July 21, 2005

We Are Prey

After he’s made his kill --- those are the best times. Then we can breathe easy. In the settling red dust cloud we tiptoe back to the river, glancing sidelong at him tearing his prey with his beautifully curved white fangs. Blood all over his jaws, and the humble sacrifice of the carcass tossing with the tugs of his head, its slender legs flopping against the ground: not to run away anymore, not in fright, but in complete acceptance.

Who was it this time? An albino, easy pickings. None of the rest of us are albinos.

How foolish it seems in retrospect, our panicked flight! We were not the target.

Muddy–hoofed, our hides coated with the dust and grass stalks we kicked up in alarm, we check our families. No one we know has been lost.

A frisson goes through us, a message passing along quivering flanks: he’s coming to the river again! But this time only to drink and clean his face -- no need for fear. His belly is full, he is drowsy. How regal he is, how majestic! Watching him is worth giving up a gulp of water, a mouthful of seeded grass. The ease of his padded stride, the instantaneous, total power beneath the loose–hung skin.

We look a little like that, don’t we, our backs clayed with the dust of our run? It camouflages us just as his coloring does him. Eyeing him, we try to lap the water from the stream the same way he does, shake the droplets from our cheeks as if we had whiskers. When he looks up, we look up too, learning to look dangerous.

When he turns toward the trees with that lazy gait of fullness, some of us, the brave ones, do the same. We trot behind him with our own lazy swaggers, chuffing through our nostrils with full–belly contentment. How close can we get? Who’ll get the closest? If he turns and snarls at us, we’ve scored points: he’s noticed us. If he bats at us with his paws, high points indeed. Who cares if we lose an ear flap or the tip of a tail, or if a claw lightly rakes a side? Honor to those who receive such wounds.

We return to the river, breathing fast after playing with him, the meat-scent of his breath still in our lungs. (He needs us. We give him life.) We’ll tell our young how we got these slightly bleeding cuts. Then we’ll settle peacefully to graze among our kin. We are safe.