Elephants Never Forget

Annabelle Huff

Copyright 2024 by

Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.

Someone once told me that she loved the zoo. Cocking my head to the side, I pushed my swing a little higher. The air smelled like dying summer leaves and memories.
      “Why?” I asked. 
        She matched my height. “You can see animals, like elephants and lions and monkeys.”
       “Yeah, but they’re so far away, and in cages. How can you enjoy it as much?”
        She tossed me a look. “What do you mean? You can’t get any closer.”
       I laughed at that, waiting for her to join in. She didn’t. That’s when I realized two things. One, being a former missionary kid meant that I had to make sure I knew what I was talking about. And two, uncaged wild animals being normal to you probably means you either own a circus or have lived somewhere other than America. I was barely double digits, and I was dumb. 
     I’m older now, but memories don’t change like house addresses do. I haven’t been back to Africa in eight years, but I can still remember the way it felt to breathe the same uncaged air as they did. The animals in Africa were different. They fit the picture
as though they belonged, and they knew it. Not a cage,
not a side show, not strange and new, but as though they had always been there and always would. As though Africa was as much theirs as anyone else's. 

     In Africa, animals are like flowers. Beautiful. Everywhere. Some of them are rare, but you never see them in tiny cages. Scraggly, cross eyed goats share the same red dirt on their hooves that you do on your shoes. Chickens with legs like wrinkled orange leggings squawk at you as you pass by, probably judging you with the rest of their flock. Our family owned eight pets in Africa alone. Two goats, two rabbits, a dog, a cat, a bird, and a hedgehog, all within five and a half years. But the gems, the ones I remember more than the mundane sight of goats and chickens or rabbits hopping around our courtyard, were the elephants.

      There was a magic in the air. Not a cliche bottled up magic, but the kind of magic that taints all of my memories from Africa. An untamed magic, a warm magic, a sort of magic that promises adventure. And it always delivered. My sisters and I piled into the backseat of our family’s white truck. It smelled like gasoline and baked leather. Instinctively, we were careful not to burn our fingers on the hot metal tip of the seat belt after the truck had been left sitting in the sun for so long. We backed out of the cement driveway, pebbles crunching under the tires. It was a normal drive, full of potholes in the red dirt roads that had us squealing and sliding.

     As the shadows of acacia trees through the windows slid over us less and less and the dirt thinned to a savannah of yellow grass, we crawled up on our knees to stare out the window. The sun glazed everything a hot white. Finally, the truck rattled down a side path to a place so small it didn’t have an address. Piling out, my sisters and I paused while our barrettes were reclipped and our flowered shorts’ cuffs were unrolled properly, and our flip flops were tossed out of the backseat of the truck. 

     Of course, that last one didn’t do much good. By the time my mom had turned around to wave to the people approaching us, I kicked off my flip-flops. My older sister kept hers on out of duty, and my younger sister kept hers on because she was three and didn’t care. Then, with me barefoot like I always was at home, we ran to hug the newcomers. 

      They were our cousins, basically idolized in our little minds. Most likely because they lived stateside, and especially because they were older than us. When their family flew to Africa to visit, all fun broke loose. At home they took the guest room upstairs, but driving, our small white truck wasn’t big enough for both of our families. They had arrived separately, but they had arrived.  We could begin.

      The place itself wasn’t fancy. It was the sort of place you had to ask directions to. A few trees were sprinkled around. A long, short building with yellow walls and a tin roof lined one part. The ground was overgrown, dry grass that had been trampled on many times. A wooden bench here, a water barrel there, a large wooden mortar and pestle, short mountains in the distance. It wasn’t the place that was special. It was the elephants. 

        A man in a green khaki shirt, loosely buttoned because of the smothering heat, waved us in. The five of us kids paraded behind the adults. There wasn’t a lot to look at, but to us, it was the grandest of adventures. We soaked it all in, pointing out every new thing while the adults behind us fished for francs in their pockets and purses. Words of French swept over our heads as they settled payment. After a moment, they handed the man ten dollars, or five thousand francs. Smiling, he promised to be right back in French as accented as my parents. It wasn’t either of their native languages, but it was the common one.
    As we waited, the kids stood in the speckled shade, asking a million questions. I was only five, but I knew something big was about to happen. Everyone was grinning, flicking glances where the man had walked off. You couldn’t see exactly where he’d gone, or where the land ended and the fence began. It all dissolved into yellow undergrowth, an outcropping of trees with tiny gray branches.

     Then we heard it. The bray of an elephant. Then another. 
    Suddenly, kids were squealing, adults whipping out cameras, everyone trying to be the first to see them. The elephants. I don’t know who won that medal. I only know when I saw them. And it was a breathtaking picture.  

     It was like the movie scenes where the hero walks away from an explosion without looking back. He led them in grinning, a parade of elephants behind him. They could have crushed him if they wanted to. But instead it was like they had both done this a thousand times before. The elephants were beautiful, with leathery skin the same shade of gray as a sky before a thunderstorm. They walked almost silently, as we gasped and grinned and exchanged looks that said more than all our words. 

   My mom handed out oranges we’d bought at the market a day or so ago. I hesitated before an elephant, swiping at the hair coming out of my braids. I was only up to its shoulder. I could have walked under them without having to barely duck my head. My older sister, always the ringleader, strutted towards a pair of elephants, calling for mom to watch. Cupping her mango in her hand, she stretched it out. I stared at her. She stood there as though she was Madeline from the picture book we used to read. Elephants? Pooh!” Surely older sisters were never scared of elephants.

     I watched as an elephant meandered towards her. She wavered a bit, putting a hand up to shield her face from the sun - or maybe the elephant. Then it got a little closer. She drew her hand back a bit, to entice it closer - or to get further away. The other elephant took notice. She cringed, shifting a little from the sun scorched grass - or from nervousness. My mom laughed, snapping a picture. 
     Remembering who was watching, my older sister forced herself to freeze stiff and face her doom. The elephant to reach her first just curled his trunk around her hand, snuffling. She let out a tiny squeak, then grinned. The elephant groped the mango off her palm gentle as gentle does. She laughed. “It feels funny. See, Annabelle, it’s easy!” 

     Of course I couldn’t let my older sister show me up. Dodging an elephant, I scampered over to my uncle. He stood with a
pack on his back and a mango in his hand, laughing at my dad, who posed with his hand tucked in an elephant’s trunk. My mom scooted back and forth, trying to take a picture without the sun’s glare. My dad kept breaking into a laugh and looking down at his hand, and my mom kept shielding the phone with her hand as she leaned one way, then the other. 

     I sidled up next to my uncle. “You wanna touch them?” He asked. I swayed a little, then nodded. “Here, I’ll lift you up.” I nodded again, warily watching an elephant from the corner of my eye. I’d seen them uncaged before, but that was different. 
    We had been on a safari, inside miles and miles of savannah with a fence lining only the outside. Once we were inside, it was a dirt path for our truck to drive down the middle of the wild. Animals roamed all around us, paying us little attention for the most part. It was as though we were invisible, watching their lives unfold around us. As far as the eye could see, the horizon was a yellow line of open savannah, no other humans in sight. 

     We had to pause for a pride of lions to pass in front of us, feet from our truck. We got out and took photos with giraffes bowing down to graze from acacia trees. We climbed up a wooden platform and monkeys swung inches from us, screeching and chattering. Of course, there had been elephants, but that was different. We had been spectators. Now it was just them and us.   My uncle carried me towards an elephant. It was inches away now. I could see myself in its glassy eyes, with my wispy two braids and bright yellow shirt. My five year old heart was fluttering out a million beats a minute. The sun scorched my scalp. It blinked at me. I did too. My uncle reached a hand out and slowly brushed its trunk. It didn’t even flinch. I did. Then, unable to look away, I smiled.

     As though it was mimicking my uncle, it uncurled its trunk and snuffled my face. Laughing, I pulled back. My uncle’s laughter joined mine, and my heartbeat smoothed out. I was almost sure the elephant was laughing with us. 

     As my cousin walked over to offer it a mango and my uncle slid me back down, I bundled all my courage together. My mom trailing behind like paparazzi, I walked barefoot and alone to another elephant. This time, at least closer to eye to eye, we watched each other. It wasn’t warily though, just taking each other in. 

     A little girl with her American passport from when she was two weeks old and the soles of her feet stained with the red dirt of Africa. An elephant whose family was found out wild in the savannah and herself in a place with no address being fed mangos. Both a little out of place. Neither one mad about where they were. Or if the elephant was, she didn’t seem to show it. I’d bet she’d never known any different than where she was. I did, at least. Furloughs stateside came often enough that I called it ‘home’ too, but rare enough that I didn’t know yet that not everyone fed elephants. At the moment though, I was just happy to watch the elephant.
    My mom called for my cousins and my older sister to come crowd around the elephant. Flocking obediently, we all posed with the speed of those who have posed many times, like soldiers resigned to their duty.
      “Put a hand on the elephant!” My mom directed from behind her phone.
   And so we all laid a hand on its trunk. My older sister in her pink butterfly shirt, my cousin in her African print skirt, my other cousin towering a foot or two above us all, and me, front and foremost, turned towards the elephant and smiling over my shoulder. The elephant was staring at us, and we at the camera. 

    It only took a heartbeat to snap that picture. To snap all of those photos. We left soon afterwards, driving back from Benin to Togo and beating the midday heat home. Our cousins left days after that. Weeks after that, we packed up the house we’d called home for the past five and a half years. We sold most of it and took what we could on a plane back to the U.S. Now all I have are pictures of when we were missionaries, and I can’t stop looking at them all. 

    I wonder what happened to that elephant. To all those elephants. I wonder if they’re in cages now. I wonder if they’re in the savannah. I wonder if they never went anywhere. I wonder if they’re still alive. I wonder if they ever wonder what happened to the little girl in the yellow shirt and two wispy braids. I wonder if they would care that that little missionary girl flew back stateside and moved around and settled down and wrote about them. I wonder if they’d recognize me when I come back. And I know that one day, I will come back. Even just for a visit. 
      They say elephants never forget. Neither will I.

Annabelle Huff is a Daughter of the King who loves words. She lives in America but spent the first six years of her life as a missionary in Africa, and wants to be a missionary when she is an adult. She started reading and writing young and never stopped. Annabelle has a sweet tooth, loves rain, is the second of four children, and enjoys piano and theatre. 

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