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On Excess, and Grief

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Excess, John thinks, is for unhappy men. Even as a young man, he was never one to overindulge; in the end, excess is just waste, and John cannot abide that. It is not in his nature. And he has never needed drink or loose women or any other vice to fill a hole inside of him; he has never had such a hole. He has his great loves—Helena, and his work, and his dreams of Africa—and they are enough to fill him.

But there is also a time for everything, and John recognizes this as a time for celebration. They have killed a lion; one less maneater hunts them. John wonders, briefly, if they have killed the Ghost, or the Darkness, and then he decides it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s like Samuel said, and they aren’t really lions, but some malevolent spirits, and such things are unnamable. Satan himself has many names; evil’s form is tricky, too tricky to pin down with a name.

John blinks, and decides that’s probably the wine talking, and he puts the bottle down. The bonfire burns still, pricking up perspiration on his skin, and he squints against the golden light. He has good long vision—he only needs his glasses for making out things close up—but the flap of Remington’s tent is drawn too far closed, and he cannot make out whether the man is sleeping or not. He knows that Samuel is, though he can’t see him, either; he can hear him snoring.

As he retired, Samuel put his hand on John’s shoulder. “You should sleep,” he said.

John looked up at the blanket of stars spread over the night sky—so many more stars than at home, though that didn’t quite make sense; it was the same sky, after all—and then at Samuel’s face. He smiled.

“I’ll only be a minute.”

And he isn’t quite sure how long it has been since then; time has taken on a nebulous quality since coming to Africa. Usually he is so precise in his measurements, but he does not know how long he has been sitting out here alone, and he is not sure of the months that have passed since he left home. He was keeping meticulous count of the date, but since construction stopped, since the lions came, he has lost track. He wonders if Helena has given birth yet—no, she can’t have; she would have sent him word. But she must be due soon. He wonders how near she is, and feels an ache in his hands that cannot now touch her, a desire so strong it is painful.

He wonders if whichever lion is left—the Ghost, or the Darkness—feels a desire like this in its mourning. Do lions mourn? What is death to a lion? Death must just seem like absence—in which case, to a lion, John’s wife is dead, because she is not here. There are two states of being: here, and dead.

John flinches. The drink has gone to his head. He rubs at his eyes and pulls himself to his feet. Samuel is right; he should sleep.

John stumbles to his tent. He stretches his body out over the flat plane of his cot; the world before his eyes spins a little. He waits for his breaths to elongate, for sleep to take him, but it does not.

It is because he is worried. It is the ache keeping him awake. He goes into his pack for his stationary kit, stretches out a piece of paper. He wets the nib of his pen, first with his mouth, then with ink.

Dear Helena, he writes, and then stares at the page for several minutes, the shape of her name. He tries to compose a line to tell her about the terrible ache missing her blooms in him, but then he worries that she will be burdened with the thought of his suffering, not flattered by the depth of his emotion, so he decides against it, crossing out the line before it can even dry on the page.

Instead, he writes, I miss and love you, and thinks that is probably enough.