Now Zach could hear the thunder of the approaching cloud more clearly, so loud that it drowned out the ragged sound of his gasping breath. He glanced ahead and saw with relief that Jonna and Billy had both reached the safety of the trees. It was not far. He allowed himself to look back and now saw that the cloud was a huge billow of dust, raised by the thundering feet of two or three dozen very large onrushing animals. He had no further impression of them beyond their size, and then he picked out a different sound among the crashing feet, a kind of low-pitched droning, almost like a musical instrument.
The ground shook beneath his feet, and as his legs were whipped by the wild grasses he tried not to think about stepping into an animal burrow and going down, perhaps breaking his leg. The trees were just ahead, and he sprinted to their shade, then reached up for the outstretched hands of Jonna and Billy, in the lower branches of the largest tree. With their help he pulled himself up, then sat a moment, getting his breath, while the herd of beasts drew closer.
It was difficult to see through all the dust, but Zach had an impression not only of great size, but of large heads with wide ears, and long appendages in front.
The creatures had slowed, then the entire assemblage stopped, several hundred feet from the oasis.
“What are they?” Billy asked, sounding awed.
Zach didn’t have a ready answer. “The animals who used to live on the plains, before civilization, were said to travel in groups like this—even larger,” he said, trying to remember pictures he had seen from old, pre-Change books. “But I believe those beasts were somewhat like very large mounts.”
Three of the creatures stepped away from the group and approached the tree. Now Zach could see that they were much larger than mounts. Each animal had two long, curved, and very dangerous-looking teeth protruding from its mouth, and large, flapping ears. Most astonishing of all was that where their noses should be, each animal had a single long, sinuous rope-like appendage. Bizarre though they looked, there was something familiar about them. Zach searched his memory and a picture and a name came to him. “I believe they are called elephants,” he said. A moment after he spoke, the largest animal, who seemed to be the leader, called, with a sound like the old pre-Change musical instrument called a trumpet. At the same time, it tapped the ground with one of its forefeet, as if in agreement with him.
“Elephants?” said Jonna. “I’ve never heard of this sort of animal.”
“They did not originally live in this land,” Zach said. “They were from another continent, far across the ocean. Before the Change, many elephants and other even more exotic creatures were brought to the civilization that lived here, where they were exhibited for all to see.”
“Are these elephants as they were?” asked Jonna. “Or are they Changed like so many other animals?”
“I do not know,” said Zach. “I don’t know if we can know. These must be the descendants of captive animals that became free after the Change. They seem strong and adaptable, which may be why they survived.”
Again the lead animal trumpeted, then took a step closer to the tree where the travelers clung to a sturdy branch. Billy shrank back, and climbed further up the main trunk.
As Zach continued to study the animals, he had the distinct impression that they were likewise studying him. He noticed that all the elephants he could see seemed to be females—at least none displayed male genitals. Interspersed with the large beasts were a number of smaller, juvenile animals. They too seemed curious, but when one tried to approach, an adult wrapped her tube-like nose around its neck and pulled it back. After a few more moments, Zach made a decision and carefully dropped to the ground. “Brother Zach!” Jonna cried.
“Shh,” Zach replied. “I don’t think they mean us harm. I believe they are just curious.”
“But they are so big,” said Jonna
Zach didn’t answer. Instead he slowly approached the lead animal. As he did, she very slowly and delicately stepped toward him.
“I am Zach,” he said, holding out his hand.
As soon as he spoke, a very low rumbling vibration enveloped him, so low that he almost could not hear it, but rather felt it throughout his body. At the same time, an image of the elephant formed in his mind. Zach was so startled he took a step backward. The image of the elephant seemed to dissolve, then changed into an image of wildly rushing streams combining into a roar of rapids. The low-pitched vibration changed, repeating three times in a rhythm that reminded him of the buzzing of a fox-cat. The image disappeared, then returned, along with the rhythmic vibration.
Because there was no other explanation, he had to accept that the elephant was causing the image to appear in his mind. Now the image flickered, alternating between the image of the rapids and the elephant herself. The low, powerful rumbles matched the roar of the rapids in his mind. Zach felt as if his entire body were vibrating with the elephant’s rumbling sounds
Quite suddenly, Zach realized that [Rushing River] was the elephant’s name. The instant that thought occurred, the flickering images in his mind disappeared and the elephant reached out slowly with her nose-tube, then lightly—almost impossibly gently for such a large creature—touched Zach’s face. He stood still, feeling the thick, rough skin against his own. He reached up and touched the elephant in turn, caressing her flexible nose-tube with his hand. Her scent enveloped him, a mixture of dried grass, water, and freshly-turned earth.