by Kyra Wiens
The sun was just now rising over the savannah and the tracker had found a trail. Her husband was amped up, leaning forward in his seat and swiveling his head in all directions. He grinned. Leopard, I think! he mouthed at her. The landscape was dense with wiry trees and shrubs and grass, parched into a palette of yellows and grays and browns now one month shy of the summer rains.
For the first few minutes, she would be eager, too. But then her mind would wander, and she would ease back against the seat, contented by the sound of the truck and the uneven dirt roads. She never had been much of one for follow-through.
She wondered what he thought about on these drives. Probably nothing more than what was right in front of him: Tracks. Road. Tree. Sunrise. He would be ignorant of how much she needed this safari to fix things, to fix their marriage. To fix her.
She used to feel close to her husband. It used to be that lying on the flat plain beneath his collar bone was the only time she could breathe at all. But there were just so many things they couldn’t talk about anymore.
It would start with something small, like did he want to come to the park with her or could he please not grab the trash right out of her hands when she was perfectly capable of walking it out herself. But then he would get angry and so she would close down that part of her. And there so many things that made her husband angry: The way she hated eating out. Her downward mood swings. That she’d quit her job eighteen months ago and still hadn’t found something that suited her better.
She knew they were getting close when the Jeep slowed and the tracker stopped talking, using only rapid hand gestures to indicate to the ranger which way to turn.
And then there she was: a beautiful female leopard not more twenty meters away. The woman’s breath caught in her throat in spite of herself.
The leopard was stalking back and forth near the half-eaten carcass of an impala. Two fuzzy cubs were nestled into the cover of the long yellow grass nearby. Occasionally, one of the cubs would take a few uncertain steps then lie back down, wholly trusting of mom. There was a nonchalance to the way the female leopard moved, eyeing the Jeep from different vantage points. The padding of her feet was even and silent, the power in her hind legs marvelous.
Later that afternoon, the woman lay with her husband on white sheets underneath fans. At home she rarely washed her hair; but here, she took long showers three, four times a day, massaging shampoo into her scalp and rinsing away the dust.
She let herself be calmed by her husband’s slow breathing next to her. She felt a wave of emotion at how familiar he was, his rhythms, his body, his smells. Maybe she was inaccessible to him—but what he did understand he accepted, and maybe that was enough.
“I miss you,” she said, and softly closed two of her fingers around his.
“I’m here,” he said.
When she closed her eyes, she saw leopard spots.
If she were an animal on the African savannah, she wouldn’t be a predator. She had no follow-through: not to hunt, not for her marriage, not even in the brief affair she’d had last fall.
Not revealing the affair to her husband was an easy decision. She came from a long line of Puritan women, women with stocky thighs who believed problems were best solved as quickly and with as little inconvenience to anyone else as possible. So, she buried the affair, along with the myriad of other small betrayals that make up a marriage, somewhere in and around the space of her abdomen.
But now, with all that she had walled off into fragmented burial grounds, she’d lost herself. Like she was always playing a part: She was a cook when it was time to cook. She was a caring wife when her husband’s temper flared up and she needed to step in with soothing questions about his work.
Who am I? There was a Bitmoji for that. If only she could find the right key, realign some of the pieces, maybe she could identify who she was or what she wanted. She didn’t know how a safari in Africa was supposed to fix all that, but there it was.
They didn’t see the leopard again on the evening drive. She snapped pictures of zebras and of a white rhinoceros grazing alone. They saw a red-crested korhaan flying high up into the sky, then free-falling until the very last second when he would unfurl his wings and gracefully catch himself. A mating ritual, the guide had said.
By dinnertime she was feeling despondent. “I want my life to mean something,” she said to her husband. From the deck, they could see hippos down by the river. The water was opaque and brown so only the snouts and shiny rumps were visible. Earlier in the day, she’d also seen the scaly ridge of a crocodile’s back.
“You need to make a career plan, map out a path forward,” he said.
“Don’t you think, if I could do that, I would have done it already?” she said. “It’s just so typical.”
“What’s typical?” he said.
“I’m always on my own,” she said. “You just want me to figure it out all by myself. And I can’t.”
“I don’t know even know what your role is,” he said. “I pay for everything. I work so hard, day after day, and will for the next fifteen years. Meanwhile, you do whatever you want. Yoga classes, spa appointments.”
She stared hard at him.
“Just tell me what you’re even contributing to this relationship.”
That night, she lay awake in the dark. Wasn’t it enough to be his wife? House payments, groceries—or maybe he did deserve to know what he was getting in return. Why a vow at the altar to be his wife should feel so differently than a quid pro quo for his income she didn’t know. But it did.
She clenched her hands into fists and stared at the shadows on the ceiling. She couldn’t breathe in here. She needed to see the river.
She eased out the front door and into the night. She left through the opening in the electric fence that surrounded the lodge. The dry river rocks were painful on her bare feet accustomed to shoes. The mud at the banks felt oozy and primal between her toes.
She wondered what would happen next: If her husband would come for her. Or if it would be a crocodile. Or if nothing would happen at all, and it would be she who would have to choose.
She waded into the river one step more until the water was up to her knees, soaking the bottom of her white gown. She closed her eyes and opened her palms wide to the night. Leopard spots raced across the undersides of her eyelids.
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