White Elephant Sale
They could feel the elephant behind the curtain, the mysterious Ganesh, an enormous swaying ghost. Or maybe it was because the reporters knew he was there—the elephant was, after all, their reason for congregating inside the stifling tent. Already ties had been loosened and jackets removed and tossed onto the backs of wooden foldup chairs, and the whiskey was making its rounds via the black-tied waiter. The men half-listened to Frank Fox as he gestated and ballyhooed about chasing the elephant through dank dark Indian jungles dodging pythons and headhunters, before rescuing it from the claws of Bengalese tigers that had leapt on its back as it drank from a river.
John Taylor wiped his brown and watched the pop of the curtain next to his chair. The curtain billowed and there was a low moaning behind it, and he swore he could hear the beast’s breathing. John poked his hand along the bottom of the curtain hoping his fingers might touch the ghostly god.
We paid the Sultan great fortunes, including the finest Arabian stallion and a calliope of gold, and we led the only living white elephant in the entire world today—and P.T. Barnum may claim he has a white elephant, but we all know he’s a master showman, the grand huckster of trickery! Fox paused so the reporters could absorb his point. The only living white elephant in the world is behind the curtain, you’re about to see him. We led this Sacred Beast out of the Eastern jungles and through the streets at night covered in a blanket! Frank threw his hands out as an exclamation and the waiter made a circle with his tray. John shook his head and wondered if he shouldn’t this once it was so goddamn hot. The other reporters were slouching in their chairs, nodding off and Charlie in the corner was snoring so goddamn loud he was going to wake up the dead. John tapped his pen on his notepad and underlined “white elephant.” He put a star next to the word, then circled the star. He scrawled the name, “P.T. Barnum,” and underlined it and sketched an elephant as Frank extolled.
P. T. Barnum says he got himself a white elephant, Frank yelled. But I’m telling you now, that is no real white elephant! Frank paused until all the reporters rolled their cloudy eyes toward him. Charlie careened forward and a man with a bulbous nose caught him by the shoulder and swept him back into his seat in a move so fluid and effortless it would have inspired envy in a clown. And Frank, being a clown by training, recorded and filed the motion in the place reserved for tricks in his brain, and his voice dropped to a whisper, and the journalist eventually ceased their mumbling amongst themselves and leaned and lurched forward expectantly, and Frank’s words hissed through his lips like a snake. P.T. Barnum is a Fraud! Frank swept his arm across the audience and directed the drunken writers toward the curtain. Behind this curtain is the world’s only, the most unique, most sacred, most wondrous pachyderm that has ever walked the earth. Gentlemen. Today, I will show you Pawah, the magical mystical beast of the jungle!
John, being sober and hot, was bored by the theatrics. Frank unrolled the royal scroll, proof that the elephant’s lineage dated back to the time of Buddha. The Buddha, according to the scroll legible only to Frank, had blessed the elephant’s ancestor causing it to turn white. Several of the other reporters blew out their breath and a writer from the Philadelphia Press clawed at his shirt collar as if he were choking. John’s tongue felt like a roll of cotton in his mouth, and his own shirt was heavy and wet against his skin. The rust-colored stains on the aged curtains looked like tobacco stains, and John wished for that he wasn’t Quaker, that he could sneak a pinch, or in any case, a sip of water. He pulled the watch from his pocket then put it back, considered walking into the curtain, past the strongman holding the cord and standing vigil. One look at the mammoth and then gone, into a river maybe, the cold wet sting on his skin he could feel it, a rush of water pushing against his legs, he’d have to bend over and clutch an exposed rock for balance. But no, the air felt thin in his lungs. He closed his eyes and could hear the other reporters fidgeting. It was only a mater of time before mutiny.
Well Gentlemen. Frank could read his audience and the men were ready to walk out or pass out. It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for! The drum roll came from behind the curtain. May I present to you the amazing, magnificent mammoth, the ponderous, prodigious pachyderm, the extraordinary sacred beast of the east, the one and only white elephant living in the world today, Pawah! Frank shouted the last words and the drum roll was thunderous and the curtain slid open and the reporters woke from their chairs and leapt to unsteady feet and the elephant stood in front of a black velvet curtain with prints from a multitude of countries and ages decorating the stall. He was smallish and he stretched his trunk toward the group lazily as if to perform an inspection, and the bullhand, who must have been in the stall during the entire introduction, guided the trunk and the elephant towards the back of the stall.
John studied the elephant, which was white in shadowy sort of way—the dim lights made color ambiguous. The eyes were dull and the skin dry and flakey, the flanks gaunt. He needs water, John thought and ran his tongue over his own parched lips—he’d been covering circuses enough to know that much about elephants. He didn’t see any water in the stall and glanced around the tent. Fox was again talking.
Take a look folks. Drink him in, you won’t find another like him in your lifetime. The world’s only living white elephant! Take a good look and go tell your papers, tell the world, and come to the show tonight. He’ll be performing with Garrett the clown under the big top. You won’t find another like him in your lifetime . . . . He looks like a gentle creature, but don’t tempt the fates, Frank said, putting his arm up as Charlie careened toward the elephant. The gentlest of the wild creatures have been known to turn.
The waiter saw John first and tried to grab his arm, but John was a big man, hot and tired, and his patience had been tried. Then Frank saw John and motioned to the strongman, but by that time the elephant had his trunk in the bucket and he was sucking up the water. The strongman tore the bucket from John’s hands and the elephant threw his trunk over his back and gave himself the cool shower the entire group had been longing for, and the water pooled on the elephant’s back and the skin began to sag and melt, like wax down the side of a candle, and patches of the elephant’s religiosity and purity dripped onto the sawdust into milky-gray puddles, and the magnificence unraveled in thick drops of lime, and the elephant searched for the bucket but the strongman had passed it to the clown and the clown had left the tent.
He may be an elephant, but he sure as hell ain’t white, John said.
The curtain closed as John spoke and the strongman grabbed him by the elbow and led him from the tent.
Well sirs, Frank was saying as the tent flap closed behind John and he stood in scorching sun, but the breeze was sweet and cool. We’ve taken too much of your time. We do appreciate you coming. Now, if you don’t mind, we need to prepare Pawah for the evenings show.