A few steps are all that separate us.
April 8, 2022
The clamp shuts tightly around my ankle where the skin is not thick yet. Grit caught between the cold metal chafes gray skin. My leg is like Mother’s now. I cannot see her or the herd. They are tied to their own posts somewhere. The man who shackled me appears again at the edge of my vision. He rides on Mother’s back during the long marches. The man checks the bolts, tugs on the chain rattling across the dirt, and hammers the stake at the end into the ground. I try to run. Cannot. Three legs on the ground, one held back. My trunk trumpets: Mother, remove this restraining thing. I turn around and she comes into view. She stands with the rest of our herd at the edge of the clearing where the men have made their camp.
I try again to go to her. Take steps back. Run. Stop short. Can’t move, just rattling the chain, pulling it tight. Look down at the steel band reflecting my dark eyes. Not dull like the pig iron shackle Mother once snapped with ease. Try again to pull away. Man yells and hits shackled leg with bamboo. Shrinking away from pain, I call out: Mother, where are you?
Now someone else is coming. Footsteps crumple grass. I can feel him bringing something very hot closer. Eyes go wide. Soft trumpet escapes my trunk. Try again to move. Kick, struggle, fight. Nothing works. Trumpet louder, higher, squeal for: Mother! The heat presses in. Fire like a thousand summer suns on a thousand gray backs. No water to cool the herd. No water for me. Above the cuff there is now burnt skin, the brand’s black scorch shape.
Then a low rumble. My loud roar. Mother finally hears. She runs over, ground trembling at her charge. Must stand up, call to her. Her ankle. A taut chain arrests her movement. Mother trips and crashes just in front of my eyes, the length of her chain reached. She lays at the edge of a circle of flattened grass. The edge of the territory she is allowed to roam. I reach the edge of mine. A few steps are all that separate us. Yet neither of us can take them.
Mother was the matriarch of our herd. Now we have no herd, and she is slowed by age. Her knees shudder as she rises to her feet. Man waving the brand above his head yells, calls for more handlers. Mother ignores him, reaching out with her trunk. Mother strains against the shackle, the chain, and the stake with her full weight. It does not give. We both cry out.
I hear other men coming. Mother knows I will no longer find comfort nestled near her belly. No more guiding to the watering hole. Never to hold her by the tail again. Mother reaches for me, rubs my head in the crook of her trunk. Before the stinging prods come, before they heave on her chain. She makes a promise. You will be free.
Remember that day twenty years on. Gone through so much steel since then. Many bands outgrown. The shackle and the chain are so different now. It digs into the skin too tight. Flesh too much for metal now, can feel rough gray skin swelling at the edges of the restraint. It numbs my ankle, makes the foot pale. Worn it for so long now, it tears open old wounds. Flies crowd around the rim. Sometimes old metal flakes off, grinds into wounds during long walks. Hurt. Can still see black scorch brand.
Look up and see all the other scorched ankles. All other chains rattling in the march. Four others in this herd. Five of us, harnessed to loads of logs. Five left standing since Mother made her promise. Since taken from her. Same five who saw her fall in the summer sun, and refused to carry on pulling logs until they knew she could not get back up. I remember tears, because we saw we were marching through jungles stripped of trees, and so we knew we would not pass this way again to find her bones.
Suddenly the man on my back strikes his pole-hook against my flank, signalling halt. The weight of the logs ceases to tug on my body. All in front have stopped. The man goes to see what stopped the herd, and climbs off his harness. He is slower than the other riders, and must have his apprentice—still too young to grow a bear—help him down. Mother threw him off that day we were separated. As he tried to mount her, she gave him his hitched shoulder. The apprentice hammers my stake into the ground.
Why have we stopped? Still in the jungle, no grass to eat, no water to drink. Before, we only stopped for more logs, but the trees here are too small. Men all getting off and running to the front of the herd. Over their talking, hear something different. I see them coming towards me, pushing a cart to the back of the herd. In it sits a cage.
It looks so fragile. I could crush it with one foot. But all those years ago they wheeled me to the back of the troop in cages just like it. They kept Mother in the lead during the day, and at night I often slept in it. Separated, sleeping next to the man who taught me how to pull logs and listen to the sting of his hook. But until the day she died, I could hear her calling for me in the night, with sounds too low for men to hear.
The cart’s rolling wheels creak past the herd and before I see the chain rattling within the cage, I hear it. A small trunk grips the iron bars. It comes closer and I hear the low sound the men cannot. A soft trumpet. The weak whimper of one captured. Six of us now.
Then the man gets on. Time to move.
Keep walking. Keep moving with the slower gait. Keep living with the same pain. Keep looking with dull eyes. The baby steps out of the cage. Led by men to the back of the herd. Rider keeps striking my flank and hind to move. Do not. Keep looking at the baby being chained behind. The whip doesn’t hurt anymore. Men tug on the ankle chain and the metal digs deep. Only the steel hurts.
It will hurt the child too. It shouldn’t.
The band is loose now. It lies forgotten on a patch of tall grass by the side of a jungle road. The creepers have grown over the hacked trees and bare dirt. Rusted beyond recognition, it is pockmarked and scored from a lifetime of walking. The original seal has worn off. It lays flat on the ground, bound to nothing. The chain hangs limply from its side, trailing off into the trees. The locks are still in place, the steel bolts mud-stained but undamaged. They’ll still be there when the iron disintegrates. But they restrain nothing now.
A femur as thick as a torso and as long as a man sticks out in the middle of the empty shackle. The elephant’s bones are old, yellowing, and half-buried. They lie amongst the trees, knees buckled and skull bent low.
But near its tusks, where a trunk might have been, there is another shackle. It is smaller, newer, and bloodless. The stake is uprooted, and the chain is snapped. The locks, triple-bolted, are smashed to pieces. The iron around it is warped and broken open. The forest has reclaimed the land, but there are still impressions of what happened here. A dead tree lays uprooted, a stake hole in its side. Memories of flattened earth, small footsteps that led away from the elephant’s bones, deeper into the forest. A battered stone lies nearby, coated in lichen. Evidence of a remembered promise, finally fulfilled.