The elephant’s hide was a beautiful, dark grey. It was a young female: little more than a baby. Zoo officials paid a small fortune to have it shipped from Thailand.
The captain in charge of the cargo had never before transported an exotic. But he was an excellent captain. The shipping line had absolute confidence in his abilities.
Zoo officials provided him with a thick dossier of instructions. It was absolutely essential that he follow, to the smallest particular, the strict (yet ample) diet that the zoo officials had designed for her, and that she be given daily baths.
The elephant had a name. Its name was Pebbles.
The captain asked, Why Pebbles? The man who sold the captain the elephant shrugged and said, My daughter. She is seven. She named the elephant.
For over a week, the elephant’s wild thrashings sent reverberations throughout the ship.
It threw itself against the walls of its container, again and again.
Sea monsters! the crew awoke thinking. We’re all going to die!
Electric shocks proved the solution.
The rest of the journey was uneventful. Summer storms were few and scattered. From Sarawak, the ship outfitted in Kuala Lumpur and then made it to Bali.
In Bali, the captain’s wife came aboard. She was a surprisingly young woman, with lustrous black hair that she wore in a loose twist, displaying a long, elegant neck. After this, the men relaxed. A man in love was the best captain.
Finally, when the ship reached its destination, the captain was horrified by the discovery of long, angry scratches raking the elephant’s sides. The underside of the elephant’s trunk was peppered with cigarette burns.
“Who did this?” the captain roared. The captain’s wife turned her head away. Her incomparably slender neck drooped, as if under the yoke of a terrible burden. The crew had been gathered on the deck. No one spoke. It was as if they had all been turned to stone.
Down in the hold, the elephant calf lunged and lunged, wildly crying, struggling with all its might. Nothing in the world, not the painful tears of the captain’s wife, or the anger of the zoo officials, could adequately account for the captain’s shame and his sense of the mission’s futility.
That night, as the captain lay sleepless in a hotel, he knew his life was over. He thought of the town of his youth, a town of green and gentle hills, and one very old stone church. He thought of his mother, buried in the cemetery next to the church, and of his father, who still raised sheep. The captain felt a great tiredness now, in his mind as well as in his body.
His wife slept peacefully beside him, her long, even breaths scented with the innocence of her dreams. He turned and grazed her cheek with his lips, then fondled her breasts, trying to staunch a suddenly ferocious hunger.
His wife’s eyes opened. She stared at him in alarm. He had vowed never to expose her to the coarseness he saw around him every day. He had broken his promise. There were things one could never fix.
“I’m sorry I woke you,” the captain said, gently kissing his wife’s forehead. “Go back to sleep. It’s nothing.”
Marianne Villanueva is the author of the short story collections Ginseng and Other Tales From Manila, Mayor of the Roses, and The Lost Language. Her first novella, Jenalyn, was a finalist for the Saboteur Awards’ Best Novella of 2013. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and maintains a humorous travel/photography/memoir blog, Kanlaon.