By Gwendolyn Edward
The first time I went to a department store, it was with my mother right before Christmas in 1899. A.T. Stewart’s cast iron palace, the spectacle of Manhattan. The department store spanned a whole city block on Broadway, six-stories tall and strangely ominous in the chill air, the sunlight hidden in a sky that was nothing but grey. The store spoke of a new era of consumer, of socialites who attended musical premieres, who strolled around discussing works of art in the lobby, but also of wishful immigrants who could only afford to window shop.
My mother was first generation Irish, a stout woman with a few grey streaks in her auburn hair, who wanted to behold the American dream of another Irish immigrant, Alexander Turney Stewart. Thus the store, and its unexpected harsh reminder of what we could not be.
The window display was unlike anything I had ever seen. While I played with balls and jacks, in Manhattan people played with dreams. Sheer white mesh hung like clouds at the top of the window. Gold and silver stars dangled, suspended just below. A staircase angled down to the left, and at the bottom were revelers against stone façade, ball gowns billowing amongst twinkling lights and foliage and snow like mist.
My mother and I stared a long time at the window display. It became something else to her, a reality mayhap, but I, I saw beyond the window display into the department store itself. I had been standing at the edge of a crowd that filled the sidewalk with words of amazement, and from my vantage, could see past the display, and there, holding his mother’s hand, was a boy about my age, clutching a stuffed elephant.
The two walked away, and when I couldn’t see them anymore, I moved towards the doors to the cast iron palace. My mother didn’t notice that I was lost too. Not like her, looking in the window, but in a different snow, collecting on our shoulders and the tops of our shoes as we stood outside on the street. As I walked, I looked curiously through the other windows for any sign of the boy and his elephant.
At the doors of the palace, a man stood just outside in a red uniform with gold piping. A small, round hat was atop his head, and he did not open the door for me. I clutched my hands behind my back and peered around his waist, just as the boy and his elephant approached the glass. The man opened the door for them and the mother complained about the cold as they came out. She stopped and bent down, buttoning the boy’s coat.
The elephant he held was grey. Not grey like the sky, but grey like an elephant, darker. They have always been their own kind of grey. Its plush body showed no seams, and bead eyes were black, black like the oil on my father’s hands when he came home from work. The trunk curled up, as if a question mark, and two white tusks jutted from a smiling mouth.
Neither mother nor son noticed me.
* * * * *
In 1900, when I was seven, at the Ringling Brothers Circus in New Jersey, amidst the clutter and stink of urine and the imprints of our feet in the mud, there was also an elephant. Until then, I had only seen the boy’s stuffed animal and drawings in children’s books, only heard about their intelligence in stories. The circus elephant carried feathers with its trunk, and its skin, like leather before leather is itself, wrinkled around its shoulders when it balanced on thick legs. I had not known how long their eyelashes really were, or how human the eyes could seem. I understood then, watching the woman atop the magnificent beast, in her tights and leotard, small breasts pinned under a jacket that rode open with her movement of chest, that there was more humanity in the animal than in the woman who rode him.
* * * * *
After these two incidents, I began to claim that elephants were front-following me. Where I went, they magically appeared, quietly asking me to study them, to talk to them, to understand them. They anticipated where I would be and found me to show the philosophy of their limbs, to ask me if I could understand, if I could speak their language, if I could speak for them.
I drew pictures of elephants in the margins of my school-paper and experimented with varying hardness of my pencil, attempting to shade their grey just right. I spent hours in the library reading encyclopedia entries about them, flipping through books to see if I could find pictures. In late 1902, I began to help my father in his shop to earn a small allowance. My only goal was to purchase a book of blank paper and colored pencils so that I could draw my elephants.
I imagined that I would draw the stuffed elephant before it was a toy. I would draw it back when it lived in Africa, on the grasslands, taller than any tree around. I would draw the circus elephant, without its rider, standing under the lights in the pointed tent, the star of the show. I would draw other elephants that I hadn’t seen yet. Elephants that sleep, standing and peaceful. Elephants in zoos, reaching for peanuts through the bars of the cages. Elephants parading down my street, with me, leading them.
These I drew, and dozens others, my book of elephants expanding to include labels for their names and attributes: Rosie is an African elephant that lives in East Africa and she sprays water on crocodiles to scare them away. Adelbert is an Asian elephant that lives like a king in the Forbidden Palace and is fanned with large feathers. Nicodemus is an ancient elephant, Caesar’s favorite, and he has read more books than any man alive.
My book became so worn that the corners of the thin cardboard cover began to curl inwards, and the wrinkles that appeared where the curves began were like the wrinkles of an elephant. I colored the corners with my pencil to make them grey.
* * * * *
In January 1903 my parents took me to Coney Island. Mother told me that there would an elephant at Luna Park.
It was something to behold at day, but even more so at night. You cannot imagine now, what it was like back then. Then, we could still see stars above the city at midnight, and we never forgot the darkness, because the world could still be dark.
At night, Luna Park was brighter than anything I had ever seen. It was a stage, a fantasy. It was not a home, or a department store, or school. It was a story book opened and unfolding in real life. A pop-up book large enough to walk through and marvel at under the light of countless tiny suns.
Under the thousands of lights, with thousands of people, along the panoramic painting of the ocean and the amazingly realistic version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I saw polar bears and Eskimos. In the Japanese Village I ate cherry flavored ice-cream on top of a gently arching bridge with tapered columns painted red and gold. In the dome-ceilinged Monkey Theatre and at the base of the Electric Tower, I stood in awe, believing the fantasy.
But then I saw what lay behind the cardboard. Everything was a façade. Everything. Only in the center of things you couldn’t see.
We had come for the elephant, Topsy.
* * * * *
A large crowd had gathered to see the spectacle, and I do not think, even then, that my parents understood yet what was going to happen. People were talking, the words “alternating current” foreign to my ears. And so I ignored them. My mother, though, soon understood what was happening and took my hand, bending down to speak to me.
“James,” she said, “the elephant here….” Her voice trailed off as the roar of the crowd increased with the appearance of Topsy. “I don’t think you should watch.”
I screamed. Stomped my feet and demanded to see the elephant. My mother tried to pull me away, but my father stopped her and lifted me up onto his shoulders where I could see better.
Topsy stood dumbly on an elevated platform, her lower jaw moving sluggishly as her trainer, who looked remarkably similar to the woman I had seen a few years before, fed her carrots from a metal bucket. I didn’t understand why Topsy wasn’t being ridden, or why she didn’t wave her trunk in the air. For minutes men attached wires to her, and I sat very still, my father clutching my shins, waiting to see what would happen.
I wanted the crowd to be quiet. I wanted to draw her among the lights of Luna Park, the crowd slack-jawed beneath her. I stuck my fingers in my ears and began to hum a song to block out the noise. Topsy looked, glassy-eyed, at nothing in particular, and I willed her to look at me. She was mine. And I wished so hard for her to notice me, that she did.
She blinked slowly at me with one large, black eye, her lashes so long that they brushed her cheek. I could see them moving in the wind. In her eye I saw tiredness and waiting. I saw understanding.
She blinked again, and this time, her eye stayed closed.
The crowd began to scream, and Topsy was shaken so violently that she crumpled to the ground in a matter of seconds. I do not remember falling, but I do remember pitching myself forward in an effort to catch her, to save her. Somehow a part of me knew Topsy was breaking, and I wanted to fall with her, to put my arms around her, so feel her skin against me cheek, to tell her that I loved her, that I understood the elephants.
* * * * *
Later, when I awoke at home, my father explained what we had seen, and I cried, my body racked with sobs so violent that I began to vomit. My mother put me in the bathtub and washed me until the water grew cold.
I knew I would remember, forever, the look in her eyes, as if the weight of man’s lack of humanity, of man’s lust for brightly lit entertainment, was something that had already shocked her. Around her, Coney Island was in flames almost, in the wild, frightful way only the advent of electricity could light the world.
Then, alone in my bedroom, I took my book of elephants from my desk and tore out the pages one at a time. The death of one elephant was the death of them all. I turned the drawings away from me so I couldn’t see the elephants I had collected, and I shredded them, meticulously, so that they couldn’t be saved. My elephants were gone, killed off by men and electric gods.
Remembering the elephant that awaited death, I couldn’t help but think that she was better than any man or woman I had ever known, even if I didn’t know her. She was somehow better than all my other elephants, because she was the last one. Her understanding was formidable, shining through the glare of yellow light, carried over the smell of tar and sausage. The whole place reeked of death, and even at nine years of age, I knew then, the same way Topsy knew, that what was left of our dignity had been washed away in the sea of artificial brilliance, and I envied her that she, a lone creature, would be able to forget that knowledge.
Gwendolyn is a Master’s candidate in Creative Writing at the University of North Texas where she works with American Literary Review and North Texas Review. Her short stories have been accepted by Lissette’s Tales of the Imagination, Jersey Devil Press, Niteblade, Haunted Waters Press, Scareship, and the anthologies Blood and Roses and Horrific History. She also publishes the literary genre publication Deimos eZine. You can find her at www.gwendolynedward.com.