American Literary Review
- An online exclusive -
NORA KHAN is a graduate of Harvard University (B.A., English Literature) and the Iowa Writers' Workshop (M.F.A, Fiction), where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow. Her short stories have been published in Hunger Mountain and Conjunctions. She was nominated for a 2010 Pushcart Prize and twice in Glimmer Train's Best Short-Story Award for New Writers competition. She won the 2008 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize. She's worked as a researcher at Details and The New Republic. She works in Boston and lives in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Nora Khan's story was a
runner up for our 2010 Fiction Contest. It is our pleasure to publish her
wonderful story exclusively online.
THE HORIZON was on fire. Smoke climbed from the flames in thick columns.
Diana Lawson wondered if she was hallucinating. She sat in an open Jeep that barreled and skipped across the veldt towards the Reserve. She'd arrived in Tanzania after ten hours in the rattling chassis of a bush plane.
"What's happening there?" Diana looked to her left at the driver, Laurel, a small Dutch woman with the tight finger waves of a chorus girl. The words Game Scout Patrol were stitched on her vest, in gold thread atop her heart.
"Sineteria," Laurel said. "The world of hair, as they call it."
"Hair?" Diana couldn't hear anything properly over the engine. She remembered a photo she'd seen when she was nine years old, of the Devil's Face in Fire Smoke Over Waco. She thought of how the picture, so clearly fake, had seemed real to her then.
Laurel laughed. "I'm sorry. I've been here too long. We share our borders with the Mazarin church. This is their rain festival, so the smoke. They light large fires in a long row. Have you heard of the Maza-rine Bible? No? It was carried along the coast in the 1700s."
Diana strained to look out her window. She had seen magnificent things from the plane as it crossed the escarpment into the Sahel: impala herds that coalesced and broke like magnet filings, canyons filled with running silver. Now she was uneasy. This grassland seemed warped. They crossed a vast, sluggish river, another victim of the dry season.
She counted twelve lonely white flags that pricked the stretches of nyaka bush.
"And those?" Diana pointed at the flags.
"Deaths. Accidents, mostly. Photographers who entered the outer limits. Rogueish."
"They're more of a visual warning. Don't cross the electric barrier alone." Laurel grinned.
That grin, Diana felt, meant one thing: Laurel was amused by how different she and her brother, Derek Lawson, were. Derek, who cut bush roads alone and shot poachers on sight. Eleven years her senior, Derek left America when she was fourteen to study and work in New Zealand, Greenland, and Chad, combing lakes for pale bacterial blooms. Over a decade Diana had collected his letters, filled with descriptions of the origins of rivers, dead fish in the Niantic, elephant calves strung up in abattoirs. And when she finished her sophomore year, he founded the Keren Reserve, a lion research conservatory that commanded a half-million acres at the edge of the Sahel. He had filmed four documentaries for television. Now, he researched emerging atavistic traits in the prides: infighting, cubs abandoned by their mothers.
She never had understood Derek's obsession with the workings of strange flesh. She was a glint afraid of him. He was called, alternately, a deranged radical or a pioneer. Convinced that humans should co-exist with lions, he kept direct physical contact. He was said to be telesthetic; he could sense the approach of a female lion crawling on her belly through the marram.
Keren was surrounded by a high stone wall. There was a sign, a white plank of wood on which words were written in a language Diana didn't recognize. Next to this sign, a black man in Arab dress, his body death thin, waved as they approached. When the Jeep stopped, the man opened the trunk and curled his body over Diana's bags. A military grade rifle crossed his chest. She'd seen teenagers with such rifles in Dar es Salaam. Charming young men in a stall selling teeth as long as her palm.
The main building, low and white, was edged by a green wood veranda. Diana walked up onto the veranda and into the building, down a dark, narrow hall. She crossed a courtyard and then walked into the Animal Clinic. Her sneakers sucked and snapped against wet green tiles. There was faint speckling of dried blood in the grout.
Derek sat atop a teetering pile of white plastic chairs. "Diana," he said, jumping down to hug her.
He still had the self-assurance of a much older man. His black hair was thick, his nose Mediterranean. His green eyes were still flint sharp. Yet she felt an unfamiliar drop in the pith of her. She didn't recognize the lines around his mouth, the canthus of his eyes, or his sad smell, of smoke and burnt hair and rubbing alcohol. When he smiled, the corners of his mouth now turned down.
"Come on, now. Introduce me." Leonard Palit, the fortyish Anglo-Indian researcher who was Derek's partner, sat atop a desk. Diana had seen him in the films. He was nearly seven feet tall, and had the mien of an Assyrian warrior, the statues with the enormous eyes. He grabbed her hand.
"Hello," she quailed.
"Glad to meet you."
She looked at him closely, drawn in by his calm, well-preserved face, except for the skin under his eyes, thin and crinkled as wax paper.
"I can't believe how much you two look alike," he said, which seemed a strange thing for a scientist to say.
Derek laughed. "Let's show you about." He smiled his unfamiliar, pained smile again, and motioned for her to follow him as he ducked through the doorway into the sunlight.
On the back terrace of the clinic, three lions, two females and an old male, were stretched on a long metal bed. Their muzzles were locked with wire and their necks strapped down with black seatbelts. Their coats were the fine green grey of moss. Dengi flies settled in the creases of the male's eyes, sealed shut with dried blood and pus. Without a word, Derek picked away each fly with his forefinger and thumb. Then with both hands he rolled the lion back, exposing a rudely stitched foot-long smile in its stomach.
The room they gave her was empty save a long cot, fit for a meditating person with no need for things. It had either been, she guessed, a stable or a holding cell for injured animals, maybe rabid ones, dragged in with chains. Though Laurel had told her that the blood had been washed clean, the cement floor was still stained in many places, in long rusty stripes. Diana placed her hand on the floor and wiped out an arc, found it dustless, and then lay down on the floor beside the cot. Her throat was dry. She felt all of the cold in all of her limbs, and she was amazed to be there, listening to the quiet clinking of the bells on the veranda in the wind.
She thought of the things she had left. Her memories of her own life felt sparse and cold. She was twenty-nine and kept herself barely solvent; she had little ambition that way. She knew how to parse copy, figures, and numbers, and worked any place that would have her. She thought of the small room she lived in on Allen Street, a white, clean room, with a flimsy desk and cheap chairs. She felt a familiar fear that reared its head the moments she was at rest, that she was living without passion, that controlled ecstasy was not ecstasy. That she was a woman who only knew about things in the abstract.
This fear kept her moving, manic as the poachers Derek had told her about, who pumped themselves with amphetamines in order to hunt without sleep. She imagined them crouching still beside their jeeps, every sense attuned towards an unknown, approaching, living point.
Derek and Leonard brought her on a survey drive in search of the Jefe pride. A large hunk of buffalo meat was hooked to the back of the Jeep.
Diana kept one arm over her door and ran her hand along the tops of the grasses. She saw the yerba, the catastrophically beautiful trees. She was inured to a more charted wild of trails and ranges; this land, it defied claim, it demanded new wariness, a child's reading. Derek had written of just this animal experience in one of his letters, of how the newborn cub becomes slowly aware of the topography and dangers of its home range, how this slow unfolding of collected realizations forms the most ancient of mammal sensations. Diana too felt the interior of her mind as a blank map, filled by each unlikely baobab and shadowed plot.
They spent hours waiting for the heat to break. The creaking of the woodhoope fell in the silence of the plains. She was inert. When there was a break in the clouds she felt the new white light spill on her face and a spreading quiet as though they were not on this earth.
The Jefe gathered around a small, very deep lake. The heavy matriarch, Female Lion 26, led the group. The jeep rocked gently as the lions pulled at the carcass. 26 and 17 were present, but Derek said 23 was missing.
Ten miles on into the parkland, they found FL-23's body. Along her spine, her coat was dark and wet as though she'd died in a fever. Her liver and heart were cut out, her gums sawed to the bone. Derek ran his fingers over the five holes in each paw. It was a horrific mess.
"Cover the body," he said, and walked towards an island of acacia to be alone. Then when he returned, he dispatched by radio to the Reserve and they drove on to an outpost to refill on water. When Derek next shouted "Stop!" Diana thought he had found another body. Leonard racked the wheel and she slammed against her door.
Dazed, she watched Derek run and bring back a small limp lion cub in his hands.
Diana peered at the cub's helpless, closed face, his jugular, if that was what it was called, pumping faintly in his neck. She wanted to hold him.
"This hasn't happened for a while. The herds must be thinning. Must have been the new male who took a swipe at it, thought it dead." Derek held the cub's head with his left hand, probed its body with his right fingers. "A few broken bones. No bleeding." He wrapped the cub in his green fleece, formed a little nest of the towels in the crate, and lay the cub in the nest.
As they drove, Diana reached down to feel the cub's slow pulse.
The sky was low, heavy and pink. She thought, I've lived under this same sky elsewhere, and I survived my time in that elsewhere. Derek said they should pitch camp before dark. He set up her tent and she retreated for sleep. She felt safe, her body languorous under a thin cotton sheet. Through the tent's parted flaps, the shadows of the men shifted around the fire.
Derek carted water to the fire. As he waited for it to boil, he lifted the sleeping cub out of its makeshift bed in the crate. He placed the small body on his knees. She saw a brilliant flash as he plunged a long needle into its fur.
For the first time in months, Diana felt light. Unexpected sights, like this, of Derek with the cub and the sudden movement of the needle, always made her feel hopeful. She would pass a house in winter, and she would notice, suddenly, movement, a thin, steady trail of smoke, or a light on in a stranger's kitchen, and feel something in her lift.
In the morning, two buzzards circled above the camp. The blood of the cub had carried. She stood wrapped in a blanket, and shivered as she watched the birds sweep out perfect, rising spirals. She envied their closeness to the sun, their vantage point on the small happenings below.
Derek covered the cub with a blanket and motioned to Diana to hold him. She took him in her arms, and tried her best not to disturb him. She walked heavily on the balls of her feet; the ground was hard and made this easy. She peered down into the blanket and suddenly felt very aware of how thin her own neck was, how soft her sides. The cub's eyes were slit open and they lazily scanned the sky. She wondered if the buzzards would have the audacity to swoop low. She pulled the shuddering cub in close to her.
She examined his eyes, green rimmed by a ring of gold, and then a ring of black. His eyes seemed to absorb light rather than reflect it, and where she expected a small vision of herself in his pupils, there was nothing.
In the clinic Derek lay the cub on an aluminum table. Diana listened to the pulse through a stethoscope, heard a distant tapping on tin. She helped Derek set the cub in a body splint. Derek asked her if she had any interest in naming him. There was a book by Gunter Grass in his office that she'd seen. She shortened Gunter to Gunn.
Derek showed her how to feed Gunn with a bottle. She held Gunn through the legs, cradling the stomach. She obsessively checked his ears and nose and teeth. She cleaned him with a damp cloth, wiping his soiled parts, his sex, a small reddish slick, with a row of bony spines curved towards its base.
His ribs healed quickly. She buried her face in Gunn's side and took in his stink of fresh water and mud. She felt his heart beat through her face.
On the first night they would all gather for dinner on the veranda, Diana walked down the hall to Laurel's room to use her mirror. Diana knocked hesitantly against the wall, as Laurel's door was a pale yellow cloth tacked to the doorframe, and heard a subdued come in.
"I can wait a bit," she said. She glimpsed Laurel at her table in a sleeveless white silk sheath.
"No, come in; sit down."
Diana sat down on the bed, and watched Laurel in the mirror as she applied a layer of foundation to her right cheek, which was covered in small pitted scars, as though a mouse had nibbled at her in her sleep. Pots of a goopy kohl sat before her.
The bedroom was filled with childhood objects, and Diana looked at each as Laurel sprayed and set her hair. A wooden tray, filled with heavy black pearls. There was a little bone house, made of what must have been bird or rodent bones, in a little courtyard surrounded by a field of bone-stalks, all under a bony little sun. In a glass case, two dried hummingbirds were pinned like fish bait against purple velvet. A bright red mortar and pestle. A silver cross inlaid with pearl, in a near iridial pattern of blue and green.
"Is the cross yours? How beautiful."
"That's from the Mazarin, actually. We should really take you to see the last day of the festival, at least." Laurel drew a powder-laden brush across her right cheek.
"You said the festival is for rain?"
"In part. There's a creation myth they have, too. A woman, 'in the first age,' you know, she had no human companion. She coupled with a lion and died. In the blood from her wounds grew a small child who became their God. A lion in form only, with a human heart and mind."
If Laurel caught Diana's dryness, she didn't say anything. "So in honor of this, the Mazarin have a ritual. They sacrifice a woman every year during this festival. They leave her out in the veldt to fend for herself. And eventually she starves, or is killed. Then it is the job of a young boy to find her and return with her skull or some part of her body."
"You can't be serious. I thought you said they were a church."
"They're Christians. They believe in Christ, no doubt." She paused. "You've never wanted to be part of something like that? Something huge and primal? Without dying, that is?"
Though the word primal, like the word primitive, usually frightened her into respect, Diana felt a distinct blankness. But Laurel had managed to speak to one of her most private thoughts. She made a moue.
"I don't know. I don't think I would." At the thought of being alone in the veldt, Diana felt her throat close. She had felt just this as a small child, when the black trees, silhouetted against the blue winter sky, danced outside the dining room windows.
"They may still do it. There's no way of knowing. The Germans never could get them to stop. Unsurprising, really. They're the most extreme church in East Africa." Laurel finished rubbing in her paint, lined each of her eyes, and peered closely at herself. "I've never been sent up into the lashings more than here. Dirty work. But I'd never leave."
As they walked to the veranda, Diana could feel her bones clicking.
They ate shirred beef and drank tea. The night around them was supposedly filled with Spirits, scintillations in the gloaming. The guard stayed inside, kept the windows closed. He would not step out, Laurel explained, until the djinns had left off looking in the windows. Diana pressed her eyeballs against the night and tried to see them; she tried to will herself into this spirit world. She imagined a giant man with completely photogenic eyes like the headlights of a car.
Gunn nosed at the silken strands of floating kapok. He spun at the shutters of the front room banging in the wind, the forks flashing in the lamplight. He pulled at her dress, its colors.
Derek drew water from one of the large chalk-blue tanks lined around the compound on concrete blocks. Diana had seen them brought in by convoy. She looked at her glass.
"All this clean government water. Don't the Mazarin resent it?"
"They do. But the government supports our research because of the big money involved." Derek shrugged, locking his hands behind his head. She saw the terrible scar on the inside of his right forearm, given him by a teen, Charlie, nine years before. She could not look at it long. "The church is more of a problem for us than the poachers."
"How did you broker anything?"
"We built roads for them and gave them medicine. Years ago, see, I told them Keren could rival Kenya's game parks. That was the problem. The priests say they don't care for money." As he spoke, resting his worn fingers on the edge of the table, Diana saw how this hard country had worn her brother down to his elemental parts: a brain, a will, his body a mere carapace for both.
Leonard, who nursed a glass of brandy, added, "They care for something quite ordinary. Power. The power to sacrifice girls and orphans to their cruel god. For easy power over desperate minds. Frankly, I can't think of a religion that doesn't manipulate." He waved his glass about. "Hungry people will pray to any god."
Diana thought Leonard irritating and smug, the way he spoke of the Mazarin as though they were another curious species, to be studied and controlled. But she had no retort.
Derek pushed himself away from the table. "It is important to decide whether certain ideas are valid. Not all are equal. At least, when the question is one of people starving, or children being mutilated; then belief isn't sacred, or a cultural right. It has to be called what it is. Murder, abuse."
Diana pulled up Gunn in her arms. He teethed on her collarbone, knuckles and knees, leaving rows of tiny holes in her thin skin. Derek had shown her how to keep the cub from causing her real injury. She pressed Gunn's joints above his paws, a pressure point, Derek said, that forced him to retract his claws.
"Tuhn-guhn-yika, Zan-zi-bar," she heard him sing from somewhere in the courtyard.
In a corral, several lions mimicked corpses. Then Reus, a lanky teen, woke. Dark stripes slashed his taut belly. Long black spots slithered up his legs. He made a hard low whine that broke off into a short deep-chested cough, and the other lions woke. Each time he coughed, the others pulsed back with their own coughs. He curled his upper lips back.
"See that, there? He's flehming. He sees me, and smells me and tracks each scent I carry. He flehms when mating, and when hurt." Derek slid his body in through the narrow opening of the gate. She heard him call sh sh sh sh as he walked slowly towards Reus, who swung his head from side to side, flehming and coughing. Derek kept like this, making the calming sound.
Reus rose up and placed his front paws and all his weight on Derek's hips. Then Derek hugged Reus around the neck and they both dropped to the ground and lay like this until Derek let go. She felt a dull pain. One had to earn the privilege as he did, to detect a failing heartbeat, to hold vigil over a dying dama.
Word of Gunn spread to the Mazarin. Their children came first. As there were no screens in any of the compound windows, the children propped their chins on Diana's sill and watched her with Gunn. A sick girl was among them, a long melanoma along her jaw, sunspots on her cheek like fat white freckles, her cough thick and wretched.
Then the two priestesses arrived. They sat on a blanket below the jacinda. They looked like accident victims, heads wrapped in white scarves. They fanned themselves and leant forward on their knees to peer at Diana, as she sat on the veranda's steps. They were suffering, their hunger written in their necks' startling cords. They pulled their shawls around their skinny shoulders.
As Laurel translated, Diana watched the corners of the womens' lips twist out strangled lines of syllables. The language sounded a shade like Arabic.
Laurel whispered the words to herself first. "This animal is a destroying element? He needs to be released before he brings more...djinns, who keep the rain away. Otherwise, they have to make an act of penance." The priestesses gathered dust from the ground and rubbed it into their arms. "This is a matter of our life." They clutched their narrow stomachs.
Diana felt in her an acute embarrassment for the women, for their weighted words more suited to parable - matter and penance, element and destruction.
The priestess to her left said Diana should be careful. There was a lover trapped in the cub's spirit, and her love for it would drive her to a ravenous madness. The more she gave, the more he'd take. He would even take a limb, an eye. The woman mimicked a gimp walk and with frantic fingers showed blood streaming from her eyes like tears.
As Diana watched, one word rose up in her in response: ridiculous. Ridiculous, that she existed in the same century as these women, as it was ridiculous to pretend she appreciated their differences, their cartoonish methods of ordering the world. She felt depressed. Would they never know the errors in their logic? Would they ever learn of proof, or John Dewey; did it even make a difference if they did?
"My eyes are going to bleed. And." Diana tried to drag Gunn into her lap. He dug his nails into the ground and pulled away.
"They say you should release him."
"So they can kill him. I really don't think that's going to happen. Feel free not to translate." Diana's words were so oiled with contempt that she surprised herself. She felt herself falling into a role she wasn't sure she knew how to defend, and yet she felt a little shudder of pleasure.
After the women gave their blessing they angled up the road away from the gates. They swayed in the wind like spindles.
Derek sighed behind her. He stood at the top of the steps.
"What were they really trying to say?" She squinted up at him. From that angle he bore the weight of the veranda roof on his head like a telamon.
Derek crossed his arms. "Their communion with the spirits, their necromantic connections, if you will, are being disrupted. By Gunn here."
They watched Gunn bat a terrified hare's head about.
"Well, it's real for them," Laurel said. Her for them was a subtle insult, because Laurel could not have possibly reconciled the truth of science with the truths of the Mazarin. She played, though, on a bit of uncertainty Diana had to repress through the encounter: What if this country was simply different, and there were things Diana couldn't know? The land, to them, was a continual revelation of obscure suffering and death. It was inevitable that spirit beings circled around them and drained the earth and lakes of water. She wished she could give such a certain form to her own fears.
Perhaps their worlds were just parallel. Perhaps she could eat side by side with spirits but could never see them, nor they her.
Derek drew the gates in with some effort. "We shouldn't have them on our grounds. Sends a wrong message."
"What message?" Laurel brushed the dust off her short pants.
"That we tolerate bullshit."
They both followed Derek as he walked inside to his room. There, he sat on the opposite end of his bed and wiped his boots, a grim set to his lips. She thought of how he had struggled in Chad, where he had lived with a tribe plagued by termites. He had moved to airlift red fighter ants to the village, the simplest way to get rid of the termites. But the tribe's elder had decided they would pray for the gods to intervene, and he'd instructed Derek to wait and pray. Derek had written her, I could actually kill him. The termites ate the foundations of the houses, the village granary. Four adults and six children died.
"They'd say you don't believe because you can't." Laurel looked at her hands.
"Laurel, this really isn't the time for that. You know better than that," he snapped. "In fact, I'm tired of hearing these cool defenses of insane practice. I'm tired of being told that I can't know, that I don't have the capacity to understand. I do. We do. We know that they offer nothing of real weight to know. If we're being honest. Am I alone here?" He looked at Diana with uncertainty, as though he was just seeing that she might not have formed an opinion, or ever had one at all.
Though she stood as though struck, Laurel answered, "Of course not."
"If I've learned anything in my time here, it's that you can't reason with fear. We'll keep the gates closed, and only we come and go."
Under the Southern Cross, far below the clouds rushing in the predawn, the fires of the Mazarin continued to burn. Their white lamps blazed for miles. Diana couldn't shake the sensation that they could see her and Gunn and her brother. Even from inside her room with her hands over her ears she could hear their shouts, a long sounding of trumpets and horns, an undercurrent of rhythm. She imagined a naked queen, painted red, on a bier before a crowd: the branches of the white kapok, their fetish, painted on her torso. She imagined a sharp waft of burning pitch. A single word that lurched across the plain.
Gunn had grown to a full two feet, from nose to rump, hip bones like shadow crescents. A gazelle was dead long before the first atom of Gunn's scent had penetrated its brain: this was the truth and his very existence was truth.
He was too big to be left without sedation. Derek timed the medication with feedings. She waited for Gunn's body to slow, stretch, shudder, and kneel. And then, despite the dry heat, she sat before him on a brown cow hide in her dark room and cleaned him of ticks. She brought her right eye as close to his as possible, felt their eyelashes touch. She took in his mild, sweet, clean musk, the blood and bone and life in him.
When she slept, she dreamt
she was lost. She heard children's voices. She dropped to her knees and
through the reeds saw brown forms on the riverbank. Fat snakes. Dirty
laughing girls in dresses and boys in linen overalls washed clothes in the
shallow water. They sang in bursts as they slapped their shirts against flat
Ty Gah Ty Gah, burning bright
In the middle of the night
He'll come to find you,
He'll come to bite you.
The dream felt potent when she first woke into its fog. She wrote it down, intending to share it with Laurel. After being awake for an hour and moving about the real world, though, she'd forgotten what she had been on about. Still, from the seed of this memory of the lost dream she felt a disturbing root working its way into her.
Over the next weeks, Derek found dead lions in clusters, Xs burnt into their flanks, poisoned with strychnine or thick with bullets. All of their organs were left intact. Derek left for several days at a time. His eyes were hard and he spoke of injuries and synovial leaks.
When at Keren, he slept only a few hours each day, curled like a mantis on the veranda swing. She watched him restore the wounded's viscera and set their blood moving, and this secret, of animation, how was it not religious? Derek was like a priest over the lions' bodies, a charismatic with hands in place of words.
Every known poacher for miles, even those who had become millers and farmers on Keren's payroll, was arrested and dragged to Dodoma for questioning.
On a night flight they searched for new poacher fires. The sky felt like a tank, small flashes of starlight funneling the plane towards its spout. Through her night vision, Diana saw a grainy, pea-green land, unpopulated and surreal.
The head Pastor of the Mazarin, Joseph Abane, asked for Diana's company at their Sunday service. Derek did not want her to go but there was no choice.
Laurel drove. The Mazarin's compound was built around a roundhouse church which spread the length of half a city block. Its walls crackled brilliant white. A few in the entering crowd turned to look at Diana and Laurel, then turned away. Children in blue overalls, their laughs high and hysterical, were beaten at the knees by young, serious men in white, wielding stick bundles.
The two priestesses who had visited Keren sat on the ground near the church doors. They were cocooned in red silk and faced each other across a bowl of tea, into which they dipped long pieces of gray bread. They looked up in a woolen silence as they passed. Diana and Laurel entered and moved into a row in the back.
At the front of the church, a fire burnt in the middle of a raised platform. The smoke from this fire coursed through a hole in the cypress-beamed roof.
On the tabernacle lay a beautiful sculpture of an African Christ. His privates were covered with a grey cloth. She guessed about five hundred people sat in the benches, which were of a rough, pale, lovely wood. The walls were studded with copper sconces, holding blue candles.
The doors were closed and the room filled with darkness. Slowly Diana's eyes adjusted, gleaning light from the ceiling.
Pastor Abane wore white vestments with blue, red, and black triangles in an even line across his chest. Three men stood in a row behind him.
"Before I became a moruti," Abane began, "I could touch the Devil, speak to him, and he spoke back to me." She jerked upright at the sound of his polite, urbane English. "I've told you about his eyes, haven't I? Pure and black as our Tanganyika. But now, I recognize spirits made flesh, who walk amongst us as our friends, leading us into falsity. Let us consider Nebuchadnezzar's second dream! The King lost his reason and his heart: Let his heart be changed from that of a man / Let him be given the heart of a beast..."
The man in front of Diana nodded, head bent over his book. His neck's thick muscles tapered at his nape. In his head was a house of many rooms. Abane's voice sounded in him like a large bell, and he walked into the house and found the very room that held the text of his faith.
She didn't feel the loss of ego or the peace she'd felt in other houses of worship. Instead, she couldn't stop feeling her own skin, her own weight, her own hands turning in the dim light.
"Remember how God cast them into the bodies of pigs and drowned the pigs."
The statue on the tabernacle twitched slightly. As she kept her eyes trained on the statue's face, sure enough, his eyes opened wide.
"Pray for Alif, who has come to us with a terrible, unnatural illness. As we've healed the insane and sterile we will heal him as well."
As the crowd began to clap, a bizarre sodality, she felt she might be swept up in the spectacle. She could feel a conflated sense of her own origins. She could belong here as a universal human, sharing in this eternal music, this ecstatic phrase, this desire for freedom from violence, sin, and decay. But in Abane's voice was another penetrating note that filled her to rippling with agitation, that made it clear to her that these were not her origins. She could never follow them into those interior rooms, no matter their syncretic beauty, if she tried. After all, what would be left of her? Nothing, nothing at all.
Diana watched Alif struggle to breathe. His soaked chest jumped under Abane's large hands. The crowd converged into a stream that ran towards the stage. They left coins in a basket for the man. She saw his yellow eyes and she covered her mouth with her collar.
She could not bring herself to tell Derek of the service, of just how much his brain did not account for. He sat crumpled at his desk, bent under the pressure of correction. Laurel kneaded the bone of his shoulder as he intoned to no one in particular, "We're either a great life form, unlike anything, capable of anything. Or, we're aberrations. Malformed animals, imploding..."
At Derek's behest, Leonard gathered a small Keren delegation and left for Dar es Salaam to speak with government ministers for military support. Laws, they predicted, would be passed in their favor. They left Diana and Derek, who stayed locked in his office. He phoned colleagues in London.
In her room Diana let her fingers slide atop Gunn's narrow, green tongue. He opened his mouth wide to yawn, and froze. She traced, with one finger, around the edge of each tooth all the way to the back, thrilling at the touch of his dry wriggling tongue.
She then steadied Gunn by rubbing him under his jaw. She stepped gingerly over his hip and sat down on his back. Gunn blinked and then rose effortlessly, and Diana swayed a bit, then squeezed his sides with her legs. He began to pace slowly around her room.
Tired, she buried her face in his neck. She lay down and curled into a ball with Gunn at her back.
When she woke, she called Derek's name. He was not in his room or his office, or the clinic. She packed a bag and walked out the gates. Gunn padded smoothly along the flat dust beds beside her.
They would let Gunn into the wild where poachers could drug him and pump his seed for ointments. But if he survived, he'd travel far into his rightful life. She could not protect him. She was only a person, weak, burdened with memory.
She wished she could shed her useless female form and become a mechanical lion with diamond teeth. He, too. She only felt this longing, to be more than she was.
With Gunn's eyes she saw the land as a domain to be mastered, and she felt rooted in its vastness. She felt they were both scions, new plants growing in a desert.
Exactly a mile outside Keren, she sat down. She made a fire. They watched the sun burn a steady trail down to the top of the fire where the two seemed to meld. Gunn's features became less and less distinct as darkness came.
Before dawn they woke and began to walk back to Keren.
There was no smoke coming from the compound, which sat rigid, still. Her nerves were wound tight around a thimble.
Inside the walls, she heard a high whistling, like a trained bird calling the same phrase repeatedly in a desperate attempt to gain response. She looked for the source of the high minor phrase, which suddenly began to fade as though the source were walking away.
Behind the clinic, Derek sat on the ground with his backs to the water tanks. The first of the tanks had been overturned, and a stream of mud ran from its lip, rich and full as paint. She knelt before Derek, grabbed his face. He looked at her as though he were suffocating. She clutched his wrists in her hands.
She stood to look in the tanks. The recovering lions from the clinic beds had been drowned in the water. Their mouths still wore muzzles, and their open wounds showed white. They rose out of the black water like figures in a frieze.
Gunn, not tall enough to look into the tanks, smelled the death. He sat back and opened his mouth wide, but made no sound.
He dragged his paw down Derek's leg. He looked up at them both. His expression was neither of fear nor judgment.
Donald Hays, the 2010 Fiction Contest judge, on Nora Khan's Gunn: There is much to admire in this story: the descriptions of the Tanzanian veldt, the characterization of Laurel, Derek, and Diana, the confident handling of the Mazarine Christian material, the clear prose. For most American readers, the African setting, the work done at the Reserve, and the rites of the Mazarines will be exotic. But this writer deals with this material in such a clear, natural, confident manner that the "exotic" is made to seem absolutely real. While showing us an interesting, changing part of the world, this writer never neglects the storyteller's primary obligation: tell a story. This is a very good one.