As the elephant king lay dying, struck silent by his pain, able only to breathe shattered breaths, his mind thought its last thoughts.
He could forgive the ones who had killed him. But forgiveness would do his people no good.
He could lay a curse upon the ones who had killed him, villains and villagers alike. He was a king. The ghosts of his ancestors would answer his summons and grant him his last wish. But curses were dangerous, not just to those who were cursed, but to those who did the cursing. He himself would be safe beyond the veil that separated life and death. But his people, who still lived, might suffer from some unforeseen recoil of his curse.
So there was only one course that the elephant king could take to do what he could not do in life, to protect his people.
Hazy shapes approached him, drawn by the scent of his blood. The carrion eaters. They would wait until they were certain he was dead. He did not have his tusks, and he did not have his strength. But they would wait nonetheless. If they did not fear him, then perhaps they waited out of respect.
That thought gave the elephant king some comfort. He was not alone then. Though his people had fled as he had bid them to, he would not die alone, or surrounded by enemies. The last pulses of life would flow through him as he was surrounded by those would make sure that no enemies stole any more parts of him.
And so, with the first of his last breaths, the elephant king blessed the carrion eaters.
As he uttered the blessing, the elephant king became filled with certainty and grief. The certainty was his own. But the grief was not.
He rolled one glossy black eye toward the sky, and there he saw a bird circling. A vulture, he thought at first. Another carrion eater. But the shape was a familiar one.
The cold hollows left by his once majestic tusks screamed and screamed in agony. But the elephant king himself was silent. His certainty grew as he watched the shape of the gull wheeling overhead. And with the second of his last breaths, he uttered a story, his story. And he heard the gull cry out in grief and gratitude.
And the elephant king’s certainty grew.
Even as his despair grew. For his life was leaking away, and fear still clung to his heart. He felt no peace or serenity when he used his last breath to utter a plea. He had broken his promise to his people. More promises would do them no good. So he forsook all promises, and he uttered a plea to the ghosts of his ancestors.
“Let me stay,” he asked. “Let me walk beside them and comfort them when they lie dying as I lie dying, so that none die alone. Let me appear to them, and let me grant them the peace and serenity that I could not grant them in life.”
At last…at last his suffering came to an end. The elephant king died.
And the carrion eaters stalked toward what was left of him.
The gull returned home, wailing as she went, and all the creatures of the forest heard.
That very night, the gull gathered her people, and she told them the tale of the elephant king.
When she first began to tell the tale, on that night and many to follow, most of it was true. Most of it was told as he had told it to her with the second of his last breaths.
The elephants’ tusks were being stolen. Many of them were killed or left maimed because a people who walked on their hind legs coveted the tusks. To protect his people, the elephant king took them deeper and deeper into the forest, and he ordered them to avoid the hind-legged hunters. But the hunters were cunning and small. And the elephants were large. It was not easy for them to hide.
The elephant king entreated the help of his own people. And they guarded themselves as best they could. But still the hunters came.
So the elephant king sought the advice of other peoples.
A monkey prince struck upon an idea that the elephant king was certain would work. The monkey covered all the elephants’ tusks with a paste made from dirt and stone. When the paste hardened, it appeared that all the elephants had tusks made of rock. The king hoped that the rocky tusks would be unappealing to any hunters. The rough and heavy tusks were unwieldy and ugly. But if they would save his people, the elephant king would silence their complaints and ensure they maintained the illusion.
But the hunters were unrelenting. They discovered the ruse far more quickly than the monkey prince or the elephant king expected.
A lion queen next tried to help, by offering to teach the elephants how to walk and move as quietly as cats. Lions were not as massive as elephants, but they were large creatures. The queen believed that if lions could move with stealth and silence, so could the elephants do, if they only learned how. But the elephants were skittish and wary of lions coming too close to them. So this plan too failed.
An ordinary gull next came to the elephant king, for she had been watching the king’s attempts to protect his people, and she knew of the only way that the elephants would be safe from the hunters.
“Would you suggest that the elephants learn to fly?” the elephant king asked the gull.
But the gull knew that this would be foolish. If elephants could be small and winged, then they might escape the notice of the hunters. But if elephants could be small and winged, they would no longer be grand and magnificent. They would no longer be elephants
“There is only one way your people could escape the notice of the hunters,” the gull said. “And that is if you no longer had tusks.”
The elephant king lamented then, for it seemed the gull was right. He could see no other way for the elephants to survive the hunters.
But without their tusks, he wondered how long they would survive all other dangers.
The elephants continued to be hunted. And there were many lamentations for those who were fallen.
One day, the king himself was hunted. He was long-lived and his tusks had grown as long as his years. The hunters felled him, and they took his tusks.
And the elephant king died, and as he died, he uttered a pleas to the ghosts of his ancestors that his spirit might remain with his people, and that he might appear to them when they were struck down to give comfort in their last moments of life.
He had ordered his people to flee and to leave him. And they had obeyed. They had obeyed because they loved their king. And they had obeyed because they feared the hunters.
They returned to find him gone. And they mourned for days upon days, and fixed him in their memories.
That was the tale that the gull told her people. That was the tale that she bid them to remember and tell to others.
The elephants too told the story of their fallen king. They told the story to honor their king and to warn their young.
In time, when the gull had her own children, her tale changed, for the true tale was a tragedy, but she wished to make it a triumph, not just to delight her hatchlings, but also to exalt the elephant king.
And so, she told a lighthearted tale of a clever sneak-thief who stole the elephant king’s tusks. The king searched far and wide, but the thief was gone. And when the elephant king failed to recover his magnificent tusks, he sought the counsel of his ancestors. He was told by his ancestors that the tusks were lost forever. They could grant him replacements, even better than his original tusks, but first he had to prove his worthiness by passing three trials. The first was to be invisible when surrounded by those who knew him—which all of his people did. The second was to pass through a village of the people who walked on hind legs, and to pass through at night without waking them. And the third trial was to dance upon the head of a honeybee.
The elephant king passed all the trials, with the help of his friends.
There were many majestic stone statues in the middle of the great elephant city that lay in the heart of the forest. Statues of esteemed and heroic elephants past. A monkey magician turned the elephant king to stone. So when the elephants passed through the city that day, they paid the king no mind, for they thought him one of the statues. He was, indeed, invisible, not to their eyes, but to their notice. The ancestors approved. And the first trial was passed.
Next, the lion queen taught the elephant king how to move as quickly and quietly as a cat. Elephants did not have the same muscles as lions, so the lessons were long and painstaking. But with much time and effort, the king learned how to walk quietly in the forest. His feet made no noise as they gently pressed upon the fallen leaves. And so the king walked through a village of the hind-legged people, and he did so without waking a single sleeping soul. The ancestors approved. And the second trial was passed.
Last came the most difficult trial. To dance upon the head of a honeybee. But here, the elephant king was saved by his own people. For the nimble trunks of the elephant sculptors shaped a great statue of a honeybee, bigger than the biggest statue in the city. Many moons waxed and waned as they shaped the statue, layer by layer, waiting for the mud and clay to dry. At last the statue was ready. It stood three times as high as the king and three times as wide. The elephant king came before the statue. He climbed the legs of the honeybee, and onto its back, and he stepped upon the head of the honeybee. His people held their breaths, for they had never seen their king dance, much less had they seen him dance upon the head of a honeybee. But dance he did. The elephant king raised his leg and lowered it and raised another and lowered it, and he swayed his head from side to side, and he rose upon his hind legs and trumpeted. His people cheered. And the king bowed to them. And the ancestors approved. And the third trail was passed.
Having completed all three trials, the elephant king came before the ghosts of his ancestors, and he bowed. By the time he rose from the ground, his tusks had been restored. But they were no longer made of ivory. His tusks were now made of obsidian, hard and sharp, gleaming and glorious. If any more thieves came to the elephant city, those thieves would now face the deadly obsidian tusks.
And thus did the elephant king keep his people safe until the end of his days, when he too became a ghost, who still guarded his people with his obsidian tusks.
But here, the gull’s story returned again to the truth.
For there was indeed an apparition that haunted the forest, a massive form that made no sound as it moved along the paths taken by the elephants. And this dark shadow had great glossy black tusks that glinted as the shadow marched along and the tusks swung to and fro.
The elephant ancestors had granted the king’s dying plea. They granted him leave to wander the forests of his people and appear to them in their time of greatest need to comfort them as passed beyond life. But they had added a further duty to the one he took upon himself. And to fulfill this duty, they gave him a gift. They restored his tusks. But instead of ivory, they gave him tusks of obsidian. The points of his tusks were sharper than the sharpest lion’s tooth, and the edges could slice deeper than a hunters’ blade.
But other eyes besides the elephants saw the ghost of the elephant king. The keen eyes of the lions saw him when they peered into the forest at night. The clever minds of the monkeys perceived him as they swung through the branches, watching for danger. The gulls saw him from overhead as they flew to the river, to slake their thirst with water and their hunger with fish. And the hunters. They too saw the apparition of the elephant king emerging from shadow and folding back into night. Whenever they hunted, he appeared, running along beside them, soundless as a cat. They too saw his sharp and shining tusks. And once or twice they came close enough to feel the tusks slicing through the very air. And they moved off before the tusks could slice through them. The obsidian tusks were not for the hunters, though the hunters believed it was so.
For the tusks did not sever the living from life. They severed the suffering from their anguish. They cut the unseen threads of anguish that caught and squeezed a hunted elephant. They pierced through shame. They punctured fear. That was the ghostly elephant king’s further duty. To use his obsidian tusks to free his people from despair when they were struck down as he had been. And this he did.
In time, the tales that were told of the ghostly elephant king all came to end with the tale-teller uttering the same words.
“Black as shadow and black as night are those tusks, but they glint in starlight, and they are sharper than the sharpest sorrow.”
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel