Monday, 16 August 2010

Short Story: A Knowing Look

This is the original version of this story.
I have since edited it a number of times, and it has been published in a collection called A Knowing Look and Other Stories.

I grew up in a National Park, the rolling heat of the African plain a constant companion, along with the mammals that we observed. A child born of two rangers, it was natural that I would grow up and work in the base camp.

I was twelve when I had my first close encounter with an elephant. Elliot came to us after being attacked by an angry bull. Being young and defenceless, he hadn't stood much of a chance, yet he limped towards our camp after his escape. The bull elephant must have been distracted to leave him before he had finished the job.

For four days we fought to keep Elliot alive. We fed him formula and cared for him day and night, but we were still learning and it wasn’t enough. I held his head on my lap as he slipped away from us. We buried him under a large Boscia tree, and the next day his family group arrived. It seemed that they had been watching from afar. Mimi, the matriarch, and her team of cousins, aunts and sisters gathered under the tree and somehow unearthed his shallow grave, only to cover it again with leaves and branches. Week by week they visited and carried out their rituals as I watched. When Elliot was nothing but dry bone, still they gently covered him with leaves and lightly stroked his jawbone with their trunks.

Life felt balanced in our base. Animals and man lived in mutual respect. The problem we faced was the tourists. Although we were not in a tourist area, certain trips passed our way. They treated us like a curiosity, and named us on their ‘must view’ lists, after the Big Five.

Mimi and her family visited regularly, yet always seemed to be absent when the tours came by. My parents, the other rangers and I also tried to melt into the landscape when these invasions occurred. Apart from when it was the tours ran by Benson. When he came to the base, his clients were always given fresh lemonade and respite from the scorching sun for a while, as my parents told them a little about our work.

My family always joked that one day Benson and I would have a family of our own. The son of two former rangers, he now lived elsewhere but always called in when he was passing. I learnt all I needed to know about biology from the animals we observed. It was to be expected that once I was of a certain age, he and I found a quiet space and did what came naturally. I wasn’t quite sure how I was supposed to feel, but he smiled each time as he walked away. Studying elephant for years had made it clear that males were not designed to stick around.

As I neared the age of twenty, Benson’s tour was diverted to another area of the reserve, and the visits ceased. I had no concerns that he no longer visited me. These things happened all the time.

Our elephant family continued to visit. Years after Elliot died they still congregated under the Boscia. It was fascinating to watch.

The summer of my twentieth year brought changes. My once easily bronzed skin began to burn. I stayed inside for longer as nausea burnt my throat. Once I recovered, I ventured outside again. One afternoon, in the shade of the Boscia tree, I fell asleep.

Waking suddenly I felt claustrophobic; an unusual sensation on the wide open plain. As I reluctantly opened my eyes, I saw Mimi and her family standing above me. They encased me on every side yet avoided trampling my body. I shivered in the afternoon temperatures as one of them touched me. Suddenly their trunks were all over me. Their gentle, tender explorations meant me no harm.

They slowly turned and walked away, until only Mimi was left. Her trunk casually held above my midriff, she gave me a knowing look before walking off behind her family.

I thought nothing more of it. Nothing unusual happened for a few more weeks, until the time when the cramping came. I thought of Benson and our time together. I grabbed my cleanest shawl and headed off to the forest edge, crouching alone, until the cramping ceased.

As I walked back to base, the shawl swaddled my offspring. Red rivulets ran down my legs as I had not thought to stem the flow. The baby scrunched his eyes up against the searing sunshine. I shaded him with my shadow as best I could, as I searched the camp for my mother.

“Look, Mama,” I said as I showed her the newborn.
“Oh, gracious,” she exclaimed as she sat down, knowledge and realisation mixing like an emulsion.
She gazed at him, his tiny black eyes wide in a mocha face, and knew more than I that he was yet another reason to hide when the sunburned tourists came passing our way.

For three weeks, I strived to feed him. But the camp was a harsh place and infection took hold. The raging sun made it impossible to get treatment in time. Mama assured me that she would look after Benson. I let go, knowing that he was in safe hands.

There was no priest at my burial. I was laid to rest as I had requested, on the other side of the Boscia tree. It was fitting to be with Elliot again; another who I had tried and failed to nurture. As my Mama took over the raising of Benson Jr, the love that she had felt for me transferred to my son. She held him close and smiled through her tears as they left me that day.

Deep, searching, soulful eyes watched the burial from a respectful distance. Mimi and her family then approached, and stood under the Boscia. Their trunks gently skimmed the freshly laid earth as they grieved again. Their visits lengthened and became more frequent, as they mourned an equal and a friend.

Benson never did return to the camp. But Mimi revisited until Benson Jr grew up and left. It was as if she was keeping him safe and willing him to thrive. As, once, I had tried to do for Elliot.


  1. This story has blown me away. Where do you get it from? You have such a wide range of references in your stories. I loved the blending of human and animal activity. The end made me nearly cry.

  2. What a beautiful story and so much knowledge and discriptions captured - its great. Really unique and emotional

  3. I just learned last week that elephants visit the "graves" of their loved ones, and now here it is in a touching coming of age story. My imagination never works like this; fascinating and beautiful.

  4. This is extraordinary, the descriptions, the measured pace, the emotion but without being overly sentimental. The emotion built up over the story. This is my favourite of everything you've written.

  5. I agree with Alison, this was beautiful. I was totally blown away by it.

  6. Nice idea for a story, but there are a few problems with it.
    The opening paragraph is superfluous: we don't need the back story. It does nothing to move the plot on.
    I have a problem with the POV character being dead. I think it would have been stronger if it were told by another character's POV - perhaps her mother?
    Would a pregnancy really go undiscovered under the light clothes worn in Africa?
    It is better to use nothing but he said/she said - you have her mother exclaiming.
    I do like the girl being buried beside the elephant. You could explore the theme of motherhood more in this story: you have 3 mothers and their reactions to their offspring are very similar.
    Mimi gave a knowing look - hmm, putting human emotions into the heads of animals here. She couls SEEM to give a knowing look...?
    And how did the raging sun prevent timely treatment?
    It IS a great idea for a story and with a bit of work I think you could have something here.

  7. What a lovely short story, I found it very enjoyable to read.

  8. Loved the line about how she had tried and failed to nurture a second son after Elliot. Also that paragraph about the elephants visiting and reconstructing the grave of their child is gorgeous.

    Marc Nash

  9. What a beautiful narrative. I had to pinch myself and remind myself it was really you and not someone who actually lived in Africa (and of course you are still alive!)
    I'm afraid I must disagree with your mystery contributor. It was heartbreaking that the narrator dies but it went along perfectly with the feeling of otherworldliness and most importantly the significance that we humans believe we see the elephants place on their dead as if they are not gone - only gone from this world. It's like the Ancient Greeks preparing their loved ones for the after-life. I think it is perhaps the essence of the story as it came across to me. I know that we will all take something different from it - that is the miracle of reading a good story.
    'Knowing Look' is a great title that links everything.
    Magical :)

  10. Beautiful story and very evocative! I loved it!


  11. Thank you for all of the comments so far. This story was triggered by a memory of a documentary that I saw about Elephants grieving a number of years ago.

    I would like to respond to some of the points raised above by 'Helpful Critic'. I am unable to do so in any other way but here due to the anonymous nature of the comment:

    The opening paragraph is required as I wished to make it quite clear that the story was set in Africa.

    I am sorry that you had a problem with the character being dead. To me, this was essential, as her mother would not have had a clue about how she had felt about various issues.

    Pregnancies have been known to go unnoticed. Indeed in a country such as Africa where obesity is rare, and diseases such as Kwashiorkor are prevalent, I would imagine this happens more often than in the developed world.

    I personally feel that 'said' is used too much in stories. I like a bit of variation.

    As for the 'knowing look', well this whole story was to demonstrate the much documented fact that elephants are the only species apart from man that seem to have routines and rituals for the dead. They mourn the loss of their own kind and the only other species that they have been observed also carrying out these rituals for are humans. With this in mind, I think one could allow a bit of artistic licence concerning a look.

    I agree that the raging sun sentence could perhaps do with some rewording.

    Thank you all.

  12. I can't say I agree with Helpful Critic, as I felt there was very little (if anything) in the story that was extraneous. As Alison Rothwell commented, I enjoyed the pace. Leisurely, measured much like the measured passing of time in the heat of an African sun. I don't think the story needs to explain how animals have human qualities or how they appear to be 'made human' by humans' own psychological projection, in my opinion I enjoyed the mimicry of emotion between human and animal worlds. I really enjoyed the story Rebecca, and feel it's different from what you've written previously. Somehow the light and shade of the story is different, almost ephemeral. Beautifully told. Vx

  13. Moving raised the hairs on my arms. I watched a documentary once in which a baby elephant had died. The mother backed up to it, raised her foot and waved her foot over the infant in a circular motion. I have no idea what it was all about but it was very moving and so was this story. You have talent.

  14. This is so beautiful that it's moved me to tears. Very real, hot, stinging tears.

    It's clear that the inspiration for this story had a powerful impact on you but it's even more impressive that you managed to marshall that into this very remarkable story of your own.

    I think you've answered what the "Helpful Critic" had to say and not much else needs to be added, save for that maybe the next time the Helpful Critic wishes to comment on someone else's work, you should consider having the courage to put your name to those comments and stand by them publicly, rather than hiding behind the shield of anonymity.

  15. This was beautiful. I think you have a theme for a larger work in this one; you have a strong voice, I think, for humans in rhythm with nature. Poignant piece. I'm not bothered by the death of the narrator as I think the supernatural element was fitting for the story.

  16. This is the most beautiful story I have ever read. I'm actually crying. Why are you not a famous author yet? How is it possible that you have been overlooked? Have you considered posting this on authortrek?

  17. The prose in this heartfelt story is excellent. So well written. And I liked the rebuttal toward Helpful Critic's comments. Another indication of how eloquent you are as a writer.

  18. Oh, this is a lovely lyrical piece. I watched a documentary on elephants a while ago and was so moved by the rituals and sense of community they shared!

    It makes me so sad to visit the zoo here and see one (one!) elephant standing forlorn while people gape. Elephants are meant to live together.

  19. There's only one thing I can say - Beautiful!

  20. As others have said, this was a beautiful and very moving story. Nothing gets to me like elephants. They are such soulful creatures, crowded out of their homes by the greedy monkeys that we are. I liked the dreamy, somewhat magical realism tone of the piece, which made all the more sense when it was revealed that the narrator was dead. It all worked for me.

  21. Helpful Critic does have some good helpful critique, but it is an evocative, haunting story. The animal/human connection so well done..:)

  22. Thanks everyone for lovely messages and comments.

    L'Aussie I know there were some helpful points in there. I'm just a bit wary of anonymous people on the Internet.

    If a friend had written that and been open about it it would have had a completely different meaning to me.


  23. Great story. I found the narrative voice compelling and had no problem discovering she was dead at the end. You certainly achieve your goal of exploring the grieving behaviour of the elephants and provide a touching and at time beautiful narrative.

    I would say that the info in the first paragraph could be fed into the story as it develops and 'I was twelve when I had my first close encounter with an elephant' would make such a powerful first line.

    A small niggle though in a fascinating story.

  24. Thank you so much for that comment. I agree completely, believe it or not my first paragraph was originally much longer and I cut it down but didn't want to lose that first bit.

    I think I will see what I can do with your suggestion as I agree that would make a far better first line. Thank you again. x