1 The APOLOGY 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, toreach 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 toHeathrow, 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 shehad 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 Serengetiboasted 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 acaciatrees 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 hadtold 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 droppedthe 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 the solitary male still standing by the corpse.
The only sound was the wind, gently rocking the Land Rover.
When the main herd had all but disappeared across the plain, and the old male was left by himself, Mutevu's fingers found the ignition key, he switched on the engine, and the Land Rover rolled forward.
Natalie's mind was in a whirl. If elephants experienced grief, did they have any conception of an afterlife? Did that mean they had the rudiments of religion?
She rubbed her eyes with her fingers. She was too tired to face that kind of question just now. But it was the kind of question she liked, the kind of question she had come to Africa for. As an expert on extinct forms of life, she was hoping to make herfair share of discoveries in the coming months. The excavation she was about to join was the most prestigious in her chosen field, and the invitation to become part of the team was a big feather in her cap. So long as she didn't make a fool of herself, andpublished one or two good papers, a fellowship of her college was now a distinct possibility.
Mutevu slowed the Land Rover to negotiate some dried ruts where a herd of something had churned up the ground. He stretched out his arm and pointed: "Bat-eared foxes."
Natalie yawned, smothered it with her hand, and grinned sheepishly. She looked to where Mutevu was indicating, but she couldn't see anything. Her "bush eyes" were still underdeveloped. The foxes' camouflage was just too good for her.
Mutevu accelerated as they cleared the ruts. The sun was high now and hardly any shadows could be seen across the plain. Natalie marveled at the landscape. The shimmering grass, the lush greens of the fig and acacia trees, the rust-red rocks, the wide sky--this was one of the reasons she had chosen Africa; it was so far--and so different in every way--from Cambridge.
Cambridge. She'd had to get away and the invitation to Kihara couldn't have come at a better time. Until recently she'd never have imagined she would ever want to escape Cambridge, but then she had never imagined Dominic would do what he had done, andin the way that he had done it.
She was beyond tears now, but the skin on her throat still broke out in a sweat when she thought of . . . It had been this way since . . . since that day four--no, five--months ago, when he had told her he was going on a long tour and that--well, he didn'twant to see her again. Just like that, a guillotine, as her mother would have said, drawing a finger across her throat, a bolt from the blue. Natalie hadn't suspected that anything so dramatic, so final, so terminal, was in the wind when Dominic had suggested coming up to Cambridge from London for the day. It had happened scores of times before. But, she supposed, she had been naive. In herexperience some people were born naive, just as some people were born knowing and others were born wise. It wasn't true in her case, however, that she was born naive. She knew now that she had had a very naive upbringing.
"That's the gorge there," said Mutevu, pointing.
Natalie lifted her drowsy head and nodded. A great red-brown quartzite gash slashed through the plain ahead of them, and off to their right. She'd heard so much about Kihara Gorge and the great discoveries about early mankind that had been found there.Soon, she would be part of this landscape herself.
She yawned again, returning to her thoughts, unable to stop herself, despite the sheer grandeur of the surroundings. Many of the women she had met at Cambridge when she arrived there as an undergraduate had been more sophisticated than she, but beforetoo much of that rubbed off on her she had fallen for Dominic. She knew she was physically attractive to men, but when she arrived in Cambridge she was totally inexperienced. However, because of her father's involvement with church music, as the organist atGainsborough Cathedral in Lincolnshire, and because her mother taught music as well as French and still sang in the choir there, Natalie had been much more knowledgeable than her undergraduate contemporaries about composers, opera, and musical theory. That,as much as her looks, had set her apart at the lunch where Dominic had been the guest of honor. Someone had fallen ill and withdrawn from the dinner being given for him after his cello recital in King's College Chapel a day later, and he had himself invitedher to make up the numbers.
All her upbringing had warned her against becoming involved with a married man--a fact Dominic had made no attempt to conceal. But--she could admit it now, when she was all alone, many months afterwards, and thousands of miles away in Africa--she had beenjust a little bored with herself as a Lincolnshire provincial, and had thought that a risque affair with a man who was becoming famous would complete her Cambridge education. She had secretly envied some of the more sophisticated women she had met at university,who were much more casual in their liaisons than she was, who lived with men without marrying them, a growing trend that disconcerted Natalie and shocked her parents, women who seemed to know all manner of clever and fascinating older souls in London, in thetheater, in journalism, or the new world of television.
To begin with, several of these women had surprised her, telling her she was "mad" to fall for "someone like Dominic," whatever that meant. But, as time went by, and the affair had lasted more than a term, she had become the object of envy on the partof these very women, who, it turned out, were not as enamored with their own lifestyles as it had appeared.
Mutevu slowed the Land Rover as they came to the lip of the gorge, and changed gears as the vehicle began to slither down the slope. There seemed to be thorn bushes everywhere and Natalie pulled her elbows away from the window to stop her skin being scored.
Dominic had been impressed when Natalie got a first and, when she had stayed on in Cambridge to work for her doctorate, while most of her undergraduate friends disappeared to London, her relationship with him had been a source of nourishment in what wasfor her, for a year or so, a more solitary existence. Her parents, pleased by her exam results, and by the fact that she was staying on in Cambridge to complete her Ph.D., had probed gently about any "relationships" she might have. But it had taken her nearlytwo years to admit to her affair with Dominic, and the revelation that he was married had devastated her mother, who hadn't really adjusted by the time she died.
The Land Rover crested the lip of the gorge on the south side and the camp came into view, a constellation of tents in various shades of dark green, surrounded by a huge fence of spiky thorns.
Mutevu drove in through an opening in the fence and reversed the vehicle into a space reserved for it between two large, flat-topped acacia trees. He killed the engine again.
"No one will be back from the gorge for another hour or so--lunch is late here, about two. You've been allocated that tent there, at the far end of the row. I'll help you with your--"
Suddenly he let out a loud gasp and shouted, "Leopards! Not again! That's the second time this month. They come for the goats when everybody else is in the gorge, working."
He blared the horn, but, seeing and smelling the Land Rover, the leopards--there were two of them--began to slink away, edging along the row of tents, and scampered out of the entrance.
Mutevu watched them go. "Leopards are rare, Miss Natalie. I bet you haven't seen one that close before--eh?" Getting no reply, he looked across to the passenger seat and smiled.
She had seen nothing, nothing at all. She was fast asleep.
* * *
Shadows cast by the hurricane lamps played across the refectory table. The tang from the flames hung in everyone's nostrils. The refectory tent was open on one side, where it gave on to the nearby campfire, around which chairs were arranged in a roughcircle. After dinner, some of the team liked to sit chatting and at night temperatures cooled in the bush.
Mutevu Ndekei, now back in his chief role as the camp cook, shuffled around the table, holding a large serving plate with strips of roast kudu, or local deer. He was a strapping man, muscular, with large hands and hardly any body hair. His white T-shirtstretched tight across his massive chest, and he shuffled only because he was wearing a pair of green rubber Wellington boots given to him by a British archaeologist years before. Mutevu was very proud of them, and was never seen without them--he cooked betterwith his boots on, he said; but they were slightly too big for him. He leaned forward so that Natalie Nelson could take her share of meat. As she helped herself, she listened to Eleanor Deacon. As did everyone else.
A white Kenyan by birth, Eleanor Deacon was probably the most well-known paleontologist in the world. She had been excavating in and around Kihara Gorge for nearly forty years, first with her husband, Jock, and then, since his death six years ago, leadingthe digs herself, though her sons Christopher and Jack were following in their parents' footsteps. Eleanor Deacon was thin, tall, and bony, and her silver--almost white--hair, brushed back as always in a chignon, gave her a remarkably sophisticated air, especiallystuck out here in the bush, as they were in Kihara. But she was formidable too, and ran her excavations with an iron rod. She wore no jewelry, but tonight she was dressed in a crisp white shirt above khaki trousers, with a bright yellow scarf tied around herthroat. A pair of gold-rimmed, half-moon spectacles glittered on her nose. Natalie thought the director looked more French than Kenyan.
Eleanor sat at the end of the long table, where she was always served last. She took a few strips of kudu, then leaned back, so that Mutevu could withdraw the serving plate. Leaning forward again, she picked up her knife and tapped her champagne glasswith it. The chatter around the table died. From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Clouds Beneath the Sun by Mackenzie Ford. Copyright © 2010 by Mackenzie Ford. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.