(This story is the third prize winner in the Strands International Flash Fiction Competition)
The wind. The vultures.
Smell the rain. The rainstorm drenches you.
Lightning, first warning. Then thunder. Don’t fear. I’m here.
Lightning sharpens your wits. Wait. Listen.
The forest legs of her family scattered in every direction. She didn’t know which way to run. She saw everything she didn’t want to see. Too much thunder.
Her family dissolved into yellow sunset fog. Village goats browsed as the horizon turned lavender. She stood alone under a jagged acacia. For the only and last time of that day, night swallowed the last seam of pink, draining Mount Kenya into darkness.
She stood alone. These vertical ones ran on their hind legs only. They threw spears with their forelegs. They called each other People, Children, Man, Men, Woman, Women.
Her mother had fallen with an avalanche of spears. A searing groan. A heavy collapse. Blood in once yellow grass. The elephant herd stampeded whirling dust, turmoil. Her mother’s breath wheezed, seeping knowledge to her baby daughter in their language, a half rumble ending with:
My little one—
A long shaking whisper.
She heard the shouts, spears, bludgeons, their heat, silence. She heard chopping, hacking. Her mother’s flesh. Her mother’s bones. Even if she closed her long lashes, even if she felt cold, she could still hear through what she no longer saw.
Sunrise. The savannah quiet. Sleeping People. A little Man saw her. Dressed in yellow trousers and a plaid shirt, he walked with his goats. She heard someone call out, Boy! Boy saw her. He reached his hand toward her. Palm up. He and she were small. He leaned toward her. “Come.” They walked slowly, joined by the friend who had called Boy, another Boy. And Boy’s Goats. She knew goats from where her family once walked. They belonged to People.
She followed Boy. He pointed: “Village.”
Then her ears warned her of the previous day’s fire. The fire of Village shouts. The fire of crowd, Men, Women, Children, People, gathered in inflamed minds—minds of jagged breaths. Now they threw spears. Although Boy was with her and shouted at them. Fire in her leg, pain. Village beat her with sticks. Children threw sand, rocks, chasing her. Like a wildfire in the bush; a spark, suddenly a blaze of anger. The grazers and predators froze then disappeared. Her legs buckled.
Then she heard a smooth breath walking through the crowd. A Man. Different. She heard murmuring among the Villagers. She heard them say, Conservancy Warden. A Man in camouflage clothing wearing beret strode forward: under his uniform, the physique of a bodybuilder. Village slowed their noise. His presence quieted them like a still lake in early morning before a bird or lizard stirred. His voice slowed their movements, his bellow resounded bringing hesitation to their fury.
Conservancy Warden knelt close. He held out his Hand. His dark long Fingers extended. Soft, gentle. He helped her up. Her baby heart beats slowed from racing. She suckled his fingers. She missed her mother so much. Village began to shout at Conservancy Warden. They raised Spears. She heard Conservancy Warden: “You will have to kill me first.”
He herded her into his office. He sat in his office chair. He lifted a black shape with rounded ends and spoke into it. She would later learn: Telephone. He put it down.
Then she heard his mind: I’m not brave. But if I can protect her, my life is whole. These are my people. Elephants have eaten their new crops. But not this herd. They didn’t see. They’re Angry. But without the elephants where will we be? It’s not this little one’s fault.
She didn’t all understand his words—she hadn’t learned them yet. But she could read his thinking, deep down, where Men didn’t speak.
He daydreamed in the night as he stroked her head. Pat, pat, stroke, stroke--both dozing, reliving: the Village. His musing: Little one, you must live.
Her drowsiness pooled into his dream: Conservancy Warden strokes her head, his eyes closed, willing her to be grown up like her mother. She remembers: my mother, tall, long-legged. Mother’s gait, loose-limbed, silent, swinging trunk, ears flat, relaxed. Then she grows up, swimming into his dream: One day I’ll would bring own little one to visit you; just the way I walked under my Mum.
He sighed. His strength seeped into her little body.
They both stirred at the sound of the orphan rescue keepers tapping the door. Men stepped into his office, exhaling soothing breaths. Conservancy Warden greeted them:
“This is my little charge. I’ll distract the villagers. Take her out the back. I know you’ll take care of her. Thank you.”
The keepers whispered in her ears. A veterinarian knelt, giving her an injection. She lay down on a large round cloth. She felt sleepy. They wrapped her in a blanket, covered her eyes. She could smell their kindness. She was so tired. She had spear wounds on her hind quarters. She’d been so scared, she’d become numb. Her wounds were swabbed and cleaned, swathed with green clay.
The voices of men floated. She dozed. They lifted onto the fixed wing airplane. She felt the Conservancy Warden grow distant.
She imprinted him in her heart: This is the way of elephants. I will always remember you.
He stood, watching. His feet resounded through the earth. She could feel his presence soaring from his heart: Be well little one. I will wait for you.
Photo Credit: Nicholas Vreeland
Annie Bien is author of two poetry collections--Under Shadows of Stars (Kelsay Books, 2017) and Plateau Migration (Alabaster Leaves Press, 2012). For flash fiction: third place at Strands International Flash Fiction Competition, runner up at Faber Academy been published in QuickFic, Flash Boulevard, Mercurial Stories, 101Words, and Potato Soup Journal. For poetry: a Pushcart nominee, finalist in the Strokestown Poetry competition, and third place in the Biscuit Poetry competition. The Soho Theatre Company in London awarded her with a seed commission. She translates Tibetan Buddhist scriptures into English through 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.