Although it takes a very long time, eventually the Elephant Girl grows old . . .
1. Beyond the Crowd, Into the Fog, the Fragment of a Child’s Heart
The air is littered with a thousand distractions, and the ground beneath her trembles from the weight of the crowd. The dissonant hum of voices swell and swarm in the humidity, almost drowning out the decades that hover around the Elephant Woman like ghostly companions, whispering their stories and tending quietly to their scars.
There’s a foggy cloud of white that surrounds her, and this is where the Elephant Woman lives — inside the pale cool that keeps the clamor at bay, and the distractions to a minimum.
It is meant to be a shelter, but the cloud is still unstable, too often letting itself be carried away by whim or want of surprise. After all these years, there is still a fragment of a child’s heart that rumbles inside the one that is aged and weathered. It is this child’s heart that occasionally peers through the cloud curtain, hoping to see something new –- yearning to be enchanted by at least one more thing before it is pulled back into the safety of the cocoon.
It is the child’s heart that still surprises the Elephant Woman. Not that she has retained it, but that it is still so stubbornly resilient –- still bent on running down green hills, under blue skies, only to burst through shimmering mirages again and again, ending face down in the dirt.
Still, the Elephant Woman allows the child’s heart to exist as part of her own, not because it brings her joy anymore, but because it is innocent and without device. And even though it has never found a place outside its cage of bruised ribs, the Elephant Woman believes it should have. It is this failure, above all, that she feels as both injustice and a regret.
2. The Skin & the Arrows
Outside of the cloud, nothing is predictable anymore. Affection, anger, tenderness, and so many other things have become arrows; randomly flying, skimming, piercing. There’s a feeling of skinlessness among the crowd. Instead of a nakedness that might stand vulnerable but natural, there is the sensation of having been peeled back and rubbed raw.
The girl who paints the Elephant Woman’s face has black hair pulled back with a red ribbon. The tickle of the brush and the girl’s candy-scented breath feels more invasive than usual, and the Elephant Woman bristles, exhaling deeply as if to expand the white cloud.
The girl is biting her lower lip in concentration, and her hands feel stiff and unsure. The Elephant Woman stares at the girl, and sees in her nervous eyes only the desire to be friendly, to be liked. Suddenly, the arrow of intrusion becomes a protector, a mother — a strong desire to make the girl happy.
And she does. The Elephant Woman infuses joy into the girl until her head is tossed back with laughter and her face is beaming with confidence, but the effort is exhausting, and takes far more discipline than the Elephant Woman has at the ready anymore.
She knows, though, that she will always stand between the arrows and the innocent. Her nature is to fiercely protect what she values and loves, even when her strength is flagging.
3. Inside the Tent
The colors are bright, gaudy, and familiar. This has never felt like her natural habitat, but there was a time she felt braver here –- less gray behind the paint, more sure-footed and predictable.
On the sidewalk, a mother stands with a toddler on her hip. Both are wearing red coats with leopard skin collars. This is a detail that will stay with the Elephant Woman for the rest of the day. She will see the leopard skin purses, the leopard skin print of sunglasses, the leopard spotted shoes. She will distract herself this way to avoid the overload of everything else. The thousands of hands, sticky, white, beautiful, stained with labor. The faces sagging with disappointment or overlit with excitement. The lost, bright, violent, happy, empty, soulless, tearful, and loving eyes.
There are too many arrows, all of them unpredictable.
There is a stampede left in her chained feet, but the chains are thick and heavy, and there really is no place left for her to go.
She thinks about leopards and their life in the wilderness, fighting or starving their way through a precarious life, and she realizes that life in captivity is not that much different –- it’s just a different fight, and a different type of starvation.
There is a freedom that the Elephant Woman craves, but having never known it she can’t give it a name. She can only imagine running, unchained, down a green hill, under a blue and golden sky.
4. The Things Left Undone Will Never Be Done
Late at night, she wraps the cloud around herself and her decades of companions. She sways to one side then another, back and forth, until her skin falls back into place, and the child heart is cradled into the aging one.
She knows that soon the cloud will turn dark, and there will be no need to protect anything inside or outside of its shelter. The final night will fall, the last of the stars will be extinguished, and the last rattle of chains will be heard. The innocent girls with red ribbons in their hair will go on without her, barely remembering the day they were given the last of someone else’s love.
There are words that echo in the valley she runs towards. They speak of ignited hopes, half-sparked dreams, and new enchantments, but the Elephant Woman knows that she could live a whole other lifetime and never be done, so she doesn’t dwell on what she might have missed or left unfinished. Instead, she pulls the white around her and prepares for the silence and stillness.