Gone by Sara Rauch

He brought them to the bush against her wishes. Staying home makes more sense, she argued. Ah, but you’re still nubile, he insisted, even sweet-talking the family physician into penning a note to appease the airlines. Eight months pregnant, and instead of the familiarity of her rancher and a new nursery, she got a patrolled compound in a country whose name changed daily.

Leave it to her husband to find a herd of baby elephants at the mercy of shifting allegiances. How typical, to ship his pregnant wife and three-year-old son halfway around the world for the chance to bring home a pack of pachyderms. There’d been a time when his schemes distinguished him. But what would a family of soon-to-be four do with elephants in dust-bowl America? She imagined the lawn gone to even worse hell under hundreds of heavy feet.

The compound, vacated by a group of missionaries when things got rough, had only one attraction: a dry fountain in the central courtyard, the tiles hand-painted in primary colors. Otherwise it was all paperbacks brittle with age and house-help enforcing strict rules about who was allowed in the kitchen. She and her son, despite the skittering subservience otherwise paid to them, were forbidden.


Mornings her husband left without a goodbye, evenings she asked questions: How are the elephants? How will we get them home? Can I help?

Now, now, he petted her head. Nothing to fret over, we’ll get them to a safe place.

And us?

You shouldn’t worry so much in your condition.

She’d married him for his good looks and wallet as much as out of loyalty to her mother—Your ticket out, she’d said from the hospital bed. Don’t squander it. There was truth to this, she knew, as there was to all bad advice.


The baby arrived a week late. Why are we still here? she shouted as she contracted, the midwife ignoring her fury, speaking only Push, push.

A tiny squall of a girl, ruddy cheeked and, inscrutably, dark-haired.

I want to go home, she told her husband. Her breasts, when the milk came in, hard as rock.

Not quite yet, he said, his everyday linen suit as spotless as polished ivory. We’re too close to victory.

Victory? she pressed. I don’t see any elephants waving flags.

You haven’t lost your wit, he said.

And who is this we? I’m cloistered away like a nun.

The press will come tomorrow, he said. For a family portrait.

That’s absurd, she said. I look like hell. This whole place does.

You’re a beautiful woman. It’ll be good publicity.

Publicity? For whom?

The midwife, he said with a wink.


She did her best—enlisting one of the house-girls to help wash her hair, slipping into her blue poplin dress, double-padding her bra so milk wouldn’t leak through. She washed her son’s hair too, scrubbed the dust from his face and arms. She swaddled the baby to quiet the fussing.

What a darling family, her husband said when he came to retrieve them from the living quarters, as if they were no relation of his. He kept three steps ahead as he led them down to his office.

The photographer positioned her in a leather chair, baby cupped in her arms. Her son stood by her knees, ill at ease in his starched shorts and collar. She tried to remember the last time her husband had patted their son’s blonde curls, or offered to tuck him in, but positioned behind her, the tight grip of his hand on her shoulder stole her focus.

Say “American,” the photographer grinned, his accent heavy.


Where are the papers? she asked for the tenth time in as many days. The baby had grown colicky and her son listless. Meals were a few potatoes, stringy meat of an unidentified source.

There’s no papers, her husband snapped. Don’t you get it? A coup! The press is—

A coup? What about the elephants?

Forget about the damned elephants.

So we’re leaving?

Stop badgering me. Her husband stood, and she caught sight of the gun outlined at his hip. I’m doing the best I can.


The house-help disappeared, one by one, and the compound grew quiet, eerie as her mother’s last hours. Soon only the house-girl who’d helped wash her hair remained. She didn’t know the girl’s name. When she knocked at the kitchen door, the girl faithfully shooed her away.

On the day her daughter turned two months, her husband failed to return for dinner. Her son picked at his bowl of runny porridge, face drawn and evasive. All night she paced by the fountain, trying to formulate a plan, trying to remember the journey from the airfield, how to return.

She crept into the office at dawn. She opened every drawer, scattered every pile, but she could find no passports, no visas, no map, no key to the vault.

She barged in on the house-girl pounding god-knows-what into flour. Over animated hand gestures and fussing, she summoned the girl into the library and pointed to a shelf stacked with dictionaries. She pointed to her mouth, moved her hand like talking, pointed to the spines. Which?

The girl eyed her suspiciously but chose a dictionary with bright yellow lettering. Inside, the words opposite English were full of consonants and diacritics. She stumbled over the question: What happened?

The girl spoke a slow, measured response but the words were thick, hard to locate on the page. The girl repeated her sentences.

It took her almost an hour to piece it together.

The rebels have won. Bloodshed. Those lucky enough to escape death are gone.

She thought, then, of the frilled collar on the dress her mother chose to be buried in. She thought of her children shrouded in mosquito netting in the nursery.

Where are the elephants? Where is my husband?

Her finger still on the word.



Sara Rauch‘s prose has appeared in Hobart, Gravel, Split Lip, So to Speak, Luna Luna, Qu, and more. Her debut story collection, What Shines from It, won Alternating Current’s Electric Book Award, and is forthcoming in 2018. She lives with her family in Easthampton, Massachusetts.




(Front page image via)

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