The hippo hunter applauds when the plane safely touches down at General Mitchell Airport, carries his passport in his hand, wears too many clothes for a Milwaukee summer, chatters at me on the escalator, his excited words swallowed in the collapsing staircase. He looks anxiously to the luggage carousel to bring him everything he owns in this gaping, urgent world, smiles brightly at the security official, the reserve soldier shouldering a duffel bag, the skycap, any uniform, a conditioned response, I suppose.

And when my wife comes to pick me up and we drive away, I watch him in the side view mirror, still standing on the pavement, a suitcase in either hand.

The hippo hunter’s made an appointment with the vet, eleven clock-time. Time enough to cook a breakfast of fried eggs and gravy for the dogs, hire a taxi to bring them to the lake beach, release them from their leashes, never mind the fine.

They’re pound dogs, rescued nine calendar years ago, the day they were to be put to sleep. The hippo hunter calls one Next, the other Then You, the forlorn humor of the Zambezi floodplain. He acquired the dogs to protect the rented television while he was away nights scrubbing truck stop toilets and attending naturalization classes. The dogs are now guardians of his sanity when he’s home behind plywood windows.

Once he hunted hippo beneath the sluggish current, counting moments in time measured not by the sweep of a watch hand but in lung-panic.

Next is unable to hold her bladder. Then You fails to rise unaided. There’s no grace in appointment killing, no ceremony. Outside, the moon moves behind the clouds. The humid air deadens all sound, confounding the bats in their hunt for summer moths. The hippo hunter holds his breath, submerges himself, waits for morning, eleven clock-time.

The hippo hunter wants to smear his body in hippo fat, dance before his bride, make her a praise poem and chant it as she walks down the aisle. He wants all who have gathered together at the Knights of Columbus Banquet Hall to ululate as he cups the buttocks of his new wife and ruts with her in the weightlessness of the Unspeakable River while the crocodiles clack their jaws and bull hippos heave and roar blessings that shake the forest.

But his bride has coached him. He’s no longer on the continent of inappropriate behavior, and he must wait for the music of spoons against wine glass stems, that he might press his pursed lips to hers.

In his sixth year of exile, the hippo hunter stares at the refrigerator art: a crayon drawing of the river of his birth, brown water dotted with grey snouts. A wonder, considering his daughter was born in Milwaukee. He’s not looked upon this scene since a rain of bombs shattered his God and scattered the last seven hippo hunters across the floodplain of the universe, their hearts callused around each shard.

Evenings, his daughter sings psalms in a forgotten tongue.

A sliver of God glares through her slitted eyes. I am the weaver of the universe, she sings, the unutterable syllables guttering in her mouth, administer of destinies, the river head of all things. Tremble before me!

The hippo hunter kneels bedside, each clear note falling on his ears like raindrops on a river’s surface, breaking apart the reflected sky.

The hippo hunter doesn’t buy beer or go to the cinema on Post, or to the other one in town where English is dubbed into Italian and transcribed back into English subtitles. Instead he feeds his money into this phone in order to speak long distance, begins with How is our daughter? He’s waited to call, counting back the hours until his family awakens.

His wife was too weak to accompany him to his duty station. The reserve doctor treats the progressive multiple sclerosis by poisoning her heart.

Your daughter misses you, she says, her voice tired before she has taken her coffee. The mitoxantrone grips her heart like a fist. She’s been a darling, she adds, regardless of the truth.

Almost four years gone, the hippo hunter thinks. My daughter has forgotten me.

When he joined the U.S. Army for family health benefits, the recruiter never raised the possibility he’d be assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Vicenza. Italy.

When will we be together? he wants to ask, but that answer is circled on the short-timer’s calendar above his bed, and all his words remain encased within the lining of his stomach.

Once, beneath a forest canopy, the hippo hunter had silently worshipped a God who received all endearments before their utterance. He will listen to his wife’s breath until the last coin.

In her chiseled ecstasy, Saint Teresa sprawls before a cherub who brandishes an assegai, the disemboweler and the sacralized, bringer and receiver of rapture, hunter and hippo.

“Here,” the tour operator gestures, “in the north transept is Cornaro Chapel,” scripted words to be spoken and nodded at, “the famous part of the church, completed by Bernini, 1652. Come.” The tour operator ushers the group away, leaving the hippo hunter to stand alone before the stone saint and her beatifier. He listens to the God-voices echoing faintly against the marble as they speak to the departing tourists:

Stay with your husband, one of the God-voices says.

It was a venal sin only, says another, and, given the circumstances, we need never speak of it again.

I have chosen you above all others.

Don’t touch yourself when you get back to the hotel.

Theatrical acoustics invite conversation with God, and the hippo hunter fills the chapel with a psalm from his childhood catalogued by his mother as “Creation Poem #5.” There remain on earth only seven beings who still understand the words that echo through the Cornaro Chapel. Eight, counting his daughter. Nine, if you include God.

Golden light emanates above cherub and saint. The hippo hunter approaches, leans forward, looks up into the niche. But he sees only marble spectators who stare down from the loge, green piasters, baroque frippery that would molder and sink into the steamy mud of the Zambezi floodplain.

Creation Poem #5
(Translation, Edma Cooey)

Armed only with fist and voices,
We beat the Unspeakable River to drive this bull hippo,
Roaring and bellowing, upon the bank
To kneel on broken forelegs in Your presence.
Take this offering,
Quiet the rains,
Return the River to Her peaceful level.
Allow Your shadow of light to fall over us.
We open our offering,
Climb into the belly of the bull,
Purify our flesh with gore,
Excrement,
And rapture.

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