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Orphans

I have bought the elephant a new green suit. I have bought him a car. I buy him anything he likes.

When I found him, he was naked. He was dusty, from the long road. He had been running, running, in panic and in fear. He did not trumpet. His skin was smooth, not wrinkled like most elephants’. It was the first time I had seen an elephant like that, in the streets of my town. Without the protecting bars of the zoo, without the pity I feel when I sketch the elephants at the zoo. Without indignation at zookeepers and adventurers and hunters. Without shaking my parasol in a zookeeper’s face, like a foolish old lady.

He was there in the street, enormous. His skin was shiny, it seemed a color more vivid than gray. An opalescent gray.

I was afraid. The people around me quickened their steps. They were terrified, yet the great web of etiquette and propriety that holds our town steady—like a fly already mummified, and not yet eaten, in a spider’s web—kept them from running and screaming, from saying anything. Will we run and scream from an elephant? No, that is what savages do. That is what they were thinking, I know it. Look at our fine hats. Look at our fine automobiles and clothes. Our shoes with spats. We are the masters of all continents. We do not run from elephants.

Yet the matter would not rest there, I knew. I could hardly look at him, because he was so vivid, so great. If I curled myself into a ball, heels against my bottom, arms folded in, head tucked down, I would be no larger than his heart. The elephant did not trumpet, he did not rage. He trudged, each footfall a consequence only of the last. It was the gait of one whom only obstinacy shields from despair. He did not see us. I knew that if he looked up, if he spoke, if he stopped, if he waved his sharp tusks in anything like anger, the thin web of propriety would break. Fear would outrule it. We would run, like naked savages. And then we would shoot him in his great heart, for shaming us.

I felt an unbearable tension; I felt that if I looked at him any longer, something tremendous would happen to me—I would be crushed, I would dissolve into a swarm of butterflies.

I held up my purse as he passed. My dog Henriette was silent on her leash. She did not bark, she did not cower. She accepted the elephant. It gave me courage.

I held up my purse. “Here,” I said. “Buy some clothes.”

The great feet stopped. The great tusks, white as piano keys—oh, oh, how dare I think of piano keys? I trembled. He regarded me.

“Please,” I said, and my throat was tight. “Please.” I held out the purse. “They will murder you otherwise.”

The trunk was thick. It had bristles. They brushed against my skin as he took the purse. It was not unpleasant. What ferocious people we were, to make bullets to pierce that great bulk. What masters.

“Thank you,” he said. His voice was a low grumble, his accent foreign. “Thank you, madam.”

 

When he came to live with me, I scurried. I had the piano taken out and sold, I was ashamed of its keys. I had the doors widened. He sat in the park while this took place. In his fine black derby hat, his green suit with vest. His enormous shoes with spats. He sat on a bench, and fed the pigeons.

The danger was lessened now. It is one thing for the police to shoot a wild and naked elephant running in the street. A savage, among the boulangeries and bookshops. It is quite another thing to shoot a well-dressed elephant sitting peaceably on a bench, feeding the pigeons and trying to read the newspaper with the aid of a children’s illustrated dictionary. It is absurd, and the police here will not do absurd things.

But I wanted him at home, safe within my walls. I brought him when the workmen had just finished the parlor. I stood shyly in the bare space where the piano had been. He came in, stepping gingerly, as if unsure the floor would hold. He gently moved the couch and sat on the floor. He did not meet my eyes. He was as embarrassed as I.

He was learning to walk on his hind legs. He tottered. It was terrifying to watch, like a circus trick. Elephants are not meant to do it. They did not evolve to do it, as we evolved to do it. We had a million years, in the savannah, to learn to stand. He did it in a month. After that he would not walk in the elephant way, not in the street.

It cost him dearly. He had wrenching pains in his lower back. He used to lie in the small garden behind my house, with its high walls, on the grass and flagstones. I would massage his sore back with a carpet beater, leaning against it, pressing with both hands. “Harder,” he would moan, until I would collapse against him, panting. Then he would curl his body around and lift me with his trunk. He would hold me to his chest, and I would be bathed in the deep smell of him, wild and rich. He would laugh in his deep rumble and whisper, “Anyone in the next house would think we were lovers.” My heart would race. I would spread my arms across his chest, placing my cheek on his naked skin.

It is the holy chapter of my life. It is my foretaste of Paradise. When we ate brioches and jam on golden mornings, him sitting in the special chair I had made. I corrected his pronunciation. He drove through the countryside in the car I had made. The whole seat in front was for him. I sat in back. He had a motorist’s scarf and goggles. He was dashing.

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But then she came.

How could I begrudge her? When I saw how happy he was. He dropped our packages and ran to them, two more naked dirty elephants in the streets of our town. He ran and embraced them. I scrambled for the packages. I could not lift them all. The men in the street glowered at me over their moustaches, as if to say, how many more?

I dragged the packages forward. I am weak, I am old. I looked at the new elephants. One was a cow. That is not my word. That is what they are called. She was a cow. His sister, I thought, his sister. But no, they were cousins. And they marry their cousins, in that savage land.

My house was not big enough for three elephants. My purse was not big enough to clothe three elephants. But I gave, I gave. He brought bales of hay to the courtyard, because she did not like our food. He hovered over her. It took us an hour to convince her to put on shoes, and she never would walk upright.

It was charity, what I did for her, and for the other one, the one in the sailor suit. It had never been charity for him.

 

The other day I saw that bestial American in the cafe, the one with the yellow hat. The one with the monkey. I do not like him, but I supposed that we were siblings of a sort. He came to my table, holding a coffee in both hands. I was holding my coffee with both hands. Mine was cold. I had not drunk any. I was staring into it. I was not weeping. I am relatively certain of that. He sat down, unasked.

“Left you, has he? So I hear.” I looked up sharply. His eyes were kind.

He drank his coffee in one gulp, and took out his cigar. Henrietta cowered at my heels. She despises cigars.

“And after all you spent on him!” the American said, puffing. “Imagine!”

I said nothing.

He leaned forward. “That’s why I sold mine to the zoo. They take good care of him, and I see him when I like. We’re even going to make a movie with the little fellow!”

I felt as if the people at the other tables were laughing at me. Laughing into their soup. I stood up. I took my parasol and Henrietta’s leash into my left hand. With my other hand, I threw my coffee in his face.

He was shouting as I walked out.

 

Today I received a telegram: They have crowned my beloved.

He is King!

He is King!