shouting and quit.

He wanted to watch. He was an anthropologist, after all. His job was to observe, document. Like a journalist at a riot. Which side was he on? Stone the journalist, he thought. He blamed himself for thinking too much. It was what he knew to do. He didn’t want to blunder into a hyena and be attacked. He didn’t want to drive one the wrong way. He wanted to be helpful, effective, not just make noise. But he didn’t know how. He knew only to be there.

He followed Elema, who dashed one way and then another, pursuing hyenas that gave ground only to sneak back again. Someone clicked on a torch and panned it over the scene. He saw at least three hyenas but knew from the noise that there must be more. Other flashlights farther south in the camp snicked the air like shooting stars. They made everything darker.

Several hyenas galloped away, their big shoulders and small flanks making an awkward sideways shamble, looking over their shoulders, retreating into the night.

One had a goat in its mouth, light as a cookie.

A flashlight followed.

Everything else was darkness washed in the faintest light of stars.

The camp was built beside bulle, what was once, a million years ago, a wave of lava that had frozen and cracked and was now a ridge of dark boulders that ran east-west just north of camp. At the end of camp, there was no more than twenty feet between the outer edge of the corrals and the foot of the boulders.

He rounded Elema’s corral, waving his arms, shouting, adding a body to the defense. He saw bear-like shadows in the near distance. They did not move as a pack, but in every which direction. Some scurried south, others north, several retreated, a few charged. They were children playing tag: chase one and the rest were free to scatter where they wanted. Who knew how to organize a defense against such confusion?

A small group of men and women rushed around on the north side of camp, beyond the last corral that way, and hyenas that didn’t make it through were chased south. Here they were headed off by Elema and others, he among them.

The boulders rose as a cliff, black against the sky, and beneath it he could see almost nothing.

In front of this black scrim there was a movement, a darkness against darkness, trapped between phalanxes of rushing men and women with waving arms. Shadows on shadows. None of it clear. Except a sound. The hyena giggled. Was it nervous? Was it calling for help? Was it going to charge? What could you make of such a sound from such an animal? For a moment, no one seemed to know what to do, whether to throw spears and stones and risk missing, risk its escape.

Then came a cry from behind.

A man’s cry. A wail.

Out of the star fog a large man lunged, spear raised. He rushed between them through darkness toward darkness. He did not pause. He did not seem to touch the ground. He moved as a sprinter, an athlete, a javelin thrower, knees high and forward, feet back, spine erect, right arm raised with spear. He dropped his arm forward as he neared the hulking form and in one unwavering motion plunged the spear into the hyena before it had any sense of what was happening.

The cry silenced the others.

The other hyenas paused, then retreated. The shadows withdrew.

A flashlight approached, dandled like a lit cigarette against the night. The dead hyena lay, spear plunged into its mouth, spread legged on the ground. The muscles of its flanks quivered. The black eyes stared at everything and nothing. The face was frightening, the ghost of a pit bull, a figure from a horror film.

The people thought it was horror itself.

They stood and looked at it. Someone prodded the body with a spear. To test its death. To gauge its heft. It seemed now small and insignificant. Another man with a staff joined the man with the spear and together they turned the beast on its side. It had a round puppy’s belly. It had a black penis, like a long foreskin. The man with the stick touched the hyena’s penis. Elema frowned in the harsh light of the flashlight. He said it looked male but was not male or female. Hyenas, he said, were both.

Hamtu, he said. Evil.

The female spotted hyena, common on the desert, had what biologists called masculinized genitalia. He’d read about that. Females had large amounts of the male hormone testosterone in their blood. In a place like this, among these masters of confusion, females benefited from being aggressive, even more aggressive than males. Evolution had favored those with high levels of testosterone. In a mob of spotted hyenas, one female dominated the others. She was largest. She was matriarch. She would bear the most offspring, out through her penis, and they would share her status.

He knew hyenas were bad because they killed livestock. But he did not fully understand Elema’s repugnance. For Elema, it was not simply that hyenas killed livestock. Humans stole and killed livestock, but Elema did not think they personified evil.

He had asked about this. Dasse told him hyenas lacked clarity. They were unnatural. He pointed out that Waaqa, their divinity, was also both male and female, and Waaqa was surely not evil. They said that was different. Waaqa created everything so partook of everything. Warabesa destroyed everything and that’s why they were mixed up.

The man who killed the hyena withdrew his spear and scraped the blood from it on a stone. He was a visitor to camp, come like him for imaltu, to request a favor from a friend or relative. He thought the other man would probably get what he asked for.

They left the body — not wanting to touch it, hoping the other hyenas would drag it away and eat it — and returned to the tents. Perhaps it would serve as a warning. Several men checked their corrals. They’d lost some goats and sheep. They’d count in the morning. Men and women alike were full of the noise of congratulation and relief, retelling what had happened, shaping the chaos into a story that they would remember.

- Excerpt from The Names of Things

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