Peter and the Sand Elephant
I came to South Africa for solace, for the comfort animals offer. How on earth, on my very first night on this continent, did I, so recently widowed, still deeply grieving end up next to a drunken Great White Hunter, a generation out of date?
My South African Chardonnay is too good to rush. I wonâ€™t let him drive me out of the small, stonewalled bar, rife with character, and back to my thatched room upstairs – yet.
Blustering about how since his hair is now gray, he is the only one in the world entitled to say whatâ€™s good for Africa, he wants someone – me – to pick a fight with him, but I ignore his jibes. Let him rant alone.
They rarely get Americans here, and by ordering wine while the others have ordered whiskey, I have branded myself a Californian. I am their first from the state, so perhaps thatâ€™s why this guy keeps trying to bait me.
â€œPeter is just now back from safari.â€ the bartender, Nigel, also the safari group owner, therefore, Peterâ€™s boss, apologizes as he pours himself a drink.
That excuses this loud, hulking redneck on the barstool next to me? My host hopes. At least I am relieved Peter wonâ€™t be my guide. He gets a weekâ€™s break between safaris, Iâ€™m told, and I leave for the bush tomorrow.
The barmaid hustles to serve the noisy men quickly. I decide to try to get some sleep as soon as I finish my wine. But Peter unexpectedly redeems himself, and no matter what happens, I will remember him with fondness forever because he reveals himself to be a good storyteller, and he presents me with a lovely gift – a sand elephant.
â€œI was in Namibia,â€ he says abruptly. My mind instantly turns to great red dunes of sand, massive as the mountains at home (my children have not subscribed to National Geographic for me in vain). â€œIt was the dry season.â€
I know dry. My spring at home ran dry each summer, forcing me to abandon my beloved garden several seasons until we drilled a well. I reused bath water; I even hauled in water for my bath. Raccoons invaded my house to drink our catâ€™s water. Dry, I can understand.
â€œI came to an oasis.â€
Oh, my God, an oasis. I am reminded that there is such a place to retreat to in times of great dryness. I need an oasis. I hope it is Africa.
â€œI didnâ€™t pitch camp because I was too tired. I found a nice palm tree and unrolled my bag. Hey, another round – and donâ€™t forget the lady,â€ Peter calls.
â€œSo then what happened, â€œ I ask, discreetly indicating that I want to pay for my Great White Hunterâ€™s round. I may not have much money, but the rand is so devalued I can afford this and I know he canâ€™t. Everyone leans forward to hear what Peter has to say next. The barmaid quietly picks up my cash.
â€œWell, I was sleeping under this great effing palm tree at the edge of the oasis. I woke up to this rather odd sound and turned over in my sleeping bag.â€œ
â€œAnd found a bleeding ore,â€ sings out his even more drunken safari companion.
The others in the bar turn immediately upon the insensitive fellow. â€œStow it!â€ they say and turn their gaze back to Peter. I am fixated upon him and he responds to my questioning eyes. â€œI opened my eyes and saw this great elephant foot not more than a handâ€™s width from my head.â€
We all gasp.
â€œAll my life I have wanted to see one of those great sand elephants of Namibia. Itâ€™s so hard. You lead safari after safari but they keep out of sight. Theyâ€™re elusive you know.â€
We are now mesmerized. He is looking at me so I nod although I donâ€™t know, and I realize the others in the bar are relying on me to keep him talking. They all want to hear this story.
â€œSo I was lying there, and thereâ€™s this huge animal and if he wants, he can move his foot a bit and squash me out of existence.â€œ
â€œSo you were scared?â€ I ask.
Peter pays no attention to my question. He is a storyteller – talking. I no longer matter. I relax and everyone else sits back. We will hear the story with or without my help.
â€œWell, just about then this animal whoâ€™s eating the palm branches from the tree above, which was the sound that woke me, realizes I am there and lowers his trunk. Itâ€™s a male; I can see his tusks. Hell, I can see his bloody balls. And he runs his trunk up and down my body – never touching me, mind. Just an inch over my skin if Iâ€™m still. You better believe I was still!â€
Nigel refills Peterâ€™s glass, as Peter looks me in the eyes. He is drunk but focused, I can see.
â€œDo you know what that feels like?â€ he demands.
â€œOf course not, â€œ I respond.
Peter sits back for a moment feeling self-satisfied. We are hoping the tale isnâ€™t over. â€œThis animal was bigger than I had seen an elephant. Mind you, I usually donâ€™t see them from the feet up.â€
I have yet to see an elephant outside of a zoo or circus, but I understand.
Nigel, the barmaid, the other safari guide, and I are all riveted on Peter. And he is in form. â€œIt ran its trunk up and down my body again, ran the tip over my face a long while. Then it went back to stripping the palm of its fronds. Then it would run its trunk over my whole body length again. Frond me, frond me. I could feel his body heat, he was that close. I didnâ€™t dare move seeing his great foot next to my skull. â€œ
For a moment I can clearly see the heart-shaped rosy tip of an elephantâ€™s trunk up close, inquisitive next to my face.
â€œI just lay there frozen. And this great sand elephant ate the palm fronds and checked me over. Again and again.â€
We sit silent while Peter refreshes himself from his glass and Nigel, standing in readiness, replenishes it. â€œIt went on for over an hour at least, even allowing for my fear. The elephant ate the whole bloody palm tree then gave me one final going over out of curiosity and shambled off into the desert again.â€
â€œDid you feel lucky to have seen the sand elephant or just relieved it didnâ€™t step on you?â€ I ask. I really want to know. The other South African males and the barmaid look at me and back off. They arenâ€™t used to outspoken American women here. Heâ€™s done with his story, and I am definitely pushing it.
Peter sits back thoughtfully, sips his drink and then looks me in the eye once more. The drunken glaze seems to fade from his eyes as he gropes for what he is trying to say. â€œI felt, I felt – honored,â€ he says.
I smile at him and he at me. â€œThank you,â€ I tell him.
The others are dismayed for a moment that burly Peter hasnâ€™t put me in my place with a rowdy joke. The bar is silent. Then the other guide makes a joke about Peter getting sexual thrills from elephants out of frustration. Raucous laughter breaks out. I excuse myself and later in my room, hear a giant racket in the bar that wakes me from dreams of greathearted, red-dusted, giant elephants that are very gentle. The sweet smell of the thatch lulls me back to sleep.
In the morning I learn from the barmaid that the guides had gotten into a brawl and knocked over the bar counter. â€œWe have got to get that bolted down once and for all,â€ she says distracted as she attends to organizing our breakfast.
Nigel stops me in the grounds while we are loading our packs into our safari vehicle as we prepare to leave. â€œI think I must apologize for my rude guide,â€ he says.
I am puzzled.
â€œPeter was quite over the bounds last night,â€ he explains. â€œHe is our oldest guide and he has never before spoken of his ventures before he joined us. Iâ€™m afraid we allowed him to go too far.â€
I smile, â€œNo, Peter was fine. No apology necessary.â€
â€œWell, if you are quite sure,â€ my worried host says. He rubs his forehead and I realize he is suffering from a hangover.
â€œI am,â€ I reassure him.
â€œWell, thatâ€™s good then,â€ he says and leaves me to finish getting ready for my adventure. I heave up my pack into our truck and for a moment imagine the tip of a curious elephantâ€™s trunk. I think of its great beating heart.
Sometimes solace comes in unexpected forms, and just maybe armed with Peterâ€™s vision, I will find my oasis here.