A woman on a mission to save the elephants…
Sara Graham has no idea what she is getting herself into when she uses her forbidden art to protect the near-extinct elephants and their habitat in the Knysna forest, South Africa. From the minute she sets foot in the woodcutters’ bar, she endangers her life. The gift hunters who would kill for her art are not the only threat. The wood smugglers will sooner murder her than let the National Parks Board ranger stand in their way. Falling for woodcutter and ex-convict, Wayne West, only further complicates matters. Can Sara trust a man convicted of the cruelest of murders?
Danger comes to town with a green SANParks vest and a tight body. Wayne knows Sara is all kinds of trouble from the first time he lays eyes on her in the bar. Alone, she doesn't stand a chance. If he protects her, he will not only be branded as a traitor with the woodcutters, but he may also lose his job, and worse, his land. That is to say if they make it out alive. Even then, can he forgive her for taking the only thing he has left?
Wayne West looked up from his oxtail stew when the female walked into the bar. Her ponytail bounced as she approached the counter where Jack lifted a wary head. A few brown tendrils that had escaped the elastic band feathered over her cheeks. Green eyes, the color of a new leaf caught in the morning sun, smiled in tune with her generous lips, at no one in particular, because she wasn’t looking at him, Nelis, or Thinus. In fact, she seemed oblivious to their existence, never mind the stares from the scruff cousins at the corner table facing the TV screen.
Khaki pants stretched over a tight ass as she propped one cheek onto a barstool, resting a hiking boot on the foot bar. It was the green vest with the SANParks emblem on the breast that held Wayne’s attention.
“Diet Coke, please,” she said to Jack, dropping a day hiking bag at her feet.
Thinus nudged Nelis with an elbow, his cracked lips peeling into a grin under his blond moustache. Jack tore his eyes away from the rugby match and straightened his heavy frame. Jack had seen the logo too, even if his eyes went back to the screen as he banged a can of Coke down on the counter and slid a glass her way. Jack had eyes in the back of his head. For a mammoth sloth he was deceptively perceptive.
The husky voice was too old for her young body. She cracked open the can and took a long drink without bothering with the glass. There was something poetic about the arc of her neck and the swallows that rippled her throat, like the graceful cast of a fishing line and the peaceful bob of the fly on a stream.
She rested her arms on the counter.
“What’s on the menu?”
“Oxtail,” Jack said, his eyes glued on the game.
Her brow pleated. “Do you have anything vegetarian?” Jack graced her with an incredulous glare and said, “Oxtail,” before turning back to the screen.
“Sandwich? Anything that hasn’t been killed?”
Thinus’ voice rose from the corner. “This ain’t no fancy pansy roadhouse in the city, darlin’.”
Wisely, she ignored him.
“What do you serve with the oxtail? Salad?”
“Rice.” Jack popped a matchstick in his mouth.
“Haven’t had that in a while,” she said with sarcasm, but not without humor. “I’ll have a bowl of rice.”
Jack turned his head an inch and called, “One special, no meat,” to Johannes at the back.
The woman either didn’t notice the hostility or decided to ignore it. Either way, she was a fool walking into the Quteniqua Woodcutters Bar with a South African National Parks Board jacket. Wayne brought the fork to his mouth, watching from hooded eyes while Nelis and Thinus giggled like high school girls.
“Where’s the bathroom?” she said.
Jake threw a thumb over his shoulder.
She picked up her backpack and made her way to the ladies room at the end of the short corridor.
Nelis and Thinus exchanged a look. After a second, Thinus got up and headed for the toilets. Wayne wiped his mouth on a napkin. This was what he’d hoped wouldn’t happen. His chair scraped over the hardwood floor. When Thinus reached the corridor, Wayne was already there, blocking his way.
“Whazup, West?” Thinus said, planting his feet wide and hooking his thumbs into his belt.
“I don’t know, Thinus,” Wayne drawled. “Was just about to ask you the same thing.”
“Stand aside, man.”
Instead of moving, Wayne braced his shoulder on the wall. “Need the can so bad you’re going to piss in your pants?”
Thinus took a step forward. “I’m warning you, man.”
Wayne smirked. Thinus didn’t bully people who had their fists free. He only punched when they were tied up.
“The lady’s busy. You’ll wait.”
“It’s urgent.” Thinus grinned, exposing the perfect, artificially white teeth that had cost his daddy a fortune. “The lady may enjoy it.”
“Outside,” Wayne said with a flick of his head.
Thinus’ stance changed. His arms stood wide away from his body. “What?”
“I said piss outside, or the only thing the lady will enjoy is how far you’ll fly when I use you for discus practice.”
“I’m not a dog! Dogs piss outside.”
“Well, then,” Wayne gave him a lazy smile, “you’re going to have to hold, or it’ll be in your pants.”
“I swear to God, I’ll piss on your shoes,” a red-faced Thinus spat.
“Better take it outside.” Wayne narrowed his eyes. “Because if you soil these boots, you’ll lick them clean and polish them with this nice new shirt your mama ironed for you.” He touched the collar of the spanking white shirt.
A laughing snort came from Jack.
Thinus’ cheeks lit up like two poison apples. He slapped Wayne’s hand away and pushed a bony finger in his face. “Don’t you forget yourself, now.”
Wayne stiffened at the threat. His jail sentence had long since passed, but Thinus still held the conviction like a sword over his head.
“Yeah.” Thinus pulled himself to his full height, his stance filling with self-confidence as he sniffed Wayne’s guilt. “That’s right, murderer. Remember who you are.”
Thinus wasn’t stupid enough to push it. With that verbal victory he stalked outside. It was best to keep him in sight, in case he got it into his dim-witted skull to fetch a gun from his truck. The woman was still in the restroom. What was it with females that took so long?
Leaning in the exit, he waited until Thinus had relieved himself on the tire of his truck, like the fucking dog he said he wasn’t. The green Jeep parked next to his battered Land Cruiser had to belong to the woman. Thinus zipped himself up and gave Wayne a triumphant smile as he shouldered him on his way back into the bar. By that time, the food had arrived and the woman was back on her seat.
She stared at the plate. “There’s gravy on the rice.”
Jack lifted an eyebrow as if to say, ‘So’?
“Gravy comes from meat,” she said.
Jack crossed his arms. “Take it or leave it.”
She sighed, mumbled something about being starved, and then dug in with gusto. After two forkfuls she stopped chewing and frowned. “There’s something wrong with the gravy.”
“Is there something wrong with the gravy, West?” Jack called across the room without diverting his attention from the game.
The woman turned in her seat. She could’ve looked at Thinus or Nelis, but she didn’t. She fixed her leafy green eyes on him, assessing him as if she noticed him for the first time. Maybe she did. Not that he wanted to be noticed.
“No,” he said, a word cut out of cardboard that didn’t carry meaning or significance.
Two more seconds slurred by, the world moving slower, as she probed him in the way people did when they looked for telltale signs of lies. Her gaze wasn’t condescending, or fearful, or judgmental. It was nothing like the looks he’d gotten used to. Curious, maybe. Questioning. If the light in those luminescent eyes were any indication, he’d go as far as to say friendly. Finally, she shrugged and went back to her meal.
The sound of cheering from the flat screen on the wall and the Saturday vibe had gone flat, like the lukewarm rockshandy in his glass. No longer enjoying the game, all he wanted was the peace of the forest and the solitude of his cabin, but he didn’t dare leave until the woman was gone.
She finished every morsel on her plate and asked for the bill. When it came, she stared at Jack. “You can’t charge me full price for a bowl of rice.”
“Not my problem if you don’t eat meat.”
She shook her head but didn’t argue. She left a bill on the counter and lifted her backpack. “The day trail, where does it start?”
Jack moved the matchstick from one corner of his mouth to the other. “Yellow.”
“Follow the yellow markers,” Nelis chirped in. “The path’s well walked out. Can’t miss it.”
“Thanks.” Without another word, she headed for the forest, leaving the Jeep parked in front.
Another ten minutes passed before the cousins got to their feet. There were still twenty minutes left of the match. Ah, hell, he’d kind of expected it but had hoped it wouldn’t come to this. Trouble was the last thing he needed. He couldn’t take the cousins down in front of witnesses, not unless he wanted to risk his parole. Best to give them a head start.
“It ain’t your fight,” Jack said as he pushed his chair back five minutes later.
“Who says I’m joining?”
“She’s SAN. You saw it.”
“Doesn’t mean she deserves to get hurt.”
Jack shook his head. “You’ve got enough enemies.”
“With friends like you, who needs enemies?” he replied drily.
“Fuck you. She had no place coming in here.”
“Yeah.” Wayne tipped his leather ranger hat. “See you.”
Outside, he stopped for his eyes to adjust to the bright sunlight. The cousins’ Chevy was still there. A glance through the back window assured him the dickheads hadn’t taken their hunting rifles. Good. He started jogging toward the path.
After a good ten-minute hike, she cut away from the path, following the trail of broken foliage. Not far from the forest border she found the first stump. The remains of the amputated trunk stood raw and open in a small clearing, like a severed limb bleeding sap. The wood poachers had cut away the precious cycads at the foot of the yellowwood to make space for their illegal work. She knelt next to a small grave of the dead plants, their roots shriveled and their leaves black. A cycad only grew one inch per year. These had been older than several hundred, judging by their trunks, nine hundred maybe. Dusting the soil from her knees, she moved to the yellowwood. Her fingers skimmed the rings. Four hundred years.
“Your only fault was your value,” she said into the stillness of the forest.
No sound came in reply. It was as if the trees watching over the graveyard of the massacre still held their breath. She turned in a circle, taking in the destruction, its only motivation greed. Sadness filled her heart. Not only were the poachers destroying the forest, but also the last remaining habitat of the elephants.
There were too little of the Knysna elephants left who still roamed the forest, the last of its kind who lived unfenced. Through the years, these graceful and intelligent animals had learned how to survive in the deepest and darkest parts of the protected forest. Despite their big bodies weighing several tons, necessity and survival instinct had taught them to move soundlessly. Hunted mercilessly for their ivory, the animals that had once graced this part of the western coast of South Africa had retreated farther into the dense nature, adapting from a diet of grass to one of forest foliage. Now, the Xhosa tribe living on the northern border of the forest had reported that the bull and the two calves had gone, and that only the old female, who they’d named The Matriarch, was left.
Her job was to ensure the species would survive. Her tasks were twofold–find out how many elephants were left and put a stop to the smuggling of the wood to protect their habitat. Some would say both goals were impossible. The elephants were too good at hiding, forever on the move, and the smugglers made too much money with the priceless yellowwood to give up without a violent fight. Elephant trackers before her had always failed, but she had something on her side that the trackers didn’t have. She had a special gift, an ability that made it possible for her to connect with animal spirits. As for the wood, that part of the job would be tougher.
She left the plundered clearing and ventured back to the path, an uneasiness creeping up on her. The feeling was more than a heaviness of thought and mind because of the evidence of the theft she’d witnessed. A sensation of physical unwellness had taken root in her body. It was like a faint nausea that boiled in her stomach. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
Usually, she’d be in her element. In nature was where she experienced her art the strongest, but for some reason she felt disconnected from the animal life. The birds, one of the easier species for her to command, closed themselves to her. They flittered away as if she was foe instead of friend. Her body started to feel heavy and her steps slow, as if gravity had increased tenfold. Wiping away the sweat from her forehead, she leaned against the wooden rail that marked the path, trying to rebalance herself, but instead the world tipped and the landscape crinkled like a heat wave.
Damn, she really didn’t feel well. The perspiration on her skin wasn’t from the exercise. It was the kind of sweat she broke into before emptying her stomach. Tilting her head back, she sucked in the pure air, but the sky started turning. She looked down quickly to find an anchor for her gaze, only to spot a nest of giant snakes around the base of a tree. Snakes didn’t scare her, but these slithered over each other in menacing twirls and loops, loops that looked like a noose meant for strangling. With a loud shriek she scurried backward, escaping the spiked, sizzling tongues that came at her. She reached into the depths of her mind, but her thoughts couldn’t reach these Medusa-like creatures. The sound of their rattle vibrated all the way to her bones. It was a song that could sharpen teeth like a metal file.
Why couldn’t she control them? What was wrong with her? What had happened to her art? The bodies advanced on her, a cesspool of squirming, sand-colored snakes. She reiterated but stumbled over the roots of a tree and fell right into the lap of a giant oak. She pushed up with her back against the trunk, the rough bark biting into her skin with a magnified intensity. Her tongue was thick in her dry mouth. The smell of plant decay and wet earth was a cool vapor that filtered through her nose. All of her senses were heightened.
A flash caught her eye. Something sifting down. It was a huge, brown butterfly. No, a moth. A big, fluttering moth. More followed. They flapped their wings around her face, the poisonous powder of their wings dust particles suspended in the wedge of sun that cut through the branches. She swatted at them, jerking her head from side to side. The roots around her lifted. They weren’t the motionless and solid roots of a tree. They were snakes that writhered under her body.
Her scream punctured the silence, and its echo was a laugh. Male laughter.
In the path, surrounded by falling moths, stood two men, the guys from the bar.
She lifted a hand. “Help. Please.”
The skinny, tall one with the moustache jabbed his friend in the ribs. “Wow, she’s trippin’ big time, man.”
“How much did you put in?” the friend said.
“Only a quarter of a bankie.”
The stickman gurgled another laugh in his throat.
“This is gonna be fun.”
In her strange state of mind, her thoughts were clear enough to realize what was happening. They’d drugged her. Back at the bar. She pushed to her feet, feeling the effort. Shit, she was heavy. Too slow. They’d catch her before she’d taken two steps.
She held up a finger, backtracking. “Stay away, or else…”
The men glanced at each other and burst out laughing.
“Come, now, darlin’,” the stickman said. “We ain’t gonna hurt ya.” His friend, a thickset man with black hair and thin slits for eyes, took a step forward. “Just gotta stay still and Thinus, here,” he pointed at his friend, “and me will show you a real good time.
” She backed away farther. “I’ll have you arrested. I work for the government.”
The fat guy unbuckled his belt. “Now, where’s the crime in sharin’? You gave us your consent,” he said as if it was a big word. “Didn’t she, Thinus?”
“Consent,” Thinus repeated.
She kept on putting distance between them. A weapon. She needed a weapon.
“What’s with the waitin’?” Thinus said. “Get her, already.”
“Nah.” His friend started taking off his shoes. “I want a good chase.”
She didn’t wait to hear more. Spotting a rock in the path, she grabbed the heavy stone and hurled it at the fat man. It zinged past his head, missing his ear by an inch.
She couldn’t fight them off, not the two of them, but she was fast. At least, she was fast when not drugged. Still, flight was her only chance. She turned and broke into a sprint.
Her heart protested and her limbs refused to cooperate. It was like in a big, bad dream, running in place. No matter how hard she pushed her body forward, she was not gaining ground. Too damn slow. Footsteps followed, advancing. Closer. From somewhere farther behind there was a third voice.
She worked her elbows. There was a breath in her neck and a tug on her ponytail. They had her! She jerked with all of her might, a sharp sting assaulting her scalp that had her eyes tear up, mixing with the salty sweat that ran from her forehead. It burned and blinded her, but she was free.
“Stop!” that far-off voice said again.
Charmaine Pauls was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa. She obtained a degree in Communication at the University of Potchefstroom and followed a diverse career path in journalism, public relations, advertising, communications, photography, graphic design, and brand marketing. Her writing has always been an integral part of her professions.
After relocating to Chile with her French husband, she fulfilled her passion to write creatively full-time. Charmaine has published eleven novels since 2011, as well as several short stories and articles. Two of her short stories were selected for publication in an African anthology from across the continent by the International Society of Literary Fellows in conjunction with the International Research Council on African Literature and Culture.
When she is not writing, she likes to travel, read, and rescue cats. Charmaine currently lives in Montpellier with her husband and children. Their household is a linguistic mélange of Afrikaans, English, French and Spanish.