“It’s so much easier to sleep than to live.” Lynn Mundell’s “Lucky Elephant” follows the the only white elephant born in a thousand years, celebrated, worshiped, as her birth coincides with the coming of the rains. It is a story of grief, a story of motherhood. It is a story that will linger with you, long after you’ve read its final word.
It’s so much easier to sleep than to live. So day and night she disappears into the same dream. A small, grey sun plummets through white clouds, shattering like a rock on the ground. Each time, she’s roused by the heat and shocked to see he’s not beside her. Then she remembers and immediately dozes off, standing up. A great marble memorial to the dead.
Long ago, when she was born the only white elephant in a thousand years, the last people on earth celebrated for seven days, and on the last day it rained. They carved elephant charms of ivory that they wore around their necks. Then ivory rattles for their own babies and ivory cups for toasting their good fortune. The more it rained, the more elephants died for their tusks. And that is how she became lucky for some and a curse to her own.
One night she wakes to find herself in the large puddle that was once the river. She’s pouring yellow water over her big back, where it then trickles in tiny streams down her legs. Mother to mother, the moon comforts her, grief staring down with a soft, homely face.
She sleeps so much that the herd leaves, although only after many weeks of prodding her awake and sweeping the flies from her eyes with their tasseled tails. But they must stay ahead of the remaining poachers. She watches their steady progress over one mountain, and the next, then the next. The trampled grasses are a golden roadway to the sky.
When she was very young, she fell asleep among the herd and awoke within the town’s prayer room. While she called for her mother from her sudden cage, people gathered outside and looked in at her, pointing and whispering in astonishment. How did she get in, when the room had only one narrow door and an open air ceiling? Eventually, they had to remove three of the stone columns to get her out. But no one minded. She brought water and now could fly everyone to heaven. And she belonged to them.
One day she opens her eyes to discover herself in the center of the village, where an offering has been placed in front of her. Small, stingy songbirds, their preserved stolen eggs, barbequed snakes, and a few red ants drowned in a drizzle of honey—precious delicacies to awaken her appetite. A small boy squats near her, in the midst of arranging dead blossoms around a bucket of priceless water. When she stamps her foot and throws back her head in a deep bellow, the boy jumps up and sprints back to his mother, leaving a dark trail in the dust where he’s wetted himself. Sorry, he calls to her. Sorry, his people chant, an ugly chorus sung badly.
She is starving herself but drowning in dreams. Sometimes now she wakes to find them both sleeping standing again, her boy under the canopy of her large white belly, as though they are two nested statues. Then she really does wake, alone. And knows it was a dream within a dream, as rare and pointless as she.
Toward the end the people are so desperate that they bring her the killer. His hands are tied in front of him; he is bloody and dusty. She does not want this man (who may or may not be her child’s murderer), unless he can turn back time to when her son would come gamboling back from the river, shimmering like a water stone, trumpeting his joy. This man is kneeling, begging her forgiveness, her mercy, her magic. Please, Mother, please—and this is the absolute worst incantation. When she turns her back on him, he sobs, his last noise on earth before she slowly sits on him, crushing his windpipe silent.
Now she dreams only one dream, over and over, which is the end. It is night. She wakes to the sound of his anguished bellows, then gunfire. The other elephants form a protective circle around her, but she breaks free, instinctively moving toward the town on the bank of the dying river. He would have sleepwalked there, not realizing fear feeds on night. Gigantic and white, she lights her own way to him. He is floating in the shallows as though asleep on his side. All of the people begin speaking at once. He came out of the water like a crocodile. He sounded like a charging bull. He was a bad spirt. It’s the boy who says this, and the crowd falls silent. With her trunk, she pulls her baby onto the shore. There is only one bullet, exactly in the center of his forehead. He died of trust, she thinks. Evil eyes and other symbols have been carved into his hide. This is her fault. For she is the lucky elephant who brought rain, and he was the one whose birth coincided with drought. She curls her trunk around his body and hugs him to her heart. Then she wades into the middle of the water and releases him there. The water: where he was happiest and his corpse will soon kill the last chance the people have to survive.
In her last dream, she and her boy are swimming with the herd in the river, which is overflowing with water so clean she can see their big toes, the tiny fish, their future as a growing parade of elephants. When she wakes at dawn, she has sunk to her side and the young boy has arrived with a pitiful offering of food. He tries to push the mash into her mouth. She runs her trunk lightly over his protruding ribs, then his sticklike legs. She tells him he can sell her tusks and her hide, and what’s left of her for meat. That there’s no such thing as a lucky elephant. That soon even their existence will be a myth.
Lynn Mundell’s writing has been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Five Points, Tin House, The Sun, and elsewhere. Her work has placed in the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions short and long lists and earned the 2019 Lascaux Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is co-founder and co-editor of 100 Word Story and its anthology, Nothing Short Of. Her chapbook Let Our Bodies Be Returned to Us will be published by Yemassee later this year.