Authors: Jodi Picoult
Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Literary, #Sagas
Larger Than Life
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product
of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons,
living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
2014 Ballantine eBook Edition
Copyright © 2014 by Jodi Picoult
copyright © 2014 by Jodi Picoult
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a
division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
and the H
colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book
by Jodi Picoult. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect
the final content of the forthcoming edition.
eBook ISBN: 978-0-553-39210-4
Cover design: Gabrielle Bordwin
Cover photograph: gungerguni/Getty Images
Moments after receiving the worst news of my life, I drive into the middle of a massacre.
The five elephants lie on their sides, dusty hills, aberrations in the landscape.
Flies swarm around the black blood that has seeped into the dirt, and overhead spins
a pinwheel of vultures.
I park the Land Rover beneath a mopane tree and walk toward the bodies. I am looking
for signs of life, although I know I won’t find them. I’m not sure how the poachers
took this herd down. They use guns and spears, sometimes arrows poisoned with acokanthera.
I’ve heard of watering holes being contaminated, of the elephants dropping like boulders
after they drink.
The largest elephant is one I recognize. Karabo has a half-moon torn from her right
ear, which is now draped over her face like a shroud. I fold back the skin as I would
smooth clean sheets on a bed, revealing the gash in her flesh. Her face is a blunt
cliff of brow where her trunk and the tusks have been sheared away.
I lean over and get sick in the brush, bracing my hands on my knees.
Pull yourself together, Alice
, I tell myself.
You have a job to do
I have seen death in the bush before, and there is always a protocol. When an elephant
dies, we researchers dutifully record the place and time of death in the data we keep
on the herds. We contact a ranger, so that the tusks can be removed before villagers
can come at night to cut them away, to sell them on the black market. We leave the
carcass to the vultures and the jackals and the hyenas. But what are we supposed to
do when the tusks are already missing? When they were the reason for the slaughter?
I’ve been told that the Chinese believe elephants shed their tusks like deer shed
their antlers, that they have no idea that the ivory pendants and carvings they covet
come at so great a cost. They also don’t realize the collateral damage: In addition
to the five elephants from this herd who were slaughtered, there are more who ran
frantically from the poachers—and who no longer have a matriarch to lead them to food
and water, to steer them away from danger. When the matriarch is gone, so is the herd’s
In this moment, it’s too much for me, and I start to cry. Because bad things happen
all the time. Because I am too late. Because yesterday these elephants were part of
a family, and today they are not.
Maybe it is the noise I’m making, maybe it is just a shift in the wind that carries
the scent of me—too human—across the bush. But suddenly there is a rustling sound
that draws my attention. I look up and see an elephant calf, so young that her trunk
still dangles like a broken comma, peeking from behind the mountain of her dead mother’s
She can’t be much older than a week or two; she’s less than three feet tall at the
shoulder. The calf pushes against the body, trying to rouse her mother. She stretches
her trunk toward her mother’s mouth, which is how she would normally check in for
comfort, but there is no mouth anymore.
There is no mother.
“Hey, sweetheart,” I soothe, keeping my voice low, which is what elephants like. “Hey,
now, you’re all right.”
I move forward before I can think better of it. She may not be a full-grown elephant,
but she still easily outweighs me by more than 150 pounds. I do not want her to startle
and run—and yet I know she won’t. She will stand by her mother’s body until she wastes
I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
Until a few months ago, I worked in South Africa, at Madikwe Game Reserve. The elephants
there were juveniles, survivors of the massive culls in the Kruger Park that were
meant to control the elephant population through the mid-1990s. From a helicopter,
government hunters would dart the matriarch with scoline, which is prohibited for
human use because it causes total paralysis while conscious. When the matriarch fell,
the members of her herd would bunch around her, confused and frantic. Without the
matriarch telling them where and when to run, the rest were easy to kill. The calves
were spared, and because they would not leave their mothers’ bodies, they were rounded
up with no difficulty. They were sent to zoos and circuses overseas, or put together
in forced herds on reserves, like the one in Madikwe. The hope had been that these
orphans could form new family units, together. But that wasn’t how it worked out,
in the long run. They
became abnormally aggressive in the absence of the social guidance they would have
been given by a matriarch in the wild.
There had never been culling here in Botswana, so there are no reserves for orphans
here. If I let my new boss, Grant, know that I’ve found this calf, I will be told
to let nature take its course.
I get close enough to the calf to see the hairs that sprout from her head, the dark
smudges of her eyes.
The job of scientists is to study wildlife but not to interfere with it. That’s why
we are called naturalists. Yet there have been too many times in the past year when
I’ve wondered if that might just be an excuse for not having to be held responsible
when something goes terribly wrong.
The calf and I both startle as one of the vultures dives like a missile, landing on
the body of the elephant, pecking at the raw flesh. I turn, flailing my arms and shouting
until the bird rises into the sky again, momentarily eclipsing the sun.
When I look back at the calf, she takes two steps closer, and that’s when I know that
I’m going to break all the rules. Again.
I was ten years old, standing on an overturned crate behind a podium, trying desperately
not to throw up. My hands were sweaty and my knees were banging together, and through
the sea of faces in the audience, I was searching for the only one who mattered. She
knew that our presentations were today. She’d promised me she would be there.
“The life of an elephant and the life of a human,” I said, barely audible, “are not
so different.” My fingers clutched the watercolor painting I’d done of an African
elephant; I had to make a conscious effort to relax my grip. I knew that my face was
red and that everyone was staring at me because of it, which only made me blush even
more. Speaking in public had never been easy for me, but today, having to present
my animal research project to a packed gymnasium, was terrifying.
I swallowed hard. “Over the course of a lifetime, elephants both affect and are affected
by their environment. Elephants live in female herds. The matriarch—the oldest
in the family—makes all the decisions.”
I glanced at my teacher, who gave me a smile of encouragement, and just then I saw
a movement at the rear door of the gym. She didn’t look like anyone else’s mother.
Even in her parking patrolwoman uniform, there was not a hair out of place and her
makeup was impeccable. She might have been a movie star, playing the role of a public
servant. “Elephants communicate, not just with rumbles and roars and gestures but
also with sounds too low for us to hear.”
Suddenly, my mind went blank. I could not remember a single word; I couldn’t find
the familiar landmark of the next sentence. My breathing became the heartbeat of the
I had practiced this presentation in the shower, while brushing my teeth, while riding
on the bus. I had practiced this presentation until it was the first thing to pop
into my head when I woke up in the morning. As it turned out, there
something worse than public speaking: forgetting the speech.
Then my mother cleared her throat.
My chin jerked up, and our eyes locked. For a moment there was no one else there with
us—just me with my flaming cheeks, and her, with disappointment tugging at the corners
of her mouth. Then, gradually, I started to hear sounds. My heart thudding. The tick
of my teacher’s watch. The creak of chairs, as other parents shifted uncomfortably
in the silence.
Just like that all the words were back, pushing at the gate of my teeth. I raced to
the end of my speech. There was a pause as everyone waited to see if there was more.
But then I bowed stiffly and ran off the stage, and Eddie Raheed began to talk about
the orangutan as easily as if he were reciting the alphabet.
Later, juice and cookies were served. Kids ran to their parents, whose arms folded
tight around them like the wings of giant birds. I found my mother leaning against
a gym mat hanging from the wall, and I handed her the telescope tube of my elephant
My mother unrolled the watercolor as if she were about to read from an ancient scroll.
She stared at it for a moment before curling it into a cylinder again. “Well,” she
said. “That could have gone better.”
In all the years since then, I have never forgotten a single fact about elephants.