The Caracal 

By Silje W. Pettersen

 

She touches Nick’s signature on her forearm. The black ink has left a barely noticeable swelling. She traces the letters with her index finger while reminding herself that the warmth is only her own body heat, not his. She practices verb tenses. I am, you are, he was. The tears don’t reach the eyes this time. Instead they pool in the throat as a choking pressure.

The day after the tsunami, between the rubble and debris that were once her dive shop, an old Thai man told her that she was chosen, that she was spared for a reason.

When her neighbors had begun the tedious process of rebuilding their lives, she had watched them, sitting on the slab that was once her floor. She knew she should join them, that it was the right and expected thing to do, but what for? The cracked concrete was not her home; it was merely the surface that life had once walked on. 

Then Nick’s lawyer had contacted her via e-mail. A lawyer! She chuckled. It sounded so important and grown-up. But the mention of a will had quelled her urge to laugh. 

The solicitor sounded surprised when she told him she’d come to Namibia to meet him in person. It’s not necessary, he said. But it was. During the bus journey to Bangkok, her conviction had grown. She had to go to Namibia to see for herself where Nick came from, meet his family. Perhaps she could find a piece of him there, as a hidden treasure buried in the sand dunes. 

The lawyer picked her up at the airport himself. He offered to take her to the accommodation they had reserved, but she insisted on going straight to his office. Lack of sleep had made her comfortably numb and indifferent, able to handle just about anything. The will had been short and clear: she inherited everything. 

“But . . . we’re not even married,” she said. 

“Doesn’t matter,” the lawyer said. 

Nick didn’t have millions in foreign bank accounts, but he did have a large photo archive and a regular income from selling stock photos. He had savings to keep him afloat between assignments.

“I don’t want it,” she said. 

The lawyer looked at her. 

“I don’t want it.” She stared back at him and thought she could see pity. 

“You don’t need to decide that—” 

“Money can’t bring him back! I don’t w—”

“Just take some time,” the lawyer suggested. “Get some rest. Sleep. There’s no rush.”

The decision to go and see Nick’s parents had come to her in the middle of the night. They were the rightful owners of his legacy. Down the lane a new man could be waiting for her. Perhaps even children that would have no connection to Nick. He would turn into her secret, tucked away. But for his parents the situation was different. He would always be remembered out loud, in conversations at the kitchen table and in family gatherings. His parents should have his photo archive to be able to display their son’s images and brag about his achievements. 

She suspected Nick would have opposed this idea. 

“They’re not nice people,” he’d told her.   

She hadn’t pushed him any further. 

Now his words tugged at the hairs on her arms and gave her goose bumps. 

 

The farm signboard at the closed metal gate is rusty and barely readable. 

To the east there’s a mountain range, pale indigo shapes distorted and shimmering in the heat. To the west lies the Namib Desert, an ocean of red sand. The wind talks in whistles and hums, and the yellow grass nods in reply. She squints in the direction of the track, but there is no sign of a house.

The road is in a bad shape. Corrugated stretches are intercepted by small gullies and rocky patches. Good thing the lawyer insisted on a small jeep instead of the sedan she had booked for the journey.

At first, she thinks the house is a mirage. It looks oversized and out of place, with rounded white gables, a green roof, and a lush garden. It looks as if someone has pressed the pause button to freeze the sand dunes' movement across the gravel plain, preventing them from crushing the picturesque, man-made oasis. A pack of dogs comes running when she stops in front of the main gate. They appear friendly but then growl and snarl when she gets out of the car. A door slams and a man shouts something. She swallows, nervous and expectant at the same time. 

The man is grey-haired and slow moving. He’s leaning on a crutch, limping heavily. Oh, the poor old man. Nick, how could you turn your back on him? He’s struggling with a stick of some sort. Her urge is to run over to give him a helping hand. He stops and raises the stick. It’s a gun.

“Who are you?” the man shouts. 

She can’t remember her own name, or how to speak. 

“What’s your name?”

“I’m . . . I’m—”

“Are you blind? There’s a no entrance sign at the gate.”

“My name is Cayenne Michaels and I’m—”

“You’re trespassing! ”

“I’m Nick’s girlfriend!”

The man is stunned into silence. Will he shoot me now? she wonders. This is not how it was supposed to be. She has come all this way, driven by a hope that Nick’s parents would be kindred spirits. The old man evidently doesn't feel much kinship, at least not while he’s staring at her through the scope of a rifle. Or shotgun. Or whatever the hell it is. There’s movement on the front porch, an old woman in a floral frock with a hand pressed against her chest.

“Hannes! For God’s sake, let her in.”

Her name is Elmarie, and she ushers Cay into a dim hall. The house is a fortress. The lime-washed walls are two feet thick, and there are metal bars in the wondows, not wood as she initially thought. 

“The thick walls keep the heat out,” Elmarie says. Cay peers through the barred windows, at the vibrant green leaves rustling in the breeze, at the endless yellow plains, and feels trapped. She is led into a large kitchen, with an old-fashioned Formica table and kitchen cupboards she's seen in movies from the 1950s. Elmarie pours ice tea into glasses. Hannes sits at the end of the table. Some ice tea escapes from the corner of his mouth and runs down his chin. He dabs it away with a handkerchief. He’s had a stroke, Cay realizes. His left side isn’t functioning well. They won’t manage to stay here much longer, unless they get help. He’s struggling with words, too, and Elmarie helps him complete sentences. There are long, awkward silences when the clock on the wall is the only one with something to say. 

Cay tells them that she met Nick when he was on his way to Borneo. His parents ask her where she’s from. She tells them that he spent almost a year in the jungle, searching for elusive clouded leopards. His parents ask her if she was raised a Christian.

“He worked for National Geographic,” she tries.

"If he'd had a lick of sense, he’d have been back on the farm instead of Thailand when the tsunami struck. An only child doesn’t get to just run off like that.”

Cay feels how the cold from the cement floor crawls up her legs and seeps into her bones. She glances past Elmarie at the sun, changing from glaring bright to soft peach, and wishes she could walk up on the nearest sand dune to watch the sunset. She can’t bring herself to talk about the stock photos or Nick’s will. When she’s invited to stay for the night, she accepts, despite longing to leave. 

She wakes from the sound of the slamming screen door. It’s not yet light outside, but there’s activity in the kitchen. She sinks back on the pillow, listening to the scrambling of pots and pans, dreading getting up. The awkwardness is bearable and doesn't last long. Nick’s parents are getting ready for church and tell her they won't be home until the afternoon. 

She sits in the kitchen sipping coffee and watching the kitchen clock. She’s alone. And somewhere in this house, there must be relics of Nick. 

She begins with the bookshelves in the living room. Between Bibles and religious literature there are a few children’s books. She pulls one out to skim through, but it’s in Afrikaans. There are photo albums too, but most of the photos are of thundershowers and mud pools. Manna from heaven in the desert, of course, but it doesn’t quell her thirst. In between photos of land rovers on muddy tracks, there are family pictures. She only finds a handful of photos with Nick, as a baby, as a young school kid with missing front teeth, and as a confirmand in a white robe. She stops at that one, notices how his eyes are hidden behind his fringe and how angry he looks. 

She inspects a framed landscape image on the wall in the living room. It’s not one of Nick’s photos, but one of those mass-produced posters. She shoves her hands deep into her pockets and glares at the frame, wondering if she’s reading too much into it.

Some trophies are displayed on a shelf. On the wall above them, there’s a framed newspaper article. Namibian championship . . . winner . . . hunting rifle competition. Nick? Seriously? She leans closer to look at the faded picture. A somber, visibly uncomfortable teenager stares back at her. Next to him is Hannes, smiling proudly, with an arm wrapped around his son’s shoulders. “Shame on you,” she whispers. Hannes continues to smile.

She finally finds Nick’s old room. The stale air feels thick and difficult to breathe. There’s an old poster of Samantha Fox on the wall, a box of cassettes, and a cassette player on the desk at the window. A blue spread covers the single bed. She exhales and realizes she’s been holding her breath while taking it all in. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t feel his presence. The notebook on the desk does not contain a secret message to her. Just algebra. She presses play. Heavy metal, so loud the poor speakers crackle in protest and the dogs start barking. She turns it off. “Jesus . . . .” 

One wall is covered in closets. She opens one door, expecting overalls and old clothes, but it’s filled with stacks of National Geographic magazines. He must have given them a subscription. She picks out a volume she knows contains some of his work, but it doesn’t look like it’s ever been read. The next closet houses the clothes she expected, and an open cardboard box filled with photo albums labeled with years on the back, one for every year since he left the farm. He craved recognition. He wanted to make them proud. She picks up the 2004 album to page through. On the last page there’s a photo of the two of them. It looks like Nick is about to bite her cheek and she’s pretending to scream. They’re in love and carefree. She wipes away the tears and puts the album back where it belongs.

Hannes and Elmarie arrive late in the afternoon. Elmarie sets the table and Hannes says he’ll set up the cage trap for the caracal before supper and limps out. 

“What is a caracal?” Cay asks. 

“Oh, it’s a wild cat. It kills my hens.” Elmarie opens a can of guavas and pours them into a serving bowl.

“Nicolai used to drive Hannes crazy with those traps. He’d sneak out at night to let the cats out.” She laughs at the memory. “Hannes tried everything. He made Nicolai clean the yard and burn the half-eaten hens. He took him along to show him the remains of sheep attacked by the predators. He gave him shooting lessons and took him along hunting. He even tried with hidings.” Elmarie smiles and sighs. “But nothing worked. Nicolai kept setting the predators free. And he was so young at the time! Not more than five or six.” She shakes her head, still chuckling. “Well, at least nowadays we have plenty of eggs.” 

During supper Cay tells them she'll be leaving in the morning. They make no attempt to talk her out of it. Hannes talks about grazing and about the upcoming rainy season. Elmarie talks about baking a cake for an upcoming school bazar. 

She’s considering bringing up Nick, in a last attempt to talk about the only thing the three of them have in common. She was supposed to tell them about the will, she reminds herself. But it doesn’t feel right.

In the middle of the night something wakes her. The slamming of a door perhaps? She listens, but there are no more sounds, except the hens. The trap! She jumps out of bed, grabs a torch and tiptoes through the dark house. She cringes when the screen door squeaks. Then she waits, and listens. Still nothing. The moonlight has painted the garden in blue. She sneaks around the corner of the house, across the lawn toward the hen yard. The house is still dark. She turns on the torch. Yellow eyes shine back at her. A large red creature resembling a bobcat is trapped in the cage. So that’s what a caracal looks like. The hens panic when they see the cat in the lamplight. She turns it off again and the birds calm down, except for a few complaining coos.

Now, how does it open? The cat hisses and spits while she’s searching for a way to open the trap. For a moment she hesitates. What if it attacks her? The caracal hunches and growls. She finds the latch and pulls open the door. The animal shoots out of the trap like orange lightening and escapes through a hole in the fence. The hens scream and flap their wings. White feathers dance in the air. Cay catches one that floats past her face and laughs. The cat is a black shadow out on the plains, still running.

“Nick sends his regards,” she says. “If I were you, I’d stay away from now on.”