The Elephant in the Garden

And then there was the elephant…

My world is small. That’s what Ian says. My world consists of our bed, the kitchenette with the hot plate, microwave, toaster and kettle, and the view from the window. He says it’s small enough to drive a person crazy.

Some days, my world is so grotesquely huge it overwhelms me and I have to get under the duvet to shrink it to a manageable size. Faced with too much stimulation — the traffic outside, the sudden shadows of birds on the window — I pull the covers over my head and lay there in the warm dark, listening to my loyal heart beat out a lullaby. That’s where I was the day I found out about the elephant.

“I’m home!” Ian announced as he came into the room and stomped over to the window. “Oh.”

“What’s wrong?” I threw off the duvet to find him frowning and squinting out of the window.

“You can’t see it from here.”

“See what? What’s happening?”

He stroked my hair, tucking the duvet back around my chin. “Don’t panic; nothing’s wrong. But there are elephants all over the city. Not real elephants, sculptures for some kind of art project. They’re big and bright and beautiful. I wish you could see them.”

He always wishes I could see the things he does, the things out there. “I’ll look online,” I said.

“It’s not the same.” He frowned and walked away to begin preparing dinner. I got up and followed him. While he cut carrots into careful slices, I rinsed lettuce, turning each leaf over in the stream of water.

Twice he inhaled as though about to say something. Finally, he spoke. “There’s one of those elephants in the botanical garden, just across the street. Why don’t we go and look? It’ll take 10 minutes at the most, and I’ll be right there.”

I arranged the lettuce leaves and set eight cherry tomatoes and eight olives on top. “I don’t go out there.”

He sighed and pushed the vegetables into the pan. Over dinner, we talked about his work, stories in the news, recipes we wanted to try. Anything but the elephant.

***

Now I knew it was there, the elephant trampled through my dreams, trumpeting so loudly I’d wake up, sweating, with a nagging feeling of self-doubt that wouldn’t let me go back to sleep. Instead of its usual steady beat, my heart buzzed and jumped, like a broken alarm sounding for no reason.

After the sixth night of broken sleep, I was ready to do anything to get some rest. “Fine,” I said, pushing away my cereal bowl. “I’ll go see the elephant.”

Ian looked up from the newspaper. “You don’t have to.”

“I do. I’ll go crazy if I don’t. We’ll go tonight, when you get home from work.”

All day I felt sick. Worried about throwing up on the way to the elephant, I didn’t eat anything. As my stomach growled, a dizzying dread skipped from worry to worry so fast I couldn’t keep up.

I met Ian at the door when he arrived home. Confined inside shoes, my toes cramped.

“Are you ready?”

“I think so.”

At the top of the stairs, I stood tense and dumb for over a minute before I could force myself to take the first step down into the world. Instinct screamed that this wasn’t safe, that I needed to get back inside, right now. Ian’s patient stare from the bottom of the staircase cranked up the tension even further, until, finally, something broke. Eyes closed, I ran down the stairs, hand sliding along the rail, ready to grab if I tripped.

Outside, the cars were hostile and angry. One wrong step and they’d mow you down. After six tight, controlled breaths, the lights changed and we hurried in front of an arrogant Mercedes, the engine grumbling and the driver’s stare heavy on my back.

Speeding up, I made it through the gates and into the garden before the lights released the traffic. In this quieter place, I noticed my shoulders up around my ears and forced them down. My fists unclenched.

The garden was as I remembered. Wisteria tumbling from trellises, rose bushes firmly rooted. Squirrels bouncing across the grass like skimmed stones. Benches where we used to cuddle, before my world shrank. And then there was the elephant.

Painted in garish colours, the elephant stood square and proud on its four squat legs. Taller than me, its bulk blocked out my field of vision as I approached to touch it. The fiberglass surface was smooth and cool against my cheek.

Sealing my ear to the elephant’s side muffled the roar from the road. In its place was a gentle throb, like the sea inside a shell. With the eye furthest from the elephant squeezed shut, the patterns painted on its flank stretched out in a distorted landscape that curved around the front leg and plunged into a valley behind the ear.

Ian put his hand on my shoulder. “Do you like it?”

I thought for a long time. “It’s just an elephant.”

“Oh. I thought you’d like it.”

Laughter spilled out of me. “Just an elephant. Just a garden. A tiny corner of a garden.”

When I turned to look at him, he was smiling. A real, hopeful smile, like I hadn’t seen in years.

***

The next day, I pulled the duvet over my head and didn’t respond when Ian left for work.

All day, I thought about how small everything was. Me, the flat, the public garden across the street. Even the elephant seemed small and unimportant. What was the point of expanding my world if it just made everything seem smaller?

“Have you been there all day?” Ian asked when he came home. He peeled the duvet from me as though unwrapping the cling film from a crumbly slice of cake.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go and see the elephant again.”

This time, crossing the street wasn’t so bad. The cars still roared, but at least I could visualise coming back, slipping between them and into the safety of home.

The elephant was still standing quietly in the garden. We walked around it, admiring the interweaving swirls of pink and blue and yellow, but soon got cold and hungry. We took a photograph, pinning down the elephant like a butterfly on a board, and went home.

***

My world is small. My world consists of our flat, the botanical garden, two hundred paces along the road in either direction and the book shop at the end of the road. I don’t go inside, but I look through the window at the titles and ask Ian to get them for me. He says I’m making progress. He talks about going to see some of the other elephants, before the art project ends and they disappear from the city for good. “You have to see them while you can,” he says.

I’m not so sure. Maybe he’s right, and my world is small enough to drive a person crazy. But I’m afraid the more elephants I see, the smaller it will seem.

The Elephant in the Garden originally appeared in r.kv.r.y quarterly in July 2017.

Writer — follow on Twitter @hannahwhiteoak - website hannahwhiteoak.me

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