Dying on the Elephant Road

Issue #54

Sometimes a moment’s mistake tells the whole story. In Abraham’s case, it was love for a woman which sent him foolishly leaping in front of a panicked herd of elephants, waving his hands, shouting, trying to divert them from trampling his beloved, who’d already had the good sense to get herself to safety.

Abraham’s own good sense, unfortunately, had always arrived late. His last thought, before the herd pounded him into gooey mortar for the stony trail, was simply, oh Lord, what have I done?

His next few thoughts were less focused, hampered by the fact that bits of his brain were widely scattered and confused by a vision of the tattered little man hovering over him with a small jar, one bent twig of a finger dripping ointment.

“Try not to wince overly much, would you?” the fellow admonished. “It makes it difficult to put things back together straight.”

Abe recognized him—a ragged beggar who squatted beside the elephant road all day. Not a very successful beggar, since he never asked for anything, simply stared at the merchants and other travelers with large, red-haloed eyes. Never said thank you, either, when anyone threw him a coin. Was he taking advantage of Abe’s unfortunate accident by robbing him? Abe tried to squirm away but felt, oddly, as if he had nothing to squirm. He felt his facial muscles shudder.

“No twitching, either, if you don’t mind,” the beggar said. “Or is having your chin under one ear a look that appeals to you?”

Abe had no idea what he was talking about, but tried to remain still. The ointment was soothing, with a bit of tingle. Between applications the beggar picked things up off the road. Abe couldn’t quite see. His head was tilted back as if he were looking out of a hole in the pavement. But somehow the ointment seemed to be lifting his body a little higher each time.

Then he noticed that the beggar’s fingers, both of his hands, his wrists, parts of the arms were stained. Disgusting. But beggars were occupationally filthy. He couldn’t stand to see the beggar putting those stained hands into the ointment and then touching his body.

Abe tried to speak but could not. It wasn’t that he was hoarse, or momentarily inarticulate. He didn’t seem to have the necessary mechanism.

His eyes must have betrayed his distress, because the beggar said, “Wait a moment. We are not quite there yet.” And then the beggar reached forth those blood- and gore-encrusted appendages and put them all over the lower half of Abe’s face. Abe discovered that he could now turn his head, and when he did he was assaulted by the sight of his ruined left arm, no hand visible, and as he looked down he realized his head was attached to nothing more than a mat of blood, torn tissue, and bone fragments.

“Oh my Lord!” he cried. “My hateful, miserable Lord!”

“Please don’t do that,” the beggar said, pursing his lips. “This is rather delicate repair work, as you might appreciate.”

“Ointment! You’re going to fix me with makeup!”

“Well, that is hardly accurate. Besides, far more than your face is in need of restoration.”

Abe might have argued the point, but he lost consciousness instead.

Abe awakened under a tree off the side of the elephant road. He seemed to be sitting, his back supported by the trunk. He looked down, and that appeared to be his torso and legs beneath him—at least they were of the proper size and proportion, but wrapped in clothing not his own. He raised his hands and examined them. They looked like broken pottery clumsily glued back together.

“The lines will fade over time, although there may be some residual scarring. No doubt you yourself will always see the scars, even after they’ve disappeared.” The old twist of a man busied himself as he talked, putting things in glass jars, stoppering and labeling them. The contents were red, pink, white, yellow, unidentifiable yet vaguely familiar.

“Please don’t tell me that that’s me in those jars,” Abe said hoarsely.

“Well, obviously not all of you. A little bone, a little blood, inconsequential bits of organ, a finger-sized strip of brain. Nothing essential, I assure you.” He paused, apparently puzzling over how to word a particular label, then looked directly at Abe. “I might have asked your permission, perhaps, but people in your condition are seldom able to give the question due deliberation.”

“You aren’t a beggar, are you?”

The not-a-beggar laughed. “Philoneous, a wizard. Last name missing, or stolen—I’m still trying to work that little conundrum out. Pardon these poor threads, but they make one anonymous, a good thing, I think, even in the best of times.”

“And yet I’ve seen you accept coins, scraps of food from the passersby.”

“I never return gifts of money, do you? And I don’t always eat the food. In any case, these pieces of you are payment for services rendered. There are always bits left over when you put something together, have you noticed? And I assure you, I know what to do with those bits. I will get far more out of them than you ever could.”

“I think I’d like to go home now,” Abe said weakly.

“I am sure you would. But first I need you to perform a small task for me. A minor favor, but it is the final payment I require for this major miracle I have performed for you.” The wizard’s smile wasn’t very wizardly. To Abe it looked like the lopsided grin of a fool.

“I’m afraid I’m not at my best,” Abe replied.

“Of course not—not everyone made pavement is able to talk about it afterward. Here, come walk with me. The exercise will help you feel better, and I can inform you of your task.”

Abe did not want a task to do. In fact, Abe wanted nothing. A thorough trampling had relieved him of all desire—he wondered if Philoneous might have collected his desire into one of those jars. But he had no will, either, and so followed, content to have someone tell him what to do.

But he couldn’t quite bring himself to set foot on the elephant road. What if Philoneous hadn’t found all of him, and he trod on his own remains? The wizard gently coaxed but finally gave in and walked with Abe a pace off the roadbed. Abe lagged behind him a step, watching the way the old man moved. He walked with a certain regalness, despite the shabby robes. Satchels and bags and jars hung all over him, swaying and clinking and giving the illusion of some sort of mobile shop. And he diverted his path for no one, whatever their station. They all stepped out of his way.

The road was full of merchants and shoppers, students and priests, the periodic strolling musician or jester. And true beggars, their hands thrusting like the beaks of eager geese. The occasional cart. And of course the occasional elephant, revered and untouchable as they had always been. He felt the various puzzle-pieces of his flesh shrink away independently, making him burn and itch all over, but he dared not scratch for fear of de-quilting himself. At least these specific elephants were calm and walked among the people as if they owned this road, which—of course—they did.

Suddenly the short wizard was right under his shoulder, peering up with that loopy grin. “The problem, you see, is my hat, or lack thereof.” Naturally Abe’s eyes were drawn to the wizard’s scalp, bald and raw as a plucked chicken’s, as bumpy as a bowl full of beans. Unhealthy, split beans.

Abe averted his eyes, mumbling “I see your need.”

“The merchant Vangelin has it, claims to have won it in a dice game. I have no memory of such a game, but that’s never been proof of anything. Suffice to say he has my hat, and he keeps it well-guarded. He collects them, you know. Hats.”

“People collect hats?” Abe didn’t want to appear unsophisticated, but he was genuinely surprised by the idea.

A large woman pushed between them. She had six or more small children strapped around her waist. She told the children a story as she darted forward.

“He’s quite fashion-conscious when it comes to hats,” Philoneous continued. “I collect, other things, so it wouldn’t be proper for me to make fun of another man’s collections. Why, what do you collect? And don’t tell me ‘failures.’”

Abe stared at his feet, wishing the wizard had spent more time with them—he appeared to be missing some toes.

“Cheer up, lad. Get my hat back for me and you’ll have a wizard’s gratitude, and that’s no small thing.”

They were entering the restaurant district. Large balconies full of diners hung from the buildings like nests against cliffs. But he had no desire for food—in fact, the idea made him feel ill. Had the wizard put his stomach back in? “Why can’t you ‘magic’ the hat away from him?”

“We don’t call what we do ‘magic.’ We are not magicians. We have definite limitations. Surely you know that much?” Abe didn’t, but wasn’t about to admit it. “We are scholar-technicians, at least that’s how I look at it. I require ingredients, tools. I know how to use those ingredients and tools to a very high level. That is the wizardry occupation in a nutshell. And the merchant Vangelin is a very powerful man. His guards would know not to let me that close.”

“Then why not simply buy another hat? Why all this bother?”

“A wizard’s tools are not replaceable. They are uniquely individual.”

“Your hat is a tool?”

“Oh, of great importance! It is both gateway and reservoir, shield and chalice. It is a focal point for transformations and communications. It holds everything I can put into it, and gives up only what I tell it to. Its delicate lining is stained with my dreams. It also hides those ugly scalp bumps you’ve been trying so hard to ignore.”

“Then why choose me? I’m hardly anyone’s idea of a champion.”

If the wizard answered him Abe did not hear, for at that moment he was sure he saw his beloved, the woman he had given up his life for, sitting in a nearby balcony dining with another man. He would know that profile anywhere, the long regal nose, the eyelashes as full and luxurious as butterfly wings, the lips pouting just as likely with amusement as with disdain. And her hair a waterfall of chestnut.

She glanced his way and his heart stopped. She leaned forward, pulling her hair aside with tiny fingers, apparently to get a better view. Then she shook her head and returned her attention to her dining companion.

“I recognize her from the road,” the wizard said beside him, “before your unfortunate mishap. Did you know she was well out of the road before you threw yourself in front of the herd? No, of course you didn’t. You also didn’t know she didn’t stick around afterward to see if she could help, because—of course—you were dead then. She could hardly control her impatience—she didn’t even look back.”

“She must have been too upset.”

“Hmmm, perhaps. But she appears to have recovered well. What’s her name, anyway?”

“I have no idea.”

“Of course you don’t. You’ve never even spoken to her.”

Abe gazed down at the wizard. “How could you know such a thing?”

“Such a commonplace deduction requires no wizardry, I assure you. Don’t you think, after all you’ve been through, that you should introduce yourself?”

“She is so beautiful. I don’t know. I don’t want to interrupt her evening.”

“You have interrupted your life. Have some perspective. She may be beautiful to look at, but from what I’ve seen of her, and I’ve spent some time up and down the elephant road, she is beautiful the way a garment is beautiful. That gentleman up there is eyeing her as if he were buying a new coat. In any case, what if we waited until she finished eating, accost her in the street?”

“I just don’t know if I should do something like that.”

“You’re the one who interrupted a highly annoyed collection of elephants! If only you had hesitated then!”

“I just don’t want to make a mistake.”

“Oh, bother! I need a champion who’ll make a decision, who isn’t afraid to throw himself at elephants, if I’m ever to get my hat back!”

Philoneous fumbled with the numerous pouches tied around his belt, finally choosing one and drawing from it a diaphanous cloth that fluttered out into a large flag. He held it high in one hand, apparently so as not to drag it in the street. He looked at Abe and grinned, responded “Cape lining” to the unasked question, and ran for a nearby staircase.

Abe stood at the side of the road, not sure what he was supposed to do. The crowds pushed around him, everyone else apparently well-versed in what was expected of them. They were an exotic mixture of colors and perfumes, but he saw none with his sort of variegated, patchwork flesh. He wondered if he smelled peculiarly, given his recent history. He tried an armpit, the webbing between fingers. He could smell nothing out of the ordinary, but he thought it a difficult thing, trying to smell your own stink.

A commotion on the balcony distracted him from his self-examination. There stood his beloved and her lucky dining partner. Then something fluttered up above her head, and she was running, her companion shouting. There was Philoneous, at least as much as one might see of him above the balcony wall—his wizened head, his arms up waving—apparently running in circles, being chased, or chasing, Abe’s beloved, her entire head now enveloped by the fluttering cloth, her companion struggling to pry it off her.

A few minutes later Philoneous ran back into the street carrying aloft a beautiful reddish-brown cape with cowl. He passed Abe with no acknowledgment. After a small hesitation Abe chased after him. They passed through a series of jagged lanes and less-than-lanes, careful to avoid the occasional slow-moving elephant left to wander unhindered into the farthest reaches of the city. Eventually the wizard pulled him into the shadows of a stable.

Philoneous held up the cape. “Slip it on. It is yours, for now.”

Abe never would have thought to wear such a thing, but it was so beautiful he could not resist. Immediately the neck clasp joined beneath his throat like the interleaving fingers of two delicate hands. The luscious perfume of the cape nearly made him swoon.

“How does it feel?”

“Marvelous,” Abe admitted.

“Good. Leave the cowl down, else you might find it a tad crowded.”

Abe puzzled over this instruction until warm breath softly caressed the back of his ear. What is the meaning of this? Who is this person?

Abe jumped. He tried to pull the cape off but the clasp held fast. The clasp tingled and burned to the touch. “Philoneous?”

Is that the name of this twisted little dwarf? Tell him to stop this, whatever it is, right now. And you let go of my hands, if you don’t mind.

Abe squealed and dropped both hands, falling backwards into the wall behind him. Aagh! You fool! You are crushing me!

“Philoneous!” he shouted. “What have you done?!”

“No need to panic. You were the one torn apart by elephants, remember? Here.” He plunged his hand into his shirt and pulled out a square of shiny, stiff material, which he quickly unfolded into a mirror. “Use this to look more closely at the cowl. Focus particularly on that gap visible slightly right of the base of your neck.”

Abe did as he was told. In the dark hollow inside the cowl he made out a long, delicate, flesh-colored shape, and above to each side the beautiful eyes, the butterfly lashes, and below the pouty lips baring his beloved’s teeth.

Has no one told you it is impolite to stare at a lady above your station?

“Allow me to introduce the Madame...,” Philoneous began. “Oh, what was your name again?”

Oljon, you diminutive cretin.

“Hmmm. Yes. Well, this is the reckless young man who saved you, or tried to save you, as it were, if you in fact had needed saving.”

I know of no such person.

“Come now. You knew exactly what happened to this unfortunate lad. I saw everything. Certainly he was a fool, but he thought he was protecting you. That should count for something.”

The cowl did not reply.

Philoneous looked up at Abe with a sad smile. “I am sorry if this embarrasses you. It has become obvious you would not have completed your mission under the previous circumstances. I need someone both reckless and motivated, and with the ability to make a decision. I think that perhaps the two of you together, well, do you understand? Once you have gotten me my hat, I will turn her back into a lady, or whatever she was, again.”

And if we fail?

“Then young Abe will have you, but you will remain a garment. But surely that condition is not an unfamiliar one?”

You are an evil man!

“Well, hardly. I am not always a nice man, but your standards of evil are unrealistic, I think.”

“I have to wear her—this cape, until the task is complete? I cannot ever remove her—it?”

Philoneous scratched at his thinning beard. “It is customary to attach some highly impractical, completely useless loophole in such situations, or so I have observed in the stories told by others far older than myself. Quite frustrating for all concerned. So then, suppose you can remove her, once only, and only for the purpose of transferring her to another? And even then, only for a count of thirty. She will always come back, one way or other.”

Abe closed his eyes. “Perhaps you should have left—” he mumbled, and stalled, unable to offer more.

The only portion of the merchant’s sprawling compound not under heavy guard was a narrow section of wall at the back, cast in shadow by nearby buildings and planted thickly around its base in thorn bushes. The only opening in the otherwise sheer wall was a small window at least the height of twenty men above the ground. Philoneous had supplied a pair of “cat’s claws” to meet the challenge of the wall—a kind of glove with metal tubes that went over the fingers, ending in extraordinarily sharp “claws” that went easily into the brick, the whole contraption braced over the arm with an arrangement of lacings and metal rods.

Abe supposed Philoneous had counted on his reckless nature where women were concerned to get him past the thorn bushes. The wizard had no doubt assumed Abe would just foolishly throw himself into those bushes and climb from there onto the wall despite a fire of pain in back, legs, and groin. The wizard, unfortunately, had been correct.

Actually, the most difficult part of the mission so far had been the company.

There are thorns in my beautiful hair! Thorns! And you stink! You are sweating and you stink!

“Madame.” Abe took a breath and prayed for patience. “Properly speaking, that is not your hair anymore—it is a cape. But still, I apologize if I have damaged you in any way. Are you aware that I have thorn problems of my own? Twenty or thirty, I would say. In my feet, my lower legs, my belly, my thighs, and a nasty one in the groin area.”

I know. It is quite disgusting.

Abe ignored this. “I smell because I am exerting myself. Despite the help of the wizard’s claw-things, and they are quite helpful things, certainly, this is very difficult work. Hard. Labor. This labor naturally makes one perspire. If you were not a cape resting comfortably on my back, but someone having to labor up this wall, why, you too, Madame, I assure you, would stink.”

She said nothing then, a blessing he’d felt too confused to wish for. Wasn’t this the thing he’d always wanted, to have intimate talks with her in the closest proximity, her arms thrown about his neck?

And despite his annoyance, he recognized that his major fear of falling was what his weight might do to her upon landing.

There was a vague satisfaction now in the rhythmic, ever-so-soft pocking sound the claws made as they sank into brick, too soft for any guards to hear but loud enough to count off his vertical progress. He’d never imagined himself capable of such a physical feat and assumed that, besides the engineering miracle of these cats’ claws, some rearrangement resulting in better efficiency had occurred when the wizard had reassembled him. Certainly this didn’t feel like any magic he’d been told of when he was small. This felt more like old-fashioned ingenuity at work.

Which might all come to naught without perfect execution of a brilliant plan. And he had no real plan, much less a brilliant one.

Your skin is patterned with all these lines, hundreds of them, as if it were a map that had been creased and creased again, then perhaps crumpled into a ball before being smoothed out again and stretched across a frame.

Abe attempted not to sigh. “The lines are seams, from when he reassembled me. I told you about the reassemblage, how I had awakened mostly head and barely that.”

But surely a wizard could have solved such a drawback. Perhaps you moved, or otherwise followed his instructions poorly.

“I really don’t think he considered it a problem. He is not much into appearances—haven’t you noticed?”

I realize this has caused you discomfort. I am truly sorry for that, but I did not know you before, so I tried not to think about what had happened to you. I’ve never liked thinking about sad things—there seems no point. Why would anyone want to think about sad things?

“I don’t think I even know how to answer that.”

I cannot as well. See? We are understanding each other.

“I’m fast approaching the window—any ideas about that?”

We should climb inside, if at all possible. It is getting quite cold out here.

“And then?”

And then we must find this hat.

“That is simply amazing. If you should have further ideas, please do not hesitate to share.”

The interior of the merchant’s dwelling was quite noisy. Abe had expected some sort of tranquil mausoleum, lit by a few well-placed lanterns whose light was only now and then shadowed by the gentle glide from room to room of barefoot servants. It was the kind of peace only the rich could afford, and which he—the youngest of sixteen growing up on a poor farm—had always dreamed of for himself. The master of such a house might spend his time reading and listening to soft music, not hanging onto a sheer wall for dear life while being harangued by a talkative cloak.

But clearly some sort of celebration was taking place. Waves of sound climbed the stairs and rushed down the halls, rattling anything not spiked or tied to the richly-decorated walls. There was indeed music, but it was a raucous sort as if the instruments were thrown at each other by impatient apes. Abe heard footsteps, and fearing that his patchwork face would betray him, he pulled the hood up over his head.

WHAT are you doing?! He was not sure where her lips were currently located, but they had definitely brushed his face. It did not matter that it had been accidental, or that they had been flapping in anger. They smelled faintly of cinnamon and fish.

“Shhh. They’ll hear.”

She said nothing more but made subtle nudgings with jaw and cheekbones as if to create more room inside the improbable geometry of the cowl. It was not as if two heads were occupying the cowl—more like a head and a third, or a head and a half. Either way, he hoped the drunken guests now passing noticed nothing unusual. As they strode by he raised his chin slightly for a peek—they each wore several elaborate hats jammed one atop the other pushed down almost over their eyes. Perhaps they weren’t drunk so much as visually impaired?

But they were laughing, pointing at the hats and howling. Once they’d gone Abe made his way toward the stairs from which they’d come. He descended rapidly and, despite his beloved’s protests, kept the cowl firmly in place.

The great room of the house of the merchant Vangelin looked more like a busy outdoor market than the dwelling of a man with taste and refinement. As he made the last few steps off the stairs a large black bird perched on a towering hat (complete with colorful windows and tiny pennants flying) soared his way, wingtip leaning into the cowl and touching his nose. His companion squealed, pulling away hard enough he had to grab the cowl on both sides of his head, gripping it desperately to keep his face covered.

Abe staggered to the floor and almost ran into a tall man with an even taller hat encircled with multiple spiraling rims. “Careful,” the tall man admonished, then leaned over and tapped the top of Abe’s head with one ridiculously long finger. “Not much of a hat,” he said, frowning. “I don’t know why you bother to protect it.” He strolled away.

Could you please be more careful? she whispered urgently, spraying his forehead with spit.

“Then calm down,” he murmured back, looking for her eyes and finding one in a far off corner of the cowl. It was bright blue, intelligent, a star.

Abe stepped more carefully then, keeping his breathing as steady as possible, thinking that if he kept things calm, he might pass that calmness along to her. But this did not prevent him from feeling considerable surprise at what he saw in the house: heads held rigidly to balance towering collections of hats, hats molded of paper and cloth and foil and fur and—apparently—garbage, hats looking like shoes and books and animals and cages and even—disturbingly—like human heads, including human heads exactly like the human heads wearing the human heads. Hats with wings and legs and tails and fields of glittering, startled eyes. And wandering through the crowd were dogs, cats, pigs, some with fancy hats of their own, others bareheaded, the shreds of their hats hanging from their mouths.

“What is wrong with these people? How much did they spend on all this distraction?”

Really? I find some of these quite—well, I would certainly wear some, perhaps not all—

“Madame, have you lost—?”

Wait! I believe that is Vangelin!

Abe experienced the odd sensation of Madame Oljon aligning her face with his, pushing eyes and lips forward past his own as they both stared at the small figure near the center of the room, sitting cross-legged on a high cushion, naked save for a loincloth, smiling idiotically (not unlike, Abe thought, the wizard Philoneous’s own idiotic smile). In all aspects of his person unremarkable.

But what was remarkable was the large hat of gently shifting colors, tip softly collapsed, rim fluttery with light, floating and turning a head’s height above the near-naked man’s hairless, mottled pate.

“Isn’t that a rather large hat for Philoneous’s tiny little head?”

Focus, please. I tire of this position.

“Certainly. But how do we retrieve the hat with all these people here?”

See the staircase behind him? You could reach out and snatch it away! Nothing could be easier! Quickly, we need a distraction!

“What kind of distraction? If I do anything these people will be watching me, and then how will I grab the hat?”

Think of one! If we do not retrieve that hat I will remain in this state forever! Damn that wizard for attaching me to such an imbecile!

“I will count to thirty. Be ready.” Abe snatched off the cape and planted it roughly on the back of a large passing dog. The animal reared up on its hind legs, howling, and raced around the room, the frantically flapping cape fastened securely around its neck with the pale, clasped hands. Abe imagined the Madame’s fury and could not resist a smile.

As Abe bounded up the staircase hanging over Vangelin, the caped animal continued to wreak havoc in the room. Towering hat collections toppled into one another as guests lost their balance and fell. Delicately-placed hat superstructures and accessories snapped, crumpled, and littered the floor as debris to be tripped, slipped, and stumbled upon. The other animals, now agitated beyond endurance, shook off their ridiculous headgear and attacked their masters and each other.

By the time Abe reached the correct landing and leaned over to grab the wizard’s hat, the room was in full, running disaster. Vangelin looked helpless, throwing up his arms as his guards rushed in and began wrestling with his guests. “No, no!” he cried, but without further elaboration the guards clearly did not know what to do.

Abe did not have to grab the hat so much as receive it. Once he touched it, it leapt into his arms, quivering like some frightened animal. Since the hat had had no actual physical contact with Vangelin, the merchant had no idea it was gone.

Abe tucked the hat under his arm and raced back down the stairs. He could feel the hat folding, shrinking with each step. As the caped dog passed nearby Abe reached out and grabbed the cowl, pulling it from the dog and snapping it around his own neck in one movement.

Not so rough! You will rip me!

Abe felt the wizard’s hat folding itself smaller and smaller and then sliding into his hand. He pocketed it.

I was afraid you might not retrieve me in time! I tried, but I lost count after ten—I was so frightened!

Abe did not tell her he’d completely forgotten to count at all. The grand front doors yawned open before them.

Why are you slowing down? We must leave!

“There are guards around the door! They’re watching every guest that passes through. If we attempt to approach without some sort of hat on my head we will draw too much attention to ourselves.”

Then get a hat somewhere!

“Do you see an available hat? Every hat I see is either on someone’s head, clutched desperately so as not to be lost, or lying in shreds on the floor.” He felt the cape suddenly writhing about in a frenzy, twisting and rising off his back. “Don’t panic now! Be still or they will notice us!” Then he felt the cape cowering on top of his head.

Keep moving, and glance to your right.

Abe saw the mirror, and as he passed, a reflection of a grand chestnut-hued turban wrapped expertly about his head. The guards barely spared them a glance as they passed.

When they were out of view of the compound Abe ran to put some distance between them and whoever might follow. But even at this pace he experienced considerable pain—obviously he hadn’t healed completely. He could feel various organs struggling against each other as he pushed his body on.

You are slowing down again.

“I am.”

I have really had enough of this ‘style’ of existence. The sooner we reach that foul master of yours, the sooner I will be my old self again.

“I am breathless in anticipation. Or is that fatigue? By the way, he is not my master, anymore than you are.”

Move along faster! I insist!

“I really can’t right now. There’s an elephant ahead and I can’t get around it. They move quite slowly, you know, when they’re not trampling someone to pieces.”

I will not forget such a, such an experience!

“Nor will I, hopefully. Right at this moment it feels like the most real experience I have ever had.”

Abe walked slowly, but still was soon alongside the elephant. He was surprised that he was not frightened—perhaps he was simply too tired. He gazed into the elephant’s eye, then rested his hand on the rough flank. Then, with little consideration of the consequences, he leapt up and clambered onto the elephant’s back.

What are you doing? This is forbidden!

“It’s dark, no one will see. Besides, this elephant, I think he owes me at least a ride.”

You are impossibly reckless!

Abe sighed. “And thanks to the wizard I now know that recklessness is both my talent and my one true calling.” He rocked his body forward, nudging the elephant behind the ears with his knees. “Go, please,” he said less-than-firmly.

The elephant remained statue-still.

I do not believe that is the proper command.

“Have you a better suggestion?”

Since climbing onto these creatures is forbidden and riding them out of the question, might it be possible there is no command that will work?

A few minutes later having completely exhausted his working vocabulary, a dejected Abraham slid down from the elephant’s back. He trudged down the lane, the folded wizard’s hat secure under his belt. The cowl and cape fell into a sullen silence, interrupted now and then by a furious repositioning on Abe’s head and shoulders.

Hours later dawn peeked over the tops of buildings and light began to fill the lanes. Hours after that Abe slumped to the pavement beside one of the public wells, filled both hands with water, and poured them over his face.

You’ve wet me!

“Aren’t you as hot as I am?”

Of course, I am! Much hotter in fact—remember I am doomed to shelter you, and what, exactly, is to shelter me in return? Nothing! But that doesn’t mean I want to be wet.

“Sorry, but the heat makes my seams itch.”

Ugh. Please don’t talk to me of seams. You are lost, I assume. You kept saying the way to the wizard’s abode is complicated and that was why our journey was taking a lifetime, but that is simply because you are lost.

“It is complicated because he never told me where he lives. I think he forgot to.”

And why did you not mention this before?

“He just showed up last time. I assumed he would do so again.”

How are we ever to get the wizard his hat back? How am I to return to my normal self?

“Funny, I was wondering how I was ever going to get you off my back.”

Idiot! In this heat I will surely catch on fire before the day is done!

“Wear this. It might help.”

What are you doing?

Abe unfolded the wizard’s hat. It expanded immediately, the tip rising into the air like a tent top, unfurling the sides and blowing out the glistening rim. He slipped it over the cloak on top of his head. He leaned over to admire his reflection on the surface of the water. It looked grand.

This looks ridiculous!

“It’ll keep the sun off until we find the wizard’s house.”

Some hovel, no doubt. I—

The wizard’s hat suddenly leaned over as if imbalanced but still firmly attached to Abe’s head. His neck strained under the pressure as he stared at the filthy cobblestones. He could see the shadow of the hat and the bent tip suddenly spinning like a weathervane.

The hat rose, dragging his head and his unfortunate neck with it. It tilted slightly, giving his head a somewhat quizzical orientation, and then he was moving, stumbling sideways in an attempt to keep up with his headstrong headgear.

Where are we going?

“Ask the hat—I’m just trying to keep my neck from breaking!”

The hat dragged them around the corner and down a succession of narrow alleys. Abe was able to rotate himself somewhat until his body was properly aligned with the hat’s forward movement, and eventually discovered he could sense when the hat needed to change direction and adjust his position accordingly.

Still, the journey was no easy endeavor. Several times he had to leap over animals and prostrate beggars, mount staircases with no regard to the people already using them, plow through busy market stalls and slip through horrid pools of stagnant waste.

Finally they were headed toward a door of dubious vertical clearance, and only as he readied himself to knock did he realize the hat had no intention of stopping. At the last moment he thought to lower his head, and they rammed hat-first through a shower of splintering wood.

A few moments later Abe was looking up from the floor in a daze as the hat sprang into the air and, spinning, lowered itself onto the bumpy bald head of the beaming Philoneous. The tip bowed, the hat bulged about its base as if containing an explosion, and then it settled, content.

Philoneous looked down at Abe, shaking his head. “Well, I suppose I could find a few jobs around here for you to do in order to pay for the broken door.”

Abe staggered to his feet. Philoneous’s quarters were a riot of vase and jar, feather and hide, eye and claw, filth and gleam, contraption and destruction, mounted head and preserved foot, collected and dispersed and dissected and generally rank. He also had a very nice display of framed doilies along one wall.

Get me off get me off get me off!

“Excuse me, Mr. Philoneous, sir, my—erm—beloved has a request?”

“Ah, yes, the delightful Madame Oljon!” Philoneous grabbed the cloak at the back of Abe’s neck, ripped it off (the hand clasps raking at Abe’s throat as they attempted to hold on), and began twirling it rapidly in the air while mumbling indecipherably fast.

The cloak suddenly whistled, jerked, and ballooned with a rude bladder sound. Madame Oljon tumbled out, all legs and arms, and the cloak disappeared. She struggled to her feet, stunned, her beautiful chestnut hair now a pile of brownish mulched rubbish. Abe tittered despite a desperate attempt to suppress it.

“Why is he laughing?” she demanded.

Philoneous considered her. “Well, it’s—fashion was never—I’m sure eventually—” He stopped. “Frankly, Madame, you have a rather serious case of hat hair.”

Madame Oljon screamed something inarticulate and stalked toward the doorless opening.

“Erm—Madame?” Abe called out.

She spun on him. “What is it, idiot?”

“I thought maybe—you might have a nicer sister at home?”

She turned back around and walked out, her hair snagging on a sharp piece of broken door frame. She tugged, a patch of hair ripped out of her scalp, she staggered, and continued on her way.

“Didn’t even say goodbye,” Philoneous mumbled. “Ah, yes, well I have some reading to catch up on. You can start your servitude—erm—work as my assistant—now by, yes, organizing this room a bit. I’m quite sure it will be obvious where everything goes. And don’t throw anything out, not even those little bits of wood. Everything’s useful, I always say. My, I’d forgotten what it’s like having an assistant, it’s been so long.”

Abe studied the catastrophe awaiting him. “So what happened to the last one?”

“Oh, you’ll find him there on the shelf somewhere.” The wizard smiled, and gently stroked his hat.


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Steve Rasnic Tem is a past winner of the World Fantasy, British Fantasy, & Bram Stoker awards. He has recent and upcoming stories in Asimov's, Postscripts, and the anthologies Werewolves and Shape Shifters, Visitants, Mountain Magic, and Spectres in Coal Dust. A collection of all his story collaborations with wife Melanie Tem, In Concert, recently came out from Centipede Press. Speaking Volumes (www.speakingvolumes.us) has brought out Invisible, a six CD audio and downloadable MP3 collection of some of his recent stories, most previously uncollected, and his first two novels have just been re-released as ebooks from crossroadpress.com.

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2 Comments on “Dying on the Elephant Road”

2 Responses to “Dying on the Elephant Road”

  1. euphrosyne says:

    10-23-2010, 01:13 PM
    euphrosyne

    This story was tremendously fun from start to finish. Improbable at every turn but skillfully done!

  2. steffenwolf says:

    01-13-2011, 09:39 AM
    steffenwolf

    A lot of fun, I liked the wizard character, and he had a quite clever plan to put the two of them closer together while also regaining his hat.

    My only quibble was that, for quite a while at the beginning I’d thought that he was actually betrothed to his beloved, or that he at least had a close relationship, as “beloved” to me implies intimate knowledge of the other at least, not just a distant crush.

    I liked that the pair didn’t end up with any certain romantic ties, that would’ve been a tad too predictable.

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