Throughout that afternoon, Neema continues her destructive behaviour. Nobody can get near her to try and feed her and Uncle Rob is adamant that Jabu and I stay out of the enclosure, reminding us constantly just how heavy she is. By nightfall Jabu and I are forced to go home, no closer to giving Neema the formula.
But I know what I need to do. That night I lie awake listening to the house falling silent. When I am sure that even Uncle Rob is asleep, I pad to the door in my slippers and gown, and slip into the cool night. There is almost no moon, and the Milky Way ribbons across the sky in all its splendour. I remember my father’s words. Seeing an African night sky is like touching the face of God. I look for the two distant galaxies he once showed me, for the super-nova and the Southern Cross. I trace their shape with my fingers and marvel at the silent vastness, feeling my own smallness as never before. Is this what it feels like to touch God’s face?
“Help us save Neema, Lord,” I whisper.
The lights are dimmed in the enclosure but I can see Neema sagging against the fence. As she becomes aware of me, she shuffles back to her feet and throws herself against the steel with an even greater ferocity. I glance around and spot the sleeping form of a ranger in the corner. Surprisingly he doesn’t stir with the commotion.
I tip-toe to the gate and pull back the bolt, pushing the heavy steel structure open to a small gap. I slip into Neema’s stall and stand dead still, hand on the gate.
I think of all the times I have lashed out at the people who have tried to help me—Uncle Rob, Aunt Christy, my teachers, Jabu—and wonder if Neema will do the same with me. She could run at me and flatten me against the fence in a heart-beat, but for now she merely stands and stares at me.
I push the bolt back, closing off my last route of escape, and take a step towards her. She edges back slightly and flaps her ears in warning. As I take another step forward, she turns and lopes to the far corner of the enclosure, where she throws herself against the steel post, before turning back to face me. She shakes her head, lifts her trunk, and tries to look menacing.
“I’ve done the tough girl act, Neema. It’s not all that convincing,” I whisper. I keep edging towards her, and she keeps moving away. Eventually we reach a compromise—I sit in the middle of the stall and she stands in the corner, flapping her ears occasionally.
“I’m an orphan too Neema,” I say. “It’s ironic. An elephant killed my father, and a human killed your mother.” I glance over at the still sleeping ranger. “That sort of thing isn’t meant to happen when you still need your parents as much as we do.”
To fill the sorrowful silence I start to tell her about my father and the rogue elephant, how Uncle Rob had come to tell me what had happened, about the people who didn’t know what to say to me at the funeral, and the therapists who wanted me to tell them how I felt. I tell her about Aunt Christy trying to make things better with food and Jabu’s annoying cheerfulness, about Uncle Rob’s worried glances. I give voice to things I have never said before: – all my anger, my fears, my emptiness. I don’t know how much time passes but gradually I become aware of two things. The first is that there are tears streaming down my face; the second is that Neema has edged closer and is now a mere five paces from me. As my words halt, she drops to the ground and slowly rolls onto her side, lifting her head to look at me.
I crawl to cover the distance between us, not wanting to frighten her with any sudden movements. She lets me stroke her shoulder and back as I say the same soothing things Aunt Christy once said to me. After a while she rolls onto her stomach and reaches for my face with her trunk.
Joy flutters inside me. I know what this means. It’s the elephants’ way of introducing themselves. I take hold of her trunk and blow softly into it. Now she will remember my scent forever. Neema and I are friends.
Read Part 5 of Orphaned Grace