“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,
Nursing children,
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.

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.

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.

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