When I was four years old, my great-grandmother told me to look into the eyes of the first elephant I met and read its mind. She told me that I would find something wonderful there.
I didn’t see a live elephant until I was nine, by which time she’d been dead three years or more. When she was buried, she requested that all of the flowers be thrown into her grave before a single handful of soil went in. More, she asked that all the children present pull the petals from the flowers before they threw them in. So it was – she was buried in confetti.
When I was nine, we had a school trip to the local zoo. I didn’t remember what my great-grandmother had told me until I saw the elephant in its enclosure ambling towards me. It seemed to me to be without deviation, heading straight in my direction, moving slowly, stately, yet it seemed to cover the ground so swiftly, until it nudged its great forehead against the fence and then lowered its head to look at me. I recall the rasping sound of its hairs against the steel links of the fence, like the noise playing cards make when you tape them beside bicycle wheels.
And I looked deep into its eyes, locked gazes with this great, quiet beast and I saw nothing there. People will tell you that an elephant’s eyes always impart wisdom or sadness, and maybe that’s true, but not this time. I didn’t see anything but a memory, a confetti of petals drifting down into dark, damp earth and lighting on a box in which my great-grandmother would spend the rest of time. I don’t know how long we remained like that. Eventually, the elephant pulled its head slowly to one side and then turned like a vast ocean liner and moved away.
Later, I wondered what would have happened if I’d seen an elephant before my great-grandmother passed away. What would I have seen there, in those deep, brown eyes? I would have seen what everybody else sees: It would have looked sad, or wise. It wouldn’t have told me of graveyards and petals and a dear old lady put to rest. It wouldn’t have told me what I’d forgotten.
It wouldn’t have told me something wonderful.
When I was six years old, my great-grandmother died.
I loved her. And I remember her.