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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Taken from issue 32, The Elephant by Rick Bass is a story filled with longing, isolation, and the lovely, desolate imagery that Bass is known for. A perfect read for the changing season. Enjoy!
For ten years, the salt cutter, Max Omo, had held an exclusive lease on all the salt he could dredge from the old inland sea, Lake Juan Cardona, far out in the West Texas desert. Juan Cardona, a lake for ten thousand years, was now but a vast playa of glittering, sparkling sludge: alluring, and almost worthless, yet not quite. It had been a hard ten years for Marie, the salt cutter’s wife, lonely, as Max and their two young but beefy sons hauled salt sleds filled with the syrupy mixture hand over hand all day long, and spread the salt out on metal sheets to dry in the incredible heat before shoveling it into burlap bags and selling it, depending upon the grade, for ten, twelve, fourteen cents per ton.
Over the years, foolish or uninformed travelers seeking to walk across the crust of the playa, rather than circumnavigating it, had gotten stranded as if in quicksand, and perished. The lake was punctuated with the upright spars and skeletons of those who had ventured too far out into its glimmering sludge and been unable to get back out. Mummified, they remained there, salt-rimed, sometimes for centuries, their arms crooked, like branches. Birds nested between their ribs. The wind made wild calliope music through the apertures in their skulls.
Omo, in his hunger for the lake’s treasure, figured out that it might not be necessary to wander waist deep out into the sludge with his shovel, as had been done in the old days, but that by constructing weirs, he could trap the salt and harvest it as it was driven each day by the prevailing winds that carried the shallow waves in from the lake’s northwestern depths to the southwestern shallows before receding each evening, again and again.
By setting up a system of rock floodgates, Omo was able to lay out flat sheets of iron onto which the salt would be precipitated each day, so that every evening before bed he would be able to empty his sheets of iron into barrels, loading up that day’s bounty. In this manner, he could harvest nearly ten tons a day.
Omo was not a big man, nor particularly powerful when he first came to the lake, but moving such prodigious quantities of salt developed him into a caricature of labor, knotted and swollen with muscles whose bulging, contorted proportions seemed all the more odd in that many of his muscles were little used for anything but pulling in the iron sleds, and sweeping and shoveling the salt into the barrels. He had tiny little bird-calves, but ponderous thighs; no chest, but preposterous biceps and forearms. No triceps to speak of, but a neck like a bull’s. His back was as wide as that of two men, so that he looked like some kind of mistaken experiment of nature. They had arrived full of hope and speculation five years before the onset of the Great Depression, and then had gotten trapped by their work, with none other to be had, and now it was five years after, and still they were mired.
The salt was a bait: wild animals of every sort came each day and all night to paw and suck at Omo’s ever-increasing and miraculous salt mountain. Deer and rabbits came, as did mice, coyotes, foxes, pack rats, antelope, wild boars, feral horses, bobcats, and once, down from the cool, distant pine mountains, a black bear, looking so uncannily like a human that at first neither Marie nor the children could be convinced that it was not merely a man dressed up in a fur coat, gone mad, clawing and gnawing at the salt as if unable to control his desire.
After several years of living in the oven that was their tiny tin-house shack, however, and seeing her babies sprint past babyhood, launching almost immediately into grotesque muscle-bound imitations of their father—shaped not so much by the lake as by the greed or obsession that had snapped and been flung loose within them all, save for Marie—she found, at first to her horror but then to her slow-building pleasure, that she enjoyed seeing the parade of animals that the coyotes were able to haze out into the quicksand of the salt.
She began to view them as a kind of crop, something the land produced for her, and which the lake harvested; and she would lie awake in the night listening for them, straining to hear if the sound of the wind carried with it the joyous cries of the coyotes, bringing her more visitors.
Her husband beside her, reeking of salt; the brute children, as if trapped above her, in the torturously hot loft.
In the iron-house oven, Marie could hear the sand pitting against the walls and the roof. The old-timers who had told them that a house or other structure, if large enough, would anchor the big dune, had for the most part been correct; though sometimes in the early autumn, when the temperatures had abated slightly, but when the winds were beginning to quarter, no longer driving hot and hard from the deserts to the west but easing down from the north, even the largest dunes would begin to shift.
And once or twice each year, the dune above their house enveloped them completely: not with any final, thunderous collapse, but in a steady sifting, a stream-like pouring that was so sibilant the sound of it barely entered their dreams. It was like nothing they had ever heard before, and yet it was not alarming; in fact, in Omo’s continuous state of physical exhaustion, and Marie’s chronic loneliness and misery, the sound, when it came, was almost soothing.
Its message to their sleeping subconscious was that a thing was being delivered to them, a thing in great quantity, and that while there might not be any profit or pleasure in that accumulation, neither did there seem to be any harm; and it was not until the next morning, when they awoke to darkness and stillness and a different kind of heat—the swelter and strangulation of their own lives, ensealed—that they realized what the sound had been.
Then, like badgers, Omo and his muscular boys burrowed upward through the dune, pulling Marie on a rope behind them, sweating and sand-clad, and after about six feet of such digging, they broke back into the free and clear white sunlight.
Marie among them was happiest to see the salt earth again, and waded down off the dune and fell upon the crusty, whitened hardpan, weeping and kissing the ground, while Max and the boys went out to the toolshed and began shoveling their house back out, working methodically and unceasingly, as precise and unperturbed in their labors as a line of red ants whose path was blocked by some catastrophe—a fallen thistle, a fist-sized stone tumbling down from the hillside above—and for which slight corrections and adjustments in the path needed to be made.
After exhuming the shed that first time, though a bit tired, Omo and the boys still went out to their salt traps and gathered them in, shaking the salt, which flashed in the light of the full moon, into their oil-drum barrels.
Marie refused to go back into the cabin that first night, so they dragged their mattresses up onto the hot roof and tried to sleep. The boys and Omo, fatigued from their labors, fell asleep immediately. Marie sat up and looked out at the shining lake, sparkling and glinting with every color of the rainbow and appearing as a frozen pond in winter upon which children might skate and play, or upon which young couples new in love, in the spring, might canoe and picnic—and that first time she was awake for a long time, listening to the breeze and imagining that she heard the telltale rustlings and shiftings of the sand flowing once more against the flimsy tin shields. She finally drifted off to sleep just before daylight, and it was a relief when the stirrings of Omo and the boys awoke her a short time later. They dragged their mattresses off the roof, and Marie went out to the tiny cookhouse, set some distance away to avoid overheating the cabin, and built a fire in the stove to warm a pot of the cloudy, salty water for coffee.
She cracked eggs into the skillet and laid strips of dried mutton alongside the eggs. She mopped the sweat from her brow with the crook of an arm. She poured half a glass of wine, and felt the day’s first trickle of sweat running down the groove of her back, bringing a strange chill and shudder despite the heat. A clanging sound out by the toolshed made her stop and listen: Omo and the boys wanting to get a little work in before breakfast.
Later in the day, they all rode into town—forty miles distant—to buy a twenty-foot length of stovepipe, which they planned to install on their front porch as a crude breathing apparatus, should the dune ever bury their house again.
Omo gave himself over to the landscape as might a lover made desperate by the approaching conclusion of some brief time with his beloved—though there was no such leave-taking on the horizon, only endless, mind-altering regularity of the sort that builds mountains and later fills in old oceans with the detritus of those same mountains: the brute patterns of relentless similarity repeating themselves throughout the heated days, with no hint or hope whatsoever of change.
Marie suffered Omo’s indifference for a full decade, and in that ten-year gray-water period she would watch him go out to work each day with the boys, and would hold on to the thought or hope or possibility of his returning at the end of the day with a kind word, a pleasant touch, or some desert wildflower, or even the wing scrap of a butterfly, of which tens of thousands gathered at the lake in early spring and summer, sipping at the puddles along the shoreline—entire sections of shoreline alive, some mornings, with the feathered, pulsing, arrhythmic stirrings and exhalations of their watering: as if the entire shoreline were breaking apart, iridescent color emerging from the salt plain after millennia of sameness and whiteness . . .
For his part, Omo dreamed of salt, stared at the small inland ocean of it, looked forward to digging the shaft wells into the salt. He loved the warbled, rattling sound the iron made when he and the boys pulled in the loaded sheets of salt each evening, a sound sometimes answered by the thunder and the jags of golden lightning out on the darkened prairie beyond.
Some nights, listening to the sand, Marie would imagine that she could hear the big, limp bodies of snakes coiling their way across the warm sands, just outside the cabin: tiny ones slithering across the roof above her, and the larger ones in the dunes just beyond.
Little violet and green swallows had begun to nest in the stovepipe of their breathing apparatus, and these night sounds too would awaken her and unleash a blind, panting terror sutured tight in her chest: the scrabbling sound of their little lizard-claws as they shifted in their nests, jockeying for position and rearranging themselves ceaselessly in the night; and then once their eggs were hatched, the endless high cheeping of the baby birds always clamoring for food.
Sometimes one of the flightless young birds would tumble all the way down the pipe and out onto the floor by their bed, and spin there, clawing and scuttling, and Marie would have to get up and open the door and fling it out into the night, where the coyotes would come and find it.
She would try to get back to sleep then, with the pillow over her head, while the other birds remaining in the pipe chirped and chattered with even greater agitation, and she could not be sure if she dreamed of the coyotes’ laughter, right out in her yard, or if it was real.
One night Marie was awakened from her sleep not to the sound of sand or bird or coyote, but to what seemed at first a complete absence of sound: as if the entire world around her had paused to listen to something extraordinarily wonderful and unusual.
Gradually, as her senses readjusted to the different pace of the silence, Marie realized that it was not a complete soundlessness she was hearing but, rather, the distilled purity of one sound: a gigantic and strangely rhythmic thrashing, out in the lake, replete with huffings and suck-hole gaspings, spews and sputters: enormous, lonely splashings unattended by any other sound.
She rose from her bed and went out onto the porch, damp in her nightgown. It was September, and there was enough of a breeze from the north to cool her. She wrapped her arms around herself, and in the night and the just-awakened grogginess of things, she forgot for a moment whom and what she had become, and believed herself to be a young woman again.
The moon was bright upon the surface of the lake. She squinted and listened harder as the sound separated itself from the non-sound, and as her sleep separated from her waking.
An enormous hump-shaped animal writhed and lunged out in the lake, powering its way through the moon-bright floating bog of salt. Disbelieving, Marie walked barefoot into the salt-packed hardpan yard, the surface of it as cool and smooth and worn beneath her feet as ancient marble, and dared to look closer, seeing that her initial dream had been correct, that there was an elephant in the lake, with immense flapping ears and long shining tusks and a wild-waving trunk. The exertions of the animal sent shallow waves up onto the shore.
Marie imagined instantly—in that first moment when the dream detached and pulled back from the reality—that she could see, even across the distance, one of the animal’s bright, wet, shining eyes, filled with both terror and resolve, as well as an almost bottomless loneliness; and that the eye of the elephant was fixed upon her, even in the midst of the animal’s terrific struggles: and in that moment, amid such a surreal vision, Marie felt more grounded, sane and hopeful.
Like a sleepwalker, she went slowly down to the lakeshore to offer silent encouragement to the flailing animal, careful not to break contact with its gaze. At the shore, she crouched on her haunches and watched, unblinking and hypnotized.
Behind the elephant lay a wake of furrowed salt, a wandering path as jagged as if sawed through chunks of arctic ice. The elephant had already cut a wide groove across the lake, and Marie wondered what might have led it to enter the lake in the first place. Strangely, she did not wonder where the elephant had come from. Already it seemed to fit.
From time to time the elephant would, despite its panicked frenzy, pause and rest, gathering its breath and energy, though during such cessations it began to sink slowly, drawn down into the summoning mire. When this happened, the elephant leaned over on one side to keep from sinking farther, and the great trunk wagged and lolled plaintively; it was all Marie could do to keep from rolling up her nightgown and wading out into the lake herself, to try to help somehow.
“Hold on,” she whispered into the great silence, “hold on.”
And soon, as if heeding her pleas, the elephant rolled back over—his eye fixed once more upon hers, she was certain of it—and labored on, as if he were in harness and pulling the whole of the world behind him.
Marie sat hunkered there for two hours, watching the struggle as the elephant’s rests grew longer and longer, and—did she imagine it?—a shine seemed to be leaving the eye; but finally the creature dragged itself up onto the farther shore, crawling out on bent knees and only then uttering one weak and spent trumpeting: not a call of victory but a feeble, tentative inquiry as to the possibility of others of the elephant’s kind that might be hiding out in the dunes, or cached just a short distance away in the darkness.
Marie had expected the elephant to take advantage of the firmer ground by collapsing on his side and resting once more, and if he had, she was prepared to go to him, to haul buckets of water and bathe the crust of glittering salt from his hide—at the far end of the lake, standing beneath the bright moon, he looked bejeweled—but she was surprised to see that he wasted no time upon his emergence. He paused briefly, having given his lone trumpet, and then strode off toward the dunes, lake water still trailing from his thick legs in runnels.
Every now and again he would punch through the shallow skin of the shoreline and stumble, sinking to one knee, but each time, he pulled free and continued on his way, traveling in such a straight and single-minded line that Marie had no doubt he knew precisely where he was going, even if he never had been here before; and for this too she found that she loved him.
Still in her nightgown, and barefoot, she followed him for nearly a mile, walking along the lakeshore until she came to the intersection of where he had crawled out and gone into the dunes. She followed his huge, cratered prints, which were spaced so far apart that it took three of her steps to travel the same distance. She hurried along his trail, the sand still wet from his passage, caking her feet: trotting, holding the hem of her gown up to keep from falling.
With each dune she climbed, it seemed to her he might be just on the other side, big as a barn and striding magnificently, tail swishing and head held high, tusks shining bright, or that he might even be holed up in a trough, resting, so that, descending that final dune, she would be free to walk up to him and put her hand on his leathery hide; to hold her hand out to his snuffling trunk for him to take her scent; perhaps even to climb the trunk, as she had seen children doing in pictures, and to ride upon his hairy back then, on through the dunes and out of the desert: riding for a while, seeing all the sights from a newer, slightly higher perspective—as when she was up on the roof of her cabin—and then napping, in the heat of the day, taking her gown off and ripping it to fashion a crude and flapping tent beneath which she could seek shelter from the sun while the fanning of his enormous ears sent a slight cooling breeze her way, and, as he kept traveling, leaving the lake and the desert and eventually all of Texas behind them.
Each dune scaled, however, brought her nothing. The sand in his tracks was still wet, and the smell of the lake upon him was still rank and strong, but when she got to the top of each dune and looked down, he was not in the trough below, nor was she able to see him anywhere in the distance; and she would stand there atop each dune, panting, her thighs and calves burning, watching in the dimming moonlight (the coming of dawn no longer distant) the crests beyond her, like waves out on the ocean, hoping that on one of those distant sand ridges she would see the dark and faraway shape of the elephant, climbing his own dune and disappearing over the back side, so that she would know the distance required to catch him.
As she paused on each ridge, there was rest, but there was also the taunting knowledge that the elephant might already be just over the horizon, and that rather than her possibly gaining on him and closing the distance, he was moving even farther away. After staggering up a few more dunes, she realized the hopelessness of it, and after a few more, she gave up, exhausted, and turned around and walked back home, following her own tracks, and the elephant’s.
Back at the cabin, she bathed with a damp washcloth and a leftover bucket of brine. Then she got back into bed, trying to hold grief at bay. She slept for nearly an hour, dreaming the first dreams of hope she had dreamed in years, and awakened slowly, unwilling to leave the dreams, to the ticking sound of the dawn light heating the tin roof, and Omo and the boys stirring, then pulling on their sour-smelling boots and splashing water on their sunburned faces. Omo gasping and moaning, hawking phlegm and making all sorts of animal like morning sounds, and the three of them as anxious for work as stock animals for their morning feed.
Marie got up and dressed and went to the cook shed to begin breakfast: kindled a fire in the rusting old stove, which was overdue for a scouring. While the stove warmed, she went outside into the rising brilliance to see if the elephant might have returned, even as she knew that it never would. She shaded her eyes against the glare and the distance and studied more clearly the churned-up path of the elephant’s passage, noted how he had traveled right past several of the skeleton sentinels, passing so near to some of them that, had they still been living—had there not been a forty- or fifty-year gap between moments—they might have been able to reach out and touch his hide as he passed by, might even have been able to grab hold of his tail and be pulled free, in that manner, and dragged to safety.
She saw Omo and the boys standing down at the shore, staring out at the strange, jagged salt rift and conversing among themselves, and she went down to tell them what she had seen, somehow disappointed and discouraged that she would not be able to keep it a secret.
At first they did not believe her, but after she showed them the tracks, both hers and the elephant’s, they did believe; Omo shot her a puzzled look as he saw the tracks leading off into the dunes—“How far did you say you followed this creature?” he asked, and when she answered, “A good ways,” he frowned and said, “That could have been dangerous, he might have been wounded.” He glanced at her again, largely uncomprehending but with some wisp of dull understanding, an acknowledgment or the beginning of an acknowledgment of . . . what? . . . that his obsession was not hers—that his was not healthy for her—but then the mask came back over him, and he scowled and said, again, “That could have been dangerous.”
The boys were all in favor of tracking the elephant and somehow capturing it and bringing it back to the lake and keeping it in a corral made of welded oil field pipes, and training it to use its brute strength to help them pull in the sleds each evening, and to load the buckets and barrels of salt into the back of the truck to take to market each week; but Omo stared off into the distance, in the direction the tracks had disappeared, and said that it was a foolish idea, risky, and that he did not want to have to rely upon the capriciousness of a living creature for his livelihood, preferring instead the governability of machines.
They went back to the cabin and waited on Marie to finish making breakfast, and then walked down to the lake and launched themselves into work as if no miracle had passed by or even been discussed.
Around ten o’clock in the morning they saw a shimmering mirage approaching them through the wavering heat: a wall, a phalanx, of a thousand soldiers, every one girded in silver and gold, bearing lances and maces and leading before them immense lions and tigers and snuffling bears, leopards and wolves and what appeared to be a saber-toothed tiger, all of them on thick chains: the animals, like the warriors, clad in jeweled armament of silver and gold, and lunging, pulling the soldiers along in their ferocious wake.
Behind them was the strangest and perhaps most horrifying sight of all, a battalion of tanks towering over the soldiers, glinting in the sun, soundless across the distance, and all the more ominous because of that silence.
The Omos stood motionless, with some place inside each of them terrified and disbelieving, and in their odd paralysis they would have seemed momentarily indistinguishable from the skeletons out in the salt bog, whose tattered coattails and scraps of cloth were stirred by the breeze.
The pantheon was now close enough that Marie could hear a rapturous singing, an exalted, pure, and ringing song, like the choir of a thousand angels—a song of both desire and unrestrained praise—and before such a beautiful and all-encompassing sound, Marie’s heart relaxed a little from her previous terror, and now she could hear a metallic, fearsome, syncopated drumming. And she saw, emerging from the other side of that lens of heated, brilliant light, the transformation of her terror, an unholy beauty and power metamorphosing into a ragtag procession of two large and dilapidated wide-tired trucks with steam rising from beneath the hood of each, the larger truck misfiring badly, its burned-out valves clattering a death knell.
Limping along in front of the two trucks was a sad posse of half a dozen bedraggled men, pant cuffs rolled up and straw hats askew. Four of the men were tugged wearily along by lunging, baying bloodhounds, whose peals continued to grow clearer and louder.
The trucks rattled to a stop in the Omos’ yard, and the men tied the leaping hounds to the bumpers of their hissing trucks and hobbled over to meet the Omos: walking toward them as if not clearly seeing them, limping along at the very edge of heatstroke. When one man reached out to shake with Omo, he missed his hand entirely.
They were with the circus, the driver of the larger truck explained, and had come searching for their elephant. They had been tracking it since daylight—the circus had been in the town of Odessa two nights before—and they cast suspicious glances at the great mound of yellowing salt, and at the barn, as if believing the Omos might be harboring the creature.
Marie went to get brine water to give to the panting, gasping hounds, and Omo led the posse over to the small wedge of shade offered by his front porch, where the men sat and then lay down on their backs and sides and even on their stomachs, like children taking a nap. Only the elephant’s trainer, an Indian gentleman who, despite the day’s heat, was dressed in the traditional garb of his profession, refrained from collapse, and that only because he had been riding in the truck the whole way.
In broken English he explained that they had already gotten their trucks stuck a dozen times that morning—the men digging out with their hands and shovels, and one truck pushing or pulling the other through the salt and the sand—and when Marie inquired about the nature of the elephant, the trainer, whose name was Mufti, informed her that he had owned the old bull almost all his life, that the elephant was himself forty years old—Marie’s age—and in full musth, very dangerous and full of breeding hormones, and that they should consider themselves lucky he had not demolished their shack, with them in it, for the simple reason that it might have appeared an eyesore to him.
“A fleck,” Mufti said, “a piece of dust.” A whip and a holstered pistol flanked his hip and he said that though he was very fond of the elephant, he feared he might have to protect himself against it, given the animal’s current condition, though he was hoping that the trek across the sand would be somewhat dulling the animal’s excesses of sap and vim. He said this loudly, as if it were not the truth but was only for the benefit of his associates. Marie watched the foreigner as he spoke, admiring his confidence and expertise, and could not be sure which she loved more, the possibility of him, or the possibility of the elephant.
Omo wanted to know what such a creature was worth, and when Mufti answered that in India the animal could easily bring between ten and twenty thousand dollars, Omo stared at him and then at the assemblage of sleeping middle-aged men with incomparable Germanic scorn, and then told Mufti, “I will go and get your elephant.”
“We must hurry,” Mufti told them. “He will burn in this sun.”
The men conferred, and Omo was made to understand that haste was paramount. Mufti informed him that the elephant required more than forty gallons of water a day.
“It was madness,” he said, “to bring him to this part of the world.
Always I have succumbed too easily to greed.” He glanced at the other circus laborers and whispered, conspiratorially, “I want to leave them. I want a new life.” He looked at Marie then as if knowing her heart.
And does the elephant know it? she wondered.
Omo ignored Mufti’s admission of weakness. “Does he know how to find water?” he asked. “Will he be drawn to it, like a mule?”
Mufti nodded. “He will not be able to stay away from it,” he said. “Wherever it is, he will find it.”
Omo hunkered down on his heels and with a stick outlined a rough map in the marbled salt floor. “Once he gets out of the dunes, it’s downhill to the Pecos,” he said.
“Must we cross the great desert to get there?” Mufti asked, as if riding in the back of the circus truck, while the others led their hounds, had been the hardest ordeal of all.
“We can take a dirt road down there,” Omo said. He sketched the route, then looked out at the broken furrows the animal had plowed through his sleeping lake. “I don’t care how good a swimmer you fancy him to be, he’s likely to have trouble if he tries to drink there at the crossing. If he just sticks his trunk in, he might be okay, but if he gets a mind to wade in and try to cool off, like they do in Africa—”
“India,” said Mufti.
Omo shook his head. “I don’t care where he’s from, he’s likely to find that crossing more than he bargained for.”
They rose and rousted the dogs and their handlers, loading buckets of water into the back of the circus truck. The larger one, an enclosed van, was as hot as the cookstove, a violent, stifling, dead airspace so superheated that it seemed even a single breath or stirring could ignite it into an inferno; it was into this enclosure that they would attempt to herd the elephant, if they found him.
They set out into the bright day in a swaying, rumbling caravan, the Omos all piled in their truck and the overcrowded circus trucks, temporarily revived, traveling behind them; Marie felt more alive than she had in years, invigorated and rejuvenated by the hunt, filled with the sense that her life was going to change: that it had somehow just taken a brighter turn, whether they found the elephant or not.
The hot breath of the desert poured in through their windows as they drove, blasting their faces with its scour, but it stirred her hair too and she reached back and released it from her bun and refashioned it into a ponytail, and swept the stray strands along her cheeks back behind her ears, wondering whether they would see the elephant.
They reached the Pecos an hour later, winding down the last of the little sand roads that had led them there. The vehicles were all still running strong. There was a bridge twelve miles to the south, but Omo said that if the animal needed water, this was the place to find it. They walked up and down the bluff, looking for the elephant’s tracks, but there were none. A great blue heron, surprised by their approach, leaped into the sky with a troubled rasp. It climbed crookedly, seemingly suspended over the rushing waters, and then flew higher, finally finding a graceful rhythm.
The men and boys and Marie sat in the shade of the circus trucks with the panting hounds and sipped the warm brine water they had brought, and Mufti and his two helpers told them stories of the circus for nearly an hour before Omo began to grow impatient. The noonday sun was scorching his lake, squeezing riches out of it by the minute, and he and the boys were not there to collect. Marie was dimly aware of something seeping out of her, as one might feel the blood trickling from one’s nostrils following an impact. It seemed to her that whatever was draining out of her was leaving her in the fashion of water, leaching down into the earth and vanishing though the dried, platy crevices of sunbaked mud.
But of true or physical sensation she felt nothing, only the last of an ancient vitality emptying out of her and passing back down into the dust beneath her.
They walked up into the dunes, leaving Marie with the truck, and soon found the elephant. Omo saw the hounds catch the scent at the same time, saw them lunge in a single, staggered wave, jerking the frazzled houndsmen along with them—the houndsmen yanking back on the chains and leashes, digging their heels into the sand, sending up showers of flashing white around their ankles like the spray of sunlit water.
The elephant lay on his side at the top of a high dune, and even from that distance—the great moss-brown bulk of him but a single dot on the landscape, amid so much bare sand—they could smell him burning, cooking.
It was an odor exactly like that of a roast in the oven, a huge ham not of mutton or pork, but delicious beef, and Omo could smell it, and it filled him with an immediate pleasure, took him back to childhood, when his mother would fix a huge lunch for their family on Sunday after church, the wheel of the century having clicked forward only a few years.
The odor encouraged him on. He did not plan to eat the elephant, but he hurried up the slope with the others, feeling an inexplicable and surprising happiness.
The hounds too found joy and exuberance in the great creature’s dying. Their barks and howls bounced hard and brittle across the glittering waves of sand, breaking apart quickly, giving their cries a metallic, ringing quality, as distinct as spoons tapping against iron slabs; and again, to Omo, the music of their chase had to it some characteristic of what he imagined choirs of angels sounded like.
One hound broke free from the pack. Baying more shrilly than the others, it sped across the sand, up the final dune to where the immense, tusked animal lay, while the chorus of the rest of his pack, still tethered below, urged him on.
At the top of the final rise, the elephant received the hound as easily as if he had been lying in wait there all of his life: as if that one place was where the elephant, recumbent, best fit the curve of the earth in order to welcome the hound’s charge. As his millennial ancestors had done innumerable times with tigers, leopards, and lions, the elephant lifted its weakened trunk almost tentatively, even leisurely, raising it just in time to blunt the dog’s headlong attack, and caught the dog in mid-flight with his trunk, making a quick twist (like an expert sailor tying a knot one-handed)—there was a sudden silence from the hound—and then with a whiplike motion, and still almost entirely prone, hurled it back down to the bottom of the dune, so that the advancing houndsmen had to stop and duck to avoid being struck by the flying object.
This was enough to give both men and beasts pause in their charge, and the hounds circled and milled around their lifeless comrade, reconnoitering. Omo and Mufti paused also—to an observer looking down upon them from far away, the arrangements and positionings would have seemed like those of chess pieces in some tiny game—and they walked down into the trough where the hounds and houndsmen stood gathered over the campaign’s first casualty.
On the ridge above, the elephant fixed them with a direct stare, then turned his massive head to address them in profile, ears flapping, enormous tusks lengthened against the sky, with now only one reddened eye staring down upon them. The eye appeared to rest longest and saddest upon Mufti, and the expression in the elephant’s eye spoke of nothing but betrayal. He laid his head back down onto the broiling sand almost gently.
“I cannot tell if the musth has left him yet or not,” said Mufti quietly. There was no other sound around them save for the maniacal panting of the dogs. The men conferred and decided that the elephant could not get up, or did not want to, and that he would be safe to approach as long as none of them got within reach of his trunk.
“I do not know if he will be able to mind me or not,” Mufti said. “He looks and acts as if the musth is still upon him, but I do not think he can get up. Maybe if I crack the whip he will remember all the times before when he has obeyed, and will rise one more time.”
The houndsmen dissented but this dissent was tempered since the elephant still belonged to Mufti; and, further, none of the houndsmen was anxious to see another hound lost to the elephant’s final throes.
Mufti advanced upon the elephant slowly, whip trailing in the sand like some dead snake he was bringing to the elephant as a gift. The elephant’s eye glowed brighter for a moment as it caught sight of the whip, and a ripple of muscle quivered through the bulk of the animal, a galvanic tautness, an alertness that none of the men would have thought possible from a creature so near to succumbing, and the dogs sensed and smelled the aliveness of it and set about their baying again. And though the elephant had not yet lifted his head from the ground, it seemed that he was no longer listening to anything below but was attuned and attentive once more to the world around him, desert though it was.
When Mufti was but ten feet away from the anguished animal, he stopped, and swirled the whip, readying it to crack upon the dry, heated air that rose in shimmers from the elephant’s cooking body.
Magically, the elephant reared his head, seeming as alert now as a dog that has been waiting all day by the door for its master’s return—and when Mufti leaned forward, cracking the whip into the hot sky, the elephant rolled over with a great stirring of sand and leaned forward, struggling to kneel upon his front legs, but unable to.
The elephant tumbled back over on his side, falling as if crumpled by a shot, and once again the dogs danced and howled, pleading for the chance to attack.
Mufti snapped the whip harder and louder. The dogs roared now, sensing the vulnerability, and this time the elephant managed to get his hind feet beneath him and sought to stand, but lost his balance—it appeared to the men that all the muscles and bones within the great sack of his hide no longer had any order, and merely shifted, spilled sideways, obeying no desire or willpower but merely flowing according to the laws of gravity—and the elephant tumbled back over on his side, falling as if crumpled by a shot, and once again the dogs danced and howled, pleading for the chance to attack.
The elephant lay perfectly still, trunk outstretched and eyes catatonic, tusks no longer menacing but instead as harmless as twin beams of river-polished driftwood. Mufti was encouraged by this show of valor, and knowing the animal as he did, and believing that, for all its great bulk and strength, the animal’s heart and will were stronger than even its body, he cracked the whip again and again, in the manner of someone working furiously on the ropes and riggings of a sail, hoping to maneuver the canvas into position to take advantage of some new faint breeze. As if hoping to pray such a breeze into being.
And as he cracked the whip, and as the elephant lifted its huge head and struggled once more to rise, Mufti shouted to the handlers, telling them to turn their dogs loose; and the handlers did so gladly.
The dogs darted in as a team, a clan, their individual desires weaving together and unweaving, seeking out and snapping at and biting the seams of softness the elephant could not protect, and in that manner, chewing and shredding, they urged him, against the logic of his tortured body, finally to his feet, where he did not waste time standing his ground, but broke into a swaying, crooked run, down the dune and in the direction of the river: falling often, piling headlong into the dunes with great sprays of sand but rising again; and Omo and Mufti followed him up and over the dunes.
The houndsmen, gathering their leashes, were dragged along behind their hounds, staggering and shouting and blowing on their horns. To the sky above, and to the curve of the earth, it would have seemed little different from the times when, in this same country, hunters with lances had pursued and harried the woolly mammoths and mastodons, more than ten thousand years ago: as if all the time that had passed was but a brief nap on a summer afternoon.
Marie, down by the river, heard the chase, and was staring at the horizon when the elephant crested that last dune and careened down the final slope with silent puffs of sand attending each stride, and the four hounds still swarming close behind like nothing more than fleas: the dark brown elephant enormous and yet tiny against the pale desert sand.
It was a sight so wondrous that it seemed she could feel parts inside her opening and closing like sluice gates diverting creek water to parched fields. She thought she could hear the sound of water running as she watched the elephant continue his controlled plunge down the steep slope, running with both a quickness and steadfastness of purpose which seemed to indicate that the destination he hurtled toward was not one of a mere moment’s selection but rather the desire of a lifetime, a cumulative destiny; and that in his haste, the elephant was acutely aware that destiny was being served, that the last of certain puzzle pieces was being assembled. And it seemed to Marie, across that distance, that she could almost perceive joy in the elephant’s tumult—though in this she was mistaken.
The elephant had a hundred-yard lead on everyone, dogs and men, and as he raced past Marie, he looked at her now not as a comrade but as a betrayer—and then dug his feet in right at the river bluff’s edge, and slammed to a stop, as if determined to make a stand.
In reality, he was only waiting for his handler, despite the fact that Mufti had abused him, and Mufti came stumbling down the dune, trying to hold the hounds back, running just a few paces ahead of Omo and the rest of the posse.
Mufti flew past Marie without even acknowledging her—I have two seconds to act, Marie thought, I have two seconds left to save my life: nothing like this will ever happen again—and then Mufti was scampering up the elephant’s trunk, a mounting that the elephant had knelt to accommodate, while Marie remained standing at river’s edge as if mired waist deep in salt; and only yards ahead of their pursuers, the elephant and Mufti slid down into the Pecos, where the current grabbed them and whipped them away, the river accepting them as readily as if such strange admixture were the very fuel on which it ran, or some mystical enzyme required for all of the river’s other yeoman duties—the transport of logs and branches bobbing in the current, the scouring of bluffs and the deposition of sand and gravel, the excavation and burial of objects, and the nurturing of all plants and animals—as if no other miracles could exist or be sustained without the regular stirring in of additions, willing or unwilling, such as Mufti and the elephant. And Marie felt deeply, with a pain she had not known she could still feel, that she had spurned a miracle.
Either one of them, the elephant or Mufti, could have saved her. She had almost saved herself. But all that was gone now.
Omo did not receive his reward money. The circus laborers and their dogs did not see Mufti again, nor his elephant, nor were there even any solid rumors that they had crossed over into Mexico, or farther; no proof, only faith, hope, and fevered imaginings.
And yet, though Marie had not grasped at the passing miracle, the breath of it lingered, occasionally flaring in her life like the brightness of a coal stirred by a breeze—though it seemed to her too that in the absence now of hope, an even greater curse had been laid upon her, that the world was taunting her, even punishing her, for having rejected the wonder and promise it had so briefly offered.
At first, temporarily refreshed by the adventure, she was able to soldier on in the return to her tasks. She split the dense and twisted ironwood as she had always split it: expertly, so unthinkingly as to approach some daily murmured prayer; no two splits of that tortured wood ever breaking quite the same, but nonetheless always breaking.
No prince was coming for her, but for a while it no longer mattered so much, for she had been made alive again, and could travel on, with new resolve, a little farther. She knew she must turn her back on the dream, the event she had glimpsed—the elephant was gone—and she resumed splitting wood and starting fires in the little iron stove.
Within a few days the sun had melted the salt-cast trough of the elephant’s route back to its previous planar smoothness, and the wind polished and buffed the salt back to its old iridescent sheen.
Sometimes when Marie glanced down at the lake and saw her husband standing motionless there, staring into dreamland, she would mistake him at first for one of the ancient sentinels that had been claimed by the salt, the wind flapping his sleeves and coattails too, as if there were no difference whatsoever: as if the fact had already occurred.
Men came to visit her in her dreams, in the new country she inhabited following the elephant’s passage. They moved close to her, and she to them, easily. In the dreams, she and he leaned their heads in against one another, rested upon each other’s shoulder, and she was astonished to be the recipient of such tenderness and affection: and not merely the crude pawings that masqueraded as caresses in the brief preliminary to sex, but tenderness and kindness of its own accord, existing for its own sake.
In the dreams, among these strange men (though sometimes there might be a boy she had known from grade school, grown-up now—hardened, and of her age, and understanding too well her weariness), she felt surprised at first, but then quickly confident that she was deserving of such gentleness and attention—that indeed the cup of his hand seemed made for the fit against the side of her face, and that, as with a violin perhaps, the point of that chin fit perfectly, was made for the calm and worn-out cleft just above her collarbone, halfway between her shoulder and neck.
Though the dreams did not first possess either graphic or abstract representations of sex, that sometimes grew eventually out of the warmth and pleasure of the dreams—though always the best ones were when the men came to her quietly and simply took her head against their shoulder, and leaned theirs against hers, and just stood there, each leaning into the other like guardians, and she enjoyed their company, listened intently to whatever it was they had to say, whether trivial or significant.
She grew more and more accustomed to the strange intimacy of these encounters, the freshness of possibility, so that she began going to bed earlier each night and staying in bed longer in the mornings. And even once she was up and about, she moved more sluggishly: and on the days there had been no dream at all, or no visitor the previous night, she would be irritable and sullen, so much so that even Omo noticed it, and though he assumed it was simply a natural part of the aging process, contentment or happiness disintegrating gradually, in the manner of salt gnawing at the rusting hulk of a vehicle that no longer worked, he was nonetheless concerned, as he would be were any of his machines to begin emitting a faltering sound, a skipped beat, a waning in output.
In October, as the north winds returned to readjust slightly the cant and position of the dunes, Omo completed construction on his latest invention, a salt-sorting machine that involved nothing more complex than a long steel cylinder, a barrel tube that revolved endlessly, driven by the piercing, stinking labors of a steam engine that Omo had adapted to consume oil, coal, ironwood, sheep dung, and even the dried bones and hides of carcasses. Each day he and the boys fed the barrel tube as they would a penned but unruly animal—endlessly, it seemed, with its dreadful cargo as plentiful as the barrel tube was insatiable and never-ending.
Marie began to develop tics and tremors, insuppressible tremblings within—she could barely light the fires in the cookstove each morning—and her pleasant dreams vanished entirely, as if—once again—there were now something unworthy about her, something in her blood chemistry, if not in her soul, that caused her to no longer be able to receive the dreams. This hunger, this absence, only aggravated the tremblings, and she dropped things often, and forgot what she was doing, even in the middle of some familiar task.
As all her other senses began to shut down, numbed by fatigue, it seemed that only her sense of hearing grew ever sharper, until it was unbearably acute: and against her wishes, she would find herself straining to hear the subtle intricacies of the barrel tube’s sorting: the grinding of the gears constant and monotonous, though just beneath that the faintest, occasional variations in the proportion of fine salt whispering, and medium salt murmuring, and coarse salt groaning.
It was as if she were straining to pick out words and sentences from a conversation she could not quite hear or understand, and was made all the more maddening by her increasing belief that it was an important conversation, meaningful to her present circumstances, if no one else’s.
Other mornings, the voices from the salt sounded as if they were being uttered in some wholly foreign language, and she would grow madder still.
“She is a goner,” Omo told the boys, and advised them to say their good-byes while she still recognized them, and they, her.
One night, waiting, listening to the autumn sand, Marie heard the first snaky slitherings, felt the first heaving deadweight of dune-change come leaning across their roof, up and over the jury-rigged barricade of steel: sand falling lighter than rain and flowing around either side of their stalwart cabin.
This time, keenly taut and prepared, she had them all awakened and out the door and up onto the roof with shovels and brooms, fighting the rippling shift of the earth; but the sand came sweeping steadily in, up to their ankles, ten shovelfuls sliding back in for each one they tossed aside. Then the sand was up to their knees, and then their waists, so that they were working not to hold back the tide but only to save and extricate one another—handing the long end of the shovel to whoever was stuck, and pulling, while the others burrowed quickly around the imprisoned human: and once they were all free, they abandoned their hopes of holding back the morphing dune and instead leaped off its edge, slid down its towering slopes, and ran toward the lake’s edge for safety, as if pursued.
By morning the dune had repositioned itself and lay sleeping atop their house as comfortably as an animal that had gotten up from its bed and turned restlessly in the night. And as they had in all the years before, Omo and the boys began digging out, working with great force in the rising heat merely to get back to where they had been the day before; in their labors, they did not notice that Marie, still clad in only her nightgown and the tall rubber boots they all wore when mucking around the lake, had disappeared.
It was mid-morning before they thought of her at all—wondering where their breakfast was—and at noon, when they took a brief break, they were hungry enough to look for her in the cook shed.
They didn’t find her there, and wandered briefly around the various outbuildings, calling her name—and it was one of the boys who found where her tracks had gone down to the shore and out into the lake. When they gathered there, staring out at the lake, they did not recognize her at first, out among the skeletons, sitting down in the salt with her back to them, the heated breeze flapping her nightgown.
She had lost weight all through the autumn, shedding pounds until she was but a skeleton herself, her organs held within only by the envelope of her papery skin—even Omo had noticed it, but had told himself she would put the weight back on when cooler winter weather returned. With a groaned curse, thinking of how he would now be drawn still further away from his work, Omo put on his salt-bog paddle shoes and he and the boys went out onto the lake toward Marie, bringing along their shovels and ropes and chains. And though it was clear to Omo when he reached her that she was having some sort of nervous breakdown—she was kneeling in the salt, the lake up to her waist and her head tipped forward so that her chin rested on her sunken collarbone, whimpering almost silently, tracks of tears dried to salt on her leathery face—he was nonetheless rude and impatient, half believing that he too was stranded in some sort of beastly purgatory from which there could be no escape, and in which all movements and patterns strove to repeat themselves.
With no tenderness, he fastened the chains around his kneeling wife and gave the boys the order to pull, and leaning in to the task with their weary bodies, they dragged her out of the salt’s embrace, with Marie riding wordlessly on her back, looking up at the sky, offering no resistance to her rescuers, both hands clutching the chain wrapped around her chest as if it were simply a too-tight necklace.
Back onshore, the boys unwrapped her chains and hunkered by her, confused, patting her salt-crusted hair and peering with dim wonder and curiosity at the new lightlessness in her eyes. Omo hauled an old iron bed frame from the barn, made a crude pallet upon it, built a little tin awning above it, and then with padlocks fastened one end of a chain to the iron bed and the other firm around Marie’s birdlike ankle.
He went and got her a tattered parasol and leaned it crookedly against her shoulder to protect her from the sun—believing that her mental dishevelment had as its source but a single day’s overexertion. He poured her a glass of wine, set it in the sand beside her, and patted her back, and then he and the boys returned to their labors upon the house.
It took them all afternoon to get the sand moved, and when they were done, their cabin looked brighter and cleaner, scoured by the sand.
They went back to work in the salt then, wading out into the glistening sludge to fasten their trawl lines, and reveling, as ever, in the great spaciousness that was their uncontested domain. Later in the afternoon the heat reflected from the glittering fish-scale plates of lake salt began to yield, as it often did, beautiful towering cumulus clouds: fantastic, creamy billowings that took on the shapes of immense animals crossing a trackless landscape of endless blue. In such heat, the lake was a spawning ground for the clouds, and beneath her parasol, chained to her iron bed, Marie lay as if lolling in luxuriant repose and stared up at the clouds, the wine beside her untouched, with delirious sand flies spinning in the glass.
She stared unblinkingly at the day’s gathering clouds, from which no rain would ever fall, and occasionally looked out at the three tiny silhouettes moving slowly among the skeletons. The faintest cooling breeze stirred her hair, evaporating the perspiration from her face, and in the stillness, and her relaxation, it became essential to her that Omo and the boys not start up the growling steam engine of the mechanical salt sorter this day—just this one day—so that she might be free instead simply to lie there and watch the clouds.
As if they could read her mind and its desires, however, and as if they were the enemy of these things, Omo and her boys waded in from the gleaming playa, towing their heaped-up trawls of salt behind them, and made their way toward the infernal, soot-blackened, ancient sorter and fired it up.
Marie saw the black puff rise from its smokestack a second or two before the distant, tinny clatter carried to her, despoiling her splendid silence, and she stifled a sob, and tried to ignore it: tried to pretend things were as before.
She didn’t even mind the ridiculousness of their labors—that, and the waste of their lives, she could ignore—but she could not re-create the silence, could only send up a wailing and groaning that would attempt to drown it out—to balance it and compensate for it, to draw her life, and their lives, to some neutral place in which if nothing was gained, neither was anything lost. A place where the silence was preserved.
Down by the roar of the sorter, Omo could not hear any of Marie’s wailings, and continued feeding the sparkling sludge into the barrels and funnels, carrying on his important work of feeding salt to the world, the salt as immortal as the husks of their own bodies were brief and limited.
He and the boys hurled themselves against that disparity as if believing that through some reconsidered mercy, or by some dint of extra energy they expended in the service of the sullen and implacable world, they might reverse that inequity between the mortal and the immortal; and while they worked, slaving at the trawl lines like knaves and fools, Marie continued to howl and sing, cautioning that they were going too far out into the lake, that they should come back—warning them to turn around and head in the other direction, to come tend to her, and to be tender, or at least not to be harsh and wasted: above all, to please, for once, be quiet.
The next morning they bathed her as they would a soiled horse and took her to town—not to a doctor for any treatment, nor to her old Lutheran church, but to the Baptist church, for adoption, or incarceration, or whatever other alleviating procedure might be arranged—and though she was cleaned up and had stopped moaning and was even able to answer the most general questions, the church’s volunteers could see with terrifying clarity how her pale blue eyes had looked too far into the future, and had also traveled too far into the past, and how something in her vision had been broken during her journey. And in their private discussions between themselves about whether whatever was broken in her would heal, they concluded that it was anyone’s guess, and would depend, they said, on God’s will and God’s mercy, and upon chance. Miracles happened, they counseled, though sometimes there was a long spell in the world—decades, even centuries—between miracles. They did not come along every day, and sometimes they came and went without any notice or witness whatsoever.
Rick Bass’s fiction has received O. Henry Awards, numerous Pushcart Prizes, awards from the Texas Institute of Letters, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others. Most recently, his memoir Why I Came West was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. His most recent novel, Nashville Chrome, releases September 27, 2011.