The next day, the thieves arrived at their usual time, having spent the earlier part of the day tying up loose ends in the nearby town. Jupita had told them, as part of her plan, that they would want to prepare to move on to another town after assisting her. Her farm would be gone soon, anyway, and they would be out of conveniently unguarded quail roosts to plunder.
They arrived with their shoulder bags, which Jupita helped them fill with banana leaves, figs, and honey disks. She then opened the massive, metal-barred door to Norah’s pen and stepped inside to greet the elephant.
Unlike cattle or other farm animals Jupita had seen in her lifetime, elephants displayed a sort of brilliance often absent on even Humans. Jupita could see in Norah’s eyes that she understood that change was approaching, as slow, lumbering, and immense as an elephant itself. The old farmer reached out to pet Norah’s trunk, reveling for a moment in the warmth of her thick skin and wondering what good it would be to have it sacrificed for Human use. She knew, in the more rational corners of her brain, that utility had its costs, that the lives of plants and animals and sometimes other Humans were disregarded for the sake of the continued growth and stability of humanity as a whole, but Norah was not simply an animal to her. Norah was the end of Jupita’s family legacy, a symbol of all that she and her ancestors had worked for. More than that, Norah was a friend and companion to the solitary farmer. Change, Jupita thought as she stroked Norah’s nose, was a discomforting thought to more than just the elephant. Still, sacrifices had to be made, one way or another. That was the way of things, and the change would be bearable if Jupita knew that Norah’s life would not be cut so short.
Once Norah, sensing the finality of Jupita’s gesture, returned it by curling the end of her trunk halfway around Jupita’s wrist, the farmer pulled away and backed up a few steps, waving for Norah to follow. For as much as Norah had come to bond with the thieves, she only obeyed Jupita’s sign language. For the young boys to convince Norah to do anything, they would need those banana leaves.
Jupita led the elephant outside of the pen to the open central space of the farm—the flat area between the pen, Jupita’s house, and the shed with the quail roosts lined up along its outside wall. Norah paused and looked around. She was calm, if confused, and Jupita turned to her young friends.
“Use the food I’ve given you to bait her to the wooded plain northeast of here,” she said. “It is a long trek on foot—eleven, maybe twelve miles. I hope it is far enough, still.” She looked up at Norah one more time, staring into her watery, black eyes for a moment before returning her attention to the thieves. “Come—I will lead you part of the way there.”
The old farmer took them about half a mile off her property before pointing them northeast, saying that the wooded plain she spoke of was a direct shot from there, across the dusty savanna fields. She patted her elephant goodbye one last time, and then it was up to Ian and Dmitri to lead Norah along the path.
They worried, of course, that they would be caught—elephants were not easy to stash inconspicuously under loose shirts, after all—but Jupita had paid them well, and they were fond of Norah and would rather she not be skinned. Each of them taking a fistful of banana leaves, they lured Norah along, allowing her to reach for the treats with her trunk but still doing their best to stay a few steps ahead of her.
The statue bounced around at the bottom of Dmitri’s bag, under more leaves, roots, and fruits. The coins were similarly placed at the bottom of Ian’s satchel. As well as they had come out of this deal, the thieves did have to leave town after delivering Norah to her new home in the wilderness, and it was with a heavy sadness that they did so. It would be their last moments with their elephant friend. They were used to such fleeting relationships, though—aside from each other, they separated from all of their friends in such a manner.
It took all day—three times Norah had successfully snatched the offering from the thieves before they were ready to dispose of them, and twice she got bored and tried to walk off—but they managed to reach the area that Jupita had spoken of just at the brink of sunset. Other elephants paced around lazily in the distance. They were wild, but Ian and Dmitri didn’t fear them. They had been in the Veldtland long enough to know that even wild elephants were often indifferent to or even fond of Humans.
They led Norah to the shared shade of a cluster of trees, their lower branches stripped halfway bare but still offering plenty for Norah. She glanced around the space and titled her head downward, as a person might nod when appraising something they found pleasing. Ian and Dmitri unsnapped the flaps of their satchel and dumped out what remained off the food they had brought for Norah, quickly snatching up their treasures from the heap before the elephant began feasting. Flapping her ears, Norah approached the pile and began picking out figs, in no apparent hurry.
“I think I saw something reflecting near the horizon,” Ian said, looking out between the gaps in the trees around them. “Is that a watering hole?” In the place where his attention was locked, shadowy masses of elephant silhouettes mulled about, relaxed and taking leisure in the softening daylight.
Dmitri nodded. “I hope those other elephants are nice to her. It’s no fun to be out of one’s element—worse, when everyone else there is rude about it.”
Norah stood munching on her treats, oblivious to the fretting and fussing being done on her behalf. She didn’t know Ian and Dmitri’s worried about her fitting in with the other wild animals, nor was she aware of the great sacrifice Jupita had made for her. At least, she wasn’t aware, yet. She would come to understand, in time.
Ian and Dmitri waved goodbye to Norah and slunk out from between the trees and into the growing shadows of the evening. They were gone almost before Norah had even noticed, leaving her alone in a wild and unfamiliar place with nothing but the sweetness of banana leaves to comfort her.
She kept eating, knowing that other animals would eventually come for her food if she let it be. When she finished her grand meal, she settled up against a tree, leaning against it to test its endurance, and knelt down beside it. Anxiety shook her bones, but it was growing too dark, and home was too far, and although she was an animal, even she knew that Jupita had planned this all for her.
There was nothing more to do than accept what was and sleep.
A week and a half later, Jupita made the trek out to the area where wild elephant herds were known to roam, the same several square miles of land that she had directed Ian and Dmitri toward. She had seen no sign of them since they lured Norah away. They had vanished, as young vagabonds often do, perhaps to Brightland or Westeye, where the sun was not so harsh and food was more plentiful. Visitations from Ricard’s trader friends had taken their place, pestering Jupita’s with their expressions of disappointment that their desired prize had disappeared. Jupita, meanwhile, played the victim for Ricard.
When they had come to examine Norah and come to their final price, they found Jupita kneeling on the ground before the open pen, watering the dry earth with her tears. Although she did not weep for the reasons Ricard and the traders believed, they were sincere tears, all the same.
While the traders—six of them total—stood about tut-tutting the situation, Jupita spun a tale of half-truths to Ricard, claiming that a pair of wily young thieves had taken off with Norah.
Ricard accepted her story of falsely believing two small egg-thieves would never snatch up anything larger, believing her innocent in the ordeal because she had too much to lose. Her plan was successful, the traders left disappointed, and although she and Ricard now only had the sale of the farm to pay for the future Ricard had imagined for them, Jupita was happy to have a humble retirement.
Until the sale of the farm went through and she was moved into the nearby town, though, Jupita had little to do with her time, and eventually prepared to trek out across the plains to see if she might witness the fruits of her scheme.
Prowling around the watering hole were several elephants, sluggish and sleepy under the maternal heat of the sun. There was one distinct herd—four adult females and three calves—and one loner hovering on the far end of the pond, shyly picking at the leaves on a tree near her.
Jupita was shaded underneath her own tree, some distance away and not within the elephants’ range of notice. She watched Norah eye her neighbors, her beady black eyes betraying a spark of longing and loneliness. The other elephants occasionally glanced over at her—not hostile, only curious. They had not accepted her into their fold, but elephants were magnanimous creatures. If ever Norah’s solitude posed a threat to her health or safety, this herd would likely step in to care for her. Until then, she would have to win their affection if she desired to be one of their kind.
That she survived a week and a half was relief enough to Jupita. The old farmer lingered for many minutes longer, giving the sun enough time to skip a few more paces across the hazy sky. Her old bones would not bring her out here often, and she knew it may be her last time looking upon her friend.
After experiencing a cool rush of gratitude—gratitude toward Norah for her years of uncomplicated companionship, and toward the thieves for their simple, secret act of mercy toward a helpless animal and an elderly stranger—Jupita turned and stepped from the shade of the tree.
A new life awaited Jupita upon her return, something apart from her decades of farming and breeding, and although change rattled her exhausted bones, its promise propelled her journey back home.