The silence in the 4×4 was tangible.
“Holy shit,” I muttered, forgetting the presence of my Mamaw two seats over — the kind who “doesn’t do spice,” capturing the life of the savannah with her first generation iPad as if she were Paul Nicklen, eyes squinting behind thick black frames to protect them from the slightest breeze — but no one seemed to be listening to me, except for a small chuckle escaping our guide’s lips, each word delivered with a thick Afrikaans accent: “Isn’t nature beautiful?” The rest of them just sat there, as did the birds, onlookers from a safe distance.
We watched the cheetah cubs toy with their live food. As if in a game of Marco Polo, each of the cubs’ movements was received by a bleat, weakening with every response, from the poor baby impala that must have strayed too far from its creche. At first it ran, or at least it attempted to, but its long sinewy legs, awkward and wobbly and fueled by what I could tell was only its mother’s milk, were the perfect chewing toys, and within an instant, a loud crack sealed the young one’s fate.
The wide brim of our guide’s hat cast a shadow over his pale skin, causing his white teeth to glisten and his eyes to sparkle with fascination and wonderment. All was quiet. He had turned down his radio, an action that seemed habitual, his fingers moving by muscle memory, but the meaning of which I couldn’t discern: was it a nod of respect to the gruesome death of the impala, or the elimination of background noise, causing each helpless cry and the destruction of flesh to echo throughout the bright open plains?
At that moment I was engulfed by the silence. Sometimes, the emotion that fills empty spaces rings louder in one’s ears than does any decibel of sound, and sometimes this deafening silence can transport you through time. I thought of Grandmommy. She was given two funerals. She was loved enough to fill two separate rooms full of stiff wooden pews on the first, and on the second, loved enough that the bitter December cold attracted a crowd, ignorant of their frozen tear ducts as their chattering teeth sobbed through the heatless church. As for Mamaw, she is also the kind that would receive two funerals. The matriarch that stands in the middle of each awkward family photo, with dozens of children pullulating from her lineage.
We watched as the cubs clumsily sank their juvenile teeth into the backside of the impala, and only with their mother’s help could they dislocate the rear quarter from the cordage connecting it to the young one’s frail bones. The impala no longer cried, only producing deep lumbering breaths; its head rested in the tall grass, with eyes wide. Its body was mutilated, not preserved, its funeral procession waiting to drive away without it and its time on Earth traded for currency and our viewing pleasure. I remember hearing my sister’s camera shutter click.
We sobbed as we watched the light go out.
We mourned on the ride back to the villas.
We were quiet over dinner.
We had other worries by morning.
We complained about the long flight ahead.
Upon returning home, we raved about the trip, and our new souvenirs: a beautiful zebra pelt, a spring buck throw, and two impala pelt pillow cases. The SD card containing the photos was lost in transit.