Matthew Baldwin


Tennessee, 1916

It has been two sleeps since Mary and the others were last loaded inside the rattleclap boxcar, but as the angled shutters permit only flickering slivers of daylight to enter she has no way of knowing how many suns have passed overhead. Nor can she see much inside, either. Mary has never encountered a creature as large as herself, even amongst the circus menagerie, and the car is too small for her to turn. She can only feed and drink from the troughs in front of her, play with her chain, and pass waste as needed. Yet while she cannot see them, she can smell the rest of her herd chained up behind her, their scents mixed with those of hay and excrement. Rosie and Allie sing together in low warbles and whistles, their voices tumbling over one another.
Mutt vocalizes as well. A calf barely past his milk time, he remains fearful of the confinement and noise, and still calls out for his absent mother, as Mary remembers doing. Whenever he does she sends soothing subsonic rumbles in his direction, flinging a trunkful of hay from the feed trough over her shoulder at him. Each time his whimpering ceases, and she receives a tug on her tail in response.
Over the last several suns a sharp pain has formed beneath a tooth in her lower left jaw, a fever seeping upwards from it into the space behind her eyes. Chewing is difficult with the aching tooth, but it is something to occupy herself with. On other instances she finds herself rocking back and forth to the rattle of the car or one of the songs Allie and Rosie sing, lulling herself into a doze.
She is not a creature of time, but of memory, flowing clear and deep.
Prompted by Mutt’s calf calls she drifts along that tide into something not-dream not-memory. It carries her to a lush, green place of trees and rivers and rains, of a heat that wraps around her like a mother’s trunk, where even the red earth under her feet smells of life. There are no rattleclap boxcars or chains, no canvas canopy of tents, and she is free to wander as she wishes. Mary is small in this not-dream not-memory, much smaller than the overlarge self who towers over the circus menagerie. Smaller even than Mutt.
There are other creatures here as well, the hind legged monkeys she will learn are called “men.” She does not yet know the types of them, the circus-men, the worker-men, and the town-men, or the difference between their males and females, though she will come to in sight and scent. In the not-dream not-memory she is young and trusting, a small creature attracted to the succor of comforts in a frightening world. It is these men who ply her with fruit and separate her from her mother and aunts. It is they who first introduce her to chain and to bull hook, to the feel of a rider on her back; things she has experienced every sun since.
A lurch of the rattleclap boxcar and a squeal of metal pulls Mary out of her reverie as the train slows to a halt. Both of the calves trumpet in excitement, tugging at their chains in anticipation, and Mary rumbles calm at them, despite also longing to walk in the open air. They settle, Mutt squeaking uneven notes to himself, amused at his own music.
One by one she hears the sounds of other boxcars down the line opening and the men inside rousing themselves to their work. They are as familiar to her waking mind as that far-off jungle is to her slumbering one; rhythmic and predictable. With the jangle of keys and a sliding bolt the great door finally opens, admitting the first men she has laid eyes on since they were last locked up. They are opaque silhouettes in the sunlight, but their odors are as distinctive to her as Mutt is from Allie. The first is the one named Sparks, and his smell has been with her since she was a calf, carried on one of the first hands to ever touch her in kindness. He taught her to perform, but gently, unlike the mahouts who first brought her out of the jungle, gentler even than the handlers who took over afterwards. He smells to her of comfort and trust, as another elephant might.
The other man is a stranger, and he reeks. It is a deep rancid smell of bad meat and old tobacco and rotted fruit, palpable enough to cut through the fouled confines of the boxcar. A scent every basic instinct tells her belongs to a dangerous thing. The others smell it too, growing agitated at the unfamiliar intrusion. Even dull and unflappable Rosie whines uncertainly, her voice too low for the small ears of the men to hear.
“All right now, settle down, we’re here,” Sparks says, producing four apples. These he juggles nimbly before tossing them to the elephants one-two-three-four. Both Mary and Rosie catch them with ease, but the less-coordinated young ones have more trouble. Mary makes sure they have theirs before she pops her own into her mouth, pulping it between the right-side battery of teeth.
There is the usual business as Sparks unchains Mary and her herd from their posts. What is odd is how the reeking man follows him, the two of them making undecipherable man speech as they do. In the crook of his arm this man cradles a bull hook.
Sparks gives the exit command, and one by one the elephants allow themselves to be led out. None of their regular handlers and caretakers wait for them outside. Instead Sparks lines them up, the two young ones positioned between Mary and Rosie, and makes the hand signal for “look.” “Red,” he says, placing a hand on the other man’s shoulder. “Red.” He gives the Red one a bag of peanuts to offer them; Sparks places his hand on each of their trunks as they reach for it and repeats the word. Mary is the last, and only reluctantly does she accept the snack.
She does not like this Red one, does not like the smell of him, does not like how Sparks hands her chain off to him, but when he gives the sign to march, she obeys, the others following her lead. Mutt grasps her tail, Allie takes his, Rosie falls into her rearguard position at the end of the line, and together they are led by the stranger even as he is led by Sparks.
As they march, Mary sees that the circus train has arrived in a sparse dusty lot near a large field on the outskirts of the wood and stone structures where town-men dwell. The surrounding vegetation smells of wild honeysuckle and alfalfa, the air punctuated by bird calls and the buzzing of insects. Mutt, catching the scent as well, whines in hunger.
Among the dust, worker-men scamper about erecting poles and dangling canvas; others tend to the animal menagerie while some of the performer-men practice their routines. Mary knows them all as well as her herd. Her favorites are those who paint their faces in white clay and tumble about like monkeys, and the female who cares for the pair of long-necked giraffes. That one always has a treat hidden away for the calves, or a scratch behind the ears for any elephant who kneels down to receive it.
Not like this Red one, who grips her chain tight and whose scent still provokes revulsion. As the herd passes an open water barrel she snuffs up a trunkful of water and sprays him. He sputters angrily at the drenching, and while Sparks laughs and speaks men’s calming words, when his back is turned the bull hook in the Red one’s hand lunges for the soft skin behind her knee. The jab is sharp and snakebite quick. Mary is no stranger to the hook. It has been with her since she left the jungle, but she has not felt it in this manner in many suns, and the strike elicits a grunt of pain. She is grateful at least that his stink is diminished. The other elephants share her relief, rumbling happy reassurances.
They walk the perimeter of the circus, past the corrals of prancing horses and the cages where the large cats pace, waiting to be fed. As always, they cower at the sight of her, retreating as far back into the confines as possible, emitting odors of fear and trepidation. Mary knows even the wild kindred of these caged cats would be no threat to a creature of her size. She bellows at them once, and is rewarded by the sight of the black-furred one laying back its ears and mewling in fright.
The elephant’s corral tent and practice area has been erected already, and their performer-men wait. Sparks leaves them in the custody of the Red one, but not before going down the line and giving each another handful of peanuts. Mary embraces him as though he were a familiar elephant, coiling her trunk beneath his arms and around his torso as she has done before every practice and every performance. “Have a good show, my big girl,” he says, patting her on the snout before she releases him.
The herd spends the remainder of the sun practicing routines with their performers. They mount daises to salute an imaginary crowd of onlookers; rise up on their hind legs to pirouette in a circular dance; Mary and Rosie stand side by side while one of the females does tricks of balance and dexterity atop their backs, leaping and flipping between the two of them before coming to rest on a seat of their entwined trunks; Allie blows her trunk through a row of oddly-shaped hollow metal implements, producing even stranger noises; Mary tosses a soft round inedible melon men call a “ball” so that Rosie can hit it with a stick. While Mary has spent most of her life doing these things, they remain beyond her understanding, though she has learned to find enjoyment the activity.
While they rehearse the Red one idles unneeded beneath a raised tent flap. Only during brief interims are they remanded back into his care, and during these moments he does not hesitate to enforce his commands with the bull hook even when the herd is compliant. In less than the span of a single sun Mary receives more jabs than she can remember.
It is poor sweet Mutt who receives the worst of it. Something about the calf riles the Red one as the sloth bear riles the tiger, provoking a wild fury. He prods and jabs Mutt whenever possible, muttering man-sounds too low for the other men to hear as he does, though Mutt’s squeals are loud enough to be heard by all. With each one Mary feels something like a far-off river in the first monsoon rains rising within her.
Due to his small size, the young one has little to do in the performance itself, other than march with the others and climb upon his own short pedestal to wave at the crowds; instead he attends to Sparks during visits with men-children after the performances, as Mary did when she was much smaller. Yet now, hurt and confused Mutt stumbles and slips despite the coaxing of a gentle-handed performer, whining for aid the others are unable to give.
At sundown the herd is fed and watered before being chained under the corral tent for the night. They hurt, Mutt worst of all. While their hides show little sign of injury beneath the dusting they apply to protect from the sun and ward off insects, the calf wheezes and moans, his aches voiced in a low whine. Several times during her feed Mary stops to caress both the little ones with her trunk. Even implacable Rosie needs a trunk wrap, and they spend that night in a huddle, the young ones braced against the shelter of their elder’s legs.
Sleep comes as a relief. The pain under Mary’s tooth has spread along her jawline, and she feels dizzyingly warm. It is a comfort as well to finally be away from the stink of the Red one. Though chained, they are left in peace, free to sing and rumble as they drift off.
There is heat in Mary’s head, and heat in her sleep-mind, the lushness of tropical jungles not-dreamed not-remembered but fully felt. It is a landscape of sensation, hot air and cool water, great green leaves that crackle between her teeth. The sounds of her mother fill her ears, and upon her back she feels only the lightest of rain, not the clambering feet of men.
Mary’s herd is roused at first sun by the Red one, who smells even worse than he did the day before. His breath fouls the air with every exhalation. They are unchained and led out into the dawn’s light, where a gathering of worker-men wait with tubs of sudsy water and long bristly brushes. There they are bathed, the water as cool as that of her not-dream not-memory, the brushes like rubbing up against the scratchy bark of a tall tree, and the herd rumbles in delight. Even tired and sore Mutt chirps with joy as the men scrub him, tugging in play at their legs and blowing bubbles with the sudsy water. Though when he seizes a trunkful of soil to dust himself with, the Red one hooks him behind the ear hard enough to provoke another cry. Mary smells but cannot see the calf’s blood.
After the bath they are dressed, their heads and backs covered in the ornamental drapery used for performances. Several times during this process Mary hears the man-sound “parade,” and knows what comes next.
They are queued into trunk-to-tail formation, behind the marching band and the prancing horses with their bareback riders, in front of the tumbling monkey-men and the big cats in their wheeled cages. Sparks stands at the head of the procession, and at his signal the band begins playing and the circus marches towards the town ahead. The Red one strides besides Mary, grasping the chain fastened around her neck, bull hook cradled in his other arm.
The town-men have turned out to meet the parade, males and females forming a corridor along the central road, their young ones perched atop barrels or seated upon stout shoulders. They clamor and shout and bash their open hands together as the procession advances, making the excited noises of their kind at the sight of the marching menagerie.
Long ago Mary found this chaotic din foreign and frightening, and it took prodding and bribery by Sparks to spur her forward, even in the company of other, older elephants. The chattering and yammer of angry monkeys it seemed to her, though she now knows it is like the sounds Mutt makes under the bathwater. Without prompting, she raises her trunk to bellow a greeting, the herd following her lead. With this salute comes the hush of awe, followed by an eruption of even greater cheers from the crowd.
The procession marches on, past the dwellings of wood and stone, past barking dogs and shouting town-men, past stands and small tents smelling of man’s food.
As they pass one of these stands Mutt begins to whine. The herd was watered but not fed, and hunger quickens in his belly. Mary rumbles calm at him, reassurances that there will be food and rest soon, but the calf gives only a tremulous reply.
Without warning a round ripe melon tumbles from a stand adorned with fruit as though the town-man squatting inside had thrown it. It bounces and rolls through the street to jostle against Mary’s foreleg, and with her trunk she flicks it back towards the hungry calf like a play ball. In her peripheral vision Mutt scrambles to retrieve it, his trunk outstretched.
The Red one’s bull hook catches him first, the cruel curve snagging the flesh of his ear. Mutt squeals in alarm and pain, a wail that cuts through the sound of the crowd. Mary hears the Red one bark “No!” as the hook thumps down on the calf’s head, Allie and Rosie rumbling in distress at the sight.
With barely a turn Mary swats the man as though she were brushing aside a rotted-out log. He tumbles to the ground, the bull hook clattering against the hard surface. The crowd laughs and cheers at this spectacle, as though it is part of the parade.
Mary has been around men long enough to know that for some the happiness of others is a pond from which only rancor is drawn. The Red one scrambles to his feet, shouting at her in man-sounds. She shoves him again, but while he stumbles he doesn’t fall once more. Striking upwards with the pointed end of the bull hook, he catches her just below the painful tooth in her jaw.
The inside of Mary’s skull erupts in fire and agony, searing from the underside of her jaw to the backside of her ears and filling her vision with white light. She staggers, her great body turning unwieldy and lurching. No further blows follow; instead she hears him shouting “No! No!” at Mutt over and over again. The bull hook crashes down on the bellowing calf’s head, thick hard sounds of wood bashing against bone. The air fills with the twin tangs of the calf’s blood and dung, and in Mary’s not-dream not-memory that monsoon river crests the banks and overflows.
It is the easiest thing. Mary wraps her trunk around the man, flinging his body through the air into the fruit stand, which collapses inwards under the impact. The crowded town-men scatter in panic before her as she charges, but she pays them no heed. The Red one struggles amongst the fallen fruits and shattered wood of the cart. Her head filled with fire and anger, Mary rears back, and with a bellow brings her foot crashing down on the round sputtering thing half-buried in melons, pulping fruit, flesh, and bone.
Save for the whimpering of Mutt as she reaches to console him, Mary hears only silence, but it is like the stillness in the air before a thunderclap. Then the thunder crashes, screaming town-men spilling into the streets in all directions save towards the elephants. The circus horses whinny in terror beneath their riders, their disciplined cavort disintegrating into a mob of panicked equines. Provoked by the horses, the caged cats roar and growl, hurling their bodies against the bars of their cages. One of the giraffes gallops about in fright, turning in unsteady circles pell-mell, elongated tongue drooping from the side of its mouth.
There is fright in the man-sounds, but there is anger as well, shouting and jeering. Hurled fruits and stones glance off her hide as Mutt and Allie seek what shelter they can amongst the legs of the adults. Mary feels a tug on her chain. It is Sparks, clutching the fallen end and giving her the visual and vocal signals to march. Mary trumpets to the others to assemble, following as Sparks marshals what control he still has over the remains of the circus parade. Spurred on by their riders, most of the horses have already fled, the tumblers and the marching band dispersed into the crowd.
It is a long march back to the tents, and the procession is pursued for much of it by members of the crowd, though they follow at a distance too great to pose a threat. Mary bellows a warning at them to stay back, keeping Mutt close.
The herd is led back into their corral tent by Sparks, where he chains them again to the central post. Several of the worker-men bring them water barrels and fork hay out while others strip their parade coverings. And then they are left alone again.
The sun passes overhead, light diffusing through the fabric of the canopy. The herd spends it feeding and watering themselves, soothing each other with caresses and rumbles. Mutt remains especially close to Mary, cowering up against her legs as though terrified the Red one will reappear. The skin of his face carries several wounds, split open from blows of the bull hook.
Numbed with fatigue, the herd eventually drifts into sleep. Mary is the last, one watchful eye kept on the tent flap until she can resist the pull no longer.
It rains in the night, outside the dimmest edge of Mary’s not-dream not-memory, and when she wakes the earth is wet and smells of petrichor and fresh dung. Jungle smells.
The herd is still alone in the tent. She is aware of men’s voices in the distance, Sparks among them, as well as the regular sounds of circus business being conducted. Mary eats, waters, and makes waste. Her jaw is inflamed from the blow of the bull hook, and her head aches from the inside, but still she eats. Dual masters of habit and instinct demand it. She rumbles as she eats, summoning the others back out of their dreams.
The curtain flap parts, and Sparks enters silently. Rather than approach as usual, he stands in the partition, staring at the herd. At her. Mary watches him watching them, not understanding. Already grazing at the furthest extremity allowed by her chain, she reaches out with her trunk, but he is still too far, and the gesture hangs in the air.
Finally he relents, stepping forward to allow her to embrace him. “Hey there, big girl,” he says, the familiar hand patting her snout. Except his eyes make water, which she has never seen before. Confused and uncertain, she blows on his face as though they are playing a game, but this only provokes more tears.
Mary holds him for a long time, rumbling as though he were a newborn calf, until he finally signals for release. “Let’s go for a walk, Mary,” he says, unhitching her chain.
Mutt bleats in alarm as she is led out of the tent, but Mary replies with calming whistles to him and the others. Rosie and Allie respond with sounds of patience, safety, and trust, but Mutt’s trunk still twitches in agitation.
The air outside the tent is cool and wet, a gray haze draped over the circus and the world beyond. It offers some relief from the pain in her jaw. Sparks walks her at an unhurried pace, towards town but not into it. Instead they venture along the outskirts, following the metal rails of the rattleclap boxcars ride atop.
They reach a place where many of those rails intersect, crossing each other like vines in the trees. It is a place of machines, hulking black engines and a thing that reminds her of a long-neck giraffe made of metal, a chain dangling from its face as her trunk dangles from hers.
There are town-men and circus-men congregating there as well, in a loose circle near the sleeping giraffe-machine. They wait as though expecting a performance, though there is no platform for Mary to balance on, no ball for her to toss around.
Sparks escorts her to the center of the group, beneath the rearing head of the giraffe machine, passing her chain off to another man as he does so. A fresh apple appears in his hand, which she takes and pops into her mouth. “That’s my girl,” he says, patting her trunk as she munches on the treat. His hand, familiar and warm, lingers there a moment, as it had so often when she was just a calf. It is the first memory she has of a human touching her with pure gentleness. “Good bye,” he says, and the hand is gone.
The giraffe-machine roars into life, shaking the earth under her feet and belching acrid smoke into the air. Loud shearing noises that are strange and frightening to her issue from it, but before she can react the chain enrobing her neck tightens, choking off even her ability to vocalize. It pulls her backwards, drawing her front feet off the ground, and then up, her hind legs left kicking a spasmodic parody of her dance routine, trying to find purchase in the soil.
She has never left the ground before, the experience of it confusing and terrifying. Up she is hauled, further and further. Mary cannot inhale or sound out, but she can still move, flailing about with trunk and leg in writhing paroxysms, grasping at the breath being choked out of her. Her eyes frantically search the crowd for Sparks, but if he is present, she cannot see him.
The giraffe-machine, already overburdened by her great weight, groans under the strain of her flailing. All her weight hangs in her neck, the constrictive metal links gouging into her flesh, and it is more strain than either can bear. With a snap the chain goes slack, oxygen rushing up the twin channels of her trunk as Mary plummets back to the earth.
She crashes down squarely on her rump, the bones of her left leg and hip shattering on impact. It is pain unlike any she has ever felt, the great and terrible sensation of her body breaking from the inside, and in reflex she throws back her trunk, bellowing distress to the rest of the herd.
The pain is too much. Mary cannot move, cannot flee. She can only sit in that unnaturally upright position, gulping the air and calling for the herd. There is no response, no rush of Rosie and Allie and Mutt to her side, and Mary knows they are not coming. Still she calls, weeping as her kind does, in a pain deep and unfathomable. It is the cry of a calf knowing loneliness for the very first time.
Mary does not know how long she sits there. The pain overrides any sense of the passing sun, reduces the actions of the gathered men to a dull susurrus she cannot pay attention to. She can only sit and weep, the cool air condensing on her skin and commingling with her tears.
Eventually the men get another chain secured around her neck, and the horrid machine stirs back into merciless action. Mary understands that this is her death as surely as she knew the stomping of her foot meant death for the Red one, but she is too weak to resist as it raises her again, once more crushing the breath from her. Wracked in pain, abandoned and broken, she can do nothing but perform one last dangling dance for the crowd below.
Mary is a large creature, big of brain and heart and lung, and dying takes time, every moment of it filled with pain. Her last air leaves in the same wheezing gulps that it entered. As the breath flees from her lungs, so too does her dimming consciousness flee from her body, past Sparks and Mutt and the Red one, past circuses and rattleclap boxcars, into the not-dream not-memory.
Forgotten places spring up in her vision, trees sprouting up amongst the machines, great vines snaking down from them to entwine the rail lines, and deep red earth forming itself under her feet. Her ears fill with the sounds of tropical birds, of chattering monkeys, of great bats flapping overhead on leathery wings. And elephants, elephants old and young rumbling to each other as they go about their dusk browse.
There is darkness among those trees, Mary knows. Strange unknown things dwelling within. But she has full awareness of her elephant self as well, and understands that there is no pain waiting for her there. As the last light dims, Mary raises her trunk and trumpets a single joyous note, pushing herself forward into the great dark jungles of home.


This story is inspired by the true-life hanging of “Murderous” Mary outside Kingsport, Tennessee in 1916.