I don’t know much about elephants, except that they’re very large and very intelligent – intelligent enough to use about twenty-five different sounds for communication. But as little as I know, I thought I was certain about one thing: elephants are not capable of speech.
Nevertheless, yesterday afternoon, at Salt Lake City’s Hogle Zoo, I came face to face with an elderly African elephant named Christie. And she spoke to me.
I was standing near the elephant enclosure with my daughter, observing a demonstration of the relationship between the elephants and their trainers. My daughter wasn’t interested in any of it, but I thought it was fascinating. At one point, a trainer asked Christie to back up to the fence and raise her foot, and Christie complied beautifully, letting the trainer pick at her toes.
After the demonstration, Christie was left standing in the elephant pit, along with Zuri, her seven-year-old calf. Most of the crowd had thinned out by then. My daughter was already pulling on my shirt, asking that we leave, but I wanted to stay, just for a few minutes longer.
It was a cold afternoon. Snow was floating down. Little piles of it were pushed up along the sides of all the walkways, and the bushes wore it like white caps. Something about the cool, crisp air mixed with the sent of hay and elephant held me fast. I felt as if I were waiting for something.
I watched as Christie approached her feeding station, which was a metal box filled with hay hanging on metal chains. The only way to get to the hay was through an opening near the bottom of the cage, which was just big enough for Christie to stick her trunk into. I watched as she pinched off tufts of the dry grass with the strong, finger-like projections at the end of her trunk.
Before long, Christie managed to knock the bulk of the hay from the chain, down into one corner of the cage. The hay fell into such a position that Christie couldn’t see it.
She knelt down and pushed her trunk in, again and again, each time without success. I felt a pain in my chest, watching Christie grope in vain. Finally, she made a frustrated trumpet blast with her trunk and turned her back on the feeding station.
Young Zuri, who had observed her mother’s struggle, crept up to the cage quietly. She was small enough and low enough to the ground to see where the hay had fallen, and she set to work. She stuck her trunk in and skillfully manipulated it until she was able to reach the hay. Instead of putting the grass in her mouth, like she had before training demonstration, Zuri scooped it out into large piles in front of the cage.
When Christie saw what her calf had done, she flapped her ears. She took a big trunkful of the hay and stuffed it in her mouth. I smiled as she swayed happily.
And that’s when it happened. Christie turned toward me and lumbered up to the edge of the enclosure. She looked right into my eyes, and she spoke.
She said, “You need to quit your job, Kyle.”
I was absolutely dumbfounded. I knew she had spoken to me, but I also knew it was impossible. I thought that someone near me must have said it. I looked around. There was no one but my daughter, who was taking off her shoes and plucking rocks from the soles, as if nothing had happened.
But I knew Christie had said it. I knew it. I couldn’t see her mouth move, because of her trunk, but I heard those words.
“Quit your job,” she had said. Could it really be?
Christie dipped her head, as if in confirmation of my unspoken question. Then she slowly turned and walked away, a few grapefruit-sized balls of dung falling from under her tail.
After my initial shock, I took up my daughter, and together we went to get some ice-cream at the food court.
I sat for a long time, watching my daughter eat her rainbow sherbet, thinking about what had happened and what it meant. My daughter told me she didn’t hear anything, but she wasn’t paying attention. I was. I was…
I don’t know why Christie chose me. I don’t know why she said what she did, but her message was clear: I needed to quit my job.
So, what else was there to do? The next day, I went into work early, I walked into Mr. Teller’s office, and I told that son-of-a-bitch that I quit, because Christie the elephant told me to do it.
I’m still adjusting to the reality of what I’ve done and what it means for me and my family. But I feel secure in the knowledge that I did it for reasons that are bigger than I am, for reasons that are, in fact, elephantine.
This short story was a response to a one-word prompt. The word was “elephant.” If you enjoyed reading this, pleas follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you for reading, and keep writing.