muddy and whorled, this elephant they tried once to hang
because she killed three men and survived
–Electrocuting the Elephant by Ciarin Berry
This morning I saw an elephant.
He stood on the levee, his trunk and tail sashaying in time with the joggers who swerved wide around him.
Audubon, we thought. Clearly he has escaped from Audubon.
But: No, the zookeepers said, we are not missing any elephants. Are you sure it’s an elephant?
Mine was not the only elephant spotted that day. Like bees they moved in packs and swarms, in the most unexpected of places.
How did we not notice their coming? My mother asked.
My father told her elephants make no sound when they walk. Their feet expand, contract. Expand, contract. A herd of elephants could surprise camouflaged soldiers trekking through the desert, one minute a dark smear along the horizon, the next silently smashing their well hidden tents.
What you have to understand about elephants, he said, is they remember their dead. Don’t cull one or two–but the whole family. Or they’ll keep coming back.
But a man on TV say it wasn’t the culled animals that brought them here. Not the copse of bones scattered among the acacia trees offending their evening strolls. We were too far away from ivory poachers.
Our crimes were Mary, hanged in Tennessee and Topsy’s smoking legs. It was Dumbo–altogether fictional–but elephants can’t discern the difference between two dimensions and three. It was Jumbo’s body and the whistle of a long stopped locomotive echoing across the Atlantic.
Whatever the reason: they came in parades, in memories–in flocks and sounders and huddles. They stood in line at the grocery store, at Starbucks and the Apple genius bar. They shouldered onto the subways–the smaller ones and those with contortionist sensibilities. When an old woman stooped to pick up her paper, she felt the slight brush of old leather against her skin and turned to find a slouched hairless cow in her den watching Hoda and Kathie Lee.
The elephants did not eat or drink from our kitchens; they were mindful of the furniture.
They paused for school buses and obeyed traffic signals. They did nothing to suggest a nefarious mind or purpose, but since we could not think of a non-nefarious reason for their gatherings, we of course defended ourselves. We pushed at them, glowered at them, shooed them with broom handles. We were always quick to lock our doors and windows, shuttering them against their dark stares, and our unfortunate neighbors who found themselves unwilling hosts to their bulk. We walked in groups with cattle prods and automatic rifles–which we did not fire but were always considering.
The 6 o’clock news displayed maps of sightings and campings–cities and rural areas were equally infested. No one had news of how they crossed the oceans leading one red headed newswoman to suggest “clone door” and “San Diego Zoo” and “Cal Tech fraternity prank”.
The elephants did not speak, and we did not speak to them.
They merely stood.
And then they began to rock.
For two straight days the elephants rocked on their feet as if keeping time with a song only they could hear. They did not eat, or drink, or sleep; their eyes remained open as if watching what we would do, as we watched what they would do.
But one elephant did not rock. He was small, pink around the edges and followed me home from the grocery store where he had been living in the cart return stall. He jogged behind my car, and I admit I slowed down when he lagged behind. When we arrived at my building, he took one of the plastic A&P bags in his trunk and squeezed onto the elevator next to me, pushing the button for my floor before I could. I named him Darwin, because why not.
Darwin liked strawberry ice cream and red wine. Together. He raised his head before my phone would ring, and grunted twice whenever it was a telemarketer. I learned to stop answering when he did that.
Darwin slept beside my bed, and liked to be brushed with a coarse hair silver plated brush. He disliked my cat, who in turn loved him with a fierceness possessed by the delusional and ignorant, and Darwin learned to tolerate her with a patient indifference. Twice, Darwin prevented my cat from leaping out the dining room window when it had been left open by my boyfriend Josh.
In this way I learned that Darwin knew to display his true feelings, but act in accordance with my wishes.
Both Josh and my mother did not trust the elephants and begged that I turn Darwin out on the street. They joined a group devoted to herding the elephants onto boats and setting them adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes Josh would erupt at the dinner table when I insisted on setting an extra plate for Darwin. To keep the peace, I asked Darwin to stay in the office whenever my mother or Josh would visit. He did, but I could sense the deep disappointment he felt for my choices by the way he dragged his feet when he walked.
“I heard one of them trampled a nun by Sacred Heart,” my mother said.
“Sacred Heart doesn’t have nuns,” I said.
“A teacher then. A kindergarten teacher, with two children at home who are now orphaned.”
From the office we could hear Darwin arranging and rearranging the office supplies on my desk–he was particularly fond of pens.
“It stinks in here,” Josh said. “I’m going to open a window.”
“Darwin doesn’t smell,” I said.
And it was true. None of them smelled. Not of musk or dirt–not of oiled leather or hay–not of any of the things I once thought elephants would smell like if I got close enough to touch.
“It’s unnatural,” my mother and Josh said together. “Something’s not right with them.”
And I found I could not entirely disagree.
The trust between Darwin and me was like taffy: stretched and stretched between us, the middle sagging into inevitable decay. There was a moment I felt I could have balled it up in my fists, reworked it between my fingers but it passed. I ignored Darwin when he walked beside me, did not pick up the silver plated brush when he placed it in my lap. I answered the phone for all callers. I did not care who it was, or when. Even my cat’s affection for our pachyderm guest cooled until it was a small, half remembered ash.
It was not entirely the lack of smell which turned us away from him, but the combination of all his non-elephantine traits. It was the feel of his skin like smooth plastic, as if Darwin were a toy given life and size and autonomy. It was his lack of sound when surprised or angered, his occasional sneeze, so quick I sometimes though I imagined it, like the echo of a bell. And lastly: the way he would follow me into the kitchen when I awoke in the middle of the night, his eyes shining in the dark like two satellites in geosynchronous orbit.
Thus were the reasons for Darwin’s and my falling out.
I have heard that you do not appreciate a thing until it is gone.
When the first elephants disappeared we breathed great sighs of relief. The teachers at Sacred Heart walked straighter, though the students missed their unofficial sentries. The joggers on the levees claimed to see the elephants go: first at a walk, then a jog, splashing and trumpeting their plunge into the Mississippi river. Down and down they dove until there was not even a ripple signifying their entry.
Darwin disappeared in the space of a breath. He lifted his head as the phone began to ring and watched me as I heard Josh tell me he had found someone else. I blinked and Darwin was gone. There was not even an impression on the rug where he had been sitting.
A few months later at the library I found a support group for those who had had elephants in their home. We all had abandoned them in one form or another, before they abandoned us. One by one we whispered their names as if that would call them back.
Carla, Darwin, Moonshine and Persimmon. Blue Dog, Jimmy, Tulip. Roger, Huey and Louis.
They didn’t return.
The leader of the group, a man named Alfred, said the elephants had been a test. Of what, he wouldn’t specify. I began to suspect that Alfred had never had an elephant, and this group was his way of promoting his self published book on spiritual awakening and I stopped going.
When someone else in the group called me demanding to know whether I had found the answer, I told her no. There was no answer. One day elephants came, another day they left. We could no more trick them into returning than we could go back to the moments where we stopped trusting their presence.
She hung up on me.
Others called: members of the group, a representative of a city commission devoted to ecological issues.
I heard you had an elephant once, he said.
Would you like to talk about it? he said.
Sometimes I think they were never here at all, he said.
Are we sure they were elephants? I said.
He had brown hair that fell into his eyes. He never doubted his elephant’s intentions and kept a key to his apartment hidden where he knew she could find it.
My cat despised him but learned to tolerate him with a complete and total indifference. I told him she had always been a capricious judge of character.
And many years later, when neither of us was expecting it, we found a pile of feathers swept neatly into a pile on our kitchen floor. Buried beneath: two small bees, long dead that smelled faintly of salt and air and plastic.