Sanctuary


When Michael told me what had happened to Nell, I thought it must have been the machetes. At the sanctuary, the volunteers—teenage hippies from Spain or the Balkans—told us we needed to cut our own sugarcane if we wanted them to come anywhere near us. They passed out machetes, real ones, the size of my forearm, rusted and flat, and led us to a pile of thick, green-yellow shafts. I held the branches down with my left hand and chopped with my right, trying and failing to slice at the plant’s natural segments, never slicing cleanly through, of course, but instead hacking over and over and over until the pieces cracked apart. In America, I thought, this would be illegal, even with waivers. Somebody could lose a finger. The volunteers told us to suck on the smallest segments, taste the fresh, sweet pulp.

I never dreamed it would have been the elephants.

“What do you mean she’s dead?” I typed with heavy thumbs.

“It was a baby boy,” he replied. I could read his anguish quivering in the digital blue bubble of his text message. “An adolescent. The paddock was supposed to be locked. He wanted to play with Nell, knocked her over with his trunk. Two feet on her chest later…”

I remembered worrying, when I was at the sanctuary, that one of the elephants might step on my foot and break it while I wasn’t paying attention. An accident. “I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do to help? I could get in touch with Lyle and Amelia for you, or I could come over and cook. Whatever you need.”

For a few moments his response was nothing but a gray ellipsis. Then: “Stay the duck away from me. That’s why I’m telling you. This is your fault.”


“It’s not my fault,” I asked Amelia. “Right?”

“Of course it’s not your fault,” she said. “It was nobody’s fault.” She tossed a purple stress ball my way stamped with Second Chance Animal Shelter’s logo: five white dots that formed a perfect paw.

Amelia’s job title was Care Coordinator, but really she and her husband Lyle ran the place. They’d brought Nell and me on at around the same time—supposedly for bookkeeping and marketing, respectively, but really to tend to the animals. We spent most of our time with the dogs and cats and gerbils and rabbits.

Nell and I had never been particularly close, but we went out after work sometimes, happy hours at the fake Irish pub next door. Michael often joined us. They were one of those couples that smiled too much and had matching teeth. But they were nice enough, and Michael was so funny—good company for an evening.

“When I was there the elephants were totally fine,” I said. “I mean, completely.”

“I know,” she said.

“They were like big dogs. They only wanted to eat your food.”

I couldn’t stop remembering how, when I was at the sanctuary, I was worried that if anything bad happened, it would be my fault. Not only machete accidents or broken feet. When the elephants curled their trunks around the sugarcane in my palm, I worried I’d forget to let go, become food. I kept getting in the way of their batting, pancake ears, and I worried that I’d irritate them, provoke them. When we swam with them in the muddy, lukewarm jungle river, when we cupped our hands in the silt and scrubbed their rough bodies, I worried that one of them, in their joy, would roll over, and my reflexes would be too slow to save me.

But none of that had happened. The elephants were sweet and docile, the way you hope they are when you’re a child.

“Don’t suppose you know Nell’s password?” Amelia asked. The news hadn’t shaken her too badly—at shelters, you get used to death. “Taxes coming up. She was a whiz with numbers, but she wasn’t exactly organized.”

I told her not to speak ill of the dead, but it was true—receipts went missing for days, important emails went unnoticed. Nell always fixed it in the end, and people tend to take pity on scrappy do-gooders anyway. Michael sometimes called when we were at the pub, wondering where she was—she’d forgotten their plans. Once she left Bowser’s cage open, and the massive Newfoundland drank all the toilet bowl water. She was enthusiastic, but careless.

“Have you tried password?” I suggested. “1-2-3-4-5-6-7?”

“Now who’s speaking ill of the dead? She wasn’t stupid.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I’m just a mess.”

I’d gone to Thailand the summer after my divorce was finalized, tried to live my own cliché, Eat, Pray, Love adventure—the elephants were as exciting as it got. When Nell mentioned she and Michael were planning an anniversary trip, I insisted on Thailand—Michael wanted France, but Nell had heard my elephant stories, and knowing how much she loved animals, Michael agreed it would be better. I emailed them recommendations and links. I raved about the sanctuary, brought in the framed picture of me and one of the gentle female beasts. Nell didn’t believe me when I told her the frame was made from dried elephant dung.

The elephants were so gentle, every last one.

“What should I do?” I asked Amelia, who was still trying to log in.

“If you could learn basic accounting, that would be great.”

“No, I mean about Michael. He’s mad at me.” I dug my nails into the stress ball. “I need to make some kind of gesture.”

“It sounds like Michael wants you to leave him alone,” she said. “You should probably leave him alone.”


I almost left him alone, I really did. But it wasn’t my fault. He had to know that, deep down.

I sent flowers to her funeral—tropical lilies, bright and biting frangipani. In the card, I wrote that I had made a generous donation to the elephant sanctuary in Nell’s name.  

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