Earlier posts of Orphaned Grace: Part 1
That night my sleep is restless. Elephants charge through my dreams, catching me in their wild stampede; poachers’ guns maim my uncle and cousins; and a small elephant is surrounded by a pack of hyenas, moving in closer…closer. I wake with a start, my breathing laboured. The image of the hyenas crouching down for the jump still burns behind my eyes, but I am relieved to find it’s just a bad dream. There’s no baby elephant, no hyenas.
Yet no sooner has the comforting thought taken shape, than I remember the poachers and the dead elephant. I lie still and listen. My father loved this time of morning. He taught me how to listen deeply into the silence and hear the small rustlings of the veld coming to life. I can identify the call of the night jar and the cry of the jackal, and guess the size of birds from rustling wings taking flight. Yet, I do not love the dawn any more, for it always chases away forgetfulness and replaces it with the harsh light of reality.
“God, please don’t let the baby elephant be dead,” I breathe to heaven.
The prayer takes me by surprise. I haven’t prayed for two years. God did nothing to keep my mother from dying in childbirth and, twelve years later, He let my father die too. It’s obvious He doesn’t care about me so why would He care about a helpless animal?
I hear the clatter of mugs and a cupboard door opening. My Uncle’s day starts early. I slip, barefoot, out to greet him. His eyes are ringed with sleeplessness as he hands me a steaming mug of tea. We drink in silence.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about it last night,” he says, pushing away from the table.
“The baby elephant, you mean?”
“Yes.” He swings his rifle across his shoulder. “I’m just going out to check the area.”
“I’m coming too.”
“No Anna, it’s not something you want to see.”
But he relents eventually, as I knew he would, and we trudge through the still sleeping camp in the early morning gloom. A lion’s primal roar echoes through the air. It is close.
“Stay here, Anna,” he tries one last time.
“No. If you’re going I am too.”
The body of the mother elephant is a black solid against the lightening horizon. My uncle moves warily, his rifle ready by his side. I scan the area for a smaller mound—the body of the baby—but as we round the hulking mass of the mother, we spot the little one. She is standing by the mother’s head, her small trunk moving over the dead elephant’s face. She is alive.
A silent prayer of thanks rises up in me.
“Well, I’ll be…,” Uncle Rob murmurs at my side. “She made it through the night.”
Yet the words have hardly been spoken when a dark form glides silently out of the shadows. The breath catches in my throat and my mouth is suddenly bone-dry. Uncle Rob stiffens and slowly lifts the rifle. As a second lion takes form, he lifts it even higher.
The warning shot that reverberates across the veld is shockingly loud. It startles a flock of hadida’s into flight and causes a scurry of movement in the undergrowth. The lions jump away, and the baby elephant lopes off into the veld. I run after her, with my uncle in close pursuit.
“Anna! Come back!”
But I don’t stop, because I suddenly understand something. God does care about the baby. Didn’t He bring us there just in time to save her?
She is faster than I am, although I sense her slowing, torn between her desire to escape and her instinct to find protection at her mother’s side. Finally she stops and stands—unsure—staring at me from about thirty paces away.
“Anna!” My uncle’s voice is full of anger as he reaches me. “What are you thinking? There are lions around.”
“We’ve got to save her, Uncle Rob!”
“No Anna. We’ve got to go back to the camp. Now.” The tone of the last word leaves no room for argument, but I know I can not leave the little one. Not again.
“Don’t you see Uncle Rob? It wasn’t an accident that the mother elephant ran this way. She knew that—besides the herd—this was the only safe place for her baby.”
He shakes his head. I’m not sure whether he is disagreeing or to convince me there is no way to save the elephant.
“We can do it, Uncle Rob. I know we can save her.” He is still shaking his head.
“Please. If not for her, then do it for me. I know how she feels. I know about being alone, about having the one you love ripped away from you.” The tears are streaming down my face now, the first tears that have spilled from my deep well of grief since the day of my father’s funeral.
Uncle Rob seems as startled by my tears as I am. He stands for a long time staring at the little elephant. She is edging around us, back in the direction of her mother’s body.
“Okay.” The soft answer takes me by surprise, although given the dark rings under his eyes, maybe it shouldn’t have. “We’ll call the vet to look at her. But I’m not promising anything Anna.”
Samuel and another ranger appear—rifles in hand—to investigate the shot. My uncle instructs them to watch the little elephant and keep the lions at bay, and he and I head back to the camp to fetch his dart gun. The camp has stirred to life since we left, roused by the morning’s commotion.
“Anna,” Jabu calls as I pass her house, “what’s going on?”
“We’re saving the baby,” I call back jubilantly, ignoring my uncle’s taut mouth and slight shake of the head.
“Wait for me!” My friend runs to catch up. “Anna…shouldn’t we give her a name?”
I smile, knowing instantly what her name must be. Maybe I knew it from the moment God answered my prayer. “What is the Swahili word for Grace?”
“Grace?” Jabu bites her lip in thought. “Umm, Swahili for Grace…it’s Neema!”
“Then her name is Neema.”
Read Part 3 of Orphaned Grace