Sleight of Trunk

An excerpt from my book:

The tip of Morula’s trunk, like that of all African elephants, has two opposing fleshy extensions of muscle called “fingers,” one on the top of the tip, one on the bottom.  Asian elephants have only one “finger” on the upper side of their trunk tips.  To pick up objects, Asian elephants grasp an object between their single digit and the thick, stumpy underside of their trunk tips.

With her “fingers” Morula can remove a thorn, uncork a bottle, turn on a faucet, write with a stick in the sand, pick a leaf from a branch without making the others quiver, hold a cup by its handle, and swipe loose objects with the dexterity of a pickpocket.

Morula pinches the cap on my head and lifts it.

“Morula, behave yourself.”  I hear Doug’s voice behind me.

My cap plunks down, askew.  I take it off and examine a two-pronged smear of mud on its crown.

Amazing.

I had no sensation of her huge trunk hovering over my head.

Morula backs away, gazing sideways and down, caught in the act.

Who me? says her body language.

An exultant thief, Morula looks in every direction but at me.  If she could giggle, she’d be doing it now.

”Morula,” Doug tone is scolding, but all of us laugh, humans and elephant together.  Morula’s mouth is open and curled at the ends and she becomes, if possible, lighter on her feet, cross-stepping away from me.

Doug once wrote in his field notes:  “To experience these creatures fully, you have to be anthropomorphic.”

I agree.  How do humans measure anything but against themselves?

Stacey can’t wait to join the sleight-of-trunk game, but her hat is brand-new.  It’s not even dusty.

“Here,” Doug says, and plunks his hat, stained multiple times by his elephants’ trunks, on Stacey’s head.

“OK,” he says, “Jabu.  Take.”

Jabu fingers the hat, swipes it, and lifts it to the crown of his head.

Jabu takes a hat

“Jabu, Allll right,” Doug says, and Doug’s hat is returned to Stacey’s head, one more smear on its discolored crown.

She turns it in her hands before handing it back to Doug.  “Wow,” she says.

But I’m more impressed with Jabu’s quick assessment of the change of rules in a game he’s played over and over again.  This hat game wasn’t a simple one.  Jabu had two side-by-side bare heads upon which to place Doug’s hat.  And Doug’s hat would smell like Doug.  Yet Jabu knew which head was which.  And he knew Doug’s hat did not belong on Doug’s head this time.

Out in the field ahead of us Morula and Thembi continuously wrap and rip grass out by its roots, zzzzzzt,  zzzzzzt.  They beat the grass on the ground to remove sand and then place the thatch sideways in their mouths.  Bits of it fall to the ground as they grind their massive molars together.

Sandi stands near the road, watching them patiently, a mother with bright, exuberant children.  Her eyes slide sideways as I walk up next to her.  “Do you ever get tired of this?”  I swing my arm, trying to encompass the entire scene.  Four inches shorter than I am, Sandi tilts her head to look into my face.

“No.  We’re family,” she says.  I don’t have a reply to that simple statement so we both watch the elephants.  Then she says, “Sometimes I miss lipstick and makeup and movies.  But not often.”

I turn around to look at Stacey and Doug behind us.  Doug stands under Jabu’s head and Stacey is next to him.  Deep in conversation, they have their backs to us, looking in general direction of the way we came.  Jabu curls his trunk down and awkwardly to the right, exploring the scent of Stacey’s hair.  Even though the tip of his trunk is out of his range of vision, it hovers an inch from Stacey’s face as she, absentmindedly, touches it with one hand the way a child might reach for the arm of a mother brushing her hair.

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