This is the first part of a 7-part story set in the African bush.
Neema came into my life one dark, brooding September day. I remember how the promise of rain after the long dry season had brought a lightness throughout the Ngwenya bush camp. It was the first day of mid-term break, and—unlike all the other boarders—I was not happy to be home.
Home—the place of memories, the place where I could never forget.
It starts as soon as the bus drops me and Jabu at the gate of the enclosed camp. As the game-ranger on duty greets us, my eyes wander to the photo on the wall behind his head. There is a photo for every Head Ranger from the time the camp first opened in 1952. But my eyes are drawn to the second last photo. Something twists inside me as I look at the familiar smile and warm blue eyes. Gregory Hicks, reads the title below the photo, 2002 to 2010.
I quickly turn away.
“See you around Jabu,” I say and run through the camp to my uncle’s home, trying to keep the flood of memories at bay. Yet everywhere I look I see his touch and remember: – the clivia’s he had planted under the thorn trees; the sun dial he built with his own hands to put near the curio shop; the statue he had erected in memory of the founder of the park. Around me voices call in greeting, but in this place the only voice I hear is the one that haunts my dreams—the voice of my father.
My cousin Ella squeals as I enter the house. “Anna!” She wraps her arms around the top of my legs. “Mom, Anna’s home!”
Aunt Christy appears at the kitchen door dressed in an apron, wooden spoon still in hand. Plump and homely, she’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to a mother.
“Sweetie! You’re here.” She pulls me into a soft embrace before drawing back to take a long look at me. “My goodness. Now you’re taller than I am. Aren’t you meant to stop growing soon?”
I shrug. “Where’s Uncle Rob?”
“He drove east with some rangers this morning. It looks like some poachers may have crossed over the border last night.” A frown creases her forehead. “There were rhino and elephant in that area too.”
I feel the usual tightening in my throat. My father’s younger brother had stepped into his shoes in more ways than one. After my father’s death, Uncle Rob took me into his home as a daughter, but he also took on the role of Head Ranger, and it was a dangerous one. Always at the forefront of any threat in the park, it was a known fact that the poachers aimed for them first in a chase. And if the poacher’s bullets didn’t kill him, a rogue elephant just might.
That afternoon I lose myself in a book, rejecting every attempt my two young cousins make to draw me outside to play. Aunt Christy plies me with food and I see the concern in her eyes. I know what she’s thinking. I’ve heard her and Uncle Rob’s hushed tones late at night when the nightmares wake me. Withdrawn, depressed, stuck in her grief. Those are the words they use to describe me. That is the Anna I’ve become. And lately I don’t even pretend to be the old, fun-loving Anna. She died the day an angry elephant turned on her father.
I hear a commotion outside and Jabu bursts through my door. Jabu is only twelve–two years younger than I am. Since our fathers were colleagues and friends, Jabu and I have grown up together, playing and fighting like sisters. She has tried the hardest of everyone to draw the old Anna back. Sometimes I wish she would leave me alone. Sometimes I’m glad she doesn’t.
“Come look, Anna! There’s a dead elephant just outside the camp.”
I don’t want to go, but Jabu is persistent and—just to stop the nagging—I finally follow her out of the camp gate. Jabu’s father, Samuel, and a few other rangers are already standing around the elephant. I spot my uncle’s tall frame amongst them. His eyes light up in a smile as he sees me and he draws me into his arms before turning his attention back to the animal. She is lying on her left side and her large frame reminds me of the grey granite hills Dad and I used to clamber over to view the plains below. Dark blood coagulates around a hole near her shoulder.
“Were the poachers that close to the camp?” I ask. I hadn’t heard the shots.
“No. The bullet didn’t kill her straight away,” my Uncle answers. “The rest of the herd fled as we were chasing the poachers, but she couldn’t keep up with them and turned in this direction instead, walking a few kilometres before collapsing here.”
A familiar anger burns in my stomach at the poachers’ indifference and cruelty.
“Look here.” My Uncle’s face is sombre as he leads us around the body.
It’s then that we see the baby. She is lying pressed up against her mother’s stomach, her small trunk resting on the large foreleg. Exhaustion must have taken its toll for she is asleep.
Sorrow stabs my heart. One elephant was bad enough; now two would die. I move closer to the little elephant. Her sleeping form reaches to my waist. I run my hands down the smooth leathery skin on her back. Does she know—I wonder—that when she wakes up everything will have changed? That she is alone in the world?
“Come Anna,” my uncle’s voice breaks through my sorrow. “It’s time to go. There’s nothing else we can do.”
I know the rules of the park. Don’t interfere with the workings of the wild. Let nature take its course. But nature didn’t kill one healthy young mother elephant today. Should her baby have to die?
“No Anna. You know the procedures. There’s nothing more we can do.”
We turn and slowly walk back to the camp. I glance one last time at the shape of the dead mother, shielding her baby from view. But the body will do nothing to defend her young from the coming predators and scavengers. The little one is completely defenceless against the dangers lurking just beyond sight.
Read Part 2 of “Orphaned Grace”
Read the inspiration behind “Orphaned Grace”