Fiction by Catherine Evleshin

“Elephant Sense”

By Catherine Evleshin 

I lead my sisters and their children through empty city streets. Bare are the stands where we might have snatched fruit. The rain has stopped and I raise my trunk to inhale fresh air instead of fumes from machines. Blue sky above, white peaks in the distance, as I remember from years ago before my daughter was born.

A policeman jumps out of our path. A dog yaps at us, then thinks better of it and slinks away. Reeking with anxiety and hunger, humans watch us from doorways and windows. An elder shakes a broom at a troupe of long-tailed macaques on a neighbor’s roof as they attempt to invade her balcony. We know when we pass a home with the sickness, an odor I had not encountered before this year.

A siren in the distance grows louder, and I hurry my family around a corner. As the vehicle passes, I catch the stench of the new sickness. Futile to transport that gasping human to the hospital. At the end of this street, we turn again to bypass the field lined with human corpses waiting to be burned.

We reach the outskirts of the city, leave the muddied road, and head toward the forest for food. To avoid the guard with his elephant rifle, we must not enter the slopes of green bushes where tired humans pick leaves to fill large baskets and bags. We have smelled these leaves in hot water that humans drink from small cups.

On this day when we arrive, no one is in sight. We cut through the fields to descend into the forest. We eat our fill and head toward the stream, sniffing for the human who several seasons ago kidnapped my daughter and forces her to pull and lift logs of teak wood onto his flatbed wagon. When we come this way, we visit her from a distance, exchanging sounds too low-pitched for the human to hear. My heart breaks to feel her suffering.

But today her trumpeting is loud and desperate. We catch the smell of the new sickness. I go ahead of the others and ease through the brambles to find her captor lying motionless on the ground, covered with flies, my daughter still trapped in her harness, her flanks raw from straining to loosen the bonds.

I drag the corpse off to the side and stomp his gun into the mud. We surround her, caress her with our trunks, and press our faces together. Assigning my aged sister to stand guard, we begin to set my daughter free, working together one thick rope at a time until it snaps, while she whimpers in pain.

When the last fetter drops into the mud, even before we can remove the harness from her chest, she runs for succulent plants to quench her thirst and hunger. We will work on the harness later. Each mother introduces her to a cousin, not yet born when she was stolen from our family. She sniffs and passes her trunk across their little bodies.

We hurry away from the site of my daughter’s torture but not before trashing the remains of the human’s illicit operation. Enough of killing trees that sprang to life before I was born. Still thirsty, she insists on stopping at a stream. We spray her with cool water.

Another cloudburst and downpour. We continue through the forest until we no longer smell sickness and death. The sky clears and we fill our bellies with leaves and bark. My daughter and I press our faces together while she weeps with relief. I raise my trunk to the blue sky and trumpet three times. All is well…for now.

(Six months later) 

I wrench my half-full bag of tea leaves from my shoulder and sink down between the rows of bushes. When I can no longer suppress my cough, the other women glare at me and pull scarves over their noses. I look off toward the forest where I know the elephants are foraging, but they never show themselves during the daylight hours as the guard paces with his rifle to keep them in their place. The matriarch must be happy because these days I hear her trumpeting from time to time.

While the city was in lockdown, the elephants made themselves at home in the tea fields, which, after all, had been their range in earlier years. They tromped down bushes and left piles of dung that we workers must step around. My disease took away all sense of smell – an advantage in this instance. The nurse at the clinic said my loss may be permanent.

My mother died last month when the pandemic again swept through the region like rampaging elephants, leaving me alone in our hut, unable to cook indoors because I cannot detect gas that might be leaking from the propane tank. If only the matriarch elephant could lend me some of her sense of smell. Before I fell ill, the handsomest man in my village promised to marry me, but that ended. He worried the virus might affect my ability to bear children or they could be born with defects.

I am damaged, able to earn just half of what I could before, because of the fatigue. We workers, designated by the government as “Scheduled Tribes” – we call ourselves Adivasi – lived all over India long before the invaders arrived. In recent years, after brutal conflicts I am too young to remember, we were gaining ground in our quest for higher wages and improved working conditions. We thought our children might go to school and learn to read and write.

Now, who knows?

I must have fallen into one of my long afternoon naps, this time until sunset. I awaken at the sound of breathing close to my face. A tuskless female elephant is standing over me. While I am familiar with these wild creatures wandering the roads, it is a shock to see one this close, silhouetted against the evening sky. I pray I won’t cough and startle her, while she explores my body with her trunk, probably smelling my illness. Her deep eyes appear kind, a look I have not seen since my mother died. She softly nudges me nearer a tea bush. I’m not afraid, until she starts to lower her body on all fours, right beside me. But her eyes remain serene and she seems in perfect control of her movements.

I sit up, throw my bag over my shoulder, and ease to a standing position. The field is empty and the guard is gone. It is a long walk back to my village, and not safe for a woman alone. The workers did not wake me when they left for the day. Fearing my disease, they always make me walk behind them, but better than nothing. They scare away snakes.

The elephant makes a soft sound and I stroke her shoulder. I get this crazy idea to climb onto her so she can carry me back to the village. She must have read my mind, because again I hear a soft rumble and she tilts her head toward me. When I was a wild girl, I once climbed onto an elephant that belonged to a village man, and took a ride along the road.

I hold back a moment, then wrapping my sarong between my legs, I fling my body around her neck and settle my weight evenly. I grab the smooth skin behind her ears, as I have watched the men do when working their animals. My heart pounds as she heaves to a standing position. The tea bushes grow smaller below me. How tall we are!

I have no idea how to indicate the route to my village. Perhaps she has watched us from her forest, as we walk home from work each day. Sure enough, when we emerge from the field, she turns toward the village, and we start out along the dirt road. I feel like a queen, riding high and safe. If my mother could see me now!

It is nearly dark when we arrive at the village. Charcoal cooking fires glow in back yards. Several huts are dark with no sign of habitation. When the disease took lives, family members fled into the forest to escape the pestilence. The women run out to see us, keeping a safe distance. No one steps forward to help me down, not even the men who come out to have a look.

But my beautiful elephant once again kneels to let me slide off her shoulder. I press my face against hers, as I have observed the elephants do as a sign of affection, and I watch her lumber off into the forest.

At the door of my hut sits a plate of rice under a cloth and a cup of cold tea, left by a generous neighbor. Squatting in the dirt to eat, I neither taste nor smell the flavors. I hear three familiar sounds, and now I am certain my elephant was the matriarch. I recognize her trumpeting.

I believe the Buddha visited me today. I have a friend.

- Ethnologist Catherine Evleshin watched on the news a herd of feral elephants marching through a city in northeastern India during a Covid-19 lockdown, with blue skies and the Himalayas seen in the distance for the first time in decades. Her writing can be found in Among Animals2 (Ashland Creek Press), Canary Journal of Environmental Crisis, Gemini Magazine, forthcoming in Tiny Seed and The Festival Review, and elsewhere.

Copyright©2020 by Catherine Evleshin. All Rights Reserved.