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Authors: Lynne Kelly

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BOOK: Chained
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“Bet you’ve never seen an elephant stable before,” Timir says. I shake my head, then peer inside when he pulls open the door. This is much bigger than our cowshed at home. Four cows standing side by side could fit in here. A gray blanket lies on a thick bed of straw that covers the floor.

Timir points to a nail, high on one wall. “Hang your bag there.”

“You mean—I’ll sleep here?” I ask.

“Of course. The elephant keeper must live with the elephant. When it gets hungry at night, or cold, you’ll need to be nearby to take care of it.”

When I step to the wall to hang up my rice bag, a small field mouse scurries across the straw. Its fur is the color of sand, the color of home. I want to pick up the mouse and tell it that it doesn’t have to leave just because I’ll be living here. Maybe it will stay if I bring it a bite of my dinner each night.

I peek through the gaps between the logs of the stable walls and don’t see any other buildings. “Where does everyone else sleep?” I ask Timir.

“The rest of us return to our homes nearby every night. Don’t worry, you won’t be sleeping alone for long. My workmen are in the woods now, digging a trap for our new elephant. Every evening before dinner you will leave through the gate I parked next to and follow the path to the trap. Once you check it, you will report back to me. At no other time are you to leave the grounds. Once the elephant is caught, there won’t be any reason for you to leave at all.” He points at the woods behind him with his cane. “Through there you’ll find the spring on the property where you’ll bathe the elephant.”

He glances at the mouse, now sniffing the wood of the stable door. With one smooth motion Timir raises his cane and swings it toward the ground. The tip of the cane smacks the mouse with a
crack
. I jump back and hit the stable wall. My stomach sinks as I stare at the broken animal on the ground. I blink to hold back the tears that burn my eyes.

Timir tosses up the cane, grabs its handle, and continues his instructions as if nothing happened. “The elephant trainer, Sharad, will show you the trap.”

I worry that if I ever get in Timir’s way, he will crush me as easily as he did the mouse.

 

7

Since she is most aware of danger, the oldest female leads the herd.

—From
Care of Jungle Elephants
by Tin San Bo

Sharad reminds me of a round toad walking on its hind legs, as wide as he is tall. Even his eyes are a bit like a toad’s, like he’s always surprised. When he talks to me, I try to look at his face, but my eyes drift to his head. I think he is mostly bald, but the hair he does have grows long. He combs it into a swirled pile that rests on his head like a coiled snake ready to strike.

He leads me through the forest to a banyan tree that stands next to a river. “Come here late in the afternoon to see if we’ve caught anything,” he tells me. We’re standing at the edge of the trap beneath the tree. I wonder how long it took the workmen to dig a hole this size. The trap is wide enough for a man to lie down in. Sharad moves aside some of the branches that hide its opening. I peer into the darkness of the pit and take a step back. If I fell in there I wouldn’t be able to climb out on my own.

“Won’t the elephant get hurt in the fall?” I ask.

He points into the trap. “That’s what the leaves are for.” I lean in a little closer. A blanket of leaves covers the bottom of the pit. “Enough there to work as a cushion.”

He rearranges the branches to hide the trap again. “If the herd is around when you arrive, stay out of their way. Watch them from a tree. After a day or two, we will have our elephant.”

*   *   *

When Sharad brought me to the trap, we rode in his truck, which took only a few minutes. That first day I discover it takes much longer on foot. I am used to walking on flat ground, not these hills, so by the time I reach the trap I have to stop to catch my breath and rest my burning leg muscles.

The forest also holds many things that bite. There are more mosquitoes here than at home—I swat my way through buzzing gray clouds and try to ignore my worries that their bites could make me sick. Red bites dot my hands, ankles, face—any skin my clothing doesn’t protect.

One branch of the banyan tree, ripe with figs, hangs low over the pit. The large elephants have to walk around it, but it’s high enough for a young elephant to walk under—then into the trap. Just what Timir wants.

I grab on to a limb to climb the tree, then leap back when something crawls across my fingers. I shake out my hand and rub it on my shirt. Before touching the tree again I check all the branches for whatever animals might be living in them.

The tree looks clear, so I climb up and find a branch to sit on while I wait for the elephants. With my pocketknife I cut a thin branch to whittle. My knife slices away curls of bark that float down to the trap.

When the stick is peeled away to nothing I put my knife back in my pocket and look out at the treetops. Never have I seen this much green. One tree blends into another, and another, so I cannot tell where one tree ends and the next begins. Green surrounds me with its leafy walls, covers the ground below me, and hangs over my head in a canopy of branches. It is beautiful but it is not my home, with its browns of rust-tan mud and sand and thatch.

I hear the elephants before I see them. The snapping of twigs and rustle of leaves catch my attention. Then I see the waves of gray weaving through the trees in front of me.

Some elephants run ahead of the herd, calling out trumpet blasts as they plunge into the water. Others stay close to the riverbank, rolling in the mud or ripping branches from a mango tree. They’re so close I can hear them chewing leaves and fruit.

The smallest ones stand right next to the adults, even underneath them. Maybe those are their parents, but I wonder how they can tell who’s who. They all look the same to me, one body of gray after another.

Two elephant calves spray each other with water, then entwine their trunks and flop into the river together. I long to jump from the tree and play in the water with them.

After the herd spends time drinking and splashing in the river and eating from the trees, the largest elephant rolls to a stand on the riverbank, coated with mud. She calls out a rumbling trumpet and walks along the path toward the banyan tree. The rest of the elephants pour one last trunkful of water into their mouths or take another splash in the river before climbing up the bank to follow her.

I clutch a branch of the tree as the herd approaches. The adult elephants walk around the branch that hangs over the trap. The babies follow them so closely, they miss the trap, too. The older calves are in the most danger. They follow the herd, but don’t cling to their mothers’ sides like the smallest ones do. The pair I watched playing are at the back of the herd now, walking closer to the trap. A large elephant turns and grumbles at them, and the two calves run to catch up. I laugh when they take their places at her side—the side farther from the trap. When she walks around the hanging branch, they do, too.

When the last elephant is out of sight, I jump down from the banyan tree and start my journey back to the circus grounds.

On my way to the cook shed to help prepare dinner, I stop at the doorway of Timir’s office. He looks up from the paperwork in front of him and places his hands flat on his desk as if he’s going to stand up.

“Well?” he says.

I shake my head and try to look disappointed. Timir slaps his desk and sinks back into his chair. He glances up and motions me away. I smile all the way to the cook shed.

*   *   *

The straw on the stable floor makes a bed that’s soft but scratchy. I keep moving my blanket around to try to get comfortable. Finally I pull my collar up to keep the straw from chafing my neck.

Calls of animals in the distance echo in a jumble of hoots, chirps, whirrs, and screeches. Something skitters across the roof of the stable, its nails clicking against the wood. Lying here in the dark, it strikes me how completely alone I am. Alone in a way I never knew before. When Amma took Chanda to the hospital, I was by myself in our hut, but my neighbors were nearby. Things I’d known all my life surrounded me. I had the mud walls and thatched roof that Baba made. I had Raj, and the ball of fabric scraps I threw to him. I had Ganesh.

From my pocket I take my knife and unfold the blade from the handle. I roll to my side so I’m facing the stable wall. On a log closest to me, I scratch a line with my knife. I’ll use this log to count the days until I can return home.

“One,” I whisper.

Amma is probably asleep now, but I can’t help wondering if she is thinking of me, too. And I wonder how Chanda is doing. I wish we could all go back to the way things were, before one bite from a mosquito changed everything.

Stars peek through the spaces between the logs that make up the stable walls. I try to count them to keep my mind off home and the noises outside.

*   *   *

Over the next few days, I work harder than I ever have before. Sharad shows me the woodshed, close to the arena, where I’ll store the wood I chop to keep it dry until we need it. Sharad and the other men are also helping to repair the arena fence with the larger pieces of wood. I carry smaller pieces to the cook shed when the stack next to the stove runs low. The other men keep working when I stop to help Ne Min prepare meals. Timir stays in his office. I don’t know what he does in there all day.

Before each meal, I take the metal tub from the cook shed to the spring on the circus grounds and fill it with water. It takes a long time to carry it back because I have to keep stopping to rest my arms. My legs knock against the tub as I walk, splashing some of the water onto the ground.

In the cook shed I place the tub on the stove and light the fire. Ne Min uses some of the water for cooking, and we use the rest for washing dishes after the meal. Ne Min does not cook like my mother. Often I don’t know what I’m eating, but my plate looks so clean after each meal no one would guess there had been food on it minutes earlier.

Every afternoon when I get to the trap I’m relieved to see that the leafy branches and grass that hide the opening of the trap are untouched. The first morning Ne Min gave me a cup of dry besan to take to the spring with me to help with the mosquito bites. The flour helped calm the itching when I bathed with it. He also gave me a bottle of neem-oil. I do not like its smell—a bit like rotten eggs—but Ne Min said the mosquitoes don’t like it either, and he was right. The mosquitoes don’t bother me now.

Today the elephants are already at the river when I arrive, so I climb a mango tree to watch them. I climb as high as I can, then find a good branch to sit on. Branches overhead sway with a new breeze, and I cover my face to protect it from the stinging sand that does not come. I still forget that no dry sand will blow here. I drop my hands and feel the breeze on my face.

Some of the elephants wade into the river, filling their trunks and spraying water over their backs. The more I watch them, the more I see I was wrong about them all looking the same. Most are dark gray, but some have skin that’s lighter gray, like the sky just before sunrise. Some are gray all over, while others have splotches of pink on their faces and trunks. A few young elephants have the beginning of tusks. One elephant I recognize by her tattered ears, another by her droopy eyes.

The two calves who played in the river my first day are my favorites. One always looks like she is smiling, and the other has skin the color of moonlight through a storm cloud. I have named them Nandita and Indurekha—Joyful and Moonbeam. After wrestling and splashing in the river, they lie down and roll in the mud of the riverbank.

I wonder which elephants are the mothers of Nandita and Indurekha. It is hard to tell, since they are all protective of the calves. When the young ones wander too far and an elephant rumbles at them, I think, “So that one, Bindu, with the spotted trunk, must be a mother.” But then Patala, with the pink face, is the first to rush to the babies when a tiger growls in the distance, so then I’m not sure. The other adults respond the same way when the calves are in danger, so I give up trying to figure out which ones are the mothers.

Nandita stands up, wearing a coat of mud, and stretches her trunk toward the mango branches below me. She squeaks a complaint when she finds that the fruit-filled branches are too high. Indurekha rolls up from the bank. Her trunk brushes the tip of a branch but cannot reach the mangoes either.

With a glance at the herd, I climb to a lower branch of the tree. I grasp the branch next to me and bend it toward the elephant calves. Indurekha’s trunk curls around a mango, then she drops the whole fruit into her mouth. Nandita wraps her trunk around the branch and pulls, as if she is trying to rip the branch from the tree. With my other hand I keep a tight grip on the branch I’m sitting on.

When Indurekha bites into her second mango, Nandita gives up trying to take the whole branch and instead grabs one fruit. She watches me as she quickly pops it into her mouth.

The calves flap their ears and turn to the herd, which is starting to move away from the river. The largest elephant leads the way, and the other adults keep their young close as they walk.

I know I was hired to be the elephant keeper, but the more time I spend with the elephants, the less I want to trap one. I see them play together, like Chanda and I used to play. They eat together, and I think of everyone at home gathering around the courtyard stove.

From my pocket I take Baba’s stone and hold it in my hand. I cling to the mango tree and hold my breath as the herd walks along the path where the trap waits. One by one, the elephants pass by the hidden pit and continue up the trail that leads away from the river. Safe for one more day.

 

8

In the presence of danger, all members of the herd encircle and protect a calf.

—From
Care of Jungle Elephants
by Tin San Bo

Timir’s anger grows each time I tell him that no elephant has fallen into the trap. What will happen if we never catch an elephant? It’s now been a week that they have safely passed by. They must be smarter than Timir thinks they are.

BOOK: Chained
13.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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