I hear them grunt as they nudge each other in the dark, their leg chains clanking around in weary indifference. Long after the cicadas cease their shrill mating songs and the hellish bellows of the cats retreat into the darkness, the elephants sway in the muggy night air. Theirs is a fitful sleep.
Lying awake under the tin corrugated roof of our shelter, I ponder their days of freedom on wild continents, far from this ersatz savannah known as the Roddy Elephant Sanctuary in Arkansas. I suppress the thought that the years they’ve spent in circuses, zoos or poacher’s camps have erased their storied memories. There must be something left.
Glancing at my wife, asleep in her bunk with our growing baby just evident in her belly, I mutter the elephants’ names. Martha. Mary. Batir. Tonga. Tiny. There’s one more, whose name I can’t recall. Slave names, all of them, I think as my eyes fall shut, and the chains fall silent.
In the morning I sit at a long wooden table under a huge canopy, avoiding the nervous glances and smiles of the strangers all around as we devour a delectable hash of bacon and potatoes. It feels like a luxury refugee camp, except that people travel here by choice, and pay good money, all for the privilege of scrubbing elephants’ wrinkled backs and shoveling their dung.
I conclude that everyone in this place is running from something—two middle-aged women in constructive abandonment by executive husbands, and a couple fleeing the inevitable course of the wife’s terminal illness. Her turban only accentuates her baldness.
At the head of the table sits the elephant wizard. Brian Roddy eats in brooding silence, his mouth barely evident through his snow-white beard. I’d seen him with the elephants the night before. They’re afraid of him. So are we. He masks his contempt for us with solemn taciturnity.
Finally he speaks. “Folks,” he says in a deep but faint voice, “we’re about to go out to the elephants. In the course of the morning they’ll be washed, fed and walked. Y’all can help with the work, or just watch … whatever you want. It’s your weekend.” We acknowledge him with wan smiles and tentative nods.
With a beckoning cock of his head he summons us to follow him outside. My hand moves around my wife’s shoulders in a timid embrace. She shrugs me off with a short, bitter jerk. I look down in shame, hoping no one noticed.
For a few hours we wash the elephants and fill their troughs. We learn how they eat, mate, and excrete. We stand back with respect from Tonga, the cow with the newborn calf. She never lets it out of her shadow. We watch Mary, the oldest one, create abstract canvases with an oversize paintbrush in her trunk.
By lunchtime all work is finished. Everyone watches and waits for more orders. I stand alone and glance over the field to a hillock behind some trees. I squint to see the last elephant, the one whose name I can’t remember, half hidden behind a couple of haystacks.
“That’s Digger,” says the elephant wizard, as if reading my mind. I hadn’t heard him approach. I’m surprised he’s interested in my thoughts. “Digger’s been a problem. Very anti-social animal. That’s why we keep him up there. We don’t know much of his history, just that he came from a shoddy circus out in Nevada. I saw he was sick from the get-go. Look at his legs, the way they bow.” He pauses as if testing to see if I know what this signifies. “Digger won’t last past the winter.”
With those words a compulsion is born in my mind. It grows with each hour of the passing day. I yearn for the night.
At the end of forever the last purple vestige of sun disappears. Still I linger with the others as they discern the fine points of the constellations. My wife sits far away from me. As people drift away, I look up and notice she’s gone.
Clouds now cover the sky. It’s time. I move away toward the path down to the field.
Without the moon I’m invisible as I move beyond the bunkhouse, past the barn, up to Digger’s hill. I feel my way to the edge of his pen, but I can’t see him. I tremble with respect and awe just knowing he’s there, gigantic and invisible, like God.
He’s aware of me. I know he’s watching me, livid, incredulous. His breath expands in righteous anger, his massive heartbeat sends ripples through the night air. I move quickly, but with reverence, to lift the latch up and off of the massive wood and wire pen.
I’m numb, detached, as if observing myself from the outside, amazed at my own daring. I struggle with the lock, oblivious to danger, conscious only of the work at hand. I wonder what Digger knows, if he’s urging me on in his mind, desperate to charge past this fence and off into the deep woods beyond, to spend some short time, even if just hours, in the living memory of freedom.
He moves toward the edge of the pen. I can see his outline against the newly clear night sky. He’s waiting for me.
The lock is stubborn; I struggle with it until it’s almost loose. But I hesitate for a fatal second. And in that second, after taking hours to arrive, the moment passes.
There are consequences, I think, as a gentle summer wind blows the logic of cowardice through my soul. You can’t just release an elephant. It’s not that simple.
I turn away from Digger and start down the hill. I feel his gaze on me, pleading, even as I fade out into the gloom all around him. The familiar weight of shame descends on me; my legs bow under the burden as I stumble back through the mocking roar of the cicadas, past the chicken coop, and through the open door of the bunkhouse.
John Van Wagner lives and writes in New Jersey. “Fadeout” would be his first major publication.