“The secret art of river beating has been handed down from father to son through generations of hippo hunters, or, in the absence of surviving male children, from father to daughter. In cases of infertility, the childless couple may petition the headman to allow the adoption of a surrogate, an outsider, through whom the hippo hunters might safeguard their lore in the face of a crushing infant mortality rate. It is through this exigency that, at age thirteen, I came to be the first European woman to ritually slay, barehanded, a fully-grown bull hippo.” (Excerpted from Twenty-Two Years Among the Mud People by Edma Cooey, The Missionary Society of Edinburgh Press, 1957, 177 pages, abridged edition.)
There is scant documental evidence to support Miss Cooey’s extraordinary account of her life with the hippo hunters:
• A terse letter from The Scottish Board of Foreign Missions in Edinburgh approving her father’s application to travel to the Zambezi floodplain as an associate missionary on his own financial responsibility.
• Two second-class tickets, one adult and one child, on the Isthmian Steamship Co. Line to Port Sudan via the Suez Canal.
• Two tickets for the Port Sudan–Lake Victoria Imperial Flying Boat Service, dated 1932.
The above-described items were found with Cooey’s narrative upon her death. The editors surmise that the author arranged the letter and tickets within her manuscript so as to separate it into six volumes, each approximately three thousand pages, which we later entitled Creation Poems, Water Watching, The Voice of God, Key to Pronunciation of Unutterable Words, Interminable Life, and The Long Silence.
The untitled Creation Poems offer insight into the belief system of the hippo-hunting people who inhabit a remote tributary of the Zambezi referred to in the manuscript as “The Unspeakable River.” Cooey disavowed authorship of this first volume, insisting rather that the poems were shaped by God’s own hand from the same mud with which he created His people, that He might be known through their acts.
Creation Poem #617
(Translation, Edma Cooey)
Swarms of flying ants
Signal Your return.
The season falls on our heads
Like fingers drumming.
The river floods its banks
And sweeps away our homes,
Carved boats, cooking fires,
Even the hard dry stars.
Wrapped in thunder and shards of light,
We follow the snakes and crawling things
Into the forest canopy.
Who, thus abandoned,
Can quarrel that he,
According to his deeds
Or circumcision year,
Deserves the hero’s portion of hippo flesh?
Who can coax another’s woman into the forest,
Awake or in dream,
Or strangle one’s brother
In anger or in drink?
The women ululate
For their drowned children,
Our snuff is wet,
The moon extinguished.
We become pure in our misery,
and sin must wait for Your departure.
The bomber pilot drinks from a mini bottle of Johnny Walker as the forest canopy appears on the crest of the horizon. The scouts have called for an air strike against a remote village suspected of collaborating with the terrorists, and now it falls upon the pilot to rain down the hate.
The standard underwing armament for the Vampire Jet consists of:
• British-made 500-pound bombs (4)
• Six-round 68mm rocket-pod (1)
• Fifty-gallon Frantan (Rhodesian-made Napalm) drop tank (1)
Empty mini bottles rattle at the pilot’s feet, float around his shins as the nose of the jet points earthward, shatter at his feet as he pulls the Vampire out of the dive and out-races the concussive sea of fire that reaches for the warplane like an orange fist.
Perhaps the God of the Unspeakable River might’ve been able to shake off the 500-pound bombs and 68mm rockets, but no deity can survive Frantan intact.
A curious giraffe, tamed by tourists, looms over the camera. Sky and cloud will comprise the background of the resulting photo. The hippo hunter keeps both eyes open as he looks through the viewfinder. His left lid had been burned away in the same air strike that turned the Unspeakable River back upon itself, immolated his race, and shattered the God who weaved their existence.
He is one of seven hippo hunters who survived the firestorm. The Rhodesian Security Forces provide for his new existence, having obliterated the old. He has become an army scout.
The hippo hunter shoots the photo from the shade of an armored car while on a routine incursion across the river into Zambia. The gunner, given to sport, coaxes the giraffe to eat green leaves arranged over the barrel of an automatic cannon.
Hippo hunters believe the dead share the world with the living, both crowding the same vertical plane of existence. Decades later, in America, the hippo hunter will stare at the sneeze of blood and brain, the memory superimposed upon the photo pressed flat against the kitchen table.
Afternoon rain forces the hot air out of the passport office and skelters the queue of petitioners waiting outside. The hippo hunter stands before Window Eight, clutching his document.
His mother taught him to speak and write white-shirt English, starched and tightly buttoned, and the discharge papers prepared by the Rhodesian Security Forces have convinced him that the language was never meant to be understood. But this document is gibberish. Who begins each sentence with whereas or addresses a fellow human as aforementioned party?
No matter. The official at Window Eight explains to him that the red ink smear signifies his visa to study refrigerator repair in America has been approved.