The first time I watch someone die, I am living in the jungle, working as volunteer at an ecolodge. The moment it happens, the world seems to pause, to hold its breath. The only sound is rustling tree leaves and rushing water. The river churns shades of brown and red as a limb appears from beneath the baby rapids. That’s what we called them growing up on the river in Northern California—baby rapids—yet this thought is so strange and distant now as I stand on the bank of a river two continents away from home.
Two people jump into the river to pull the man ashore. They drape his body on the boulder where I leave my towel and sandals each afternoon after finishing my volunteer work. It’s the same boulder that I use to launch myself into the cool water. The river, I’ve found, is a source of respite, a sacred wellspring in these parts; it’s where people rinse themselves—from the work, from the bugs, from the sticky layers of humidity.
A few days before it happens, I bathe an elephant in the river. She is a gentle matriarch, owned by a local man with deep pockets and greedy eyes. She’s also a tease, and she performs ten barrel-rolls in the water while I fight to brush her soft belly. She stomps along the river floor, floating away from me and into the dark holes where the earth dips. “You think this is funny?” I call after her, the water kissing my chin as I swim in her direction. The taste of river is inches from lips and my toes scrape the dancing grasses sprouting from the riverbed. The elephant playfully responds to my call by filling her trunk and showering me with a waterfall.
The ecolodge is where a small team of us works to raise money to rescue elephants from their lives as tourist attractions; we hope to find enough international donors so that we can open a sanctuary. The lodge sits on the bank of a river that snakes through villages in the northernmost part of Thailand. Across the water is where the elephants currently live. It’s a dusty lot on the side of the road with a snack stand and a big sign boasting animal tours. For pocket change, tourists can ride the country’s most sacred creatures. And they do. Every morning, travelers from all over the world arrive from nearby cities and plop themselves into chairs strapped to elephants’ backs. A mahout, or elephant keeper, then sits on the mammal’s head and drives with a bullhook.
Everything out here is built into the land and the trees. The ecolodge has an outdoor cafe that stretches out over the river. The morning of the accident, I am in the cafe, sipping coffee and waiting for emails from potential donors to load on my laptop screen. The elephants come from the shadows, quick and powerful like the monsoon rains. There are five, maybe six of them, and they carry two or three tourists each, as well as their assigned mahout. Selfie sticks swing in every direction and bullhooks set the pace for the train.
I don’t look up until I hear the roar. By that time, the male elephant leading the pack is bucking like a rogue horse less than fifty feet directly in front of the cafe. A body falls forcefully into the water, a shooting star. It happens so quickly. None of us see the tusk puncture flesh.
It takes more than an hour for the wheezing ambulance to arrive. Young boys in paramedic suits take their time walking past the elephant camp, across the jungle bridge, and to the riverbank. When they get to the body, now covered with a blanket, they pull it back to reveal the man’s face. He is a local, a mahout. They carry him away on a stretcher, the bridge sagging under the weight and swaying above the river. Everyone disperses unceremoniously.
The other volunteers and I sit in the cafe and drink bottled beer. The air is thick, and the humid winds tickle the banana trees. It will rain soon. A few of us use small talk to soothe the aches, but all I can hear is the rushing water and the roaring elephant who has now been chained to a stake in the jungle. Bottles clink and the river runs, carrying it all away as if it never happened.
Later that night, I cry for reasons I can’t express to myself. A close friend from home sends me a Facebook message and I read and reread his words on my phone, staring at the screen for so long that the glow attracts an army of winged bugs and they suction themselves to the mosquito net flowing from the bamboo rafters. Let the lightning move through you, his message says. But I don’t know what that means. And I don’t know how to carry a loss that is not mine to carry, or how to mourn for a person I never knew. In the days and weeks that follow, I try to move on, to focus on raising money to rescue the elephants, to ensure the tours don’t happen so that no one else gets hurt. But the scene replays in my mind without invitation. And each time it gets to the part where the man’s body hits the water, fear flows through me like liquid fire.
Later that fall, I’m standing above the river on the swing bridge when I hear the news. “Come quick!” the other volunteers shout. I run after them, up a hill to where a few of the elephants sleep. There, cocooned in her mother’s shadow, a plump baby squints her eyes and waves a tiny trunk at the audience she’s acquired. Her birth is unexpected, a two-year gestation that went unnoticed. She feels like a promise to all of us, a reminder that hope is fueled by pain, that death is so often succeeded by life. And she is a strike of lightning. I tell myself to let it move through me.
Kayti Christian (she/her) is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She has an MA in Nonfiction Creative Writing from the University of London, and she’s currently writing her first book, a memoir about growing up in ’90s Evangelical Purity Culture. You can follow her on Twitter @kaytichristian.