If we think about the sound an elephant makes, we think about his trumpet. Instead, I heard a low, steady chewing broken by the swish-tear of a trunk, mighty like an octopus’s tentacle, twisting off more branches. The name of the elephant was George, I thought. Without breaking eye contact with me, he lifted the branches to his mouth and tucked them inside. His lips were V-shaped and loose, as if he were a muppet.
I continued to sit on the toilet. There was only a screen between us. My tent sat on stilts, and I was at the elephant’s eye level, almost eyeball-to-eyeball.
Elephants have lovely eyelashes, as luxurious as a drag queen’s or the fringe of a funeral umbrella in a New Orleans parade. His eyes were a weak, brown color. They reminded me a little of my father’s—he had had peculiar hazel eyes that could flash almost yellow when he was angry. It was because of my father that my mother and I were here in this tent together. She was napping in the tent behind me.
George finished his mouthful and sent his trunk out again, found branches, twisted, broke, chewed.
There were two elephants on this tiny island: George and Angry Bob. I was almost certain this was George. Angry Bob had already stolen our fruit that morning.
The breakfast area was also raised on stilts. Angry Bob had watched to see where the fruit bowl was placed, snuck in below the platform, and stuck his trunk around the top of the table like an alien thing, a giant sensing probe, and suddenly we knew, An elephant wants our fruit! and shortly thereafter, It’s going to get our fruit!
Angry Bob trumpeted when he ran away. He made a ruckus.
Mostly, though, elephants are very, very quiet. They walk on their tiptoes. Successive guides told me about walking on tiptoes, and I got angrier and angrier. They walk on their tiptoes? Is everyone hallucinating? Is this Fantasia? Do they also have tutus?
But when I went to read more, I understood: elephants walk on their tiptoes inside their feet.
Imagine that big, round stump, the elephant’s foot, as a wedge heel. The wedge is made up, mostly, of fat. Only an elephant’s tippy-toe bones touch the ground—the arches and heels are elevated on the fat. When they want to, they can sneak quiet as a cat. They can steal your fruit or, if they prefer, make a ruckus, knock down a tree, plow through anything. There was no question George could knock down the tent my mother and I were in if he wanted to.
While on the toilet, I had been reading a National Geographic, the one where the photographer Joel Sartore introduces his project to photograph every species on earth, but I had long since put it down. What I’m saying is, my mother and I could have stayed home. We could have commemorated the anniversary of my father’s death in a way less daft than on a small island in Botswana with George and Angry Bob. Joel Sartore would have sent his gorgeous pictures to our houses.
If George took down the tent, my mother—who had trusted me and followed my advice, all these half-baked ideas, halfway around the world—would die first; I was sure of that. She was seventy-five, with osteoporosis and scoliosis. She would fall, break something as soon as the tent hit the ground. I could imagine her being trampled. I tried not to imagine her being trampled.
Our storey hinged; I could hear it creaking in the wind. Were we plucky women seeking to bury our grief in wilderness, exploration, nature’s redemptive grace? Or were we foolish, out of our minds, too old, too inexperienced, too grief-stricken, too spendthrift to be doing this?
Dad would have hated this, we said to each other guiltily, gleefully. He would have hated the expense, the time, the schedule. You’re up at dawn to see the animals, then you nap when they nap, then you’re out again at dusk, when the crepuscular animals emerge. Oh, yes, he would have hated this, we assured each other.
What a way to commemorate him, what bitches, what shrews we were, learning to love his absence. Learning to do the things he wouldn’t have done, say the things we couldn’t have said while he lived.
And yet, every moment swelled with his presence. He tiptoed onto tiny airplanes with us, puddle jumpers taking us from one camp to another, planes so small I sat in the co-pilot seat, Mom in the back with our luggage, and as the pilot pulled up, he must have felt it, that pull, our grief like an overstuffed bag we had snuck in the back.
There had been strict packing instructions, weight limits, and we had followed them all—something, I gathered, not everyone did. When we arrived, our host looked at our luggage and asked, Is that it? Now, though, as the pilot struggled to climb over the heads of giraffe and bounced along the air currents, I knew he felt it too: all our love had turned to grief, and all the ways we knew to be a family had turned to wandering.
I had to risk it. I finished my business and stood. George—and by then, I was almost certain we were dealing with George, the gentle, quiet elephant, but still, an elephant—continued to chew. I left the bathroom, woke Mom up.
Mom, I said, there’s an elephant outside our tent.
But by the time she came to look, George was gone, slipped away, as silently as he had come. We were alone, our grief and our anger like a ripe melon, split by its fall from a shaken tree, the central hollow and seeds our shared meal.