Cleo lay melancholy on her bed of straw, her body striated by vertical patches of light that fell through the iron bars. Her eyes were open but vacant, blinking rarely and shifting never. Every now and then she sighed audibly, but as the hours wore on such utterances became rarer. It was the endless monotony of the railroad that did this to her, the repetitive clack-a-clack of the wheels against the pins, the endless scenery—green, sure, the way she liked it, but it was like a thousand color copies of a pretty vista, inevitably unavailable and irksome.
To tell the truth, I was getting a case of cabin fever myself. We had been on the tracks for two and a half days with no stop in sight. This stretch of railroad was lonely, and the old train didn't move as fast as she used to, and certainly not as fast as any of the new chrome bullets zipping through Japan, or even the steam engines used by other circuses. It made for a very slow, very long journey, with extended periods of time between stations.
I squatted down and leveraged myself by grasping one of the bars. I ran my hand softly over Cleo's cracked skin. "Shh, girl. I know you're bored. We'll come to a station soon, and I'll let you out."
This was, of course, a lie. I hadn't the slightest clue where we were, much less where the next station was. But Cleo didn't know of my ignorance, and I didn't plan to tell her.
The cars on the old train were held together by the utilitarian couplings found on freight trains, without the walkways that the more hospitable commuter trains sported, and so Cleo's cage was my own. I knew that I was welcome to stay on the staff car where there were beds and plenty to eat, but I had always preferred to live and sleep with Cleo, where there were never any arguments, never any discord. The car was fixed up with a little compartment at the front, wide enough that maybe two of me, with my limber frame could fit inside. There was a stool and a stack of magazines, jugs of water and a small supply of food (non-perishables—I survived on a healthy diet of cold beans and potato chips). It was cramped, though, and I couldn't spend much time in there without Cleo bellowing, wondering where I was. It was better for the both of us that I stay in the main pen. There was nowhere to sleep but the straw—but if it was good enough for Cleo, it was good enough for me.
Cleo took up a lot of space, but still she was small enough that there was room in the long car to move around. Not a lot to move side to side, but barely enough that she could turn and go back and forth. This meant there was a lot of space for me and for little Ramses, who would need his own car before long.
Ramses was a young calf, only six years old. He was a typical child—his only thoughts were to sleep, to eat, and to play, and on long trips like this one he did mostly the first. Right now he was nestled beside the lethargic Cleo, his gaping mouth taking in and letting out large bales of air while he napped. He had woken up earlier that morning and played with his mother a while—a game where they would stage some sort of mock fight with their trunks. Cleo, despite her superior strength, would usually let Ramses win, and fall down on her knees as if she had been beaten. At this, Ramses would be delighted and make little circles. This was good, as it tired him out, and soon he was asleep on the floor with her.
He was small, indeed, but his tusks had already grown to twice the size of his mother's. As a female, Cleo's tusks didn't extend past her lips, but Ramses had thick white sabers that descended almost half the length of his trunk. This posed somewhat of a danger, as he was too little to know how to use them properly, or avoid stabbing things with them. More than once, in the fervor of a passionate dream, he would accidentally scrape his sleeping mother. She would wake up with a start but never cry out, never get angry. She would look at me, and I would fetch the antiseptic stashed in my little compartment, and little Ramses never was the wiser as to where the minor scars on his mother's belly came from.
I began to scratch her vigorously behind her ears, which she liked. She let out a small guffaw, a noise which I had come to know meant she was pleased.
"That's right, Cleo. Even if it is a long trip, I'm still here. And so is Ramses. And that's what matters, right?" She made no noise of affirmation but closed her eyes.
It was the train whistle that opened them again. She raised her head cumbersomely. Ramses sprung up—as much as an elephant can spring up—and looked out of the bars. I too, stood up on my feet and took a hold of the bars. We seemed to be rolling into a small town. On the left side of us was greenery, on the right, humble houses, the kind that had been glorious in their youth but had been humbled by the great equalizer of age. We were on the outskirts of a town, one that was a little desolate, as far as I could tell. We passed more urban streets, laced with boarded shops and general stores, white-walled barbershops and a hometown dentist's office. It looked worn-in, like an old boot or jacket, comfortable and worthless.
"Look, Cleo! Look, Ramses!" I exclaimed. "A town! And that whistle means we'll be stopping soon!" Ramses shook his head with a squeal, his ears and trunk flapping.
Cleo laid her head down when she heard the high-pitched whine of the ill-oiled breaks, which along with the intermittent whistles and general ruckus of a train, made for quite a din. It drowned out even eager Ramses.
Soon the town rolled out of view and was replaced by the broken visage of a threadbare station. The faded sign above the meager ticket booth read "Arthursville Train Station," and the blatant disrepair indicated that it had been a while since any train had stopped here. The station seemed to be a little removed from the town, built on a dirt road that led down most likely to the small central area we had passed earlier. So far, I hadn't seen a soul.
The cars heaved to a mighty stop and once again Ramses' yelps of delight could be heard. "Shh!" I said. "Quiet, Ramses!"
I made my way to the back of the car where the exit was and clamored out on to the station platform. The wood was soft underneath my feet, a bit rotted and splintered. The others began to exit as well, some stretching their legs, some fixing to go into town. There was the lion keeper, the stagehands, the clowns, who looked ridiculously mundane and grizzled without their makeup, the tightrope walkers and the two young men who ran the midway games. A gaggle of others, workers and performers alike, dislodged themselves from their cages of two and a half days.
"Listen here," said a short man near the front of the train. He wore a set of pinstripe suspenders and a wrinkled buttoned shirt that was rolled up to his elbows. He was balding on the top of his head but still maintained a majestic lower plume of brown that fell down to his shoulders. He had a small gold ring on his pinky finger and sported a set of wingtips that none of us could afford. They were, however, as we all knew, the only set of shoes that he had. The circus was motley in nature, poor by trade, and attracted all sorts of men, none of whom could afford to retire within their means. This man was Pallard, the owner and manager of the circus, and when on stilts, the ringmaster, as he so decided when the previous ringmaster was caught skimming the ticket money for whiskey and cigarettes. "We will stay in town two hours!" The men grumbled. Two hours was not enough for all of those who wanted a shower from the staff car to do so, much less go into town for a drink. I thought nothing of it, partly because I had gone for two and a half days without a shower and could go seven more, partly because I didn't think that there would be any place in the town to get a drink, but mostly because two hours was ample time to satiate Cleo and to make Ramses tired again. "We are supposed to be in Lexington tomorrow night for a show the next day! I will be taking two men with me to get supplies! The rest of you are free to do as you like!" They began to scatter. "Two hours!" he reminded them.
He ambled up to me with his rolling gait, sort of like a penguin moves on ice, slowly, with a lolling slide that only the rotund could muster. "What about you? Care to venture into town today?" he asked, his meaty hands grasping his suspender straps.
"If you don't mind, Mr. Pallard," I said, "I'd rather stay here. Cleo, she's been stuck in there for two and a half days, you see, and she needs to get out a little and move around. Ramses, too."
"Very well," he said. "But if anyone comes up here, make sure they pay before they pet her or take a ride. We don't give away these things for free, you know."
"I know, Mr. Pallard." He turned to walk away.
Slowly, the great mass of circus workers dwindled. Some went into town to see if they could find a drink, others took advantage of the sessile state of the train to take their showers and take an uninterrupted nap. I was the only person outside the train for some time, as I set up Cleo and Ramses' pen outside of the car. It wasn't large, but it was significantly more spacious than the car itself. It was tall enough that it just barely superseded Cleo's eye level, and was constructed of strong steel pipes painted red and yellow. On each side was a gate that I nearly always kept locked. The pen had no fourth side but instead connected to the car, where the bars had been lifted up and a ramp placed from the lip of the open side of the car to the ground in the pen, so if they so decided Ramses and Cleo could curl back up on the straw to sleep.
At the moment, though, they seemed quite a ways from tiring. They were playing one of the games that they always played when in the pen: Ramses would hide behind his mother and she would spin around very quickly trying to catch him. Ramses would run as fast as he could to keep from meeting his mother's glance, because when she caught him she would push him over lightly with her trunk. When this happened, it was an immeasurable source of glee for Ramses, who would bellow happily and then get back on his feet to try again. These days Ramses was caught less and less, as he was becoming faster and developing better reflexes, so even when Cleo would cleverly swivel in the opposite direction, he would change his trajectory, too. He still wasn't old enough to beat her completely, and found himself on his backside five or six times in fifteen minutes.
They had been doing this since I had let them down and washed them, which consisted mostly of spraying them both with a hose and wiping down their duster parts with a wet towel. I made sure that their nostrils were free of particles from the straw, so that they wouldn't be irritated all day, checked their eyes and ears and backsides. As they always did, they waited patiently during this ordeal—even Ramses, who was antsy to get to the slightly more fun parts of being set free from his traveling cage.
Ramses squealed as he toppled over at his mother's push. Cleo looked up at me with her wet black eyes as if to say, "Do you want to play?"
I chuckled. "No, Cleo, it's okay. You go ahead and play with Ramses. Maybe I'll join in later." In truth, this was a game that I couldn't play with them. Hauling large sacks of feed and bottles of water all day, not to mention the extreme physical stress of caring for a pair of elephants, I often had to wear a back brace for my aching spine. Being pushed over was not exactly chiropractically sound.
The sound of footsteps caught my attention. I looked over to the secluded road that led into town and saw a couple figures walking up. They were too far away to determine age or gender, but they walked without any urgency to reach the station.
"Look, Cleo!" I said. "Look, Ramses! There are people coming." I quickly dashed up the ramp and into the compartment, snatching a couple of faux velvet headdresses that Cleo and Ramses wore for performances. They weren't very fancy, no plumes like some circus elephants had, but they were red with gold trimming and when one didn't look very closely, seemed almost elegant. I fastened Cleo's with no trouble, but Ramses hated them, and bucked slightly when I tried to put his on. "Come on, Ramses," I whispered in his ear. "You haven't done this for three days. Just be patient." He calmed down a little and I snapped the buttons together that attached the straps under his neck. He shook his head, as if to try to shake it off, but to no avail.
"Are you two ready for your first customers?" I asked. They only stared back.
As the two figures came closer, I could tell that their slowness of pace was a product of their age. They were old, probably in their sixties or seventies. They were hunched over slightly, and moved with short, hesitant, awkward steps, not like Pallard's rolling gait or Ramses' quick, playful trot.
Once I could see their faces, I called out to them. "Welcome! Please, come right on up and see the wild beasts of the East!" This was my pitch, my color. "Come right this way!" I put on the dusty old coattailed jacket that I kept in the car for when we performed. It was itchy and ill-fitting, not like the ripped leather motorcycle jacket I sported when on the tracks.
They walked up to the train and I flashed them my greatest smile, "Please," I said, "step over the coupling here," pointing to where the two cars were connected, as the elephant pen was on the field facing away from the road. "I apologize for that particular inconvenience."
As they stepped over into the grass, I noticed that they weren't exactly the kind of folk who frequented Pallard's Circus. First of all, they were old, and they looked like they barely had enough energy left in them to walk the road out of town, much less ride an elephant. They were dressed like American Gothic, the man in prim coveralls and a plaid shirt, the woman a flowered Sunday dress and knit shawl. Oddly enough, I noticed, she also carried a broom, and he carried a shovel, as if they had been working around the house and garden. They both wore thick glasses and staid shoes and declined to smile back, or, indeed, reply to my entreaties at all.
Despite their peculiarity, I continued with my speech. "Step right up, folks, and see the wild beasts of the East—Cleopatra and Ramses, towering elephants from the deserts of Egypt!" Cleo and Ramses were both raised in captivity, circus performers that had descended from a pair of elephants caught in Kenya. Nowhere, however, had more romance or mystery than Ancient Egypt, replete with sand and oases, stoic pyramids and enigmatic sphinxes, all of which were crudely painted, along with a big blue banner that read "Cleopatra and Ramses" on the side of the car. "You may pet them for a dollar," I added, "or ride Cleo for five dollars." I had decided not to put Cleo's colossal saddle on, because she didn't like it, and I doubted that this pair would opt to ride the elephant.
They both stood there in awkward silence for a moment, ostensibly not knowing what to say. Neither of them had probably ever seen an elephant before.
It was Ramses who inevitably broke the silence, with a loud guffaw. He began to spin around wildly, his ears flapping, squealing and barking to no end. To the visitors' alarm, he also began to piss haphazardly, onto his legs and onto the grass underneath him.
"Ramses!" I said sternly. He kept spinning, with no intent to stop. "I apologize, ladies an gentlemen, he's trained not to do this, but he's young." They stepped back a little ways, mouths open. "You see, elephants have a custom where whenever they meet someone, whether it be a welcome stranger or an absent family member, they make motions of joy, like this." I smiled. "You see, little Ramses here has been in his cage for nearly three days now. You should be honored; he's very happy to see you."
When Ramses finally stopped his little ritual, the woman took a few cautious steps toward me. "Young man," she finally said, "my name is Edith Halpermann, and I have lived at 400 Maplewood Drive here in Arthursville all my life. I have raised three children here; I have lived through eleven presidents and two wars; I have raised grandchildren here; and never, never have I seen something like this."
"Something like this?" I asked.
"Something like these two monsters you try to pass off as entertainment! Why, they look big enough to destroy the whole town and eat everyone in it. They're dangerous."
"I assure you, ma'am, Cleo here is completely safe." I was still sure that I could make a sale out of this. "Where are your grandchildren, ma'am? Maybe they would like to ride Cleo here. Children love elephants."
She gripped her broom with both hands. "My grandchildren don't live here, and thank goodness that they don't. I would never let them near this—this beast. This wild beast of the East, or whatever you want to call it. It's a monster!"
"It's just an elephant, ma'am."
"Look at it! It's got horns like the devil, and I don't want it in my town."
"Just like the devil," the man echoed.
I decided not to press things further by outlining the important differences between horns and tusks. "Well, ma'am, sir, I can only tell you that we'll be out of here in just a little while. We've only stopped for supplies; then we'll be on our way."
Ramses, in his endless naiveté, trotted up to the wall of the pen where the woman was standing and pushed his trunk through, shaking it at her. This was the way he initiated the game where he and his mother locked trunks, like he had played in the car, but Edith Halpermann didn't quite see it that way. She shrieked and batted his trunk with her broom. Ramses emitted a yelp of pain and backed away from the pen wall.
"Hey!" I shouted, but my cry of protest was drowned out by Cleo's, which was a loud, grating trumpet. In anger, she sped toward the wall and smashed into it, tilting it at an angle but not knocking it down. The pen had deep spikes which were designed to keep Cleo from getting out, although until now it had never really been a problem. She was a domesticated creature, and not prone to great shows of negative emotion. Edith Halpermann, however, had found Cleo's one weakness: her son Ramses. The old woman fell to the ground and screamed. Acting as quickly as he could, her husband ran up and brought his shovel down on Cleo's forehead. Cleo staggered backwards.
"What's going on here?" came a voice from behind the car. It was Pallard, standing at the coupling, hands on his suspenders, scowling.
"Your beast attacked me!" Edith said from the ground, where she and Pallard were nearly at eye level. She got up, brushed her dress off, and picked her broom up from off of the ground. "I demand that you leave this town immediately!"
"I assure you, madam, that we will be on our way as soon as possible." This was what I had said.
"See to it that you are," the old man said. Pallard backed up as they both stepped over the connector and began to walk back toward town.
"What happened here?" Pallard asked.
I began to unfasten Cleo's headdress. "Nothing I couldn't handle," I lied. "Those two came up here and told me that Cleo and Ramses here were monsters and they wanted us to leave. I told 'em we'd be out of here as soon as we could, but Ramses scared 'em a bit and they got in a little stitch. That's all."
"Well," he replied, "I hope they didn't pet him without paying."
"No sir," I said.
"As it turns out," Pallard began, "we're low on coal, and they don't have any here in town. A couple men and I are going to have to walk to the nearest town, which is about twenty miles east of here. I think we ought to stay the night." I nodded. "Make sure that nothing like that happens again."
The rest of the day passed mostly uneventfully. Cleo and Ramses both lay down in the corner of the pen and rested, nursing their injuries. Cleo had a thick bruise on her forehead, but fortunately for Ramses little more than his friendly disposition was injured. The afternoon came and went, the sun slipped beneath the skein of trees, and the two of them slept the hours away. Night fell and I kept the car open, just in case if they so desired, they could sleep with the stars overhead, which they hadn't done in quite some time. They declined this offer, but the breeze was a welcome change from the heat of the day and the stuffiness of the car.
I myself was not able to sleep, partly because I had spent much of the two and a half days on the tracks sleeping, but partly because I worried that the Halpermanns, or someone else, would come up from the town with some sort of vendetta against the two sleeping beasts. For all I knew, Edith Halpermann was gathering a town meeting at that very moment, informing her fellow Arthursville citizens of the threat up at the train station. So, instead, I watched Cleo and Ramses. Ramses seemed to be having a bit of a bad dream, kicking and shifting his weight, more than once scraping his mother's underside with his tusk. Cleo slept through this as soundly as she could through this, but eventually Ramses began to bark softly, as if he were barking at something or someone. Cleo turned her head to me and looked at me, as if to say, "Please, can you help him?"
I shook Ramses' head gently, making sure to avoid his tusks, which were flailing wildly. "Ramses," I whispered. He awoke with a start, opening his wet eyes. "Ramses," I repeated. "Let's play a game."
I was successful in tiring him out, as well as easing his mind a little. In a little less than an hour-and-a-half, he lay back down next to his mother and slept without a sound, without the slightest pitch. The night, I hoped, would pass without another problem, and we would be out of the town by mid-morning.
This was not to be. I was sitting on a stool, which I had taken from my compartment inside the car and placed outside in the pen. I was smoking a cigarette, something I hadn't been able to do for two-and-a-half days, as it was a rule of mine not to smoke in the cage. The smoke irritated them, Ramses especially, who would contract a nasty cough.
I then saw a light down the road, through the trees, flickering in and out as it passed between the silhouettes of trunks and branches. It wasn't the mild yellow light of a lantern or the twin headlights of a car, it was the menacing, pulsing light of fire, and it came on what seemed like a thousand footsteps, like a crashing wave inching closer.
They were on the train before I knew it, a mass of them, possibly the entire population of Arthursville. They climbed over the couplings on both ends of the car and surrounded the pen. Some of them, like the Halpermanns, carried brooms and shovels, some pitchforks. A few carried the far less comical shotguns, and the rest, in the greatest modern impression of Frankenstein, carried torches. I could see their faces for the red light, they were old—some not as old as the couple that afternoon, some older. They were in their night clothes, most of them, pajamas and obscenely long nightgowns, slippers and a few odd nightcaps. They shouted and shook their rustic armaments at me.
I had grasped the stool in my hands, anticipating possibly having to swing it. "What's going on here?" I yelled as loud as I could.
A man toward the front of the mass holding a torch—an oil-soaked two by four lit on fire, I saw—said, "Edith Halpermann told us about the satanic beasts you're harboring up here!" A resounding echo of support came from the crowd. "We didn't think much of it! We thought that we could leave you fellers alone and you'd leave by tomorrow mornin'!"
"I promise, sir," I said, keeping my distance. "We'll leave as soon as the owner of the circus gets back from gettin' the coal we need to get outta here."
"It's too late!" said a voice from the crowd. A chorus of "yeah's" followed.
"We ain't gonna let you stay in town any longer," the old man said. "Not so you can cause more damage."
"Damage?" I repeated. "I didn't do any damage."
"Maybe not you," said an old woman to my right, "but that beast did!" She pointed behind me. I turned around quickly. There was Cleo, who had woken up with all the commotion, had backed up all the way against the bars on the far wall of the train car. She appeared as if she was trying not to be seen, but there was no way for her to find anywhere to hide her massive body. Seeing that attention had turned from me to her, she screamed, lifting her trunk in fear. It was odd, how intelligent she was. She faced crowds twice this size on a daily basis, and working in a circus, fire was no stranger to her. She had seen fire eaten and juggled, and had never been frightened. But now she had an innate sense that she was in danger. And she was correct.
The old man said, "I woke up in the middle of the night and saw that Edith and Abe Halpermann's lights were on across the street. Most respectable folk would be in bed with the lights off at this hour, so I went over to check to make sure that everythin' was okay, and that's when I found 'em."
"Found 'em? Found 'em what?" I asked.
The crowd fell silent. It seemed that no one really wanted to say. "Found 'em dead," the old man finally said. "Their heads were crushed against a flowerbed. Plain as day, they were, just lyin' there, with no heads, in their backyard."
"Like somebody had stepped on a tomato," a woman said.
"And well," the man shouted, trying to bring the enthusiasm back into the crowd, "we're here to make sure those beasts never kill anyone again!" Irate voices filled the early morning sky. The torches rose, taking the place of the sun that would not rise for another two or three hours. They began attempting to push over the pen.
"Wait! What makes you think my elephant did this?" I shouted.
"What else could?" shouted someone.
"I don't know!" I said, searching desperately to reason with the approaching mob. "But think about it! How could a full grown elephant march into town, without being seen, or heard, or even make it between the houses and the trees to get into someone's backyard? Besides, they ain't been outta my sight all day!"
The crowd stopped. They had no answer for this. Whispers crept through the body of people, and for a moment, I thought they would leave, but slowly they all began to notice a new noise, something other than their whispers or my pleas. It was a low, rasping sound, as if someone were out of breath. In the corner of the car, there it was, a wheezing, shaking pile of straw. The collective gears in the mob began to work—a full-grown elephant, no, it couldn't make its way through a small town without being noticed, but a smaller, younger elephant, perhaps, one that could make its way through the woods and not down the streets, one that could hide in the bushes and make suspicious noises so the proprietor of a house would come down to check. Yes, that was possible.
They heaved and forced their way through the pen. The wall fell to the ground, and they made their way to the car. I tried my best to beat them off with the stool in my hand, but three of them held me down and wrestled it from my hand.
One of them had a rope which was tied into a vulgar noose, and once they had climbed the ramp into the car and picked Ramses from the straw, they tied it around his neck and tightened it. He screeched in protest, bucking all the way as they led him—pulled him, rather—from the car to the ground.
Cleo turned from fear to anger and ran headlong into the crowd, knocking some over, and crushing the leg of a woman, whose scream was barely audible over the shouts of the mob and the crackle of torches. She swiped at the men who had Ramses by the noose with her trunk and successfully toppled some of them to the ground. Ramses took this as his cue to run and dashed out of the hands of his remaining captors. He was not quick enough, however, to make a complete escape, and got as far as a nearby tree before several more men had tackled him and grabbed the noose. Cleo ran toward them once again, but fell to the ground at the sound of a gunshot. I screamed her name as I saw her fall, and she bellowed something unintelligble. I was still on the ground, but I fought to see over the shoulders of those holding me down—there was a thin stream of red running from one of her side.
Ramses fought with all his might, pulling this way and that, but with no success. He seemingly decided to try a different approach, and ran toward the man closest to him. The man was caught by surprise, and was thrust into one of the remaining walls of the pen, and when he fell back over, he landed on Ramses. The young elephants' long white tusk poked through the other side of the man's ribs. Ramses shook his head, as if to dislodge the man, with no luck.
"Look! He's killed again!" said someone from the crowd. Several others pried the man off of Ramses and set him squarely on the ground. The man had already stopped breathing.
The shock must have been too much for poor Ramses, who put up only little remaining fight as they dragged him to a tree and tossed the other side of the rope over a sturdy branch to four men waiting on the opposite side of the tree. They pulled the rope, trying to hang Ramses, but he was too heavy and only his front half dangled off of the ground. I could see that he was trying to make a noise, but the noose restricted his throat so much that he could barely open and close his jaw.
"Let me go!" I screamed, but they had my arms pinned to the ground. "Ramses!"
Very few images stay with you for the rest of your life. The mind has a way of remembering things either immensely pleasing or immensely shocking and discarding the rest as trivial. There are some images that are virtually burned into your retina, whether good or bad, that are there whenever you close your eyes. When they hoisted Ramses from the tree and poured turpentine on his body, their torches held high, I knew that it was something I would have to relive every time I tried to go to sleep, but I couldn't tear my eyes from the last time I would ever see the poor child again. They left him there until the fire had charred his body so that he was light enough to hang by himself, and then let the fire die out as he became little more than a pile of ashes on the forest floor and, in the most macabre fashion, some semblance of a skeleton hanging from a rope.
Soon they had satisfied themselves and began to walk back to the town en masse. They held one of the shotguns toward my head as they left, making sure I wasn't going to try and come after them, but I hadn't the energy or the willpower to do anything like that.
Cleo had gotten up and walked slowly—due to her the pain in her side—over to where they had set Ramses on fire. She found the pile of ashes, some from Ramses, some from the burning rope, and very carefully sat down over them, not disturbing them. She held her head down low, and if she had been capable of weeping, I'm sure she would have.
It was nearly noon the next day before Pallard returned. He discussed the nights' events before us, in a line before the train.
"Noble workers of Pallard's Circus," he began, the dome of his stark bald head covered with sweat from the mid-day sun, "It is unfortunate times that we face. Some things I will never understand, and, ladies and gentlemen, one of those things occurred last night with the loss of our young elephant Ramses and the injury of our elder elephant, who has been with this Circus longer than most of you." He ambled along in front of us, hands on his suspenders, beaten wingtips clacking against the soft wood of the platform. "It seems tragedies happen in threes, however, and as I'm sure you already have some inkling, early this morning, as the sun was rising a freak earthquake hit the town of Arthursville." Murmurs among the line. "Yes, a freak earthquake. It was small, but it was devastating. Houses were crushed, killing their residents, buildings were leveled, water mains were broken. Fallen power lines started an immense fire, and it is my sad duty to say that to our knowledge, there is no one left alive."
"But sir—" I began.
"A freak earthquake," Pallard reiterated. "That is all. Tomorrow we will be in Lexington!" he shouted so all could hear. "I expect everyone to be prepared for a full performance." He turned back to me and said, "Except for you. You and Cleo may be pardoned of duty until she is healed."
"Thank you sir," I said. Everyone went back to their cars, and I climbed back into mine, where Cleo was lying on the straw. She wore a large bandage across her back. It turned out that the bullet had only grazed her and produced a bit of a flesh wound. A bit of antiseptic and the bandage would have her physically repaired in no time. Emotionally was a far different matter.
As the train began to move and the clatter of the wheels became apparent, I sat down next to the ailing elephant and petted her softly on the head. "To think, Cleo. A freak earthquake." She looked up at me. "We sure are lucky that it was small enough that it didn't reach the grave we made for Ramses." She shut her eyes, as if to say that she didn't appreciate the lie. "I know, I know, I miss him too. I didn't mean to get him killed, Cleo, honestly I didn't." I leaned down so she could hear me better without having to raise her head any further. "We were only trying to defend you."
I lay down on her left flank, and she slowly wrapped her trunk around my shoulders. She had a touch gentler than any human I had ever met, like a mother who cradles her newborn child in her arms.
"You know why I think all the people in Arthursville were old?" I asked her. "Because all of the young people had left. Maybe they all grew up here—like Edith Halpermann's children—but then they left, because they thought that there was someplace better. And maybe one day their children will leave too, trying to find happiness apart from their own parents." Cleo said nothing. "I guess these people just don't understand family."