‘There cannot be many places to hide an elephant.’ The Englishwoman had minty breath. The river water sluicing under the bridge stank of fish guts, and something swooped in the rafters above them.
‘Let’s look.’ The Englishwoman ducked out the other side of the bridge, pulling Chjara with her. They moved away from the bonfires and the crowd, onto the peninsula with its dark copses of trees. Chjara smelled it: she smelled a sweet-sour aura which was the anxiety of the beast. She had never experienced the world of odor so keenly before America. The Englishwoman stepped in a pile of dung.
‘Who goes there?’ The animal keeper appeared out of the shadows.
The Englishwoman shook off the dung. ‘I want to ride it.’
‘You don’t,’ Chjara said, surprised.
‘I saw it done. In Liverpool for King George’s birthday. I want to ride her.’
‘You aren’t a Fraid?’
‘I’m not a coward.’ The Englishwoman’s chin thrust up.
‘But you don’t have to prove…’
‘It’ll be a dollar to ride it tomorrow,’ the keeper said.
A dollar was a king’s fortune.
‘Here.’ The Englishwoman produced a coin.
The keeper took it and put it away in a purse which he pocketed but still he didn’t move for a long moment. ‘All right then, she’s over here.’
She was a shadow darker than all the other shadows. When the animal keeper struck his flint and lit his torch, the elephant’s eyes shone inside folds upon folds, full of foreignness and misery. She was exotic, she was unknown, she was beastly – and while the keeper talked with the Englishwoman, Chjara reached out and touched the trunk of it. Of her.
‘You can go too,’ the keeper said. ‘There’s room for two.’
The torch light drew the crowd’s attention. ‘There it is,’ someone shouted.
The keeper switched the animal behind her knee, and she obediently bent low. The Englishwoman waited but the keeper lifted Chjara first. The creature allowed Chjara to step up its great gray belly. She found her footing on ridges of wrinkled flesh. Then Chjara was on top, a broad and flat place with a harness easy to grab. The crowd shouted encouragement and warning. The elephant began to rise.
‘Wait! I’m the one who paid,’ the Englishwoman scolded the keeper, who twitched the animal behind the knee once more. It bent down again.
Chjara pitched forward. To stay balanced, she embraced the neck of the great beast, which was studded with black bristles as stiff as sewing needles. Blinking with pain, she clung to its enormous collar of muscle.
The Englishwoman, meanwhile, tipped and wobbled up the elephant’s side. Her arms cartwheeled. The crowd roared and laughed as if she were clowning. Janet climbed onto the back and the animal heaved itself up. Chjara straightened from her crouch at the same time, and then they rode toward the crowd to enormous cheers.
Chjara looked out over the Americans. She remembered riding on her father’s shoulders in the Rue du Dragon tavern. It had been like this only now she wasn’t a child and, though the townspeople cheered, they had seen Henry’s father rebuff her. Who would protect her here? Would Henry? She closed her eyes briefly and when she opened them, she felt that she was the beast, with folds upon folds around her eyes. The elephant’s footsteps shook the ground. In the tremor of it, there was the memory of electricity. Embers from the five bonfires crinkled the dark. The crowd’s exclamations could turn to jeers, and looking over them, Chjara understood that destiny was made by such people, by crowds of people — by their opinions which gusted into the air like the fires’ heat and created currents of praise and rebuke. On top of the elephant, she felt small and apart. She held on. Her heart swelled hot inside her while her skin felt cool, exposed. Nausea rose in her throat.
Then the elephant swung its trunk up and bellowed.
It was an inhuman trumpet. It sounded part bird, but bird magnified to mountainous size. The vibration shook through Chjara, the sound coursed between them, and Chjara breathed a long outward breath, joining the sound inside herself. The sweat of nausea disappeared as quickly as it had come.
Henry returned up the bank to the bridge, and from beside his parents he watched the Wonder of India and the woman who would be his wife. He saw how Chjara’s shoulders moved with the animal, up and down in the same slow and sure rhythm. The Englishwoman struggled. Teetered. She leaned forward, clutching onto Chjara. Chjara guided the woman’s hands onto her hips, and Janet began to ride with the elephant, not against it, following Chjara’s example. Henry thought, Where did you come from? How are you the person you are? She moved with the beast as if she were a part of it — part of the mystery itself. He looked at her with wonder and he wanted to possess her. He wanted to be for her what she was to him: necessary. He wanted her intelligence cleaved to his own.
‘She is a fine woman,’ Henry’s mother blurted.
‘Anna!’ Randall Garland glared at Henry’s harlot. On his elephant. A beautiful face. A full figure. How could he convey to Henry that he understood the temptation to do as one pleased? He himself would like to hold Henry to himself, his prodigal son. ‘Henry, if you marry the Papist,’ he said, ‘I cannot love you.’
‘Oh Randall,’ Anna said.
‘Freedom of religion is also the letter of the law,’ Henry said hotly. ‘Why can I not marry whom I choose? Because of religion?’
‘Sophist,’ Randall said. ‘You know you transgress. You feel it — here.’ Randall placed his hand on his son’s chest.
Henry looked away, his lip twitched. ‘I will marry her.’
Randall stared at Chjara Vallé on the elephant, and he knew she would only make Henry’s chance at grace more difficult. Wasn’t it difficult enough? Randall wanted to cry out. He looked at her and he looked at the female elephant, which now showed him her backside with a huge slit that dripped urine. He smelled the urine and the fetid female odor.
‘I will renounce you and all I’ve promised you,’ Randall said.
‘Husband, would you cast the first stone?’ Anna said, furious.
Chjara looked down and saw Henry’s father and mother beside Henry, all their eyes fixed on her. Chjara understood Henry’s parents about as well as the elephant did. She watched the beast’s long ears rippling. They were arguing about her, no doubt. She couldn’t join the conversation. She felt a thousand miles removed from them and their angry gestures and red faces. As if from the distance of a dream, she observed them caring; feeling urgently. That was what it was like to care. And yet it didn’t matter what the content of feeling was at this moment. She remembered being in the chapel in Paris after leaving the arms of the baker; how she had wept. She had wanted so much to feel certain of each choice she made and instead everything had been confusing. Here on the elephant, she felt like a foreigner to feelings, their language distant and confused.
The elephant swung toward the river. She dipped her trunk into the water. She tilted her head back, and Chjara leaned with her. The elephant bellowed again, this time spraying water over the whole gathered crowd. Children squealed with delight. Fires hissed with the spray.
Henry walked away from his father. He was no longer a rich man’s son. With part of himself, he knew this outcome was what he’d feared. He knew his avarice. And he knew now that he would have to sell something from his new supply of Husbands and buttons. A frisson electrified him all the way to his stockings. It was a feeling like looking down from a great cliff, and anticipating the fall.