Elephant Winterby Kim Echlin
Sophie Walker is back from Africa to nurse her dying mother. Her mother's Ontario farm borders on "Safari"—a tacky tourist spot now deserted for the winter. From her mother's window Sophie sees not cows, or horses, but a group of Indian elephants playing gracefully in the snow. Elephant Winter is a novel about the forms of intimacy, from the turbulent/i>
Sophie Walker is back from Africa to nurse her dying mother. Her mother's Ontario farm borders on "Safari"—a tacky tourist spot now deserted for the winter. From her mother's window Sophie sees not cows, or horses, but a group of Indian elephants playing gracefully in the snow. Elephant Winter is a novel about the forms of intimacy, from the turbulent love between a mother and daughter to the fulfilling bond between Sophie and the elephants.
- Penguin Canada
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.22(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)
Read an Excerpt
SINGING a MAGNIFICAT,
CONCEPTION of an ELEPHANT
The place was closed for the season. My mother's house backed on the maple forest at the far end of the Ontario Safari. While she slept each afternoon I watched the elephant-keeper take the elephants on walks through the woods. They rubbed their sides on the trees and scuffed in the fresh snow.
The keeper was a young man who wore his thick grey jacket open to the freezing winds and only a baseball cap pulled down over his long hair. He had high cheekbones and a strong jaw and his blue eyes were wrinkled at the corners from squinting against wind and sun. His jeans were tucked into barn boots but his step was light and his body lithe. He moved with the attractive, loose carriage of men who choose not to submit to offices and desks.
He thought himself unobserved as he rolled up snowballs and tossed them playfully, talking and lightly swaying, at ease in the elephants' company. One of them touched a trunk to his face and he kissed the end and took its tip right inside his own mouth. That was when he glanced up and spotted me looking at him through the window. I lifted my hand to wave but he turned away and stamped his feet and pulled his meagre hat down over the whitening edges of his ears. He reminded me of young men I had met in Africa, easier out in the bush than anywhere else. He moved away as if to go, and all the elephants moved with him, but then he paused, looked back for me through the glass and beckoned me to come out with his hand. I shook myhead, no.
The light over those snowy Ontario fields was short and grey and bleak. We were just past winter solstice and though I'd been home some weeks, I still found it odd to look through the kitchen window and see the curious face of a giraffe above the snowy maple trees. But my mother had always found unusual places to live, and soon enough I was inured even to the swaying grey silhouettes of elephants at play in the snowy fields.
I came home because she was dying. Her breasts were gone, her hair was gone, but nothing they did stopped the cancer. Each morning, after she took her morphine tablet, I arranged her bed table with her sketch pad, some charcoal pencils, and a pitcher of iced tea. She rested most of the day, and when she wasn't dozing she moved stiffly around the house. At forty-nine she had work she still wanted to do. She was impatient with herself and churlish with me.
"Put that carnation in the morphine bottle will you, Sophie, I'm going to draw that after my nap ... aren't they awful flowers? Leave my pad close. Can't you remember to get some grapes? Now get out of here, what do you want hanging around a dying woman. I won't need you until evening. And get this damn budgie off my bed, off you go Henry."
My mother kept twelve budgies and two African Gray parrots. She let all of them fly free in the house. The oldest was Moore, a hand-raised but otherwise ordinary green and yellow budgie. She got him after I left home. She clipped his wings and trained him to land on her bottom lip and peck at her teeth. Slowly his flight feathers grew in again but by then he liked being near her, on her head, her shoulder, her fork. She talked to him all the time but he never learned to speak words back. He clung stubbornly to his squawky budgie locutions, especially when we ran water or closed the back door on its rusting hinges. Now that she was sick, Moore perched on the curtain rod in my mother's bedroom most of the day, and flew at my head whenever I came into the room.
My mother built a large aviary into a wall in the sun-room off the kitchen and added a pretty white and blue budgie called Miranda. The young bird tried to fly at first but she kept bumping into windows and falling stunned to the floor. So Miranda made her world the large cage whose doors were always open and managed to breed with Moore. Her babies learned to fly around the house and each late afternoon when I fed them, Miranda squawked to the others to come back and sat chatting all evening with whoever stayed. My mother regularly visited the bird barns at the Safari during the off season. She liked trading bird talk with the trainers who specialized in parrots and hawks and kestrels. She charmed them with her stories of Moore and Miranda, and when they had a space problem one winter they asked her if she'd board a couple of African Grays along with her budgies.
The Grays were the colour of clean wood smoke with crimson tails and yellow-rimmed pupils. My mother's pair hung upside down from the living room curtains or spent hours grooming each other on a perch she'd constructed for them in front of the couch. They never responded to their names so my mother called them any paired names she thought of. When she wrote me letters and referred to Abelard and Heloise, or Jesus and Mary, I knew she was talking about the Grays. They were friendly with her and let her scratch between the rows of feathers on the backs of their necks, but they were suspicious and skittish with me. They'd already torn holes in all the curtains and I pushed them off the kitchen counters where they scratched the cupboards foraging for sweet cereals. They stood staring at me defiantly with those intelligent, uncanny eyes and fretted when I sent them scrambling away. One of my endless small chores since coming home was to gather and wash fresh maple and alder twigs for their wooden stand in the living room.
When my mother finally called to tell me about her illness she said, "Soph, they said I'm going to die. I don't know who's going to take care of the birds. Do you think you could come home for a while?"
I said, I'd be on the next plane and she said, "Oh, I won't die today" and laughed, and I knew she was relieved. But she wasn't ready to die and it was taking longer than we both had thought it would. We hadn't lived under the same roof for years, and after the initial shock, we had to settle into the daily business of waiting. The afternoons when she slept were endlessly long and the wakeful nights longer. I was thirty years old and I still felt as though everything was ahead of me. It was the first time in my life that I'd ever been tied down.
I took aimless walks along Safari Road, staring at the fields and the horse farms buried in snow. Sometimes, during those brief blue twilights, too cold to stay out and too reluctant to go in, I walked around the outside of my mother's house, trying to absorb a bit of warmth from the bricks. I'd stand until I was chilled straight through, unable to give in to or fend off her unwilling dying.
Day after day I watched the elephant-keeper walk his elephants out back behind the maples. I stood in the shadows at the side of the window and I noted how he looked up and searched the reflections in the glass for me. So one day I slipped through the Safari gates, behind a delivery truck stacked with crates of chicks for the big cats. The little birds were mostly frozen and suffocated but a few terrible peeps still escaped the boxes. I ducked behind the trees near the fences, cut through the side field and went straight to the elephant barns. There he was, leading the elephants back from their afternoon walk. His fair hair fell over his forehead and his skin was clear with the rosy dryness of someone who lives outside in the cold. There were white frost patches along the ridges of his cheekbones and he frowned at me. I ignored that, sliding through the fence. I liked him, eyes and bones, so I decided to wait.
The smallest elephant squeezed under the bottom rail like a curious child, and she raised her trunk to scent me. The keeper followed her, reached his hand into her mouth to rub her jaw, and stood between the two of us.
"Can I help you?"
"There's no visitors back here. Who let you in?"
"No one. I didn't ask. That's the house where I live." I pointed with my chin, hands wrapped inside the sleeves of my layered sweaters. "I wanted to see the elephants."
He glanced back through the maples at the dark window sockets in my mother's house. He stared at me, skin flushed, eyes inspiriting me, and said, "I've seen her here before. She used to come to the bird barns. Why didn't you come out?"
"I'm her daughter. She's sick." The words hung cold in the air, untended feelings and questions already between us as if we'd spoken to each other all our lives. "I've just come back from Africa. I used to go see elephants on safari there."
"These elephants are Asian," he said, pulling his hand out of the little one's jaw and rubbing its side. "First rime I saw an elephant was the Fort Lauderdale zoo. I stood in front of it all day until my brother came back to get me."
He spoke so softly I had to strain to hear, and his breath froze like crab apples in the air. One of the elephants reached across the fence and ran her trunk tip up the arm of my heavy sweater. The sensitive trunk finger crawled along gently touching and scenting. She got to the bare skin of my neck and she left a sticky shine there, a kind of spit. She startled me but I didn't move. I liked the warm dampness of her touching.
The elephant-keeper was watching me. I waited as her trunk lifted toward my frozen cheeks. She ran it over my face then let it swing back under her. I was caught in her staring eye as if I'd met her before. The keeper's lips loosened upwards with the same affable curiosity I felt in the animals.
"That's her way of finding out who you are," he said.
We stood side by side watching the elephants shuffle against the evening cold and he surveyed them with a chary pride.
"I have to take them in now," he said.
But I wasn't ready to go. I liked the odour of him. I liked the warm animal sweat and hay smells of the elephants out in the frozen air. They Waited for him, lightly swinging their trunks through the space around them, over each other's bodies. I soaked up the intelligent calm between them and the peaceable alertness of their keeper. I wanted to touch them myself, I wanted what I felt in them to touch me, and impulsively, I asked him if he needed a barn hand.
He stood gazing into the thin twilight. Animal people see things from odd angles, I knew, because my mother was like that too. Maybe he needed help. I could see him deliberating.
"What's your name?"
"I'm Jo Mann," and pointing to the elephants, "This little one is Saba, and this is Kezia, behind her is Alice and that one's Gertrude. We've got an African male in the barn called Lear."
I stared at them, trying to take in their names, the shapes of their faces and ears. He said nothing more, and I pulled my scarf up around my mouth and neck against the east wind. He pulled a short stick with a hook on the end of it out from under his jacket and quietly raised it sideways; the elephants began to turn as one toward the barn.
"I'd better go," I said.
He stood for the elephants to pass in front of him, but when I shifted my shoulders toward the front entrance he said, "You don't have to go out by the road. There's a small gate over there in the fence, in the maples just west of your mother's. She knows where it is, she used to use it. You can go straight through," and then, nodding toward the barn, so softly I could choose whether or not I wanted to hear, "Come back ... I sleep in there at night."
Elephants can move in ether silence, even on crusty snow. I used to hear stories in Africa, fables I thought, about how they'd sneak into a village at night to steal corn and mangoes and not rouse a sleeping soul. These elephants are Asian. The dry, sure voice butted rudely against my thoughts, which had grown so crisp and clear in the solitude of these last weeks. I could feel Jo's eyes on my back and a few steps further I turned, telling myself I wanted to see the elephants file through the yard into the barn. I searched the barnyard and the stony, snowy fields, but in the half light of winter dusk I could see little and hear only the distant roar of cars. Jo and all his elephants had disappeared traceless in the gloom, gone.
* * *
Moore dove at my face and tried to get out the open door. I slipped through like a shadow and the ageing budgie flapped up behind the kitchen curtain in a huff. Other budgies, perched in hollow corners of the house, made a dash for the aviary when they heard me slam the back door. They wanted to be fed. My mother was listening to her beloved Arvo Part full blast. She had on the Veni Sancte Spiritus from his Berliner Messe. The throbbing, insistent strings of the rest of the piece fell away here into a slight melodic line, a lost echo of a folk melody. When the sopranos took over the repeating notes they recalled women who turned in woodlots, and the men chanted back:
Flecte quod est rigidum
fove quod est frigidum
rege quod est devium
(Bend what is rigid
melt what is frozen
rule over what wanders)
My mother didn't make many accommodations for me. She played her music loud, saying it soothed her and she couldn't hear all the low bits, the timpani and basses, if she didn't turn it up. And so I grew to like it too, more for its immanence than for its song.
The Grays were foraging in a pile of cereal they'd spilled on the kitchen floor. A tea bag lay drying in a spoon on the counter and the kettle was still warm. I had asked my mother often not to leave food out but she said the birds got into the cupboards anyway. She was pretending to draw when I went in. Her face was wan. I could read her pain in the papyrus colour of her skin and the depth of the crease between her eyebrows. The room smelled stale but she would never open the windows because of the birds.
"How were your elephants?" she said, barely glancing up.
"Fine, you hungry?"
I wouldn't give her the satisfaction of asking how she knew, of saying I felt spied on. I didn't like this return to us knowing everything about each other.
"No, I'm not hungry."
She lifted her charcoal pencil and sketched, ignoring me. I looked at the table and saw an empty vial discarded carelessly. "Did you take an injection?"
Her extra injections were for what the doctors called breakthrough pain. She wasn't supposed to use them often. But she said, "What the hell, I'm dying. They're all worried I'll get addicted! Did you ever hear such inanity. They think like well people!"
"How long ago?"
"Don't rag at me, Sophie!"
I turned to go make us some supper, and staring at her charcoal she said, "Get me fresh ice."
I snapped back, "I'm not your slave."
"A glass of water! I'm thirsty."
Our house was always full of people coming and going, neighbours, students debating odd ideas, young women who fluttered around her, the kitchen busy with food other people prepared, big books of pictures spread out, excitement pulled through the rooms. When I first got back I didn't understand its stillness. I thought bitterly that people were afraid of death but it was more that she wouldn't tell people. She didn't answer the phone and when they came by she'd say she was busy or fend them off with silence. She behaved the way she did when she was working on a new canvas, waiting without distraction. I hadn't realized in these past years she'd become more and more solitary. She had a tart tongue and a critical agility of mind that I'd found difficult as a teenager. But after I left home and began visiting again, we talked about art and travel and men and our lives as two women connected by blood and love, we drank scotch together, her advice no longer law, her urging no longer urgent. It was then our friendship began. And this last time I came back, it was only me she wanted to let touch her secret. She didn't trust easily and she didn't trust many, this was what I was learning about the mother I'd always thought so sociable. Living together again after all those years we often chafed at each other's presence, though she wanted me near and I wanted to be near. I told myself I only needed a bit of air and something else to do.
She frowned at me and said, "Trailing after circus elephants! Have you ever seen one of their shows? Tacky rubbish."
Once she would have lightly turned and left the room after a remark like that. The cruelty was that now I left. After coming so far to be with her, I turned and stalked mutely out and she lay trapped in bed by her own pain.
* * *
In Zimbabwe I taught art and was working on a series of sketches of the cave paintings of Matopos. I'd gaze at the line drawings of prehistoric men hunting, watched over by strange stars and mythic creatures, and pull ticks out of my clothes. I sketched quickly before the sun got too hot, listening to the hum of insects and wind in the dry grasses. I lived alone in Bulawayo for three years in a small rented cottage. I kept dogs to ward off the puff adders and mambas who liked to sun themselves on my window sills. About once a year a snake got one of the dogs. There were big fields out back, planted with corn and forbidden crops of dagga. I lived in a motley community of expatriates and Africans and we all kept each other company, fell in and out of love, ate together, drove on camping safaris whenever we could. I liked my messy kitchen and makeshift rooms cluttered with paints and sketch pads. I liked how people didn't knock but drifted around doorways and slid against a wall waiting to be offered a glass of beer or water. We organized our lives around getting out to the bush to watch the animals and birds, me to sketch my cave paintings. On the big trips we'd drive out to see lions and kudu or take punts on rivers and lakes to look for hippos and water buffalo. From Bulawayo we could escape in the evenings to sit on old trucks and watch a tree full of male weaver birds making endless nests trying to please a female. I often sat up all night and left just before dawn to scramble along the edges of the caves to sketch and photograph the cave paintings. When I wasn't teaching I slept during the hot middle of the day, roused myself at dusk like the animals to drink water and work again. I liked the exotic heat and sitting on our porches at night, watching for snakes in the garden, sleeping little and making love more or less with whoever stayed.
Back here, my mother's house was isolated at the end of the long rural road. The snowplows had to take care not to block our driveway with banks of snow. The earth was not rich enough for good farming but a few places struggled along with pumpkins and cucumbers; it was a better horse area. White fencing stretched like tape measures over the snowy terrain. Straight-backed youngsters glued to their ponies moved around striped barrels and over cedar-rail jumps while their parents watched from kitchen windows. On my mother's patch of land was a tumbledown vegetable garden and a small outbuilding she'd turned into a place to paint. It was the first time in her life she'd been able to afford a separate studio. When I was growing up, she painted on porches and in back bedrooms and she supported us with her teaching. But in recent years there had been a small vogue in the highly realistic wildlife painting she did. She made enough money to drop her daily teaching, but her work didn't sell briskly because her migrating birds perched on clotheslines hung with socks, her foxes sniffed around compost heaps, and her favourite red-tailed hawks swayed on television aerials and light posts. The critics praised her technique but her gallery encouraged her to leave out the domestic details--the laundry and fences and wire. I never understood that. Her pictures were the world I grew up in which didn't seem spoiled at all. I liked what she did and learned how to do it so I could do it too.
Since I'd come back into the deep snow and darkness I hadn't worked much. I tacked up my cave paintings on my bedroom walls, but the reddish, angular figures and the mythic animals retreated away from me into their distant world. Even the charcoal that looked so black in the hot sunlight of Bulawayo seemed indistinct and faded here in a house where someone was dying. As I poached eggs for us and made some toast, I resolved to stay awake all night as I had stayed awake through the darkness so effortlessly in Africa. Perhaps all the sleep was making me witless; I didn't need so much slumber.
* * *
Just before midnight, shivering under the frozen chips of stars, I hurried away from the house over the dry snow, found the gate in the back fence and struggled with the icy hook. I hurried over the beaten elephant path toward the barn, lifted the heavy latch and slipped through the door. The inside was warm and fragrant with elephant flesh after the odourless cold outside. I stood smelling and waiting for my pupils to open, searching the darkness, looking for where he slept. As I stood I felt an odd pressure change against my eardrums. I heard an elephant shift on her feet and I could make out the shadowy bulk of the others, standing and lying, their ears silently spreading, their trunks lifting and turning toward me, scenting. Again I felt that subtle push against my eardrums and then it was gone. I know now the elephants were rumbling to each other in sounds I could feel but not hear.
Finally I began to edge toward Jo's cot on the west wall. My winter boots brushed against the hay and the floorboards squeaked. I heard one of the elephants moving toward me and I squeezed myself against the wooden planks. There was a skittish feeling in the barn that I didn't like. I could see the shadowy shapes of their trunks lifting and scenting, trunks so powerful they could knock me out. The elephants were agitated now, rolling up to their feet, snorting and flapping their ears.
I pressed on to the back corner where Jo was awake and up on one elbow, the blankets pulled back for me. I dropped my thick coat to the floor, slipped out of my clothes and got into bed with him. Our faces were close enough to kiss but instead he traced his finger over my lips and cheeks and forehead then back down my arm. He blew on my lips, and dry with winter and parched, they filled with blood. His skin smelled of the barn and his long hair fell back on the rough pillow. At the first touch of his lips on my wrist I exhaled again.
He whispered, "I didn't think you'd come."
I felt his lips, propitious and warm on the side of my neck, in the hollow of my back, across my thighs. The sound of the elephants' ears lifting and falling against their necks, their rumbles and whistles and sighs went through me like a song beyond the genius of breath. I lay under Jo, his body warm and light as down, teasing and tempting, and then he rolled me on top of him and my skin hot I pushed the rough blanket off to the side. Kneeling above him, my head bent over his neck, I felt a thick wet touch on the naked skin of my back between my shoulders. I froze still as a snowbank. A damp trunk finger was tracing along each vertebra of my spine, all the way to my own curled-under tailbone.
Without moving I whispered into Jo's ear, "One of them's loose."
I heard the lightest of laughs, really only a breath, and Jo said, "It's Kezia. She doesn't like to be left out."
"I thought they'd be shackled at night."
He brought me down on his chest, and he reached for the scratchy blanket to cover me. Gently he brushed Kezia's trunk aside. "She's always been able to unshackle herself ..." He raised up on one forearm and said quietly, firmly, "Back Kezia!"
The elephant moved off, a noiseless shadow passing to the far side of the barn. I lay in the darkness that night with Jo for as long as I could. When I closed my eyes I felt Jo's touch between my fingers, along the edge of my scalp, filling me, but I kept seeing Kezia's clear gaze through the darkness. I listened to the creaking of the barnboard, to the breath of the elephants, to the cracking of frozen branches outside. I could feel the elephants rumbling as if chanting to both of us. For as long as I could I lay listening to all the sounds of the barn and beyond.
We can hear howling winds and we can hear grass brushed by snakes and crickets rubbing their feet and frog songs outside at night. We can hear the wings of a dragonfly and the breath of a new lover and the sigh of the dying, but there is sound all around us that we cannot even hear.
* * *
After that first time I went to the barn every afternoon, and whenever I could at night. The females slept and rested in a single open area in the centre of the barn and Lear, the Safari's only male, stayed in one of the two stalls on the side. Jo showed me how to muck out the barn and the barnyard then left me with my pitchfork and shovel while he took the elephants out for their afternoon walk. The water troughs were connected to pipes running underground. Long-handled brushes for the elephants' daily scrub hung on one wall, and the pitchforks and shovels were kept in a locked cupboard. He showed me his bag of tools for their feet: the draw knife to smoothe their leatherish pads, a large rasp for trimming their toenails. The harnesses and howdahs hung in a tack room opposite Jo's cot. Upstairs he stored hay and grain, which was dropped down through a chute. Wide cracks between the rich grey barnboards softened the shafts of outside light, and high above in the frozen rafters, two winter owls wove a whole and separate life.
Jo was sleeping in the barn because Kezia was expecting.
"After the baby's born," he said, "I'll be here about six months, unless it's early and we're in circus season. Someone they know should be here to keep the barn calm. When Saba was born, she was so small she couldn't reach Alice's tits. I had to pump Alice's milk and bottle-feed her for a month until she got tall enough."
Jo had been trying to breed his elephants since he'd come to the Safari. Even this most ordinary mystery was delicate and dangerous in captivity. Agitated elephants had to be moved in trailers away from home and then, if they bred, the mother waited twenty-two months while her baby grew. There were heartbreaks, dangerous males, miscarriages, bad births.
I learned to move slowly among the elephants. Saba was the youngest at eighteen months. She was spoiled by all of them but especially by Alice, her mother, and Kezia. At thirty Kezia was the eldest, and had taken the position of matriarch. She was the only elephant who'd been born in the wild. Her mother had been caught for work in the Indian bush and Kezia was later taken from her and shipped to England. Since then she'd been bought and sold by two zoos and a safari. She hadn't had a baby yet, though she'd miscarried several times.
Gertrude had a big tear in her left ear. She was born in a lumber camp in Thailand and was one of the last Asian elephants to be brought to North America. Inventive and witty, she was the first to learn how to unpin the barn door hinges. She had a particular passion for old tires. Jo kept a few in the corner of the barn for them to play with. Gertrude lifted them with her trunk, tucked them under her belly and rolled on them. She also liked to squeeze them through the stall bars and wear them on her head as a hat.
Lear, Jo's favourite, was the only African elephant.
"He's mine, this one," said Jo. "Most places don't want a male. African males aren't much good when they hit their twenties. They get unpredictable. I took him when no one else wanted him."
With Lear, Jo showed me the simple voice commands they all knew: steady, move up, lie down, trunk up. Jo was disciplined with them and he never asked more than he needed, even to show me. He'd taken on their gentle, intelligent ways.
"If you listen they'll tell you what you need to know," he said. "If you think you understand something they're not saying, it will make them uneasy, or afraid."
"How will I know?"
"How do you know if you make me uneasy?"
I thought, "Do I?" and said, "I don't know. I suppose I watch for little signs ..."
"It's about the same with elephants."
"But I don't know how to read them."
As I watched Jo and the elephants I began to see the language between them. The only tool Jo used was an ankus, a short stick with a hook on the end of it. He touched Lear's leg with his ankus in the field and Lear understood the touch as the first word in a long idea that began with him dipping his knee so that Jo could scramble up his side for a ride back into the barn. But Lear understood a similar touch in the performance ring to mean he should kneel for a bow. It was an elephant homonym; the signal sounded the same but meant different things in different contexts. The complex language between Jo and his elephants had as much moral responsibility as any human communication. As long as they both agreed on the conventions and certain fixed ideas of their mutual responsibility they could live together peaceably and creatively. But if either broke the code, asked for something unreasonable, failed to answer out of plain churlishness, there was failure. Through language they explored each other. If one of them refused to listen, pretended he couldn't speak, the other was betrayed.
Jo taught me their routines. Each morning he bathed them, made sure their feet and toenails were in good shape, then fed them and worked them for the demonstrations. He showed me the screw in the clevis, the U-shaped iron leg shackle that some of them learned to undo. He used the solid brummel hook on Lear, impossible for an elephant to open. He showed me how he mucked out and where he walked when he took them to the fields each afternoon. I observed his constant alertness among them, reading their moods and their intentions. His days were long and physical and busy.
"In a couple of months I'll hire them out for six weeks of circus," he said, "and when the Safari opens again we take them to the pond twice a day for a swim, put on the two shows every afternoon and give rides." He reached for me. "But winters are slow."
The barn was fresh and cool after my mother's stale bedroom. We leaned against bedding straw, Jo slipping his arm behind my back and drawing me close. His ways were so soft that the hard strength of his arms kept surprising me. In his slow, quiet voice he teased, "How did you know I was looking for a barn hand?"
I laughed and shot back, "So this is how you train your help!"
His jaw tightened against my alacrity, and I felt his awkwardness when words flew too lightly back and forth. But he shrugged it off and said peaceably, "I never thought you'd come back that night."
"But you asked!" and then I too refrained from speaking.
Since I'd taken over the mucking out, he spent longer walking with the elephants in the fields. On the coldest days he left Saba and Alice with me. I brought some books and pads of paper and a big old tape recorder from the back of one of my mother's closets to listen to music while I cleaned the stalls. Each afternoon I hurried through the shovelling and cleaning and settled down on a bale of hay to sketch. I drew the elephants, a pair of old barn boots, sacks of grain, the owls, our threadbare blankets. I wasn't much taken with the inside of the barn but I began to notice how the slats in the walls made for play in the light, how the stalls and bins and doors divided the space. I worked thoughtlessly, jotting down notes about the elephant sounds, about what I was reading, words, pictures all jumbled together. I threw the pages into a big box as fast as I made them and I began to understand something of my mother's impulse to put our laundry baskets and cracked pots into her paintings.
One late afternoon I'd finished the barn work and I was listening to Part's "Silouans Song" and sketching. The recording I had was one of my mother's, made at Lohjan Kirkko in Finland. Between phrases, Part let the reverberations of each note echo against the old stones of the church where they'd recorded, and when the sound was gone I could hear the brush of hair against the strings. Pure round voices rose in shafts of simple triads, and between the phrases of this song without words I could hear snow falling outside and the sound of my charcoal on paper. When I closed my eyes I could see mandalas and carved saints and rough stone arches. Nothing could be asked and yet everything received. It was music to make oneself ready.
I sat on a bale of hay sketching a piece of rope and Saba was bothering me. I brushed her trunk away gently but she nudged in again and picked up one of my charcoals and tried to drag it across the barn floor. It broke, but it left a trace there and she ran her damp trunk over the trace and smudged it. I watched as she picked up the broken charcoal and tried to make another mark. I'd read that elephants draw but Jo didn't have much time for that sort of thing. He said, "I like them the way they are, not because they do what humans do."
I sat and watched Saba scratching on the floor. I uncapped a marker that wouldn't break so easily and handed it to her. I tore a piece of paper off my pad and laid it on the floor. Her touch was too hard and though she made a mark she ripped the paper. Then she put the marker in her mouth to taste it.
I held another piece of paper against my chest. Now Saba had two purposes: to make a mark on the paper and not to hurt me. She thought about her problem for a while, lifted her marker and, as if she were lightly running the tip of her trunk over me, she made a line. I held my breath and kept the paper still. She dropped the marker and ran her trunk over her line, picked up the marker again and deliberately made another line, this time more confidently. Then she scribbled lightly across her two lines, like a child, tickling me and I laughed.
Once she understood the right amount of pressure, one after another she drew on the six different sheets I had laid on the floor. Then, tired of it, she dropped her marker and walked back to Alice, scooped up a trunkful of hay and began to eat. I scooped up Saba's drawings and put them in my bag.
* * *
"Do you want to go for a drive this morning?"
"I know. We can wrap up. I'll get the car started."
My mother stood in front of the door, eager to go out, while I layered us in scarves.
"Sophie, I can't breathe with all this wool over my mouth."
"You won't be able to breathe in that cold air, either!"
"You sound more and more like a mother."
We got in the car and drove down Highway 6 through the layers of blasted-out limestone. The exhaust from the cars froze and trailed behind each tailpipe like cotton batting and puffs of frozen white smoke perched on the top of every chimney. We stopped on the big docks at LaSalle Park where dry-docked boats were stacked behind fences and covered with great sheets of canvas along one side of the pier, and we sat looking through the windshield at the steel mills across the frozen bay. Most of the boys I grew up with had worked in the mills through summers and holidays. They learned to drink beer with the men and to rein in their strength so the old men wouldn't have to work too hard when they left. They learned to sleep in hidden nooks in the factory and keep an eye half open for the floor managers on night shift. After they'd been in the mills they were better lovers and they behaved badly in school. My mother's father worked there his whole life. I knew she liked to look across and feel that odd jarring sense of having left behind what once had been your world. And now dying she looked back there to remember her father. When I was younger and we had picnics and sketching afternoons on this shore, I once said, "Too bad the steel mills make the shore so dirty and ugly," and drawing them furiously she snapped, "It's honest dirt over there!"
We watched winter ducks skid across the ice, searching for bread, their breath freezing in two little white pearls on the tops of their beaks.
"Yesterday Gertrude turned on the inside water tap and flooded the barnyard."
"Maybe she wants to skate," she said.
"When Jo took them out, they broke up the edges and started sucking on the ice cubes, so he threw some fruit in buckets with water and made them popsicles. They loved it."
"Clever elephant man ..." she sniffed.
We were used to being active people. We didn't know what to do with so much time on our hands.
I told her about learning to train Saba.
"She'll walk with me now. We're going to start putting sandbags over her shoulders to teach her to bear a little weight. They teach them the trunk up command with jelly beans. I have to stand on a ladder to get her to raise her trunk high enough. I'm amazed at how she takes to it."
"A little genius," said my mother, and then more curious, more like herself, "I suppose they're used to thinking about how to find food or where water is or how to get their babies out of trouble. There's not enough to think about in a tourist safari." I'd turned the motor off and the car was growing chilly. She pulled a scarf over her mouth and spoke through the wool, "The smaller the cage the more we need something to meditate on." She shifted on the car seat away from me, turning her profile to the steel mills across the lake, and said, "Be sure to give your little genius lots to think about."
* * *
Jo was not the sort of man I was used to. He barely spoke. He didn't read. He didn't care about the rest of the world. He grew up in a trailer camp and at fifteen got himself into a circus to learn about animal training. He bought three bear cubs, a trailer and a big cage and taught himself how to train them for a bear act. But what he really loved were the elephants, and each evening after he'd put the bears to bed, he worked at the elephant tent. By the time he took them over he had trailered circus animals from Alaska to Texas. And after a decade of sleeping in the backs of trailers, Jo had a modest dream: he wanted to live in one place with elephants. But zoo people look down on circus folk who live and sleep and eat with their animals.
Jo never got the kind of schooling a zoo keeper has, but when he heard about a trainer killed by an elephant in a small Florida zoo he got on a plane and presented himself the next day. They'd shot the animal, a nineteen-year-old African male, and there were two others that everyone was afraid to go near. Jo took over, worked them, taught them to give rides and made his reputation in the tiny world of elephants. He was finally hired by the Ontario Safari to come north from Florida and here he created a family of elephants who rumbled with loud affection each time he came into the barn. The Safari let him do what he wanted, provided he could raise enough money in circuses to support the elephants.
He didn't really care what I thought about anything unless it was about the elephants. He was uncomfortable indoors and his opinions were strong. When promoters and community organizers who wanted to hire his elephants came around he hardly spoke at all, except to pronounce strict rules about what they would or would not do. He showed no interest in the books I'd stacked near his bed and he appeared not to listen when I told him that I was reading about elephant infrasound, rumbles too low for humans to hear. Still, when I brought in a powerful microphone and recorded the silence among the elephants, he didn't stop me. I played it back to him sped up and we listened together intently, hearing for the first time the distinct low rumble that is Elephant. We identified the roar of the electric light and the thudding flap of elephant ears. Their breathing sounded like long slow wheezes, but wound into all that din of background noise was Elephant, like a rhythmic double bass, theirs alone to hear.
"Do you think they know we don't hear it?" I asked Jo after the first time we listened.
"Hear what?" he said.
"Could be their bellies rumbling for all you know."
He knew it wasn't, I could tell by the intent way he listened, but he was a resistant thinker, careful and slow and not given to leaps or dreaming. He knew what he discovered through his own experience and that he knew exquisitely.
"I want to record more, Jo, see what I can find out."
"Suit yourself," was all he said, undoing the buttons on my sweater.
Of course I nearly always did. Each day after mucking out I recorded the elephants and I kept reading. I started fiddling with putting the sounds they made into some kind of order, translating them, arranging them like a dictionary. Elephant is a peculiarly difficult language because they communicate most richly in "paunsing," low-frequency sounds we can't hear. Sometimes I can feel pressure changes in the air when they are rumbling and I can see vibrations under the skin on their foreheads. They paunsed whenever Jo came into or left the barn. They paunsed to each other when they woke in the morning, as they walked, when one of them was outside and the others in. I could feel them when we were in Jo's cot together. They appeared to be standing silently when they were, in fact, talking together.
Before Jo got back, I always put the recorder away with my sketching and the pitchfork and shovels. Each early twilight, when I got up from his cot and made ready to return to my mother's, I could already feel the prints of Jo's hands on my body wearing off and my yearning beginning all over again. I wanted more of him, and on the next cloudless winter day, I came in from the sun-planished snow and said to him, "I'm not staying inside today, I'm coming with you."
Jo walked into the back of the tack room and came out with two pairs of snowshoes. "We'll go to the north fields then," he said, "they'll like the change."
He helped me adjust the straps and laughing I walked bowlegged out into the fields. I learned to sway a little, taking longer, lighter strides. We snowshoed beside the elephants away from their usual path, away from my mother's back windows, and excited by the change in routine they tossed snow over their necks and lifted their faces to the sun. We followed the back fences and slid down into a gulley where no one could see us. Jo's face was bright and boyish in the cold. He lifted his hands unconsciously to me. Under the elephants' tutelage, we too had become a species of touchers, tangled up together. I could feel him through our layers of winter clothes, thick coats and mitts squashed between us, lips warm, cheeks nipped and white. The cold held us out naked and we wrapped ourselves up in our own warm breath. Lying side by side in the snowbanks watching the sky, listening to dead leaves crick at the ends of their branches, I wrapped Jo's hair round and round my fingers, his body round and round mine until, too soon, the sun fell and the temperatures dropped and the elephants got hungry. We got up and in the shock of not touching we began to run back.
I watched Jo leading the elephants, nimble and disappearing. The muscles of my legs ached and I fell behind. Kezia slowed and touched her trunk to my arm to encourage me through my weariness. We followed the others and alone out there in the waning light I looked beyond to the jut of the great escarpment with its old gnarled fir trees. Then Kezia touched me again and I shifted my attention back to the confines of the electrified fences, to the corrugated steel barns where the animals endured our long winter. I couldn't help but think, "It's such a tawdry place."
It might have been that afternoon that I got pregnant.
I didn't know what to tell Jo, what he might think. I had no intention of staying with him and sleeping in a barn for the rest of my life. But the more I thought about this baby the more I wanted it. I knew that babies and men and work don't go together very well, but you have them all anyway. You can't wait forever. I thought I'd just take my baby wherever I went. I'd made a habit of moving around, of leaving men, and I figured as soon as my mother was dead I'd leave again.
Meet the Author
Award-winning author Kim Echlin lives in Toronto. She is the author of Elephant Winter and Dagmar’s Daughter, and her third novel, The Disappeared, was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award for Fiction. Her most recent novel is Under the Visible Life.
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