If Elephants Can Smell Diamonds
Mother jumped at the opportunity when a millionaire with a private island and zoo needed a place to board his elephant. For a fee, of course. She had three reasons.
First, and most practical, she wanted a unique attraction in the competitive business of lavender farming. A lure for tourists and customers, especially vital in our remote location. “Oh look at the elephant pulling the cart! Get a picture!”
Second, the experience might teach me, her youngest child, the meaning of hard work. Other industries occupied my siblings: Isaac in charge of herbiculture; Darwin the machinery and grounds; Amelia the manufacture of lotions, soap, ice cream, cookies and every other notion made from lavender; and Eleanor the accounting, finance and contracting. My status as “floater” satisfied no one. Mother believed in independence and initiative.
Mother’s third reason was a hypothesis that elephants could smell anything, even diamonds. I would be content with whatever didn’t stink of lavender.
Gray, the Asian elephant (elephas maximus indicus), arrived one morning
in a padded trailer pulled by a truck driven by a middle-aged German. His accent
rendered me unsure of anything he said, but I think his name was Gunter.
I understood he’d signed on with a French circus, necessitating a search for
another keeper. He grasped the end of Gray’s trunk and blew softly into the
twin nostrils. “You introduce wie dies.” The proboscis snaked toward me.
I blew too hard and Gray snorted moist hay breath into my face.
She inspected me with a baseball-sized brown eye, eyelashes curved as
a plus-sized supermodel’s. She stood almost twice my height.
I had turned twelve the month before.
Gunter marched through a monologue on foot injuries, skin conditions, heat stroke,
worms and blindness, transforming Gray into a time bomb of disease caused by
well-intentioned neglect. He thumbed the pages of a school theme book,
army ant print marching around smeary ink drawings. “Everythink you need
ist in hier,” he said after each five diseases, index finger stabbing the cardboard cover so hard I looked for dents.
“What if she gets sick?”
Gunter stared as if butterflies poured from my ears. The nearest zoo was a ferry ride and eighty miles away. Did I mention we lived on an island?
“Everythink you need.” Tap, tap.
That night, I waited until Gray’s mountainous side heaved before stealing up
to the house to scour the Internet for information on elephant care, correlating all against Gunter’s notebook. I found out that the gastric earthquakes in her belly signified contentment, not some horrible disease.
Food came first. I arranged for hay delivery, elephant kibble and browse. The Monet water lily pond became Gray’s bath and mud wallow, essential in the summer heat. This destroyed the landscaping, to Darwin’s distress. Gray presented her tree stump feet for my inspection, flinching at the tentative strokes of the rasp, the fact she did not crush me a testament to her sweet nature. The compost heap grew to prodigious size.
After three weeks, she allowed me to tuck my legs behind the twin blankets of her veined leather ears and ride. I memorized the delicate map of freckles in the speckled pink splotches over her trunk, while swatting away flies. I covered her in mud, scrubbed and washed her with a hose. In return, she doused me with water from her trunk. I lost the fear of being crushed should she roll over in the night, her breathing pattern waking me if altered.
I like to think she was happy too.
She never pulled a cart. Eleanor sewed a nylon harness and Darwin fitted one of the wagons with extra long poles. All I had to do was get Gray to accept the arrangement and walk. She inspected me as if on the verge of thumbing Gunter’s notebook to underscore the absence of fancy carts.
Mother’s olfaction hypothesis went untested. I adapted the method used to train pigs to hunt truffles, hiding apples or mangoes in progressively more remote places. Gray overturned buckets or bales of hay or logs with her trunk until she found the goodies, but books and semi-precious stones held no interest. Gray poked me on the shoulder with her trunk. Tap, tap. I don’t know if Mother even owned any diamonds.
The same truck and trailer came for Gray in the fall, driven by an Australian woman named Twig with more wrinkles around the eyes than Gray’s, as if she’d lived her life squinting into the sun.
“Here.” I proffered Gunter’s notebook, now held together with rubber bands. “If you need—“ I’d been crying for a week, though never in front of my siblings, and certainly not before Mother. “It’s in—” Tap, tap.
Twig tucked the book under her arm. I suspect she never opened it. “She looks happy. Brilliant job. You must come visit to help with the transition.”
I did visit, of course, but that was later.
After Gray and Twig departed, I trudged up to the house, unable to face the elephant shelter. Mother prowled behind her steel desk, a big cat in a cage, embroiled in some piece of serious business. “Just a minute,” she said, propping the phone against her shoulder. “What is it dear?”
“I’m sorry.” The dam broke. “I never got her to pull—.” “She wouldn’t smell—.” Other fragments throttled by tears. Admissions of time squandered on water fights and trampled lavender. “I failed.”
“No. You most certainly did not.” She smiled at me, bright as diamonds.
©2009 by Robert Kaye