Monkey illustration by Jemma Clamp
Cartoon crocs pointed us smiling to the bathrooms and down the path to the reception room; the female one wore lashes and a dress. We descended into a rising smell of animal park drying leather. A tall man with missing fingers stood behind the desk. His ranger uniform was adorned with park specific teeth. He had blotch red leather skin and bronze hairs on his forearms. He was having trouble with the card machine. An old man, the owner, came to take a look and told us we could go through so long, we’d arrange payment at the end. The prices of crocodile meat were on laminated paper signs on the back wall. The ranger, too big and clumsy behind the desk, went through a door to the kitchen behind to prepare food. The room was filled with curios, skins, animal heads and their scent. We went out the room to the enclosure.
I felt my sister’s stomach sink. And laughed; I knew she abhorred places like this. Thirty or so crocodiles were in the pit. They were squashed up together, enclosed in a circle of grimy cement. They didn’t look real at first, looked like rubber, and they didn’t move. Some were frozen with their mouths open, their breath cold and silent like a dying breath filled the pit like atmosphere.
“Well this is horrible.”
“Yeah.” I laughed again.
“I want to go.”
“We’re here, let’s just…”
We walked over and around the main pit on a wooden walkway. There were smaller enclosures with lower walls, dark green pools, unmoving creatures. We sat down to sketch a pair of Mississippi alligators. They were giant things with fat tails and coiled, bulking arms and their feet were clutched back against them like old hands. They lay like an old couple, idle in each other’s silence. We sketched them in silence too. Making any noise, even groaning, would disturb the stagnant tolerance that had settled there, and threatened to give rise to fouler odours better left buried in its silt. Sketching them seemed to relax my sister. She showed me her drawing and we got up and left.
There was a sitting area under a thatch roof where other visitors had gathered to watch a tour guide give a talk on the park. We sat at a table with a large crocodile skull. My sister began to sketch it and I listened to the tour guide. He was Afrikaans and freakishly big in ranger gear with great Boer calves above his rubber boots. They clearly loved alligators and crocodiles, and the conditions of the park were probably fine for them, despite our initial reactions. The place smelled like death though, and drying leather, and shit. And crocodiles are hideous, especially in frozen crowds of rubber, in the hiss of air. When my sister had finished we went to the front desk. The card machine wasn’t working so I got the banking details from the owner and told him I’d pay him later.
Out on the dust road we could breathe again. We stood around not speaking. Then quietly we decided to walk back to the tar road before calling an Uber. The dust road traversed hills thick with grass. It was just above a major road but we would have to walk quite far to get to a pick up point. We didn’t mind. I had Outkast in one earphone and apples and crackers in my backpack. My sister mulled weed in the palm of her hand as she walked, rolled it and began to smoke. Then she stopped.
There was a monkey in the grass on the side of the road. Its eyes were closed and its breathing was faint. Its leg had a raw graze. Flies hopped on it. There was dust on the small flowers around it. My sister looked at me. She dropped a cracker near its face. It didn’t move. Sensing it was somehow inappropriate, she took the cracker away. It was on its way out, alone in the dusty grass, its breaths soft as death enfolded.
“What do we do?” She asked.
“I’m going to call the park. Maybe it can be rehabilitated.”
The owner picked up. I told him what happened, where we were, and he said okay, and hung up.
We waited. I kicked idly at the shrubs on the other side of the road, watching as they shrank and curled up after being touched. A white Mahindra came up the road, followed by dust, and pulled over twenty meters past us. The owner got out holding a white sheet, the sheet fell away revealing a gun. He cracked the rifle forward over his forearm, feeling in his pockets for bullets as he walked over to us. I looked at my sister with a what-the-fuck expression. She snorted a what-the-fuck laugh, shaking her head.
“There it is.” I said to him. “Must have been hit by a car.”
He looked at it then turned to us, loading the bullets.
“Is there nothing that can be done for it? Animal rescue, rehabilitation?”
“No, no.” He shook his head.
The bullets were small and silver. He cracked the rifle back. It was a simple, old gun. He stood over the monkey. My sister had walked ahead. I stayed to watch. He cocked the gun. A direct line was drawn from his eye down the gun to the monkey’s head; a sharp, brutal angle. I winced.
He grumbled and inspected the gun. I was still wincing. He took aim again. I winced waiting for that blunt death blow, for the monkey’s body to barely move, for the ground to cough.
My God. I regretted coming across this poor thing.
“Ah this happened before when I was putting down a horse last week.” Said the old man.
The gun clicked again.
“Ya, I’m going to have to get the other gun.” He said.
“And there’s nothing you can do for it?”
“I’m afraid not. He’ll join the circle of life.”
There was a bit of solace in that, at least. I imagined the grass and flowers growing over the corpse, gnats and flies whizzing in the sun, his bones committed in time lapse to the earth, his verdant skull under a tree.
“That’s alright. He’ll become one with the earth I suppose.”
“Ya.” He said, walking past me to the car. “We’ll feed him to the crocs.”