There aren’t words enough to thank writer/book reviewer John Valeri for his interest in, and continued support of, my career. In Episode 2 of his podcast, Central Booking, we delve into the story behind my book ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd. Click here to see the episode on Youtube.
When I began this website many, many moons ago, blogging had just become the latest hot thing. Someone said I should do it. My natural response was “Why?”
“Because,” they somewhat impatiently replied, like it was so obvious I must be a total dunce to not understand, “everyone’s doing it.”
Really? I thought. Everyone? What could everyone possibly have to say? And if everyone was writing blogs, who was reading them? (It certainly wasn’t me.)
“What would I write about?”
<A somewhat insulting eyeroll> “About writing!”
Now there was a terrifying thought. I knew just how much I didn’t know about the business of writing, so no way was I going to put myself out into the world like some font of wisdom. (There’s too many of those sorts of jackasses already.) As for being a writer, well, even after nearly thirty years as a professional, I’m still so wrapped up in the PFM (pure fucking magic) of writing that I’m reluctant to talk about it except with a select few. Magic should be handled lightly, and with respect, and one must be careful in choosing the members of one’s Fellowship.
But I gave it a shot. I wrote a few pieces about my particular writing process, and things I’d observed or experienced for myself and with other writers, and I bored my socks off. I felt like such an imposter. I was still learning (God willing, I’ll always be learning the craft, right up until they pry the keyboard from my cold, dead fingers), and I guess hearing from someone who is learning can be beneficial, but it didn’t feel that way to me. Instead if felt like ridiculous posturing. So I stopped.
Then I was told to pick a subject–any subject–and make my blog about that, so readers would know what to expect from post to post, and know they can come to me for that one thing. Now “that one thing” can be pretty diverse within itself, but I have one of those jackrabbit brains that leap all over the place. That’s not to imply lack of discipline (you don’t write books or stories or articles with lack of discipline), but I wanted to engage with myself as much as I wanted to engage with my (hoped for) readers. And I wanted to give the readers some credit. They’re not mindless bovine feeding on silage (okay, well, yeah, maybe some of them are…), but I hoped to connect with those whose interests are as wide-ranging as my own, those who might reach out with opinions and engage in dialogue.
So I couldn’t stick with one topic. Oh, I go on stints of one topic. Animals are a big part of my life and they show up frequently (especially elephants over the past six years), as do human relationships and my own difficulties with managing same….or good books I’ve read….or something I witnessed….or…..
Maybe I am undisciplined, at least in this respect, but it seems to me that if I’m going to take time from my “real” writing (whatever form that may presently take), I need to enjoy it and find some intrinsic worth in the words I put here. So if you choose to visit now and then, be forewarned that I’ll continue to write what calls to me.
I read an interview with Neil Gaiman some time ago, and in it he mentioned (not by name) a science fiction writer he knew who’d written a fantastic western, but couldn’t get it published because he was “a science fiction writer” in the eyes of those with power, and couldn’t possibly be anything else. Ursula LeGuin wrote about being asked what sorts of books she wrote and she replied that left to her own devices, she’d called them novels. Not fantasy, not science fiction, just novels. How freeing!
I deplore labels. Don’t call me a writer of <blank>, just call me a writer. If you’re compelled to write one sort of thing (poetry, science fiction, fantasy, romance, western, you name it), good for you! I celebrate you! But if, like me, you’re bound to a capricious Muse who grins with wicked delight every time she drops an idea into my brain and whispers, “What about this?” then you ought to have the freedom to play in whatever sandbox you choose. And if the powers that be won’t let you, build your own sandbox.
And make it BIG.
A year ago today, my husband and I were in the air headed to Portland, Oregon to meet up with one of my dearest friends for the launch of my book ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd, a memoir of the life of Roger Henneous.
A lot has happened (to all of us) in the year that’s passed. Looking back, I’m overwhelmed by how lucky we were (myself and Ooligan Press*). Powell’s Books, the largest independent bookstore in the world, agreed to host the launch event, and (bless them) didn’t cancel at the last minute because of the emergence of COVID. Likewise, Sunriver Books & Music and Roundabout Books (both located in Bend, Oregon) welcomed us with open arms and enthusiastic crowds. We enjoyed good times, good friends, new friends, and made it safely home before the bottom fell out a week later and we were all quarantined.
All of the east coast venues I’d arranged promptly cancelled. The Newburyport Literary Festival was able to host a Zoom event with the authors slated to speak, so that was wonderful. Sadly, though, arranging for the other events to occur at a much later date has not proved as fruitful. However, I persevere and hope the time will come when I can meet readers in person or online. (And for those of you involved in book clubs, if your club chooses to read ELEPHANT SPEAK, I would love to Zoom or Skype or FaceTime with you and be part of the discussion.)
Like many of you, we’ve had our losses this year and we’re all coping as best we can. My hope is to gradually put the sadness behind me and move forward. I hope you’re able to do the same.
One of the world’s greatest elephant men died today.
Roger Henneous knew nothing about what he came to call “the great gray clowns” when he took the zookeeper job at the Portland (Oregon) Zoological Gardens back in 1968. All he knew was that he wanted to work with animals more than anything in the world. His 20 years of experience with farm stock laid a good foundation upon which he knew he could build the necessary zoological training. As he told the curator who interviewed him, “Near as I can tell, all animals need pretty much the same things: clean water, good food, adequate shelter, and protection from people who might do them harm.”
For the next 30 years, he provided all that and so much more to the animals in his care. As he put it, “Caring for livestock is a seven-days-a-week, twenty-four-hours-a-day, fifty-two-weeks-a-year proposition. Animals don’t know that it’s Christmas or Thanksgiving or your birthday or whatever and wouldn’t give a damn if they did. They’re standing in their own crap, they’re hungry, they need a drink, and some need medical attention. If you’re worth half a shit, you’ll do those things. If you’re not prepared to, then you need to get a desk job shuffling papers.”
During that first year as a fledgling keeper, Roger did all that and more. He scrubbed the odious duck pond and cleaned his share of garbage cans (keepers also did a lot of maintenance in those days), but he also learned to teleport (figuratively speaking) when a full grown African lion pounced at him; earned welts the size of half-dollars from the punishing beaks of geese; pedicured sheep, goats, and even a giraffe; served as bait to an enraged bull elk; nearly lost his job for (unknowingly) threatening to kick the ass of the director of the zoo; met his first new-born elephant; learned that some keepers are abusive; and came to understand that sometimes even those in charge don’t get their way.
But the best part was the elephants. It didn’t take long for him to fall in love, and he was struck uncharacteristically dumb when, just after that first year, he was nominated to be their senior keeper upon the retirement of his mentor, Al Tucker. From that moment on, Roger had two families: a human one, and one made up of elephants.
“Elephants have no manners whatsoever,” he said. “And that trunk will go where it pleases. But, boy, when they’re checking out your gender, it’s a bit disconcerting.”
Over the years, Roger earned the reputation of a dedicated keeper who would fight for his animals, as well as one with a somewhat unique view of animal care built upon the “Laws of Tucker”:
He advocated seeing problems from the elephant’s perspective, and based every moment of every day on trust.
There were wonderful days in the elephant barn (newborns, successful training, and any time he could be in the enclosure with “his girls”), and not so great (human-human conflict, human-elephant conflict, arguments with administration, and elephant deaths), as well as the day-to-day grind of hauling feed, shoveling manure, trimming feet, and dispensing care. Roger took it all in stride, blessed (most) of the keepers he worked with, and reveled in the good days.
I met Roger in 1997, the year before he retired. I was a fledgling volunteer assigned to the elephant barn as part of a program to maintain watch on Belle, one of two matriarchs. Roger was the keeper stuck with having to keep an eye on the elephant, but also on me. Belle had undergone crucial foot surgery in an attempt to save her life, and Roger was understandably more interested in her than he was in me. Still, something clicked between the grizzled veteran and the nervous novice. We lost touch after I moved from Portland, but that time with Roger and Belle haunted me until, nearly 20 years later, I tracked him down, and we resumed—and recreated—the close connection that began that night in the barn.
Now he’s gone.
Roger, I’m not sure what I’ll do with my Thursday afternoons now that you’re not at the other end of the phone. Thank you for being a best friend and, in many ways, a father to me. Thank you for the occasional arguments (my God, you were stubborn….but so was I). Thank you for facing your reluctance to relive the zoo years, and for telling your story to me and to the world. Thank you for having faith in me to do it right. Thank you for facing your fears and revisiting the zoo after nearly two decades to reacquaint yourself with Sung-Surin and Rose-Tu, and meet the other elephants.
Roger used to tell me that if there is an afterlife, he figured he’d be met by a bunch of angry elephants for the way he’d let them down (somehow believing he had the power to keep them alive forever). He’s wrong. I know exactly what happened:
“Roger opened his eyes the other side of death and saw gray – a massive elephant head looking down at him, turning side to side to view him from one eye, then the other. A gentle trunk snuffled his chest, armpits, face, and hair. Not quite believing, he reached to touch behind Belle’s ear, that special place, soft as silk, where he used to pat her. Her rumble of welcome filled his soul. “
Bye, Roger. I’ll miss you forever.
I had a lot of ideas about what my next post would be, but then life intervened, as it does, and so here we are.
My nephew, Luke Perkins, died on the evening of November 30. He was 13 days short of his 31st birthday, and died from complications related to Cystic Fibrosis.
I could easily use this space to bitch about the disease that stole Luke from us, but I don’t want to dwell on that. What I want is to celebrate his life.
Lucas never let CF beat him. Even in death, his spirit has not succumbed, I can promise you that. In the wake of such a diagnosis, many families would have rolled over in pain. Not Luke’s. His parents and older brother Tony (who also has CF) faced into that particular shit-storm determined to make the best of it. Not once was Luke (or Tony for that matter) ever cautioned not to try something, not to do something, to take it easy. It wouldn’t have done any good because that wasn’t Luke’s way.
He was a warrior-born and embraced life by grasping it hard in both hands. When most little kids are just venturing nervously onto bicycle training wheels, Luke grabbed his brother’s two-wheeler, hauled himself aboard (he couldn’t reach the seat) and rode off down the driveway. That’s the perfect example of how Luke approached life, eating it up in big bites.
He was stubborn….opinionated….determined. He was also loving….devoted….loyal. We saw each other rarely, but each time he’d give me that little smile and a quiet “Hi, Aunt Missy” and a hug. I cherish those memories, and so many others.
The best Luke stories will undoubtedly come from Tony, as well as his other friends – the folks with whom he hunted and fished, rode motorcycles, and fought fires (yes, he was a member of a volunteer squad before CF put and end to that). He loved animals and the outdoors and video games. He loved his family, the mish-mash of great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. He loved his brother as his best friend, so close that in some ways they remind me of twins.
He was a stellar act. The world was fortunate to have him, and it’s our great loss that he’s gone. I will love and miss him every day.
Furniture crouches, hidden, beneath white sheets, covered in a layer of dust fine as sifted flour. Overhead lights hang flocked with cobwebs ragged as Miss Havisham’s rotted wedding lace. The air is chill and gray, mote-ridden in the faint gleam of light that seeps around the edges of drawn curtains. No one has lived here in eight months, but it feels longer somehow. Any noise is swallowed up immediately, as if sound is not allowed.
I cross the room and, two-handed, thrust back the curtains, letting in a spill of watery sunlight to mark the tracks of my boots across the floor. Time for a shake-out, a deep clean before winter closes in and–cavelike, bearlike–seals this place shut against the cold.
Hello, there. When last we met, I’d just returned from Oregon after a momentously successful launch of my book Elephant Speak: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd. We left Portland for home on Sunday, March 8, ignorantly unaware that the state was about to shut down in response to the steady advance of COVID-19. By the end of that week, we were in our own lock-down in Connecticut. (I thank whatever miracle worked in our favor that we returned unscathed and uninfected after a week of glad-handing and hugs.)
It’s eight months later and so many life-changing experiences have occurred, not just worldwide, but personally as well. My husband’s job underwent transformation, and we decided to move to Ohio. Our house went on the market on a Friday, a price-war commenced the very next day, and the house was sold by Monday, which of course meant a mad dash to begin packing and start the hunt for a new place to live. We lifted, hoisted, broke-down…and sprang arms, backs, and shoulders in the effort. (A shout-out to the fine folks at Buy Nothing Hebron who generously gave us their empty boxes to save us the expense of buying new.) Ed traveled alone to Ohio to meet with a realtor and look at houses we’d chosen on realtor.com; a depressing experience for both of us, having forgotten how rare it is for a house’s listing and the actual structure to coincide.
In the midst of all this, our most-beloved dog Holly–eleven years of age and medically fragile–decided it was best to die rather than endure the stress of a move. She departed in the space of a few sudden hours, leaving us devastated, empty, and stepping around the dog-shaped space on the kitchen floor as if she yet lay there.
We split the move into two days for sanity’s sake, and the cat, Ruby, sang me the song of her people for five hours until, exhausted and confused, she passed into sleep with her head on my fingers, stuck through the bars of her carrier. For two weeks, we lived in a spare bedroom belonging to our eldest and her husband, walking on proverbial tenterhooks so as not to make them wish we’d chosen an hotel or short-lease apartment, as we waited for the purchase of our new home to go through. Not long after we moved in, we learned that my mother-in-law, living in a care facility and largely uncommunicative, had died of COVID.
Back at the end of June.
This was September.
And no one had thought fit to tell my husband.
Now here we are with Thanksgiving behind us, Christmas before us, and little sense of our place in the world anymore, our main focus being to keep to ourselves and stay healthy.
And how have YOU been?
A Word On What Comes Next
The story you’re about to read, “The Last Zoo Keeper,” was written in 2017 and published that same year in Wild Musette Journal #1702, long before any of us regular Joes had heard about COVID-19, much less experienced its depredations. In a twist of irony, it’s a tale of pandemic and what comes afterward, how we are smelted and redefined. I wrote it in honor of my dear friend Roger Henneous. I hope you enjoy it. (And, yes, I engaged in a tiny bit of editing.)
THE LAST ZOO KEEPER
After the pandemic had killed everyone but him, Emerson left the city and wandered without purpose, a shambling thing half-dead with grief. He longed to lie down and die as well, but a hot kernel of regret kept him walking; guilt for having failed Imogen.
He slept wherever exhaustion claimed him, sometimes falling to the ground between one step and the next, and ate little when he remembered to eat at all. Haggard and filthy, he broke into houses and took away whatever he fancied. He lay on dead people’s couches—but never in their beds—and found damnation rather than salvation in his unlikely survival. For all he knew, he was the sole human alive on the planet. Certainly nothing in the wider world suggested otherwise.
One night, he discovered a baby grand piano in the living room of a suburban home. He stared at it for a long time, then slowly approached; hesitant, as if it might bite. He ran his hand along the lid, disturbing months of dust, then sat on the bench, wiped his palms against his pants, and laid his fingertips on the ivory keys. The opening chords of Moonlight Serenade conjured Imogen—the swirl of her favorite purple dress as she swayed to the music, the shift of long dark hair against her back, her smile. He played to the end, and then cried until he vomited.
When at last the thought of another day spent walking became more than he could bear, Emerson settled on a small abandoned zoo as his refuge. The reasons for this were visceral as well as conscious—the place had an air of safety, like a fortress, and Imogen had loved the children’s zoo near their apartment.
He spent several days exploring, salvaging anything of use—tools, medicine, pre-packaged food and plastic bins to store it, a rifle and ammunition, books to pass the time. His footsteps echoed in the empty caverns of the bear grotto, the elephant barn, and the cement building where big cats once prowled in shoulder-rolling silence. Overgrown grass whispered against his boots as he wandered the empty paddocks. In the ape house, swings and climbing ropes hung motionless.
There were bones everywhere.
It was easy to imagine how events had played out. The pandemic had struck with such unexpected speed and violence that no one remained to care for the animals. Open cages attested that many of the smaller creatures had been set free, but not the larger beasts or predators. Tooth and claws marks scarred the walls and doors of their enclosures, evidence of their desperate struggle to escape. Emerson tried not to dwell on the gut-twisting hunger and burning thirst they must have suffered; the confusion and terror when, day after day, no one came to tend them.
Spring turned to summer. Emerson kept himself occupied by tidying up the place, moving from office to laboratory, clinic to nursery, anything to keep from thinking too deeply. With a vague sense of winter lurking somewhere in the months ahead, he foraged for wood, chopping and stacking with diligence. Never a muscular man, he grew lean and hard on the strenuous labor and meager diet, portioning his food like a miser dispensing alms. The work toughened him, but its real blessing lay in sleep without dreams, free of the violence of Imogen’s final seizure.
He carried the rifle everywhere, not as protection—what was there to defend against?—but as insurance. If he meant to survive, he’d need to learn to hunt before the easy food ran out, but the prospect of killing filled him with an oily cold he couldn’t shake. If he were honest, he might have acknowledged the weapon also granted him a sense of control. It represented possibilities, should life without Imogen prove too arduous to contemplate.
One sultry night, he woke to sound. Fearful, he lay without moving, listening. This was no fox or raccoon; he’d learned to identify their noises in the night. This was different, something exotic. Rising, he shoved his feet into boots, took up the gun, and hurried outside.
The zoo was full of animals.
Emerson rubbed his eyes, positive he must be dreaming. He pinched his wrist hard enough to raise a welt, but the creatures remained. Translucent as fog and glowing with moonlight, the phantom beasts tread familiar paths, weaving among their bones, colorless eyes bright with a sense of soul. They saw him, and responded to his presence with strident demands for food and water.
“Go away,” he commanded harshly. “You’re dead.” He fled back to his den and locked the door behind him. Throughout the night the animals trumpeted and howled their misery, making sleep impossible. Only as the eastern sky grew pale with impending dawn did their cries lessen, weakening as each once again relinquished hope and lay down to die. As the last faint wail shredded on the morning breeze, Emerson slept.
The next night, and every night after, bedlam rang in the zoo’s caverns and corridors. The noise settled at the center of Emerson’s skull, denying him rest. He became largely nocturnal, napping only when daylight silenced the cries.
The sensible thing was to leave this place; walk on in any direction until he found a house with a fireplace, a soft couch, and no noise. But the thought left him queasy. He couldn’t abandon the animals as their keepers had done, even if that betrayal had been unintentional, but what could he possibly do for them if he stayed?
Long ago, he’d read somewhere that ghosts were nothing more than troubled spirits unaware of their own death. To lay them to rest, one need only convince them of their demise. Emerson spent an entire night walking the zoo grounds, chanting, “You’re dead. Move on.” The animals watched him with bleak, begging eyes and cried their hunger, growing gaunt as the dark hours waned. The sight of bones pressed in stark relief beneath their ghostly hides made him weep with despair, as he’d wept over Imogen.
He staggered to bed in the predawn hours, the sun a faint pearlescent glimmer in the east. Animal moans dwindled in his ears as he plunged into a dream in which he entered a familiar sickroom bearing a bowl of soup on a tray.
“Lunch, dearest,” he announced softly to the woman in the bed.
Imogen’s eyes, enormous in the wasted planes of her face, tracked away from the ceiling to look at him. “Thank you,” she murmured without energy or emotion, drained of everything except disease. Her body, withered and twisted, barely disturbed the covers.
He placed the tray on the bedside table and drew up a chair. Snapping open a napkin with a flourish, he tucked it beneath her chin. “On today’s menu,” he said, adopting the ostentatious tones of a maitre d’, “we have Dr. Emerson’s Super-Duper Beef Barley Soup, guaranteed to cure what ails you.” It was a name he’d made up, same as Grandma Charlotte’s Really Good Grilled Cheese, Uncle Harry’s Penicillin Pumpkin Pie, and half-a-dozen others in an ongoing attempt to stimulate his wife’s flagging appetite and make her smile.
Imogen offered what passed for one these days. “Mmm, sounds delicious.” But when he lifted the spoon to her mouth, she grimaced and turned her face away. “Sorry, darling.” Her eyes begged him to understand, to not see her refusal as rejection of him. “Guess I’m not as hungry as I thought.”
“Perhaps later, then.” Heartbroken and hopeless, Emerson set the bowl aside and folded his hands together between his thighs. He stared at the clock, the lamp, the half-drawn window shade and the bright day beyond without really seeing them. These days, he made it a point not to look closely at things, afraid of what he might find lurking in the shadows, waiting.
Imogen sighed. In that sound was all the misery of the world they shared; the small one confined by these few walls, and the greater one beyond their apartment where countless had died and more lay dying, lips bubbled with pustules, internal organs dissolving into mush.
“Dearest,” he said into the silence, “if you could have anything to eat, anything at all in the whole wide world, what would it be?”
“Strawberry shortcake.” Her reply came with a surprising lack of hesitation, almost as if she’d been expecting the question and held the answer ready. “The kind my grandmother used to make, with sweet biscuits and clouds of whipped cream.” Enthusiasm he hadn’t seen in weeks animated her face, filling her eyes with light. “We picked wild field berries as small as the nail on your pinkie. They smelled like warm wine and tasted of sunshine.”
Emerson touched a finger to his lips in thought, and then made a cup of one palm as if holding a small bowl. He imagined it full to the brim with the sweet goodness she’d described. “You know, darling, it just so happens that your grandmother’s recipe has come down through the ages, written on papyrus and delivered by a wee sparrow this very day for madam’s pleasure.”
He saw at once that she understood what he was doing, that this game of pretend was not only for her amusement, but might also encourage her to take a few useless mouthfuls of soup. Her chin dipped in a barely perceptible nod. She focused on his empty hand. “More whipped cream,” she whispered.
He woke, sobbing and grateful. “Thank you, darling,” he said, palming tears from his eyes like a child as he sat up. “Oh, thank you!” Pushing to his feet, he scrubbed his hands through his greasy hair. Taking a chocolate bar and a small bag of corn chips from his stores for breakfast, he spent the day riffling through file cabinets for information on what the animals had eaten, scribbling notes on quantity and serving method in a barely-used steno pad. In the feed rooms and prep areas, he located buckets and pans, cleavers and knives, everything necessary for his pantomime.
Physical props were helpful, but Emerson understood that the chief element to success lay not in creation, but in his ability to make the animals believe. For three days, he hardly slept; rehearsing until the motions became fluid and the images fixed in his mind—a barrel of fragrant yellow grain, fronds of leafy green bamboo, cold water gushing from a bone-dry hose.
On the day of his premiere, he went to bed at first light, slept deeply, and woke refreshed. Stripping off his rank clothing for the first time in months, he bathed in a bucket of cold rainwater, making a ceremony of it. He trimmed his hair and beard with surgical scissors, and dressed in a too-big keeper’s uniform taken from a locker.
He emerged from his den as the first sounds from the rousing animals reached him like the opening chords of an overture. Pushing a variety of tools in a wheelbarrow, he went first to the tiger because its cries were the most strident and pathetic. Beneath the animal’s intent, colorless gaze, he brought out a cleaver, hacked at an invisible joint of horsemeat, and tossed a chunk past the bars. The cat stared at him and cried, seeing nothing. Emerson swore and clenched his eyes tight, drawing up the images he’d practiced so assiduously. The cleaver’s sharp edge caught the moonlight as he raised it high, paused, and brought it slashing down. It bit into flesh—he felt it!—and severed the haunch at the joint, revealing gristle and a bright circle of bone surrounding the marrow.
Grasping the meat in both hands, he swung and launched, putting his shoulders into the effort. The tiger bounded after the rolling lump of meat like a kitten pursuing a toy and fell on it in a frenzy of hunger. Elated, Emerson turned on the empty hose, filled the drinking bowl with water that existed only in his mind, and moved to the next enclosure.
Hours later, as the sun stroked its first pale fingers of light across the ground, he watched the animals fade one by one. Wishing them well, confident that their spirits had been laid to rest, he barely made it to bed before falling unconscious.
Their cries woke him at sunset.
Emerson sat up, bewildered and disappointed. He’d seen to their needs and watched them consume their ghostly meals with vigor, yet they remained. What had he done wrong?
There was no time to ponder the question; animals were waiting to be fed. The dispensing of grain, meat, hay—like a sacrament to the sinner’s soul—now bound him to the beasts, made him theirs. So he rose, splashed water on his face, and went to work.
His chores became first routine, and then habit, as weeks passed and he grew more adept. Like any muscle, his imagination strengthened with use. In his care, the animals began to flesh out again, pale hides shining with robust health. Their panic at being abandoned waned, and they began to greet him as well as the bounty he provided. The tiger—Joe, according to its file, a stupid moniker for such a magnificent beast—rubbed its chin against the bars at his approach. One night a chimp—Bella—caught his sleeve as he passed her a banana. She pressed the back of her hand against his and drew him into a brief embrace as Emerson wept.
The pythons were the first to vanish. He arrived at the reptile house with his ephemeral dead chickens to find nothing in the glass-fronted enclosure except old bones and desiccated skin. Rather than being elated by their departure—here was proof that his idea did work!—he felt grief at the loss. But perhaps that was right and proper. Now that they were truly gone, their excitable shades laid to rest, sorrow was the next logical step.
A few nights later, the zebra was absent, and then the gazelle. After that, the process sped up, taking at least one species a night, sometimes more. He watched Bella fade before his eyes, and hurried to unfasten and swing wide the cage door before she departed entirely. He did the same with Joe. The big cat strolled through the open doorway like a king, paused to rub its head against Emerson’s thigh, and evaporated into moonlight.
The Asian elephants—Sundar and Thoda—remained, standing together at the cage bars, rocking slightly on massive feet, trunks coiling ghostly fodder into their mouths. “What are you waiting for?” he asked. “All the others have gone.” They met his gaze with placid, enigmatic eyes and flicked their ears in response.
Because they were the last, he spent most of his time in their company—standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the moonlight, or sitting on the floor with his back against the stout pillar of a leg as the first chill of autumn crept from the cement. By day, he pored over every file in the elephant keeper’s office, seeking to better understand the animals. As incentive to leave, he propped open their cage door. They moved through it willingly, and often followed him on strolls about the grounds, but seemed content to remain in his company.
Until one evening.
He was leaving the cage, having laid out a small mountain of food in front of each elephant, when Thoda suddenly abandoned her meal, pushed rudely past him, grabbed the cage door with her trunk, and slammed it closed in his face. Instinctively, he cringed back and quickly slid through the man-width space between the bars as if that might make a difference. She met his gaze with intensity never before displayed, then eased open the door and slammed it again.
“All right!” he said loudly over the clangor as she repeated the motion a third time. “You have my attention. What is it?”
Sundar moved up beside her and the two elephant cows looked down at him. To Emerson, small in their presence, it felt like being regarded by the eye of a god. From his reading, he’d learned that elephants were widely regarded as a “keystone species,” one capable of modifying its habitat to the benefit of others. He knew also they existed within a web of family experience that stretched both backward and forward through time, using infrasound broadcast in the bone and through the ground across countless miles to bridge the distance between herds. In this way, each elephant knew the location of every other.
Emerson put a hand to his mouth, breathless with sudden understanding. If this zoo could hold the spirits of the animals that died here, then so could every other. How many shades haunted those places, bound by starvation, unable to move on? How many needed him to set them free?
The elephants dogged him with long-legged strides as he ran to the office. They waited patiently outside as he tore through every file, searching for something he knew he’d seen, but could not remember where. Finally, he found the booklet containing a list of every zoo in America. Maybe not the small road-side attractions, the ones he now knew were called “mud shows,” but he’d find them as best he could, and the elephants would help because elephants know.
Three days later, on an evening whose sky bled with an extraordinary sunset, Emerson shouldered the rifle and a heavy pack and stepped through the zoo’s front gate. Heart beating strongly in his chest, he set his feet on the road south.
And the elephants walked with him.
Copyright 2017, Melissa Crandall
Hey, everyone. When COVID-19 struck and changed all our lives, the lovely folks behind the Newburyport Literary Festival were convinced it spelled the end of this year’s event.
NOT SO! Just check out their website, Newburyport Literary Festival to find out about all the wonderful options.
I’m delighted to be part of things, and will appear, live and in person, at noon to talk about ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd.
I hope you’ll join us!