Wild Lands by Ryan Priest

Wild Lands

Ryan Priest

Mark never really expected to die in Africa. Everyone warned him. They said, “You don’t want to get involved with those people, they’ll take your head off with a machete and rob your dead corpse as soon as shake your hand.”

Easily the most violent continent on Earth, Africa has seen more war, genocide, and mass graves than anyone since 1940s Europe, with hundreds of civil and international wars, tribal, racial, and religious strife keeping the various nations in an impoverished pressure cooker ready to blow. All of these small facts and, yet, Mark wasn’t worried, only surprised. How had all of this gone unreported in the rest of the world?

“Nobody cares about Af-Ri-Ka” Jean Marie had told him with her rich, crisp accent. “A million black babies could die tomorrow and the rest of the world wouldn’t blink an eye.”

Mark knew he’d be lying if he tried to say his African trip had nothing to do with wanting to impress the beautiful Nigerian who sat behind him in photojournalism class.

“I care, I’m going to do something about it.” He’d tell her. She’d only laugh, shaking her head like an adult does when a child makes a cute mistake.

Jean Marie, with her obsidian skin barely peeking out from layers of winter clothing worn to combat the cold North American climate. Jean Marie, with her matter of fact eyes and individually pronounced syllables, “Af-Ri-Ka, Geen-O-Side, Fa-Meen.” He’d heard her tell of her brother whose hand had been chopped off for stealing. Not by the law, but by a mob made up of the pedestrian traffic, everyone eager to hold off on their errands long enough to come together to dismember a fifteen year old boy accused of stealing a Michael Jordon shirt from a street side vendor. She’d told him about friends in high school who had died, along with the other passengers of a cross country bus, as penalty for not having enough money when boarded by thieves with assault rifles. She’d explained horror after horror to him, tickled by his shock at each new and violent revelation of her pre-collegiate life.

He’d now been in Africa for two months and he needed a vacation. He had made sure to book the first flight east right after graduation. It was bad there. In his first week, he’d photographed countless firefights and dead bodies and machete wounds. Traveling through Darfur and the Sudan, he’d heard and recorded person after person each with his or her own tragic story. Everything imaginable, from gang rape to infanticide, all the spillover evils one expects to find in any ethnic cleansing. He had been pushing non-stop, always traveling, snapping as many pictures and running as much film as he could, and his nerves needed a break.

Upon arriving in Kenya, one of the more stable countries in the region, he asked a few of the locals for a location to get some good nature shots. Like all the other Africans he’d thus far encountered, they were an enormous help, loading him down with maps and detailed information on how to keep away from the assorted guerillas and brigands. The Kenyans were like anyone else, proud of their country’s natural beauty, but aware of their possible dangers.

In the twenty-first century, only an ignorant idiot pictures Africans living in huts, wearing loin clothes, and holding spears. Africa has airports, cities with multi-million populations, cars, trucks, giant buildings, and everything you’d see in any North American city. In fact, there’s nowhere left on Earth where a majority population spends its time hunting food or living off of the land. That being the case, Mark had needed to drive for three hours outside of Nairobi to find a stretch of untouched nature.

The location was lush, with small animals running around amongst the sparse trees of the grassland. It was one of the few places left unchanged by time and the landscaping of mankind’s ambition.

Mark set up his tripod, ready to immortalize the warm day when, suddenly, he was knocked forward, sending the tripod and camera both tumbling along with him. He only had time enough to look back and see what had hit him; it had felt like a truck. As his eyes focused, he realized he was staring into the fierce pounce of a full-grown male lion. Before he could scream, the lion’s mouth chomped down over his entire face, and he felt his body take to the air and slam into the ground as the lion threw him like a dog with a stuffed toy.

Pantheras Leo, the biggest cat in Africa, second only to Siberian Tigers, Pantheras Tigris, as the biggest cat in the world. Mark didn’t care about such distinctions as biggest or second biggest as the three hundred pound beast stood over him, holding him down with a paw the size of a clawed baseball mitt, pressing down on his chest. He couldn’t have screamed even if he’d tried. The mass of the furry paw pushing the air from his lungs made it so he couldn’t even gasp. He slowly began to lift his hands. If he could knock the paw off of his chest, then he could roll. If he could roll, then maybe he could make it to his feet. The rented jeep was only a few yards away. Lions can’t open car doors. If he could just make it to the dusty, safari jeep, he’d be safe.

The next bite clamped down on his throat with a force so great he could hear the bones in his neck crack. His arms, poised in mid-air, dropped immediately to his sides, unresponsive.

Unable to move, Mark knew it was over. He was alone, and he was over a hundred miles away from the nearest hospital. At the very least, his neck was broken, if not gushing blood out of his quickly numbing body.

The lion disappeared somewhere over his head. No longer able to see the creature, he could still hear its heavy breath and feel its big yellow eyes scanning his limp body, wondering where to dig in first.

No other continent can kill you in as many ways. If it’s not the gangs of paramilitary guerrillas after you for your land, or god, or diamonds, then it’s the desert heat, disease or the wild life.

The lion trotted back into view, a few feet away at first, then sauntered in close like a bashful date. He took that big paw and casually batted Mark’s lifeless leg, tearing through the denim of his jeans and on into the flesh underneath. Mark could feel that he’d been jerked about, but not the cut. His neck was broken and the nerves throughout his body were all numbly tingling, sending their last packets of information off to the brain before shutting down forever.

Standing over his body, the lion looked down. His head, even without the mane, was three times the size of any man’s. Those sly, enormous, yellow eyes seemed to be smirking, giving him the same charmed smile Jean Marie had always given. The African smile.

Without so much as a roar, the lion had dominated him. They don’t just kill and eat their prey. Like house cats, Felis Silvestris Catus, lions like to toy with and savor their victims. The lion began to take long licks along Mark’s body. Not liking the taste of his shirt very much, the lion moved up and began licking Mark’s face. He could feel the feline tongue, like sandpaper on a housecat but like a cheese grater on a lion, peel the skin off of his cheeks with painful, face tearing laps.

This is what lions do, Mark told himself. He’d seen it on an Animal Planet show or maybe learned about it in a biology class, but it all came back to him with each lap of the powerful tongue. After breaking the neck or slashing the throat of a victim, the lion then licks off the skin and drinks the blood. Meat goes bad quickly in the heat, so it’s best for the prey to still be alive as the lion enjoys his or her appetizer.

We’re not as tough as we’d like to think, human beings. Pain and trauma will kill us. A severely broken bone can stop the heart; a significant shortage of our red blood will inevitably lead to our expiration. Mark knew his body would give out sooner or later. Not as quickly as he’d have liked, but definitely a sweet escape would come later as he died the death of a zebra or water buffalo at the claws of the king of the beasts. As his last pained breaths escaped his mouth bubbling through a cascade of blood, he wondered if anyone would find him; well, what was left of him. He wondered if anyone would care; without his white skin, his body, like that of any other dead African’s, left to rot without any notice taken, as Jean Marie had said.

He felt bad for Jean Marie. He’d never kissed her or even dated her, but for an entire year she’d ruled his heart and changed the way he saw the world. She had a fierce glow in her chestnut eyes. Like the lion, both were survivors of that harsh, beautiful land.

About the Author

Ryan Priest is a novelist and screenwriter living in Hollywood California. His first feature film “The Scam” will be released in 2012.