The next morning I wake up to an urgent hiss. Next to me Neema is asleep; Uncle Rob and the ranger’s anxious faces are pressed against the fence.
“Anna! Get out of there now!”
I have the sense that, despite his many stern words, Uncle Rob is actually a little proud of me. He allows me back into the enclosure almost immediately with a bottle of the formula. Neema’s attempt at drinking is clumsy and most of it spills onto the floor, but Uncle Rob and I agree that we’ve made good progress.
So starts one of the happiest weeks of my life. Neema allows only me, Jabu, Aunt Christy and one of the female rangers into her enclosure and we take turns to stay with her, feed her and talk to her. It’s Adriaan who points out that she probably associates men with poachers.
We start taking her into the large outside enclosure for much of the day. She loves being sprayed with water, and Jabu and I shriek with laughter as we turn the hosepipe on each other too. We throw sand on Neema’s back as a sun screen and soon she is blowing it all over herself, catching us in a fine dust cloud. Another game Neema enjoys is soccer, although we have to be careful not be caught in her wild stampede for the ball. By the end of each day I am muddy, exhausted and famished, tucking into Aunt Christy’s food as never before.
I try not to think about the fact that our days are numbered, but three days before the new term is due to start, Uncle Rob and Aunty Christy bring it up.
“The holiday is almost over, Anna. We’ve got to start making a plan with Neema,” Uncle Rob says.
“Couldn’t I just stay here to look after her, Uncle Rob? I can finish grade 9 by correspondence. Or I can just go back to it next year.”
“No. You’re not leaving school,” Aunt Christy says firmly.
“I suppose you and Phumzile could look after her.” I know in my heart that it’s me and Jabu she loves. How will she cope when we’re not here?
“There’s something else we can try, Anna.” Uncle Rob looks at me intently before he continues. “Samuel has been keeping an eye on Neema’s herd. The matriarch was tagged a number of years ago, so we can track their movements. They’ve been in the area again the last few days.” He pauses, before saying softly, “Anna, I think we should try to take Neema back to them.”
I feel as if something breaks loose inside me at his words. Neema and I have learnt to be happy again these last few days. Together, we found that life can carry on, that it’s possible to love again and find joy in that love. Now Uncle Rob is asking me to let go all over again.
“But what about the milk she needs?” I grasp around for a straw, no matter how small.
“Samuel says that there is another lactating female, probably Neema’s aunt, who often acts as wet-nurse to the young ones,” Uncle Rob answers. “It happens sometimes in small herds.”
Neema’s aunt. I look at my own aunt’s expression, so full of concern and love. Neema needs that kind of love too, the kind you find among family.
“But there are poachers out there, Uncle Rob. At least here we can keep her safe.”
Uncle Rob comes over to me and pulls me into his arms. “You know just how fragile we all are, Anna. Life and death are not in our hands, but in the Lord’s. We can’t keep those we love from getting hurt…or from dying.” His voice is choked with tears. “We have to trust God to do that. And even if He doesn’t, we have to keep trusting in His goodness.”
“I know.” The words are strangled by my own tears.
“He answered our prayers. He helped us save Neema. Now we have to trust Him to watch over her out there too.”
Aunt Christy has come closer, and the three of us hold on to each other for a long time, bent over as if in prayer. All of us are crying. For Neema. For my father. For us. For this fragile, beautiful place we live in, so full of death and life, sorrow and hope.
Eventually we draw apart and I smile at them through hazy eyes, seeing for the first time how blessed I am to have them in my life. And I know what Neema needs.
“Let’s take her back to her family, Uncle Rob.”
Read Part 6 of Orphaned Grace