Gertie got to go to the circus. She snuck me back some cotton candy and told me about the monkeys dressed up in people-clothes. She said there were people flying through the air on hanging swings and an elephant parade. Hearing her tell it was almost as good as being there, her pretty blue eyes lit up and she laughed so hard it sent me into fits myself. Momma could never afford something like the circus. Momma cleaned Gertie’s house, cooked her dinners, and sewed her clothes. I don’t know what Gertie’s momma did, being that mine did all the things a momma was supposed to.
Momma came running out back where I was running Gertie’s bloomers over the washboard, telling me to wash up and put on my good dress. The only time I ever wore my good dress was on Sundays to go down to the revival tent. I heard her talking to Daddy about an elephant. An elephant! My face went hot, embarrassed for even getting my hopes up about the circus. I knew Momma wanted to take me, Momma wanted to do all the things Gertie and her momma did. But we just ain’t those kind of people. That’s what she said, and I believed her.
We rode in the back of one of the farm trucks with all the other farm help. Everybody shouted over one another while us kids tried to figure out what brought on the unexpected trip.
“I heard she gored him!”
“No, no, she just stepped on the poor man’s head.”
“I heard the blacksmith shot the damn thing five times and it didn’t even flinch!”
“Animals like that gotta be put down. Animals like that gotta know their place.”
“Maybe they oughtn’t be keeping wild animals in train cars and circus tents, you ever think about that?”
Eddie, the red-haired son of the dairy hand, leaned in and whispered behind a cupped hand, “They’s killin’ an elephant in town. That’s where we’re going. Said she killed her handler, stepped on his head and popped it like a grape.”
I shoved him away from my face. “Don’t be so gross.”
“It’s true! My pa wouldn’t lie about it! You’ll see when we get there.”
They let us kids go up front of the crowd. I still didn’t know why we were there. I could smell the dirt and sweat of all the men, stronger as they got more excited, their voices louder. Eddie was standing beside me, grinning ear to ear, a penny candy in his mouth. The confectioner from Main Street was out, selling little hard candies and Daddy even let me have one. The taste of strawberry filled my mouth as we stood in a big circle around a massive crane. I’d never seen one up close before, never realized how big they were. It looked like you could climb it right up to the Sun.
The air was electric, all the kids from the farms and town hung around the inside of the circle. The men talked and spit like they did on Sundays after church. Everybody got penny candy. I thought, maybe it’s a good thing we ain’t people like Gertie’s people. Her family wasn’t around. I saw her inside the house as we left the farm. A couple of the littler kids sat in the dirt in front of me. I watched them draw in the dirt with sticks, sucking on candy, too. What a day it was when all the kids got candy. My stomach felt light inside my belly, watching, waiting, no idea why we were all there or what was coming next.
Across the clearing, the crowd parted. Above their heads I could see something the color of stone coming through – An elephant! I couldn’t believe it. We were getting to see one of the elephants! I bet Gertie never got this close to one. When they pulled her into the middle of the crowd I knew something was wrong. Her rough gray skin had big holes peppering one side, with something caked around it. I thought of what the men were saying on the way here, how someone shot an elephant and it didn’t go down. But that didn’t make any sense, why would they bring us here and buy us candy to parade a wounded elephant around? I felt Eddie’s bony elbow in my ribs.
“There she is! They’s gonna hang her from that crane, how much you wanna bet?”
I could feel my mouth hanging open, dumb. I turned back ‘round to see Momma and Daddy but they weren’t looking at me. All eyes were on the elephant. I turned back and sure enough, they were hooking the chain around the elephant’s neck to the crane. My eyes stung and the penny candy slid right out of my mouth. I stared at the red hunk, glistening in the dirt, wasted. The crowd around me was whooping now, cheering, some of the men had fists in the air. I couldn’t believe Eddie was right. I couldn’t believe they brought us all out here to watch them kill an elephant!
I wished we were people like Gertie’s family now. I wished we got to wear pretty dresses everyday and go to the circus on Saturday to see the show. Gertie said the monkeys were her favorite part, I guessed they’d be my favorite, too. She said they dressed in fine clothes like she wore on Sundays, and they did all kinds of things people do. She said there was a bear that rode a bicycle, but I didn’t believe that. I thought about the cotton candy she’d snuck home, wrapped in paper for me, the sticky sweet feel of it in my mouth.
They cranked the chain, the elephant’s head rising, her neck stretching as it tightened. Then her feet came up off the ground and she started to thrash about. Her truck swung back and forth, her ears flapped. The chain tightened more and more, ‘til she was standing on her back legs, still fighting, making such a terrible noise. I’d never heard a noise like that before, and I ain’t never heard a noise like it since. Her cries shook my stomach and sunk into the bones in my arms, making me have to hold myself tight just to stay standing.
I didn’t want to look but I couldn’t stop. The poor girl was still fighting it, even as her back legs came off the ground. Still shouting out in that terrible cross between a bugle and a scream. Her back feet were just about five yards off the ground when she won the battle. The chain broke, throwing her to the ground. A sickening crack interrupted her trumpeting screams and I swear the ground shook under my feet. The kids on the other side of the clearing ran away screaming. The way she rolled around on the ground, screaming and thrashing, it was clear she was in pain. I turned to look at Momma, but she wasn’t looking, her face pressed into Daddy’s shoulders, eyes far away. I felt Daddy’s heavy hand on my shoulder and it sort of made me feel better. But not much.
Some of the men went to help get control of the beast, some of the women gathered up their children and walked away from the scene. A light rain sprinkled on my face, and Daddy’s hand stayed on my shoulder, sometimes he squeezed. Momma stayed pressed against Daddy’s shoulder, and I stayed staring at the beast, my mouth hanging open like I was trying to catch flies. They were throwing ropes around her giant legs, binding her up even as she screamed in pain. After a few minutes a man in a truck came with a bigger chain two men fastened it around her neck.
I wondered what Gertie was doing now. It occurred to me it was near lunchtime and if they were having anything good for dessert, Gertie would save a little for me. I wondered if her momma and daddy even knew where we were. Seemed all the working folk were out here, watching them torture the elephant. The crane started pulling the chain up again, I felt tears finally fall from my eyes, stinging my cheeks. That’s when I noticed the mayor was there. The crowd had thinned out after the elephant had fallen, and that’s when I realized,Gertie’s people were there, after all. She was standing with her daddy. They were right next to the mayor, hands clasping something tight to her chest, face twisted up like she was holding back tears.
It took the elephant almost an hour to stop fighting. Every thrash and cry got weaker and weaker ‘til she just didn’t move any more. Daddy said we had to stay, to see it finished. Said if we were taking an afternoon off work to see the elephant punished, we were going to see it through to the end. Gertie’s daddy must have felt the same way, because they stood there the whole time, too. Once, I saw her look at me from across the way, but her daddy kept his eyes on the elephant. It seemed that neither of us could look anymore but our daddies couldn’t watch enough.
They lowered her down, slow, letting her body hit the ground soft and easy. Gentle like she was still alive. The circus vet declared her dead and the men all seemed to nod and grunt at the same time, the time for whooping and cheering long past.
“Daddy? Could we… could I go touch the elephant?” I asked. “It’s just that I don’t know when I’ll ever get to see one again.”
He nodded and let my shoulder go. I walked over to the great beast. Her head was so big, bigger than me, even. I reached out and touched her forehead, wondering what the man she killed did to make her mad enough to kill him. Her skin was rough and leathery under my fingers, and her eyes were wide open, like they were staring through me. I looked up from her face to see Gertie a few dozen yards away, watching me. I could see now that she had two handfuls of penny candy clutched in each hand and tears streaking her face. Her daddy was talking to the mayor, both men were laughing.
I walked back to my parents. Daddy was holding Momma close to him, tight. “I know that wasn’t pretty,” he said. “But sometimes you gotta stand witness to ugly things. You understand that, right, Alice?”
I nodded, and looked over my shoulder to Gertie’s daddy. He laughed and patted the mayor on the back while Gertie clutched her candy and cried, staring at the dead elephant.
“I understand, Daddy.”
Click here to read more about the story of Mary, the poor elephant that was the inspiration for this tale. It’s an interesting read, if an unpleasant one.
Renee Asher Pickup is a mellowed out punk rocker living in Southern California. She’s co-host of the upcoming Guttersnipes podcast, Society & Culture editor at Dirge Magazine, and class facilitator at LitReactor. Her fiction can be found places like Pantheon Magazine, All Due Respect, NewMyths and more. She loves dark fiction and tells people that From Dusk Til Dawn changed her life. Find out more at www.reneeasherpickup.com