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By Ashley Parker Owens
Cele remembered every sensory impression she ever had, even from before her birth. Dark and silent inside her mother, her brain popped colors and language. Her body throbbed with her mother's slow heartbeats, and her developing ears detected every giggle, chew and slurp, and the hint of murmurs beyond.
She squeezed out into the world amidst noise -- her aunts trumpeting -- and plopped to the ground. The tip of her trunk sought out mammaries warm and slightly sour, and she was encouraged to stand to suckle sweet milk with her mouth. After her birth, her senses dulled but didn't disappear. She became aware of changes of temperature. It was warm by the mammaries, cold on the floor. The blotches of gold and cerulean hues still swirled about her vision as they did inside the womb. At night, the colors dulled, and in the sun, they washed out to a white void. She couldn't recognize objects unless she could wander near them to caress and smell with her trunk. Chained in one location, her discoveries were limited.
Under the tent were many of her kind, and during the years of her childhood they surrounded her, ashen wrinkly skin touching same, the smaller ones in the center safe. Inside her mother, she felt protected. Surrounded within a circle of the herd was a different kind of shelter. Beyond her eyes, the gray musk of the herd floated. To conjure color, all she had to do was close her eyes, and it was as if she was back in her mother. Eyes opened or shut, Cele always knew her mother's location by her giggle.
During the day, life awed her. She practiced for the big show in a silence punctuated with whistles and slaps, and cracks of a whip. Colors swirled and danced, and her trunk captured odors of rotting meat, the urine of the cats, and popcorn. At night, they dressed her in long pink foil strands, and the reflection of light electrified her every movement. The chaotic energy of the crowd fed her need for appreciation, and watermelons satisfied her thirst for a job well done.
Her early life was the same length of time as in her mother. Once she had stopped nursing, they had started to train her to stand on two feet. Practice had frustrated her until they learned to give her sound commands. After that, she performed well and was rewarded with cantaloupes. She loved her time in the training tent.
The day Cele separated from the herd was fragmented. She awoke midsleep, the herd restless. Nestled in the center, less smoke and fire came her way. Men led the elephants, trunk grasping tail, out of the tent and to a farm. Not all of them were there, and some were led off to another field. When they came for her, she had a feeling she wouldn't return.
For weeks afterward, her mind stayed cloudy through stuffy jiggling train rides. She walked painful distances alone with no others of her kind, only people to lead her. They traveled down roads with hard structures, men and women staring at her, children shrieking. The paved roads hurt her feet. The chain remaining around her ankle clinked and clanked as she walked, and was attached to poles or to the ground when they stopped. She became aware of her dry mouth, and her bulk slowly thinned. There wasn't enough food or water to satisfy, and the isolation from her family of beasts exhausted her ability to concentrate. Her eyes, already defective, itched and watered, a leftover sting from the smoke. Despite the offers of apples and bananas from the Big One's lining the streets of the village, she ached for something other than sweets to fill the loss of the herd. Away from co- performers, she'd become a disfigured freak, ready for a sideshow.
They finally came to her resting place, an old farm in the mideast where it never snowed and was humid when hot. The garden was four times the size of the barn, and a patch of woods grew near the corner of the garden. After the old farmer stuck her between the barn and the fence surrounding the garden, she discovered gnomes lived there. When she first noticed the gnomes, her first impression was they were scared of her presence. The work up and down the rows didn't seem to bother the gnomes, even after they became sweaty and dirt covered their forearms. The older gnomes seemed content for the most part, but some of the children chose to wander a few rows away from the older gnomes and interact, get into mischief, throwing tomatoes back and forth, or drawing in the dirt. Some of the little ones lay flat on their backs beside squash and peeked through the large leaves on the vines to peer at the passing clouds.
Cele also watched the clouds at times, watching them morph into different shapes until the sky shifted from blue to white to mauve and gold.
It could be a peaceful end to a day.
Once she spied a gnome, they intrigued her with the sense of terror she perceived from them. It didn't even require words from her, just one stern look, or a swing of her trunk, they seemed baffled and terrified when she looked at them from the side with one eye. For some reason that made them shiver and recoil.
She didn't have it in her to act truly mean like the farmer or the ringmaster. She knew fear, felt it when her mother's gigle turned into a high-pitched shriek. Men never giggled or touched other men close, at least she'd never seen it, and could only guess it made them mean. She'd give anything to be surrounded by feminity again, or maybe it was the calpacity for empathy, or the embrace or touch, the sense of being in the middle of love. Here, she merely existed.
When she first walked to the garden she was disappointed. The farmer tugged at her, making her walk along fenced in cows. At first, she thought he meant to make her a cow and place her fenced with them. She was upset to learn her area was smaller. On one side of her was a large gray barn. The next morning when she woke up and through the blur of her morning eyes, saw gray, and could almost imagine the sides of her aunties, but everything else was wrong, the cicadas in the high weeds, the smell of cow manure, and the wood fence between her and the garden area.
And the chain on her leg. The chain hurt.
She often thought she might be able to tolerate the area because the barn wall held her close, like a protection of gray, but she didn't know why she was there, and the chain was unnecessary. She looked at the fence, three beams with rabbit wire along the bottom span. A fence-like enclosure like the one keeping the garden safe would have been a better solution.
The gnomes were about half the size of the farmers, and worked from sunrise to sunset. They called her an ugly beast on this side of the world, an ogre. The memories of performance under a tent were distant now; she began to think her old life wasn't real. Maybe the bits and pieces of hues and belonging evoked during the tedium of the day were imagined.
The cry of a rooster woke her most mornings. Maimed by the chain, and mutilated by the indignity of restraint in one spot, she wore away all the tasteless dry grass around her, and stripped the nearby trees of bark and leaves.
She liked cloudy days; it made everything softer, objects less defined. It wasn't as hot then chained to the gate in front of the garden, naked. Most of the gnomes left her alone except for the young ones. At first arrival, the gnomes were fearful, hovering over the tender shoots beginning to poke out of the brown smelling soil. Some hid behind layers of light green tendrils of vines across the fence to watch her.
“Work hard” she heard one old gnome say in a quaking voice to a gnome child, “or the worms will make the ogre eat you.” The gnome child stood for a long moment. He stared at his elder, eyes filled with anger, hands curled into tight fists.
Working should be pleasant. She had helped raise a tent once, using her strength to place the poles and stretch the fabric into a magic space, full of smells and colors. “Why do you not enjoy your work?” Cele asked a shriveled up old gnome on the other side of the fence.
“Why, the worms have asked us to.” His face rounded and revealed yellowed teeth. “We're the chosen ones.”
“The worms talk to you?” Cele had never heard them. The only imaginary voices she heard were the distant murmurs of love and understanding of her ancestors; she had no use for someone telling her what to do. “Why can't I hear it?” Better to let the birds eat the worms then, she thought, since she wasn't sure what the worms said.
The gnomes face shriveled and he turned away without answering.
“Well?” Cele asked. “I asked you a question.”
The gnome kept working, pulling ineffectively at weeds on the other side of the fence. Extending her trunk, Cele reached as far as she could and pushed the middle of his back. It knocked the gnome down, and for a bit neither of them knew what to do. It was bad form to antagonize the gnomes; no need to bring more insults to herself. She wondered if the imaginary mystical worms would have something to say about her attack. Birds resembling tightrope walkers hopped along the fence, suddenly interested in the conversation. If the worms did poke out of the earth to say something, the birds stood at attention, ready to eat them.
Cele admired the birds, free and graceful. She could not understand the music of their language cackling between them. Gliding against the blue of the sky unrestrained, diving and twisting in the sky, they delivered a lovely performance. They only saw her as a place to sit out of the way. The birds knew the gnomes were frightened of her, and she could see the birds around her, keeping right beyond her reach, but on the ground where they might be able to grab a worm where the gnomes border lie.
Cele also had thoughts about outwitting the gnomes. Fed only on rotten food, hay, and pea hulls, the hues of the vegetables caught her gaze, bits of red and orange hidden within green. Imagining the crunch of the rind, and small slimy seeds on her tongue, she wanted a watermelon most of all. It would be nice to have the pink sugary goodness as a reward for a job well done.
After lunch, she closed her eyes and nodded off. A cicada nearby kept her half-awake, half-asleep. Her mind fuzzed and faded from the sun warming her hide. She now drifted into her dreamland, where it was pleasantly dark but still hot and humid, and the smell of hay overpowered sounds of busyness around her. Light filtered in from canvas flaps, she imagined outside the tent a world of clarified white nothingness.
Inside the tent, chimerical performers were twirling dervishes of magenta and aqua, practicing their whimsical stunts. She studied the rope with its lithe dancers and metal parts holding it all together. The concrete floor was cold on her feet. The odor of sawdust filled the air. The twisty man delivered buckets of cool water to the trough. She patted him in appreciation of his servitude before she drank. If only the old farmer was like twisty man. Twisty man was the only nice male she ever knew. The bull was not kept in the same area, so she never really knew him. She knew her mothers, anuts, and cousins, all females, her safety net.
A fly sat on her eyelid and Cele woke. Her first thought was that she wished the old farmer could bring her more water. She never had enough. The farmer was diligent about bringing water each day, but he never thought to bring extra on hot days. Although she had no direct experience, she did expect the farmer to display his temper one day and strike her like the ringmaster struck her mother.
She noticed the child gnome off to the side. He stared, and tried to remain still, but his breath quickened. She turned her head toward him and he darted away. She couldn't follow him, or catch him. He'd return after a while, think he was safe because she couldn't see him. She closed her eyes, but couldn't go back to sleep with the thought of the little idiot staring. The gnomes obviously didn't train their young well. She guessed for menial chores it probably wasn't necessary. However, if they behaved better, maybe they could be taught to perform complex tasks, use tools like the circus folk did, produce more so that she could eat more.
“I'll eat you,” Cele said. “Get back to work.” She stared at him. The boy paled.
“What's your name?” Cele asked.
“Thank you. I need to report your insolence.” An empty threat, she thought. There was no one to report to, and in any case, she would never report a child.
His mouth opened, and his eyes expanded. He didn't appear again for weeks.
Later, when it was obvious Cele had not reported the gnome child, Ghislain brought another boy, Ulrich, and then another called Trennen. Then the girl, Huela, dragging a rag doll behind her. In the sun, Huela had bright red hair, and green eyes vibrant enough that even Cele noticed. The group of gnome children looked to be about the same age and size, but they weren't a herd or family. The girl fascinated Cele. Huela was thick, plump, and giggled in some familiar way that made Cele's stomach uneasy, simmering with recognition that Huela was somehow like her and her mother.
With no adult gnomes in view, the edge of the fence became safe territory. It became a game, the children approaching slowly, noisy as puppies, hiding along the way behind a bush or a plant to avoid discovery. It was amusing at first. Or at least not as boring as staring at the backside of a barn. However, it became an all-day occurrence, interrupting her dreams, and stalling her reverie with the wind and grasses.
Garden silence gave way to indignities. The children waited until her eyes were closed and her body fluid with the ground to poke her with sticks, pelt her with rocks, and stick things in her ear or rump. The boys especially taunted her. It was a competition to find the bravest, to find which one would run up and whack her on the backside. Most only threw rocks, knowing that she couldn't offer a chase. If she moved too much, the chain links would tug and make an angry reddish imprint on her legs.
How much better to drift off to her dream landscape and spend the day in meditation, breathing slowly in and out until the memories fully bloomed. If she kept her eyes tiny slits, iridescent luster soaked the images that drifted in and out of her consciousness.
When the day was hottest, she settled into the humid haze, fragrance of nearby purple morning glories wafting from the vine winding through the fence. A kaleidoscope of monkeys, purple jackets and gold hats somersaulted through her reveries, one bouncing to her when she offered a pungent banana.
Cele woke, startled at a poke on the rear. She shuffled to her feet, eyeing a rock nearby she hadn't noticed before. They had thrown a rock at her. It hadn't hurt, her skin was too thick to bruise or cut. She lifted her head and delivered a short indignant roar. Cele had never felt malice towards the gnomes before. The roar was a performance, much like the older days, and she felt an impulse to stand on two legs and trumpet a celebration that she did a good job, and should be rewarded. More so, an acknowledgment of herself and her kind.
She shuddered to think she might have to eat one of them to teach them a lesson. It would be difficult and time consuming to trim their limbs and tear off their flesh, remove their bones one by one and force herself to swallow them. She hadn't eaten meat before, couldn't imagine it, but thought gnomes would probably give her terrible gas.
Her meditation during the calming midday slumber ceased. Now she tried to fool them, pretending to sleep and waiting until they were close and then swinging her trunk widely to knock them flying. They delighted in any interaction or attention, screams of panic turned to laughter as they got away.
The lack of sleep made her cranky, so she learned to whisper chilling words, “I will rip your arms off, then devour your elbows. They'll cast you and your little merry band of half-wits from the clan if you can't work.”
Silence for a moment, and then Ulrich stepped near her, just beyond reach. She sniffed in his general direction, only smelled dirt.
Ulrich's cheeks reddened. “What's your name?”
“I am Cele,” she said proudly.
“You mean Cede, don't you?” Ulrich grinned.
“Cele.” She sighed. “Enunciate.”
“Cede, Cede, the evil Cede is ever near,” Ulrich sang. The group of them held hands and danced in a circle. Cele beat the ground as a warning, a rumble vibration not unlike the worms.
Cele hoped they would trip. They continued their song, Cede, Cede, the evil Cede. She didn't understand the purpose of the taunts.
Called for dinner break, the gnome children left, and after a few minutes of rest her monkeys returned, costumes providing sparkly yellow against the gray, juggling balls that were cyan and green. Soon she was sound asleep.
A sound startled her and she opened her eyes to Ulrich and Trennen, staring at her, each holding two ripe tomatoes, one in each hand, as if about to juggle. More likely, they intended to throw the tomatoes at her. Huela sat on the ground behind them, drawing in the dirt.
“Leave her alone, she's a nice ogre.” Heula picked up her doll and pretended to feed it a carrot.
“Don't throw any tomatoes,” Cele said, hoping they would do precisely that. She could already taste the acidic juice on her tongue. She pushed away a memory of her mother and a carrot.
“You would never hurt us,” Trennen said.
“Yes I would. I will.” Cele said halfheartedly.
“Prove it.” Ghislain scowled. “We've never seen you kill anything.”
Oh, good grief, she thought, why would the gnome children not leave her alone? “I AM THE EVIL CEDE!” she bellowed.
She swung her trunk and knocked down a small bluebird. She felt immediately sorry as it twitched on the ground, obviously broken. She picked it up delicately with the end of her trunk and eyed it closely, noting the soft individual feathers, the round seed-like eyes and twig-like legs. She sniffed its musk out of curiosity. In the end, the lack of an internal beat made her throw it far into the trees so she wouldn't have to be reminded of what she had done. Feathers drifted down as it fell through the tree branches.
Her actions were successful; the gnome children went silent. Huela ran to the fence line and crawled through it, and ran to the side woods.
“Huela!” Trennen cried out. “What are you doing?”
“Come back!” Ghislain cried.
Huela returned with the bird in her hands, giggling. She crawled back into the garden through the fence and chased the boys with it. They ran, screaming. Cele giggled, too. A second later, they were gone, called in to sleep for the night.
The mama bird sat on the fence nearby and scolded Cele, and Cele felt appropriately guilty.
That night, despite exhaustion, Cele couldn't sleep. She couldn't say if it was guilt over the baby bird that she killed, or something else. She sat up, staring at the sky and tried her best to breathe slow and easy, trying to force herself to sleep. Despite her mental agitation, she slowly slipped into her meditation, this time she had no dream or remembrance, it seemed like her mother was there. Cele was with her mother, under the tent.
“You're stronger than the chain.” Her mother embraced her with her trunk. “When you were little, they chained you up. Now you've grown into a sanguine powerful beast. The chain can no longer hold you! You've grown; you can pull the chain right out of the ground.”
Her mother pulled her stake out slowly, like removing a splinter from the earth, and moved near to an opening in the tent, where the breeze came in. Her mother giggled and pushed the stake back into the earth. She winked at Cele. She extended her trunk outside the flap, and when she pulled it backher trunk was rolled around a watermelon that she lobbed to Cele.
“Imagine. Freedom to go out into the sun, get a rain bath, or snag a watermelon from the boxcar on the train if no one is watching.” Her mother wrapped her trunk around Cele's shoulders. “Freedom to stay with the herd, but steal the tiny treats.”
Makes her feel sour, what is final crisis that makes her mom's memory - farmer whips or tightens chain. Reminds her of the ringmaster hurting her mother, and her mother's response to her.
Cele jumped, hearing a rustle of a bird in a bush. She opened one eye and in the bluish moonlight watched through the fence. It was the end of summer, and the watermelons were suddenly voluptuous and darker green. The boundary of the fence kept her out, away from the fruits of summer. She looked at the chain around her leg, thought about her dream, still resonant and clear.
Cele was aware of the chain, irritating her skin. She examined the area of worn skin, long in the making. She wondered if it could possibly be true, that she could remove the spike from the ground and escape. And if she did escape, where would she go? Would she only follow the smell of water until her thirst quenched?
She could turn on the gnomes. Run to the hiding children, maybe not eat them but stomp them for sure. She looked around the area. Ulrich she would fling into the branches of the tree. If she waited until after a rain, she'd like to throw one of them in a puddle. The girl, Huela, she'd like to throw by the pumpkins, where the snake liked to sleep shaded by the large leaves and cooled at the base. She would turn those happy giggles to shrieks of fear. It would thrill her to do something. For once be the evil seed, dark and malevolent. Or not. She did find Huela charming, with her giggling femininity.
She had a flash of memory, her mother giggling at the ringmaster, and he returned her comment with a whip. Those men, whether the farmer or the ringmaster, were not like her.
She wouldn't mind destroying the garden, manipulate it so the gnomes took the fall. That was her job wasn't it, to keep them in their place? At least that is what she had garnered in her limited interactions with the gnomes, and they weren't very smart, they would be able to argue she hadn't done it when she clearly had. Maybe another occupation waited for her.
Cele wanted the taste of the pink sweet watermelon on her tongue. She nudged the gate slowly until it broke, a phenomenal crack that she was sure would wake at least one of the gnome clan. She tugged at the spike by pulling her whole torso away from it. It budged, upsetting the earth around it, almost causing her to fall when it released. A few silent minutes after, she gingerly walked into the garden and ate her fill, juices exploding in her mouth and dripping down her face.
Cele moved on to sample the tomatoes, and considered whether to stomp the gnomes, use her strength to tear down the barn to get a better view, or just disappear. She was too big to hide. After finishing the tomatoes, and moving on to consume the pea plants, she ripped out the barn for a better view.
She stomped down the fence in one area so she could easily return to the watermelons later, then slipped the chain spike back into the ground and slept.