Going on a jackal hunt with his children. Here is an Excerpt from Jerry Eckert's memoir, Weeping Kings and Wild Boars. This selection is from his time in Pakistan and part of the essay Ten Cents.
I thought my kids might like to meet these jackals face to face, a personalized wildlife experience on a crisp spring evening. Erin was seven, Scott was five.
I picked up meat scraps and bones at the butchery on the way home from work one afternoon, grabbed my Arizona coyote call and the kids, and set out on our expedition just before dusk. Their little feet skipped with excitement as we crossed Margalla Road. One hundred yards into the brush we found the perfect spot, a clearing of maybe 75 feet across with a thick thorn bush clump on its downwind edge. Erin and Scott sprinkled the scraps around the clearing before we settled into the deepening shadow of our hide.
We sat there a couple of minutes, watching the sun begin to sink behind the ridge. Unseen birds rustled into their evening perch. Hopefully, I put the call to my lips and blew a raucous screech, loud then fading off in seemingly pained spasms. In Arizona, this was supposed to say “dying rabbit” to nearby coyotes or bobcats. Here on the South Asian Subcontinent, what it conveyed to critters was anybody’s guess. Perhaps the death scream of rabbits is universal. We could only hope. Another call or two and then, all eyes and ears, we waited.
It didn’t take long. In early evening, cooling mountain air flowed down off the hills, through our clearing, past the thorn bush under which we sat, and out onto the Punjab plains. We knew the little fellows were near; their scent got to us first, flowing through our hide, hugging the ground like a blanket. Sitting cross-legged in the desert, gravel scraping our ankles, acacia fronds brushing our necks, we dared not move.
Who would see one first?
Then, an urgent whisper from one of the kids, body frozen, eyes pointing. “Dad. What’s that?” A second small voice added, “There, Dad. By that bush. Look.” Sure enough, here he came. A large male trotted right out into our clearing and, to our surprise, sat on his haunches – not 30 feet away. Unlike other wild dogs, jackals generally sit when not moving, eating or nursing. Maybe that’s why the God Anubis is always depicted with an alert upright jackal’s head, a seated profile. This one plopped down just like he owned the place, looked around alertly, still oblivious to those of us hiding under the bush. Seconds later, his mate arrived, a little smaller with a smoother coat, probably a young mate. She didn’t sit. Instead she circled around the bait, sniffing for anything odd, closing in, looking it over. Satisfied, she gobbled down a piece, then a second. Later she would regurgitate these bits of water buffalo for her pups back in their hidden den somewhere.
We watched this tiny panorama, frozen in the shadows. We whispered observations. The darkness slowly swallowed our jackals. It was almost time for us to go when, off to the north, so far away we barely heard it, a yip penetrated the stillness. We held our breath. Another yip. And then a yip-howl. Joined almost immediately by a second stronger voice with yip-yip-howl – the Margalla evening hymn had begun.
Just before that first distant pair finished singing, a second pair chimed in. I may have heard a single voice as well, a little closer to the hills. Just before each song was done, another group or two took up the tune, nearer now and louder. Discordant notes to human ears, somehow their voices blended, an a cappella harmony in many parts, moving down along the base of the ridge. To our delighted ears, a rolling cacophony ensued, demented demons from another world, fifty Anubis incarnations, debating which would be our guide in the afterlife.
On it rushed toward us until the two dogs inside our clearing took up the song, surrounding us with the din of raucous laughter. Then the song moved away, pulled by its own momentum, leaving us to listen as it coursed on down a mile or two, fading finally into howls so faint we could hardly hear.
For long moments no one spoke. Then, over in the city, an imam began his call to evening prayer. His “Allahu Akbar” led into a robust singing chant, praising God and blanketing the city with a moment’s reflection. In the dark, we headed home. As we walked the kids asked, “Why do jackals do that, Dad?” I tried to answer. I spoke of territories, of bonding once for life, of social interactions in the wild. I sensed, however, these were only partial answers. My voice trailed off.
I may never know the whole truth of the jackal’s evening hymn. But Erin, Scott and I will know that for a short while, in a South Asian dusk, we were caught up, surrounded and swept over and away by something Dad could not quite explain. Maybe it is enough, maybe even it is better, to leave a mystery hanging there and know that for a moment we had been inside that mystery, riding on a jackal’s voice through a wilderness night.
Jerry Eckert was a professor of agricultural economics at Colorado State University which sent him to live more than 20 years on projects in South Asia and southern Africa. As an academic, he wrote nearly 200 articles and professional papers, two of which won Best Published Article awards. His work redirected agricultural and labor policies in Pakistan and Lesotho and contributed to food grain self-sufficiency in Pakistan and Gambia.