The Elephant Girl [essay] by Deborah Lott

From the first day of kindergarten on, LeeAnn and I watched each other. As I sat in my chair by the window, howling and sobbing for my mother, LeeAnn could not take her eyes off me. The other children, “big boys and girls” who didn’t need their mothers, stared at me with contempt for so obviously needing mine. LeeAnn cocked her head in my direction, perplexed by the showiness of my display but also impressed by the vehemence of my refusal to acquiesce to authority. My defiance inspired her own; she ignored Mrs. Bell’s admonishments to “pay no attention to the little crybaby” and looked right at me. In between my tears, I looked right back.

We were the two smallest children in the kindergarten class, and Mrs. Bell had positioned LeeAnn in the front row on the dingy green carpet. She was shifty and itchy and out of sorts, scooting away if another kindergartner’s arm so much as brushed against hers.

Earlier that morning, I’d watched as LeeAnn’s mother walked her into the classroom, as I clung to my own mother, trying to stave off separation as long as possible. LeeAnn’s mother seemed the picture of serene domesticated femininity, tall and smooth and compliant, with a shoulder length brunette pageboy. She wore a chintz dress with ruffles around the neckline.

“Why, isn’t that a pretty dress!” Mrs. Bell said on greeting her.

“Thank you, I sewed it myself,” LeeAnn’s mother replied.

Tugging at her arm, skinny and slight LeeAnn followed behind, dragging her legs and scuffling her feet in silent resistance. LeeAnn was dressed for the first day of school like Shirley Temple as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm in a dress of pink gingham with an apron of white crinoline. Its big puffy sleeves make her skinny arms look even more simian. Her dirty blonde hair was painstakingly set so that it fell in banana curls, held by white plastic barrettes molded in the shape of bows.

On her face she bore a testy, screwed-up expression, and regardless of how she was dressed, LeeAnn was not cute in any storybook sort of way. She had thick, long, dark hair on her limbs, which were bony and elongated despite her small stature. Freckles ran across the bridge of her nose in an uneven pattern and her nostrils flared when she laughed.

When it was time for LeeAnn’s mother to go, she knelt down gracefully, rolling one of her daughter’s ringlets around a finger. Then she stepped back to admire her creation, gave her progeny a dry kiss on the forehead and disappeared. A moment of sadness fell across LeeAnn’s face but was quickly replaced by her usual irked expression. She did not raise a word in protest at her mother’s exit.

*

It was the third day of kindergarten when LeeAnn and I first spoke. I was trying to survive recess. Unlike the other children who could not wait to get out of the classroom so they could scream and cheer and throw sand and bounce balls, and let out all of what Mrs. Bell called their “pent up energy,” I dreaded the playground. Children in a group terrified me, the way they egged each other on, arms grabbing, legs kicking, racing around spasmodically.

I hovered at the fringes of the blacktop yard, pretending that I was much too occupied by my own activities to join in. These consisted of wandering in little circles circumscribed by my pigeon-toed gait, head down, pretending every crack in the asphalt merited my full attention.

I was carrying my snack, the same snack that I would carry every day of kindergarten, Nabisco potato crackers in a brown paper bag. My bag was folded over crisply and stapled neatly, the only bag in kindergarten closed in this fashion. My mother had performed this task as one more of her many office duties, folding the bag deliberately and then labeling it with my complete name in oversized black Marks-a-Lot. I had only to look at those official, formally executed, capital letters in my mother’s hand to begin to cry all over again. What I felt was not only her absence, but a hollowness at the recognition of my own absence for her; I feared having slipped out of her mind altogether. All I had to hold onto was my name, brought into materiality by her hand.

If I ventured to open my bag and actually eat those dry, salty crackers, they and my own tears would choke me. There were no drinks in kindergarten, unless one was willing to brave the drinking fountain dominated by boys making mud. Besides, the water was warm and came out in a rust-brown trickle.

On the perimeter of the playground, LeeAnn was walking around in little circles of her own. We made eye contact. She approached. She put her screwed-up face very close to mine and her wide set, gold-speckled brown eyes held me.

“Do you want to play?” she asked.

LeeAnn had a hoarse, gravelly voice for a littler girl, and it cracked as she elongated each syllable.

“Play what?” I asked, not committing to anything.

I soon learned that for LeeAnn there was really only one game, a game of her own invention. It was called “Elephant Girl,” and LeeAnn got to be “Sheebah” the baby elephant. I was to be the nameless elephant keeper, whose job it was to hold Sheebah’s rope and lead her around the circus ring or the jungle floor. I was to feed her, pat her head, praise her, and tell her that she was a good little elephant.

LeeAnn leaned over, clasped her hands in front of her face, swung them back and forth until she got the rhythm right, until she had lost herself in the illusion that they were an elephant’s trunk. She spread her legs wide apart, tottering from side to side, and then began to move very slowly as if her body were gargantuan. Her eyes glazed over and she began to make noises. Woo-gah! Woo-gah! she said, the closest she could get to an elephant’s bellow.

I wasn’t sure of exactly how to join the game, so LeeAnn emerged from her trance long enough to direct me. She turned around and said perfunctorily, “Untie my bow. That’s Sheebah’s rope.” I hesitated for a moment, afraid to touch the flouncy bow at the back of LeeAnn’s dress, the bow that her beautiful mother had crafted so carefully because I knew I would not be able to recreate its two perfectly symmetrical loops. But Sheebah nudged me with her trunk, saying Woo-gah! Woo-gah! until I placed my snack on the ground by the fence, and hurried back. I pulled the bow out with a flourish and took the two ties in my hands. I lowered my voice until I found the wise and benevolent tone of the elephant keeper. “Come on now, Sheebah,” I said. Soon I had begun to guide Sheebah around the playground.

Sheebah’s routine was simple and ritualistic. In order to play the game, I had to believe in it as LeeAnn believed in it, and in the reassuring necessity of certain acts occurring in sequence, over and over again. Sheebah picked up imaginary hay with her trunk, put it into her mouth and chewed, her mouth partially open so that some of the hay spilled out. Sheebah spied an enticing group of leaves. She galloped toward it, bellowing louder and louder as she approached, Woo-gah! Woo-gah! I was pulled along after her. When we arrived at the leaves, she flared her nostrils and strained her face into a half-grunt, half-smile. She lifted her trunk to pull the leaves off the high branches, and I loosened her reins while she ate and waited patiently until she had eaten her fill before reining her in again.

Once Sheebah’s appetite was sated, I could give her a command to run at my side or march in time to the circus music I hummed. Afterward, Sheebah nudged me with her trunk and I rewarded her with pretend peanuts. Mostly we just walked around the playground in circles that did not appear so different from my own, except that we were now sworn to believe that LeeAnn was an elephant girl and I, the elephant keeper.

One day Sheebah tested the limits of our attachment by expressing a sudden impulse for total freedom. She bounded away, lurching the reins right out of the keeper’s hands. She galloped and woo-gahed, and I had no choice but to run after her. Once I caught up, I scolded Sheebah and lashed her gently with the reins. Elephant girl bellowed, the keeper was sorry, elephant girl was sorry. We reconciled, rubbing heads together softly. “You’re going to be a good little elephant from now on, right?” I said. Sheebah nudged me softly with her trunk.

Over and over again elephant girl squatted to “go,” briefly for “number one” and longer for “number two.” During the latter act she stopped swinging her trunk, grunted, and furrowed her elephant’s brow. Afterward, she swung her trunk quickly and moved about in small circles to express her elation, and I said, “Good Sheebah, good Sheebah,” as excited as she by her accomplishment. I groomed Sheebah, patted her head, tenderly brushed her enormous backside. In her midst I was no longer afraid of the other children; this large, powerful animal was at my side to love and protect me.

I was a good natured elephant keeper and Sheebah’s routine was gratifying to us both; she trotted, I ran after her. She pooped, I praised her. She did a trick, I stroked her head. When one day LeeAnn said, “Okay, just this once, you can be the elephant, and I will be the keeper,” I was at a loss. I couldn’t get the Woo-gah, Woo-gah down and LeeAnn was frustrated – by not playing the part well I challenged our faith by calling too much attention to the game’s artifice. I saw that it was potentially more fun to be the elephant than the elephant keeper but for it to be the most fun, you had to be LeeAnn.

In the guise of the game, Elephant girl got to do everything forbidden in the world of domesticated girlhood that LeeAnn’s mother so graciously but relentlessly imposed. The elephant keeper understood as LeeAnn’s mother did not that elephant girls needed to make loud noises, to squat to relieve themselves whenever the urge struck, to eat indiscriminately and voraciously, to make ugly faces, to be bigger and stronger and more willful than any adult human. If our mothers seemed determined to convert us into good, obedient, quiet, and relatively powerless little girls, the elephant keeper loved Sheebah for being true to her elephant nature. She took pleasure, even pride, in Sheebah’s grunting, her limitless appetite for hay, her massive pooping on urge, her Woo-gah, Woo-gah bellowing.

In our game, LeeAnn and I may have been reenacting the phases of toddlerhood that we had passed through with our own mothers, but this time we were doing it on our terms. Elephant girl fed herself, toileted herself, separated from the keeper and reunited with her over and over again. But when Sheebah pleased the elephant keeper by marching in a circle or standing on her hind legs on command, when she allowed herself to be reined in or restrained herself from pooping in the circus ring, it was always an act of love, rewarded by an equal return of love. The elephant keeper never expected Sheebah to behave only out of propriety or blind obedience.

One day LeeAnn was in a particularly peevish mood, and that made Sheebah especially willful and exuberant. She refused to cooperate with the elephant keeper. She bounded away, reared her head, performed an elephant trot. She pulled the branches off trees, stampeded the playground, stormed up to the chainlink fence enclosure and rammed it with her head till it shook. She was woo-gah woo-gahing so loudly, shaking her trunk from side to side so forcefully, that she could not even hear what the elephant keeper was saying.

I could not get her into the circus ring; I could not hold onto her; I was spending the entire recess enslaved to her will. “No, Sheebah, No, Sheebah,” I kept shouting with an increasingly threatening edge in my voice. I was no longer speaking in the elephant keeper’s patient, tolerant tones. The voice was familiar, though. I sounded just like my mother. Elephant girl was my game now, too. Our struggle took on an intensity that transcended the game – we both wanted control, and we wanted it now.

I finally caught up with Sheebah and was holding onto her by the black velvet ties of her dress, a particularly ornate pink taffeta, with layers of petticoats, the skirt and sleeves and waistband edged in velvet, when she began to buck and rear her head. “Stop that right now, Sheebah,” I said, and what came out of her mouth as she struggled to bolt away from me sounded more like a groan than a woo-gah, woo-gah. “You’re not going anywhere,” I said. Sheebah bucked and strained and groaned louder. As she fought my hold on the reins, I gave them a sudden hard yank, and the sound of ripping fabric rivaled Sheebah’s bellow. The elephant girl spun out of my reach, the raggedy torn velvet ties of her dress still in my fist.

It took a second for LeeAnn to realize fully just what had happened. She was completely free of the keeper now, but at what price? We had both gone too far; the evidence of our rebellion leaving a mark we could not erase. LeeAnn could not go home to her mother like this. The torn ties were proof of what sort of a game we had been playing.

She turned on me in a fury. “YOU tore my dress. YOU tore the pretty dress my mother made me. YOU’RE A BAD, BAD GIRL and I’m telling Mrs. Bell. You’re going to get into so much trouble.”

“I didn’t mean to…” I started to cry. “Sheebah was getting away and I was just trying to hold onto—” But LeeAnn looked at me incredulously. Sheebah? Sheebah who? Whatever was I talking about? She was just a good little girl on the kindergarten playground whose mother had made her the prettiest dress of any girl in the class. Maybe the prettiest dress of any girl in any class. And I was a troublemaker; hadn’t I demonstrated that from the very first day?

LeeAnn stomped off to our teacher Mrs. Bell who was seated at the far end of the playground under a khaki-colored umbrella for shade. She described her plight, pointing at me and practically jumping up and down with indignation.

I knew I should never have untied her bow, I thought. I should never have allowed her to lure me into playing elephant girl. I was a bad girl, a very bad girl, the girl who could not control her own emotions, who could not control her own body, the out-of- control girl, the girl who would never again have a friend. I had been caught failing once again at what was required of little girls in kindergarten: to be compliant, to be nice, to be quiet, to not cry too hard, to not allow one’s unruly desires to show on the outside. I should have just stayed on the fringes and eaten my crackers. No, I thought, I should never have let anyone make me go to kindergarten.

Over the next few days, LeeAnn alternated between shunning me and storming over with her curls flying, her gold-flecked eyes burning. She’d stand right up next to me and glare, then stomp her foot and turn away. Every day I spent recess, head down, wandering along the outer perimeter of the school yard, longing to be invisible. I was as frightened of simply being seen as of any punishment, ashamed that the light of adult eyes had invaded the insular pleasures of our game. Mrs. Bell would never understand what we had been doing, but I suspected from the disapproving looks that she sent in my direction that she had already seen too much.

After a while, LeeAnn announced to me that her mother had sewed her ties back on, better than ever, and we made up. But we never played elephant girl with quite the same abandon. We went through the motions but it was as if our mothers were always looking over our shoulders, and their looking had gotten inside. LeeAnn did not run too far or buck too hard; she ate only a small amount of hay at one time, she never pooped in the ring. I did not pull with all my might on her reins. We were just two nice, well-behaved girls pretending, playing a harmless game. We loved our mothers and our mothers loved us. We were going to succeed at kindergarten.

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This essay put the editors in mind of A.A. Milne’s poem “At the Zoo.” Watch this utterly charming rendition performed here.]

Image by randychiu via Flickr Creative Commons

Deborah A. Lott’s memoirs and essays have been published in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Bellingham Review, Black Warrior Review, Cimarron, Crazyhorse, Salon, the Tin House blog, Story Quarterly, and other places. Her book Don’t Go Crazy Without Me is in process. “Elephant Girl” first appeared in the GrayWolf anthology Open House: Writers Redefine Home edited by Mark Doty. Read more at http://deborahalott.com/memoirsessays/.