Matt Dennis is an English teacher and part-time author. When he’s not marking essays, he’s writing short stories and putting the finishing touches on a speculative fiction novel.

Matt is a graduate of York University, earning a BA in English and History with Magna Cum Laude honors. His short story, “Breaking the Order,” was published in The Dillydoun Review.


by Matt Dennis


The sun shimmered behind a wall of heat. Acacia trees grew dark as the red orb glided towards the horizon, set against the orange backdrop of a cloudless sky. The chatter of birds faded away, replaced by the thick hum of crickets.

Nathan turned to their guide, his blue eyes impatient. “How far ahead?”

Without a word, Anodya knelt and examined the earth, staring ahead for a moment, eyes deep in concentration. Large, round footprints moved eastward, followed by the unmistakable tracks of people. “If we keep moving? By end of evening.”

“Perfect. Anodya, you really know this part of Zimbabwe.” Nathan tightened the straps on his backpack, his sinewy biceps flexing. “You good with that, babe?”

“You know what, I’m kind of tired,” Kate replied. “Maybe we should get some rest. They’re not going to disappear overnight.”

Nathan glared at her. “The sooner we do this, the sooner we’re out of here. You want them to get away?”

“Of course not. I’m just saying—”

“You’re saying what?”


“Good. Then we keep moving. Anodya, let’s go.”

Their guide peered at him, his face expressionless. Behind Anodya’s eyes, Nathan wondered if there was something else going on, but his face gave nothing away.

Anodya stood up and signaled forward. His hair was straggly, his thin face framed by a goatee. His shirt was unbuttoned, revealing a slight chest underneath. A hunting blade was sheathed at his side, his jeans dusty from two days in the bush.

Nathan understood his trepidation. If they got caught, the rest of their lives would be spent in a Zimbabwean prison. But they were paying him handsomely, enough to risk his freedom. People didn’t need a lot to do well over here. And if he didn’t take the job, another ten would’ve gladly offered their services.

Nathan had lived his entire life ignoring rules. He sure wasn’t going to change now. Besides, they were doing the world a favor. Who would miss a poacher?

Certainly not the animals they were killing. Rhinos and elephants with their horns and tusks removed. Sharks with their fins sheared from their bodies. Tigers skinned for their furs. These animals were going extinct. In some cases, only a few hundred were left in the world. They didn’t deserve to be butchered. They deserved to live.

Most of all, their poachers deserved to know how it felt to be tortured, to be mutilated, to feel how these majestic beasts did in their last moments.

The last group of poachers they hunted, they’d tracked through the jungles of Rwanda. They were hunting gorillas and selling their parts on the black market. After tying them up, Nathan used an axe to chop off their feet, forcing the others to watch. Then it was their hands. He always made sure to tourniquet the stumps, burning their chests with red-hot stakes if they passed out. No one was getting off easy. He finished by decapitating them one-by-one. Their bodies were left for the scavengers.

In Ecuador, it was shark finners. And there were others before that. Nathan reveled in the excitement of the chase, and felt confident this expedition would end as well as the others.

But lately it seemed like Kate was growing more and more tired. And it was starting to hold them back. Last night he woke to her stifling sobs in her pillow while they lay in their tent. Maybe she missed home. Whatever it was, they could talk about it later. They had business to take care of.

Their latest quarry was hunting elephants through the grasslands. Already they’d killed one of the mammoth creatures, leaving it to rot in the sun. But for some reason, they hadn’t removed its tusks. Perhaps they were spooked by wildlife rangers operating in the area. Nathan thought it was strange, but refused to let himself question it.

Nathan walked ahead, a few steps behind their guide. Kate tried to keep up with him, her sandy hair covered by a white boonie hat. He glanced back and winked at her. She’d been dating Nathan for five years now, ever since they met at Berkeley.         

They continued through the dry grass, the earthy scent of dirt and vegetation filling his nostrils as the last glimmer of sun disappeared beyond the horizon, revealing a multitude of stars. The sound of insects grew with increased fervor. The darkness enclosed upon Nathan, instilling him with an odd sense of claustrophobia despite the sweeping expanse of the savanna.

“Just ahead,” Anodya whispered. He pointed towards a dim glow about a hundred yards away. Nathan retrieved the rifle slung over his back. Kate followed, unholstering a pistol from her waist.

Together they crept forward, crouching low, trying to remain as quiet as possible. Anodya stayed ahead, moving quickly and stealthily, like a wraith in the darkness. The fire grew brighter as they approached. The poachers must be setting up camp for the night, Nathan thought. That means we can surprise them.

And then they’d know what it’s like to be poached. To feel the pliers grip their teeth and rip them from the sockets. To feel their nails torn from their fingers. To be left in the bush. To be eaten alive.


Ngoni placed a bundle of dried wood onto the fire, hearing a crackle as it quickly ignited. He glanced at his fellow villager, Tanaka, wearing a green track jacket with black pants.

“Why am I always starting the fires?” Ngoni asked, shaking his head. “You know how to do it.”

“Just because I do, doesn’t mean I like it,” Tanaka replied.

“Pssh, just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean you should avoid it. Do you think I like hunting these creatures?” He placed more wood into the fire. “What would your father say?”

Tanaka shook his head and stood up, grabbing an armful of brush. Ngoni had mentored him ever since his father died. He was an experienced bushman, having suffered through dictators, famines, droughts—just about anything one could imagine. At least that’s what he liked to remind everyone.

It’s not that Tanaka didn’t know the ways of the bush. He did. But that didn’t stop him from despising it. His only dream was to leave his miserable village. To take his wife, his two young ones, his mother, and go to the city. His life to this point was spent in a dusty, one-room abode constructed from brick and corrugated tin. And his home was one of the nicer ones in the village. Most of the other villagers lived in mud houses with thatched roofs.

“How much longer till we’re done with this business?” Tanaka asked, placing the last of the brush onto the fire and sitting cross-legged on the ground.

“Hopefully tomorrow.” Ngoni’s tall frame crouched to collect more firewood. He wore jeans and a collared shirt, his hairline receding, three days of stubble covering his angular face. “I don’t like this any more than you do.”

Tanaka closed his eyes and remembered the screams of frightened villagers, the trumpeting of the enraged beasts, how the ground trembled beneath his feet. When the elephants had finished rampaging through their village, he and Ngoni surveyed the damage. Almost the entire maize field was ruined.

But that wasn’t all. As they moved through trampled stalks of maize, they came across the body of Farai, unlucky enough to fall within their path. He laid face down, blood drying in the dirt beneath him. When Tanaka turned him over, his entire body felt like loose porridge. His shirt was ripped, a gaping hole staring back at him.

That night they called a meeting. There was no way they could let these beasts return. Some of the villagers reported a smell like urine and honey wafting through the air once the elephants departed. Others said they were secreting a thick substance from the sides of their heads. That could mean only one thing: they were in musth.

Some of them argued that it’d only be a few months until their musth passed, that they should leave them alone. But Ngoni knew better. All it would take was another visit by these elephants and more villagers could die. The rest of their crops could be destroyed. The government gave each village enough seeds for one season. And with the dry soil, it was hard enough getting the maize to grow tall and strong.

Ngoni sat beside Tanaka, the fire now burning bright. Beside him were a high-powered rifle and a backpack filled with water and rations. He reached inside and pulled out a handful of peanuts, offering some to his companion. Tanaka accepted, and they ate them one at a time, savoring each bite. That’s when he heard a small pop, like a twig snapping. He turned his head, peering behind him.

“You hear that?” Ngoni whispered. “That wasn’t from the fire.”

Tanaka peered behind them but all he could see was darkness, his eyes still blinded by the fire he was tending. “Probably just a sambani.”

“You sure it’s not something else?”

“Like what, a lion?” He chuckled. “We wouldn’t hear a thing until it was upon us.”

Ngoni turned to Tanaka, his voice solemn. “Tomorrow will be your day. It’ll be your shot if we find the elephant. I pray we never have to kill another of these creatures again, but if we do, I may not be around to help next time. So you need to know how.”

Tanaka recited what he’d been told. “Shoot it in the forehead. In the middle. A foot above its eyes.” He picked up a stone and threw it in the fire.

Despite what these elephants did to their village, it gave him no satisfaction in killing them. The one Ngoni got yesterday received a quick death. One shot and it toppled on its side.

While standing over its enormous corpse, Tanaka couldn’t help but feel ashamed. Yes, it killed one of his neighbors and nearly destroyed their crops, but it felt wrong. He knew of some men who hunted them for meat, others who sold their tusks to traders. He’d probably eaten elephant meat himself at one time or another. But none of that took away the sinking feeling as he gazed upon the poor animal, its dead eye staring back at him.

“Correct,” Ngoni replied. “Your aim must be straight. Take a deep breath and hold it. Then you press the trigger. We don’t want it to charge us. But we don’t want it dying a painful death either.” He placed his hand on Tanaka’s shoulder. “I know it hasn’t been easy since your father died. And I know that you dream of leaving this place.”

A shot rang through the darkness and Ngoni howled in pain. Then Tanaka heard the footsteps rushing towards them.

“Time to get poached,” Nathan said, jamming his rifle into Tanaka’s back. He nodded towards Ngoni, now doubled over, his hand pressed to his stomach, blood seeping between his fingers as he moaned in pain. “Kate, tie him up.”

Kate seemed to hesitate before reaching into her knapsack to retrieve a length of rope while Nathan kept his rifle fixed on Tanaka.

“Why are you doing this?” Tanaka asked, reaching towards Ngoni, whose moans grew weaker.

“Stop right there if you know what’s good for you.” Nathan dug the barrel into Tanaka’s spine, making him stiffen and raise his hands above his head. “You know what this is about.”

“Please. My friend. He’s dying.”

“He won’t be getting off that easy. None of you will.” A grin spread across Nathan’s face, the fire flickering in his blue eyes. It was all going to plan.

“We didn’t do anything!”

“What about that elephant back there?” Kate interjected. “You sure did something to him.”

“We had to!” Tanaka tried to turn, but Nathan kept his rifle firmly lodged in his back.

Nathan watched as Kate hauled Ngoni up by the armpits, pulling his limp body toward a mopane tree, his feet dragging behind him. She held his hands behind the trunk and bound him with the rope. Ngoni’s head slumped forward, his shirt soaked with dark blood.

Tanaka was next. “Get up,” Nathan ordered, digging the barrel into his back. “Get the fuck up.”

Slowly, Tanaka rose to his feet.

“Now turn around. Don’t try anything funny.”

Nathan tied Tanaka to the tree beside his companion, fastening the rope so tight his captive’s wrists began to bleed.

“What are you doing to us?” Tanaka cried, glancing around at each of his captors.

“We're going to start by tearing out your teeth one by one,” Nathan replied, standing a few feet before him. “Then it's your nails. When that’s done, we're going to leave you here. I'm sure you'll make a good meal for the lions. And whatever’s left, the hyenas will take care of.”

“Please,” Tanaka begged. “The elephant…we had no choice.”

“That’s the thing with you poachers,” Nathan said. “Whenever you get caught, you all have an excuse.”

“Poachers?” Tanaka’s voice was tinged with confusion. “What do you mean?”

Nathan screamed at him. “You murdered that elephant!”

“We had to!”

“Like hell you did.”

“Our village…they killed Farai. Trampled our crops.”

Nathan snorted. “Please. Elephants don’t kill unless provoked.”

Tanaka looked to Anodya. “You…you must know what I’m talking about.”

Anodya passed a troubled glance at Nathan. “The elephants could have been in musth.”

Nathan paused, a wave of recognition settling over him. He’d heard of musth before. It was some kind of hormone imbalance that made bull elephants aggressive.

He shook his head. “Anodya, I’m paying you to be our guide. Not to talk. So keep your mouth shut.”

Anodya glared at him, his eyes full of resentment.

If he keeps this up, Nathan thought, he’ll be getting tied up beside the others.

“Maybe he’s right.” Kate stepped forward and stood beside Nathan, placing her hand on the small of his back. “The other elephant…maybe that’s why—”

“They’re just gonna go back and finish their handiwork once they’re done with the other one.”

“We don’t know that!” she pleaded.

“What, you’re defending them now?” Nathan wheeled around to confront her. “They’re poachers. They’re all the same.”

“Just hear him out!”

“No.” Nathan reached in his pocket to retrieve the pliers. “I got nothing to learn from these people.”

He slung his rifle over his shoulder and stepped toward Tanaka, his arm outstretched, the tips of the pliers reaching towards Tanaka’s mouth as he squirmed against the tree.


Nathan spun around, eyes wild with surprise and fury.

Kate pointed her pistol at him, tears streaming down her cheeks. “You don’t care about the animals. You’re only doing this because you enjoy torturing people.”

She gasped, her eyes growing wide as she gazed down at the knife protruding from her stomach. Then she dropped to her knees as Anodya withdrew the blade.

“My fee has just doubled,” he said, wiping the blood from his knife while Nathan looked on in horror.