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How can a beautiful white elephant be a terrible curse?
Run-Run, a young elephant trainer, discovers the answer when he incurs the fury of the prince. The boy's punishment? The gift of an elephant, white as a cloud. From that moment forward, the curse reveals itself. According to tradition, so rare an elephant cannot be allowed to work for its keep. It is poor Run-Run who must feed the beast the hundreds of pounds of food it eats each day, and scrub it clean, and brush its ...
How can a beautiful white elephant be a terrible curse?
Run-Run, a young elephant trainer, discovers the answer when he incurs the fury of the prince. The boy's punishment? The gift of an elephant, white as a cloud. From that moment forward, the curse reveals itself. According to tradition, so rare an elephant cannot be allowed to work for its keep. It is poor Run-Run who must feed the beast the hundreds of pounds of food it eats each day, and scrub it clean, and brush its pom-pom of a tail, and wash behind its ears, and, above all, keep it from doing any work.
Oh, if only Run-Run could make the magnificent white elephant disappear! Clever as a magician, he does—but the curse has tricks of its own for Run-Run.
There, in old Siam, do you see the boy with dirty ears sitting as proud as a prince on the tall old elephant? Oh, how those two love each other! The boy, whose name is Run-Run, sometimes sleeps between the elephant's front legs, safe from the world.
But what a terrible mischief the elephant got that boy into!
It happened on a day like today, hot as an oven with its doors flung open.
They were returning from clearing the tangled stumps of aged jackfruit trees for the new mango plantation over on the hillside. The tall elephant would get a stump between his great yellow tusks and shove with his padded forehead. Out came the stump, squealing like a bad tooth.
"Walking Mountain!" the boy shouted with a smile, for that was the elephant's name. "A morning's work under this sun is enough, big brother! Your old bones ache, eh? Come, let us have a bath, great Walking Mountain."
Half a century old, was Run-Run's elephant, with his final set of teeth! Walking Mountain had carried the boy's father on his neck, and his father's father. Brave mahouts, they commanded elephants many times their size. Mahouts had been Run-Run's tutors. Now, only half grown, he, too, was a mahout, with his father's colored headdress packed away under his grandfather's porcelain amulet.
But how many years could Walking Mountainremain on his legs? One day he would lie down, lame and toothless, and refuse to get up.
In the river, Run-Run washed his ears and the red dust out of his hair, as if to avoid a scolding from his mother. He had been barely eight when she was mauled by a tiger. They say she'd fought the wild creature, even biting off his ear. Someday, Run-Run would meet that great cat, that awful, one-eared beast, and then, watch out, murderer!
"But, where are you, tiger?" Run-Run sometimes muttered. "Afraid to venture out of the jungle and show your ugly eyes around here, eh?"
Tight-lipped, he replied to his own question. "Dreamer! And what if he has been shot dead by a hunter? Aye, dead and eaten by flies!
"I bless the flies," he added.
Now he gave his head a toss, and his long and black hair wrapped itself around his neck like a wet towel.
Run-Run and the tall elephant turned up the road leading to his hillside village. Tucked far below the hazy teak mountains to the north, shady Chattershee would be hard for anyone in the kingdom of Siam to find. No one except the pariah dogs who could be heard barking as Walking Mountain shuffled by; no one except the fruit bats, the wild green parrots, and a tiger or two.
Summer was brief with airless days, bringing heat as fiery as dragon's breath. Dust rose in clouds like gnats.
Nevertheless, Run-Run had smiles for the world. The coins jingling in the pouch around his neck would buy grain for his elephant. Fresh hay, too, brought to the plantation by bullock carts from he knew not where. He'd slap his noisy coins on the counter and pick out a treat of spindly sugarcanes for his tall friend. And why not a fat, juicy piece of cane for himself, Run-Run, to chew?
Oh, how that great walking mountain could eat! Two hundred pounds a day. Three hundred! Hardly a blade of grass was left at the edges of the plowed fields to dine upon. For miles around, plantation elephants had browsed the tree branches up beyond reach. But being so tall, Walking Mountain could stand on his hind legs and stretch himself to amazing length to search out a high mango or luscious fruits dangling on the wild fig trees.
"Elephant boy!" called out the beekeeper, old Bangrak. He sat in the breathless shade of a flame tree. "Look! Here is a watermelon I grew for you in exchange."
"A thousand blessings!" exclaimed Run-Run, running his tongue around his lips. "In exchange for what, sir?"
"My wind chimes haven't struck a note in weeks. If I breathe more dust, I'll spit mud bricks! Give this road a river splash, eh?"
"Two watermelons," said Run-Run, for bargaining was as natural to him as breathing. Sometimes a trade in river water arose out of the choking April dust. He would be sorry to see the monsoon rains come and put his splendid business at an end.
"Did you say two melons?"
"Thief!" The old man wagged a dried hand in front of his face as if to clear a swirl of dust.
Said Run-Run, "I am ashamed of myself! Nevertheless, a melon for Walking Mountain. Another for me."
"Prince of rascals!"
"Two watermelons, large and sweet, or good-bye, friend of my father," the elephant boy replied.
Like an actor playing a part he loved, old Bangrak gave a snarl in disgust, but with a smile tucked into his white beard. For him, too, bargaining was a skill and an entertainment to be admired. It was relentless bargaining that had allowed him to send his son off to the city and to school. It was rumored that the boy could already read and write. Such an achievement was the talk of the village.
"Two watermelons are too much!" Old Bangrak insisted.
"Three would be more to my liking," said Run-Run.
"Scamp! Two! It is agreed!"
Run-Run called to his elephant. "Give an ear, Walking Mountain! To the river, magnificent one!"
Run-Run climbed to the elephant's neck and took his familiar place. With a light touch of the bull hook left to him by his father, Run-Run turned the elephant toward the river below. "Go!"
There Walking Mountain filled his long trunk with water. He hardly needed a command from Run-Run to lumber back to the village and spray. After several trips the red dust was settling over the road like a fresh coat of paint.
Excerpted from The White Elephant by Sid Fleischman Copyright © 2006 by Sid Fleischman. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted June 20, 2012