Elephants

Uganda 1972 

“Who’s got matches, anyone? Come on.”
My brother and I look at each other then at Dad 

crouching over a meager pile of sticks. 

I shake my head, imaginary heat emanating from the flattened book of Hilton matches in my pocket. 

The week before, I’d snatched the matches from the lobby after we’d landed in Entebbe from Lagos. When Mom
and Dad disappeared into their room to freshen up for dinner, Eric and I had bounded up stairs ignoring an “Employees Only” sign to the hotel’s rooftop, seizing an opportunity to sneak a smoke. Lightning forked from a dark furl of clouds while we puffed and chattered about leaving at daybreak for Murchison Falls, the starting point of a three-week safari, our last family vacation before I left our expat home in Nigeria for another stab at college, this time in the States. 

“Now Ralph,” Mom says. “Why would they have matches?” 

Denial comes easy to Mom. 

Our packed lunches eaten before noon, the afternoon snack of biscuits and oranges devoured. We’d seen enough birds. Other living things slip around on the periphery. The sun’s ferocity subsides and shadows lengthen. Our retrieval from the island by the boat guy is way overdue. 

I speak up. “I don’t.” 

She would freak if I produced matches. They could only mean I smoked cigarettes, probably pot. Worse than that, her suspicion of me corrupting my younger brother would be sealed. Quaker heritage had cemented her views on alcohol, drugs, tobacco, and fighting amongst nations. Family strife didn’t count. 

“Me neither.” Eric claims the high ground. 

Dad turns a baleful eye on me. His concerns are in the moment—how to spend a night in an African sanctuary meant for birds, not four meaty humans. If I hand over the matches, his reaction will come later. Decreased allowance, a lecture, whereas Mom’s scathing words will gut me: “We raised you better than this!” Worse, she might cry. 

My mother’s righteous tone, her black and white code squeezes the juice out of me. I stopped liking her when she’d stopped liking me for not being her. 

I want to proffer the matches, saying, “Sure, here Dad,” like the stupid reveal it is in these circumstances, but I feel trapped. 

The evening before at the lodge, we clustered on the patio with other guests and watched elephants muddy
the watering hole, caving in its banks with their tree-trunk legs, then hosing off. Baby elephants sank to their knees and rolled and splashed without fear of being stepped on by mothers and aunties. 

I tried to pair up moms and offspring but couldn’t discern any pattern of affection or affiliation. A particular kid didn’t stay in a particular adult’s orbit. An adult didn’t hover over just one kid. They shared the watch over the young. Hierarchy seemed based on tusk size and I wondered at what age the elephant kids started growing them. Someone said the bulls were solitary, arriving later or satisfying their thirst elsewhere. 

At a silent signal, in accord, the elephants departed in a whoosh, water flying, the little ones enveloped within the herd. Quiet settled and other animals, impala and kudu and a couple of warthogs, stepped in to drink. 

Abandoned on the island, Mom asks, “What are we going to do?” 

“Wait,” Dad says. “Collect more wood. Try to light this damn thing.” 

“We can drink from the lake.” I look at the flamingos, a melt of pink obscuring the water. 

“Are you crazy?” Eric nudges me. “Bird poop.” 

Mom ignores us, questions Dad: “Didn’t you agree on a time? I hope you didn’t already pay him. Who arranged the guide anyway? And the boat, the lodge, the agent? It’s getting chilly . . . ” 

“I made the arrangements.” Dad pokes his wannabe fire. “Come on kids, you sure you don’t have matches? Check your pockets.”

“No one has matches, Ralph.” So certain. 

I hesitate, gauging. Is this the time to tell the truth? 

Mom watches the lake, her back to us. “He has to come back, how could he forget?” 

Hoping for distraction, I dig into my shirt pocket and break up the last of a wrinkled Cadbury bar, handing her a piece. 

Mom shakes her head. “I don’t need any.” 

I roll my eyes at her self-sacrifice. Dad, Eric, and I wash the chocolate down with the last dregs from the canteen. 

Dad takes out his Swiss army knife and starts scraping the blade on a rock. 

She cradles her arms. “Do we need a fire? It can’t get that cold.” 

“Maybe not, but for safety.” Dad keeps hacking at the rock. The knife sliding off its side.

Shit. “What do you mean?” 

“Hyenas.” Eric says to me.

“I don’t know, jackals, wild dogs anyway.” 

Mom snorted. “Oh Ralph, for pity’s sake.” 

“Don’t hyenas only eat dead things?” I envision those sloping bodies circling, waiting. 

Birdcalls soften with the sun’s descent, shadows merge and deepen and something coughs. An animal clearing its throat? 

No sparks. Knife and rock are not connecting. Dad’s neck starts to redden. I’ve waited too long to admit anything, and Mom falls silent. 

My hand inches toward the matches. After the recriminations, maybe we’d sit shoulder-to-shoulder around the fire,
our parents on either side like sentinels against the dark, the hyenas, and recall the easy stories: past adventures and fairy tales. 

“Look!” Mom yells making us all jump. 

A dark dot skims the almost-as-dark horizon. The sound of a motor cuts the gloom and we swivel as one, watch a light approach, dim, grow bigger, then blinding. 

Published in Under The Gum Tree, April 2019

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