An Elephant Story
"Hello.” An elephant no taller than three feet stood before him. “Sorry about that. The doorknob was slippery,” the elephant said. The pitch of his voice was higher than he expected from an elephant. Not knowing how to respond, Ken peered into the main office.
“Don’t worry. I made sure there was no one around.” The elephant held its small trunk out, waiting for Ken to shake it. “It’s okay. I’m not a bad guy,” the elephant said. Ken gripped the trunk and shook it. It was as coarse and rough as it looked.
“Are you going to invite me in?” the elephant asked.
Ken pointed to the office chair opposite his. The elephant grabbed an armrest with its trunk and tried to pull itself up. Ken wanted to offer some help but instead stood still in disbelief as to what he was witnessing. After a dozen or so tries, the elephant kicked the chair with considerable force. “Forget the chair,” it said.
Ken made his way to his seat. This must be a dream. I’m not going insane, he thought.
“Don’t worry. Your mind is fine, but no, this is real.” It waved its trunk in the air as if to fan away any trace of unreality.
Ken examined the elephant, which relaxed its body onto the floor and began entertaining itself with its trunk.
“You look a little tense, there, Ken,” the elephant said. Hearing his name, Ken felt his body tense up. “You want to hear an elephant joke?” the elephant asked. Not sure what he should say, Ken remained silent. “Actually, do you know what an elephant joke is?”
An elephant joke. “Yeah,” Ken managed to cough up.
“Okay,” the elephant swung his trunk with an air of confidence. “Why do elephants play the trumpet?”
Ken’s mind sprung into activity. Trumpet, jazz, Miles Davis, leather pants. No. Elephants, the zoo, San Diego, beaches. No.
Just as Ken was considering whether to ask the elephant for the punch line, it interrupted. “Goodness, I’m so sorry for my bad manners. I forgot to introduce myself.” It turned towards him, “Call me Mike. That’s what friends call me.”
Ken replied hesitantly, “I’m Ken.”
“Yes, yes. Ken S., Orchestra Director. It’s on your door,” the elephant said.
After a pause, Ken asked, “Am I in trouble?”
Mike snorted then playfully flung his trunk at Ken, “No, no. Nothing of the sort.”
“But you’re an elephant.”
“You have a thing against elephants?” Mike stomped his hind legs, sending a small vibration through the ground.
Ken shook his head. The elephant turned away and began to wag its tail. Ken leaned back, sinking into his plush office chair, which reminded him of his bed at home. He took a sip out of his now cold coffee, waiting for the elephant to continue. Mike twisted his trunk around his tusk to wipe his eye. After a few moments of silence, Ken realized that Mike wasn’t going to say more.
“Why are you here, Mike?” Ken managed to utter. He couldn’t believe what he was asking.
Mike ignored him, turning to look around the room. Filing cabinets lined the back wall, manila folders lay scattered around the office. Random objects protruded out of black garbage bags, hidden behind more files. On Ken’s desk was a photograph of a younger version of himself in a tuxedo, violin clamped under his chin, bow resting on the strings, a smile that seemed to wash away the cares of this world.
Mike began to speak. “Do you know much about elephants?”
“Other than what I see on TV and in cartoons, not really.”
“Did you know that we cleared some of the first roads? Some of the roads humans now use were formerly elephant paths.”
Ken nodded, sensing the weight of what Mike was saying.
“I’ve seen humans attack elephants, saw off their tusks, then leave them to die. Other elephants are forced to wear decorations, lights, and clothes, kind of like clowns. Then all those bad elephant jokes.”
Ken found himself feeling sorry for Mike and racked his brain for the right words to say, but he found none. After an awkward pause, Ken spoke up, “So why do elephants play the trumpet?”
Mike raised his head. “Ken, may I ask you for a favor?”
“You are the orchestra director, right? Show me where you teach,” Mike said.
Relieved to be leaving his office, Ken grabbed the keys off his desk and got up. Mike headed for the door and attempted to turn the doorknob with his trunk. Unsuccessful, he spread out his ears and gave off a loud snort. “Help me.”
Ken turned the doorknob. “Follow me.” He pushed his way through the double doors and entered the hallway. Mike walked beside him. Though small, the elephant’s stride was powerful and confident.
They made their way across the cafeteria faintly lit by emergency exit signs to the opposite side of the school before arriving at the orchestra hall. Ken opened the door, and then reached for the panel of switches on the wall. Columns of fluorescent lights flickered on, one by one, slowly giving color and form to the room. They walked to the podium, surrounded by a sea of black music stands and chairs.
“Here it is,” Ken said.
“Play something,” Mike said.
Ken shook his head, “I’m no good anymore.”
“Fine,” Mike said, “Then teach me how to play.”
Ken looked at Mike, skeptical of what he was being asked to do, but decided to continue to suspend his disbelief. Let’s see what happens, he thought.
Ken unlatched a black oblong case and took out a violin and a bow. He tightened the bow and plucked the strings with his finger. Pulling the violin up to his chin, he tilted his head and pressed the violin against his shoulder. He extended his arm, elevating the bow to shoulder level and pulled it across a string.
“That sounds nice,” Mike said, “Play something else.”
Ken played a few scales, then parts of pieces he remembered from when he was younger. For some reason, the songs he once slaved over and hated now only brought back a sense of fondness. His playing was uncontrolled, occasionally hitting the wrong notes, and needing to go back to correct himself, but his body swayed along with the music, entranced by the violin, transported into a different world.
After a few songs, Ken was covered in sweat. He wiped his face with his sleeve, before seeing Mike and remembering where he was. “Sorry, it’s been a while,” Ken said.
“It’s okay. That was great,” Mike replied.
Ken smiled and held out the violin to him, “Your turn.”
Mike reached out his trunk and took the violin. How is this going to work? Ken wondered. Mike tried different ways of holding the violin—with his ear, with his trunk, on the floor, between his feet, but nothing worked.
“Let’s try something else,” Ken said.
The two moved on to the timpani. Mike held the mallet with his trunk and banged on the drums with ferocity, puncturing one of the drum skins.
They went through a few other instruments. Not enough fingers for the clarinet and flute. The piano just didn’t work—frustrated with the small keys, Mike banged at the strings directly. The cello showed promise until strings started breaking. Just as they were about to give up, Ken thought of the perfect instrument. He ran into the instrument room and brought out a trumpet.
“Try it,” Ken said.
Mike took it and wrapped the end of his trunk around the mouthpiece. He blew softly. The trumpet resonated, producing a faint whisper of a note. “Louder,” Ken said. Mike forced more air into the trumpet. The note echoed in the room. “Again,” Ken said. Mike repeated the action. “You hear that?” Ken asked. “That’s a C. Keep playing and you’ll get a feel for it.”
Mike repeated the same action a dozen times, then started to add his own variations. Quarter notes, half notes, eighth notes, staccato, legato. Ken picked up his violin and played a few notes over Mike’s line. Then a few more. Then even more. Before long, Ken was playing a full melody while Mike’s improvisation with the trumpet provided a melodic backbeat.
“Faster,” Ken commanded. He led the way, racing his bow over the strings, sending rosin flying into the air. Mike struggled to keep up but eventually caught up with Ken’s playing. It didn’t sound exactly like Mozart—it was more experimental than anything—but they didn’t care, playing as if their music was the most beautiful thing on earth.
As their song came to a natural close, they nodded to each other with a smile signaling an agreement, the completion of their creation. Exhausted and covered in sweat, Ken sank to the ground, clutching the violin in his arms.
“You were great,” Ken said.
“Thank you, Ken.”
Ken smiled at Mike and held out his hand. Mike grabbed Ken’s hand with the tip of his trunk and shook it.
“Farewell, Mr. Elephant,” Ken said.
Mike made his way to the door but stopped short and turned to take one last look. “Farewell, Ken,” he whispered, then walked out.
It took a few moments for Ken to gather his thoughts before he got up to put the violin and trumpet back. He reached for the lights and watched as they flicked off row by row. The room gradually lost color as shadows covered the space like a veil.
Why do elephants play the trumpet?
Ken smiled, because now, it all made perfect sense to him.
Wayne Mok is originally from Hong Kong and now lives in Sydney, Australia.