A head 9 feet off the ground, weighing in between 3500 and 4000 kg (which for the English Imperial Measurement victims in the audience, that’s approximately 4.4 tons), your instructor only speaks Thai, has a neck wider than your waist, demands you participate in two shows a day and walk her to and from her house in the forest, with treats.
You walk out to meet her at dawn, and your indigo-suited mahout meets you somewhere along the way. You’re carrying freshly cut sugar canes taller than me or bunches of tiny bananas stuffed in your pockets and hands. The morning forest is cool, and morning doves and distant cuckoos are keeping time with your footfalls. One of the mahouts is giggling about something and another is softly whistling. Some of them carry machetes in a sheathe on their backs, some of them have a utility knife. All of them carry traditional hooks: a short bamboo rod with a metal hook (not sharp) for communicating with our teachers.
We tempt them up or downslope with our burden of sweetness. They are chained to a tree for the night. They wait while the mahout crouches down, undoing the chain. You stand a bit away, holding your sweets out of trunk range.
Singkhón, who was chosen to work my fat ass out, is convinced I am an idiot. I stand too far away and hold the sugar cane on the wrong side. She wraps her trunk past me, straining for the untrammeled sweetness inside the cane. When she can’t reach it, she bumps me on the shoulder to get my attention. She strains for the cane again. She huffs with umbrage when the mahout asks her to pull up the chain so he can loop it over her neck, in carefully measured strands.
The mahout tucks his hook, grabs the top of her ear and seems to leap straight up onto her back. You don’t have the eye yet to see what he did. You’re marveling at even this creature’s great turned-over ear holding a man’s weight. The mahout says something to you, and something to her. She flaps her ears and raises her grey treetrunk of a foreleg on your side. She crooks her foot, ever-so-slightly, like a step.
You hook your sandaled foot on one of her nails that is the size of your palm. She raises her foot, helpful, as you grasp fearfully for her ear. Will you by the first one to rip an elephant’s ear right off? You know how much she weighs, and she could put that foot right down.
Scramble, bramble, fumble, oof. You’re up! “Bai, bai!” says the mahout, and you hear the hollow thud of the handle of his hook on her rear. Is whacking the elephant before 7 am really a good idea? She takes up the sugar cane you dropped, casually snapping its 2-inch width into pieces with her trunk. The crunch of her broad, hidden teeth as she pulverizes the 7-foot lengths in her mouth all at once passes description.
The ride in is amazing with a frisson of terror. Bumpy terrain, downhill, the mahout’s hands lightly on your shoulders. Her shoulder blades underneath you scissoring and turning. She steps down so gracefully, you don’t expect it.
You arrive at the fairgrounds. The mahout is on the ground faster than you can figure out how. The elephant settles onto the ground. You dismount. He says something in Thai. He says it again, slowly, pointing at the crook of the elephant’s knee. He smiles and says, “up!” You thrust yourself up on the elephant’s neck, figuring it will be easy. The breadth of her shoulders is a stretch for you, and you thought you were pretty stretchy. She rises before you’ve got your balance and you totter.
The mahout says something soft, “take song?”. That can’t be it. The elephant kneels with her hindquarters in the air. “Off!” he smiles at you. Off the front? More ungainly than the elephant, you put your legs up over the soft round nobs of muscle on the top of her head. She presses her short tusks to the floor and tilts her head forward. Like a 5-year-old on the world’s biggest slide, you feel your eyes become saucers. Even this low, her great forehead is 4 feet off the ground. Where are her eyes exactly? Why are you already wanting to protect her, to avoid hurting her with your dreadful ignorance?
You hit the ground. The mahout makes it clear with word and gesture. You’re supposed to leap back over her head. Your thighs ache already from clinging to the elephant on the ride down. Wait, leap onto her back? Her neck? But… Oh, god.
Ungainly, maybe on the third try, you manage it, smacking into her bristled flesh. Maybe you smacked your own private bits. Or maybe not. She’s standing again, a kind of rising that is smooth and gainly.
Your mahout twirls his fingers in the air. you have to turn around. On the elephant’s back. With nothing to hold onto.
The mahout throws bananas up to you. Her trunk is there immediately on her forehead, patient, but demanding. She’s breathing in through the great round holes in her enormous squid-tentacle of a trunk. You gingerly place a banana there. She is not ginger. There’s a little finger at the end of her snout. She rolls the banana forward and tucks it under the lip of her nostrils. The snout unrolls again. She can do more than one banana. Have you seen the sheer size of her mouth? And these aren’t even properly sized bananas.
“Off” says the mahout when she snatches the bunch of bananas out of your hand as you are failing to tear one green one from the bunch. You grab the ear, your foot sort of finds purchase on her knee. You hit the ground. You’re grateful you’re done as your thighs are quivering and your arms are a little stiff from frantically straight-arming the muscles of her forehead to keep yourself aloft.
“Again!” the mahout smiles. “More,” he says, holding up 2 fingers. “Then show. 9. Then show. 1.”
He pauses as you look up at the grey wall of the elephant’s round side. She has been a mother, you can see one of her breasts hanging. Her head is turned toward you, just a little, the eye taking in the small space you occupy. She radiates tolerance, and a preference for sugar cane over banana.
Something melts away. It isn’t fat, although that’s probably going to happen over the next few days. It isn’t nervousness, because you were so uncoordinated already, you doubt it’s gotten better. It’s a burden you didn’t know you were carrying. Somewhere at the edge of the forest, you dropped it in the grumble and trumble and bright shout of her trunk calling to her friends high on the ridge.
It will be there for you when you leave the elephants, but maybe a few parts of it will be missing.