Three Blind Elephants Met a Man

by Alexandra Fox Read author interview December 15, 2004

Birbal was blind. His little eyes were clouded with cataracts, flat blue, dull as a mussel-shell, blank as a shark. He didn’t miss having sight because he’d never known the brilliant green of the forest canopy, crisp white stripes of sunlight, but only hot bars branding his thick skin, deep shaded coolth. Once his trunk dropped, he trod on it sometimes to the screaming pain of a million scrunched nerve-cells.

It wasn’t just the pain. Birbal knew that without his trunk he’d be lost. There was no point of a world without feeling the criss-cross trammels of the bark of the banyan tree, breathing the heavy oil of its slippery, waxy leaves, paddling his fat baby legs in water, stirring the velvety sloosh of the oozing mud, showering himself with cold heavy drops. Where was the nightly comfort in a nest of fat leaves if he couldn’t wind his thumb round his head and suck on it? Birbal was lonely, the world noisy, dark.

Vineet and Chinmayu were stumbling clod-footed through the jungle, frog-squashing, branch-ripping, trunk-thumping. They stopped.

The forest shook with a long stretched scream of pain. Birds rose, flapped, shrieked. There was silence for the deep breath of a long moment, then they settled back down onto the cushion of the silence.

Vineet and Chinmayu turned together. Their great ears rose like battered flags, they scanned with the slow rotation of radar-dishes.

Chinmayu twitched. He wanted to pull his ears in, close them tight to the pain rippling between the branches, the sound-waves of loneliness rolling like breakers. Vineet traced out the position, a mental map. They galumphed on together, shoulder bumping into ponderous shoulder till they came to a cool deep space in a hillside. There was a fluting whimper, a smell like their own, but softer, younger, a poor sore bruised trunk that snaked up, stretched out. That heartbreaking bleat of pain turned to a yip of excitement, and a comfortable rumble as three mountains of rough bristly skin felt, scratched, learnt each other’s creases in the darkness that was all that the three of them had ever known.

So the legend of the three blind elephants of Hindustan was born, and villagers on every hillside would gather outside their homes and watch them journey, trunk twisted into tail, tail into trunk, a living heavy chain. Mothers would tell their children, look, see how good life can be if you learn to work together; not one good eye between them but see how they support one another. And the children would drop onions and torn chunks of chapatti before the animals’ massive toes and run giggling away before they were blindly trodden on.

Today, though, from a hundred miles away, down dusty roads, bustling cities, blows a living wind. There’s a smell of sacred water, the press of air rustling with kneeling bodies bowing in unison, foreheads pressed into the ground. Chinmayu smells woodsmoke, spices, dahl, a crush of sweat. Then darkness, churning mud, blood, dust, acrid reek. He hears the distant crack of bones, fires, a rising keening, bewailing. He breathes charnel breath. That water’s death-stench stirs in him something so holy, so profound that his head rears back, his heavy ball-sacks swing like pendulums, and he tosses his great hose of a trunk from side to side, lifts it, trumpets fear and desolation through the forest canopy.

Vineet plots direction. Three-as-one they set off, marching, uninhibited by saplings, hills, boulders. They snorkel their way across the deeper rivers, ford streams, and Birbal sustains them, sniffing out the youngest tenderest leaf-clusters, rooting truffle-soft betel-nuts from beneath the leaf-mulch, sliding them into Chinmayu’s mouth as a useless gesture of comfort, for as they draw near, the ache of Chinmayu’s raw soul is palpable.

When they reach the holy place, it is empty and quiet, but the air is stirred up with memories, whispers, and they pause on the churned bank, their massive ears funneling pain into an unbearable sensation. Then they step forward.

As they enter the water, Birbal stops, snorts. He can feel the faint rippling of movement in the undercurrent, smell sweat. He reaches out his trunk. He feels an upright shape, wet, slippery, shaking slightly, beating with a fast heartbeat. It is alive. He sucks gently. It is like a strongish branch with twigs, covered with softness like moss faintly furred, pliable. There’s a wrapping around it, which pulls away like a creeper. He moves his trunk higher, and there, coiled on the top is surely a trunk like his. He nudges it, and it swings down to the water, a long wrapped tube.

Vineet waves his trunk through the air. He drinks thoughts, feels lines, shelves, dry organisation. There are closed doors in this mind, strange symbols, an empty sleeping nest, a brother-creature crushed, lost, blankness, cleanliness, lack of air, stifling. He draws back.

Chinmayu reaches deeper, through shut doors, listens to a child’s giggling voice like the onion throwers. He feels deep grief, so profound that he senses colour, an unseen dimension to the world that he’s never touched before. Red despair, black anger, purple loneliness, fear. He sees this creature stepping willing-unwilling towards the graveyard.

And as this small weak creature stands quaking in the triangular dance of snake-like trunks, Chinmayu takes a deep draught of the holy water, lifts his trunk and showers over the man, washing his cleanliness in the filthy water. Birbal remembers his own fear and pain, caresses this poor damaged animal with his trunk, rubs him, strokes his back, blows soft breaths, tickling. Then Vineet picks him up, carries him to firm ground and sets him there in safety.

And the three blind elephants of Hindustan march ponderously on, their great mud-clodded feet moving in unison, trunk-to-tail, tail-to-trunk, leaving one poor soul in a collapsed shaking heap in the mud of the river-bank, terrified yet strangely moved by this miracle, totally unaware of what has happened.

For you see, he too is blind.

About the Author:

Alexandra Fox is a new writer living in the U.K. She is a busy mother but is enjoying learning to write short stories with an online critiquing group.

About the Artist:

A native of Ohio, Marty D. Ison lives with his wife transplanted in the sands of the Gulf of Mexico. He studied fine arts at Saint Petersburg College. In addition to the visual arts, he writes poetry, short stories, and novels. See more of Ison's work here.