If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
I am in a deep sleep when her perfume enters my room, inhabits it like a ghost, until I feel her breath on my skin, shaking my shoulder, waking me up.
“I’m on my way to the site,” she says. “Forester said you wanted to see it. Let’s go. It’s best in the morning, like it was then. We’ll probably see some elephants.”
Her presence next to me feels like a live wire. It’s somehow out of character for her to care about such a thing.
“It’s past, just leave it alone,” I remind her.
“Come on. You can’t come to Africa and not see the elephants. Wake up.”
She shakes my shoulder again.
With most people I have felt somehow slippery, like I can always escape them, but I feel atoms colliding like I felt last night, how someone standing next to you can alter the alignment of your molecules, as though my cells themselves are somehow vulnerable, because with Elena I have not been so slippery; I have not been able to see where or how she inflicts her damage.
“Come on,” she says, “let’s go. I’ll meet you at my car in five minutes.”
I turn over and sink down into the uncomfortable sofa bed.
“I don’t need to see it,” I say, surprising myself.
She stands there for a few seconds, waiting. I remain silent.
“Okay, ten minutes then. I’m leaving in ten minutes.”
I turn over and fall back to sleep.
When I wake, the house is unusually quiet. I look around and find everyone outside, Forester pacing the driveway, talking on the phone, and Veda holding a phone as well, their other line. When it rings she answers immediately, speaking in Swahili. Mira is building a rock pile under the porch. She likes the rocks with stripes.
Elena’s rental car is gone. The air is an even, pale yellow, warm and breezy. It’s about four in the afternoon.
Veda pauses for a moment in her speech and then resumes.
I look out at the backyard. I hear music from everywhere at once: shifting in the wind through my hair, pulsing through the giraffes on the plain, in the cadence of Veda’s speech, the same cadence as a walking impala. Her voice is so insistent, so hesitant at the same time, so much like a news report, that mechanized speech they use to report events that do not concern you personally but are of public interest.
I have a vague desire to ask Forester about the piano player that night, the one who used to play for him. What music was he playing? And how heavy are the tusks beneath his floor? And who bribed him for what?
But my interest is different today than it was yesterday. I expect nothing. The wind is enough of an answer.
Forester walks toward me, still on the phone, speaking Swahili, and Veda is moving away, into the yard, after Mira who is running to the giraffes on the horizon.
Forester stands before me and holds the phone away from his ear for a second.
“Did Elena go to the airport?” he asks me.
“I don’t think so. She went to the site,” I say. “Why?”
“Another bomb,” he says, and continues talking on the phone.
I feel cold. It was stupid of me to call her. I always want to turn back, redo everything, but is that really more predictable than going forward?
Forester is walking toward me again. His shirt unbuttoned, phone to ear. He’s wearing the same clothes he was yesterday.
“Why is she here, anyway?” he asks. “To protect you from me?”
I shrug. “I doubt that. Too late anyway, huh?” I laugh, but he just stands there, grimfaced.
“What kind of bomb?” I ask.
“It blew up an airplane. The airport is in chaos. You can’t leave the country. They’re searching everything, everyone.”
“What kind of airplane?”
“A private job—an ambassador’s plane. Parts of the plane are on the other side of the airport. But why did she show up here?” he asks. “And where is she now?”
“Elena’s here because I told her Sam was alive,” I say.
“Well, you said … Sam could come to dinner.”
Forester drops his grim expression and laughs out loud, his head back, catching his balance on the railing.
“Well, she didn’t come back for him,” he says. “And she shouldn’t be wandering around looking for the so-called site. There’s a guerrilla war on—doesn’t she listen to the news?”
“Did she talk to you this morning?”
“She woke me early—I don’t know when.”
“Well, she was gone by 7:00, when Veda woke up, so it’s been at least—” he looks at his watch, “nine hours.”
“Is that a long time? For being out?” I ask.
“Yeah—and no. But she shouldn’t be at that site. There’s a war, and she’s trespassing.”
“Well, I can’t control her,” I shrug, “and I doubt she cares. She wanted to see the elephants.”
“Damn it,” Forester raises his voice at me. He’s angry. “You two are screwing up my life. It’s distracting. I was about to sell this place. I can’t live here anymore.”
“What are you talking about?” I ask. “I’m not trying to dissuade you from selling it.”
“If you were to come out of yourself and stand here. Right here,” he points down at the boards that make up the veranda, “and just listen to me,” he says, but I realize he’s not really talking to me. He’s looking out at the hills. “I mean, I can’t keep fighting this place.”
I don’t want to be standing on the porch, on the creaky boards that are worn smooth, smelling Forester’s coffee breath and thinking about where Elena is. I’m freezing. I want to put on jeans and a sweatshirt and make a call. I want to call Michael.
Listen to me, Forester just said. Didn’t Elena say that too? Listen to me. Run.
A breath can take you down to hell.
It so happens that ivory is a perfect density for piano keys, porous enough so that the player’s fingers don’t stick to the keys but don’t slide off either. Between 1860 and 1930, pianos became increasingly fashionable, and the general population became wealthy enough to buy a piano for their sitting room. Between 1860 and 1930, 100,000 elephants were killed annually to provide piano keys in Europe and the United States, and while their ivory was also used to make billiard balls, business cards, dominoes, snuff boxes and barrettes, every keyboard took a pound and a half of ivory, and by 1910, 350,000 pianos were made yearly. For every pound of ivory, one man, woman or child died en route, carrying the ivory from central Africa to the coast. The slaves who carried it were routinely starved, tortured and raped, and, at the coast, sold along with the ivory.
Approximately those same years in North America, in the late 1800s, the 60 million bison that roamed the prairies were shot by Europeans, either for their tongues, considered a delicacy, or for sport, often from moving trains. By 1900, bison were extinct east of the Mississippi River, and there were only two wild herds left in the northwest, one near Yellowstone Park and another in Canada. This in some ways explains the rush for elephants: ivory was only part of it; the men with guns were out of bison.
On the surface all of this means nothing—a choice between elephants and Beethoven, between slavery and commerce, between wildness and culture. But the choice has already taken place.
Forester chose Elena. Or she chose him, I don’t know. She added to her photographic collection of data and evidence: culled and poached elephants, piles of ivory waiting to be sold, elephants that starved in the drought.
I walk around the driveway, staying warm in the sun, looking for some good rocks for Mira’s collection. She looks at my most recent rock, one white stripe through gray. She takes it, licks it to show the stripe better.
Forester walks by.
“Can I use your phone for a second?” I ask.
He hands it over. I run inside, find my address book and dial Trey’s number. The phone rings as I walk through the house and rings as I walk down the driveway and is still ringing when I hang up. I call Michael’s number in Albuquerque. His message machine answers, and I tell him that I can still remember the exact sound of his backward-beating heart, and that time must work like this: ten years can seem like ten minutes.
After I hang up I think that I could have told him what day it is, or that I can see the outline of giraffes as the sun lowers itself, slowly, steadily, into the horizon. But Forester is on the other side of his car and is motioning that he wants the phone back.
“Can we go looking for Elena?” I ask him, as he takes the phone.
But he’s pushing buttons, walking in a tight circle.
In 1915, just around the time that Isak Dinesen made the Ngong Hills in Kenya her home, a tusk could weigh as much as 235 pounds. Today the average tusk weighs 22 pounds, which is the tusk of a 12-year-old male elephant, and because their life cycles are identical to ours, it’s the equivalent of killing a 12-year-old boy because there are no older males left alive.
In the 1980s, 70% of the world ivory was imported into Japan and 70% of that was used to make hanko, a seal of identity (like a rubber stamp, functioning in society like a fancy business card) for individuals. In the early 1980s when the Japanese got rich, it was a fashionable sign of wealth and prestige to have a very nice hanko, and since everyone had money, there were two million Japanese walking around with ivory hanko. Ivory happens to be just porous enough to soak up and put out the ink perfectly.
At the same time the Japanese all got rich, the arms import in Africa increased from 500 million in 1971 to 4,500 million in 1980. As soon as the civil wars and wars of liberation got a little chaotic, as wars can do, the weapons found their way into countless hands that wanted power and wealth, and one way to get that in Africa was to hunt for ivory.
I didn’t know that we were there for the same thing as everyone else. I thought we were there to help. But we were there for what we could get, and when Elena got Forester, she thought she was getting the world.
When Forester uncoils his pace he hands me back the phone.
“I guess I don’t need it,” I say.
He places his hand on my head for a second, and then it falls to my shoulder. He starts talking, right in the driveway, about how a gardener of his was beaten to death with a rock one night while he slept. He tells me that one summer night Veda’s father was out taking a walk when a car gang armed with AK-47s ran him down, shot him for sport. He tells me that there is a suburb called Karen, after Karen Blixen. Instead of hills and wind there are locked gates, guard dogs, a regular street where Denys, Karen’s lover, used to land his plane.
He tells me it’s like going from having sex with someone you love to looking at cheap porn magazines. He tells me that the Kikuyus he used to know are now rich and dress primarily in Armani and live in guarded country homes. He says it is bizarre and surreal and heartbreaking. And gesturing all around us, toward the dead tree down his driveway, his voice cracking, he says, you can’t think about it, but he swears to God, this was paradise. Every tree was a tree of life, a tree of heaven, with hundreds of animals everywhere. You never looked for an elephant. They were just there. And then, after a pause, he recovers, his voice no longer low as he throws the burning ember of his cigarette to my feet. I stamp it out.
“We’ll look for Elena tomorrow,” he says. “If she’s in trouble, I doubt we can find her, and if not, she’ll be back. We can’t go at night.”
I think about how when I first saw Forester in front of those hills, I saw sex, seduction, power. But I was mistaken, just like Sam. I didn’t see sex at all. I saw death.
As soon as Forester leaves my side, I feel it all happening at once. There is no clear order. Now is she dead? Because if she is, it is my fault for sure. And it is not something I wanted, not even something I anticipated. I feel a million black spiders emerge from their eggs in my stomach. They crawl around, up my throat, growing rapidly as they destroy the inside of my body, eating away at my flesh. All my organs collapse in a bloody mess.
When it is dark outside Veda serves coconut milk and coffee and fried bananas and evening pancakes, she calls them, small little stacks. The porch lights are pale like the moon. I drink black coffee, trying to kill the spiders.
I must have misunderstood everything. It is silly to imagine that there was a choice between pianos and elephants, to imagine that this moment could be taken out of the context of Hannibal’s going into Africa, or the English building the railroads, or the direction the first nomadic tribes moved in, or the burst of light to begin with, light that has no mass when it travels but has mass only when it stops, an unquenchable ball of rolling consequences.
Nowadays they don’t cull elephants with three Land Rovers and a few guns. They look for a herd of at least fifty or more and take up three airplanes, skimming the air just above the elephants. They shoot the stragglers on the outside of the herd first, from five to ten yards away using .458 or .308 semiautomatics. When the shooters are good, they can down 100 elephants in less than a minute. They shoot them in the brain, if they can get the shot, or in the spine if the elephant is running away.
When they cull elephants with planes, they kill every elephant in the vicinity and take away all the meat, bones, stomachs, everything. And still—elephants come from every direction to investigate the site. How do they know where it happened? They heard it, through infrasound. They visit, pay respect, then the area is abandoned—no elephant will go near it, sometimes for several years.
I remember Elena looking at her gravestone. Breathing. Inhaling. Exhaling. Laughing. A breath can take you up to God. Maybe she was not as removed as she seemed, but simply wordless.
When Elena tramped alone through a wooded area with a nine-year-old trailing, saying, there’s a photo up ahead, she was hoping for something more. She wanted to fit into a world she knew nothing about. She knew what nurses know; she knew about illness and injury and how to put something together again. She did not know that most people do not like illness and injury and do not know how to put things together again, but rather how to ignore what they see, which is something I am good at. I never once saw the leprosy and sewage running down the streets, the animals with their heads cut off and the starving septic children. I saw the sun fill up the sky and the elephants fully submerge themselves in water and breathe through their trunks. I saw them wave to one another, their trunks like ribbons, like voices calling across the sky.
The night lasts forever. It is dark and cold and I fall asleep on the porch, and Veda wakes me up and tells me to go inside. I don’t. I just sit there, until finally someone brings me a blanket and the citronella candles blow out and there is the moon and the cold bright stars and the strange noises of the night, and I feel the darkness creeping into me and I think, this is good, to be cold and dead and buried on a porch, unmoving and unable to move, tusk-like, knowing that I will no longer worry about dying because that is not my business. And then I am carried, half afraid of what Forester is after, but he just tumbles me into the bed, cold, so cold I can’t breathe, and then I am alone.
She told me she wished she had never been with my father. That they were no good together. That it’s too bad I didn’t have another father, too bad, in other words, that I had ever been born. Strange that a human being can come from an accident, not willed, unwanted, but shining before you, demanding sustenance and love. Demanding life itself.
—Lindsay Ahl has worked as a film producer and freelance photographer in New York. Desire is her first novel—a portion of which first appeared in BOMB in 1999. She currently lives in Santa Fe.
Desire was published by Coffee House Press in May.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.