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CBC Short Story Prize: "Jumbo" by Alix Hawley

A child bonds and falls in love with an African bush elephant at the London Zoo in "Jumbo," shortlisted for the 2014 CBC Short Story Prize.

He had come out of somewhere in the dark, the green, somewhere difficult in Africa, each ear a map of it. They fluttered like new birds’ wings when he arrived. He had been costly. Loxodonta Africana: a sound of luxury and distance. He had been on the ship for weeks. 

Here, the high brick Elephant House had the look of a country cottage, but he was not tricked. He would not settle. He walked back and forth inside, silent, blinking and blinking in the gabled space. Still you see his walk, his heavy sway. One of the Keepers began calling him Jamboo, and taught him to salaam for the visitors. This was wrong; he wasn't of the Indian type. But the name slid into Jumbo, and it was right. And the people liked the salaaming. O have a look. He had fresh tusks then, when he was young, before he began to nudge at the walls with them. His daily work, rubbing them to stumps, making himself vanish. 

There are photographs of him with these, the little beginning tusks, which he didn't have for long. You wish, still, that you had seen them.
You did imagine the green overflow of the land of his birth, twining through his skull. You knew he was listening, perhaps to some ancient vocalizing thing far to the east of London, or below it, to the layer when it had been green, too, and covered with shaded twilight, when the Archaeopteryx from the Museum ran about, and still had its flesh and its head. He was always listening. 

A Keeper put a sign outside the enclosure: The Only Surviving Mastodon. People would ask what that was, pleased with the word’s length, and with looking at him. He’s a big one

Alice, the female who came afterwards, was a nothing. Jumbo was the one to take children for rides. They would pack the riding-stairs, waiting to clamber on, and would poke fingers into his tender trunk opening, and clutch at his legs, and stand weaving on his back inside the cage saddle as he silently went around the Elephant Walk. He would sometimes salaam for cakes, or handfuls of browned grass, or pennies. 

You would watch. On some rides, he swayed more quickly around the path, picking up his feet. You would see the reason for it: Alice emerging into the outdoor enclosure. His knobbed head perspired a damp patch on top as he laboured on. You wished to touch it, to mend it, where the hat had been stuck on for the absurd wedding. A Keeper put wax orange-blossom between Alice’s ears, and draped a string of it over her trunk. And a man’s top hat, miniature atop Jumbo’s beautiful skull. You have the postcard from the Zoo shop. The elephants hangdog in their human outfit; a Keeper’s hand, holding out a bun, cutting in at the edge. Souvenir of the Loving Couple on the Happiest of Days

Love. But Alice was a stage-property. She would never feed him buns or straw, or look in his whole eye. You didn't bother to hate her. 

Other things to think of, to remember. Animal names: Obaysch, Dil, Guy Fawkes, Old Dick, Sufa Culli, Jung Pershad, Miss Bet, Victor, Kitty, Pompey. Some others have vanished from your mind, as if they were never there, though Jumbo never has. There is another word: Homunculus, which Father called you sometimes if you went up to the study. You poked at the stuffed and pinned beasts in his cabinets while he talked of homologous structures, fins and wings and arms. You understood by instinct. You were clever. You knew already about monkeys and people being cousins, which some people did not know. You went to the Zoo most Sunday afternoons, when the soft brown would sink over the city and the park, the animals heated to docility. Father disliked the monkeys, but would give a quick nod on the way past their cages. A just-in-case gesture. Perhaps just in case they were cleverer, even, than Mr. Darwin had shown; perhaps in case they were cleverer than he. The other visitors chattering at the orang-outans drinking tea. Real tea, they would say, all dry lips and astonishment. 

You had no care for monkeys, cousins or not. You ground your teeth at night to wake your sister. And thought of Jumbo in the night Zoo, rubbing away at his own bones as if to remove himself entirely from this place. 

He could not remove himself from you. His great bulk, his beauty. All the London children knew him, but you knew him better. When you did ride between the poles of the platform on his back with the others, you were the only one to see his heart and brain, large and wonderful, filling his whole cavernous body and head. Afterwards, you would hold out a bun flat on your palm, and the trunk would come gently with its fingerlike tips and alight the bun in the pink mouth, a surprise against the grey hide. The light flap of the ears. The eyes, too, set widely in the head, with their furred lashes and a kind of aged melancholy, a single long wish, as you thought, which ticked in you if you looked too long. 

At night, your sister would weep, but her ready pity was for the two Canadian black bears in the Carnivore Terrace, who lay moth-eaten and flat-bellied, as if in homage to brothers made into rugs. The sign said above their cage said, Beware of Pickpockets. Thieves making their sidling way into the enclosures, unknown to anyone: this was a happy thought. At the Zoo, your sister would coo at the bears, and you would say that was not bear language, and she would wind herself up to weep again. 

Saint of the Zoo. You could hear it in her night breath, and see her gleaming teary visions. You, though, had better: Jumbo recognized you and the expensive iced buns you brought from the baker’s, you knew, and you had dreams also, not of taking him away, but of living in the dim Elephant House with him, the doors shut forever. Naked and crawling in the straw, talking to him in sounds without words.

Jumbo: the only thing you wish to remember now out of that time. The queer pain of it, heavy and hollow. Your first love, your prehistoric love, when it was ferocious and deciding what to attach its teeth to. You daydreamed about him speaking back, his soft love voice coming hollowly from his trunk, not his mouth. 

He grew enormous against the flat, feeble-treed park landscape. His tusks he still insisted on grinding off. Jingo, acquired afterwards, had long curled tusks, but ate ladies’ purses whole, and refused to walk, as did the sacred white elephant, which had an evil eye. But Jumbo was faultless. The slow walking, back and forth, round and round the park, as if through all time. The slope and expanse of his forehead. 

You were on his back on the last ride, the day he couldn't get through the tunnel back to the Elephant House; they had to take him round the whole outer edge of the park. He had grown too big. The Keepers kept him on hay and the contents of the lawnmower-boxes, but it was too late. His enormous bones. His great head bowing and tossing. The sound of leaves rustling, you would think, as he did so. Too much of him. And growing yet. Your ribs ached. 

You knew it was because of you. Because of your love, you knew, he was sold off to the circus man. In spite of children’s howling, in spite of the money from the newspapers’ campaigns to keep him at home, in spite of the shock at his separation from Alice, his wife. He went on another ship, to Canada. You pictured him on land again, colder and harder in the north, walking in Barnum’s rings, shying up on his hind legs, accepting the spangles draped over his back and head. He was still billed as The Only Surviving Mastodon. There, did he think of ice ages, of himself with thick fur hanging from him like moss, taking up even more space, as he took up in you? 

You loved him still, and harder. Others said they loved him, though where were his tusks. That was not love, though their applause was pleasing to him, the sound of it like flocks of birds rising from water. In your mind you saw this. You did not let go, you saw him bigger and bigger, and it was surprising how he died, and that he died at all, and that he was free when it happened in the Canadian night—walking off into the dark, listening for trees, or a voice, a wordless call, you have thought, and not for the train on its straight tracks.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


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