It was a bath night, that night. She had got out of the water to let her sister have her turn in the tin bath, topped up with hot water from the cook's fire. Leaving her mother bathing her sister, she wandered out into the dark, wrapped head to toe in a large white towel. She climbed onto the canvas chair on the veranda, sat cross legged and looked out into the quiet night.
As she sat, it stopped being dark. There were stars and stars and more stars, countless stars out there. As many as she could see there were more still. If she could see them all there would be no dark out there. They weren't the tiny sparks they seemed. They were big, gigantic. Impossibly enormous, impossibly many. She felt herself getting smaller and smaller, disappearing. She hugged her knees and looked down quickly.
As she looked out into the bush, it stopped being quiet. There were rustles, scurries, breathings - a hum of life. There was more than she could hear. There were hundreds, thousands of creatures out there; connected together in a great rolling, living ball. She was not part of it. She didn't know its rules. Without any malice and unnoticing, it could roll over her and obliterate her. Like an elephant rolling over an ant.
Hoarse breathing and rasping noises became loud. She looked up. A giraffe towered above her; black against the midnight blue and the stars, its long tongue wrapping around branches. From somewhere out there came a piercing squeal.
She jumped off the camp chair, ran for the door. Warm light from the tilley lamp flooded out as it opened. She heard her sister splashing in the bath and her mother laughing. She stepped into the light and burst back to size, belonging somewhere again.
She was back inside. But out there, once touched, recognises no doors, no inside, no outside.
She climbed down from the land rover and stood in the small clearing in the thorn bush. She looked down at her sandals and scuffed the hot red dust. Then she looked over to where the wardens and her father stood. To what had brought them here, signed for miles by circling vultures.
It was a rhino. A deflated rhino. Shrunk, skin stretched tight over a ribcage, the rest caved in, his eyes dull. A meal for maggots, waiting to be scavenged.
She thought of what he had been. Trundling along minding his own business, stopping to graze here, nibbling at bushes there. Then, imagining some threat, charging down a thorn bush; snorting and bad temperedly kicking up clouds of dust until he was satisfied that it would behave now. He had been powerful, massive, emperor of the plains he walked on and fearful of nothing.
The wire that had brought him down still bit deep into his leg. The wardens had found him before the poachers had claimed their trophies. She watched as they cut off his horns and undamaged feet. An indignity added to cheat the poachers and the people who wanted these things. She looked at what wasn't a rhino anymore. Those people, whoever they were, could never have seen out there.
They left, leaving out there - the scavengers, the plains, the sun and the wind - to take back their own.
They drove along the dirt track, the acacia thinning and the plains spreading out in front of them. It was well into morning and the heat was rising. The air sang in her ears. Small hills on the horizon were faint in the haze and the plains looked deserted.
Three parked cars came into sight and they drove towards them over the grass. Someone mentioned lions. She hoped it was lions.
It was lions; large lions. They had paws the size of plates, and claws and teeth as long as her fingers. They were using their weight to pin down a still kicking zebra. She could see their muscles tensing and releasing, rolling under shining fur. Yellow-green eyes caught her own and stared through her. These weren't cuddly animals. These were dangerous, but beautiful, powerful, and free.
She watched the zebra pay the price of freedom; pay the price for lions. Out there isn't cuddly. It is too painful for that. And more beautiful than that.