Pretty Falling Pieces by Isabelle Culpo

Chapter One

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After twenty-four years I thought I’d seen all the beauty this world had to offer. That was before I witnessed the sun set across an African sky.

It’s been eight months since I arrived at the Rubanza Sanctuary in Kenya and stood beneath a blanket of golden light so vast and beautiful it took my breath away.

The images online didn’t do it justice.

I feel a gentle nudge on my stomach and glance down at the hungry elephant calf standing in front of me, impatient for its meal. I grab the giant baby bottle filled with fresh milk and start feeding the precious, yet eager, creature.

Like most of the calves at Rubanza, this little one was made an orphan from the ivory trade. Probably forced to watch its parents be brutally slaughtered and de-tusked. The others are here from the ravages of drought and deterioration of the wild African terrain.

We bring them here to help acclimate to their natural habitat and learn how to survive in the wild where they will eventually return.

My job, along with the fellow keepers, is to help make that transition as smooth as possible so they have the best chance at survival. A task that’s becoming increasingly difficult from the environmental damage inflicted by humankind.

Originally I volunteered at Rubanza to be an extra hand, helping care for the elephants in whatever way needed, whether that be cleaning the pens, preparing their food, or supervising during their socialisation times. However not long after arriving, I realised my time was better spent helping them sort out the administrative side of things. There were grand plans in place to develop and expand the sanctuary, but they hadn’t outlined the concrete steps it would take to get them here.

Most of those steps involved funding.

Lots of it.

It’s surreal to witness how modern civilisation has interfered with an entire ecosystem, and its species, who develop their own communities and social structures, just as complex as ours.

Yet despite all the wealth in the world, we can’t provide the funds to fix it.

Elephants are the most intuitive, intelligent, and altruistic animals.

Sometime during our lifetime, they’ll most likely be extinct.

I’ve always felt a deeper connection to animals than I have with people.

My mother said it was because they couldn’t judge me. Animals respond to how you treat them, not your external appearance.

In my experience, most people are the opposite.

If you’re beautiful, doors will open. If you’re ugly, they’ll slam in your face.

That might sound harsh to someone who’s never been burdened by their looks, but that’s the conclusion I’ve come to.

In fact, it’s part of the reason why I moved halfway across the world to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary. To find a place in the world where I felt I belonged.

Rubanza has been exactly that and more.

If only the love I felt for this place and its animals could be captured and transformed to water. The dry cracked skin of the African savannah would heal, and its empty river basins would be full to the brim.

Now that my time here has come to an end, I can’t help but feel despondent at the lack of change we’ve made over the past year. Things are getting worse, not better, and I’m not sure how I can ever return to the life that drove me here in the first place.

* * *

Gritty brown dust rises in the air around me.

“Are you sure you’re ready to leave, Imogen?” Like always, Ashura’s knack for reading my mind spooks me. He’s one of the most perceptive people I know.

Spending time with him feels like my thoughts have been ripped out of my head and attached to my sleeve. He once told me his name means friend or one who accompanies.

It couldn’t be more apt.

I’ll never forget the day I arrived and was partnered up with him to learn the ropes. I was so nervous at first, intimidated by the size of the calves and their physicality towards me when being playful.

Ashura, of course, found it highly amusing watching me interact with them for the first time. Initially, I feared for my life, terrified I’d be crushed under their heavy weight.

But after observing him and the rest of the staff being so relaxed around them, I eventually loosened up and started to feel at ease.

“I’ll miss you too,” I reply. “And the answer to your question is no, I’m not sure. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to leave.”

I need to start picking up the pieces of the life I left behind. This trip was planned for three months; I’ve now been here for eight and there’s only so long I can hold off returning home. Regrettably, volunteer work doesn’t cover a mortgage; maybe if it did, it would be less difficult getting places like this off the ground. How can we expect people to give their time when they themselves are chained to full time work to make ends meet?

Rubanza needs long-term, sustainable funding. Elephants are large, high-maintenance mammals, and right now the sanctuary’s bleeding cash just to stay afloat.

That’s why I need to go back home.

Ashura nods and smiles, but it doesn’t reach his eyes “Can you meet me in the break room after you’re done feeding the baba? There’s some paperwork I’d like your help with before you go.”

“Sure, I’ll just wash up and then meet you there.”

With a quick pat on the elephants’ head, he nods then walks away.

* * *

Dirt and sand stain the water in the sink a light brown. The most satisfying part of my day is watching it eventually turn clear.

I dry off my clean hands with a towel when a beam of golden hour sunlight catches the mirror reflection. My eyes flinch causing me to stare up.

There’s no room for vanity at Rubanza.

When vulnerable animals are at stake, exterior maintenance like makeup and nice clothing become unimportant. My current beauty routine consists of throwing my hair in a ponytail and applying sunscreen. Both of which can be done with my eyes closed.

Back home, apart from special occasions, I avoided the mirror at all costs.

I always found the person staring back at me disappointing.

On the odd occasion I’ve caught glimpses of myself since I’ve arrived, the changes were subtle. My eyes averted themselves before I could take inventory.

Today though, I allow myself to finally come to grips with the transformation.

I knew I’d lost weight. My clothes had started falling off me months ago. I just don’t think I’d fully comprehended how much until now.

My usually round, pale face is unrecognisable.

Lines and hollows have been carved from the layers of fat into cheekbones I never knew existed. The acne that once littered my face has been erased, leaving behind a smooth golden complexion. Even my eyes, which were always glassy and red, are now a luminous white.

The work at Rubanza is physically rigorous, and our diet consists mostly of seasonal fruit and vegetables, lean protein, and local grains.

Everything is farm to table and organically grown.

The physical changes I’m looking at right now are a testament to the healing abilities of that lifestyle. A desk job, processed foods, and avoiding the sun like a vampire, clearly weren’t doing me any favours.

My entire adolescence was devoted to the pursuit of beauty and becoming “thin.”

To think of the years I spent in turmoil depriving myself from food, only to binge on chocolate, pizza, and ice cream, and still be perplexed why the scales weren’t shifting. Confusing my body with engineered “diet food” and punishing workouts was never the answer I so desperately searched for. They always promised to deliver the physique I’d longed for all my life. But as soon as I fell off the wagon, I’d eventually end up ten kilos heavier than where I started and ten times more depressed.

Turns out all I really needed was to get back to basics and remove myself from the corporate, sedentary lifestyle I was leading.

My diet at Rubanza has been the unintentional weight-loss magic pill I’ve longed for all my life.

I should be feeling elated.

Instead, I’m racking my brain trying to figure out why I put my life on hold for this moment, which doesn’t feel as good as I once hoped it would.

* * *

Fragrant spices of smoky cardamom and cinnamon flood my senses along with the sound of deep rumbling laughter across the campsite.

Dinner must be ready.

I drape a cardigan over my shoulders and head towards the break room, gazing up at the ocean of sparkling diamonds above me, that has replaced the vibrant orange hues from only moments ago.

Whenever I feel overwhelmed and need to put life’s problems back into perspective, I turn to the stars. The sheer magnitude of what’s out there in the universe always makes the little things that are bothering me feel infinitely small.

I stand there for a second, absorbing the magic one last time. Back home, city lights pollute the Milky Way.

The closer I get to the break room, the quieter the laughter gets.

When my boots land on the wooden steps the only sound I hear is hushing.

Even though I anticipate what’s happening, my heart still leaps into my throat when I open the door and am met with a loud “SURPRISE!”

Rainbow confetti rains down on the room and cheers of celebration commence.

Aside from the fact that my soul just left my body, I’m touched.

The entire Rubanza team has assembled in our tiny green break room to wish me farewell.

A haphazard farewell sign hangs from one side of the room to the other. The white canvas is decorated in colourful handprints, a name drawn in vivid marker under each one.

Laid out in the centre of the table is a delicious looking assortment of treats. There’s a double tiered chocolate cake with Don’t Leave written in pale pink icing.

The fact that they’ve gone to the trouble of preparing my favourite foods from home warms my heart. I’ve never been on the receiving end of such thoughtfulness before, and the feeling is bittersweet.

Before I can embarrass myself by bursting into tears, the rest of the room dives into the festivities as drinks and snacks are passed around.

Matthew and Nicola are the first to greet me and pull me into a tight embrace.

As the founders of the sanctuary, Matt and Nic are the unofficial “mum” and “dad” to us all. Gifted in finding the vulnerable and helping them flourish.

Both animals and humans alike.

Nicola squeezes me with more tightness than you’d expect from someone who barely reaches five foot “Thank you so much for everything you’ve done here, Imogen. It’s going to be so hard to see you go.”

She wiggles me back and forth and my arms stay squished to my sides.

“Let the poor girl go, Nic, you’re strangling her,” Matt says, tugging on his wife’s arm playfully. She smiles and tucks herself into his side, nuzzling her nose into his t-shirt and giggling.

Since I’ve arrived, I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed an argument between them.

Their unconditional love is sugary and excessive but somehow still adorably sweet. If they weren’t two of the kindest people I’d ever met, I’d probably find it unbearable to be around such overt displays of affection.

Matt and Nic ditched their fast-paced corporate lives in London and invested all of their savings in an African wildlife sanctuary.

After stumbling across a YouTube video about the number of endangered wildlife species in Africa, Nicola made it her life’s mission to protect those animals. And Matt, being head over heels in love with her, didn’t take much convincing to come along for the ride. In just a few short months they’d left their six-figure salaries to build Rubanza from scratch.

The dedicated team in this room is a testament to their compassion and sacrifice.

I take a deep breath before answering, my throat feeling heavy and thick. “I’m only going home to find ways to raise money so we can start executing our plans for expansion. I’ll be back with more funds than we’ll know what to do with in no time.”

I hope.

The rate of declining biodiversity and the number of displaced animals is rapidly increasing each year.

We’re running out of time.

“And we thank you for that, Imogen, but tonight is about celebrating your time here. Just relax for once and enjoy it,” Matt urges, handing me a glass of dawa.

I take a swig of the tangy liquid that will always remind me of Africa.

“We thought you could take the night shift tonight, Imogen,” Nic suggests.

Although it’s something I can’t say I’ve ever really enjoyed, I’m grateful I’ll get to spend my last night with the elephants.

Just as I’m about to accept, Ashura shouts from across the room. “Don’t forget your protection,” Ashura teases, holding up a kitchen spray and cloth.

Laughter erupts from the room. Obviously my reputation as the resident clean freak has remained intact after all this time. During my first few weeks, every surface I touched needed to be scrubbed and disinfected to within an inch of its life.

I’d like to think I’ve loosened up a little since then.

Someone turns up the stereo until it drowns out the possibility of continuing the conversation further. Everyone begins dancing, eating, and drinking as a fusion of African and Western music carries us through the rest of the evening.

I came here to make a difference, but never in a million years did I think this place, its people, and its animals would, in fact, heal me.

* * *

After the festivities come to a close, I head back to my room where my bags sit beside the door, ready for my departure tomorrow morning. It reminds me of when I first arrived and how they were filled to the brim with what I deemed “essentials.”

The zipper would barely close, jam-packed full of lotions, sprays, soaps, clothes, wipes, and makeup.

All of that preparation was fruitless though, as the only things I needed were sunscreen and bug repellent.

Tonight I’m sleeping with one of our newest calves, Lulu, so I brush my teeth, spray on repellent, and head to the barn. There’s a makeshift bunk above her crate that we’ve all taken turns sleeping in. A plank of wood runs along the spine of the bed making it pretty much impossible to get a good night’s sleep in, but the elephants like people around them.

It makes them feel safer.

I climb into the bunk setting out my sleeping bag and pillow.

“Goodnight, Lulu, please be a good girl and don’t wake me up tonight.” Elephants require much less sleep than humans, and thankfully it’s so late in the evening I’ll probably be gone before she’s awake for her first feed. I pat her on the back, and then eventually we both fall asleep.

A gust of air tickles my nose, waking me. Then the tip of a soft, prickly trunk against my shoulder. I try to wake myself fully, so I can sit up and see what’s going on, but before I get a chance to, there’s a heavy thud against the ground and I know she’s going back to sleep.

She was just checking I was still there.

I can’t think about the fact that she won’t find me there tomorrow.

* * *

Before dawn, a taxi waits outside Rubanza, taking me to Jomo Kenyatta Airport. I hop in and greet the driver, letting him know where I’m headed.

It’s a long drive, and I know I probably won’t get much sleep when I’m on the plane, so I rest my head against the seat and close my eyes for just a few minutes.

The next time I open them, we’ve arrived.

* * *

The flight passes by in a blur, as I process everything that transpired in my life during the past year. I can’t help but second-guess whether I’m making the right decision to leave. Once the plane lands and I pass through customs, I turn my phone off flight mode.

There’s a notification.

I unlock it to find a message from my best friend Jess, a smile spreading across my face as I read it.

JESS:Just saw your flight has landed. I’m waiting outside the baggage check. CAN’T WAIT TO SEE YOU xx.

My best friend since primary school. Jess is beautiful, intelligent, and a total social butterfly. My polar opposite. While Jess grew up into a blonde bombshell, worshipped by the opposite sex and revered for her charming personality, I remained her invisible, chubby, brunette sidekick.

Yet despite our differences, we’ve always stayed loyal to each other. Even when she traded our playdates and sleepovers for boyfriends, parties, and alcohol while I stayed at home reading books and drawing, our bond was and always has been inseparable.

She tried to drag me along with her at first, but after I kept saying no the invitations ceased.

When I arrive at the baggage claim, her familiar face is there to greet me. Dressed in a grey pinstripe skirt, teal blouse, YSL purse, and 4-inch heels, she’s obviously just come from work.

Unlike most students from our college, Jess decided to skip university and headed straight into insurance. The decision paid off as she now spends most of her days liaising with high profile corporate clients, wining and dining them in some of New Zealand’s finest restaurants.

A job she excels at given her charisma and good looks.

“Oh. My. God.” She stares.

“What? What’s wrong?” I ask nervously. She’s one of the most affectionate people I know, so I’m surprised her arms aren’t already wrapped around me.

“Where is my best friend, and what have you done with her?”

I roll my eyes at that comment, and she grabs me by my shoulders, casting her eyes up and down my body. “I know I’ve lost some weight. I was in Africa, Jess, running around after baby elephants.”

Her mouth gapes open. “Imogen, you look incredible.”

I shift uncomfortably under her gaze. This girl has seen me at my worst and yet I feel more self-conscious now than I ever had in her presence.

“I always knew you’d be gorgeous,” she whispers, more to herself than to me. There’s a soft look in her bright aquamarine eyes.

A smile tugs at my face. I know she’s sincere. Jess has never been one to blow smoke, always telling it like it is, even sometimes when it hurts. High school for me was absolutely brutal. There was always something negative to be said about my weight or appearance, and while Jess was still there to support me, she never pacified me with false words to band aid the hurt.

I spot my suitcases crossing the conveyor belt, so I load them onto my trolley, noticing how much easier it is for me now that I no longer get out of breath from the slightest physical exertion.

Jess continues her assessment, a look of disbelief still on her face. I’m not quite sure how to process her reaction right now, so I tuck it away in the back of my mind; I’m focusing on getting back to my home, taking a shower, and crawling into bed.

* * *

As soon as we’re on the road, bundled into Jess’s mini coop, memories flood back. The weather in Auckland is crisp, but it’s still a picturesque day with bright blue skies. I’ve always preferred thunderstorms and rain, but today I can appreciate the sunshine. Good weather always makes a city sparkle.

It’s a 40-minute journey from the airport to my apartment so Jess and I use this opportunity to catch up on each other’s lives and any gossip I’ve missed.

“So how was it?” she probes.

“It was incredible, Jess. Africa is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to, the people, the wildlife and the landscapes… It was one of the best decisions of my life, and I’m so glad I went. Elephants are the most intelligent, sensitive animals. They’re extremely perceptive and intuitive. It makes the suffering they’ve endured all the more heartbreaking,” I slow down, suddenly feeling emotional. “The sanctuary is in desperate need of some additional funding. It’s getting to the point where we’re going to have to turn some of the elephants away soon.”

“Shit, that’s so intense. I don’t know how you did it, Imogen. I couldn’t stand to see something like that.”

Jess and I have always been animal lovers, and before my trip, I would’ve felt the same.

“Can’t they open it up to tourists? See what sort of revenue that brings in?” she suggests.

“It already is, but the problem is there’s no accommodation close enough to make the trip worthwhile. Especially when most of the resort chains in Africa already offer safaris. I promised them that I would help find a way to secure more funding. It’s the only way I could justify leaving.” My throat tightens thinking about it.

Jess changes the subject and starts filling me in on what’s happened since I’ve been away. A girl from our high school is engaged, someone from her office is sleeping with their CFO, Jess’s older brother dumped his bitch girlfriend—her words, not mine.

It’s nice to just listen to her rant about the mundane dramas of everyday life. The gossip is juicy but harmless and a change from the intensity of Kenya.

“And there’s one other thing,” she says, a mischievous look on her face.


“I’m seeing someone.”

“Really, who?”

Jess is the queen of casual hookups, never one to be tied down in a relationship.

“His name’s Trent.” Her eyes light up when she says his name. “Garrick, being the typical lazy fuck that he is, pawned off one of his clients to me at the last minute on a Friday afternoon. I begrudgingly agreed to go and just told myself I’d duck out early. Little did I know I was meeting my future husband.”

I chuckle at her last comment; she must be up to potential husband number 8 by now.

“That’s great, Jess! Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?” We’ve called each other several times while I was in Africa and she never mentioned anything.

She squirms in her seat a little. “I just didn’t want to throw it in your face.”

Really Jess?

She’s always had plenty of attention from the opposite sex, while I, on the other hand, have been invisible to them all my life. And even though I’ve assured her countless times it doesn’t bother me; she can’t help but feel guilty every time she’s seeing another guy.

The truth is I’ve never been in a relationship before and while the fact that no one wanted me embarrassed me as a teenager, I’m no longer bothered by it, which I’ve stressed to her about a million times.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Jess! I couldn’t be happier for you. What’s he like?” My guess is gorgeous, tall, and with a great sense of humour. Anything less wouldn’t meet Jess’s, impossibly high standards.

“Well, you’ll find out for yourself tonight. We’re meeting him at—”

“Tonight!” I shriek “Jess, I’m exhausted. Going out is the last thing I feel like doing.” There’s just no way.

“And you can! For the rest of the weekend. I promise it won’t take long. When we get to your place you can have a shower, slap on some makeup, and wear a skimpy outfit to show off that hot new body. It’ll be fun.”

I shoot her a disapproving look.

“I’m not taking no for an answer,” she smirks.

And being the pushover I am, I cave.