They lined the mantel in my mother’s house, linked tail to trunk. Cloudy jade and coral, black glass, striped gray and creamy purple, they lifted their trunks to the sky, feet planted firmly on the mottled white marble.
My mother told me stories about their cousins, the ones across the world, the ones that were easily eight times my size. Storm-cloud African, lighter gray-brown Indian-Asian, the largest land animals now living. The quiet sages of the jungle, the trumpeters of the open savannah, the heralds of the dawn. The wisest of all beasts, with memories that stretch back to the birth of time. I would sit beside the ones on our mantel for what felt like hours, legs curled under me, raising my imaginary trunk to the white ceiling above. I ran my fingers along their smooth backs, held them as gently in my hand as I did my sister’s pet mouse. I heard them speak in the first language of humans: the deep grumbles and moans, growls that escalate to roars, and—of course—the trumpets. I was sure I could sense the sub-sonic rumbling coming from Asia and Africa, from those inhabiting the wide bush and deep forests. The ones on the mantel could feel it with the sensitive skin of their trunks and feet, and the whole herd, me included, would lift one foreleg and face the sound, listening with all our might.
We learned about them in school when I was seven. They are one of five species, including humans, who can recognize themselves in a mirror. They make music, and art, and play, and use tools. They’re compassionate and self-aware.
And they’re matriarchal, while the males wander off alone, solitary.
I got the call yesterday, early in the morning, as I studied for my law finals. The voice, weary and hesitant, traveled across the miles.
“This is Sam. Who’s calling?”
“Mr. Kensington, I’m Doctor Lovell, from Riderwood Village Retirement Community’s Cardiac Unit. I’m sorry to say that I have some bad news.”
It’s odd, how those ten words make a body straighten, make hands clutch the phone tighter, make adrenaline shoot through the bloodstream.
Once upon a time, there was an elephant. He was an African elephant. Her hand stroked my hair, sending me into sleep. His name was Sam.
Sam loved the savannah, the wide, open plains. He could stare into the distance, across the great blue sky and the rippling grass. He could see all the way to Pennsylvania.
What was in Pennsylvania? I asked it every time she told the story, because I loved the answer.
In Pennsylvania, there lived a little boy. His name was Sam, too, just like the elephant. And one night, Sam woke up. He could feel something in the ground, and he went outside in his pajamas, barefoot. And on his way outside, he stopped in the living room. There were elephants on the mantel, and that night, they awoke. They shook their heads with sleep, and raised their trunks, and they trumpeted with all their might, with all their glory. They trumpeted so loud that Sam the elephant, far across the world, heard them. And he trumpeted back. And then he started to run, and he ran so fast and so far, that he ran all the way to Pennsylvania, all the way to the boy’s house. And the boy saw the elephant, and the elephant raised his head, and the boy climbed on the elephant’s back. And together, they trumpeted to the sky, and Sam the elephant started to run, with Sam the boy on his back.
And they ran all the way to Africa.
I knocked at the door of my mother’s house, the house of my childhood. Technically, it was Joanna’s house now—Mom thought the house would better serve her daughter’s small family than her single son, living in his law school dorm, and passed it on to Jo when she moved to Riderwood. But it was still my mother’s house. It always had been, even when my parents were still married.
Jo opened the door, pretty face haggard. “Hi, Sam,” she said, eyes overbright.
I hugged her very tightly. “Hi, Joey.” She’d always hated that nickname. Only Mom and I could get away with it.
She sniffled a bit, invited me inside. I exchanged hugs with her kids, a handshake with her husband. “The reception’s going to be here,” she said. “After the funeral.” She gave a lopsided smile. “I thought it was fitting.”
I nodded. “Is everyone coming?”
We stood awkwardly. “Oh, God, Sam,” Jo said suddenly, almost desperately, and then she burst into tears.
“We will all grieve for Eleanor Kensington. We all knew her passion for life, her quick intelligence, her generosity and kindness, her creativity, and most of all, her love.”
It was a beautiful speech, and my uncle was doing a wonderful job. I could hear more than one person quietly crying behind me. It wasn’t him. I just couldn’t listen. The room felt too close, too hot. It smelled of sweat, and tears, and black clothing you hate to take out, because you only wear it for funerals. I gripped the sharp wooden edge of my seat, staring at the coffin to the left of the speaker’s podium. It was expertly crafted of smooth, dark wood, shining in the too-bright lights overhead. I could see my face reflected in the side.
I didn’t believe that she was in there.
Uncle Greg finished the speech, and I all but leapt up from my seat as everyone started to rise. “I’ll meet you outside,” I told Jo, and rushed out of the room, breathing in the cold air outside. For a moment I thought I smelled the lily perfume she liked to wear. And then I was suddenly a month younger, standing in her room at Riderwood Village.
“What do you want me to say?” I was turned away from her, arms crossed.
“Just tell me why. Why did you turn down the job?”
I turned back and looked at her, fiddling with the tie that I had to wear as an intern at the law firm. “Why? I don’t have a future as a writer, Mom. I’ll just go broke.”
“You care more about making money than doing what you love? You were offered a job as a travel writer, for God’s sake. I know you refused, but it’s Ahmed offering it, and you’ve been friends for years. I’m sure he’d still take you. And you wouldn’t even have to miss finals—you said the job was for during the summer.” She looked so sad, her face lined with long years of care and laughter. But there was no laughter in her face now—it was just sorrow. No, more than sorrow, mourning. She looked as if she was mourning me, or for me. Why? I’d taken the internship at a prestigious firm; they’d offer me a job after I graduated, set up my life on a strong foundation. My roommate had gotten the same internship, and his parents had been ecstatic. But she looked like she was mourning me, like I’d died or something. “Sam, it was to go to Kenya, to Africa. You’ve always loved Africa.”
“When I was little. Not anymore.” It came out harsher than I’d meant it. I took a breath. “Writing just won’t work out.”
“Why not?” she challenged. She always did that, challenged us to do more, go higher. She’d challenged me to join the school newspaper, to go to law school, to do most of the things in my life I considered accomplishments.
“It just won’t,” I said shortly. “I don’t have that much talent. It’s hard to make it as a writer, and I’d rather—I don’t want to have to struggle for money.”
“You used to hate it when people said ‘better safe than sorry’. You used to argue that if it was worth it, you wouldn’t be sorry.” She walked towards me, back straight. I never could figure out how she managed to make me feel so much smaller, even though she was barely 5 foot 4. Even now, taking medicine each day for her heart, she still seemed so alive and powerful. “Do you know what your fifth grade English teacher told me after you finished your fairy tale assignment? It was supposed to be two pages, and yours was sixteen.” She poked her finger at me.
“I know, Mom, that was fifth grade, and you’ve told this story eighteen-hundred times—”
She wouldn’t be halted. She never would be, once she had an idea. “At parent teacher conferences, Ms. Linnet handed it to me, and she said, ‘Eleanor, get him to write. He’s got talent. He’ll go places’.”
I just looked at her, and finally sighed. “Mom, I really have to go, or I’m going to miss my train.” I slung my laptop bag over my shoulder.
She seemed to sag, the sadness back on her face. I didn’t understand that sadness. I thought she’d have liked my decision—she’d always been practical.
I swallowed my disappointment and hugged her. She kissed my cheek—did I kiss her back? I didn’t remember. She released me, and I walked to the door.
I turned back. She looked very small, standing there alone in the center of the room.
“The story you wrote, for Ms. Linnet—it was about Africa. And elephants.”
I thought for a moment. “I think you’re right.” I smiled awkwardly, and left.
I stood in the funeral home, knowing with awful certainty that I hadn’t seen her in person after that day. We’d only talked a few times on the phone.
My mother’s cousin, Janie, walked out of the room, but stopped when she saw me. Her face softened, and she moved to stand next to me. Not too close, though, as if grief was a contagious disease.
“Sam. I’m so sorry for your loss. She was a wonderful woman.”
There was something in my throat, something thick and pointed. It hurt to swallow. “Yes,” I said. “She was.”
Janie put a hand on my shoulder, briefly, then walked away.
I blinked and looked up at my sister. Jo’s dark brown hair, so like Mom’s—and my own—was escaping from its tight bun, and she looked so tired. I looked around and realized everyone had left, and it was just me and the last of my immediate family, in Mom’s small living room.
“Sorry—I don’t know if you want to do this now, but I have a lot of Mom’s stuff that they sent over from Riderwood. If we want to go through it…” She trailed off, but I heard the unspoken words. You’re leaving tomorrow to get back in time for finals…
I pushed myself up from Mom’s armchair. “Let’s do it, Jo. C’mon.” I gave her a half smile, and she led the way to her room. We brought the first three cardboard boxes down into her living room and set them on the coffee table, cut the packing tape with a pair of scissors.
We lifted each item out carefully, almost reverently. The orange and brown blanket her mother had crocheted; a set of delicate china plates; the feathered mask she’d gotten from her honeymoon in Italy; a ragdoll I’d never seen before. One of the pairs of candlesticks her father had brought over from Poland in the 1920’s—she’d given the other pair to Jo. A stack of papers, a dusty photo album—here was a picture of her from her wedding, radiant and brilliant-eyed; there was Jo, nine, and me at four, gap-toothed, lying on our parents’ double bed and smiling up at the camera. Here was Jo with her face smeared with chocolate ice cream, laughing; there was a small, brown-eyed, dark-haired boy, kicking a soccer ball as hard as he could.
Then I saw them. I reached in and lifted out a pair of blue pajama bottoms. They were oddly heavy, and I set them on the couch. I nudged the top piece away, and couldn’t breath.
They marched across the material, no less proud than when I sat beside them as an eight-year-old. The purple-gray one still looked so peaceful, and the jade one was still trumpeting. I ran one finger along them, feeling the wrinkles of their hide, hidden under the smooth exterior.
Something black in the box caught my eye. I pulled out the notebook, knowing before I opened it what I’d find. I let if all open to a random page and started reading.
Sorrel looked out at the ocean, speechless. They’d told her, but she’d never imagined it would look like that. It seemed to stretch on forever. She felt dwarfed next to it, completely inconsequential.
I remembered that one. Sorrel was a human girl, raised by dragons. I’d gotten most of that story down, before I’d moved on to a new one. I turned the page.
The Way Things Are
By Sam Kensington, age 7
This is the way things are:
The sun can go dark
The moon can be bright
Birds can walk on land
Humans can fly the skies
Plants have begun to eat animals
And animals know themselves better than humans do
Clouds can sing
Tears can laugh
And traveling across the worlds and the words,
Geniuses often go crazy.
I stared at the page, and I breathed a laugh. Jo looked at me, startled, and I met her eyes. “She saved everything,” I said. “Everything we gave her.” I started to hand the book to her, and a folded packet of white paper fell out. I smoothed out the creases and stared at the printed words.
There once lived a boy, and halfway across the world, there lived an elephant.
My hands started to tremble. I turned the page, scanned the story. Oh, God.
The boy looked up into the eye of the elephant. It was a deep gold, fire or magma rippling from a black pupil, surrounded by eyelashes that sprouted like a forest of saplings from the elephant’s wrinkled, gray-brown, timeworn skin. The boy looked into the eye of the elephant, and knew that the elephant had seen more than the boy could ever dream of. This elephant had seen from the beginning of time.
My childhood was in these pages. And she’d saved it. She’d saved it all, in this ratty cardboard box.
Better safe than sorry, right, Sam? But there once lived a boy, and there once lived an elephant. Elephants, marching across my mother’s mantel, trumpeting, the heralds of the dawn. Animals know themselves better than humans do.
Elephants grieve. But elephants also create art.
Are you watching, Mom? Can you see me, from wherever you are? I don’t believe you’re completely gone.
“One sec,” I said to Jo. I stood up and walked outside the house, pulled out my cell phone, and selected a number from the contacts.
The phone rang once, twice. “Hello?”
“Hi, Ahmed? It’s Sam.”
“Hey, Sam. Man, I’m sorry. I heard about your mom.”
“Thank you.” I took a long breath. “Ahmed—this is kind of a long shot. But by any chance, is that job still open? The one you offered me? The one in Africa?”
Age 16, Grade 11