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Her friend Bridget says the market for exotics crumbled with the Berlin Wall, so the hippo hunter’s runaway daughter leans like an American against the doorjamb of a red light house in Nuremberg. She nods her head when Bridget offers to show her the content of a jeweler’s box, which turns out to be yellowed toenail clippings. “Hitler’s,” Bridget says with almost no trace of a German accent.
Bridget’s grandmother was a putzfrau who cleaned rooms in a lakeside resort for Nazi party members. The hippo hunter’s daughter wonders what else has been ratted away by those who lived under the boot. Pubic hair from Idi Amin’s shower drain? Dried mucus from Baby Doc’s silk handkerchiefs? Maybe she should retrieve the condom the American colonel pitched in her trash bin minutes ago.
Bridget shuts the box, shakes it for luck.
Late the next morning, Bridget takes the hippo hunter’s daughter on a taxi ride to an outdoor podium set in marble before a vast field of broken concrete where in olden times the entire population of Nuremberg turned out to see their Fuhrer make fists and speeches for the newsreels. The hippo huntress grips the podium, senses behind her the vast invisible wall, row on row of skulls, so close they almost touch her shoulders. Weeds spike through the concrete in stiff salute. Somewhere a jambox plays disco, the backbeat falling like jackboots. But the hippo huntress hears only Wagner, Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit—here time becomes space—and she’s unborn, cowering with the man who will be her father in the branches of a mopani tree, waiting out the flood of rockets, bombs, and napalm, then silence, as her people lie in their bubbling flesh on the banks of the Unspeakable River, the confused hippos snuffling among the corpses.
Wind, vodka, and smack roar in her ears as the hippo huntress fights back the morning sickness, tastes in her mouth every violation committed since creation, feels them rattle in the jeweler’s box of her belly.
When a person dies, they stare at something no one else can see. At least that’s always been the hippo hunter’s experience, and his wife proves no exception. He lays beside her, places his head next to hers, stares up at the acoustical ceiling panel on which her gaze is fixed. She’d painted the ceiling a pale sky, counterpoint to walls that are the same tannic brown of the Unspeakable River, colors she saw on a home decorating show on The Learning Channel. The hippo hunter would’ve chosen safety orange, fluorescent green, anything to put his birthplace behind them.
Her spirit still lingers in the room. The hippo hunter struggles to compose a sentence that would encapsulate their life together, a terse epitaph for her to carry into the afterlife. He wants to tell her that he’s grown used to her painted nails, the potpourri on the back of the toilet, cooked food, her flat American vowels, the ever-present sound of the television. But he senses her essence has already departed.
He will move out of the house now that it belongs to the dead. He has outlived his wife, his daughter, all other surviving hippo hunters. He believes the souls of the living are like caterpillars. But what good is it to metamorphose from a worm into a worm with wings, only to be devoured by hungry bats?
The refrigerator comes with the apartment, empty, unplugged, door propped open to keep it from stinking. For a starving man, the appliance is a cathedral. The hippo hunter stands before its yawning capacity.
There is no correlate for abundance in the Key to Pronunciation of Unutterable Words, though a derisive snort is sometimes used to indicate enough. In the absence of food storage, hippo hunters kill what they eat and eat what they kill, the tautology of the Unspeakable River. Waste not, want.
The hippo hunter’s mother left him with this one memory:
Her cropped hair alternates ginger and gold beneath the sun that filters into the forest canopy as she pushes through the breast-high water, beating the Unspeakable River with the flats of her hands. The other hunters must remain submerged until the hippo shows itself.
Her grey eyes scan the impenetrable water for swirls or bubbles. God speaks unutterable words through her mouth to the hippo, commanding the bull to arise before Him, and so it does. The hippo hunter’s mother straddles the beast’s neck, pushes her fingers into its eye sockets as the others spring from the water to drive it onto the bank to stand blindly before God.
In the beginning God shaped four hundred souls from the bottom-mud of the Unspeakable River, all the human life He could support. This number remained constant through flood and starvation, give or take a finger-counting. The hippo hunter wonders how many souls the next world’s river can support, and if, when he dies, he will push out one of his ancestors.
Hippo hunters do not die of old age. The diagnosis is chronic Bright’s disease, untreatable, no incentive to follow the doctor’s prescriptive diet. His urine has turned black. His stomach rejects all nourishment. The hippo hunter faces impending starvation with neither courage nor fear. Rather he approaches it as one would walk toward an empty refrigerator.
You’ve been shattered by bombs, Your believers have quit this world like a cloud of startled bats, and the Missionary Society of Edinburgh Press has hacked You down to 177 pages. There was a time when You stared through four hundred pairs of eyes, give or take a finger-counting. But the death of each believer diminishes You, abridges Your existence, until You speak with only one voice, to nobody, forever.