The elephant shuffled its wide, flat feet, snorting clouds of dust in the bare enclosure. There was nothing between me and the mountainous gray bulk, but its keeper—nothing to make a timid young girl feel safe from the wild impulses of the jungle creature. Tiny brown eyes, sunk in whorls of flesh as rough and seamed as tree bark, peered calmly out at me from a massive head, but the long, questing nose and ropey tail were restless. This elephant didn’t look nearly as civilized as King Babar did in my picture books, and I couldn’t imagine him wearing either a suit or a hat.
I was anxious for what was to come, but a bubble of excitement kept me from turning around and running back to cling to my grandmother’s leg. My younger sister and I were going to ride the elephant, and instinctively, I felt it was the kind of thing I might never have the chance to do again.
I had been envious when my older brother and sister had ridden the train to Seattle to spend a weekend with my grandmother; envious of the small cardboard suitcases they clutched in their hands; of the attention the conductor gave them as he helped them to board; of their smiling faces and exuberant hand-wavings at the window as the train pulled away from the station. All of that was gone now, eclipsed by an elephant.
It was the first adventure I remember having—something so out of the ordinary I would remember it for the rest of my life. Even though the elephant I rode was a tamed zoo animal, in my imagination it was a wild beast fresh from the jungles of Borneo; the kind I had seen in a book, hoisting logs with its trunk like a forklift.
Years later, as I read about the treatment many such animals in captivity received at the hands of their trainers, I felt pangs of sympathy and regret, hoping my elephant had been spared; but the burden of knowledge did not rob me of the magic of memory. The joy of riding an elephant was wrapped in the innocence of childhood, and was the first of many windows that would open to show me that the world is a wondrous place.
|Robert Bateman, artist|