|by Ketso Gordhan via Wikimedia Commons|
"No, the world is too terrible for me. I can't bear it." His feet wouldn't obey him. He couldn't rise.
"You've gone too long without water." The voice of the lead elephant went right through him, straight to his bones. "Take this basket grass. Eat it."
The large male swayed close. A shock of thick grass strands hung in his trunk. A string of it lay at the corner of his mouth. The bull had eaten his share. He tossed the bundle that he'd carried from the stream onto the dry ground. The white, bulbous ends smelled fresh from the water in the roots.
"It's too much," protested the smaller male, Sweet Bark.
The lead bull paced forward. Whether he meant to or not, he loomed. A breeze blew between them. It carried the moist scent of the basket grass.
"I will pull you up if I must," said the large one, Sandstone. He had been pressed into his role due to the death of the one they'd all thought of as the Great Bull. Sandstone was strong and determined, not a force that could be turned aside, and he was in his musth.
During musth, many males turned to rage. They murdered younger males, hunted children, or hurt females who tried to interfere. One had recently killed a rhinocerous by laying into its side as the beast had tried to pass by the herd. He'd gored it and stomped it to death. Their leader, at least, had more control. Sandstone's surge of hormones had turned him into a force of authority that not even the other males in musth dared to challenge.
With a glance to his leader, Sweet Bark picked up a reed and stuffed it in his mouth.
A moment later, he picked another. The white ends crunched with exquisite, tangy water. They flooded his mouth, his nose, all of his senses. He ate until the lead bull stirred. Sandstone trumpeted.
"Come," said the bull. "Help me with the others who have given up."
"There's no point," said Sweet Bark. But his feet moved under him. They had heard the authority in the bull. They obeyed.
"We'll take them more grasses," Sandstone decided with a calm decision. "After that, we'll lead them to the stream, shallow as it is."
"Water." Sweet Bark admitted to himself that it sounded good. He lifted his trunk high to the wind. He could smell the mud not more than a quarter mile off. "Can I drink?"
"Of course." The leader dragged his trunk along the ground and flipped up a few of the remaining grass strands. "But we go to Tail Biter on the way."
Sweet Bark caught the tossed grass.
"Not her, please," he said. "The slaughter of the herds has driven her insane."
"Nevertheless. Once she was great." Sandstone shook his head. His mighty ears flapped against his thick neck. "She was grandmother to a legion. I will not abandon her."
They paraded to the farthest northeast corner of the herd. Then they adjusted course and marched farther, into the barren flats beyond. The bushes around them disappeared. The greenery beneath their feet became stubble and, in a few paces, vanished into the hard-packed earth. In the middle of the inhospitable stretch of land lay an elderly female. She rested on her side, possibly dead.
"Hello, grandmother," called Sandstone as they approached. "You are too distant for my liking. What is it that you do here?"
"I am listening." With an effort she pulled her limbs under her as if to rise. She did not lift her ear from the ground. "The northern herd is under attack."
"Again." It was not a question. All of the elephants knew about the slaughters. Entire herds had been lost.
"Two males died." At this, she lifted her head. "The one with the huge trumpet was one. The other was small and young. One of his sons, I think."
"Can you rise?" Standstone stepped close enough to cast a shadow over her forelimbs.
"I'm trying. Maybe soon."
"I'll help if I must. We will meet with another herd tomorrow or maybe the next day." His trunk stretched out to lock with hers. "They are ahead of our path to the east."
"I know." Her trunk rolled as if she were trying to shoo him away. But she was their matriarch no longer and she had no physical power. "Are you not concerned with those being shot?"
"They are far away."
"One thousand, nine hundred, twenty four have died." She buried her face in the dirt for a moment. "I have counted each one that I've seen or heard."
"I hadn't known that there were that many elephants in the world," said Sweet Bark. The herd leader and old Tail Biter turned to him. Tail Biter gave him a eyelids-lowered look of disdain.
"There are thousands more if you can believe what the other grandmothers say," she told them. "Or there were those many, once. Perhaps other herds live no more. There have been so many killed. It is the end of elephants. I try to remember them. But with so much death so quickly, I recall only about a third. Some acquaintances were only ever a distant rumble in the ground to me, or a gap in a herd, or a tale from another."
To Sweet Bark, this seem insane. With death all around them, with the murder of her old mate last year and her strongest son only months ago, how could she try to remember so many who had gone? What was the point of trying to count them?
"Grandmother, you are starving," said Sandstone. He locked trunks with her again. This time, his gesture was not to be shaken off. He leaned backward and pulled.
"Am I?" Tail Biter rose to her feet under the force of assistance. "Have I forgotten to eat again?"
"Too likely." The leader snorted. "Come."
She followed Sandstone. At first, her gait seemed unsteady. The younger elephants waited on her. In time, she picked up her pace. She cast gazes of approval on their leader. However, when she gazed at Sweet Bark, she had a different expression.
"There are not so many males in musth this season," she said as they approached the stream. "The killings have made them too sad. Or they have gone without water, like this one."
Sweet Bark bristled. Both things were true, however. The killings seemed too great for his soul. He hadn't felt like eating or drinking. Lack of water had ended his musth as soon as it began.
He bowed his head. In another step, his right front foot would enter the muddy bank of the stream. He stopped. His body had no desire. He waited. And he dreamed of elephants long gone. They had run with him. They had fallen, his friends. All of them were fallen and gone.
He wasn't sure how long he stood there.
His mind must have stopped. When he gazed up, it was into the face of his old friend, Sandstone. The bull was speaking. Sweet Bark couldn't make out the words. He felt someone pushing him from behind. He turned and saw that it was the female, Tail Biter. She had grown feeble. Even in her irritation, she didn't bite him.
"Sorry," he said.
"A few steps more," said Sandstone.
His feet carried him down a gentle slope into the rivulet. There, he sat. It was minutes before he stirred and then, only to drink the water in front of him. After a while, he looked around for the others. There were a few elephants downstream. He didn't see the old female, though, or his leader. He rose.
Tail Biter, too, had stopped at the edge of the muddy bank. Sandstone was whispering to her. He ran his trunk over her flanks.
Sweet Bark turned. He lifted himself from the water and lumbered towards them. Along the way, he veered left to pull up a great knot of basket grass. He held it aloft so that Tail Biter could see. When he got close, he pushed it gently into her mouth.
She chewed on the reeds. Her eyes closed. When they opened again, her look of sadness had passed, replaced by surprise. As she kept chewing, she strode forward. She bumped into Sweet Bark and looked up at him with a gratitude that he'd never seen from her before. It was a thank-you that seemed almost playful. For a moment, the weight of the world lifted. His shoulders rose high.
"Well done, Sweet Bark," said Sandstone next to them.
"Yes." The old female gave Sweet Bark another flirtatious shove. Then she headed toward the water. "See you there."
"Have you had enough, yourself? You look better." The great bull shook himself. His eyes drifted from the elephants who played in the water and mud downstream to those who lay tired or despondent behind, to the west. "Will you help with old Broke Tusk next?"
"Take a drink for yourself," he replied. "I'll go to Broke Tusk on my own."
"You will?" Sandstone turned toward the water as if he wanted to sit down in it and join the younger females and children. But he didn't move in that direction. He leaned toward his duty, the stragglers. "What are you thinking, friend?"
Sweet Bark felt the power of the old female's look, her sadness and then her kindness. The pressure on his heart had eased. He noticed the water and the scent of the mud. The savanna around them breathed, a living thing larger than an elephant herd. He felt the breeze, the sway of the distant trees, the underbrush, and the animals. A jackal crept along the edge of the trees. The beauty of everything struck him.
"I am thinking, still, that the world is a terrible place," he said. "But with many good souls in it."
His friend leaned into him. They touched for a moment, shoulder to shoulder. Sweet Bark listened to the other's breath and to the sound of a bird call in the distant bushes. His feet turned to the west. And he marched onward.