Mothers by Zuzanne Belec

For two days we’d been on the run in the African bush. My daughter was barely breathing. And her once sturdy legs were now faltering. Her bullet wound had dried. It was caked over with dust, but the flies still persisted. I’d been dragging and pushing her along since we witnessed it two days ago. That savagery. I had to get her away from it all. But she could hardly move any more. I also needed a rest now; everything had become so hazy – my sight, my mind, my instincts too. On the way to the river, I’d tried to get her to eat, but she just lay down on the ground heaving, each exhalation lifting red dust high above her. But I had to get her moving on. When we finally reached the river, though, she wouldn’t take any water. She just lay there; I couldn’t get her up again. And her puffs of dust became mere wisps. I had to get her to eat something. So I stretched up to get the best fruit from a marula tree for her. And that’s when it surprised me – a shuffle in the scrub behind me. I stumbled backwards and … then … then that horror from two days before … it all came back to me …

… our herd was drinking down by the waterhole. My calf and I were warming in the sun behind a lone swollen baobab. The last drops of morning dew glittered on the grass around us; it was just perfect for a morning nap. We were just about to fall asleep when dozens of shots suddenly ripped through the air around us. The humans! They rose up from everywhere – from behind the scrub, from ditches, even from the waterhole itself – firing rounds in all directions. Small babes perforated. Massive males fell instantly to ground, like teardrops hitting the sand. Blood splattered noisily against our baobab. And blood drizzled onto the waterhole like soft rain. As we fled, my calf stumbled, but I pushed her along. We got away just in time as a truck with more humans sped past, towards the waterhole. We heard the truck pull up at the nine bodies of my family – some still alive, I could hear. I could hear, and I could do nothing! More shots were fired, single shots. And then chainsaws began to screech.

I edged my calf on. A stream of bright red trickled down her back leg. They must have hit her too. But we had to run, we had to go on. I tucked my trunk under her and pushed, and pulled. For two days we struggled along like this. And only when we reached the river this morning did we stop to rest. And that’s when I heard that shuffle in the scrub behind me.

Fear ripped through my body as I turned around. I thought it was the elephant killers again, I really did. But behind me was just a human tribeswoman. Alone, picking mopane worms from a tree. Then … I couldn’t help it … some instinct, I don’t know. I heard that blood again, splattering against that baobab. And I saw bright red.

When I stepped back, the bush regained its colour. The alarm calls of oxpeckers fell silent. The doves began to coo softly, and cicada shrill took to the air again. The woman was lying on the ground – awkward and still. I walked circles around her. She didn’t move. I went away. I came back. But she just lay there. You shouldn’t have come, even if the trees are greener in our reservation! You shouldn’t have! Then something stirred. Yes! You’re alive, you’re alive! But it was only the brown leaves beside her that lifted in the breeze, to settle again next to her cold, staring eyes. And I knew the woman would never move again.

Something gurgled faintly in the distance. And a strange, yet familiar smell made its way up my trunk. I followed the sound. Something lay in the grass ahead of me. It was a baby! A human baby. The woman too had a little one! It must have slipped from the woman’s blanket pouch as she ran from me. It was wrapped in a blue blanket and it wriggled like a moth in a cocoon on an acacia tree. Then it began to whimper – just like my calf whimpers! I raised the blanket gently with my trunk, it stopped whimpering. It was a girl, I knew. She smelled just like my little one! It too had a few tufts of hair on top. It gargled, saliva bubbling – like my calf does when she’s frolicking about! And then the little blue bundle smiled. Smiled at me, in that nauseating air. I lowered the blanket softly over the little human and walked away. I came back, then I walked away again. The tribespeople will hear its cries. They’ll come for it, it’ll be fine. I gathered up my calf and we strained on towards the hill above the river. As far from the humans as possible.

But now, the humans are gathering below. The tribal chants get louder, they carry rocks now. And loud lines of dust draw closer on the road below. Shots are fired into the air, they echo across the valley. The ranger is on his way up the hill now too. With his gun. To get the killer elephant. Let my calf survive, at least. Take her, please. Here, wrapped in the blue blanket.

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