Essays — August 5, 2013 15:50 — 2 Comments

The Vast Inside – Suzanne Farrell Smith

At the heart of Southern Africa, in the northwest region of Botswana, on a long thin island surrounded by vast flood plains, inside a thatch-and-canvas tent-like room built on a wooden deck fifteen feet above vegetation and animal habitat, I sit on a plush white bed surrounded by sheer cotton mosquito netting, staring at the locked glass door, cursing my husband.

We’ve come here with his parents and brother, occupying three of the five tree-house rooms at the lodge. It’s my father-in-law’s eightieth-birthday trip. His wish: to see a leopard. We decided on the Okavango River Delta in Botswana because we wanted something different from the well-known safaris of Kenya and South Africa. My in-laws have been to over 70 countries looking for culture, history, geography, flora, and fauna in equal measure. I didn’t travel outside the United States until I met the man who would become my husband. Since then I’ve visited a good percentage of Europe, a few places in Asia. I have never been anywhere in Africa.

The Okavango River flows southeast from Angola, serves as a border with Namibia, and empties into Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve. Each January and February, rain falls on Angola and the river swells. By late March, as it is now, floodwaters begin to fill the delta, which spreads out into an enormous oasis—a land-locked marsh. The Okavango, like any other ecosystem, relies on consistency of climate and lack of human interference. Only a few of these lodges inhabit the larger islands, limiting human activity at any one time. Our guide, O.P., says most of the animals here see humans as harmless. They regard us with mild interest as we sit in a clump on the open bed of a land/water vehicle, a species of huge, slow-rolling, multi-headed, colorfully patterned creatures who make whirs and whispers and flashes and clicks, the occasional cackle or guffaw. We’re just like any other animal out here, looking for food and fresh water, for shade.

My husband, a bird-watcher and globetrotter since childhood, is beside himself. He packed his travel journals, previous safari notes, bush hat, and marked-up bird guide. When the Okavango floods, the birds—woodpeckers, firefinches, little bee-eaters, thrushes, slaty egrets, pygmy geese—flourish. Wet season is birthing season. Birds multiply and creatures of all kinds abound, from giraffe and zebra and wildebeest to tiny termites. Termites are, in fact, responsible for creating most of the sandy islands in the delta, including the one on which this lodge is built. I imagine the largest mammals shuffling across arid land saying to their new babies, you won’t believe it when we get there. Water, everywhere water. Just you wait.

This morning I can’t see much. My eyes are puffy and dry and I can only take in what is just outside the locked glass door: the clearing below our deck, the bush on either side, the sloping edge of the island, the flood plain beyond. Lechwe, common antelope in the region, wade single-file through tall reeds and hoof-deep water in the early-morning light.

Last night O.P. suggested we rise early to look for hippos. But my mother-in-law hasn’t been feeling well and I have a cold. The two of us opted out, drawing incredulity from my father-in-law who called us “arrogant” for coming all the way to the Okavango and not participating in every activity O.P. offers. I whispered to my husband about the word “arrogant,” wondering if that’s really the word he meant, thinking he wanted to call us “lame” or “foolish.” Knowing would help me decide whether to be offended or enlightened or nothing at all. My mother-in-law, always quick with a retort, just sighed. We don’t know yet that she will be rushed to the hospital the day after our return home. A blood clot is damming a vein in her leg—she’ll be lucky it doesn’t break free on the plane and flow to her lungs or heart. We also don’t know yet that my father-in-law is in the first stage of dementia and feels a sense of urgency none of us understand, that finding the right word is frustrating and time-consuming in the messy landscape of his mind.

Our room is a luxury tent in the trees. A square wooden frame lined with thatch. Leafy branches brush against long screened windows on three sides. The only entrance is the sliding glass door that opens onto the front deck, which overlooks the plain and connects to the lodge’s raised walkways. Our door has one latch on the outside and one on the inside. No keys, just latches. When we are both inside, we latch the room closed to keep the monkeys out. When we leave, we latch the room behind us for the same reason. My husband, in his haste to see hippos, latched the room from the outside before venturing out in a flatboat, or maybe a mokoro, the canoe used to paddle around the delta’s waterways. With one slip of hook into eye, he’s gone, protecting our belongings from monkeys but trapping me inside.

I’m hungry. Breakfast is waiting in the main tent. I don’t think there’s so much as a granola bar, or even a mint, in our room. I’m thirsty too. Our bed sits in the center, its foot toward the door. On one wall stands a wooden desk with an ice bucket (empty), large water bottle (empty), and decanter that held complimentary sherry (also empty). I drained my own water bottle overnight to counter too much wine with dinner. I don’t dare drink from the washstand on the back wall or the sink by the toilet.

After dinner, after being called “arrogant,” after watching my father-in-law guide his wife’s lower back as she, normally lithe, made her way carefully along the raised pathway, both of them disappearing into deep dark, my husband and I fell into our mosquito-netted bed and fought about the children we both want. We have been married for nine months, dating for twelve years. I am 33 years old and convinced that I will have trouble getting pregnant, if I can get pregnant at all. It’s something I’ve suspected for a long time, something I revealed to my friends the night before our wedding. I have already researched adoption, decided we should adopt through an international agency, listed countries including those of our great-grandparents and those we’ve visited together, narrowed the list to eight with my top three highlighted, and told my husband we should get a move on. Look at your parents, I said. They need a grandchild. Your brother is single. We’re it. I thought this was the bucket list trip, I told him. The last big event before we start a family. But my husband said we still aren’t ready. Not enough income or savings. Not a clear enough professional future for either of us. Health problems.

We argued while porcupines and bush babies wrestled in the brush below our room. We don’t know yet that when we do start trying, we will not be successful, it will ache, we will launch fertility treatments and an adoption process simultaneously, adoption will be put on indefinite hold when the country we choose—after laboring for months to agree and then falling in love with our decision—closes their program in the wake of once-in-a-century flooding.

My eyes are raw from crying and cold symptoms and lack of sleep, and I have no way of contacting anyone because the five rooms of the lodge are spread out and separated by thick trees, we’ve no phones in our rooms, and a very simple latch has closed me in, thanks to my concerned husband. I am hungry and thirsty. I hope a monkey hops down to the deck so I can mime how to unlatch the door. Until then I must sit on my bed island in my tree house on this termite-made mound in the middle of everywhere.

It smells of wood and mud, fresh rather than musty, so earthful I could wash in Okavango dirt and feel cleaner than I’ve ever felt. Staring at the thick beams holding up the thatch roof, I try to identify the birdcalls exploding over my head. O.P. named them yesterday, but in the jumble I can’t pick any single one out. I pull the bird book from the wicker bench at the foot of the bed. We’ve already marked crested barbets, swamp boubous, and weavers. Wattled starling and wattled crane. All kinds of kingfishers, my husband’s favorite. Precision hunters, they hover over fish-filled water until the moment presents itself for a bull’s-eye dive. I wonder if the zak zak I hear is from lilac-breasted rollers feeding their chicks in old woodpecker holes. Hornbills, I think, sing wup wup wup. It might be the red-billed woodhoopoe tittering and squeaking like paper towel on a window.

I have to find something to eat or drink. Maybe in my backpack. My slippers have been on the floor all night, so I tap them sole to sole, as we were warned, to shake out scorpions. But before I’m up, I hear new sounds: a swish swish of palm fronds being pushed aside, the crick crick of branches breaking, thump thump thump of ground-rumbling heaviness.

Slipping through the crease in the mosquito netting, I trot barefoot to the glass door of my coop and search the bush. Far on the left side of my vision a hump moves through the green. My gaze fixes. The mass advances toward my room, in steady rhythm, and emerges in the clearing just in front.

The elephant stands nearly as tall as our balcony. I hold my breath, as if disturbing the air inside this room would somehow startle her. I remember from O.P.’s narration about one we saw in the distance two days ago that she’s a savanna, or bush, elephant, the largest animal on land anywhere. I still haven’t breathed when I notice she is not alone. Behind her walks a small-scale version, its giant ears—a notable species feature—flapping cartoonishly. Her baby. And then another cow steps into the clearing, leading her own baby.

O.P. says large mammals, seen on the plain or heard in the night, don’t often come into camp. Wow, is the only word I can figure out how to say. This sighting, this meeting, this is something I get to do. Tingling descends from my scalp to spine. I am chosen. Wow.

My hands, unaware of my plight, reach for the door handle and turn. Sensing resistance from the latch, they fight to break it free, but the simple hook holds fast. What I would give to be outside with these creatures, to perch at the deck’s edge and get a good look at wild elephants passing, to embrace minutes of their morning as my own. But bargaining like that seems foolish. Maybe even arrogant. I realize I can’t even snap a photo, since my husband took the camera on his mission to find hippos. O.P. is gliding his boat close to one, but not too close, since hippos are aggressive. My husband is taking crystal-clear pictures of hippo tops emerging from water, while I am trying to catch the eye of a mother bush elephant. Nose and palms pressed to glass in surrender, I watch.

The elephants glide more gracefully than their size should allow. The mothers’ trunks sway in open space as if still pushing branches aside. Thanks to their measured passage, I have plenty of time to take in the animals’ size and musculature, dust collected in wrinkles on their legs, water spots darkening patches of their cement-colored backs almost to black. As they file in front of my tree house, I believe I can smell them, moist skin and dung laced with digested greens. How much they must eat and drink each day to stay alive, these gargantuan bodies. How much these mothers must provide for themselves and their babies. I remember O.P. telling us that elephants are, in general, too big for even the fiercest feline predators. Their only real enemy is us. I know elephants are intelligent and possess long memories. I don’t know if they worry or regret.

The four elephants cut a steady path across the clearing. Then the lead cow, without easing her pace, plunges into the thick foliage to my right, followed by the others. When the last elephant—the second baby trailing its mother—enters the brush, wide palm leaves spring back over its rump, and for a moment just the swishing tail sticks out before it too vanishes. It seems to happen slowly at first, the way the sun hangs just above the horizon and you think maybe it won’t set at all, but then, in an instant, it’s gone. I stare at the point where the elephants disappeared, but the brush has closed, swallowing the massive foursome whole. They are probably nearing my brother-in-law’s empty room.

I return to bed, parting the net to climb in. While the birds grow louder, I doze. But a thought brings me back: my mother-in-law might come within earshot as she walks between her room and the lodge’s open dining area. I get up and move to the back window to wait.

Whereas the front of the room faces the flood plain and it seems I could look sheer across Botswana, the back is nestled into trees. Outside the window hang branches I can’t name, marula or fig. My mother-in-law wears bright colors—though we were told to pack a drab wardrobe, she holds to her vibrancy—and like a hunter I search the spaces in the foliage for a glimpse of fuchsia, hyacinth, sunshine yellow.

A butterfly lands not far away. Incalculable thousands of insect species thrive in the Okavango. Yesterday a walking stick perched on our deck’s railing. Now some type of beetle—we haven’t yet learned any beetle names—traverses the windowsill just outside the screen. It might be looking for food, but it stops. It might instead be enjoying the light morning breeze, the still-cool air, the view through the screen of the vast world inside.

If I hadn’t been trapped, I would have been able to see the elephants up close. Then again, if I hadn’t been trapped, I might not have seen the elephants at all. It’s not cancellation exactly. More a reckoning of potentials. If I hadn’t been awake, if I hadn’t had a cold, if I hadn’t drank too much sherry. Last night I didn’t know each would lead to elephants. What might be made of my standing here, at the washstand by the back window of this tent room at the tail end of a Botswanan March. For several minutes, I’ve forgotten my thirst.

I might as well freshen up. I risk a swish of faucet water and spit it out. The beetle flies away. My husband’s toiletries are lined up neatly on one side of the washstand, mine on the other. I look first for my eye makeup to cover the dark circles. In a yellow candle near the faucet, scores of dead gnats are suspended in cooled wax.


Suzanne Farrell Smith’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Kenyon Review, Post Road, PANK, Anderbo, Hippocampus Magazine, Connotation Press, Tiny Lights, and elsewhere. She holds an MA from The New School for Social Research and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She teaches college writing and runs an editing business in New York City, where she lives with her husband and son.


  1. Jim says:

    Wonderful story telling!

  2. Kristan says:

    Here via Suzanne’s blog post, and I just adored this. Really tough emotional stuff, grounded beautifully within the landscape of Botswana.

    Then again, I’m probably biased since I just visited that country myself, albeit during dry season in June. I wrote about my experiences too, although not as achingly as this. (Link:

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney