Updated: Jan 9
by Patrick “Papa” Scullin
We stood and stared into the dark jungle. We would hike through this wilderness, past the tall trees and thick vegetation. We would walk the path, a path taken by many brave hikers before us. The one through the jungle, under its lush canopy of deep green. We would hike the jungle path and hike it well.
I grabbed my silver flask from my pocket. The bright sun reflected off its shiny surface. I brought the flask to my mouth and tilted it. Gravity served me whiskey. Morning whiskey, my first whiskey. The warm brown liquor burned my throat. It was a good burn. An honest burn, a knowing burn. The burn of life. Liquid courage. It ignited a fire in my belly—fuel for our jungle hike.
My wife Clara stared at me. “You’re not drinking, are you, Charles?”
“Yes. Yes, I am drinking,” I said. “A morning nip.”
“Isn’t it a little early for that?”
“Morning makes me thirsty. The new day sun is hot.”
She stared at me. “But it is so early, Charles.”
“I know the time, Clara,” I said. “I have a pocket watch. It was my grandfather's watch, he was a brave man. It is a good man's watch, and I can read it. You must relax, dear. Would you like a drink?”
“No, Charles, I would not like a drink.” She sighed. “And I would like for you to make that your last libation of the day.”
I said nothing. I was not a child. She was not my mother. I was a man, and a man sometimes drinks to bolster himself to do what a man must do. It is what all men do. What men have always done. How could a woman understand what it is to be a man? Why would a woman ever make rules for a man she married?
Our guide Willis arrived. He wore a long-sleeve tan shirt and crisp canvas khaki pants. A pith helmet sat atop his handsome face. He was square-jawed, strong-chinned, blue-eyed with bushy black eyebrows. They were as black as ink at midnight. A knife sheath hung from his snakeskin belt. The sheath housed a good knife with a pearl handle. The knife had a sharp blade, no doubt. A killing knife. The knife of death, of justice.
“We have good weather,” Willis said, looking up at the blue sky.
“Yes. Very good weather indeed,” I said, offering him my flask. “A drink?”
“No, thank you, Mr. Samuels. It is far too early for me to drink.”
He seemed self-righteous. Pious. A pompous ass. I began hating Willis.
“See? I told you, Charles,” Clara scolded. “It is much too early for drinking.”
I drank again. Would my wife never be quiet? Her voice grated on me. Why did she feel the need to talk? Why must she assault my ears with her gibberish?
My throat felt parched, my thirst had grown. The whiskey was smoother, somehow. Somehow much smoother. Clara watched me with a pained expression, the one I knew so well. A look of disappointment and repulsion. She looked away from me, disgusted.
Another drink found its way down my gullet, stoking the embers within. I felt good. Awake. Alive.
“Are you ready to begin our hike?” Willis asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I am always ready for adventure. I am a man.”
“Will there be wild animals in there?” Clara asked. I glared at her for asking such a foolish question.
“Yes. The jungle is home to many wild animals,” Willis said. “But do not worry, Mrs. Samuels. I have a rifle and a knife. I will protect you.”
“I also have a rifle, Clara,” I said, lifting my loaded weapon. The rifle felt good in my hands. It was a companion much more loving and loyal than a nagging wife.
“Please, Mr. Samuels," Willis said. "Watch where you point that thing.”
I had drawn a bead on his head. I lowered my rifle and took full measure of the man. Willis was a nervous man, a frightened man. These were not good traits for a hiking guide.
I wanted to tell Willis about my war days, the many times I had stood tall with guns pointed at my head. I had not flinched in fear. No, I stood my ground, as a real man does. As a real man must do if he is to be a man.
I put my rifle at my side. The coward safari guide relaxed.
“Will we go on our hike today, Willis?” I asked. “Or must we discuss poppycock like the proper etiquette for handling a rifle?” I glared at him. “I thought we were paying you to be our guide. Not our gun safety advisor.”
“Please, Charles,” my wife said. “Be nice. Willis is only trying to help.”
I stared into her beady eyes. Icy blue, dead. The look betrayed her deep disappointment with my war injury. Did she think the injury somehow made me less of a man for not being able to love a woman as God intended?
But I was a man, goddamnit all, and I will always be a man. I would prove that to her. For although a man may not always perform as a man, he is still a man, and will always be a man. A man's man and a woman's man.
“I am a war veteran, Clara,” I told her. “Yet our guide is giving me advice on handling a weapon? Ha! That will be the day.”
I unscrewed my flask and took a stiff bracer. Had someone watered down my whiskey? It had lost its burn. “My rifle is an extension of myself, Clara. My gun is me, and I am my gun. We are one.”
“Charles, please lower your voice," she said. "You are shouting. You’ll frighten the animals.”
I wanted to tell her I would not have to raise my voice if she would listen to me instead of bickering about my drinking. Men drink. I drink. It was what real men did. Often, we drink. I took a healthy slug. A good and fine swallow. Righteous and strong.
“My voice is quiet, Clara,” I said. I turned to Willis. “Come take us on our safari hike. We hired you to be our guide. Earn the handsome sum I have paid you and lead the way.”
Willis slung the elephant rifle over his shoulder.
“As you like, Mr. Samuels,” he said. “Follow me.”
Thus began our journey. I grabbed my rifle and drank in celebration. I toasted our good fortune to hike on such a fine day.
My first flask was now empty.
I had another flask, a larger flask, in my hip pocket. It was my backup flask.
A man must plan for circumstances or suffer the consequences.
Willis led us into the forbidding jungle. Clara clutched my arm, frightened, alarmed by every sound.
"It is only the animals, my dear," I said. "Wild animals making wild animal noises. That is what wild animals do. Have a drink and relax."
She refused a tug on my fresh flask. I shrugged and drank. The whiskey was good. Welcoming, mellow, and warm. Comforting.
Willis walked ahead, his pith helmet bobbing like a buoy on the waves. The guide no doubt thought himself high and mighty. King of this jungle. Better than me. Did he believe he was more of a man? Did he think he could please my wife better than I?
I was not impressed. I had been in war. Had Willis been to war? I had heard he had many war medals but I had my doubts. He was a man filled with fear, not a man suited for war.
We hiked a good distance—Willis, followed by Clara, then me. The exercise parched me, so I nipped at my flask. The liquid nourishment refreshed. I was no longer thirsty until I was again and drank some more.
I remembered my war days. The many times tested as a soldier and a man. I had survived the war, while many had not. They were good men, fallen comrades in arms. We were all part of God’s grand lottery, and some had lost. I drank to their memory and celebrated their honor.
A rustling in the bushes ahead snapped me back to attention. I drew my rifle
to my eye and blasted a shot in the direction of the noise. A loud thump sounded. Clara screamed a woman’s cry, piercing the sky.
“What is it?” I asked, coming to her. “What is wrong, Clara?”
“It’s Willis,” she said, pointing down. “You have shot him. You have shot Willis, Charles.”
I looked at Willis, lying on the ground. He looked peaceful and did not move. I poked him with the barrel of my rifle.
“Willis, come now, wake up, old boy,” I said. His flesh accepted the nudge of my metal with no fight. “It appears he is dead, Clara,” I said, taking another drink and wiping my mouth with the back of my hand. “Damn shame about Willis. Damn shame.”
There was blood on his chest oozing on to the tan shirt. “A heart attack, no doubt,” I said. “His heart must have exploded. I suspect from fear of wild
Clara wept. A woman’s sobbing. Heaving, wet, remorseful. I offered her my flask, a safe harbor of relief, but she refused.
I shrugged and nodded and drank. Our safari hike had ended. Willis was not the brave guide I thought he would be. Willis was not a man.
Despite his cowardice, I toasted his memory, and the whiskey was good. Very good.
© 2021 PD Scullin