Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Absence of Rain (a short story)

The larger of the two male elephants wrapped his trunk around the four foot long ivory tusk lying on the dusty ground and deposited it in some nearby bushes. The tusk was all that remained of their dead comrade. He then turned to his companion, who nodded his massive head three or four times.
They lingered for no more than a minute and then the two bulls moved off across the barren, dry landscape of Etosha National Park in Namibia. A man and a woman waited quietly in their Land Rover until the elephants had nearly vanished from sight.
"I was nine years old when I saw that the first time," the woman said.
"I only saw it once before, in Botswana." The man put his binoculars under the seat.
"They know their tusks are a danger to them. They've learned from--" The woman hunched over, coughed, and pressed her hand against her chest. The skin around the corners of her mouth tightened for an instant.
"Let's go back," the man said placing his hand on the back of her neck.
The woman looked at him. "I love you, Robert," she said finally.
Robert Zimmer started the vehicle. They had not gone quite a quarter of a mile when the woman asked him to stop. They gazed toward the far horizon; the two elephants were gone. "They'll all be back in four or five weeks," he said.
"And I'll be here then."
Etosha National Park was about the size of the state of New Jersey. The central feature of the park was a huge salt pan surrounded by flat bush land. The minerals in the water that evaporated away completely killed the soil, giving the entire area a scorched earth look, devoid of life. But when the rains came, the pan provided water for all the wildlife that gathered in the area.
The woman and the man had been coming to this part of the huge national park for the past seven months, in order to complete their study of the shrinking, desert-dwelling elephant herds. It was about sound. It was about silence.
Their small cabin was more than an hour drive from this parched desert region. By the time they reached their destination, the late afternoon sun had touched the horizon.
Inside, the woman collapsed in a chair and stretched out her long legs. She closed her eyes and took shallow breaths. The man squatted down, untied her boots, and pulled them off. "Thank you," she said, her eyes still closed.
"Want something to drink?"
"Is there a Coke?"
The man studied the woman for a moment. She had gotten thinner in just a week he thought. She opened her eyes. "What?" The man shook his head and went to the small refrigerator.
Perhaps two hours later, as they sorted through some field notes, the woman said, "Did you get a letter from the university this week?"
The man glanced over at her. "Uh ,huh." He looked down at his papers.
"Jack wants to know my plans."
"Well ... I'll let him know."
"You'll let the head of the zoology department know what?"
"Do we need to talk about this right now?"
The woman sat up in her chair and dropped her papers on the floor. "Yeah, Robert, I'd like to. Communication is good for humans as well."
"Kam, I'm going to write him, when I decide what I'm doing."
"Decide what? Your sabbatical is over in three months, the research will be finished. And you go back to America."
"Maybe I'll stay in Namibia."
"Stay in Namibia? And do what?"
"I don't know yet." He stood up.
"Robert, I won't be here."
"You don't know--"
"I'll be dead."
"Shit!" He hurled his folder against the wall. The rage washed over him and then slipped away. Robert turned when he heard her cough. He knelt down and held her in his arms. Kamaria Grellmann, the woman he'd met fourteen months before, who now meant more to him than any living person in the world, was being consumed by ovarian cancer. "Kam, do you want your medicine?"
"Just hold me."
He watched his fingers slide across the back of her neck. When he had first met her at a cocktail party at the American Embassy in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, the first thing that caught his attention was the perfection of her cafe-au-lait complexion. Robert Zimmer was certain he'd never seen a woman so beautiful in his life.
He learned later that her mother had come from the Ovambo tribe and her father, Volker Grellmann, whose ancestors had arrived in what was then called Southwest Africa in 1900, was of German descent. Her mother had died when she was fifteen and her father was killed by elephant poachers while she was attending Cambridge University in England. She had just turned twenty-one when she learned of her father's murder.
On the day of her forty-first birthday, Kamaria learned she had inoperable cancer.
"I sent letters to Cornell and Cambridge last week."
Robert sat back. "Why?"
"I told them you would be handling everything from now on."
"Our research is nearly completed," Robert said.
"Robert, as long as there are elephants here..."
"Kam, I'm not a bioacoustics expert."
"No, but you're one exceptional zoologist. You can find other good people. And the training of Namibians must never stop."
"Kam, please--"
"Promise me."
Robert had all he could do to hold back his emotions at that moment. He nodded slowly. "Promise."
A smile spread across her face, the same smile that he had fallen in love with immediately. "Come here you."
It was midnight when they went to bed. Kam told Robert that she seemed to need less sleep lately. He knew that was not the reason.
"Do you know what the San people call Namibia?" Shadows from the moonlight skipped along the wall. Robert said he did not. "They call this country the land that God made in anger."
"Do you agree?"
"I don't know anything about God's state of mind. But I do know I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.
"You'd miss your elephants."
"Yes. Would you miss them now?"
"My answer is important isn't it?" he said.
"The truth is I would miss them as well. I couldn't have said that even two months ago."
"When did you know?"
"When Zita's baby died five weeks ago, and we spent the day watching them all grieve. I experienced something I never felt before."
There was a long silence until Kam said, "This was always the best place to study them. Because survival is so difficult here. I knew it when I was a little girl, watching the elephants with my father. They had to be able to communicate over long distances. We humans just couldn't hear it."
"You can take a lot of the credit for this knowledge."
"Only some credit." Kam paused. "But will it make any difference? Will they survive anyway?"
"Yes what? All these elephants won't become little white carvings in jewel boxes?"
"Yeah, I think there's some hope."
"Is that just American optimism?" said Kam.
"More than that. We know a female is receptive only a few days every four or five years. And as soon as a female is in estrus, the males appear from practically nowhere. And, because of people like you, we understand how the communication works. More than two miles away--below the range we humans can hear--the elephants are speaking to one another, watching out for one another."
"And your point would be, Professor Zimmer?"
"The female will always know how to get her man. The elephants are going to survive."
The rains started within three weeks. At first, only dark clouds appeared on the horizon, then some sporadic rain drops bounced off the parched ground. A couple of days later the air smelled different, fresher, foreshadowing a change. Several wildebeests appeared not far from their cabin, then some zebras, a few kudos, and two giraffes. The rains began in earnest within the week.
At the end of the fourth week Kam and Robert rose early, packed what they needed, and departed. Because of the rain and the wet roads, it took longer than usual. They reached their observation point at 9 o'clock. Then they waited.
At 10 o'clock Robert saw something move on the horizon. "It's him," he said a minute later. The huge bull, at least 13,000 pounds, with two long ivory tusks, and a jagged scar on his left side, moved quickly across the scrub land, headed in their general direction. "Where's Masaku?"
Kam and Robert had always seen the two bulls together. Masaku, the smaller and younger of the two, always accompanied his larger comrade. Male elephants generally lived alone or in small bachelor herds, but once in a while one or two males would travel together.
"I know Masaku is all right. There's got to be a reason." She grasped Robert's hand. "I want to get out."
"We don't want to go too far from the Land Rover," he said. Kam pushed open the door. Robert hurried to the other side of the vehicle as she clutched the side mirror to steady herself.
The large bull was now close enough for both of them to see clearly. Suddenly, he half turned in their direction and raised his head. His ears spread out and he became perfectly still. "He's freezing," said Kam in a whisper.
Robert felt an incredible stillness all around him yet, at the same time, it was as though the surrounding air was now throbbing like distant thunder. Slowly he raised his binoculars and scanned the horizon. "Look," he said, handing the binoculars to Kam.
"I knew it." In the distance Masaku waited alone. Kam slowly scanned across the scrubland. "My god."
"What?" Robert took the binoculars. At first it was only a vague outline, but then he saw them. The herd was making its way toward them. Now the large bull began to sway from side to side, glancing occasionally in the direction of the herd. "Hell, he wants us to know." Robert started to say something to Kam, when he saw her tears. "You okay?"
"I need to sit down."
"I'm fine." Unexpectedly the large bull let out a loud trumpet sound, startling both of them. She began to laugh. "Yes, yes."
The male elephant looked in their direction for just a moment, then turned and started toward where Masaku waited. Kam leaned her head against Robert's shoulder. "You want to tell me."
"Just wait," she told him.
Slowly the herd came into view. The two bulls headed in the opposite direction. Kam's eyes were now closed and her breathing was labored. Robert raised his binoculars and then he understood.
In the middle of the small herd was a baby elephant walking beside its mother and the other females. The baby's father, along with his friend Masaku,had disappeared from sight. "He wanted to let us know," Robert said. "What do you think of that, Kam?"
He held her tighter because he knew she wouldn't answer. Several of the elephants raised their trunks as they passed by. The rain had stopped.

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