Palo Alto Weekly 23rd Annual Short Story
Third Place Teen
|Camille von Kaenel
THE BOY AND THE ELEPHANT
by Camille von Kaenel
It was the end of a calm day. Tourists hurried around the park, cameras bouncing around their necks and ice cream melting in their hands. None of them saw the crooked sign pointing away from exit, nobody turned down the trail leading through the dappled shade to a lonely enclosure, with a little platform with stairs to mount the elephant and a small booth selling tickets for tours.
Tanya, the elephant, and her mahout walked slowly away, ready to rest at the end of a long day. She swayed back and forth, like a ship in the middle of an ocean, slowly. Her feet, the size of a plate, fell to the ground in a rhythm. A trunk hung tiredly to the pavement, touching the ground and swinging slowly like a pendulum as she walked. Her ears dropped from her big head in gray and brown folds. Circular, sagging wrinkles covered her knees.
A boy and his father arrived unexpectedly, painted by the moving shadows of the trees. They wore hats and t-shirts and shorts. The man had long, dark hair, as if he were trying to hide his face from the world, but he walked with a slow, graceful stride. He had dark circles under his slightly red and puffy blue eyes. The little boy's eyes peeked timidly out from under his hair, drooping in brown strands over his ears.
“Can I ride the elephant, please, Daddy?” He asked his father, softly and pleadingly. The father looked at him curiously.
“I want to ride the elephant, please,” he repeated, a little more urgently. The boy's large eyes, deep dark wells of sadness, turned to look up at his father.
“All right. One ride.” The father turned his long frame to the hut, and handed five dollars to the employee. The woman stared at this strange couple, reciting the rules monotonously. The father and his boy didn't listen. The boy climbed the stairs, one foot above the other. He stopped as he reached the top, an arm's length away from the elephant. He could see the saddle on her back, plain and worn, darkened by sweat.
“Climb aboard.” The voice floated up. The boy looked down sharply, to the mahout, Benjamin embroidered in white cursive letters on his pocket. A middle aged man, experienced and gentle, looked back up at him, smiling. A long exposure to elephants does that to people; turns them patient and grateful and kind. The boy inched forward tentatively, until he could pass his hand over the thick skin. Like leather, he thought. He passed his leg over the wide back and sat down. His hands clenched the side of the chair at first, then relaxed. And then he started moving, suddenly. The world tilted to one side, then straightened and tilted to the other side. They headed down a little, cemented path in the middle of the trees. He felt the muscles of the elephant tensing beneath him, his whole body swaying. Closing his eyes, the boy gripped the air, dreaming himself in someplace else, someplace far away from California. The only sound came from the wind whispering through the leaves and the steady thump of Tanya's feet on the ground. Once they arrived at the stairs, he swung his leg off of her back. He trotted quickly down, and at the bottom, he turned around and ran to the elephant and her mahout, already walking to the enclosure, the day's work finished.
“Wait!” He yelled across the space that separated them, throwing the words like a fishing line. The man and his elephant stopped and turned. The boy caught up to them, breathing normally, his hair still perfectly placed on his head.
“What's her name?” The little boy approached the wall of dirt-caked gray, stretching his fingers.
“Its Tanya. And yours?”
“Evan,” he answered to the elephant, stroking her ear. “Why is she so sad?” The man shifted, opening up.
“All of her family died,” The boy, Evan, didn't look at the man. He inched closer to the elephant, until his whole body seemed plastered to her side.
“My mother died too,” he murmured quietly into her ear. It was just a month ago. He remembered his mother's quiet deterioration, the frequent visits to the hospital. The day she came out of the shower, puffy-eyed, her long golden hair in her hand and her scalp shiny and bare. And then the black funeral, smoky skies, dark veils blowing in the wind.
“Do you want to come to her home?” Evan lifted his face, his eyes glittering. But he seemed to hesitate.
“I don't know... My father...” The boy seemed desperate.
“Evan! Come back!” A figure strode smoothly through the trees to the little group. The boy jumped.
“Sir, my name is Samuel Benson, this here is my son Evan. I'm sorry he disturbed you. He's been a little... lonely lately.” He looked down at his gold wedding band, twisting it around his finger, already raw from friction.
“No problem. No problem at all.” A smile.
“Thank you,” the boy uttered quietly, timidly, to the elephant. He touched her shoulder, above his head. The elephant swayed her trunk back and forth lazily, swiping at the air.
“Come back any time.” The boy's heart absorbed the words, quickly, storing them in a secret place, to save for later. They walked off.
Later, in the car, on the highway, the boy asked a question to his dad.
“Can elephants can think?”
“Well, I don't know. I guess if any animals can, they could.” Evan returned to looking out the window. The sun had just set, traces of light lingering on the horizon.
“Daddy, her name was Tanya.” His father turned around slowly, staring into his son's eyes.
“Yes.” Samuel seemed pensive, then turned back to look at the road.
“Can we go back?” The father sighed.
“Evan, I'm not sure. This was a special day. I can't always find the time to drive you there.” Evan frowned, his little eyebrows joining in a mass of wrinkles above his nose.
“We'll see.” Content, the boy slumped back in his seat, trying to amuse himself by finding the alphabet outside, on signs. He used to play the game with his mother, on the highway. He remembered the cold, smooth glass of the window as he pressed his face to it, wide eyes eagerly searching for J's or X's. She whispered in his ear, “L for love because I love you.”
“L for love,” Evan murmured out loud, his words so soft they couldn't travel the distance to his father.
A week passed, the leaves on the trees at the park turning yellow and orange imperceptibly. Finally, the boy arrived, skipping, in front of his dad. He smiled, a boyish, hopeful smile, at the employee, his head just reaching the counter. His father arrived slowly behind him.
“Five dollars, right?” He said, handing the lady five crumpled ones. She took them gingerly.
“To your right, wait in line for your turn please.” Evan had already gone, ignoring her. He clung to the fence, as close as possible to the elephant walking by. He frowned.
“Is that Tanya?” He asked the mahout, a woman this time.
“No, honey, this is Rosie.”
“Where's Tanya? I want to ride Tanya.” He put his hands on the smooth, wooden fence.
“She's over there.” She pointed to the shelter hidden among the trees, to the side of the path. The boy climbed over the fence.
“No, please, come back!” Evan skirted the woman's words, his little feet carrying him to the shed. Skinny leaves crunched beneath the soles of his old tennis shoes. He reached the elephants' shelter, just a roof planted on thick poles, a wall, and dying grass. A gray brown mass rested against the wall. As the boy approached it, the elephant shifted her head. He sat down right next to her side, under her ear, so he could talk to her.
“Hi.” The word was very soft, just a breath. It mixed in with the little breeze, almost indistinguishable, but the elephant must have heard because she lifted her trunk in greeting.
“I brought you something.” Out of his pocket he produced a little metal sculpture of an elephant. Its body was shiny and perfectly smooth, dark, mottled by bronze smudges. Its eyes, little diamonds embedded in the metal, gleamed in the sunlight. It fit perfectly in the palm of Evan's hand.
“My mom gave it to me. She had sculptures of every animal, but this was her favorite.” Tanya passed her trunk around his chest. He rested his head on it, hugging it gently.
“I miss her.” The boy went silent, remembering, his eyes closed. If he were upset, she would bring him close, her cool, manicured fingers brushing back the hair from his forehead, soothing him quietly. She never forgot to slather his sandwich with only peanut butter, no jelly, or to tuck him into bed every night. At Christmas, she entertained all the relatives in their small living room, flowing through conversations, always finding some time to hug him as he inhaled her sweet lavender perfume before she disappeared to the kitchen.
“But you probably miss your family too.” He imagined the elephant at the head of a long trail of relatives, old and young, leading them to a water hole. Their feet pounded into the yellow grass, while strong purple mountains rose up on the horizon.
“Evan!” The boy looked up. Benjamin stood over him. The sun shone through his hair, like a halo, and landed directly on the boy and the elephant on the ground.
“You're not supposed to be back here. Tanya isn't well.” The boy frowned. He touched the shivering body of the elephant, saw the extra moisture and redness in her eye.
“I was telling her a story.”
“You can come back and finish it another time. She needs her rest,” he explained gently. Evan smiled distantly, his eyes sad.
“Ok. See you another time,” he said hopefully. He stood up, brushing the yellow dust from his dark shorts. He turned around and hugged the elephant's huge head. The elephant made a low noise, more like a rumble. Evan skipped off in search of his father.
He was on a bench, gazing sadly at jostling, joking, crying, loud families hustle past, heading home at the end of a fun-filled day. When he saw his son, he stood up immediately.
“Had fun?” Evan shrugged, coming closer to his father, taking his hand.
“Do you miss Mom?” the boy asked, tilting his head upwards to see his father hide his face for a second. A heavy, long breath descended from the father to him.
“Yes. But don't worry about me.” They walked off, a father and his son, together yet so lonely.
Back in their small house, the father sat Evan down on the big couch under the window.
“Evan.” The boy looked up. “You know that since Mom died, we've both been struggling.” The words came difficultly to his father, though they were clearly rehearsed.
“I have decided that we should find another place to live.” Evan froze. “I think its the best decision. I found a job near San Francisco.”
San Francisco. A couple hours drive, but so, so far away, he thought. He had been there a few times. It seemed a city eternally shrouded in fog, the famous Golden Gate Bridge fighting to stay above it. His mother insisted in having a picture of all three of them taken by a stranger, smiling in front of the dark gray waves.
“What do you think?” His father looked at him, questioning and hopeful. Evan noticed that his eyes seemed a little less red, and he almost saw some of the old mischievous twinkle he used to have.
“Daddy, I don't want to move,” He whimpered. His father sighed.
“I know. But you'll make new friends over there. Things will be better.”
“Promise?” Evan clutched his father's hand.
“I promise.” And his father hugged him, awkwardly at first and then more warmly.
When they left, Evan stared back at their empty house, little hands on the window and forehead stuck to the glass, as usual. He wasn't crying, but gazing wistfully in its direction. He inhaled deeply, as if to gather the sweet lavender scent that still hung around the house, and turned around, sitting quietly in his seat, looking ahead.
It was the end of a calm day. If one passed the food court, ignoring the tempting smells of pretzels and popcorn, and turned onto a leafy trail, next to a crooked sign with forest green letters spelling out ELEPHANTS, one would see a boy approaching the enclosure. A boy, almost a man, carrying a bouquet of irises.
Evan leaned patiently against the wooden railing that surrounded the elephant enclosure. When the mahout and the elephant appeared to have finished for the day, he jumped easily into the enclosure and jogged to catch up to them. Evan recognized Benjamin, the old mahout from a couple years ago.
“Hello,” He said.
“Hello . . . Evan,” Benjamin answered with a smile. Evan smiled back.
“Is this . . . ?” He asked, knowing the answer beforehand as he passed his hand over the unblemished skin of the elephant beside him. Benjamin's smile vanished, replaced by sadness.
“I'm so sorry. She had to be put down, she was suffering too much. A year ago.” Evan let his hand rest loosely near the elephant's shoulder, his face calm.
“Thank you,” He murmured. He smiled effortlessly, his eyes a little misty in the sunlight. He turned and walked away, the bouquet held against his chest, throwing a respectful goodbye over his shoulder. The old man watched him go, his wise head nodding alongside the elephant's.
Evan left the park and stepped casually onto a bus, sitting next to a window, stepping off at the cemetery. Floral and light, with trees offering shade everywhere and benches with dedications on their backs, it was more of a park than a cemetery. He walked slowly to a plot in the shade of a skinny-leafed, old tree, similar to the ones at the zoo, and knelt next to a small, clean white headstone. He lay the bouquet gently on the manicured grass at the foot of the stone. He brought something out of his pocket, a little dark sculpture.
“L for love, Mom” he murmured. He stood and left, eyes straight ahead. All that was left was the soft breeze rippling through the leaves, and a white headstone among so many others, glittering in the fading afternoon light. In front of it, almost hiding the inscription, lay a bouquet of irises and a sculpture of a tiny elephant, trunk raised in the air, pointing to the words engraved in the stone. It read:
Beloved Mother and Wife
1967 - 2002
A good story with real emotional impact and a nice twist at the end.