In The Way That Elephants Do
The incessant wind whipped over me, eroding my skin with tiny particles of sand. I lay on the crest of a hill, not far from Caleb's body, too tired and uncaring to walk further. My energy seemed to have drained from me into that warm sand, never to come back. I stared at the great moon hovering above, the only witness to my pain. The sky was absolutely clear, and I could see the stars peeking, also. Nothing moved out on the dunes, except an occasional lizard or other crawling thing. To my left sat the immovable mountains, green and foreboding under the moon's harsh hand. To my right sat the Hinterland and beyond it, the blackness of the Great Flat, my home. My stomach was empty and my skin dehydrated, but I didn't really care. All that I knew, all that I cared for, was gone. My family was gone, a chasm of apathy between us too broad to cross. Caleb, my mentor and friend, was gone, too. All seemed lost, all seemed hopeless. I lay my head on the sand and fell asleep, but not before praying that the hyenas would come for me in the night.
Orange light pierced into my sleepy eyes. I flinched at its encroachment. Raising up on my front legs, I shook my head from side to side until my eyes became accustomed to the light. The sun was just rising over the eastern horizon, turning the great dunes a bloody orange as it violated the night sky. The sun seemed much larger than it did out on the Great Flat, as if I had climbed too close to it. I turned away, not wishing to see its brilliance. In a distance that suddenly seemed not far at all, loomed the Northern Mountains. No longer sickly green as they were the night before, they glistened like diamonds in the morning sun. Glaciers and ice caps reflected light in every hue, casting a kaleidoscope of colors onto the shifting sands at their feet. Foggy clouds ringed the taller ones, God's crowns of glory. I slid down the dune, then climbed the next one, wanting to get a closer look at the magnificent range. At the crest of the next hill, I could see great crevasses and streams becoming defined under the sun's glimmering rays. Power and life resonated from those mountains. Their essence seemed to permeate and overpower me. I felt new, vigorous, strong. I ran to the next hill. The mountains beckoned and tempted, silently as they had for eons. The memories of my life on the savannah grew dim. That world suddenly seemed archaic, obsolete. The offer of a new life was being held before me, the universe's proverbial carrot. Behind me was only stagnation and mediocrity. Caleb's final words had been true indeed; this was a crossroad for me, as simple and absolute as a crossroad could be. No one was there to help me decide. The choice was mine and mine only.
At the end of this resolution would be a loss, a grievous loss, no matter what the outcome. On one hand, the loss of a history, a family, and a way of life. On the other, a loss of hope, the ruination of a dream. Words filled my mind, words of hope and encouragement, gloom and disparagement. Each sifted its way through the others, looking to define itself among them. I remembered a day a long, long time ago, when I was just a small boy clinging to my mother's tail. Mother said something to me that day, something that changed my reality, my perception of the world. I didn't know what her words meant at the time, but I learned their meaning much later. That slogan, centuries old, had stayed with me. And again on this day, it rang as true as words can ring. "Sometimes one must cross the Rubicon, little one..." I turned my back to the Great Flat, likely never to see it again. To the mountains I walked, steadily and surely, never looking back.
Darkness is a powerful thing. It can strip our defenses completely, leaving one's spirit open for invasion. At the very moment darkness falls upon us, we are vulnerable. Our minds, normally bolstered by rational thought and logic, are suddenly stricken with fears both infantile and primitive. The strongest of us cower like children at the feet of the unknown that the darkness brings to us. Every step holds a pitfall, every corner hides a demon. It makes one humble, darkness does, humble indeed. But that humility ends as soon as light appears, as does our fear, for our memories seem unable to hold the true essence of the darkness. Instead, only a vague sense of trepidation remains behind, a feeling that never quite measures up to the horror of the night.
I made my way through the twisting, ascending tunnel, feeling in front with my trunk to avoid crashing into the stone. Other trails branched off, tempting me to turn into them, but I held fast to my route, always keeping the cool draft to my backside as the parrot had told me to do. It was absolutely, utterly dark in there, darker than the blackest of nights. Water dripped on my head and things crawled under my feet, but I persisted. The path was narrow and low at times, so low and narrow that I sometimes had to squeeze my body through a passage that I did not think would allow me through. I sniffed at the air, hoping that I would pick up the scent of the land at the end of the tunnel, but I smelled only the shadows. Several times I was tempted to turn around, but something drove me onward, a little voice that kept telling me there was nothing left for me back in the Forest Between, nothing at all. Time was blurred in that hole, so blurry I did not know how long I had been walking. Was it a day? Two days? Five days? In the still silence of the passage, only the sound of my breaths told me that time had not forsaken me. It walked with me hand in hand, leading like it always does, wavering none and waiting not. I heard voices in that passage; strange, sad voices; the voices of those who had passed here before me. They scared me, they did, these voices, crying and moaning like ghostly things do. My hair stood on end as I listened, unable to run or hide or scream. I was utterly, utterly alone, and the voices knew it. They were old spirits, long since gone from this earth. Just as they had been while they were here, they still had no home, no place of their own, so they wandered and they cried and they bothered poor souls like me who got in their way. They spoke of elephants past and elephants present; warriors, wanderers, and noble ones, too. I couldn't make out everything they said, and perhaps this is just as well. I did not want to know such things, spoken by such broken souls; words full of pain and torment. And maybe they didn't really want me to hear them clearly, either, so they whispered and mumbled and drifted about. And maybe those voices weren't voices at all; maybe it was only the wind whistling through the labyrinth, having some fun with me.
The passage grew level and straight and the going was easier. I picked up my pace a bit, always with my trunk outstretched as far as it would go. I traveled this way for quite some time, until something startled me. I stopped and blinked. Something gray and large loomed before me, nearly perfectly round. I squinted at the object, trying to ascertain what it was. Seeing that it did not move, I went a little closer. The object grew more definite as I approached, and soon I could tell that it was no object at all. The passage took a sudden dip downward, forming what appeared to be a circle in the air at the juncture of the two passages. Normally, I would not have been able to notice this change in the path until I stepped onto it. But as I stood before it, something strange and wondrous filled my eyes: light. Faint, faint light, only enough to turn the blackness into grayness, but light nonetheless. I began the descent. The form and texture of the tunnel walls began to take shape as I walked. Shadows and lines appeared out of the darkness like phantoms, but I was not afraid, for a friend was waiting for me at the end. I quickened my pace. The tunnel grew brighter still, and I could see the dampness glistening on the rock. My eyes blinked as they grew accustomed to the light, now shining brightly from a lone source directly at the end of that passage. I squinted and ran to that light with all my might, feeling its radiance purge me of the damp, dank fear of the tunnel. As I neared the tunnel entrance, I could see the blueness of the northern sky. I had to turn away from its brilliance and wait for my eyes to adjust. I blinked a few more times, then walked to the opening. A breathtaking sight lay before me. It was the lake the Foresters had told me about, the source of the river that ran over the falls and flowed through the Forest. It was a great blue jewel, it was, stretching as far as I could see. Only a low mountain range in the distance showed me that it actually ended at all. I could see the clouds, high wispy ones, reflected in the cool, clear waters. Around a sandy shore were trees, lovely green trees that stretched well into the distance, toward what appeared to be a high, rolling plain that rolled over the horizons to the east and west. It was a grand sight, a grand sight indeed. Until I looked down, that is.
I often found myself watching the hours, waiting for Miss Sophia to finish her work so she could join me outside. I lived for the time she shared with me, and even though these moments were just a blink in the great expanse of my life, I must say that I would not trade them for anything in the world, anything at all. I recall a day, a fine spring day filled with the sounds of bird babies, crickets, and newborn puppies. Sophia was reading to me from a book as she always did, reclining in her hammock between the elms.
"In a drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne'er remember
Their green felicity;
The north cannot undo them,
With a sleety whistle through them;
Nor frozen thawings glue them From budding at the prime..."
The words touched something within her. She put the book on her belly, pages down, and stared up into the branches high above us. My eyes followed hers, delighting in the sunlight that filtered through the translucent leaves in a kaleidoscope of glistening green. "Noah," she said as she closed her book, "I want to show you something." She got up and took my trunk. I followed as she took me around to the rear of the house, to the window that opened into the parlor. "See this?" she said as stood by the tree, which was well taller than I by this point in its life. She stood on her toes and rubbed a hand over the bark high above her. I stepped a little closer. I had looked at this point a thousand times, but I had never really noticed it before. There in the craggy bark I could see Keeper writing. Faint scars from cuts made long, long ago adorned the tree's skin, just like the pictures that sheathed the tattooed man at the circus. I couldn't read Keeper writing, for no one had ever taught me. But from the look in Sophia's eyes, I could tell that these words meant more to her than life itself.
"These are our names, and the date we planted the tree," she said as she caressed the scars. "'John and Sophia' it says. 'May 4, 1933.' It was just this big around back then," she added, holding her hands together to show how skinny the tree had been. She looked past the leaves into the crystal blue sky. "It was our first spring together. The weather was grand, just like today. We dug and laughed and carried on so, just like two little children. We were covered with dirt from head to toe, but we didn't care. We made love when we got done, right over there next to the porch." She put both arms around the tree and hugged it tightly, her soft face pressing against the cool bark. "It seems like yesterday." I stood there as she remembered. Of things good and things bad she dreamed, and I was certainly not one to interrupt. The wind picked up, rustling the leaves above us. The wind spoke through the branches in the way that wind does, and somewhere in that chorus, that majestic swishing of a million green leaves, was the voice of her husband. If one could only listen hard enough, intently enough, one could hear it. It was a happy voice, a contented voice, shouting from a place we could not see or feel or know... I wished that Sophia could hear him, to know he was well. But she could not hear it, for her heart was too heavy. That faint voice could not break through the spell of her suffering, so it soon grew weary and faded away. The wind died with it, and Sophia and I were alone once more. She released her embrace and led me back to the hammock. She didn't read any more that day, and I did not expect her to. She lay on the hammock, swaying gently back and forth, staring up into the still branches, seeing things only she could see. But the wind soon returned, whispering gently in the leaves. Her eyes grew heavy and heavier still. Soon she fell into a deep, deep sleep there under the elms, the wind singing her a lullaby as I watched over her.
Copyright 1998 by David L. Kilpatrick