The gray mist rising off a mowed field was as familiar to Hughey Gibson as was his own face in the mirror. And standing there over the washbasin, those long reluctant moments before breakfast, shoulders slumped, eyes half open, the day was known to him before it ever came. As were the cawcrows and the magpies singing out across the barbed wire fence-rows edging the fields. And the creek that ran crooked past the outbuildings. And the orchard, now barren. And so he looked at the long black hills behind the house—if it would qualify as a house, sorry mess that it was, all atilt and mossy with rot under the eaves—and saw them as regions unknown, timeless places and obscure, as was their own patch of packed dry dirt and brown stunted cornfields. As was everything. Suns arising, suns that set. And over those black hills the days came and went with hardly a flybuzz nor wind to stir them. None to separate them, each from the other. All and each the same. Days asunder—asylums of the night. Even the stars wheeling overhead he had come to know so as to recognize them, but did not know nor could not say what they were, nor where they came from. Nor could he pronounce their proper names. The weathered outbuildings, the tilted pineboard outhouse, the rusted washtub and hundred gallon horse trough, all lay like relics abandoned, as though cast off from another world to testify anew in this one. To what, he did not know, nor presume to know. They’d been put there so long ago, it seemed to him—longer than he could remember, as long as time itself—that they were fixtures on a secret plain.
So it was with awe and wonder and a dumbstruck sigh of relief that he froze in his tracks of a dry dustbowl morning, looked up from the rusted well pump handle, and saw some semblance of a dream emanating toward him out of a too pale and diffusive morning air. Among the dew mists rising on the sun’s heat and there within its glow came lumbering a tree-high and majestic pachyderm, miraculous, overwhelming, all too weird and otherworldly. Ambling slowly, other side and past the hedgerow, past the lone pine and the wind vane creaking on its axis, past the salt lick sitting patient on its concrete station, this phantom came forth, rippled once or twice its thick elephantine hide and slapped lazily across a crazed and wirehaired shoulder with its pendulous and serpentine trunk.
“I ain’t never,” he said to his sister Mary when he told her later that day what he’d seen. But she was a doubter. “Shit,” she said. “That weren’t no elephant. You never saw nothin.”
All that morning he kept an eye out for what would come next. Might return, he thought, and he might’ve wanted it to. Wanted to see if it was real, mostly, but then if it was, he might want to know how such a thing would come to be. Want to know what it was doing wandering a backwash Missouri hollow. Where would it stay? What would it eat? If it wasn’t real, well then he had a whole other kind of thought that was itching inside him like nothing he’d ever felt before. Only that’s a lie because he had often found himself lost inside his head dreaming he didn’t know what, which got him the back of his daddy’s hand and more than a few mean words from his teacher at school. His momma would say, “What are you thinkin’ about, boy?” And he’d have to say he didn’t know, which was the truth. She didn’t believe that, or didn’t like his answer and told him to watch out or he’d get lost inside there sometime and never find his way back out. That’s what he thought might be true. It was a fear she put in him. It was a fear she had herself.
This was a different sort of feeling, though, because if it was real—and it seemed real to him watching that thing promenade and sashay there in the woods the way it did—if it was real, it was outside of his head. Not in that ephemeral world of dreamscapes he concocted for himself for want of something better to do, but standing there before him, back swaying, ears flapping, tail switching like the true vision he knew it to be. When that elephant walked by that morning, he could by God smell it, it was so real. Not an old familiar smell like the cut hay and the chicken coop, but a new smell. This was altogether different. An odor other. Not the familiar stink of horses in the barn, or hogs in the hog shed, or cow pies in the field. Stinks and such were not new to him. No, this was different. Airs coming off that elephant’s hide were so bad they were strangely good. They were exotic, tinged with another time and place, altogether. That old boy huffed and labored in quick snorts from its double-barreled trunk, rasped halftime to the crash of its booming gargantuan feet, trumpeted once and disappeared. Then there was nothing but the morning haze through which came the vaporous light in a fierce ball of sunlit bug flies and dust motes floating where they will.
cover photo by Floyd M. Wright