The Memory of Elephants

by Christina Dalcher

My dearest Regina,

Closer today than yesterday. I can hear them, heavy and slow, although not as slow as I might like. 

The babies wail high-pitched screams that sound as if they are in pain; perhaps they are at play. It’s the trumpeting of the bulls and cows that keep me awake, even if this humidity works feverishly to lull me into a doze. 

I don’t want to sleep, not when they are ever closer. There’s an evil irony, I think, in this watering hole keeping me alive for a week only to very well be my end. It leads the beasts to me as the most expert trackers would. As Ntare led us to them. 

We found Ntare back in Mombasa after three days’ search and nearly double the money Malcolm had thought we would need to pay off his port connections, buy the guns and ammunition, and outfit ourselves with the necessary kit. Thus equipped, we went hunting for the guide. More money was traded for a week of Ntare’s services, and our trio set off. Out of the city, into the bush, toward the land of the elephants. 

Ours would be a dangerous undertaking, but this end? This end I did not expect.

Over supper on our first night at camp, Ntare answered our questions. You’ve heard, my dearest, that the pachyderm possesses an exceptional faculty of memory? Of course we probed Ntare in this. “It is true,” he said. “The beasts never forget a face, either of their own kind or ours.”  

Believe me when I now tell you this: my greatest fear is that Ntare’s words on the evening prior to the accident might have even an ounce of truth to them.  

We had not meant to kill the calf, but how could I possibly explain our dreadful error to these beasts? What words could I employ to tell the herd of grieving females that Malcolm’s weapon fired without his intent, that when he took his careful aim at the old bull, he waited for the smaller animal to clear from the sights. Would they understand that your dear brother’s hands trembled with the anticipation of the kill? Would they care?

I dare not tell you more, dearest; I would not burden you with the horror and the shame I experienced watching the calf suffer. I can relay only that she did not succumb to the peace of death until much later that day.

For Malcolm and I, however, there was no peace.

Though we slept fitfully that night in our camp, we heard none of Ntare’s movements in the early morning hours, nothing of the packing of arms, of food, of our supplies. When day broke, only the tent sheltering us remained. I should have known, dearest wife. Ntare’s silent stares after the accident did not go unnoticed, neither by me nor by Malcolm. We both should have known.

Minus our guide, without compass or kit, we abandoned any thoughts of reaching the city by nightfall and instead set out in search of water. I need not tell you how much care we exerted in avoiding the elephants.

If only I had taken the same pains to watch my footing.

Ntare had pointed out the traps, but on our own, Malcolm and I were blind to them. One moment I was ambling along; the next, iron teeth had bitten into my leg. Oh, the agony, my dearest! Never could I have imagined the terrible pressure—not even in nightmares—the sensation of my limb being tortured by such a sinister mechanism. Pity the unfortunate beast who stumbles upon these contraptions and has not the intelligence to escape their death grip!

Alas, even our own ingenuity failed us; the trap proved tenacious, unremovable. Malcolm managed the Herculean feat of dragging me close to water, leaving me in this clockwork jaw six days ago. I fear he will not return.

And now, my love, they are in sight. First one, now two, now the remainder of the herd, emerging slowly through the bush. A cow of immeasurable proportion—six tons of grey if an ounce—now appears, raising her trunk, bellowing to the others, moving her ponderous mass toward me. 

Trust me when I tell you that I see a spark of recognition in her eyes.

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