Elizabeth McCracken: An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir (amazon / ebook) / Thunderstruck and Other Stories (amazon / indiebound / ebook) / The Giant’s House: A Romance (amazon / indiebound / ebook)
This story by Chaya Bhuvaneswar was originally published in the Asian American Literary Review.
White Dancing Elephants
I walk out to the lobby, wanting to prolong my dream of you, thinking that I’ll gain some control while I’m awake. Impossible—I’m too aware that people are staring at me. The lobby is tiny, compact but cool as glass. Now I am walking, hands loose, hair disheveled, pajamas covered by a trenchcoat. Someone glides out from behind a front desk and presses an umbrella on me because it’s pouring outside. The rain is tropical, transforming a city street into an early monsoon. It’s June in central London, financial district, the back of Deutsche Bank, the first building I walk past, with its gargoyles and angelic flourishes so unlike its German-constructed, super efficient-looking front façade. I’m a half a block away from the hotel when, shivering, I open the umbrella.
The rain makes it possible to wipe my face and have people think that I was caught in a downpour. I hate metaphors of rain, fecundity, gushing water from a hidden space. There wasn’t anything macabre in your passing—no gush of blood, no horrifying trickle down my legs. Just two clear stains, understated, as quiet and undemanding as your whole life had been; only enough blood for me to know.
When I was younger, in my early twenties, and couldn’t imagine having a child, I would stare at myself as I jogged past office buildings, appreciating the slim reflection and promising myself to stay that way. Now I don’t look. The curve of my belly now is meaningless—indulgence, fat, no longer where I’m carrying you. But all the signs are still there, superfluous: the fuller breasts—not tender anymore like they had been—the extra pounds, the young skin, the shiny hair that were all gifts from you.
“You alright then luv?” A cabbie leans out his window from the English wrong side of the road when I stop at the corner for the light and he sees my tearful face. I nod, then make an unintended turn and keep on walking.
I’ve reached a subterranean sort of Euro-mall without realizing it. Octagon Arcade, it’s called, though looking at the glossy bus-shelter type of walls, I have too much of a headache to bother counting up to see if they’re eight. Things are never named reliably, I understand. Boots is not a shop where shoes are sold; Monsoon has nothing to do with India. W.H. Smith isn’t a person but a generic chain of newsstands selling cheap sandwiches and tabloid rags and things called “health foods” like tiger balm, which isn’t made from tigers at all. (If we were only in the forest, together—we wouldn’t sleep. We would stay up. You would nestle against my breast, picking it up and stroking it and arranging it under your ear like a pillow, and eventually you would say, “Mama,” though not right away. Before you could speak you would make sounds, and because the sounds would tell me you were listening, I would kiss your head and tell you stories, stories within stories, stories of elephants in the forest, stories of tigers.)
I go down the steps into the mall, heading into the pharmacy. I need pads. The first day, the way I mopped up blood was cautious, hopeful, as if by seeing that it could be quickly absorbed I was collecting proof that you were still alive. After that I didn’t bother to look; I stopped measuring. Only one moment caught me unawares, like getting soaked by rain—the moment that, for just a moment, smiling, thinking of something else from long ago, I actually saw you on the pad. Your flesh was hard, less darkly bloody than the rest of it, clearly more than just a part of me. Your hardness froze my smile. You had existed, formed; I could see light outlines, the shape of limbs. You were even hard enough to have formed bone, if you had lived more than an inch.
The English pharmacy is impossibly friendly and bright.
“You alright then miss?” inquires a security guard. I look away from him, my attention fixed on the bellies of women gathering into a line. The line of them divides between the self-pay registers and the one or two cashiers who stand, bored, only as polite as required. The women’s bellies divide into flat, obese, and then the one in front of me, the woman petite with long dark hair, pregnant, I recognize, with certainty, and maybe even in the final trimester. She looks perfect. I turn away from her and find the other one who is obese. Perhaps she’s never been pregnant, I think, and she’s just fat—until the woman’s three children follow in her wake, sullen and palely beautiful, like dark-haired English children are, their lips a thin and natural red, their eyes pale blue. She’s probably my age, I realize suddenly, early forties, but she has not spent her life on mistakes. My eyes can’t leave her or her three growing daughters. The same security guard who talked to me just before comes up and gently accosts me.
“You alright then? You know what you’re looking for? D’you need a basket or something?” and I shake my head, “yes,” letting him put a shopping basket in my hand, even though my darling I have accepted nothing.
You could be alive. The hard thing could be from inside of me. A piece of a fibroid, a tumor from inside my uterus that my body was smart enough to get rid of so there would be more room for you. The ultrasound could have been blocked by bowel, air, artifact, ignorance, an act of God, because it wasn’t meant for you to be have been seen. (How much more clearly I would see it all, if I could only rest under a tree with you kicking me awake in my belly.)
In the hotel, I change my pad again but try to get some rest, really try, the way I would if I knew beyond a doubt that you’re alive, so that I would take care of us. I churn the sheets around my heated limbs, taking off clothes and putting them on again, remembering how my younger sister told me she couldn’t sleep before her son was born.
“Where can I go where there’s green space?” I find myself asking via telephone, pressing “0” in the dark and conquering my jet lag with high-heeled boots. Still holding the phone, I put them on, as if I might go out to go dancing, the way my sister and I did when we were young. Now my younger sister has a son and a daughter and, she confided in me, before she knew that I’d lost you, my lucky sister is trying for another one. (I’d never give you to her, my darling. I’d never even let her wish for you.)
Then a grey cab with the caption “Radio Cell,” modern and sleek, nothing like the battered yellow cabs in Manhattan or even the quaint-looking, black, old-fashioned London type, pulls up in front of the hotel and lets me slip inside, and there with the side windows open wide and dust of the city rushing in, I finally fall asleep. Years from now, my sweet love, I imagine you will be a man, and you will crane your neck to look at things your driver tells you to ignore. The thought of you seeing all of it makes my eyes open. The Gold Shop with the sign, “We can melt down anything”; the gleaming Tesco with the two homeless men too tired to stand up while they’re waiting for it to be noon on a Sunday so they can buy cheap wine; a beautiful Caribbean-looking prostitute waiting at the edge of the pavement, carelessly almost in traffic, talking to a man leaning out of a van. She has one hand on her hip and the other holding the handle of a baby’s pram that has its front wheel alarmingly close to a stopped red double-decker bus. My taxi stops near enough for me to see her painted but young face when she steps back from the curb; I see her shaking her head “no” at the driver of the black van; she will have other babies, I am sure of it, and they will live even though she smokes, as she does even now poking a milk bottle into her baby’s face while she exhales blankly. Crushed beer cans come flying out of the van window, aiming at her, but she sidesteps and laughs, looking around, not moving the bottle from where her covered-up baby must be sucking for dear life. She’s seen all of this before and will again. When you come here, you will not stop the car to talk to her. But you will watch her pushing the baby, like I do. You will watch her until they disappear.
“Primrose Hill?” the driver asks suddenly, reminding me of what I told him. Before I know it I’m standing outside, in a wet meadow abutting a suburb. I walk deeper into this corner of green, smelling the cars parked outside the small fence that lines the park, seeing a rectangular sign with directions right at the entrance. The sign is blurred from the recent rain so I can’t read; I ignore it. (But if you were here, I would have hoisted you up to look at it; I would have taught you how to locate yourself on a map.)
You would have played right here. Not would have—will, and years from now it’s possible that you will have a child who loves this park. A three year old’s laughter at finding a big enough stick to shake at an adult. He will run to the fence that separates the grass from the curb, where cars are squeezed into makeshift parking spaces, and stick his face through, hoping a pretty girl will talk to him. Then he will turn his little face to look in the direction of a sound—the tinny melody from a truck selling ice cream—beg for some, but turn his face away from the ice cream when you give in. Tossing the ice cream cone up in the grass, you will lift your smart boy in the air, throw him up, catch him, give him to your wife but get him back. Each second he laughs will be exquisite joy, if you would only stay with him, my love.
The blood has stopped; my underpants feel dry. No one has been inside my womb and actually seen you, checked your eyelids, passed a hand under your mouth to feel if there’s breath. Everyone has sympathy but no one really knows. (And in the forest, no one can stop us from dreaming. The rustling of leaves could sound like elephants unfolding and folding back their ears; the ground shifting could be from armies of tigers lying down to sleep. The sound of a motor could be the enormous animals’ far-traveling, rumbling snores. A soft breeze you feel on your face could be a beauty’s breath or even her hesitation before she kisses you; she could be one of the invisible girls who live in heaven, dancing while celestial musicians endlessly perform. One of those girls could be your bride.)
I walk faster, not minding the high heels. The park divides into paths that go up different hills. I didn’t consciously choose it but my path leads up a diagonal. It cuts across the park where on either side there are great swaths of uncut grass interrupted by patches of clover, by dandelion stems with puffs blown off. At the end of this occasionally littered, broken path, with its deflated and discarded rubber balls, its trash, its posters for farmers markets and festivals and radical meetings, are two quick walkways, one next to an expensive-looking running track. Then a left turn leads to London Zoo.
Years ago, before I conceived of you, I had been here. In the first cages, monkeys bait the onlookers, sitting in branches high beyond their view and swinging their tails, then suddenly flinging their bodies hard against the glass for one mocking instant before retreating into the leaves. There are two different jungle gyms, each sized for a different age of child, and low-slung exhibits where small hands can press buttons and run their fingers against tactile squares, one with a lizard’s skin, the other with a fox’s fur.
I can’t walk through the zoo. My high heels get caught in the grass outside the main entrance where crowds will line up in a few hours to buy tickets. Another thing: the zoo is closed. All I get is a glimpse of an office—“The London Zoological Society”—that looks like it’s been there for hundreds of imperial years, since back when it might have been a hoot to go see Hottentots and Pygmies, tribesmen of India, captured gypsies who were locked up, exhibited, meticulously caged and labeled precisely. (The doctor had said: “If you pass tissue, bring it in for us to analyze,” but I will not, my darling love, I wouldn’t ever give up part of you.) I stand, uncertain of the time but clear that it must be before eight, waiting for a stray compassionate employee to arrive and realizing no one is coming.
Finally a taxi whizzes by, empty, pausing inquisitively, and I signal, get in and mumble my destination, then sleep until Oxford. Long before I thought of having you, that’s where I lived. I hated it, and I hated myself for parts I loved—the sanctity of the libraries, their vastness and capacity. The hushed and exquisite museum, laden with things I thought They shouldn’t have, like the Diamond Sutra scrolls, sixteen feet long, stolen from a Buddhist Cave; the “They” like Lenin’s angry description of tourist monuments to Trotsky when they visited Europe. But the coldness of those buildings didn’t change the loveliness of tea, funny TV commercials, doner kebab carts with their goodness of egg and meat packeted in foil, smelling divine and tasting perfect after alcohol. I didn’t drink even before this pregnancy, abstaining for months in case you suddenly came into being. When I studied at Oxford I found moments of quiet, when I jogged in the Deer Park around Magdalen and saw the lovely ones behind the fence, or when, by myself, I drank tea and buttered scones on lonely afternoons, and when I sat near the window of some ancient common room and recited words from memory that you might hear from multitudes, if you come back to me—“Namo tasso bhavagato” and “Namo tassa arhato sammasambuddhassa,” imagining white elephants and dreaming of your birth. Sometimes boys would edge close, curious, asking me to repeat the prayers, giggling nervously at the strange words. But I took no offense—I liked it when the English boys couldn’t tell what the words meant. It gave me an excuse not to date them.
This morning, traveling to Oxford from the London Zoo, the spot where the cabbie lets me off, muttering instructions, will turn out to be a familiar corner near a bridge. The bridge leaves Magdalen and green and graduate houses and a street that, if you follow it, leads to the Bodleian Library across from the King’s Arms. But when I walk over it, instead of turning back toward the colleges, the bridge leads to a different place, to Cowley Road and strong-smelling Indian fish-curry takeaways and a plebian, exotic Oxford that I had secretly found comfort in, made of dread-locked white hippies with mangy dogs, coupons at Sainsbury’s, and plastic-covered, borrowable public library books. Sometimes I would disappear into the normalcy of cardigans and quiet dissipate streets with shops displaying porn magazines and fifty-pence boxes for Oxfam and cheap licorice, and there I would eat, slicing the sweet, bitter pink and yellow layers of the candy with my teeth, flipping with curiosity through Hot Indian Babes until some white woman, blowsy, unwashed with bad skin, resentful, would interject with angry eyes: “Cheap, aren’t they?” daring me to defend the beauties taunting her from the pages. (I’d never tell the woman this: my sister posed once for her husband and he painted her, as he would paint you in her arms if she had you—if you ever came back to this world, my love, and found me gone.)
Over the years I have lost time being afraid. Hours lost as I shook in my bed, or stood on a chair staring at my face in the mirror over my small sink in a cupboard, anguished over what some boy or some tutor said, the state of my hair, the exact size of my body. The fact that I was not yet married and didn’t want to marry anyone I knew then. To avoid tears I’d walk or read or write or even hide in the basement of the foreign language institute, watching foreign film after film, pretending that I needed them. I thought I felt rage when someone shouted a slur at me from three feet away, while sitting on the tube from Paddington Station; or when someone called me a “cheap tart” when we were waiting in a line for a dance club and I was wearing silver shoes and a black dress that had a pulse; or when a law passed in the U.S. that I didn’t agree with, or when, years after Oxford, I married your father and loved him, and in spite of it, he did not save your life.
Before my last morning with you, my love, I didn’t know rage. I didn’t know how empty rage is, like a bag of bones, and that it doesn’t animate.
Now I am walking across the Isis River, looking down, hearing the sound of my heels on the bridge. Once when I was here at Oxford, living here fifteen years ago, I stood wearing a towel, looking through the curtain at the garden below my room, making note of its beauty as if I were far away, because I would leave it soon enough; because it would never be mine. Not even noticing that I was beautiful. The radio was on, voices starting after my usual alarm had gone off, and I heard the reporter talking about a girl. She had been found in the river just before the May Day festivities on the riverbank. The girl could have been me.
This morning at 400 hours the body of a young, unidentified South Asian woman was found floating in the Isis River in Oxford. No other details are available from the police. She did appear to have been dead for a few days.
In all the years I’ve lived, I haven’t realized that my body is dying. But you realized it—you will realize it. You heard the thud of elephants, the dancing procession, the march not of a wedding but a funeral. You were so quiet, but you knew when the end came; you were silent as the blood leaked from my body.
Every May day here on the riverbank where I’m stumbling now, wading into grass, there is a festival with Ferris wheels and contraptions, displays and tricks that can cause accidents. And there are animals—swans, horses, maybe even dancing elephants. I lie down on the grassy bank and dream of you. I dream of elephants, thumping a distant melody, disrupting the forest. (If you were here now, my darling, how we’d dance, my love. And if you were old enough and strong enough to move your feet deliberately, you’d sing. You’d talk to me.)
Now I lie down and feel the weight of it on me, white dancing elephant that I can see with my eyes closed, airy and Disney in one dream, bellowing despair and showing tusks in the other. In the last dream a gash of red stains the white hide horrifically, and I am forced to watch an elephant dying. It makes me lie down all the way, ashamed and finally mindful of my own blood. The sound of people walking on the bridge becomes a din. I close my eyes, drained, dreaming of six white tusks entering my side. I slide off my shoes. Now I could roll under water.
The woman found in the Isis River in June of this year was forty but was found to be pregnant. She was on her way, authorities learned, to give birth at her father’s home outside of London, as is the custom for Asians, but by the time she reached the river she had lost the pregnancy. Or it is possible, though less likely, authorities feel, that the child was born along the way and disappeared below the ripples of water, along the bank, under the trees, before being rescued and taken home by someone else watching.
If I were to disappear, you would be taken home by someone, I believe it. My body, this body, could be discarded. But you could live. It isn’t that your soul came to me in a body that wasn’t durable. It’s that my body was failing, too late, too careless, too empty; but after my death, you could live. In my absence my own sister would love you like a prince.
And then one day, my sweet love, you’ll come here and walk along this riverbank, or cross over this bridge, or sit calmly under a tree here—and not know me. But you will be awake when I’m asleep. Yes, you will be.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician and writer whose work has appeared in Nimrod, Bangalore Review, Blue Lake Review and the Asian American Literary Review, and received a Henfield Transatlantic Writing Award as well as a Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and scholarship to Squaw Valley. She is at work on a novel and lives in the US with her family.
Image: flickr / Thomas Hawk