By Cassi Lapp
John's folks are his grandparents by birth but parents by law after rescuing him from a fourteen-year-old drug addict mother. They own the eighty acres in Decatur, Arkansas adjacent to the Wild Wilderness Drive-Through Safari in the bordering town of Gentry.
John is a cop; I’m a cops reporter. Dispatchers at his department set us up. They were looking for a good woman for him, the two women said.
The first time on the eighty acres I rode on the back of a four-wheeler as John turned the throttle, touring the land where he grew from a boy to this man, and ran and played, hid and hunted, and was once arrested for a felony charge of killing an endangered species: a white deer jumped the fence of the safari and met a bullet from John’s deer rifle.
A cop with a felony past and a cops reporter.
We drove the tall fence-line bordering the safari, and then I jumped off and walked to the chain link to get a closer look at the boars. In the distance, Texas longhorn cattle munched the afternoon away.
On another day, I approached cattle along a fence-line in another corner of the eighty acres, committed to a close-up photo of their expansive headgear. When they saw me, they began to migrate toward me, horns striking as they picked up momentum, huge cloven hooves digging into the earth. At any moment, they could have charged through the fence. I didn't turn my back at their advance, but walked slowly backward down the hill toward the house, defeated, photo-less.
I had experienced a drive-through park once before in my life, somewhere in South Dakota on a family vacation years ago. I remember the baby black bears hanging in the tree napping, their front legs gripped on a branch, back legs swaying free as if they weren't prisoners.
At the Wild Wilderness Drive-Through Safari, four miles of road lead motorists through the way these animals live in captivity, complete with petting parks, animal interaction areas, pony and camel rides. Leave your pets at home, the website warns visitors. Hippos, black bears, red kangaroos. Two-toed sloths, lemurs, baboons. Porcupines, gray wolves, boa constrictors.
The safari workers chopped trees to erect fences to pasture its wild animals on his parents' property. The fences were to keep the animals away from the natural spring in the valley that ran through his parents’ home. Large oaks lined the ground, awaiting removal by a logger. The safari kept the money for the lumber as payment for repair of a few other portions of fence along the property line. The fence built to keep the animals separated from humans is the safari’s responsibility.
The grandparents stay indoors mostly, except for the mowing Grandpa does, even at seventy-eight. He’s a retired military man with a demanding presence, though I often catch him wiggling his bare toes as he sits in his recliner watching The Waltons, his hand resting on a stuffed dog perched on the armrest of the chair. Granny, sadly losing her mind to her age, sits in another chair nearby, ordering memorabilia items from mailers and sending Grandpa to the mailbox with the check.
One winter evening, the sun was setting and John and I took a walk around the property. I like walking it in winter as the southern cold means snakes won't be hiding in the thick leaves. John carried his pistol as we sauntered, in the event of a run-in with a lion or zebra. We were sure to get back to the house before the woods went completely black.
Another day we shot rounds into the lake, trying out John's hand-crafted assault rifle for the first time. Lions roared at the sound of the gun. The lake was serene, especially at dusk, and the bullets splashed in the water and then seemed gone forever. But they only lay at the bottom of the lake, spent.
It was my first time shooting such a weapon, even holding something so sinister in my hands. I cowered the first time he raised it to his eye to fire it. John has intimate knowledge of these weapons and what their bullets do to flesh, having pierced the enemy as an Army infantryman in Iraq.
“What did you do while you were in Iraq?” I once asked about day-to-day activities there.
“You know what I did,” was his only reply, and we moved on.
It's not that he's ashamed of the things he may have done there; it was necessary and what he was trained to do and I have always understood that though I understand little else about war. He never speaks of it, and I think it's because there might be a part of him that wants that thrill again and maybe that's the part he doesn't want to talk about.
It was years into our relationship when I first saw him gear up and head to his grandparents’ for some hunting. Hunting animals is not the same thrill as hunting people, he told me then paused as if he expected me to leave him. Some people are sheep and some are wolves they say, but John is a sheepdog, watching over those who believe in the goodness of the world, those who would have a hard time pulling the trigger of a gun pointed at another human, even if that human had a gun pointed at him. He watches over the people who refuse to give up on humanity, people who think there is always a way and a right one, people who see beauty in the world around them and not just pain. I cried once watching a Discovery Channel documentary on the life of African animals during a drought: the baby elephant didn't survive and the mother stayed by its side even after its death.
It was raining as we left the eighty acres to go home. As we drove around the other side of the safari, I couldn't help but wonder what the camels think about the rain. They stood there motionless beneath a tree, water falling over their humps when it should be inside them, waiting in their backwards world. For what?
John wants to build a house now on the eighty acres. He wants us to look at the lake in the morning and be surrounded by the animals that roam the property, see the sun set in the still water, hear the lions roar. The last time I was there, a large trap had been set out by the lake to catch a wild pig that had wandered free from the safari. The slop looked like a casserole that had been baked to attract the pig to an oversized cage. That is not the reason I do not wish to build a home there.
When I was twenty-two, I sold most of what I owned and packed the rest in the back of my Nissan Pathfinder and moved back to Colorado where I had grown up years before. I took a low-paying job at a ski resort operating a ski lift and lived a gypsy life—the best years of my life so far. I had more fun than one is supposed to have as a responsible adult, and that, coupled with the looming death of my father, was the reason I left Colorado. But the people I met along that journey are still with me, in my memories, on my Facebook page, in my dreams. Best friends, former lovers, nemeses.
Now I make my living telling other people's stories, shaping them with my own words so others can see. Our purpose in life lay in the relationships we build, maintain, destroy. The only thing we can leave behind after we are gone is a connection that exists as something abstract—love, hope—maybe even fear.
Humans are social creatures, as are the pigs that roam the safari, or escape it. The pigs, too, learn to adapt to their environments and settle with the world around them. They seek comfort in shade and mud as we do in our air-conditioned homes on a hot summer day; they are intelligent enough to know not to pee where they eat. They are omnivores, half-way-betweens, eating greens but still getting the thrill of a bite of juicy meat now and again. The thing about pigs is they greet one another with their sensitive snouts, rub them together all snot and dirt. People—we watch out for germs. I imagine John and me waking in the morning to one another's nose on the weekends, touching them together the way I put my lips to the nape of his neck as he holds me tight to his chest while waiting for the coffee to brew.
He wouldn't have to give up anything, I told him, to move to the country and live remotely away from all the things I do on a regular basis: run at dawn with a pack of early risers, practice yoga in a heated studio downtown, lunch with friends on the city square after a bike ride, play in the park with my three-year-old nephew who lives nearby.
I can ride my bike on the eighty acres, he said. Round and round the fence-line, as cars drive through the safari.
The first time I got off that four-wheeler on the eighty acres, I stood behind a fence while people in a car on the other side drove by and waved.
The car crept along a dirt road, children staring blankly out the window, waving mechanically. I was the attraction, not the wild boar having a snack on the other side of the road.
I waved back.
Cassi Lapp received her MFA in poetry and nonfiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars and BA in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas. Born in Colorado, she now lives in northwest Arkansas, where she was named the state’s Outstanding Young Journalist, teaches college English and is an avid runner.
This is Cassi's first publication.