The road stretches out before me unwavering, like the heat. The little brown camper that we’ve called home since the start of our month-long trek across India moseys along crookedly, leaning always away. Dried up ditches frame the road and I imagine them as gushing rivers in the wet season. Beyond the dusty windshield, the sweeping flat land extends utterly unoccupied but for an occasional tree and the man that I love riding an elephant that we call Elvis.
The orange tweed interior radiates against my freckled skin like a fake tan. I’ve been wearing the same white linen shirt for so long that there is no longer a white thread to be found. I smell curry spice and compost coming off of my own self as much as anything else, and it has been weeks since I’ve actually minded. This makes me feel like I could belong, something I desperately hope to achieve.
Gone with the town we just departed from are the two men who stood beside the camper each dawn screaming at each other through the dewy haze in a language that I simply can’t understand. The possibility that we might sleep in tomorrow is stifled, like everything else, by the heat. I yawn and stretch, feeling sand stuck to the back of my neck. When I wash I find it in my nose and in my eyeballs as well. The humidity is relentless. Soon, we’ll be to the coast.
The camper finally leans too far away. It takes all my strength to keep it on the road, but in the end I give up and surrender it to the ditch. I step out casually as the rusty mess settles itself into the non-river.
“We’re leaving it,” I say swiftly, deliriously, amused. I hope the lightness of tone will prevent a quarrel.
“Lucy,” Wyatt says, his voice loaded with disappointment, but he stops himself. He looks up at the sky as if for an answer. When he jumps down off the elephant I smile in a way that I hope reads remorse. He walks over to where the camper is.
“Be careful!” I call.
A few minutes later he returns with our packs, the necessities and our sleeping pads. He fashions them to Elvis in silence. I stroke Elvis’s trunk as he tries to fish non-existent peanuts from my pockets.
The man who sold us the friendly mammoth spoke no English. From what Wyatt could gather the elephant was either twenty-four or forty-eight years old and called ‘aracan,’ which means ‘the king.’
“Elvis,” I say looking into his big black eye, “I hope you don’t mind me hitching this ride.”
“Will that be all, Pricilla?” Wyatt asks and I pout. He kisses my cheek and I’m smiling again before he’s through. I stand on my tiptoes to sneak a kiss on his lips before he turns. He gives me that half smile that fills me up with love, and then shows me where to step.
Sorry, I mouth to Elvis as I place one foot on the back of his knee. I take Wyatt’s hand and it feels like I’m climbing up a strong tree trunk. Elvis’s abdomen is hard, stable and sturdy. Aside from the coarse hairs poking through my khakis, it’s not at all uncomfortable.
We both jerk as Elvis starts down the long dirt road. I grab tight to Wyatt and then the animal’s massive shoulders fall into a rhythm that moves us up and down with him. We rock as if in a hammock strung above a small boat in calm water. I loosen my grip. There’s the slightest hint of a breeze. I feel fearless. A surreal sightseer, a tour by the dirty blue sky.
This is why I’m here. This is the adventure I seek.
Elvis’s grey skin reminds me of old people in a winsome way. It makes me think back to the wrinkled faces I’ve met in the villages we’ve passed through. There have been many of them over the last month and yet I feel myself missing the individual strangers. How easy it is to settle into a small towns routine. The beast’s appalling scent overpowers my nostalgia. I remember something that I forgot to tell Wyatt, my nose begs for the distraction.
“I made a friend yesterday,” I say straightening the little saffron colored towel we’re sitting on.
“The girl at the market?” he asks.
“Yeah. She gave me a pear and watched me until I took a bite. It was like she wanted to know if I would eat what she gave me, or if I chewed the same way as her.”
“She was glad to find out that I did. Her eyes sparkled and warmed to me.”
“That’s beautiful,” he says patting my thigh.
“It was,” I say, resting my hand on his for a moment. “I really thought that I’d gotten acclimated to the smells. Elvis, I’m sure it’s not your fault but it doesn’t seem very like a king to smell like old baby diapers.”
“You mean to tell me, diarrhea and old eggs aren’t regal?”
“Ew,” I squirm and pretend to vomit over his side.
“He smells better than you do,” Wyatt says smiling.
I laugh so hard I almost fall off. I grab Wyatt’s chest and hold onto him like a seat belt, feeling my ribs shake against him. Better to laugh than to pass out from the scent.
I take the scarf from my hair and cover my face with it like a bandit. It helps the way a single rose might mask a pile of manure.
The winning purchase of the journey has been the cone shaped straw hats we were sold in the first town. They have served as gallant protectors from the sun and the rain. With the hat on my head and the scarf on my face I feel less like a foreigner. I yearn for someone to believe that I’m a local. My dream would be to assimilate so fully that I could shimmy right out the light skin I’ve always worn and try on this culture’s for a time.
To see what they see. To feel how they feel. To learn all the details.
To walk mile after mile on the back of a hard stinky elephant passing salt fields and plantain tree farms, slowly, pontificating over weather patterns, placing space before time.
Westerners aren’t always accepted in the agrarian villages that we explore. Some embrace us, some fear us, and some have no idea what to think of us. I think that people are either fond of those different than them, or not. It doesn’t matter where you are. It’s the same with the people on the subway back home.
Elvis walks steadily, but with purpose and direction. I feel powerful floating on the giant, like a goddess from an ancient world. He carries us proudly down the flat brown road away from the pumpkin sunset.
Wyatt whistles “Fools Rush In,” I sway to the music, and after only a few bars Elvis begins raising his trunk in tune with the notes. He’s so smart! I hug Wyatt, lay my head on his back and close my eyes trying to commit the moment to memory. This is joy.
We stop when the night falls around us. The moon is small and the stars are vast.
We sleep on mats beside the riverbank under a tarp shelter that Wyatt fabricates with sticks and twine. I can smell the sea in the air.
“The coast isn’t far,” I say. “Do you think Elvis likes the sand?”
“I don’t know,” Wyatt looks at the elephant grazing in a patch of grass.
We lay to sleep and within my imagination slow-paced fishing villages that haven’t changed in two thousand years are busy with commerce. I can’t wait to meet the people. In all of my travels I have always felt most at home on small islands, like the one where I grew up.
One never knows if the sea will be fair or furious, but we always have absolute faith in her anyway. Those who reside near the ocean are equipped with an intrinsically easy feeling. For me that faith is simple.
I dream of lush mountains falling into a turquoise sea.
When I wake the sky is light grey and it’s so quiet that I can hear the dust blowing across the road.
Elvis is gone.
At once my eyes well up with tears. I jump to my feet. I walk up and down the road but its no use. He is an elephant in the middle of an even, far-reaching land, and he is nowhere to be seen. I let out a sob and cup my mouth with my hand. I feel tiny and lost, suddenly stuck in the middle of a strange country without a guide.
“Wyatt,” I whisper. “Wake up.”
He squints one eye open and looks at me. “What’s wrong?”
“Elvis is gone,” I say sweeping tears away with the back of my hand. He carried us across the broad land all the time sinking his elephantine footsteps deeper into my heart.
“What!” he sits up quickly, looks around for a moment, blinks into the daylight, and gets up. Shielding his eyes from the sun he looks in every direction.
“We took him from his home,” I sob, “and he left us for it. Why didn’t we tie him up? Why didn’t he want to stay? What’s wrong with us?”
“Shhh,” Wyatt coos, his arm around my shoulder squeezing me to him. He kisses the top of my head and I collapse into my hands sobbing. “Breathe,” he whispers after a minute or so. I try to get it together.
Wyatt stares down the way we had come for a long time.
“Well,” he says finally, “we wanted to live like they live here. This is part of it.”
He takes my face in his hands and speaks sweetly wiping my cheeks, “We have enough water and food. We’ll survive.”
I gaze back at him, dumbstruck and heartbroken.
“It’ll be ok,” he promises and kisses my salty lips. Then he gets started rolling up our mats and packing our things. He distributes most of the weight to himself.
My friend’s abandonment sits on my spirit. Why hadn’t Elvis wanted to stay with us on our voyage? Were we just dead weight to him? Will we only ever be dead weight to the rest of the world? Worthless and spoiled and weak? This is what I came here to understand.
An hour into the walk the rain starts. It soaks us to the bone. Before long my pack weighs as heavy as my heart, like the saturation has added one rock for each of my deficiencies. The road turns to mud. I concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other on the wet ground.
With each step I fight the muck as it sucks at my foot. I pretend I’m trying to step out of that circle thing on the tentacle of a giant squid. The slurping sound is a small kind of reward. I can’t distinguish my skin from my sandals. My toes might very well be growing webbed.
I watch the steady patterns in the puddles. I count steps. I sing show tunes in my head, almost the whole first act of Wicked. Anything to keep the crushing load on my shoulders from my mind.
The dutiful clip-clopping of a cart approaching comes on slowly. The animal pulling it towards us has hooves that are just as slopped in the latte colored mud as my own feet. I look up having to crane my neck in order to see the driver around my hat. An elderly man smiles at me in front of a grey sky. As I blink into the rain at him he closes his toothless mouth and nods. The uncomplicated act of human compassion carries me farther down the infinite path.
The dull ache of my feet is punctuated by intense jabs that I know mean the blisters are giving way to lacerations in the places where the straps of my sandals meet the backs of my heels. I try not to think of that, or the knotting pain in my back. I think of Achilles and how his mother tried to protect him and failed and what pain my own mother might know if she witnessed my current suffering. I’d like to know what that feels like, that all encompassing maternal love.
The rain lets up and when I no longer feel my skin being saturated, I take off my hat. I say a silent prayer of thanks to Achilles’ mother, though I can’t remember her name, and my own for always staying with me. The clouds have finally relented and a low, verdant mountain stands before us. The wet leaves are like glittering emeralds radiating greetings our way.
“Look,” I say, blinking back tears. My voice cracks and it occurs to me we haven’t spoken in hours. Wyatt looks up and I hear myself let out a long, raspy laugh.
He drops his pack and I drop mine and I lean against him, trying to hold some of my weight. I wrap my arms around his middle and squeeze. The jade mountains are a gleaming symbol of our feat. The ocean is on the other side. I stare in awe, satisfied by the road we never wavered from.
The sun breaks through and begins to dry the happy tears that joined the raindrops on my cheeks. I wonder how hard it’ll be to cross the small mountain range. Wyatt has absolute confidence. I can feel it under my fingertips in the muscles on his back. I love him for his conviction.
We sit on the side of the road. He eats wet salami from the bag of emergency food. I lay down resting my head on his leg, too exhausted to eat. Looking up at the new blue sky, my back pressed into the muddy ground, soaked, starved, and blistered, I have never felt such contentment.
When I wake its twilight. The stars are barely shining through the violet sky. Wyatt is asleep. In the absence of rain I hear the sound of the mountains: trees rustling, birds chattering, water rambling down a hill.
I stand and stretch, my back and hips competing for attention with their throbbing. My feet cry at the movement, each millimeter of ripped skin sears with pain. I blink twice into the dark horizon and shriek. The sound of the scream hangs in the moist air.
“Lucy?” Wyatt calls out of sleep.
“Look,” I whisper.
At the foot of the mountain stands an elephant.
“It’s Elvis,” he says, already on his feet.
“You think?” I ask laughing. My eyes are so full they’re over pouring yet again.
We study the possibility, our faces frozen.
“It can’t be him,” I say, sure that it is.
“I guarantee it is.”
“Get back here!” I call. “Elvis! Don’t be cruel!”
He walks leisurely towards us.
I wipe my eyes, and give Wyatt a happy shove. I know in my heart that I proved something to myself. I might be a Westerner, but I’m not worthless, or spoiled, or weak. Tomorrow we have to cross that mountain and it’s sure to wipe this grin off my face, but today I’m a survivor.
I have never seen something so beautiful as that sparkly green mountain, nor felt more humbled than by the comfort of that king.