TAIL IN TRUNK
Copyright © 2001
All Rights Reserved
Did you know that elephants are the only animals that actually gather around their wounded to protect them, my father asked me as he loaded his gigantic prize-hunter rifle, an elephant gun, as he appropriately called it. It’s true, he told me, inspecting his shiny golden bullets before he loaded them into the chamber of the long chrome rifle with ivory lining on the hickory butt, they won’t scatter, they’re very protective, very paternal, I suppose you could say. There are actually elephant burial grounds, cemeteries of sorts. He squinted at me for a quick second, then checked the barrel of his rifle for obstruction and told me that they’re very spiritual creatures, they respond to emotion, they love. Very spiritual, he said, looking at his stretched, disfigured reflection in the silver-chrome barrel of the gun, wiping sweat from his forehead, licking his lips, his blue eyes the only things that weren’t brown leather on his shaven, hat-covered head and stubbled face.
My father’s voice, low and gravely, told me elephants must have they’re own private heaven somewhere for all they go through.
We had been out behind the brown-gray dinosaur skeleton of a fallen tree just ten or so yards past the edge of the jungle, using the space between the jungle and the tree as a sort of blind, just waiting and waiting for something to happen since before the sun was showing any signs of rising. I was tired and getting hotter by the minute, and the dry dusty air was clinging to the roof of my mouth and making my eyes water, making me want for a tall cool drink of anything. Through the entire hour of darkness I sat, listening to my father mumble to himself, telling me its anytime now, it’s in the coming, he could feel it in his belly. For him, this was alive, and I felt like being anywhere else. My joints ached from sitting behind the big fallen tree, and all I could think about in the sweaty darkness was a cold bath and another five hours of sleep.
Baths made me think of my mother, my mother made me think of the darkness around me, and eventually the darkness brought me back to my mother again. After a while, who knows how long, thoughts of my mother assembled themselves into actual bits of memories. I sighed, wiping beaded sweat from my forehead and upper lip. In the thick heat and darkness of an African safari pre-dawn, I was four years old and sitting in a pile of puzzle blocks in the hallway of my old house, hypnotized by the swaying hem of my mother’s dress as she ironed my father’s dark, faded khaki pants. I could hear the running of water and the clanking of dinner plates as she washed dishes, I could see her legs re-crossing as she read a book in her favorite lawn chair out in our back yard in summertime, and I could even see her smile and remember her eyes a little, but I couldn’t put a face on her, no matter how hard I concentrated. It made me angry. I thought to myself that mother to me was like a shiny piece of tinfoil is to a bird. The bird is attracted to the shiny surface, wants to explore it, to pick it up, to try to understand it and use it somehow. But in the end, other than a distraction, that piece of tinfoil would never do the bird a shred of good. I sighed again, listening to something small scuttle through the brush at the edge of the forest.
She was just gone.
Although that thought made me feel more tired than I was already, it didn’t have long to sit in my mind, because at the earliest hints at the birth of daylight that morning, memories faded away into the first happy trumpeting of elephants.
As the sun continued to rise I felt even more uncomfortable, thirsty, and hot. Sweat soaked my underpants into a tiny bunch that wadded itself against me and felt like wet, leaking pebbles grating against my skin. I shifted uncomfortably and my father ‘shooshed’ me, putting up his index finger to his lips. The shade from the tree we hid behind was dissipating as fast as the sun could rise that morning. It was rising from behind the wandering elephant family that had somehow strayed from the herd. I silently peeked up over the edge of the rough graying trunk of the tree, glancing through dead, cracked branches and dead browned leaves at the family of elephants drinking from a huge, muddy puddle that was only deep enough to cover the baby’s legs. Their loose, gray, dusty skin moved like big folds of grainy melting rubber over their thick bones and muscles, and they walked slowly, with purpose and elegance. They were splashing each other with their trunks, spraying each other with nasal blasts of dirty water, both of the adults getting the baby wet. It made me smile and forget where I was for a moment. I almost laughed. They were drinking, tooting happily and playing, caressing each other with gentle nudges of their plated foreheads and lolling trunks, slowly coming through the flat, grass-lumped field and tiny pool of ruddy water we had been watching from about a hundred yards.
From a hundred yards, instinct told me, they became part of our territory.
A little family, my father whispered, shouldering his rifle. A big mother, a daddy, a precious little wee one. Just three, he said, adjusting his sight, gritting his teeth, squaring his shoulders. He sniffed. Look up, he said, even though I already had been. Look over the log, he instructed, see, the daddy is the one that had his tail in the little un’s trunk. Little un’s a boy, a tiny son, and the mother, she’s a right giant, the protector. Sweat dripped from his chin, tiny diamonds in the morning sun, his blue eyes piercing the majestic animals like ancient spears.
The elephants started to move away from the watering hole, all finished drinking, bathing and cooling off, and slowly began striding away from us. The baby elephant once again took one of the bigger elephant’s, I suppose the father’s, tail in its trunk. They were beginning to move not directly away from us on our twelve o’clock, but rather shifted sideways of us, over on our three o’clock.
Nope, my father rasped quietly as he pulled the trigger of his gun, surprising me.