Schoch crept out of his sleeping bag and tried to breathe deeply to calm the pounding of his heart. What he could see wasn’t a hallucination. You couldn’t touch hallucinations.
But what was it?
A miracle? A sign? Something mystical?
Schoch had never been a religious man, but before his downfall he’d certainly believed in the existence of something that transcended his powers of perception and imagination. A higher reality, and maybe a higher power too.
But like everything else, this belief had crumbled with his downfall. And hadn’t made its presence felt in all the years since.
Until today. For the fact that this fabulous creature from another world, maybe even another dimension, had chosen to reveal itself to him – him! – must have a significance.
Schoch now did something he hadn’t done since childhood: he crossed himself. But this form of homage seemed inappropriate given the significance of the revelation and the fact that it might be an Asian elephant before him, so he put the palms of his hands together in front of his beard and gave a deep Thai-style bow.
The animal felt around on the ground with its trunk.
‘Hungry?’ Schoch asked. He picked up a few leaves and held them out to the elephant.
Hesitantly, and with its trunk outstretched, the creature inched closer. It grabbed hold of the leaves, lowered its wedge-shaped jaw and stuffed them in its mouth. Schoch’s hand brushed the tip of the trunk, which felt soft and silky.
The elephant raised its trunk, indicating that it wanted more.
Schoch put on his shoes. ‘Stay here,’ he ordered. ‘I’ll fetch you some more. He pushed past the bushes and got to his feet.
The clouds hung low and the river was still brown and flowing rapidly. But at least it wasn’t raining. Schoch went over to the old willow growing a little way down-stream and broke off a few branches. Then he pulled up some clumps of grass and a bunch of buttercups that were growing just above the high water level.
With this harvest he struggled back up the embankment and crept into his cave.
His visitor, still standing in the same place, shot out its trunk when it saw the food.
Schoch fed the little animal with fascination and patience. It was so hungry that he had to go out twice for more. With his penknife he also cut off the lower third of a plastic bottle, filled it with water from the river and watched the elephant sink its trunk in, suck up the water and empty it into its mouth.
Thus the morning passed without Schoch having eaten or drunk anything.
His cheap plastic watch showed 2 p.m. when his little guest went for a lie down. Schoch thought this was a good idea and lay down beside it.
When he awoke the mini elephant was on its side in a different spot. Its stomach was rising and falling rapidly and its trunk was being thrust out and curled up at irregular intervals. On the ground everywhere were puddles of runny excrement.
Schoch gently laid a hand on the little body as if it were the forehead of a feverish child. It didn’t react. He carefully took hold of the elephant and placed it upright. It stood there, legs splayed, ears and trunk drooping, and beneath its tail the contents of its bowels gushed out, as thin as water. The little creature lay back down even before it had finished. In fact it was more like falling down than lying down.
Drink lots of fluids when you’ve got diarrhoea, Schoch thought. He took an empty bottle and went back down the embankment. It was much easier now; after twenty hours without any alcohol he was quite steady on his feet again.
But he was still panting heavily when he entered his cave with the full bottle. The tiny, pink, magical creature now lay there peacefully, its chest no longer rising and falling and the trunk not twisting any more, but resting simply beside its front legs.
Schoch panicked. ‘You’re not going to die on me,’ he muttered. ‘You’re not going to die on me.’ He shook out the contents of his holdall, wrapped the droopy animal in the towel with the Nivea logo and placed it inside the holdall. Then he hung this over his shoulder and left.
By Martin Suter
Translated by Jamie Bulloch
Thank you to the publisher 4th Estate (Harper Collins) for allowing us to publish this excerpt.