Tuskers

Beginning of the end, is what I thought. One bum step put me out for a week. Mostly I was confined to the decking in front of my tent on the edge of camp, leg up, ice pack on my ankle.

My three Batswana guys came out for their instructions when they felt like it. The English girls, Pippa and Ellie, visited occasionally, fussing. That left hours with myself, sinking into worries about being, now, in sight of fifty, and what that means when your job is essentially physical. Then the elephant turned up, and there were two of us facing our mortality.

He was alongside without preamble. How he got through the mopane woodland without snap or crunch, I don’t know. Elephants are not stealthy by nature. I lifted my eyes and there he was, more topography than animal: a vertical landscape of ridges and fissures, crusted with sand and dirt, patched with thickets of wiry hair.

First thing you’re meant to do when an elephant appears without warning is stay stock-still. My enforced immobility took care of the dissident impulse to run like blerrie hell. In the immediate moment, my breathing stopped. I brought it back online, keeping the breaths long and shallow.

My crutches were flat to the decking. I reached a slow hand to gauge the gap, coming up short by some centimeters. Opportunism was not a getaway option, though so long as the elephant stayed where he was, side-on, with his head behind the tent, there was no pressing danger. No sooner had I made that assessment than he began to reverse.

The heavy skin sagging from the peak and hollow of his pelvis pulled taut as one stump foot lifted and reached back, then the other. A ragged ear came into view, the big, veined sheet of it pinned down with black studs. When the ear flapped, those studs burst into an eddy of flies. They fixed themselves to it again when the ear flapped back.

The elephant halted full profile. An amber eye glimmered from behind a thick brush of eyelashes. He stood there for an age, though in real time no more than five, six minutes. When he shifted again, I was hopeful he would leave me to my boredom. No such luck. His rear end rotated, tamping down saplings and bushes until we were face-to-face. More than that. His trunk snaked my way, and we were nose-to-nose.

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