The sun rises with spokes on her head like the Statue of Liberty. She rises into an immense lemon sky that almost turns green before it turns blue. Bare, wood-muscular branches of a jackalberry stretch above my head, tips ablaze with light.
On the far side of an open field of grass an African Mourning dove chants Bots-WAN-a... Bots-WAN-a... Bots-WAN-a, and that’s exactly where I am -- in a country seven thousand miles distant from New York.
A week ago, while packing my bags, I studied a satellite photograph resembling a giant bird footprint pressed into the southern part of Africa -- the Okavango Delta of Botswana, a river delta the size of Massachusetts. Swollen by November rains, the Okavango River floods south from Angola and arrives in Botswana in May or June. Then it fans out, stopping in its tracks when it bumps into fault lines at the bird’s toes. Land-locked, the river dies in the Kalahari sands; not a single drop reaches the sea. The four dead-end channels left behind in the Delta form the image found on that satellite photograph -- the bird’s footprint -- located about seven hundred miles north from Johannesburg, South Africa.
Yesterday I flew into the Delta and landed on a dry spot between two of the bird’s toes, a point halfway up one of the dead-end channels, Chief’s Island. The pilot let me sit up front. As the shadow of our chattering Cessna passed over game trails etched by countless hooves, a waterhole appeared, and then another and another, each left behind by last year’s flood. A half-hour later, the pilot pushed in his throttle and the Cessna’s chatter muted. Right before we landed on a dirt strip, we glimpsed a cheetah sprinting for cover. With that single spotted blur, my life divided once again between home and Africa.
This is my second extended stay at the encampment of Doug and Sandi Groves, and another opportunity to spend a week with their three elephants. Now I’m sitting in their kitchen shelter, watching the sunrise. Under my feet the sands of the Kalahari spread around me for two million square miles.
The morning air is as cold as marble. My hands warm around a metal cup filled with tea. Sandi sits with her feet on her chair and her knees tucked under her chin. She sips coffee and stares straight-ahead, not yet fully awake. Doug finishes eating an apple and puts the core into a small canvas bag.
“Someone’s gonna love that,” he says and straps the bag around his waist. Doug’s stained, wide-brimmed hat covers dark unruly hair. He wears a short-sleeved cotton shirt, ankle-high boots, and khaki shorts with cargo pockets. On the streets of Johannesburg he’d likely be mistaken for an accountant on a holiday safari.
He steps away from the kitchen shelter and crosses the open field on his way to fetch the elephants.
Skirting a tree line of purple shadows, he follows a dirt road across the sea of waist-high grass and disappears around a corner.
Half an hour later he returns. Jabu, Thembi, and Morula are right behind him.
Sandi picks up another canvas bag and slips the strap over her shoulder. She steps under Jabu’s massive head, leans against his leg and gives his knee a motherly pat.
“Can you tell he’s grown?” she asks me with an impish grin.
Five years ago, when I first visited the elephants, Jabu was a gangly fifteen-year-old. At twenty, he’s ten feet tall at the shoulder. He fills my entire range of vision.
Gently, he swings his trunk and uses just the very tip to tap the bag hanging from Sandi’s shoulder.
“What’s in there?” I ask. I’d seen the bags last time I visited, but hadn’t bothered to ask what was in them.
She shows me a little mound of pellets cupped in her hand. “Pressed alfalfa, wheat bran, salt, ground corn, and sunflower hulls.”
To the elephants it must be like candy. Jabu immediately vacuums the pellets into his trunk and transfers them to his mouth.
Sandi whispers, “Let’s go, Jabu.” He turns to follow her down the dusty road in front of camp.
Plain-Jane Morula is next to saunter past, her broad, honest face etched with a network of creases and wrinkles, the tip of her trunk canted in my direction. Thembi lags behind with Doug at her side. She soon catches up to Jabu and picks up a stick just like he does, stashes it between her trunk and tusk, and then drops it.
Oddly enough, the order in which they assemble for our morning walks never varies. First Jabu, then Morula, and finally Thembi. Yet, when we set off, it’s always Morula, the oldest, who brings up the rear.
We mosey away from camp at a slow ramble, all in a line -- Doug and Sandi, three elephants, and me.
I never expected to fall in love with elephants. When I was only seven or eight, I spent an entire summer reading all the National Geographics in my grandmother’s attic, fantasizing how I could disappear from my dull life into lost worlds full of gorillas and man-eating lions, exotic peoples dressed only in feathers, full of jungles and snakes and fish that could eat me.
On my first trip to Africa I went looking for lions, but saw only one lonely lioness as she slunk into the bush. But elephants -- elephants were everywhere. I watched whole families splashing in mud holes, greeting each other with what I called, at my first sight of it, great joy. Sometimes elephants completely surrounded our vehicle to stare at us the humans within it as if we were fascinating, caged animals. Under the steady gaze of those eyes, I felt equally small and enormous.
Five years ago, in the middle of planning my second trip to Africa, I was delighted to find the website for the Living with Elephants Foundation, managed by Doug and Sandi Groves. I sent an email to them about my research, and they invited me to stay at their camp for a week, but they warned me that my visit would definitely involve “roughing it a bit.” I jumped at the chance to spend seven days walking through the bush with an elephant herd, and I soon found out that “roughing it” turned out to be five canvas tents on a rise of high ground in the midst of a grassy floodplain.
Before I arrived, I corresponded with Sandi and learned more about how she became involved with the three elephants -- and with her husband, Doug. She happened to meet Doug at the same time she met the younger two elephants, in 1990 at South Africa’s Karkloof Falls Nature Reserve. She was enchanted by the elephants there, and equally captivated by Doug’s amazing relationship with them. At the time, she was in her final year of a zoology/botany major at Natal University in South Africa, and spent her spare time volunteering at the reserve.
A native of the United States, Doug came to Karkloof by a more circuitous route. For fifteen years he worked with Asian elephants at the Washington Park Zoo in Oregon and the San Diego Wildlife Park in California. In 1987 he joined a crew relocating four African elephants from the United States to South Africa. Once in South Africa, the elephants were granted a permanent home in the Karkloof Nature Reserve, seven thousand acres of indigenous forests and mist-belt grasslands located a little more than over sixty miles northwest from Durban, on the Indian Ocean side of South Africa’s coastline. When one of the elephants died from the stress of the journey, Doug grew concerned about the demands made on trained elephants to earn their keep.
Not long after Doug arrived at Karkloof, two baby elephants were orphaned during a culling operation northeast of the reserve in Kruger National Park. Until 1995, culling elephants was an accepted conservation practice for population control on private and public reserves throughout Africa. At first elephant culling in Kruger involved random killing of adult members from a herd without specific criteria. The practice evolved into removing every adult from a chosen herd and then transferring calves to zoos or other game reserves. Since elephants are highly social creatures and would naturally grow up in and benefit from family groups, juvenile elephants from culled herds often exhibit unruly or violent behaviors towards other elephants, wildlife, and even humans. Due to great international pressure, elephant culling was banned in South Africa in 1995. Culling, however, remains a wildlife management tool in other countries and, after a thirteen-year hiatus, the elephant-culling ban in South Africa was lifted.
In 1987, Doug saw the two, traumatized orphaned elephants as an opportunity. He wanted to test his theories on a new type of elephant training: creating a family consisting of both elephants and humans -- with humans literally becoming part of their herd. He adopted Jabu and Thembi in 1988 when they were barely taller than his waist.
Four years later, Karkloof’s owner decided elephants were no longer needed in the reserve. Doug and Sandi moved to Glen Afric, a farm near Johannesburg, and trained their two adopted youngsters for freelance films. The popular South African TV series Okavango starred both Jabu and Thembi. The plot of the fictional TV drama centered on an American family who had inherited a game park in South Africa and wanted to turn it into an animal sanctuary. When Jabu was just two, he also starred in advertisements for both IBM and the painkiller Panadol.
Whenever anyone asks Doug about the special relationship he has with his elephants, he’ll relate two stories by way of explanation.
One afternoon several years ago, Doug was with his trio of elephants as they browsed inside a large grove of trees. As he walked around one of the trees, he disturbed a young lion beneath it. Growling and snarling, the lion charged Doug, halting just seven or eight feet away.
“I did my best kung-fu stance,” Doug told me, “then I realized THIS was really serious.” He called Jabu and all three elephants came running, heads down, shoulder to shoulder, from 150 yards away.
The lion turned tail and ran.
“I think they were already were coming before I called,” Doug says, then and pauses. “They saved my life.”
The second story is of one of the early days at Glen Afric, when Jabu rolled his eyes back and sank into convulsions.
“My heart stopped,” Doug will always say, shaking his head and looking at the ground. “He is like a son to me.”
After several seconds, young Jabu struggled upright and leaned against a tree. A heavy drainage of pus poured from his ear. “It might have been a bad ear infection,” Doug told me later.
Concerned at the time that the loss of Jabu could have a significant effect on Thembi, Doug and Sandi made enquiries about adding another elephant, Mary, to their herd.
Born in Zimbabwe, Mary was just two years old when her family was exterminated during a culling operation. Mary and a young male cousin eventually were sent in the early 1990s to Borakalalo, a new game park near Sun City, the casino capital of South Africa. Mary and Zorba, her cousin, became partners in hooliganism, chasing fishermen and breaking open cooler boxes for the food and beer inside.
They also began to chase Borakalalo’s rare white rhinos. Zorba eventually killed seven of them; he’d flipped over a safari vehicle. He was shot and, because she was at the scene of the crimes, Mary was under a death sentence, too -- licensed to be killed by big-game hunters. Doug and Sandi believed she did not deserve such a fate. Borakalalo was more than willing to let them take a delinquent seventeen-year-old elephant off their hands.
Shortly after Mary joined the herd in December of 1994, Doug and Sandi changed her name to Morula, the local Tswana word for her favorite fruit from the Marula tree, a fruit commercially distilled into the cream liqueur Amarula. In my mind, Morula and I obviously shared good taste.
Doug and Sandi’s dreams of establishing an ecotourism venture with their elephants came true at the same time. Abu’s Camp had just established elephant rides in the Okavango Delta. A competing safari operator invited Doug and Sandi to develop an ecotourism venture that did not involve riding elephants. Their relocation to Botswana was filmed in its entirety and became a Discovery Channel feature, A Herd of Their Own, released in 2000.
In the beginning, Morula was submissive, but a bit of a misfit, creating twisted sculptures out of trees in her frustration. It couldn’t have helped that Jabu bullied her a bit, establishing his presence as the alpha elephant. And Thembi pretty much ignored the new kid on the block.
One of the first things Doug taught Morula was to put her trunk over her head. This gave him access to her mouth to reward her for good behavior. Slowly, all the members of the family established trust with one another. They’ve been together now for twenty-three years.
In partnership with two nearby tourist camps, Doug and Sandi offer their guests the experience of a lifetime – an opportunity to walk for several hours through the bush with three unfenced and unfettered elephants, culminating in a picnic lunch at the end of the trek. Rather than submitting to elephant-back safari rides, Jabu, Morula and Thembi provide one-on-one interactions, a unique chance to learn how elephants behave in the wild from elephants who accept humans as part of their herd.
And, once again, I get to tag along.
Yesterday I traveled by jet. Today I fall into line behind an elephant. My mind is having a hard time keeping up with a change greater than eight time zones and one hemisphere. I’m clumsy in this world. My old life, the one of concrete and cell phones, trails me like a lost dog. I kick at it, but it circles back to nip at my heels. It just won’t leave me alone.
The six of us follow a well-worn path east, into the morning sun, which warms my face and trails long blue shadows behind us. Tufts of grass nod gently and the fingers of a slight breeze hold my hair up to the sun.
Morula stops, turns, and takes a single step toward me. Somehow, with her ears spread, she doubles in size.
My heart leaps, captive within its ribs, desperate to flee. I know Morula is not wild, not truly. I know she has spent half her life with Doug and Sandi. Nevertheless, I’m paralyzed. I forget how to breathe. Everyone else is up near the front of the herd, as far away as another continent.
Although Morula is a creature of habits, just like me, she must retain instincts like mine -- fight or flee -- friend or foe -- but I hope it’s just her curiosity that made her turn around. Is she just checking on me?
Morula stands in half-profile, stares at me with one nut-brown eye. A feathery tuft of hair sticks out from her ear canal. Her mottled forehead glistens like cracked mud.
Slowly she blinks her eyes, flaps her ears, and a lifetime later swings around to join Thembi. I exhale as they entwine trunks. As I start breathing again, my old life turns tail and disappears, run off by an elephant.
Cicadas chirr, stirring up the morning. I stare down at huge round footprints in the dust. I look up; the elephants are receding. Last in line, I’ve been left behind.
Wait for me! shouts every cell in my brain, as I scramble to catch the herd, take my allotted slot in the order of march.
From the rear, Morula looks like an old woman in wrinkled baggy pants, an old woman bent over, pulling weeds from her garden, waddling from weed to weed. Mud stains discolor her left hip as if she sat on something unpleasant. Folds of her pant legs rub together at her thighs.
Her tail, ticking like a pendulum with each step, mesmerizes me. It’s longer than I expected, kinked halfway down and ending with a whisk of sparse, wiry hairs. Soothed by its tempo, I slow to the pace of an elephant’s saunter, pluck random spikes of grass, and chew on their ends.
We approach a mud flat in the middle of a dried up lagoon leftover from last year’s flood. The Okavango River’s seasonal floods can be highly fickle; dry cycles lasting twenty years give way to wet cycles, which can last equally as long. A channel once full of hippos becomes a brackish backwater swamp in a dry cycle. A lagoon, once cut off by sand, can become part of a meandering elbow of the main river in a wet cycle. Repeat this pattern over five thousand square miles and the complicated geography of the Delta is revealed.
One behind the other, the elephants cross the mud flat and follow a compressed path the width of overlapped elephant footprints. As we make a careful traverse, a congealed odor, a fusty essence of dung, rises from under our feet.
Mud holes in the Okavango drainage attract flies. Not the big bluebottle flies, but the smaller, nearly silent kind. The kind that seeks moisture, any moisture, to lay their eggs -- moisture such as in the corners of your eyes, the corners of your mouth. One of them tickles the hair on my upper lip. I bat at it over and over again.
Rich, melted, milk-chocolate mud trembles next to Morula’s ponderous footfalls. Pea soup mud quivers. Goulash mud slops. The network of cracks upon the mud’s surface is as big as the pattern on a giraffe’s skin. The cracked slabs also conceal quagmires.
“Stay on the path,” Doug warns me, “Stay behind the trio.”
Several weeks earlier one of their guests stepped off the path and sank up to his armpits.
“He had to strip to his shorts,” Doug says. “From then on we called him Dung Man.”
I shudder and look across the lagoon.
Globs of mud are stacked against its shoreline like giant chocolate squares. Baboons scamper on all fours along the shoreline’s sandy beachfront. One baboon baby rides atop its mother’s haunches like a relaxed little jockey, while another is upside-down, clutching his mother’s belly with desperate hands.
The baboons halt to watch us. Some sit with their legs straight out, arms crossed on their round bellies -- a row of scowling grandmothers on the front porch. They’re bracketed by a couple of shotgun grandfathers scratching themselves. Dismounted and bored, the kids begin a game of tag. One of the grandfathers yawns, shows us long, knife-edge canines. The stench of dung fills the air around us.
Despite all the distractions, I stay on the path.
The sun no longer has spokes on her head. She is simply a blazing torch. Sweat trickles from under my cap. No matter how many times I survey the path ahead, it remains the same two dusty ruts. A fine powder dissolves out of the air and coats my boots. Once brown and loamy with polish and sealant, they are now dry and gray.
Whoosh-thwack . . . Whoosh-thwack . . .Whoosh-thwack.
Because of her body’s size, Morula produces enough heat to warm a small house. Since she doesn’t have sweat glands, her flapping ears act like giant heat exchangers, regulating her body temperature.
Each of Morula’s ears has a huge network of arteries covering its surface. As air moves over those swollen arteries, her blood cools as much as nine degrees before it returns to her body. When she opens her ears, her body size increases by roughly twenty square feet.
Where they attach to her shoulders, wrinkles give way to swollen vessels pumping five gallons of blood per minute across the surface of her ears. The pattern of those arteries is as unique as a fingerprint and often used for identifying individual elephants.
Whoosh-thwack . . . Whoosh-thwack . . .Whoosh-thwack.
The breeze she creates dies before it reaches me. I take off my cap and fan my own neck.
My teeny, itsy ears are built somewhat the same as hers; we both have an upper rim of cartilage and a fleshy, lower lobe. However, I don’t have an auriculo-occipitalis, an ear muscle the size of a weightlifter’s bicep. I can’t flap my ears. I can’t even wiggle them.
Whoosh-thwack . . . Whoosh-thwack . . .Whoosh-thwack.
The elephants move forward in unison, huge soft machines, ears in constant motion. Churning along in the rear, my feet shuffle through the dust. Blood thuds in my ears. I step on a fallen leaf and it crackles into powder.
Whoosh-thwack . . . Whoosh-thwack . . .Whoosh-thwack.
Mistaking me for a four-legged, light-hocked plant-eater, a horse fly lands on the leg of my pants and tries to bite me through the cloth. I swat at it and raise dust. The suspended motes are in no particular hurry to settle.
The list that once filled my daily activities is nonexistent now. Minutes pass as slow as honey drips from a spoon.
Morula’s feet scuff up muffled coughs of dust, and I slog along in her footprints. In sand as finely ground as cake flour, her prints barely register. With each step, she leaves behind outlines of small moons. We cross the recent, delicate hoof prints of impala and her moons obliterate them.
I plant a boot inside the crater of her footprint. The brand name of my boots is imprinted on the soles,; a clever advertisement made with each step.
My feet make deeper impressions than Morula’s feet because each one of my steps applies more pressure per square inch. All my weight transfers to my feet, two small points of contact with the earth. Morula’s weight spreads over four large footpads the size of a medium-pan pizza. Inside her shallow print, my boot print leaves behind a deeper exclamation point.
Tramping along in Morula’s wake, I’m beginning to get the hang of all this walking and browsing -- less sweat, less reliance on my water bottle. Although I’m only here for six more days, I’m beginning to wish I could do this every day of my life.
Enticed by a nearby tidbit, Thembi stops, sniffs at a bush willow, and daintily picks a single leaf to taste-test. Morula and Jabu stop and not-so-daintily join, ripping entire branches from the bush.
Deft as magicians, they strip off soft leaves with their trunks. Jabu crams a wad of leaves into his mouth. He drags one foot and stirs up a gauzy curtain of powdered insects, ash, mud, and dust. From his belly up, Jabu is slate; from his belly down, seen through the gauzy curtain, he’s a bit rosier, more dove.
Thembi moves away from the willow and stops near a patch of sand. She squeezes the accordion folds of her trunk, swings it upward, and blows dust across her back. She powders herself again and again, using the same sandy spot with its talcum of dust.
Doug stands aside and watches all three elephants with a paternal smile.
He walks over to Thembi and passes beneath her chin. She stops powdering and murmurs a throaty rumble as he approaches. Creases thicken at the corners of Doug’s eyes. He pats her leg.
“Thembi’s a good girl,” Doug assures her.
She reaches sideways with her trunk and leaves a wet smear on Doug’s pant leg. Compared to the other two elephants, Thembi is relatively small. Doug can almost look her straight in the eye.
Jabu and Morula finish browsing and we get moving again. There’s a lot of languid movement packed into the word browse. Days and weeks and years of walking. Walking and stopping. Walking and stopping. In its lifetime, an elephant walks the equivalent of five times around the circumference of the earth.
Now that I’m walking at a pace that matches the world around me, I feel every inch of skin on my body. My breathing slows and I find a different rhythm to my life, one built around a new sense of time. Years pass as we cross a dry lagoon.
A faint sizzle above my head makes me look up. A pointed dart with wings moves steadily across the pale blue sky and spawns a cloud of ice behind itself for a hundred miles or more. Its contrail broadens from a sharp point into a wide cottony smudge. One of the astronauts reported from space that contrails could be seen over all parts of the world, often radiating from major airports like the spokes on a wheel.
Thembi, an evenly proportioned elephant, has matched ears, long-lashed eyes, and a diamond-shaped scar on the bridge of her nose. Doug calls her his Princess. And it’s the Princess who’s farting as I walk along beside her. Big, burbling farts.
Percolating along, Thembi lifts her tail and farts again. It’s a stupendous displacement of air. In this just-right light, I can actually see this fart. It looks like heat waves blasting from the back of a jet engine.
All the trees, grasses, and leaves Thembi eats end up in her ten-gallon stomach, which is pretty much just a holding area. From her stomach, roughage travels into her small intestine and then on into her large intestine. Joining the two intestines is a junction called a cecum, which is where digestion actually takes place. Her cecum is filled with billions of microbes, just like most mammals, including humans. The microbes break down the cellulose of leaves and trees into soluble carbohydrates and give Thembi enough methane gas to power a car 20 miles each day.
I wonder, as I walk behind her, just how one could harness this gassy natural resource. Back home, I live at the edge of a small town. Twenty miles would more than cover my daily errands. I imagine exhaust fumes smelling like fermented grass. I imagine driving down highways inhaling the scent of mulched trees. I wonder, as I walk behind her, why I think of such things.
My boots kick up dust the color and texture of crumbled parchment. Minute-by-minute, the morning simmers a degree higher. Trees lean away from the heat, curl their leaves to protect moisture, holding their breath until the cool of evening, waiting months for the clouds that will save them.
Sandi drops back to join me at the end of the line. She has the calm face of a mother with large, exuberant children. Her eyes have white creases at their corners from squinting into the sun. She wears a huge, floppy cloth hat with a brim longer in back than in front.
“Do you ever get tired of this?” I ask, swinging my arm, trying to encompass the entire scene. Four inches shorter than I am, Sandi tilts her head to look into my face.
“No. We’re family,” she says. I don’t have a reply to that simple statement so we both watch the elephants. Then she says, “Sometimes I miss makeup and movies. But not often.”
“Morula, here,” she calls out. Morula stops, turns around and faces us.
“How many commands do they understand?” I ask.
“Verbal? About a hundred. And that’s limited only by our imagination, not theirs.”
Morula leans in like an eager teenager.
She’s a little too close for Sandi’s liking. “Did you know Morula’s our lap elephant? She’d crawl in if your lap was big enough.”
“Morula, over and back,” Sandi instructs, tapping on Morula’s leg. “Over” means “to the right.” Morula backs up a step and swings right.
“Over and back.” Morula is carefully responsive. When you’re as big as she is, every movement has consequence. Each step Morula takes is slow, deliberate, and precisely placed.
Once Sandi has her positioned, she gestures to me. I step forward and place a hand on Morula’s trunk. Studded with sparse bristles, it feels like a stiff old brush. I look up.
Three-inch lashes cast shadows down Morula’s cheeks. She blinks and her lashes sweep against her skin like small brooms. A bit of matter is clustered in the corner of her lower eyelid.
Each of the more than 200 lashes around my eye is shed every three to five months. Has anyone ever done research on the shed rate of elephant eyelashes?
I could stand here forever and look into the oak burls of her eyes.
Only one and a half inches in length, her eyes are just a little larger than mine, small in relation to her body size. A zebra’s eyes are bigger. So are those of an ostrich or an impala.
I have front-facing, binocular vision. It’s hard for me to look at both where I have been and where I am going, impossible to see both the stars and the ground at once. Binocular vision sends two separate images by two separate eyes to be combined into one image in the brain. It’s a thoughtless process, totally involuntary, but miracle enough.
Morula’s vision is also front facing, binocular, but she has the disadvantage of a huge blind spot caused by her nose. Place both hands between your eyes, fingertips to forehead in the manner of prayer, and you will see what I mean.
Cross-eyed, Morula tries to look down her trunk at me. I am in her blind spot. She snorts.
Startled, I step backward without looking, without caring if the lip of the world were right behind me.
Her eyes are nearly hidden, tucked behind the curve of her forehead. She raises her head to focus on me. She’s motionless, concentrating. I can’t even hear her breathing.
I have this odd feeling that she wants me to like her as much as I want her to like me.
I take the lens cap from my camera and glimpse a tiny reflection of myself in its mirror. Is this what she sees: another one of those small humans, with its odd aura of scents? Does she see details: my hat, my camera, my idiotic grin?
Morula stands square on, keeping her eyes upon me. Her cobbled forehead broadens from her nose upward in a triangular shape. The top of a tree is visible over her right shoulder, as if she has a giant nosegay tucked behind her ear. Short bristles like an old man’s buzz cut outline the top of her head. Because of the way she’s standing, ears flattened against her shoulders, Morula seems slim, her skull almost hollowed. The tip of her trunk flops over itself in a loose coil and points down like a curved arrow. It begins to twitch in an irregular rhythm.
I take a goofy photograph of Morula – like she’s bored and playing with the only thing at hand – her trunk.
Morula poses. I take her photograph.
Behind us, around us, for 360 degrees, the Botswana landscape surrounds us. And in that moment neither one of us pays it a bit of attention.
Jabu and Thembi take advantage of the break forage with gusto, as if they hadn’t eaten all morning. Thembi reaches into the shoots of a palm seedling, using the fingers of her trunk like a pair of pliers to extract a single shoot, ridged with sharp thorns. Ignoring the thorns, she crunches the shoot as if it’s a piece of sugar cane. Supposedly it tastes like a coconut. Due to its saw-shaped edges, I’m not about to try it.
Doug joins Sandi and me. He asks, “Have you ever seen an elephant’s nictitating membrane?”
No, I haven’t. Not many chances to do that, where I live.
“Steady Morula.” He puts both hands up by her left eye and uses them to hold it open. An opaque, reddish membrane slides from the corner of her eye toward the front of her face, toward her trunk.
“It helps protect the eye from sand,” Doug says, “or when she sticks her face in a bush.”
Morula stands perfectly still.
Such trust, I think. I hate it when a doctor holds my eye open, shines a bright light into it and causes tears to course down my cheek.
Doug releases Morula’s eyelid. She blinks several times, and then knuckles her eye with the tip of her trunk curled as tight as a fist. As she rubs, a dark smudge, a triangle of tears, spreads like a delta from the corner of her eye.
Morula and I face each other, watchers watching, measuring each other. Steadfast, she looks down her nose at me. I gaze upward into an iris of liquid oak with sun flecks and shadows in it.
I remember the camera hanging from my neck and lift it. I feel the earth breathing, the air turning older; each moment caught, and then left behind.
“Hello,” I whisper.
The light from her eye just now reaches mine.
Based in Port Townsend, Washington, CHERYL MERRILL has had essays appear in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Seems, South Loop Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for Best of Brevity, Creative Nonfiction #27, and Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition. “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008. She’s currently working on a book, Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.