Elephants

(in the manner of WG Sebold)


Thinking of a film—there may be more than one version—I saw again while in England. The documentary follows an old circus elephant (I think I may have seen her for real in my childhood, say 1949-1952, when my father’s friend Francis Krumenacher, who later changed his name to Frank Lee, came to our house in Ralston, Nebraska, at that time a small town some 7 miles south of Omaha, and gave my father free tickets to take us to the Shrine Circus which came to Ak-Sar-Ben—Nebraska spelled backward—Arena once a year. Oh, it was a real circus alright, with dozens of clowns emerging out of a single small car and arial flyers high overhead passing and catching each other in increasingly dangerous and scary aerobatics—one, a girl not much older than me, wearing a top hat and tiny shorts stood on a foot-square platform forty feet in the air between tricks—and barking seals in dunce caps clapping their fins, a genuine Lion Tamer making a real live lion and a tiger leap through hoops at the snap of his whip, horses wearing high-feathered plumes upon which beautiful girls in skimpy skirts and diaphanous blouses rode standing up, holding the reins with one hand and waving with the other while their steeds high-stepped around the perimeter of the tent, and a Ringmaster in a red tuxedo one could say ‘just like in the movies,’ only of course that’s the reverse of the truth—the movies look just like the man in the shiny crimson suit, a brass band that played an unending succession of  drumrolls and resounding cymbal crashes whenever a trick was performed in whatever ring, and me and my Dad and my sister—I don’t remember my mother being there—our hands sticky from cotton candy wrapped around cardboard cones and caramel popcorn balls that disintegrated when you bit into them, spewing sugary popcorn in your lap and around your feet and even in your socks ,which you discovered when you got home and tracked it onto the rug, and oh! elephants of course, six or eight of them in bangled capes and jeweled headdresses, marching in, holding each other’s tails with their trunks— When I was eight years old I wrote my first book about them, called Pinky’s Parasol—carrying Princesses in crowns and gowns perched astraddle with bare legs and ballerina slippers tucked just behind the huge ears, who performed by sitting upright on round-topped stools and lifting their forelegs one at a time on the cue of the handler and one even stood on her tiny stool, her four giant feet covering every inch of the top, then lifted herself up to full height to the roar of the crowd, so she may have been one of those very elephants.) who worked for 27 years under the Big Top using a stage name that no one remembers except her handler, maybe named Mahmoud or some foreign-sounding something, who had been travelling with her for all these, and maybe more, years, and may have been the dark man in a garish loin cloth holding a tasseled switch walking beside her when the Pachyderm Parade came in, and now the circus—they didn’t say which one—was no more, and what’s to be done with her? but somewhere in some grassy state, maybe Tennessee or Kentucky, someone, a woman, has created an Elephant Preserve and arrangements have been made for her—the elephant, not the woman—to be transported to this place far away, so the film shows Mahmoud bathing her and rubbing her and talking to her, then leading her to a ramp going up into a beat-up semi-trailer truck for her trip across America, only she doesn’t know trucks, only circus trains, and she stops at the bottom of the ramp and sways from left feet to right feet, back and forth to ease herself until the driver loses patience and orders Mahmoud to ‘git her up in there and you’re goin’ with her!’ and locks them both in the dark and drives into the night and when they arrive at the Preserve the camera pans first to an emerald field where peaceful elephants stand in ankle-high grass with their ears gently flapping in the breeze, then to a cement barn with steel-barred subdivisions where the elephant is led into and locked in, where Mahmoud is shown standing with her, giving her water, stroking her, before the driver shouts from the truck for him to ‘git up in here, we gotta get on the road!’ and I break down at this point—what? after 27 years, they can’t let him stay?—and watch the rest of the film through tears and drizzle as the elephant is reunited with (perhaps) her sister and the closing shot is of the two of them holding trunks in the Edenic field, but my heart rides with Mahmoud in the cab of a truck smelling of armpits and onions, all the long way back to Omaha, grieving the loss of his beloved giantess.

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May 10, 2021, 7:22:19 PM