Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography

What If?


photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

As I walk to my tent at the edge of camp, my vision is elemental, full of shapes without fine details. Shifting slabs of moon-glow keep rearranging trees as if they are pieces on a giant pearled chessboard, their trunks whitewashed the color of ash.

I enter my tent, zip it shut, and switch on the lamp. The electricity comes from batteries charged by solar panels on the other side of camp, carried by a line buried several inches below the sand. Not long after, I turn off the light and crawl into bed.

I roll on my back and blindly stare at the black canvas ceiling of my tent, looking back at the bright moments of the day. But then an unexpected memory darkens the darkness.

In 1996, on my first trip to Africa, I was in a carload of tourists rounding a corner on a sandy road in an area of Zimbabwe where elephants were recently massacred for their tusks. We rounded the corner and stopped – face-to-face with a huge matriarch.

Richly repulsive, an unnatural, confined scent rose from us – odors of food on our clothes and in our hair; flowers washed in alcohol dabbed behind our ears; dead skins around our waists and on our feet; grease, oil and exhaust from our vehicle.

With her trunk shaped into a “J,” the elephant sampled the waves of scent emanating from us, and then tossed our smell away with an emphatic flick. Unnerved by our overpowering human stench, a miasma with a deadly history, she turned and fled, while the half-shadow of dust that marked her exit collapsed to the ground.

The air around me tightens. Canvas walls crowd in, closer, and then closer.

What if our days were measured in scents rather than minutes? What if we could tell the difference between a friend and a murderer with just one sniff?



Cheryl Merrill’s essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Brevity, Seems, South Loop Review, Ghoti, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for the Best of Brevity 2005 and Creative Nonfiction #27. It was also included in the anthology Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, 10th Edition. Another essay, “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008. She is currently working on a book about elephants: Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

16 thoughts on “What If?

  1. Hi Cheryl – this is yet another brilliantly written piece. It had me on the edge of my seat, and reminded me of the expression: “I can smell them out.” Thank you for consistently arousing my imagination with your very inspiring writings. Love and hugs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s