Outside magazine, October 1998
Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon's hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him. Then it moved. It crossed the glade without haste, walking for an instant into the sun's full glare and out of it, and stopped again and looked back at him across one shoulder. Then it was gone. It didn't walk into the woods. It faded, sank back into the wilderness without motion as he had watched a fish, a huge old bass, sink back into the dark depths of its pool and vanish without even any movement of its fins.
Once, when Denys and I had been up, and were landing on the plain of the farm, a very old Kikuyu came up and talked to us:
"You were up very high to-day," he said, "we could not see you, only hear the aeroplane like a bee."
I agreed that we had been up high.
"Did you see God," he asked.
"No, Ndwetti," I said, "we did not see God."
"Aha, then you were not up high enough," he said, "but now tell me: do you think that you will be able to get up high enough to see him?"
"I do not know, Ndwetti," I said.
"And you, Behd‚r," he said, turning to Denys, "what do you think? Will you get up high enough in your aeroplane to see God?"
"Really, I do not know," said Denys.
"Then," said Ndwetti, "I do not know at all why you two go on flying."
When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick — one never does when a shot goes home — but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for a bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a long time — it might have been five seconds, I dare say — he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old. I fired again into the same spot.
It's all I can do to stand. I feel dizzy, drawn, mauled. Below me the floodwater roils to a violent froth that looks like dirty lace, lace that continuously explodes before my eyes. If I look away, the earth moves backwards, rises and swells, from the fixing of my eyes at one spot against the motion of the flood. All the familiar land looks as though it were not solid and real at all, but painted on a scroll like a backdrop, and that unrolled scroll has been shaken, so the earth sways and the air roars ...
I expect to see anything at all. In this one way, the creek is more like itself when it floods than at any other time: mediating, bringing things down. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see John Paul Jones coming round the bend, standing on the deck of the Bon Homme Richard, or Amelia Earhart waving gaily from the cockpit of her floating Lockheed. Why not a cello, a basket of breadfruit, a casket of antique coins? Here comes the Franklin expedition on snowshoes, and the three magi, plus camels, afloat on a canopied barge!
We felt the lonely beauty of the evening, the immense roaring silence of the wind, the tenuousness of our tie to all below. There was a hint of fear, not for our lives, but of a vast unknown which pressed upon us. A fleeting disappointment — that after all those dreams and questions this was only a mountaintop — gave way to suspicion that maybe there was something more, something beyond the three-dimensional form of the moment. If only it could be perceived.
We put our arms around each other's necks and awaited the warming drowsiness that precedes death by freezing.
It came stealing over us presently, and then we bade each other a last farewell. A delicious dreaminess wrought itself around my yielding senses while snowflakes wove a winding sheet about my conquered body.
I do not know how long I was in a state of forgetfulness, but it seemed an age ... The thought flittted through my brain, "This is death — this is the hereafter."
Then came a white upheaval at my side, and a voice said with bitterness: "Will some gentleman be so good as to kick me behind?"