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Sylvia Van Nooten - THE ELEPHANT WALK

Sylvia Van Nooten 296 Wetmore Ln.
Petaluma, CA 94952 (707) 762 - 5906 email

Elephant Walks
Across the street from my hot, yellow, room stands the Veterans Soft gray, like a pigeon roosting, plopped down in the center of a parking lot and well watered fields, it appears an oasis in the southern heat. There's one in every town where the natives congregate for the rituals of summer. Rodeos and carnivals, craft fairs and food festivals, watching from above my garage apartment I see it all. My fingers swoop like swallows at the evening feeding, drawing pictures with a stubby, black pencil. Sometimes I pause to count the flies on the strip of sticky paper, swinging in the almost imperceptible breeze.      This morning the bulky appendages of the County Fair paraded into town; trucks and trailers claiming the green grass of the Veteran's grounds.
The swaggering Carnies-- a swindling lot-- scuttle about like trained rats in a maze, we despise each other on sight. My heart almost weeps at the sight of this atrocious tradition, knowing the sacrifices made for the sake of meaningless entertainment, but I will myself into stillness, no need to act just yet. Those tents and stages, booths and rides are not the sirens that summon me. Nor do the sweet bunnies and pensive cows awaiting ribbons pose a temptation. The elephant is my beacon, my soul's song, my muse-- the magnificent, gray, rough skinned beast, trunk ending in delicate snuffles. For my calling in life is to heal elephants.
     With the window open I hear the noise, a cacophony of organizational wonder: Anger palpitates, a resinous haze as these minions of tacky commerce struggle with billboards, tents and rides.      All morning I watch, waiting for the sound of the Carousel, The Big Dipper and Around the World. Anticipation tingles through me. Which will be first? The cheap chimes of wooden horses going nowhere? Or the angry rock n' roll of the rides that pop your spine? Only after the music begins do I descend from my haven, approach the fair to find the elephant.      The crowd swirls around me, muddying my perceptions. I don't like people much, their souls beg forgiveness for the crimes of past lives. To ward off their atonal vibrations, in my palm I carry a talisman, a chip of ivory. Clutching this warm gift tightly I focus on the spirit of "elephantness."      The tents and booths that dot the grounds are obstacles to be negotiated carefully. If I keep myself small-- as only a fat man can-- I will disappear into this sea, nobody will notice that I have a purpose. Carefully I move forward, the two o'clock sun burning, sweltering summertime smell of sweat and hay chafing my nose. I feel the cloak of invisibility descend.      "Clyde!"
     Oh no, someone yells my name. Spinning around I am prepared for a tormentor.
      "How've ya been? I haven't seen you since high school."
      "Your name is?" I ask pointedly, hoping she'll go away.
      "Tracy, don't you remember? We went to the prom."

      A flood of decaying memories, Tracy, the girl my mother forced me to date.      We'd gotten drunk on Schnapps and I'd vomited on her shoes.
      "Of course, how are you?" Grimly smiling, I'm struggling to relate on her level, a descent that I once thought would kill me.
      "These are my kids, I'm divorced now, but say hello to Arden and Cheri."
      "Pleased to meet you," Gravely I shake their teensy hands, cotton candy sticky, dirty arcs under nails. They stare at me as if I were a freak show specimen.
      Tracy's eyes are cinnamon brown under three layers of bright green shadow, staring at me with unfocused wonder. Her aura screams neediness, a halo of yellows and oranges. She's desperate and searching, for a mate or a friend, it doesn't matter. I feel all this in the two feet between us and I shudder.
      "My wife and kids are visiting their grandmother," I say to ward off further intimacies. "But it was nice running into you."
      I turn, trying to disengage, but realize she's not going to let go that easily.
      "I'd love to meet your family!" she chirps like the cheerleader she never got to be. "At the twenty year reunion they said you were an illustrator, but nothing about a family."
      "Ah, what do they know?... They never liked me anyway... excuse me, I'm off to see the elephant." As I walk away little Arden and Cheri whine as if prompted, "We wanna see the elephant toooo mom..."
      Good God! they're shuffling after me. I try walking faster, but my weight works against any increase in speed. Although it is one hundred degrees today, a chill breaks out over my itching scalp and I must stop to catch my breath.
      Tracy's bland smile says I'm trapped, no way to escape, I hate dealing with humans, insults bring recriminations, politeness brings more conversation, so I adopt aloof silence. But steeped in the insensitivity, of our culture, she reads silence as an invitation. The four of us toddle off to see the elephant, my nightmare come true.
      The line for the elephant ride stretches back fifty people long. Hyper-active children, wound tight by sugar and impatience, await their turn on the elephants back. Parents smile indulgently, as if by the act of procreation they are immune from responsibility for other living species.
Tracy and her kids bounce into line, as they peer towards the elephant I make my escape.
      Massive granite, she stands with head lowered, casting a shade of cool misery. I look for a way to stand near her without drawing attention to myself.
      I see it! a space beneath the portable steps that lead to her back where the remorseless mount the elephant as unconcernedly as they would board a plane. Spangled, draped with cheap velvet, she looks like a queen awaiting the guillotine. Each rider is part of a blade that chops off pieces of her life, plodding in circles, around and around, perpetuating purgatory's walk.
      For on this black tarmac stands one of the world's most incredible creatures. Her intelligence is extraordinary, her sense of family profound. An African Savannah elephant, I can tell by her ears. A slave to the charm of her species, she will slowly be driven mad. I see the idiotic sprinklers that are designed to cool her, no comparison to lakes and water holes. The shrieking children tease her sensitive ears, all her instincts say RUN, but she does not want to cause harm. Holding a pointed stick her trainer looks smugly on, thinking that this is not the best he can do for her, although better than a circus, he wishes for a zoo.
      Oh dear God, now I feel her, she's sending me messages, depressed and hot, longing for the genetic memories that flood her mind: Africa's plains and rivers, stampeding with her family, the sharp brightness of birds and trumpeting sounds of attack. She was raised in captivity but these visions are real; the myth is that elephants never forget, truth being they are born with their memories, a thousand years of knowledge residing in their complicated brains.
      I prepare to make my move as my healing energies are at their peak, but a hand grabs my shoulder. Always the predator, Tracy has found me.
      "Clyde, the kids are too scared to go alone, won't you go with them?"
      Her dusky eyes pin me to the ground, I shake my head, unable to speak but she pushes me forward into line. Two little girls hang onto my hands, watching me with cheap coquetry. In a dream state I find myself mounting the elephant, sitting on her back, tight little hands cling to my shirt, I feel wave upon wave of nausea and grief, I'm crying, I can't bear this, I must get off....
      The pavement hits me with the force of a steel cage, sunlight flickers, then fades as the elephant rears, knocking the riders like birds from her back. I see a huge eye moving towards me....but abruptly she sits... trunk eases forward, gently stroking my face, my torso... I hear her whisper, "It's too late."
      The ambulances arrives as she is shot with a tranquilizer. Two medics load my bulk onto a stretcher, my eyesight holds the light of the sun until my vision explodes into bright white.
      They told me later she'd been sent back to Africa but I knew she'd been murdered in that parking lot. Tears flowing into his beard, her trainer had fired a bullet into her brain. That was my blinding, I saw that moment in an extended scream, tearing off the tubes they'd stuck in my veins, kicking and howling my grief.

      I have found my future in this sleek hospital room. Lumbering under a scientific evaluation, I choose to stay beneath the weight of thorazine and sleeping pill stillness, weaving around and around in my own elephant walk, circling ancient sins.

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