My final for my former writing class. I love critique, so feel free to do so. An explanation of time and motifs (since they were in the writing prompt and I had to include that in the final paper) is at the end.
Words to know:
Ubude - height, length
Pekenene - brother or little boy
Indolovu - elephant
Mma - mother
Tears for Indolovu
You never said I could do it, but I haven't broken a promise yet. I also promised I'd see you again, and that's exactly what I plan to do. The trees were green and spindly in the midst of red sands and tall grasses, and the indolovu towered over the leaves. I imagined standing on their trunks, staring down at the body of the indolovu while you stared up at me. I told Pekenene I was going to accomplish this and more – I said I was going to stand on the clouds. You said that wasn't possible, and in my mind I imagined that was just because we never saw clouds. Now I know what you truly meant.
So many dreams were crushed, though they were all met. I told you I would rumble like the indolovu, and psychologically I had done it. That was before my victory, though you weren't there to see it. I climbed trees every day, living up to my name, and watched the mingling indolovu, wondering what it would be like to stand on top of one. You took Pekenene and me to a watering hole where we saw them squirt water from those trunks into their mouths – what I thought to be the essence of life dripping from their gray, wrinkled lips, though now I know the truth. I could mimic their sounds if I pursed my lips tight and blew out fast and hard, and all the while I just imagined what I could see from such great heights – higher than any tree standing guard on the red sands. I imagined the bottom of the indolovu, which I wouldn't be able to see once I was sitting behind their large flapping ears: blue like the sky with purple wrinkles and red on the bottom of their feet with the backs of their legs painted various shades of green. They would have to writhe in the sand to blend in with their surroundings, I told you, so that the lions wouldn't spot them from their perch.
Pekenene didn't believe me when I said I'd stand up there one day. You couldn't warn me against it. Pekenene and I were always trying to outdo the other, you must remember. Commanding us to stop became somewhat of a mantra for you. I remember one time we were playing football – I was winning and bragging about it. You turned to me with your pretty voice, low unlike the other women but not at all masculine in any way, and you said, "It's not about who is better. It's about who reaches higher, Ubude." That was when I started to climb trees, living up to the name you gave me. I stopped playing football with Pekenene, and he improved while I lost some of my skill. I would have told you that I let him win.
You're probably wondering how I got here. I sat in the top of a tree, wraping my bone-like fingers around the thin branches, and my dark forearms were much thinner than the branches at one point. You had long since stopped reminding me to eat. The breeze licked my skin and tried to move my hair, but the wind was as weak as I was thin and my feet were sweating on the branches. Do you remember these hot days? The heat did nothing but add to the glory of my perch. I could see everything except for you. I remember smiling down at Pekenene and then up, searching for clouds that you said would never come, raising my arms to the sky as if to beckon them near. And then I fell. Pekenene had to get a man to carry me because he was too small, too weak, since he, too, had forgotten to eat. I was like the indolovu of my imagination, writhing in the sand to paint myself red.
You would think this would deter me from my namesake. I was in a tree again, but my forearms were wider than the branches. We brothers reminded each other to eat after my fall. I stared at the sky as I had every day, but there still weren't clouds. Your son sounded just like you when he said, "There will never be any clouds, Ubude."
I turned to him and I said, "Wait for them, Pekenene. They'll come."
Dreamers need realists, I suppose. You knew that.
In my tree, I looked down to the same watering hole where you'd brought us so long ago, where the indolovu were drinking with their trunks. I still wasn't old enough to understand much, but I'd learned from you and from Pekenene alike. I stayed in my tree, and I came often to sit among the branches, brown like my skin, and the leaves green like the back of the indolovu of my imagination. I grew taller and broader and some nice white folks came to live with me and Pekenene. They took care of us until we could manage on our own; you would have liked them. The man talked just like Pekenene when I mentioned the clouds. Very blunt words. "They won't come," almost like they didn't exist, but I knew they existed somewhere and that was enough hope for me. The woman talked more like you. "Heights," she'd begin in that high-pitched motherly tone. She called me Heights after I told her what my name meant in our native tongue. "Heights, don't be upset if you don't get the chance to stand on the clouds."
On what may very well have been my thousandth trip to that one watering hole, I realized my rumblings weren't the rumblings of the indolovu at all. It had been so long since my mind was convinced I had done it; I had no reaction to the revelation until later. I was numb inside and out, the constant light and airy feeling I imagined as flight – optimistic, happy, jovial, gay, ecstatic feelings – freedom, relief, and immortality – had disappeared, not just dulled. No. Vanished completely.
There were men yelling and screaming things that sounded horrendous to my ears. Things like, "Shoot the elephants!" and calling the beautiful giants "a treasure-trove of ivory." I didn't know what they meant, but I saw their guns and I knew I had to save the indolovu.
You knew me well. I wasn't confrontational except with my brother. But the defenseless watering hole was the home of the indolovu and I couldn't stand to watch their blood taint our sands. It had become my home, too. My home nearest you and farthest from Pekenene.
Times were tough for Pekenene and me. Pekenene stole to fill our stomachs, keeping the unbearable aches and pains at bay. He became a pick-pocket, even despite my displeasure. When we brothers were under your wing, Pekenene would never purposefully upset me. Perhaps it was more a matter of refraining from spilling my tears until it was absolutely necessary.
I cried for the things we've stolen, before and after the white couple in our home. We ate, swamped in our own sweat and sitting on the sandy ground in our little hut of the shantytown slums. We drank, drowning our sorrows in bile-water, only to live one more day so they could resurface again. Was that how the indolovu lived? Did their trunks shrink when they were parched of thirst, and did their tusks crack when they were hungry? No… they were never without food or water. The trees I climbed, scattering my prints along the branches and leaves, were plenty for what few indolovu lived nearby, and the watering hole was never dry. I never questioned it.
Tears were sliding down my cheeks as I saw the men with guns and cars drive closer to the indolovu. I didn't think there was enough water in me to shed such tears; Pekenene scolded me on occasion when he saw me crying, telling me I was wasting the water he could have paid for with a hand. Tears for indolovu were not a waste, I thought, and clambered down from my tree. Once my feet hit sand, which, also parched, stole the sweat from my pads, I took off closer to the water.
I had spent enough time there to know without a doubt who their leader was. There was an indolovu with more wrinkles than the rest, a tear in one ear, and a chip in a tusk. Wherever that one went, the others followed, and that knowledge spurred me on with twice the speed. I was flying. And then splashing, wading my way to the leader of the indolovu with enough determination to part an entire ocean.
I'd never been so close in my life. You warned me against it; you said they were dangerous, these indolovu and all others like them, but I decided to choose my own adjectives for them.
Pekenene called my name. I froze in the water and glanced back to the tree. I hadn't seen him standing there; he hadn't come to the watering hole since the day I fell. "Ubude!" he called from beside the tree. "Come back, brother!"
I cupped my hands around my dry, cracking lips. "I have to save the indolovu!"
"Poachers are coming, Ubude! Please, come back!"
So that was what men with guns were called. Poachers. I didn't care; I was numb to the world and the way it worked. Whilst perched in my tree, a car blew past the trunk and I recognized the rumblings as my own. With the true source of my indolovu rumbles so near, it was an impossible fact to ignore, and yet I still tried to keep my perfectly ignorant belief. I often thought indolovu felt my rumblings for miles and miles like they felt each other's, but no new ones ever came and the truth of it numbed my heart and closed my ears to all but murmured sounds I couldn’t discern. Pekenene's cries would bounce off my body like the football he bounced on his head.
I turned to continue my splashing.
I couldn’t take one step. The leader of the indolovu was so close I was sure it felt my startled, raspy breath on its skin. Pekenene's hollers drifted into the background as I stared into the eyes of the indolovu. They were golden and large and beautiful, and I craned my neck to see them better. Those mysterious orbs were like a sun I could stare at and never fear going blind. Have you ever seen such freedom? It raised the mute over my ears and eyes; I could hear everything and see everything – vibrant life all around me, colors which were previously unknown to me and, for a moment… I thought I saw a cloud.
Its trunk searched my body, patting me down and feeling my bones. I was lost in those huge eyes, set in a trance by swirling musical yellows and browns and golds and bronzes, hypnotized beyond all comprehension. There was splashing behind me that I heard but didn't register. A hand on my shoulder, tugging me, and a trunk around my waist, pulling me.
I could only move to look at the poachers' side of the watering hole, and found with dread that the gun was raised and his finger was on the trigger. But then he lowered it slightly. Relief coursed through my veins, fluttering through my limbs so quickly I trembled. Feeling safe, I looked to the indolovu again, succumbed to its eyes.
I was disoriented but brought vaguely back by the sharp sound, so near to my ears and yet so far from my mind. It jarred me back to the situation, and I spun round to find Pekenene pulling down on my shoulder frantically, trying to get me below the surface of the water, but I didn't want to be lower, I wanted to be higher, and the indolovu refused to let me go. I was unwilling to let it go. I placed one steady hand on my brother's shoulder and the other on the trunk of the indolovu, my big toes traveling up the wrinkles of the indolovu's trunk. I hoisted myself up, releasing Pekenene and scampering to sit atop the leader of the indolovu.
Pekenene fell away from me when I released him. He leaned against the smaller indolovu nearby, which clutched its mother's tail. The newest addition to their little pack, I'd noticed its appearance perhaps thirty suns prior. I held out my hand to my brother, but he wouldn't move to take it. "Come on, Pekenene, we have to go!" I heard two more gunshots, both of which appeared to miss their desired targets. I ducked, glancing behind me to find the poachers reloading their guns. I turned back to your son and shook my hand as if that would stress the importance of him grasping it.
And then I saw… red oozing from my brother's side. It shone something demonic as the life joined the water that caressed his thighs, as if a lover urging him to bed. To sleep. It shimmered like honey but flowed as easily as the water I imagined we'd have one day. My eyes could not leave the spot, so I was forced to stare at my brother's dark fingers trying to keep him alive. You couldn't see the red liquid on his fingers, he was so dark, but you knew it was there because of the way they shone. I couldn't look at his face – didn’t want to look at his face – but I couldn't keep staring. I wanted to pretend he was fine.
My eyes traveled up his form. He leaned against the month-old indolovu for support. Without it he probably wouldn't be able to stand. My brother looked oddly relaxed everywhere but in his fingers, in his nose, and in his eyes. His shoulders were loose and his neck was relaxed. I could pretend he wasn't hurt at all, and he was just disgusted by my sitting atop an elephant. But then my gaze would travel once again to his side, or else they would go to his eyes and I would see the pain. In my brother's deep eyes, there was no hatred, only pain and the deep, incomprehensible love that we shared for each other. His eyes shone like the indolovu before; I could taste the freedom in them. But now… now…
"Come on," I squeaked, shaking my hand one last time. His mouth was open, his lips were moving, but no sound came out. My vision was blurring and I tried to blink it clear, but it was so hard and I was so scared. I wailed, waterfalls streaming from my already wet eyes, screaming, "Pekenene! Pekenene! PEKENENE!" Louder and louder and louder until I thought I'd blow my own ears out or tear a hole in my throat by the force of my voice.
My brother tried to speak again, but I couldn't hear him from my perch atop the indolovu, and I could hardly see what he was trying to tell me. My tears shed for the hope I gave up; hope that my brother would march with the indolovu and me. I imagined him saying, "Don't waste the water I could have paid for with a hand."
"I'd give my whole arm to stop what I've done," I whispered. He shut his eyes tight, opened them again, tried to talk again. He still clutched his side with one hand, like that would staunch the flow, but we both knew it wouldn't and we both knew it was my fault that he was about to die. He seemed to hear me, your son – your brilliant son, the sun through the clouds and the spark in our eyes – and I wiped at my eyes to find him mouthing the words, "I love you." I told him I loved him, too, and I thanked him for everything he did for me – everything you couldn't or wouldn't do. It seemed to be all he was waiting for. Another gunshot rang out. He must have known that the longer he stayed alive, the longer I would sit there atop the indolovu, easy bait for the poachers if they only came closer. He fell below the water, and I screamed his name once more.
The indolovu were frantic and restless but their leader was not moving. They didn't know where to go, and my brother's blood colored the water like our sands. He was gone, but still I could not move. Another gunshot rang out, and the leader of the indolovu cried out in pain. It lurched, bending drastically toward the ground before catching itself which shoved my mind back to attention. I would die, too, and let the indolovu die alongside Pekenene if I did not act soon. I watched the mother with her young elephant for the suns it was alive. The former pushed the latter behind the ears wherever she wanted it to go, and it obeyed. So if I just pushed behind the large flapped ears…
My toes dug in, pushing and pushing as far as my legs could reach, but the leader stood still, leaning heavily on one side. "Go on!" I screamed, frustrated and enraged and entirely lost without Pekenene. I hopped up and down on its neck, kicking with my toes and my heels at the back of the ears. "Go ON!"
More gunfire. I glanced behind me. The poachers were out of the car, at the edge of the watering hole. There were two, and their white skin was tinted by our sands just like the bottoms of their shoes. A gun was pointed straight for me. I ducked out of instinct as my eyes zoned in on the finger tightening on the trigger. A bullet whizzed past, lodging itself in my tree. In the process of dodging a bullet, I'd slipped on the indolovu – I sat with two arms looped over its back and a leg hooked right next to them, my other leg left to dangle like bait for a fish. Struggling to push myself back up, the indiolovu started to turn sideways, following my weight, until we were perfectly perpendicular to the poachers and their guns.
An unfamiliar rush surged through me, firing up my nerves and lending me strength. I grasped the indolovu's ear, hauling myself up and over the side. Bang, bang, two more shots fired. The month-old indolovu cried out, the mother turning round to watch her baby fall. She stared for a minute while I settled myself back on the leader of the indolovu.
And then she charged.
She raced toward the poachers, who were reloading their guns, and aiming them while shouting things in the white man's tongue.
"Shoot it! Shoot the damn thing!"
I didn't know if they were talking about me or her, but somewhere in the back of my mind I hoped they were talking about me just so she might be able to exact revenge for her child. But I couldn't let her do that anymore than I could let the poachers kill again. I pursed my lips and blew out fast and hard, imitating the sounds of the indolovu. For a minute, she didn't alter her course; she knew it wasn't her leader. I did it again, and again, and again. My fists came down on top of the indolovu's head in frustration, batting the top of its hard head and forcing a shock of pain through my wrists.
The leader of the indolovu made my sound. The mother hesitated with rumblings we humans could hear, sucked up some water and sprayed it at the poachers before she altered her course back to us. I could hear the men cursing and saw them shaking their sopping guns, but I didn’t know what any of it meant. The leader of the indolovu was limping out of the water and I turned my attention elsewhere. My gaze traced the path of my legs, finding that my feet were unconsciously pushing in a little niche at the back of the ears. I dug my heels in harder and it went faster, limp-racing to the sands and beyond, until we were finally out of sight. We kept going, the indolovu and me, and I turned the indolovu by releasing the pressure from one ear. I never heard the sound of a car behind us, nor did I see the glint of a gun.
The indolovu moved on. You would have told me it was a natural process for them, and Pekenene would have said something smart in response. Instead, the white couple came back. The man patted my shoulder and said, "They are animals, boy. Of course they move on." I took it as he gave it, as I had with you.
And you know – after Pekenene joined you over the clouds, the man and woman fetched Pekenene from the water. He was so shriveled and fragile and plumped from all the water, after soaking it all up like a sponge… The sand dried him up while we buried him. We didn't bury you like this, but Pekenene and I gave you a carving on a tree – the same one you said you were born under, and the one you died under. The one you told stories for and said to us brothers that this was our birthplace, too. The one that took a bullet for me. The one beside the watering hole. The white couple and I – we buried my brother, your son, under the tree, and I gave him a carving, too.
Then the woman said, "Where we come from, the living say something nice for the dead," and nudged me forward with a gentle hand. And that's how I came to be here, Mma. Standing at the beginning and the end, wanting to speak but with no words to say. My hand is stroking the tree, tracing the two carvings, wondering if someone would make one for me when it is my turn to stand above the clouds. I turn to face the woman who is so like you and I tell her of my problem.
Can you hear her? She says, "Then speak with your heart, and not your voice."
And my heart rumbles like the indolovu.
Ubude's want: physically he wants to climb higher; internally he wants to accomplish something
Elephants and clouds
Significance of the rumbling and clouds:
The rumbling parallels the clouds; it is unmanifest in the sense that it is nonexistent (rumblings human ears can't detect; clouds that Ubude has never seen) but they have the potential to exist and/or do exist somewhere else, just not presently. It is the center of all hope for Ubude. His dreams and aspirations.
Might note that in the beginning, Ubude narrates, "...I said I was going to stand on the clouds. You said that wasn’t possible, and in my mind I imagined that was just because we never saw clouds. Now I know what you truly meant." And at the end: "...after Pekenene joined you over the clouds..." So he still doesn't really grasp that the clouds can't physically be stood on. When he says he knows what his deceased mother meant, he has it in his head that standing on the clouds is something you do in death.
Mainly to contrast the compassionate couple and the poachers. The white couple set Ubude on the right track with kindness and the poachers set him on the right track with malicious intent.
The color red
I don't really mention any color except for red, brown, gray, yellow and white, but while all the other colors aren't mentioned but once or twice, red comes up quite a bit. Um... This wasn't intentional, but I'm going to try to stray from the Robert Frost way of putting it with the whole, "It just sounded better."
Pekenene's blood taints the water red after he falls in under the bullet wound, and Ubude describes it as the same red color of the sand. He is obsessed with heights - climbing as far up as he can get, which happens to be on top of an elephant until the day he dies.
Ubude wants to get away from everything red. To him, it is pain and loss and sorrow. His mother died on the red sands under the tree that he loves to climb, and Pekenene's death taints the water the same color as the sands.
The narration starts before the story starts, and then it goes into a big circle from there. It's more-or-less chronological after the opening, but with a few interjections as Ubude reflects on his last moments with both his mother and his brother.