Chapter 1: The Elephant's Graveyard
Scuffed blue shoes with silver buckles pounded the sidewalk of Westerville's Cremona Drive as the short walk home from school drew to an end. The small child to whom they belonged was bent double under the weight of his enormous Monsters Inc. backpack, looking exactly like a bipedal turtle save for the unruly mop of black curls that bounced around his face as he walked down the street. The imposing set of cast iron gates at the very end of the cul-de-sac had been left ajar, revealing a long cobblestone drive edged with conical topiaries, marigolds, fuchsias, Colocasia and roses. Somehow, everything appeared sloppily scattered and perfectly placed at the same time, each exquisite flower trying too hard not to try too hard.
These impressive grounds bore testament to the care and expertise of one Michael Anderson. In his infinite ability to seek out the best in life, the man had hired the pricey and fashionable Mr. John L. Sullivan to manicure the already flawless lawns and flowerbeds into a state of almost preternatural submission, everything imperfect enough to seem perfect. The garden was what the guests would compliment first, their eyes lapping up the carefully ordered disorder that Michael always described as 'Capability Brown in his Sunday best blasted into the twenty-first century, sans hermits'. Each visitor would attempt to replicate it on their own plots, but Sullivan didn't just work for anybody. He didn't work for free either, and few could afford the premium that lawyer and former State Senator Michael Anderson was reputedly willing to pay. That garden was the best in the Westerville, and everyone who was anyone knew it.
Blue shoes came to a halt where that drive met the street, their owner looking beyond the bright flowers and flawless lawns towards the magnificent portico of an imposing three storey house. Hazel eyes blinked through curly hair, the empty driveway and locked porch telling him that both parents had yet to return home. After a moment of stillness, the shoes regained their pace as suddenly as they had lost it, little legs carrying little feet across the perfectly striped lawn towards the three tall trees that grew in a small wooded area beside the boundary wall. The child was soon little more than blue dot on the stripy green landscape.
Though the scalene patch of scrub was demarcated by nothing more than the three white willows that grew at its corners, eight-year-old Blaine Anderson knew better than anyone that its understated appearance concealed a greater significance. Under the cover of the tall leafy trees (well away from the prying eyes of visitors) stood a small green shed. In it was stored, among other things, a sky blue Raleigh bicycle, several skipping ropes, a glockenspiel with rainbow keys, a model aircraft carrier and three plastic Pokémon figurines, as well as a decent platoon of Action Men and a Red Power Ranger named Barbie (who, Blaine insisted, was actually pink if you looked hard enough). Together these items formed an impressive display, their bright colours punctuated by the messy 'BMA' markings that had been scrawled across each toy in a messy, juvenile hand.
Once the toys had been set out to his satisfaction, the child completed the ensemble with Babar, who had arrived from his Great Aunt Ruby in France on the very day of his birth. Babar carried all the typical hallmarks of a greatly loved and much-cuddled toy: his trunk was secured by a rainbow of different threads (the result of a number of hasty repairs by the perpetually busy Karen Anderson), and his once downy fur had become matted with the detritus of a child's affection. Unlike the other toys, Babar did not sport a BMA tattoo. Nor, indeed, had he ever resided in the shed. This was because, as Blaine himself would tell you, Babar was a particularly particular elephant. He had, after all, firmly insisted that his body remain unbranded when Blaine was wielding that fateful permanent marker, and every day he ate half of Blaine's carrot sticks for lunch (to improve his eyesight) and rode howdah-style to school inside the Monsters Inc. backpack. That was why he was Blaine's best friend: he always had the courage to stand up for what he wanted.
Babar was also the spark for Blaine's love for all things pachyderm. His mother was often forced to dispel the rumours that her son's fixation was a manifestation of Asperger's, insisting that it was 'nothing more than a cute interest that he'd grow out of with time'. That's not to say it hadn't worried her in the past, but tests had shown that Blaine was simply an introverted but fiercely intelligent little boy who barely scraped the edge of the autistic spectrum. It had been such a relief for Karen when the Westerville rumour mill diverted its attentions onto the rather sudden changes undergone by Double-D DDebbie's chest area since her divorce settlement last month- who'dve thought that diet and exercise could do so much, and so quickly too? Karen suspected that DDebbie would be renamed either Ebbie or Febbie as soon as a reputable source revealed the true extent of the augmentation to the rest of the town.
While his wife tried to supress talk of her son's hobby, Michael realised that the almost-too-cute charm of 'Blaine's Crazy Obsession' could work to his advantage. The story became a widely-known feature of his rallies, and he prided himself on the perfectly-timed eye roll that punctuated the anecdote each time he told it. It was exactly the kind of tale he needed, one that would convince the electorate that he was 'Mike' Superdad-and-Man-of-the-People Anderson rather than just another sanctimonious coffer-coddler blinkered by the privilege of an education at Yale. The technique was certainly working and his approval ratings in the polls were soaring; everyone in Ohio's 12th Congressional District seemed to know that 'Mike' Anderson was a good man devoted to his wife and that lovable elephant-obsessed son. Soon, very soon, Michael Anderson Jr. would be set to enter national politics, just as his father had hoped.
The one time Blaine himself was asked about the passion defended by his mother and appropriated by his father, he simply stated that elephants made his 'heart glow gold'. It was an all-consuming passion that, like a well-stoked fire, released a host of excited effervescent sparks each time it was fed a new book, Disney movie or nature documentary. It grew stronger each time he looked into those wise caramel eyes on the 'Large Mammal' page of his Visual Factfinder, and it burned with increasing ferocity each time he watched the Electrocuting an Elephant (1903) and Ritual Funeral Behaviours of Elephants videos on the family's brand new version of Microsoft Encarta. He'd never seen those videos clearly; they'd always been obscured by the saline mist that clouded his vision each time he witnessed scenes of such intense sadness. Blaine Anderson loved elephants, and that was how it had been for as long as anyone could remember.
The Elephant's Graveyard, the name by which the patch of land under the three tall willow trees had come to be known, had far hazier origins than the fixation itself. Whenever asked, Michael would cheerily fetch The Jumbo Dictionary of English Idiom, flick midway through 'E' then down to 'Elephant', and read the entry under Elephant/ Elephant's/ Elephants' graveyard in his soft but commanding voice:
"(1) A place where, according to legend, older elephants instinctively direct themselves when they reach a certain age. They then die there alone, far from the group.
(2) (Colloq.) An accumulation of large miscellanea stored and left."
Michael, always one to appreciate the exquisite beauty of a well-crafted double meaning, would explain that the shed was both a repository for Blaine's toys and the place where the rather solitary boy would eke out the hours between home time and dinner away from his family unit. He would then smack the dictionary shut, shake his head and chuckle at his own inventiveness, before returning to his seat at the head of the table to preside over proceedings with the proper amount of effortless authority.
Karen knew differently. She was almost certain that the name had originated from Blaine himself after a home screening of The Lion King, a day that had held such potential for disaster that she had not related a single detail of it to her husband. It started after she had deposited her four-year-old son in front of the VHS while she hosted a luncheon for 'The Girls'. Everything had been set to impress, and she'd even prepared a buffet complete with oh so fashionable crayfish canapés and chocolate with chilli (even though she herself had never been one for fancy food). She liked leaving her child alone even less than the caviar she spread over her freshly baked baguette, but she had to uphold the family's reputation within the community if Michael was ever to make it into Congress. It was a nothing but a small sacrifice for the sake of a dozen useful contacts and a good reputation.
When she returned to check on Blaine an hour or so later, the boy (and Babar) had completely vanished. After diverting her friends with a swift mention of the new upstairs Jacuzzi (because how would she look if this got out?), she bolted out into the garden, teetering on her mauve satin high heels which were bound to get completely ruined by the muddy ground. After profuse sweating, cursing and general dishevelment, she detected a movement between the three trees at the edge of their plot. Moments later, her son blinked through his hair as he emerged into the golden sunlight, right hand firmly lodged in Babar's, excitedly telling her that he'd found the elephant's graveyard. Karen had scolded him for running off before locking them all inside the house to prevent further disaster, all the while giggling inwardly at the sheer extent of the boy's imagination. Within moments, she was changed, primped and sweet-smelling, and rejoined her guests in the bathroom with all the calm self-possession of a seasoned Emmy hostess. The Girls cooed at the one-off Valentino she'd thrown on, all mentally adding 'costume change' to their checklist of essential hosting behaviours. She could see them seething in jealousy beneath the calm of their cosmetic-caked exteriors.
That day had three effects. The first was that Karen inadvertently became best in show, an accolade she held for 14 whole months until Fishy-Lips Francine (plumping gone wrong) converted her spare craft room into a 16-seat home cinema. Of course, Karen could see that it was nothing more than a flagrant display of vulgar one-upmanship, but she cooed along appreciatively with the other girls while they pretended to understand the non-subtitled Pathé film Francine had selected. The second effect was the planned construction of a wall to surround the property. It was to be a continuous line of stonework broken only by an imposing set of cast iron gates, designed to keep imaginative children in and undesirables out. Local jealousy was rife and the house soon became known as 'Castle Karen', a moniker that endured until the other housewives persuaded their husbands to build taller walls and more elaborate gates.
The third effect, and perhaps the one of greatest significance to the Andersons, was that the name 'Elephant's Graveyard' stuck more firmly to that patch of land than the mud had to Karen's dustbin-bound Jimmy Choos.
Karen returned from her dreary afternoon drinks session at Jane-the-Pain's to the common sight of her eight-year-old sitting in the Elephant's Graveyard, his back to the house. As she drew closer to him, she heard a pentatonic melody from the glockenspiel and the muffled murmurings of a child at play. She smiled to herself.
"Abu," the child said to Babar, "Take Princess Jasmine to a place where she will be safe. You're an elphas maximus so you only have small ears, you'll never fly like Dumbo. You'll have to walk. I suggest to Mandalay. Be safe, there are only 50,000 of your species left. And protect Jasmine too, there's only one of her. If anyone attacks you, remember that you can charge at 50 kilometres per hour. Stomp all over her nasty bullies. They used to kill criminals by way of elephant, you know, and those horrible boys are so mean to her. I'm sure you'll be strong enough to keep her safe. Best of luck, dear."
With that, Blaine pressed a kiss to Babar's trunk and positioned the Pink (Red) Power Ranger on the elephant's back. He ran around with both toys in his hands, not noticing his mother standing at the edge of the graveyard. Karen briefly reflected on the moment when she'd insisted that he buy the Monsters Inc. backpack rather than the Jasmine one he'd really wanted.
She cleared her throat.
"Blaine, your father's home, it's time for dinner. And it's Friday so we'll have guests later."
Blaine snapped out of his game in an instant and smiled shyly at his mother. He silently helped her pack all the toys (with the exception of Babar) into the shed, where they would be in absolutely no danger of cluttering the house. He then picked up his backpack, placed one hand in Babar's and the other in Karen's, and followed his mother through the French doors that led directly into the dining room. A piping-hot dinner had already been spread across the table.
"Hey Blainey-boy," said Michael, ruffling his son's hair as he passed his father en route to his seat. "Make any new friends at school?"
Blaine smiled sheepishly, but said nothing.
"What will we have to do to break you out of that shell, huh? Are the other kids teasing you?"
Blaine shook his head, even though they all knew that the other boys mocked him relentlessly for being a nerd with weirdo hair who came to school with a dumb soft toy in his backpack. He hated the uproarious laughter that followed him through the corridors like a shadow of sound, but Blaine knew how upset Babar would be if he was left at home. He also knew that those boys could never understand a friendship like the one he had with Babar, so he hid behind his hair and carried on, his tummy lurching with every insult that came his way.
"You're such a good boy, Blaine. I'm sorry that we haven't been around much lately, but Daddy has to make sure the daddies vote for him and Mommy has to make sure the mommies do."
His face settled as he paused, but soon became animated again when he remembered something.
"Look, I got you a present."
With that, Michael reached into his inside pocket. His hand returned, closed around an object hidden within his palm. When the hand came to a rest on the tabletop and unclasped, Blaine saw that there were in fact two objects. Two porcelain elephants, half red and half blue and starry. His eyes widened and a smile crept across his face.
"You see these?"
"These are Republican elephants. That's the party I belong to and work for. If the election goes well, I'll go to Washington as the representative for the people in our district. Cool, huh? We were giving these little guys away for free outside my campaign office today so I grabbed two for you, even though you don't like elephants in the slightest."
He chuckled as his son smiled at the teasing.
"What are you going to call them?"
Blaine considered his options for a moment before whispering, "Trunky and Heffalump."
Michael and Karen smiled identical, perfect smiles. "Heffalump is obviously from Winnie the Pooh", reasoned Karen, remembering the many nights she'd spent reading AA Milne's stories to the boy. "I don't, however, recall a Trunky."
A wide, toothy grin leaked across Blaine's face. "The Enormous Crocodile bites Trunky's leg to get his attention. He tells him about his diabolical scheme to eat a child. Trunky tells him he should be made into a stew. He's one of the Crocodile's adversaries, along with Muggle-Wump, Roly-Poly and Humpy-Rumpy. He's the most heroic, he's the one that tosses the Enormous Crocodile into the sun before he can eat any children."
Karen smiled again, savouring the rare instance of her son speaking at such length. She was wholly unsurprised that he had already tracked down Roald Dahl's only elephant in the few weeks he'd owned the complete works, and barely blinked at his use of the words 'adversary' and 'diabolical' within seconds of each other. Blaine was such a clever boy, she only wished he'd apply himself to other, non-elephantine pursuits like football, painting or archery. He could be so accomplished, she was sure of it. At present, the only thing he did besides voraciously absorbing facts about elephants was thrash around on the family's decorative grand piano, and what use was there in that?
Her reverie was broken by her husband.
"So tell me Blainey, which one's the girl and which one's the boy? They'll probably have lots of Humpy-Rumpy and make some baby Republicans."
"Michael!" Karen exclaimed, desperately scanning her son's quizzical expression for any glimmers of understanding, "We'll have none of that. He. Is. Eight. What will people say?"
"If he's anything like me, we should be getting him ready as soon as possible. He's in for a wild life, let me tell you," Michael responded, winking suggestively at his wife.
Karen scowled in response, but Michael could tell she was just as amused by Humpy-Rumpy as he was. Both looked across at their confused son and burst out laughing.
The jovial mood that only ever came about when all three Andersons were together was soon disrupted by someone ringing the buzzer at the gate, a precursor to the unwelcome intrusion of public life into their little sanctuary. The three dirty plates were hidden in the kitchen, Blaine was ushered upstairs, and the presence of the real child behind Michael's favourite anecdote was gone as quickly as the laughter in the Andersons' eyes. Their playfulness was swept into the corners of their souls as easily as the toys had been hidden in the green shed, and the man and his wife underwent their transformation into the venerable power couple seen in campaign photos across the district. Mike Anderson is a Friend for You.
As glasses clinked, champagne flowed and gossip about gay sons, bankruptcy and unplanned pregnancies was banded about to uproarious laughter from everyone, Blaine sat alone in his bedroom with his father's CD of Saint-Saëns' 'The Carnival of the Animals' playing on his Hi-Fi. Two small porcelain elephants joined Babar as the parade made its way across the sandy carpet, a stately march that led them towards the bedside lamp that was, as anyone in the know could tell you, a golden Savannah sun.
Late that evening when the house was beginning to settle back into its role as a family home, Karen Anderson found her son curled up on his carpet clutching the three elephants to his chest. She lifted him up and tucked him into his Elmer bedcovers, stroking the curls away from his forehead before planting a kiss between his closed eyes. She switched off the sun, whitewashing the room in dim moonlight.
"Michael," she said in bed that night.
"I'm worried about Blaine."
"He'll be alright in the end, Karen, he's a good boy. He'll grow into himself eventually."
"I hope so," his wife replied, "I really hope so."
"Do you think it's because he's an only child?"
"I'm certain that's a part of it," her husband replied with a tinge of sadness to his voice, "But I think the root cause is that damned mind of his. He's so exceptional that it's hard for him to relate to others, and even harder for others to relate to him. He just thinks so differently. He'll get used to himself eventually. He'll get a fantastic wife, a great career, the happiness he deserves. It'll just take time."
"How can you be so sure?" his wife asked.
He took a moment to roll over and take her hands in his.
"Because I was him," he stated simply, "Minus the elephants, of course."