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Chapter no 96

Spare

A GROUP OF US piled into flat-bottomed boats and steered upriver.

We camped for a few days, explored some remote islands. No one for miles and miles around.

One afternoon we stopped off on Kingfisher Island, and mixed up some drinks, and watched the sunset. Rain was falling, which made the light look pink. We listened to music, everything mellow, dreamy, and lost all track of time. As we were pushing off, getting back onto the river, we suddenly ran into two big problems.

Darkness.

And a major storm.

Each was a problem you never wanted to encounter on the Okavango.

But both at the same time? We were in trouble.

Now came the wind.

In the dark, in the maelstrom, the river was impossible to navigate. The water pitched and rolled. Plus the driver on our boat was wasted. We kept plowing into sandbars.

I thought: We might end up in this river tonight. I shouted that I was taking the wheel.

I recall brilliant flashes of lightning, seismic claps of thunder. There were twelve of us on two boats and no one was saying a word. Even the most experienced Africa hands were tight-faced, though we tried to pretend we were in control by continuing to blast the music.

Suddenly the river narrowed. Then bent sharply. We were desperate to get back, but we had to be patient. Obey the river. Go where it led us.

Just then, a massive flash. Everything bright as noon for about two seconds, long enough to see, standing directly before us, in the middle of the river, a group of enormous elephants.

In the flare-up I locked eyes with one. I saw her snow-white tusks swooping up, I saw every wrinkle in her dark wet skin, the hard water line above her shoulders. I saw her giant ears, shaped like an angel’s wings.

Someone whispered: Holy shit.

Someone cut the music.

Both drivers killed the engines.

In total silence we floated on the swollen river, waiting for the next lightning flash. When it came, there they were again, those majestic creatures. This time, when I stared at the elephant closest to me, when I looked deep into her eyeball, when she looked back into mine, I thought of the all-seeing eye of the Apache, and I thought of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, and I thought of a camera’s lens, convex and glassy like the elephant’s eye, except that a camera lens always made me nervous and this eye made me feel safe. This eye wasn’t judging, wasn’t taking—it just was. If anything, the eye was slightly…tearful? Was that possible?

Elephants have been known to weep. They hold funerals for loved ones, and when they come upon an elephant lying dead in the bush they stop and pay their respects. Were our boats intruding on some such ceremony? Some sort of gathering? Or maybe we’d interrupted some kind of rehearsal. From antiquity comes a story of one elephant who was observed privately practicing complicated dance steps he’d need to perform in an upcoming parade.

The storm was getting worse. We had to go. We restarted the boats, cruised away. Goodbye, we whispered to the elephants. I eased into the middle of the current, lit a cigarette, told my memory to hold on to this encounter, this unreal moment when the line between me and the external world grew blurry or disappeared outright.

Everything, for one half second, was one. Everything made sense.

Try to remember, I thought, how it felt to be that close to the truth, the real truth:

That life isn’t all good, but it isn’t all bad either.

Try to remember how it felt, finally, to understand what Mike had been trying to say.

Shine a light.

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