The sand, the colour of a sun tan, caused a cancer called thirst. Curable by water – if you could lay hands and mouths on the wet stuff over which the human race was to enter a ferocious war in which the countries plagued by desert would curse the geography that had ambushed their throats with dryness and attempted slow murder by degrees. Even the desert elephants of Namibia, seasoned warriors against the war of thirst, felt the cruelty of the drought. Plucked from their aristocratic desert hegemony, they suffered a special agony – knowing that their thousand and more years of heritage no longer cut the Colman’s. Water was a shimmering mirage that bewitched the eye: magic by cannon fire of sunlight, moonlight by the chilly ardour of its ice cubes.
She blinked her eyes. Straight as a spear, the horizon was a sadistic geometry that took no prisoners. The sun, that pitiless dictator, that needed no minions to tyrannise its domain, had decreed that nothing should live within her regions except sand beetles. On the mountainous dunes, creatures smaller than mice flitted with manic energy to escape the torrid temperature. Spinning and somersaulting, sole movement in the pitiless splendour of the landscape.
Except for her, her sisters and their offspring.
She stuck to dried out river beds: old friends that now jilted her. A familiar river had parched into a smoulder of dust. She led, the rest of the herd trailing after her like straggling soldiers, defeated by a more powerful army. The helpless calf tucked between her legs was weakening. Being young, he was as tottery and frail as the oldest of elephants. His footsteps were uncertain: he could not last much longer. Pain stabbed her heart at the thought of losing him. For nearly two years he had lain in her womb, absorbing nutritional fluids, growing like the greenest of plants. She loved him with an intensity that made her heart bang in her chest like a bass drum.
Now the desert had turned from a sand colour to a bright orange, a dazzle to the eye. In the loom of the escarpment, the rocks were skinny as misshapen skulls. Her feet kicked up small silent dust storms, coating her entire body with enough white powder to protect against the sun. She flapped her giant ears to stay cool. Without looking, she knew the sky was a sheet of hard blue pitiless metal that had known scant rain over the past year. High above, a flock of shingly-winged buff-white naked-necked Cape vultures, beaks vicious as scimitars, cruised on rising updrafts. In a matter of seconds, they would descend, sticking their beaks into the still warm gizzards of the dead, stripping a bloody carcass to a skeleton. Up ahead, the bones of her mother, lay naked in the desert sand. Further away still, the bones of her father. The remains of her ancestors were scattered like small gaunt cathedrals of bleaching bone, dead white plants that might miraculously regrow.
Water lay ten miles ahead; so, memory recalled, and she trusted her memories. Or rather her memories trusted her. Her brain quivered with images of water, the tip of her trunk twitched with desire. Like the promise of a muddy paradise, the beckoning oasis lay ahead, a hidden well of water. She dug down into the dust, nothing welled up. The oryxes did the same, her tusks dug deeper. This was the worst drought, she could remember. The canyons were harsh, barren, plantless. Since water was still far off, she piloted her small herd towards a two-thousand-year-old plant, resembling a mutant giant octopus with leathery green leaves, sprinkled with drops of emergent moisture. Lizards, snakes and mice hid in its foliage, sheltering from the merciless sun. Ana plants abounded: green initially, then covered in red and brown spots. They sampled sweet-tasting camelthorn, and finally mopane, with leaves like butterfly wings containing moisture to keep them alive. Camelthorn was catnip, and they gorged on the plentiful mopane for over a day. Then they had to move on into the pitiless golden desert, defeater of liquid dreams. The sun drove a spike through her head.
One of her sisters lay down to rest – or was it to die? She nudged her to her feet. Clumsily, she righted herself. Their herd was too small to lose any of its members.
Four days without water.
Stretching hundreds of miles inland, a sea fog left droplets of moisture on plants and rocks, even more distant from the sea, a lost continent. From the crevices of rocks, parched monitor lizards scrabbled out in quest of water, found nothing. Now she smelt it, the sweet taste of water, buried under two yards of earth. She led them up a shallow escarpment, down the other side. A sandstorm, noisy and bellicose as a broadside of cannon, began to blow. For hours, it scorched their skins, like a blizzard of razorblades. The sinking sun turned it into a thick halo of gold, the silence like someone holding their breath.
After the storm had died, they descended to the plains, where wild life appeared. A yipping pair of jackals jogged up. The larger of the jackals looked at her questioningly, “Are you dying?” his eyes asked. “No, I’m not,” she trumpeted. Like curling question marks, snakes with eyes as cruel as Caligula, slithered over the dunes. A white flame of ostriches chased by, a pack of wild dogs crossed her path easily outdistancing the jackals. Fifty thousand flamingos incarnadined the sky with their stilted scarlet, their flapping noisy as the wind of a storm. A cheetah raced by in quest of an impala. A startled gallop of gemsbock with long straight horns, deadly as scimitars; golden oryxes with muted black markings yielding a sandy look. By raising their temperature, they avoided sweating in the baking heat. She had no such ability: she had to endure the punishment. Smell of water, succulent as an ana plant, teased her nostrils.
They would make the waterhole in a day.
Then something she dreaded – a pride of hungry lionesses. She couldn’t yet see them, but she could hear the soft thud of their paws, smell them. When they came into view, she saw that two of them had black stripes down their faces, the loss of fur meant they were hungry. Even weakened, they were still dangerous – especially a pride. She counted six. She thought she and her sisters could fend them off. Eight or ten would have been more difficult. She had heard through her feet that a young male elephant had once fought off 14 lionesses. Not today. The young ones needed her help. Since there were not enough elephants to form a circle, she charged the leaders who scattered, then circled around for another assault. Her sister gored one of them. The lionesses’ mode of attack was always the same: one or two would leap up on the back of a young elephant, and sink their claws in. The idea was to create panic and upset balance. The combined weight of two or even three lionesses might topple a young elephant. When one of the big cats dived for the throat; death would be swift. She made sure her baby was protected for the lions, being viciously clever, switched their angle of attack. They closed in. When two were on his back, the others hovered like vultures. She butted them off. She scared the others with shrill trumpeting, made charges, swinging her trunk like a flexible club. Her sister fought hard, and so did she. Too late ‒ a lioness had brought down her son. She wouldn’t let them linger near the body.
She was no longer a mother.
When she tusked a third lion, the others gave up the chase. Perhaps they would head for the coast, and feast on a beached whale. Or bring down a cheetah. She was left with her dead son. She remembered two large black-maned lions killing her daughter. Opening its great jaws, the larger of the two lions had chomped down on her windpipe, suffocating her to death. She wept at the memory, and she wept for new son, so young, killed before her eyes. Two fully grown lions could kill a small elephant while it took seven lionesses to perform the same task with a mature elephant. The lions were clever though cowardly. Or cowardly yet clever. They didn’t attack singly, more in large numbers. Sometimes up to ten, fifteen even.
She lingered at the corpse, the tip of her trunk tracing his body.
A shadow blocking the sun. What she dreaded even more than a marauding pride of lions. A black rhino. Aggressive, moody, capricious, volatile, a random attacker able to turn through ninety degrees as quickly as a cheetah. Smaller than a white rhino, though much meaner. Even more short-sighted than herself, he relied on his sense of smell and awareness of movement ever likely to trigger a charge. He gave a snort of anger and tossed his head. In a few seconds, he would charge. What was she going to do? Fight back.
A large commotion. A trumpeting elephant had arrived.
It was her bull. She had forgotten how large he was. Thirteen feet at the shoulder, seven tones, tusks of over 100 pounds curved like tree branches. She noticed a dark wet streak down the side of his face; he stank of urine. His tread was aggressive, changeable as lightning. He was in musth. She and all the other elephants had to be ready for anything. A bull elephant in musth was as unpredictable as a sandstorm and much more dangerous. He might want to mate, more likely just attack anything. When he trumpeted, she sent a message through her feet advocating calm; he was deaf to such entreaties. The only thing that flapped his ears was his own inner voice: loud, confused, erratic, like drums beaten by warriors intent on conjuring up black magic. He was magic – dark, deep uncontrollable: the largest and most dangerous animal on earth. He and the rhino were alike ‒ poor eyesight saved by an acute sense of smell. That meant they would have smelt each other and would be sizing each other up: like two medieval knights, they were acutely aware of each other.
The rhino had a four-foot-long horn, the elephant seven-foot-long tusks. Long time opponents, they danced, feinted, played with each other. The rhino was lighter on his feet, his two-ton bulk moved easily and confidently. Her bull had the advantage of superior height and greater tonnage, so he would win, though it was not a foregone conclusion. She remembered a huge rhino goring an elephant in the stomach, the elephant gushing blood before it collapsed. As though that was his intention, the rhino came in sideways aiming for the elephant’s belly. He slewed to one side and speared the rhino with his two tusks. Not yet dead, though soon would be. In another few minutes his belly stopped heaving. Her bull trumpeted a triumphant fanfaronade over the dead rhino. The vultures circled lower.
He lumbered over, the size of a small bungalow. His musth was passing she sensed. Murder was no longer in his brain. His ears fanned back and forth like the sails of a felucca in an Egyptian wind. His trunk wrapped around hers.
Perhaps she would have a daughter.
When her bull had finished, he moved on. He had only stayed with her an hour. No sooner had he appeared, vanquished the black rhino and probably impregnated her, then he was gone like a fat gray desert houri. He ambled along the dusty river bed, up an escarpment, headed back into his solitary existence, a lonely bull who did not feel his aloneness. She admired his independence and deplored his avoidance of social responsibility. She could never forget he had saved her and the herd from the ravages of the black rhino even though the dark chemistry of musth was the ultimate cause.
They had to have water. Now her giant ears could hear the soft music of its lap, an enthralling sound. And within two hours they had found it. – a quivering sliver no larger than a swimming hole: the eye might have missed it, not the nostrils. Steenbok, kudu and puku left the waterhole at the approach of the herd. A lion edging its way to a drinking zebra also fled. They played, gamboled, blowing water through their trunks. They – even she ‒ were like children in this wet playground, wallowing in the mud like warthogs. The young had had a delicate smell, now they smelt more like adults. Mud-coated and watered, they were ready to face the merciless desert. Cooled down, she was able to think about things other than water. She wondered about places that were not the desert. Her feet informed her that their regions that were filled with trees, where water was abundant. When thirsty, time collapsed into a parody of itself. Now she was watered she could think more expansively. Her mind ran over the desert and beyond. Her knowledge was what she knew; what she didn’t know was infinitely vaster: a white saltpan surrounded by a wilderness. She had forgotten more than she knew, her amnesia wild as surf; beyond the breaking of surf was the ocean of what she didn’t know; an ocean teeming with fish of infinite fin. Though still in the desert, she swam in the sea of imagination.
The only way was forward.
She was confident of tomorrow and of all the tomorrows that would follow.
Newsroom wishes to thank Upper Moutere artiste Ivan Rogers for his amazing photographs – some describe them as austere visual poems – which have illustrated the short story series these past three years. This marks his final appearance.
Next week marks the beginning of a new series by Wellington wildlife photographer Sean Gillespie. He will illustrate a short story by Joy Holley, taken from her new collection Dream Girl (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $30), available in bookstores nationwide.