Fiction

Tusks

by Steve Carr

It’s abandoned now. Moss now covers most of the front facade and ivy encircles the marble columns that reach from the portico to the roof just above the second floor. The windows are covered in dust and dirt; sunlight has not shown through them for several years. The once well-manicured lawn and gardens that greeted anyone approaching it is now overgrown with tall shrubs and thorny weeds. Baobab and motopi trees took root and have grown to the height of saplings nearing maturity where the statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth once stood. Now, only the pedestals remain. Vervet monkeys race in and out the wide-open broken front double doors. They now own what was once our mansion.

I was born in Botswana in 1954, ten years before Botswana became independent of Great Britain, which had ruled over it for nearly seventy years. I’m of British heritage. Before Botswana gained its independence, my father was the administrator for about three hundred squares of mostly savanna Botswana landscape, a predominantly wet, grassy area. At a young age, I liked to think he was a good man who was there to help the locals, who by their skin color alone warranted the need to be4 overseen like children.

I was five years old before I was allowed one playmate, a boy from the village of Selebi-Oodi, three miles from where we lived. Three days a week Reneilwe was strapped to the back seat of a motorbike driven by his father, brought to the house and left at the back door and brought in by Cook, and then picked up and returned home two hours later after he and I played games and ate a snack. I couldn’t pronounce his full name so I called him Ren. I told him his dark skin reminded me of chocolate. He told me my pale white skin reminded him of clouds.

We left Botswana six months after it became self-governing and moved to London. I had just turned eleven.

#

The transition from being taught at home by a mother – educated in the arts – in a relaxed but structured environment, to being required to wear a uniform and attending an all-boy’s school for the sons of government employees, was the most startling culture shock I experienced soon after settling into our new lives in London.

My father was relieved when I joined the Archery Club at my school instead of following my mother’s wishes of joining the Art Club. The one constant in my life, aside from never wanting for anything, was the arguing between my parents about how I should be raised.

In Botswana Ren had told me many stories of the men in his village going out to hunt. They used guns or spears and not bows and arrows, but the idea of having something to shoot at appealed to me; the bullseye on a target offered a clear direction in my life. I followed it all through school and became an expert archer.

While attending Imperial College I joined the West London Gun Club. The weapons used were different of course, but the use of targets was the same.

#

As a college graduation gift, my father took me on a safari: in Botswana.

He was in his element among the other six individuals, not counting the two guides, that made up the group seeking to hunt big game in the wilds of Botswana – which was most of the country. There was only one woman in the group, a Swede who was there with her husband. The others were two men from Japan and two from Italy. You would have thought my father had returned to his role as the British representative of Botswana.

“Botswana was coveted territory by both the Germans and Britain. During the Berlin Conference, Britain annexed Botswana to safeguard the way North and thus connect the Cape Colony to its territories further north. It also annexed the Tswana territories in 1885 and then sent the Warren Expedition north to secure control over the area and convince the chiefs to accept British rule. Despite their misgivings, they eventually acquiesced to this,” my father told the group while around the campfire the first night. He would have gone on, but Baruti, one of the guides, cut him off, quickly drawing everyone’s attention to him.

“It’s time to sleep. Early tomorrow morning you will see your first sunrise above the Okavango Delta, and then we begin our journey in the dugout canoes in search of the mighty elephant.”

The marshy, grassy landscape of the Okavango Delta was much like the area where I spent the first eleven years of my life and not far from where our house had been built.

That night as I lay in the tent, listening to my father’s snoring, I remembered Ren talking about his father and uncles hunting elephants for their tusks. Just like then, goosebumps traveled up my arms.

#

The large ivory tusks were hung above the fireplace in the drawing-room despite my mother’s vociferous protests against it. They had been buffed and polished and the ends where they had been cut from the dead elephant were sanded down to a flat, even surface. The elephant was my kill, so I was photographed with the rifle cradled in my arms and one foot on the body of the elephant. The photograph was put in a 24K gold frame by my father and placed on the fireplace mantle just below the tusks. My mother sneered at it every time she walked by it.

My college degree was in Political Science, with an eye on following in my father’s footsteps. Actually, I had no interest in it but nothing else interested me either. I floated through college, getting passable grades, but not good enough to make me stand out to any potential employer. My interest was in learning how to use various rifles, graduating from shooting at still cardboard and cork board targets, to targets on moving bases, and to flying clay targets.

While on the safari to Botswana, Baruti gave me the name of the man who he worked for in the event I ever wanted to return to be a guide.

“You’re good with a rifle, know how to track elephants, and speak both English and Tswana” he said. “If your skin wasn’t as white as an eyeball I would think you are Motswana (a Botswana).

“I was born in this country,” I told him.

He raised an eyebrow. “The blood of Botswana runs through your veins.”

#

I was only six, and it was a year after Ren’s arrival, that we snuck out the back door of the house. Led by Ren, the two of us ran beyond the freshly mowed back lawn and into a grove of sausage trees. The large fruit that resembled packed sausages hung from the branches appearing to fall at any moment. I stopped to gaze up at them, astonished at their size.

Ren stopped, saw me gazing up at the fruit. “You eat. You die,” he said. “Come now. The river is nearby. Maybe we see some elephants.” He used the Tswana word for elephant, tlou, since it was one of the words in that language he taught me. My Tswana vocabulary had grown quickly. My mother forbade me from using it around her. “It’s vulgar,” she declared.

I turned from the sausages and ran after him. I didn’t know the names of the birds I heard – grebes, coots, and flufftails – and I had heard them before, many times, but running under the branches and across the soggy ground of their habitats, it felt as if for the first time in my life I felt free of the confines of our house.

The bank of the river was suddenly upon us. It wasn’t actually a river, but a small tributary of a river whose name Ren didn’t know. The water was slow-moving, adding the smell and feel of moisture in the air. We stood on the grassy bank for several minutes as Ren taught me the Tswana words for river and fish. When the first elephant, a large bull with immense tusks, appeared on the other side of the river, I began to cry.

“Why you cry?” Ren asked.

“It’s so big.”

“You should see it when it falls down.”

“Why would it do that?”

“Men with guns shoot it.”

We watched as it dipped its trunk into the water, drank for several minutes, sprayed water on its back, and then turned and walked away. Ren grabbed my hand and pulled me with him as we ran back to the house. Before going in Ren wiped our shoes clean with wads of grass. We snuck back in, careful not to be seen by Cook who was busy stirring a boiling pot of broth at one of the large ovens.

Back in my room, I threw myself on my bed, breathless with excitement. I had experienced my first adventure and saw my first elephant.

After that, we snuck out often. Ren showed me how to track elephants and other games. In return, I read stories to him from my books. His eyes widened like saucers whenever I read a story about living in a big city.

#

On the plane, I sat next to a businessman who was flying to Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, and then going by land to Zimbabwe. I was to be picked up at the airport in Gaborone and taken to the Dogoli safari camp in the Okavango Delta. His flight had also originated in London. At the beginning of the flight when I told him I was going to begin working as a safari guide in Botswana, he was full of questions.

“You look very young to be a safari guide. How old are you?”

“I just turned 22.”

“Don’t you need some training to be a guide?”

“I’m an expert marksman and have been on safari with this outfit before.”

“An expert marksman? This is that kind of safari then. You kill animals?”

“Yes. That’s what safaris are for.”

He was quiet for several moments before he said anything else. “We will hunt animals into extinction.”

“That’s not true,” I replied. “Animals reproduce all the time.”

He stared at me for a moment, as if the words he was going to say had gotten stuck in his throat. He then turned and looked out the window and said very little to me for the remainder of the flight.

At the airport, I was met by Mogapi, one of the native guides for the outfit. It was going to take about fourteen hours to get to the Okavango Delta and another two hours to get to the camp. He already looked tired from driving to the airport, stopping only to sleep on the ground on a blanket on the side of the road for a couple of hours, so I offered to drive while he took a nap. Within minutes of me pulling out of the airport parking lot, he was stretched out in the passenger seat and sound asleep.

The drive north was mostly through arid scrubland. Small, tightly packed villages and farms sporadically lined the sides of the highway. In the distance in the more open landscape, I saw herds of buffalo and antelope. I had driven five hours straight before Mogapi woke up.

He yawned, stretched, looked around, and patted his stomach. “There’s a diner up ahead that has only a few things on its menu, but what they have will fill your belly.”

When we drove into the driveway three men were getting into a jeep. I parked a few spaces away. As I got out of the jeep and their jeep pulled away, I thought the driver looked familiar. It wasn’t until I reached the doorway of the diner that I realized it was Ren I had seen in that jeep. His face was one I would never forget.

#

Three months after my arrival at the Dogoli camp the rainy season began. With thousands of years of seasonal conditioning built into their instincts, the herds of elements began their trek south early to escape the rising waters of the rivers and marshes. There was only a small number of tourists staying at the camp, and they didn’t seem interested in hunting in the intermittent downpours. Mogapi and I gathered our rifles, borrowed a camp skiff, and followed the streams and river tributaries south in search of elephants, although we would have settled for shooting something much smaller. The Dogoli camp managers didn’t mind if the guides went in search of elephant tusks, as long as the profit was shared with them. We had traveled for about ten miles when we spotted a small herd of elephants making their way along the river bank. In the herd were an enormous bull, six cows, and two calves. Any one of the adult elephants would have provided tasks worth their money in weight, but we had our sights set on bagging the bull. The rain began to fall in a torrent just as we reached a position that would allow for clean shots. We lowered the boat anchors and stood to take aim when another skiff pulled up beside us. The three men in it raised their rifles and aimed them at us.

“Hey, what you be doing?” Mogapi shouted.

“You not killing those elephants,” said the man in the middle of the other skiff.

“Ren!” I lowered my rifle.

He looked at me for only a few moments before he broke into a wide smile. He lowered his rifle. “My friend, I’ve thought of you many times all these years.” He then looked at Mogapi and then back to me. “He trades in tusks. Why are you with him?”

The sound of Mogapi’s rifle going off echoed in my ears. At first, I thought it was the singular loud noise that made me imagine seeing Ren drop his gun, grab his chest, and fall into the water. Then I watched the water turn red.

#

The mansion, draped in a foggy shroud of humidity, slowly crumbles. I hadn’t been back to Botswana except, for now, returning in a moment of nostalgia, since leaving it shortly after Ren’s death. A ban on the international ivory trade wasn’t enacted until 1990. When my parents died within months of one another, they left everything to me. Before selling their house in London, the last time I walked out the front door I locked it behind me and walked away, leaving the tusks still hanging above the fireplace.

About the Author:

Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 580 short stories – new and reprints – published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews, and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, being published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers is due out in January, 2022. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. 

 

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