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.