In deceptively simple language, Lee Patton brings together mortality and isolation, elephants and teeth.
Shooting an Elephant
The younger tourists were laughing, drinking
beer by the elephant wallow, so just the ranger
and I waited for the herd to show trunks
and tusks. But the sun went down before
we glimpsed the elephants, now in retreat.
The ranger pointed to a lonesome set of ears
rising above acacia scrub. “Only that old one.
He’s hiding, by himself, many paces behind
the herd. Molars gone, that’s his life now.”
The Botswana horizon went dark too fast. Bugs
clackered in the thorn brush, as if feasting
on nightfall. “When old ones lose their molars,
the females kick them out. Even other bachelors
abandon them,” the ranger confided to me.
“They wander alone through old age, eating
only the most tender shoots until the rest
of their teeth fall out. Then they die.”
“Isn’t that what we should do, we humans?”
my travel mate asked in Johannesburg
at a hotel buffet fruit-medley. “Die graciously,
then leave the fray when our teeth are gone.”
I didn’t really agree, but I was busy munching
a pineapple chunk. In a chomp, the fruit
became hard, unyielding, which turned out
to be my lower right molar, severed
from an ancient root canal.
Back in the States, my dentist tsk-tsked.
“Nothing can save it. We’ll do extraction
and implant.” Would this be the first
of many amputations from my being?
Unstoppable, my dentist launched another
big game hunter’s tale, the private shoots
he conducted in Namibia and Zambia.
Elephant kills were “easiest of all to arrange.
We shoot old ones out of their misery.”
These days, I guard my empty molar socket
from public scrutiny, especially any females
inquiring with feigned concern. Concealed,
stealthy, I survive among the toothy youth,
keeping well behind and hoping, if I can chew
the tenderest leftover shoots, avoiding pineapple,
and keep hiding far from my dentist’s sights,
I may survive a while more, gracious, I hope,
banished, I fear, solitary in the wild.
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