The sun blazed over the Zambezi as the rainy season approached. Soon the river would rise to its highest levels and expand over the rims of the savannah. As the rains begin and the water levels rise, the territory of the hippos significantly expands. Many take advantage of the high water levels by seeking solitude when they can. When the river’s levels are more modest, solitude is nearly impossibly to come by. But the rains help certain hippos get away to meditate when they need to, which is often, since other hippos’ aggression often can drastically affect their well-being. Many travelers on safari who tour the Zambezi during the rainy season comment on how it resembles a lake much more than a river. Often they are taken by its placid surfaces and sense of repose. But when a hippo’s head rises up with a fixed stare as rigid as it is poised, the travelers know they must flee. Hippos have claimed many human lives on this river.
One hippo went off late one afternoon to be alone. Hip, as she was called, needed time away from the predictable chaos of others in the group. She swam for a half a mile downriver until she found a spot eight feet down. Hip, like all hippos, could stay underwater for nearly fifteen minutes at a time without coming up for air. She was feeling especially drowsy as evening approached, so she decided she would descend until she needed to come to the surface. After that, she would return to the group with the hope that none of them would be too angered by her leaving without telling anyone. As she descended she felt a spell of heavy sleep come over her. Just fifteen minutes, she thought to herself, all I need is fifteen minutes on the bottom of the river. But as she went deeper and deeper down, her sleep overwhelmed her. She began to dream.
Her dream was a normal hippo’s dream at first. She dreamed of spinning a crocodile on the tip of her nose before biting it in half. She dreamed of running down a gazelle with such efficiency that she could circle out in front of it and merely let it run into her mouth. She even dreamed of one of her favorite pastimes of all: turning over canoes with humans in them. Hip was not interested in eating the humans, however. She only loved to watch from below as their legs kicked and swayed. It gave her a strange sense of comfort that nothing else could. As Hip gazed up with glazed, weary eyes to the surface, she saw a boat propeller cut through like a comet in a transparent night sky. She thought she saw those same legs kicking and swaying above too, but she wasn’t sure. The dream deepened.
Hip suddenly dreamed of herself, yet something was different: she was no longer confined to just being a hippo. Somehow her dream enabled her to be like a human. First, she stood up on her squat hind legs. It wasn’t easy at first, but she mastered upright walking quickly by shifting all of her considerable weight from one foot to another in a kind of waddle. Next thing she knew, not only was she walking, but she had a tambourine in her hand. Little by little she began to shake it. It was a simple rhythm at first. Like all simple rhythms, though, it began to assert itself. As she continued to walk and play her tambourine, the crocodiles, swept up in the music, suddenly began to dance. All around they propped themselves up on their triangular tails and bounced to the beat of Hip’s tune. Each of their toothy mouths hung almost completely open, as if to catch the happy jingle in their jaws. The elephants also started dancing. One by one, they stepped forward and then back on their front legs. The leopards too began to dance by holding their paws up in the air and swinging their tails in a circle motion. It was a scene even the warthogs admired from afar, though they did not dance. They nodded their heads to the beat of the tambourine, however, since even they couldn’t resist. Then in a flash the river became a fire. This fire did not burn though. It warmed all the dancers with a balm of ecstasy. Fire is a natural dancer after all. As the crocodiles spun, the elephants stepped, the leopards shook, and the warthogs bobbed, Hip’s dream rollicked on.
The stars began to fall from the sky. As each star fell into the glorious flames of the river, a swirl of iridescence rose in a flourish that perfectly complemented the rhythm of Hip’s tambourine. Eventually all of the stars fell out of the sky, leaving it not black, but the deepest blue imaginable. The flames from the river reached higher to the sky and the animals ecstatically danced as if possessed. The river reached the sky. The heavens were ablaze with the triumph of Hip’s tambourine. The world was aflame with music, dancing, and joy. The heavens were the earth; the earth the heavens. Hip dreamed of the whole universe. As she looked out through outer space, she squinted to see a small dot far off in obscurity. The harder she looked, the more it came into focus. It was the planet Earth. It was a reflection in the pupil of her eye.
Back up the river the other hippos began to worry about Hip’s absence. The entire night had passed without any of them seeing or hearing from her, and worry understandably pervaded the group. The bull hippos immediately flew into a rage. They flashed their mighty tusk-like teeth and arched their necks back, as if to appeal to the open expanse above. The females swam the surface of the water. Their eyes were scanning above and beneath. The more they looked the more they sensed that looking was futile. If Hip was near, they felt, she was not to be found. Days later, at the mouth of the Zambezi, Hip’s lifeless body floated out into the Indian Ocean. She floated for a long time until land was long out of sight. Then she began to sink down into the darkness of the deep. Slowly she disappeared.