The Clouds Beneath the Sun

The Kenya—Tanganyika border,

September 1961

The Land Rover juddered to a halt. Natalie Nelson jolted her head on the side window and was shaken awake. “What’s the matter, Mutevu? Why are you stopping? Watch out for that termite mound! Have we got a flat tire? What’s wrong?”

Natalie was weary—no, she was drained, exhausted, spent, and this delay was too much. She’d been traveling without sleep now for more than twenty-three hours, since she had left Cambridge sometime yesterday, and she was anxious, longing, desperate, to reach Kihara camp. However primitive the beds might be, however much a relic of empire, however scratchy the horsehair mattresses, she’d be asleep in no time—just try stopping her. A two-hour train ride from Cambridge to London, two hours across London to Heathrow, two hours at Heathrow, waiting, thirteen hours in the air, including a two-hour stopover in Cairo, two hours at Nairobi International and more waiting, and then two hours in the smallest, noisiest, most bone-shaking single-engined contraption she had ever seen, which had dropped her out of the sky at the red-clay Kihara airstrip not forty-five minutes ago. Twice already, she had nodded off in the Land Rover, and that took some doing when you were driving over the corrugated volcanic ash that the Serengeti boasted in places.

“Elephants,” muttered Mutevu Ndekei.

Natalie frowned. For as far as the eye could see, all around them, smooth bone-colored rocks caught the African sun, making the landscape resemble a vast graveyard where ungainly dinosaurs had met their end. Here and there clumps of flat-topped acacia trees threw patches of shade across the shimmering gold-green of the savannah grass that swayed in the breeze. Gazelles grazed in the distance, now and then raising their heads to look for trouble.

But right in front of them, near a massive fig tree, was a small herd of elephants.

She frowned again. “Yes, I can see that but… they’re not dangerous, are they, elephants? Why don’t we just drive round them?”

This was Natalie’s first dig as a fully fledged member of an archaeological team—she had just turned twenty-eight and her Ph.D. was barely six months old. But she had worked in South Africa as a student and so was not a complete novice in the bush.

“One of them is flat on the ground—he or she may be dead.”

They both watched as the other elephants moved in closer to the animal that had fallen.

“I don’t understand, Mutevu. What does it matter if—?”

“Shhh. Elephants can be difficult sometimes if an animal dies,” he whispered, pointing to a large she-elephant looping her trunk around a tree and pulling at the branches.

Mutevu, who had been the only person at the strip to meet Natalie—the rest of the team were in Kihara Gorge, excavating—was as soft-spoken as he was huge, a six-foot-three Maasai, black as night, with tribal cut marks gouged out of his cheeks. He had told her his main job was as camp cook, but he also helped out with the driving.

His enormous fingers found the diminutive ignition key and killed the engine.

“Elephants seem to understand death—not as much as humans do … they don’t bury their dead in graves, nothing so elaborate, but they’re not like other animals, either, who show no signs of loss.”

Mutevu pointed at an old male elephant standing by the fallen animal.

“They appear to have a form of grief—and will remain by a dead body for days on end, almost as if they are offering comfort, or holding ready to help if the fallen animal should move or show signs of life.”

They both watched in silence as most of the herd stood still, stopped eating, and just looked on while the large female this time broke off an entire tree branch, thick with leaves, and carried it in her trunk toward the fallen beast. Then she dropped the branch on the elephant, so that the creature was partially covered.

“That’s amazing,” said Natalie under her breath.

“Are they burying the animal—or covering it, to keep it warm? No one knows,” said Mutevu softly. “But it’s clearly an emotional time, and to drive through or near a herd when they are in this mood can be dangerous. We’ll just wait.”

Natalie reached for her camera.

For the best part of an hour they watched as the elephants completed what Natalie had to concede looked very like a ritual. Four or five other animals followed the lead of the she-elephant and tore off branches of trees and covered the dead animal. Then, one by one, they moved off, leaving just