This excerpt follows directly on from ‘Dip your toe in nos. 1 and 2′, which can be found below and also under the ‘My EBOOK releases’ tab.
Where was he?
Light in his eyes, more white—long coats.
A hazy, green-robed figure.
Why? Why don’t they leave me be? He wanted to float away, not come back.
More hands. More moving. But voices softer now, further off, and a steady, mechanical beep in the distance.
Then drifting. Let it be away from here. Nothing left. Let me die.
It’s strong in my nose.
But this dust smells different—drier, heat, burnt grass, no rain here. And spices wafting on the breeze.
It’s a soft breeze, warm but with the threat of a chill to come.
Sounds: magnified. Smells: excessively strong. Movement: a rhythmical lumbering.
A large shadow on the ground, stretching away … a long shadow, it must be early evening. Grunts and heavy breathing from something to my side.
Try to look round to see properly what I have heard—I can’t.
And neither can I stop this swaying, forward drive.
Who is moving me? Propelling me forwards?
A shocked pause.
‘No. I say hujambo, you say sijambo. You really are quite simple; don’t you know how to greet?’
I say nothing.
‘In my language,’ the voice continues, ‘I greet you, hujambo, and then you must greet me, sijambo.’
‘Er, sijambo.’ But what is happening? And who is he? ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand.’
‘I am your first ride. I am your first teacher.’
Thinking time—confusion—thinking isn’t helping. ‘What do you mean?’ I pause to force myself to calm down, before going on. ‘Why do I need a teacher? And who has given you the job?’
‘All in good time. Kutulia. That means relax by the way.’
Our movement slows, the air cools, moisture, a little humid. There, in front of us are some trees, dry and arid with thick spikes, but up at their top a canopy of fresh, green leaves. We halt in front of the trees. And the footsteps either side of us do the same.
A muscle strains at my front from between my eyes—or are they our eyes? —upwards. A long, thick and meaty shape reaching up to the leaves, tugging and tearing, bringing their wrenched-free green down to our face … and into our mouth.
Harsh, hard, acrid taste. But we don’t stop eating. There is more, and more, and more.
Our feast finally finishes and the trees are decimated. A colossal, grey shape alongside us is pushing at one of the now skeletons of twigs and woody trunk. The immense pushing shape has long white spikes from a large, solemn face, and deep, dark eyes. His huge ears are held back but waft out sporadically as he beats his forehead gently against the trunk of the helpless tree, which bends and bends and bends against the huge beast’s torrent of abuse before sighing and giving in, lying slowly down on the ground.
The pusher eats the upper-most leaves, those which he couldn’t reach before.
‘He is an elephant,’ I say.
‘And you are an elephant too?’ half question, half statement as energy from the leaves begins to revitalise our huge frame.
‘I was born as such.’
‘But me I mean …. Why am I here? Why am I an elephant? What is happening?’
‘You are in my body, with me, inside my mind; we are one now.’
One does not expect to fall asleep and awake, to all intents and purposes, sharing the body of the largest land mammal on earth … well any mammal really come to that.
‘Let me explain,’ he says, ‘I see that you have not been briefed on what is happening to you.’ His voice is calm and methodical, contrary to mine.
‘Briefed? No! Not at all!’ If I had my own body, I would now have thrown my hard, battle-scarred hands in agitation to my forehead, heavy set beneath my thick, dark hair.
‘We animals, and when I say ‘animals’ I mean all of us, not just the elephants, but we animals have one thing in common. Do you know what that is?’
Stop and think. More confusion. ‘No.’
‘You haven’t tried.’
This self-satisfied bastard! ‘I am thinking and no, I don’t know, what is it that all animals have?’
‘Something that you don’t. Or rather you had it, but now you’ve lost it …. Do you know what that might be now?’
Luck, happiness, love, a life? I’ve lost it all recently.
‘I can hear you think, you know,’ he remarks with glib condescension. ‘Exactly, you’ve lost everything. I believe your exact thoughts—before—were ‘I’m a void, empty, no need to go on’…. You have nothing and you lack the most important one thing that makes life complete, so this you must find again.’
My previous frustration is beginning to fade now, morphing into intrigue.
‘Listen,’ he continues, ‘in the near future you will meet a series of animals, five in all. Each animal will impart to you a lesson, each of these lessons to help you remember. You are with me now, I am number one.’
‘But remember what, exactly?’
‘The five key elements in this life,’ he says. ‘All are vital, all are crucial to you. Don’t tell me what they are! You have forgotten them—as you say, you are a void—but in the rediscovery of these five pillars you will, in turn, rediscover that which you have lost, that which we animals all have.’
But before I can question further, our conversation is interrupted by a great shout—an elephant shout—and a sudden series of sharp, rat-tat-tat cracks, accompanied by vicious vibrations through the soles of our sensitive feet. Then I smell the smoke. But this isn’t normal smoke. I recognise that scent, the gun-powdery burn mixed with the heavy musk of human sweat. This is a scent I have known on many past occasions in my own political war. This smoke is rifle smoke!
Fear ripples through the herd. I can feel it in me, too, and I can smell it. Its stink is tramping closer on the padding footsteps and whooping hollers of the men with rifles. They are coming nearer with every second.
Bushes moving, rustling.
The herd rears, ears flapping, feet stomping and then, as if by one, there is a decision: turn and run!
The guns ring out with harsh cracks. Our feet crash through undergrowth. Bullets smack into dust-foamed earth. Several tear into a young bull as he pulls level with us, sending a splatter of fine red mist with each impact raining down over our own thickly wrinkled hide.
The first few shots don’t have any effect on the bull, but then he stumbles drunkenly and falls to the ground; he is behind us now. We don’t see him anymore.
More shots and more shouts, but the sounds are fading, dimmer, we are moving slower—trotting—and then we stop.
Heavy breathing all around. We are afraid. We look skittishly from side to side but hear no more of the bad men and their weapons.
And as our fear recedes another emotion is taking control.
We are two less. Two herd members are gone. Where is the elephant who toppled the tree? I can’t see him … he is gone.
The herd gathers close and feet scratch the ground, heads nodding mournfully.
‘Who were they?’ I ask, the shock of the gunfire numbing my mind.
‘Men,’ is his sombre reply.
‘I know they were men, I am one, but why would they chase us like that?’
He sighs. Then speaks. ‘There are two types of people here; some kill us and cut off our tusks, others kill us to make space for their land—more land for them, more food, but less for us.’
I can’t smell the sweet spices of earlier anymore, we are further from the settlement.
‘They were the village people. They are afraid of us, they fear our size and what we will do to their crops. Their fear breeds hate, so they chase us away, from land which once we were free to roam, and they kill us.’
‘But you were here first, before them.’ A statement of naive fact.
‘I know. However, we are large animals, to survive we need food. We wander around huge areas eating as we go. But unfortunately our lives are not compatible with those of the village.’
‘And so …?’
‘And so, we feel sadness, we fear and we feel anger. As the people hate us, we hate them too.’ I sense an enormous dissatisfaction within him, a seething mix of emotions in his deep, authoritarian voice. ‘We hate them with a hate bred from dread and competition, a competition that we can only lose. Why are we sure to lose? For where we have size, they have force. Our only weapon is surprise. But we are strong and we must use that sometimes.’
‘And what will happen? What will you do?’
‘Soon you shall see. Patience, but first you must learn about us.’
I can hear the heavy breathing of the herd slowing, calm is beginning to return. Not the easy calm of before the attack, but calm all the same.
We are walking again now, we have been in silence for some time. I have been thinking again, but about what I’m not sure.
‘I’m sorry,’ I hear myself say.
‘Your friends, who have just died.’ It’s true, I am. ‘Were you close, those elephants and you? And your herd, are you close?’
‘Are we close? We are as close as any male herd can be. Close like a matriarchal herd—the females—no. But many of us have known each other for a long, long time.’
‘How do you differ from the females?’ I ask.
‘You know nothing of the elephants’ ways, am I right?’
‘I won’t deny that. I was not interested in elephants before. I had greater things on my mind.’
‘Such as, may I ask?’
Thinking … ‘Politics and freedom, love and survival.’
I feel our huge sides begin to ripple, a snuffling sound accompanying them, the muscles of our enormous rib cage contract and relax. Is this an elephant laugh?
‘Yes, it is. You see, you are not so different from us really.’
‘But anyway, that is by-the-by, I will tell you of our herd. You must understand that in our world there are two herd types: the family herd—the women and their children—and the males. We males are wanderers. We roam from place to place and herd to herd seeking, not to put too fine a point on it, to spread our seed.’ A small elephant cough. ‘And in between times, when we are not competing for the same females, we form groups—fluid groups which constantly change—but groups. And over time, the same faces come and go and come and go and so one feels a certain unity with those around, albeit with some more than others.’
‘And who, for example, do you know best?’
‘Who?’ He hesitates for a moment. ‘Well, I left my herd in my fourteenth rainy season having been raised as an orphan by my aunts; they replaced my mother after she was shot by tusk hunters. And in the sixteen seasonal cycles since I left those aunts I have found my paths crossing most with that old bull you see there, at the front of the herd.’
Indeed I do see him, he seems larger than the rest of us, prouder if you will, but his hide carries many more creases, also. He is old.
‘Yes, he is. On his last set of molars already. It is with him that I have the greatest affinity.’
‘That,’ he stresses the word, firm and sure, ‘is a story of immense bravery, my friend, and one that has led to a love and respect of great enormity. I shall tell you now, as we settle here for the night, this story of how the great Ujinga— ‘Wisdom’ in your tongue—once saved the life of some of these bulls and I. We owe him much, you see.’
And so, as our herd pulls together, some disappearing into the fast descending dusk but most remaining close, my friend, for it is this that I suppose we are fast becoming—be it enforced or natural, I don’t know—begins to recount how Ujinga once saved his life.
‘I would have been in my eighteenth season of rains, still getting used to the dangers of a solitary life, and I was travelling with four other bulls my age—three of them are with us tonight, ask them to clarify my tale if you like.’
I would have shaken my head now, but my head is not there.
‘Well, we were grazing by a water hole, relaxed after a bath in the cool, orange mud, and thinking of where we may travel to find the best females with which to cavort. We were not paying the attention that we should, intent instead on our youthful foolishness, when suddenly the clap of a rifle rang out through the bush. The birds rose from their roosts, and our feet froze to the ground, all except one who sank to his knees, a thin, sad river of blood oozing from his previously proud forehead. We tensed to run, when suddenly a second clap resounded. But this one was different to the first—instead of a gun it was the cracking of the dry wood of the scrubby acacias to our left. And all at once a terrifying, thunderous roar trumpeted into the air; one of our kind!
‘We ran towards the noise, coming from below a thin wisp of still-hanging rifle smoke, but now the noise was joined by the unmistakeable screams of a man. So, charging, we burst berserk through the bushes to see before us the flattened, black body of the killer of our friend, twitching sporadically beneath the huge, front kneeling-knees of an immense bull elephant. The man’s rifle lay twisted by his side and the smell of his faeces was strong on the breeze; and the old bull looked at us calmly through eyes in which the shadows of a dwindling rage, now satisfied, still played.
‘Then the man stopped moving, he was dead.
‘The bull, rising, placed one foot onto the murderer’s small head and exerted a little pressure; the head burst like a berry, its red juices exploding over the spiked grass, a sickly echo of the brains of our fallen friend.
‘Thank you,’ one of us said. ‘We owe you our lives, were it not for you we all may have been slaughtered, as was our companion.’
‘You are young,’ was his solemn reply. ‘Evidently you do not know how to look out for yourselves, to smell trouble in the air and see it in the movements of the grass. I saw it. Too late for your friend, but early enough for the rest of you, and I am grateful for that.’
‘We nodded, so were we.
‘Come, we must leave this place,’ he urged us then, ‘and fast, before other men see what has become of their companion. Men are vengeful; when they discover him dead the search for us will begin.’
‘And so Ujinga drove us through the remainder of the day, and the following night, far away from that place and since then—though we’ve not always been with him, true—our roads have often crossed and his company has always been ours and his wisdom always shared to guide us down the correct path. So it is for this reason that I say it is with him that I am closest.’
Silent. I don’t know what to say. It was a valiant act. Ujinga could easily have been killed too but he acted swiftly and without thought himself. My friend does well to love him, if this is what he feels, and stay close to his wizened side.
©Davey Northcott February 2014