Deep, deep green beamed from the canopy of branches as the last remnant of morning fog danced through them. The rich smell of wet earth filled the air, soaked my clothes, my hair, everything with its fragrance. I looked through the trees at the rising sun. It seemed irreverent to think how the same sun rose over the iron fire escape of my little apartment across the world and how it must ever cast its gaze on something so unnatural when it can see all of the beauties of this world every day. This was another world, separate from the hustle the city I called home. It’s unreal to comprehend that I am here. My family, my friends, even my boss kept saying how unwise it is for a woman to travel alone, especially to this rural village in Nepal. But I’m a reporter, a travelling story teller; I must go to be able to capture the story. When the opportunity came to travel here, I volunteered without even asking what I would be covering. I just wanted to escape from the city, from the routine that had trapped me.
When I arrived, the regional correspondent, Mr. Whitaker, was waiting for me. As he carried my bags he briefed me about the assignment.
“You’re going to a small village near the Chitwan National Park in the Terai region of southern Nepal,” he began, his British accent making it seem much more dramatic. “This village has two community elephants. Both have been affected by a mysterious ailment, or so the villagers say, probably some superstitious rubbish.”
He tossed my bag into the back seat. “Anyhow, the village is sending a group to walk to elephants to animal doctor. You are supposed to travel with the group through the jungle.”
He raised his eyebrows, taking me in, weighing my ability or perhaps my fortitude. Finally he asked, “Why did you come?”
“I’m a reporter,” I answered. “I report”
“I don’t buy it. That’s the answer you give when you’re going to get a hard hitting story. But you aren’t. This is a simple human interest story. I can’t believe they sent a woman. This isn’t just a stroll through the park. You’re going to be walking through the jungle with men and the guns and two elephants. Now tell me, why did you come?”
I thought for a moment, before speaking. I wondered how to say what I was feeling, what had driven me to come here. As I thought, he parked and turned off the engine. I knew he wouldn’t let me go without an answer.
“I had to get away. I had to escape the city,” I said before pulling the handle to open the door. Suddenly, just as one foot hit the dirt road, he grabbed my arm and pulled me back.
“No one comes here running away from something,” he said, staring into my eyes. “They only come when they are looking for something. Do you really know what you’re doing, missy?”
He let go before I answered and stepped out of the door. He pointed out the family I would travel with to the village. I climbed into the back of the jeep and he handed me my khaki bag. I assured him again that I was fine. But as the jeep pulled away and I watched him lean again a tree, shaking his head and smoking cigarette, I wondered if the decision to come here was the right one. He watched me from the shade until I couldn’t see him any longer. Then I was surrounded by jungle. All I could here was the crunching of tires on the makeshift road. It drowned out all other noise. The sound and the trees became a blur, until it was finally replaced by silence and the sight of a little village full of busy people.
When I climbed down, I was greeted with stares. Stares and whispers. The words seemed to speak with quiet urgency like the rasp of katydids until a man came up yelling at the men who surrounded me. When he finished, the whole assembly fell silent as he just stared at me, a deep stare which felt like it could consume me whole, like he was looking at me from the inside out. I shuttered. He turned to an older man leaning on a cane that was taller than he was. The first man yelled again, but this time sounding calmer. He directed his argument to the elder speaking with more and more conviction; then he pointed directly at me. The older man shook his head. This deliberate, slow motion drew the attention of the crowd as he began to speak. His voice was quiet and aged. After he finished a young man came out of the group and walked up to me.
“I am Pravesh. I will speak for you. This man,” he pointed to the man who had yelled, “is Abhik. He will be in the group to walk to elephants. He doesn’t want you to go, because you are a woman. But Swastik say you must go, and that I will speak for you.”
The crowd began to disperse, but the people still shot glances toward me. Abhik stormed away, a small group of men followed him. I tried to watch where he went, but Pravesh nudged me and offered to take me to the place where I would stay until we left. He led me to a small shelter near the center of the village, explaining that the family who had lived here had left for Pokhara. After he left I lied down on the little grass cot in the center of the dwelling. I looked around at hut. There were only three walls and part of the roof was missing. I fell asleep looking at the stars through the hole above my head. I couldn’t see the stars from my place in the city. I hadn’t seen them for years.
* * *
We stayed in the village for two more days as the men prepared for the long journey. Pravesh introduced me to the elephants the group would be taking through the jungle. One was an old female called Rajvi. She was the grandmother of the younger female, Shanti.
“A spiritual man said there was something wrong,” Pravesh explained. “It is not something we see. There is no wound, no sickness on the outside. It is something deep inside. There is the sickness he saw. So now we must walk them to be healed.”
“Why do they have to be walked? Can’t you load them on a truck and drive them?” I questioned.
“We have no truck in this village. Abhik is proud to ask for one from others. Even Swastik agrees. But he say that it is good for elephants not to take on a truck. They were made to walk he say.”
Made to walk was a profound thought to me. I wondered if I was made for anything. Was I created so I could come here? My thoughts became hazy in the heat. Pravesh continued talking, but I didn’t pay attention. Then he was nudging me.
“Oh um, yes?”
“We are ready to go,” he said smiling wide. “The men, they want to know, what is your good name?”
“Oh, my name is Elizabeth. But you all can call me Liz.”
“Okay, I will call you Lij.”
As we gathered our things and set out, I tried to help him pronounce my name but it didn’t change. Soon he began to tell me about life in the village. Apparently it used to be much larger, but over time more and more families were moving to the cities. Parents would send their children away for an education. Then after when the young men and women graduated, they would bring their parents to live with them, some even immigrating to other countries. Those who stayed were mainly those who refuse or couldn’t afford to send their children away.
“My parents would have sent me, but they died of fever,” Pravesh shared. “My grandmother didn’t want me to leave forever, but she sent me for English so I can go when she dies.”
“Your English is very good,” I told him.
“Not so much. There are others in the village who speak better. They are those who come back from the school. Pawan,” he pointed to one of the other men, “knows English good and French. He was in Canada for three years. He will go back again. Yashwant and Bhumi don’t know any English. They have only visited in cities.”
He told me about these men. I could see that they were all strong men. Pawan was taller and had a thick neck. He told me Yashwant and Bhumi were cousins. They looked similar, both narrow frames but muscular. All of them had serious expressions; eyes squinted staring between the trees. Abhik led at the very front of the group. The elephants walked in the middle of the group. Bhumi and Pawan were in front of them, herding them forward. Shanti was smaller. When she would hit Bhumi in the back with her trunk, he would step back to walk beside her and pet her forehead. When he talked to her, his voice sounded like a quiet song. Beside Shanti, Rajvi walked with her head hanging low. Something about her expression made me sympathetic. Her eyes were almost empty of feeling. I wondered what kept her walking.
When we camped that night, the five men spoke made us a small fire. As they cooked lentils, I could see them relax. All except Abhik, his brow remained furrowed as the other laughed and talked. As we ate his gazed moved between me and the jungle switching every minute. I was relieved when the fire began to die out and the men started preparing to sleep. I started to place my blanket, but Abhik stopped me and took it from my hands. He placed nearer to the fire, just inside the circle from his blanket. As I lay trying to sleep I could see him staring at me through the darkness. I turned over and closed my eyes.
In the morning, we woke before the sunrise. Pravesh told me it was Abhik’s custom to leave just after the sun rose. So we packed everything and stood staring toward the east, waiting for a glint of light. Bhumi roused the elephants and prepared them to continue walking, whispering to them in Nepali. Then we stood in silence facing the sunrise until Abhik moved. The men seemed more relaxed today. Pravesh talk almost constantly as we walked. He shared his dream to move to the United States someday and study biology. He talked for an hour straight before Pawan came and spoke to him in Nepali.
“I will walk beside Rajvi now,” Pravesh explained. “Pawan will walk with you.”
As Pravesh walked away, Pawan took stride next to me.
“How do you like the walk so far?” he asked.
“I think it very interesting. I like the elephants a lot and watching you all interact.”
“And the jungle? What do you think of the jungle?”
“It’s beautiful. I prefer this to the city I come from. It’s so quiet and peaceful.”
“I don’t mean to be rude,” Pawan began, staring at me with something like pity. “But you are very wrong. You think you can get a picture of life here in only a few days. That is wrong. This place is the past. There is no future here. How stupid is it to walk elephants through a jungle?”
“You don’t want to be here, right?”
“No, I don’t. My home is in Canada now. I’m just trapped here,” he said. His expression was bitter now. “But that isn’t what I mean to tell you. The thing is, I know what the world is like over there. The papers there can take this story as a quant journey of backwards people. But we aren’t uncivilized. American’s will read whatever you write as if it were a little glimpse of an exotic world like travelling back in time. But we all have phones just like they do. We’ve all watched television and movies, driven cars. I wanted to remind you of this, so when you write about us, it isn’t a fiction.”
I began to speak but he walked away to speak with Abhik. Then I was alone. I listened to the air empty of words. It was full of the sounds of animals. Birds were singing. Insects were buzzing. I could hear branches snapping as we walked. The heat filled my head and I lost track of time. I walked listlessly beside Rajvi. I imagined I had the same expression as she. That there must be some feeling lost behind my eyes. I could feel the emptiness expanding. I think this must be the reason I came here, that the emptiness of the city would not follow me.
It was getting dark when I was once again conscious of my surroundings. I looked around but the jungle looked the same. The men brought the elephants to a stop, but not to make camp. Abhik ran to my side, looking frantically through the trees. Then I heard why they must have stopped: footsteps coming quickly through the jungle. Abhik muttered something quickly to the men, then grabbed my arm and pulled me crouching behind a group of trees.
“What the…” but he put his hand firmly over my mouth.
“Be quiet,” he said. “You need to listen to me. Someone is coming here. It can’t be good. Whoever it is cannot know that you are American. Cover your head with this and don’t speak no matter what. We have to protect the elephants; they are the greatest asset of our village.”
Shocked, I did as he said wrapping my head with the cloth he gave me. He pulled me out by the wrist and stood in front of me. I saw that all five men were holding guns now. I was suddenly sick with fear. Then eight men entered the clearing where we stood, all holding guns.
They began speaking and Abhik spoke back. Then one man began to speak in English.
“English is the language of business these days. And we have a proposition,” he said. “We want money. Simple enough. You have elephants. We will let you keep them and your lives if you get us money… now.”
Abhik looked at his men; then he looked at me. Something which had been there before was now gone. I think it was his fierceness and certainty. Now, as he stared deeply into my eyes, I saw fear. A tear rolled down my cheek. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t hold it back; that I had let it fall while he was watching. He dropped his gaze for a moment. I didn’t know what to think. Suddenly he grabbed my hand and looked at me. His jaw was set, his teeth were clinched, and he looked at his men with a new resolve.
“I want to negotiate with you, but we have no money. Not here anyway,” Abhik began.
The man looked overtaken with rage. He clinched his fist to control it, but walked over and hit Yashwant with the butt of his rifle. I nearly screamed at the initial impact. I wasn’t expecting him to strike. Then I wondered why he chose Yashwant. Why the quietest man of our group? I didn’t understand what he accomplished by doing this. Yet Yashwant lay on the ground, holding his shoulder and shaking in pain. The man kneeled down and pulled Yashwant up, whispering in his ear. The whisper was so quiet no one but Yashwant could hear. When he had finished, he dropped Yashwant back to the ground.
“Send this one to get the money,” the man said. “The rest of you will stay here as… security.”
Abhik looked slightly confused by what had just happened, but said, “Thank you” to the man before going to pick up Yashwant. As he went he pulled me with him. The other men from the village huddled around Yashwant as well; they spoke in a blur of hushed Nepali. Pravesh began to move to come translate, but Abhik stopped him and pulled me closer as we knelt.
“Listen closely,” he whispered, his nose brushing against the shawl that was wrapped around my head and face. “I don’t know what is happening. It seems very strange. Normally this type of men don’t target villagers like us. They know we don’t have much. They must have received some information from someone about this journey. I’m sure that they think there is something of great value, or they wouldn’t waste their time. I’m afraid what we have to offer them will not make them happy. But if they find out that you’re American, they may see this as a more profitable venture. I’m afraid of what they will do to you. If they find out you are a reporter, the consequences may be worse. They wouldn’t want you to go free because you’ll expose them.”
My knees gave way and I fell into him. His arms surrounded me as he guided me to sit on the ground. He leaned in to continue whispering.
“Try to be calm. Nothing should happen. Just stay quiet and don’t look in their eyes. As long as they think you are simply a villager like us, you’ll be okay,” he said. “Stay close to me at all times.”
His hand was still on my waist, as he went back to talking with the other men. My head was in a haze. I leaned it back to rest on Abhik’s shoulder. I stared upward through the canopy of trees to the blue sky above. My thoughts wandered to places I’d blocked off for years. I focused for the first time on the home I had left. The house I’d grown up in. The horrible day that ruined that dream of perfection. The day my brother came home from leading his first big safari in Nigeria. The ivory tusk he laid on the mantel as my parents and their friends applauded was supposedly taken from carcass of a dead bull elephant. They had tried to sedate and move the elephant after it rampaged through one of the resorts, but the “beast”, as he told the story, was too savage to be put under and they were force to kill him.
“That’s my boy,” my father exclaimed.
“A real explorer,” my mom announced.
My brother and his friends schmoozed with the well-to-do guests. Everyone taking in high-end cocktails and hors d’oeuvre, the ingredients special ordered for the occasion. My dress was much too reveling for my liking as I roamed without speaking through the people. When the time to move to the dining room had come, my father spoke from a far end in the enclave of windows.
“The time for dinner has come. My son has returned successful from journey abroad and I, being the dutiful father, have slaughtered the proverbial fatted calf. I ask that our special guests, the senator and his wife, lead us into the dining room.”
I had hoped to sneak away at this point, but my mother gripped my elbow painfully and pushed me along in front of her. The dinner was like torture. By the second course I contemplated pretending to choke in order to escape. By the forth course, I thought it would be better to really choke. When the main course arrived, my father forced me into the conversation at last.
“Elizabeth, I know you enjoy your silent contemplation, but please give some words of welcome about Edward’s return.”
“Of course,” I started, taking a long drink to prolong the time before I had to speak. “I miss Edward so much when he’s gone. But how could anyone think to hold him back, when it’s so clear that he is meant to travel the world.”
The guests all nodded in agreement to my lie. I couldn’t care less where or what my brother did, but I had a duty to save my father’s pride in front of his guests. I thought my obligation was finished but my father pressed on.
“What about this journey? Do you like the prized tusk he brought back?”
“It’s an impressive feat indeed. Especially that he was able to get away with killing it.”
This was the wrong thing to say, I could see it on my family’s faces. Everyone else was laughing, thinking nothing about my comment.
“She’s just starting her education, you know,” he said to the senator, trying to make excuses. “I couldn’t get her in to our alma mater. Her marks were too low. You’ll never believe the horrendous subject she’s studying: journalism of all things. She’ll never reach the amount of success Edward has, even if she really tried.”
My brother wasn’t trying to make any excuse. He just glared at me and his friends whispered to each other. After dessert, he grabbed my arm violently and pulled me into a quiet room away from the guests. As I began to speak, he struck me hard across the face. I began to fall into a chair, but he grabbed both my arms and pulled me upright in front of him.
“You whore,” he hissed. “Try to keep your mouth shut and don’t put ideas into anyone’s head. What I do isn’t your business!”
He squeezed my forearms tightly and pushed me against some bookshelves. Keeping a grip on one arm, he punched me in the face again. When I fell, he twisted my arm behind my back and kicked my ribs.
“Stop squealing, bitch. You should be glad it’s just me. My friends are mad too. Only they wouldn’t stop at beating you. So if you don’t stay quiet, I’ll let them come rape you instead.”
Tears came to my eyes. I had forgotten how much he hated me while he was away. I felt my forearm break as he squeezed and pushed and beat me. My ribs and cheeks were fractured. He grabbed a book to hit my head just as my father walked in. They stared at each other for a moment.
“Make it quick, son. Guests are waiting.”
* * *
I woke suddenly in the night. The fire was still burning and the men from the village were gathered only two feet from me. I sat up and joined them. Abhik looked quietly to the edge of the clearing, where our captures sat watching us and holding their guns.
“Yashwant has gone to get money,” Pravesh told me. “He will be back before sunrise, much faster to travel alone.”
Abhik handed me a metal plate with lentils and rice. Bhumi stood to go to the elephants while Pawan came and sat by me.
“Are you ok?” he whispered. “You were moving and sighing in your sleep. I have some herbs here which will help you sleep soundly once you have eaten.”
I slept dreamlessly that night, until angry voices and bright yellow light woke me. I felt Abhik’s hands on my shoulders as he pulled me up.
“Yashwant is back,” Pravesh said. “He didn’t bring enough money.”
“What happens now?” I asked him. Abhik, Pawan, and Bhumi all stared to the ground. Only Pravesh looked into my eyes, there was a small tear at the corner which never fell.
“Ms. Lij,” he began, sighing deeply. “I do not think I will ever leave my village.”
His words were full of peace, as though he had resigned himself to the fate which they all felt was inevitable. I was reminded of the plans they had, to go out and make something better for them and their family. I thought of the destruction that had filled my own family. There was more happiness in these men than I had ever known before. Pawan took my hand and led me forward. Yashwant stood with the armed men. Their leader pushed us between them and the elephants. Bhumi stood with Shanti and Rajvi, whose head drooped toward the ground. The men began to talk but I moved to stand with the aging elephant. I nervously touched her trunk. When she didn’t resist and stood beside her, looking into her great dark eyes. Why had I come here?
The words of Mr. Whitaker came to me. People only come here when they are looking for something. He was right. I wasn’t trying to run away. I’d already run away. But what was I looking for?
“Ahh!” someone shouted. I turned to see what was happening. Abhik was on the ground and the leader of these bandits had a gun to his hit. The man who shouted had been Yashwant. He was pulling on the arms of the man. I moved forward toward Pravesh, but Bhumi tried to stop me. I pushed his hand away despite the look he was giving me.
“Pravesh, what happened?” I asked, surprised to hear that my voice is breaking.
“It’s Yashwant,” he answered, tears rolling down his cheeks. “He betrayed us. He told the man about the journey. He suggested to hold the elephants for money. The man promised to help him leaving the village. But this man thought to get more, now he is angry. Because of Yashwant, we will all die.”
The man kicked Abhik in the face as his comrades pulled Yashwant off.
“To hell with you all,” the man yelled, pushing the gun against Abhik’s forehead. “I will not have wasted my time here. Either you will give me something of value or I will take the elephants and leave all of you dead here on the jungle floor.”
“I have nothing. We have nothing.”
He turned and I was able to see his face. A bruise was blooming on his cheek, his hair and ear were covered in dirt, and blood was trickling from his lip. Yet his eyes, seemed to sparkle with something. At first I thought it was tears, but when I looked closer I could see it was not. For the first time, I allowed myself to take in his features. He was striking. I lost my breath. Finally I realized what the sparkle in his eyes must have been. I hadn’t seen it because I didn’t have it myself. The gunman full of anger must not have seen it or he would have known he couldn’t win. It was what I had been looking for and now I had found it. I hadn’t felt courage surging through me since the night I ran away.
“I think I’ll kill you first,” the man hissed. “Pull him to his feet.”
“I can stand on my own.”
When he had stood, the man lifted the gun and said, “You arrogant son of…”
The sound of my own voice sounded strange, echoing among the trees. I ran forward and stood between the gun and Abhik. I felt his hands on my shoulders, trying to push me away.
“What do you want,” the man asked, “to die first perhaps?”
He slapped me hard across the cheek and the shawl fell from across my face.
“I have something of value, to spare these men,” I began.
“If we had wanted to rape you, we would have already,” he teased, coming close and squeezing my face in one hand. “I need something more than momentary value. Although, if you really want it, my men won’t deny you.”
“That’s not what I mean. I am American.”
Abhik tried to push me even harder while he talked over me.
“Listen!” I shouted, and then all was quiet. As I continued, I took off the shawl that was still wrapped around my hair, “I am from a very rich and powerful family. If you let these men and the elephants go, I will ensure that you receive any amount of money you ask for. I’m far more valuable than they are.”
“Excellent,” the man said. “Let the men and animals go.”
The armed men began pushing the village men, ordering them to start walking. Their leader took me by the arm and pulled me towards the direction they had come from the previous day.
“Give a moment with her,” Abhik said to the man, who let me go put continued to watch me as he prepared his men to leave. When the man was out of earshot, Abhik grabbed my shoulders forcefully, and whispered angrily, “What have you done? I can’t protect you now. I failed. Do you know what they’ll do to you? They’ll never let you go. If they get the money, they only keep you to get more.”
As he spoke he pulled me toward him. My face was so close to his that I could see flecks of green in his dark brown eyes. I prepared to reply, but the man with the gun pulled me away and ordered Abhik to join the elephants. The village men left the clearing, herding Rajvi and Shanti along. The men looked over their shoulders at me until the trees blocked them from view. My hands were bound as I knelt to the ground. Thirty minutes passed and I didn’t move, only stared through the trees and listened to the sound of animals. I could no longer hear the elephants’ feet thumping the ground. Finally satisfied that my friends had escaped, I stood to join my captors.
“We will leave soon,” the man said, sitting by the fire at my feet.
I could see his men at the edge of the clearing, washing their faces and plates in a little stream. I fiddled with the ropes on my wrists. They were too big to be properly secured; most likely they were intended for the elephants. I could feel one hand was free, but didn’t move. The man at my feet was focus on the mirror in his hand as he picked his teach with a knife. The embers in the fire were still glowing with life. He screamed as I kicked them in his face. Then I ran, hard and fast, away from the clearing in the opposite direction as the elephants. I could hear the men yelling in Nepali behind me, but I did not stop, dodging through trees. Gunshots echoed in the jungle, but I did not stop. My heart was racing, pounding against my ribs, keeping the pace for my feet. I leapt over fallen debris. One step was wrong, and I felt my leg bend in the middle of my shin, but I did not stop. I heard the noise of the men coming after me, so I did not stop. The light was changing, and when I could hazard a look through the canopy a few stars had begun to come out. Finally my body gave out. I lay on the jungle floor staring up at the sky. My lungs were burning. My vision was going black. I could see the stars moving. As I watched, the dark figure of a man stood above me. I knew this must be the end. Then all was blackness.
* * *
Bright light burned my eyes as I awoke. I was surrounded by white. For a second, I thought it must be heaven. Then the pain of my body reached my head, pulling me violently into consciousness. I blinked, trying to focus in spite of the intense light. There was a man standing above my bed.
“I told you not to go in the jungle,” said a British man.
“Mr. Whitaker, what happened?”
“You almost died.”
“But how did you get me from the bandits?”
“I didn’t. Abhik brought you. He said that after getting the travelling party to safety, he came back for you. He just arrived when you were running out of the clearing. He says the bandits’ leader was too injured to make chase, but the men followed you. They were trying to shoot you. I caught one man and knocked him out with his own gun. Then Abhik two of the others in the leg and took their guns. Eventually he stopped them all; then he ran after you. He said he barely made it to you in time.”
“Abhik? Is he here now?”
“No, he left days ago. They took the elephants back to the village. The men were shaken and wanted to return home. But they waited to make sure you would make it.”
“So how am I now? When can I leave?”
“The doctor said you can probably go as soon as you come to. He just needs to come see you first.”
“Well, I’m ready.”
He left to see if the doctor was free. The white sterile room felt like it was closing in on me. I wanted to escape it. As the doctor looked me over, he remarked at the damage I had taken: scrapes and cuts on my arms, tendon strains on my wrists, bruises all over my body, a leg broken in two places, a sprained ankle, and burns on my foot. He shook his head and clicked his tongue.
“Am I free to go?”
“Well, I can’t see any reason to keep you. But I think you should take some rest before trying any more adventures.”
When he released me, Mr. Whitaker put my bag and crutches in the back of his jeep after loading me in the passenger seat. He drove in silence finally stopping at the airport.
“I’ve booked you ticket. You’ll be home soon.”
I didn’t move. Staring out the window at the plane landing, I made up my mind.
“I’m not going back.”
“What do you mean?” he voice jumped to a louder level.
“I mean what I said. I’m not going. Take me to the road that leads to the village.”
He argued with me for fifteen minutes, but eventually gave up. When we reached, I clambered to the back of the jeep and pulled out my belongings. Resting on the crutches, I stared down the long road that led to the one place on earth I wanted to be.
“At least let me call someone to drive you! Perhaps if you wait, another family will go back within a few days.”
His voice was pleading me to reconsider, but I couldn’t be swayed. I could feel a spark in my eyes. Some warmth had filled the emptiness I had felt for so long. Nothing could deter me now.
“Don’t be a fool. It’s mad to go there by foot.”
As I turned and began walking down the road into the sea of green, I replied, “Mr. Whitaker, perhaps I am made to walk.”
—- End —-