Every night around the same time, just as the moon reaches its peak and the stars shine brightest, a strange shuffling sound can be heard at edge of the beach. Most times it can hardly be heard above the rush of the waves. Yet if you care to listen patiently it seems to have its own rhythm distinct from the ocean tides, like a gust of wind blowing through the trees accompanied by the swishing leaves it moves.
One night Theo the elephant went walking alone. He often left the pack at night, looking for his own snacks, having his own thoughts. As he strolled through the palms the scent of coconuts and salt water and something indefinable stroked his trunk. Breathing deeper he wandered towards the beach. His eyes weren’t quite as reliable as they once were; I mean the one eye he had left.
You see, years ago, Theo had been attacked and ever since then life didn’t seem as it used to.
Theo wandered farther and farther from the pack, losing himself in trees and thoughts until he didn’t recognize anything around him. Suddenly there was a rushing sound and the bushes and trees seemed too thick. Panicking, Theo stamped the ground and waved his head side to side looking for something familiar. He rushed through a tangle of bushes, but it was dark and he didn’t see the tiny thorns and they pricked him.
The spears had cut him too, tearing at his face, taking out chunks of flesh. Cruel joyful shouts erupted as blood dripped. Theo pounded his heavy feet at them, sending dirt flying where it gathered in his own cuts. One hunter had reacted to Theo’s stamping with immediate action, his spear springing forward. It ricocheted off his tusk and hit his eye. That day Theo’s trumpeting had echoed through the jungle in a blast of wounded air like a barrage through the tree trunks.
His whole body shook with the remembered terror of the sharp points and it seemed as if he wavered somewhere between the two moments in his sharp surroundings. He found, without realizing it, he was trumpeting, but there were no spears only the sounds of his panic dying in the bush. Backing away, Theo untangled himself from the bushes and the memory. His head hung down and his trunk swayed side to side. The missing eye was always tricking him, twisting him inward. Once he could see the road through the tunnel, but now it was as if the tunnel of his vision was threatening to collapse.
In the quiet Theo heard the unfamiliar rushing sound again.
Branches danced, whipping leaves across the scar on Theo’s face. Blinking with his good eye, Theo could make out the distant golden mass of yellow flowers twirling on the Cassia trees that grew near the shore. He walked towards them now. Perhaps some sea breeze would refresh him.
The petals tickled his face as Theo walked through the dangling branches and the soft sea air flowed past and in his nose. Theo closed his eye, relishing the peace.
That’s when he heard it; soft shuffling rhythms near the rough tide. His eye blinked open to look out past the trees. He could see no one. Yet the sound stayed steady. Softly, softly, smoothly… the sound drifted towards the tree line where Theo stood.
Padding quietly, as quietly as an elephant can, Theo moved closer to the ocean and the curious shuffling. As he passed through the edge of the trees something stood swaying beautifully on the edge of his vision. Theo strained and bulged out his good eye, but the vision seemed to flicker even as he struggled to capture it. Theo looked in all directions until his one eye became blearily and, discouraged by his groundless excitement, he sighed and thought, there’s nothing there.
But, for an instant, it felt as if his bad eye blinked. He thought he saw a figure at the edge of the tide. Then the moon went down past the cliff at the end of the bay, darkness fell, and there was nothing there.
He woke the next morning with the other elephant bulls, his bad eye just as closed up, wrinkly, and tense. Theo foraged all day with his fellows but whenever the branches of the palm trees swished he shook his head as if waking from a dream. Even after the noontime rush, he had barely eaten a thing.
The other elephants were concerned and wondered if he was okay. It was understood in the pack that Theo had become a little peculiar since the accident, but he had never been one to skip snacking!
That night Theo split from the others earlier than usual.
“Where you headed to alone?” his friends asked.
“Nowhere,” Theo replied.
But they worried about him.
“Stay with us!” his mother asked.
“That’s alright,” Theo said, “I think I just want to be alone for a bit.” And he wandered away through the palm trees.
Usually he’d walk about aimlessly, but this this time he headed out with purpose, making directly for the Cassia tree grove.
Billions of grains of sand shifted underfoot as Theo came walking down the beach. He kept his head cricked to the left, so his good eye could look out for the spot where he had discovered last night’s mysterious rhythm. The ordinary palm trees were like wavering ghosts in the low moonlight.
The anticipation of finding something made the walk seem long. Slow time kept nagging Theo to leave off and go home. The vision had not seemed real to begin with. He wasn’t seeing things clearly nowadays anyways. It was more realistic to think of the rhythmic figure as a phantom memory suspended in the scared socket of his bad eye.
Giving up, Theo slowly began to lumber back. Then, just as the trees swept over the shadow of his bad eye he saw the golden flowers shaking wildly as if waving him back. Swiveling around, Theo stared out at the surf once more, but all he could see was the shifting sand.
Silly, he thought. But as he shook his head Theo’s vision appeared. This time it took shape; a rhythmic swaying elephant twirling in the moonlight. Gazing out in surprise Theo could only stand in awe shaking his head this way and that as he tried to keep the vision within sight. He began to sway, mirroring the swish and swirl of the mysterious figure. The more he moved, the clearer the figure appeared.
He didn’t want it to disappear again. But if he got closer it might be frightened away. So Theo stayed swaying on the edge of the beach unwilling to let the vision pass. He stayed like that until his eye lids began to droop and his knees began to bend and with a contented sigh he fell asleep.
The next morning, the sun warmed his eye lids open. The golden flowers of the tree still swayed in the breeze and the ocean waves leapt with joy. Today he would stay nearby and wait for nightfall he decided.
As the moon sneaked up Theo hid behind the trunks of the Cassia tree. It’s a good thing there’s a whole grove to hide me, Theo thought, for I’m too big to hide behind just one flimsy branch.
Hours passed and Theo grew impatient. Bored he began walking around the edges of the beach distracting himself with a few munchable palm leaves, and every few minutes he would spin around as if hoping to catch the vision sneaking up behind him. But of course, when you’re watching for something to happen it waits until you’re not looking.
Theo even began to practice winking he was so bored. It wasn’t much use since he could only really move the good eye lid. But it was something to do. First he would blink with his good eye, then strain to move his bad eye lid, left, right, left, right. The blinking created amusing flickers of false movement. The waves of on the beach jumped back and forth, leaping from his right eye into nothing.
Faster and faster he played with his vision, winking back and forth between nothing and something until his sight seemed to sway gracefully between the two and he could no longer tell which eye was the dead eye. The whole world seemed to dance.
Then it appeared! The figure, swaying back and forth and just within eyesight.
It moved slowly at first but as it neared the waves it swiveled and ducked, dashing away from the lick of the waves just in time, before rising up once more in a graceful leap. The sandy rhythmic swishing sound returned as if in compliment to the ocean tide.
Theo stared gape-mouthed at the figure as it came into focus; an elephant, just like he had seen the night before. The trunk and ears became clearly visible as it was silhouetted by the moon. But he had never seen an elephant like this. This elephant danced.
Theo stared captivated by the motion and its music.
A wind kicked up, pushing the branches of the tree aside, revealing his watching spot. Theo ducked down, but he could only do so much. The figure stopped and lowered its front legs. It saw him.
Theo’s heart stopped, fearing the figure would run or trumpet in fury, or fear. It seemed all was frozen by the cooling gaze of the moon. The ocean only stayed immune, and rushed through several cycles of its tide, just to show it could, before thrusting forward to crash around the dancer’s ankles. Just like that the waves had thawed the moment and the vision glided forward once more. Theo stood still enchanted, removed from the power of the waves touch.
Just as the figure came within eyesight a breeze kicked up, dashing through the tree’s dangling flowers and sending a shower of petals across Theo’s face. He shook his head of the finery but when he looked up once more the figure was gone.
The next day, trudging back from the beach, Theo was bombarded by questions from his mother, and his aunt and uncles, his cousins, even his friends.
“Where were you?!” they all wanted to know.
But Theo didn’t know what to tell them. At first, he just wanted to keep the moment privately, like a hoarded pile of perfectly ripe bananas. But then he thought he might like to share this thing. His mother was a very loving old cow and his aunts and uncles and cousins and friends had always been there for him. But how could he explain it.
“Well…” Theo started to say.
“Well, what?” his youngest, and most precocious cousin replied.
“Well…” Theo said
They all stared, waiting.
“Well, suppose I saw something. Or maybe didn’t see something, but imagined something.” Theo stated.
“What nonsense are you talking, boy?” mother asked, for she still called him boy, even though he was grown.
“Well, I don’t know what I saw, but it was beautiful.” Theo said to her.
“What’s so beautiful it can’t be described?” the youngest elephant asked.
Theo didn’t know how to answer that.
“I think you should just come on home at night from now on.” Theo’s mother said. He could hear a bit of concern in her throat, but as the wind picked up brushing the palm fronds he remembered the lovely sandy swishing of the dancing elephant and knew he would return to see it again that very night.
Sneaking away after supper, Theo tip toed through the jungle to the edge of the beach. The wind had calmed, but a breeze still flowed through the Cassia tree flowers and petals were drifting through the air. As he waited for the figure to appear he set his mind to thinking. Perhaps his mother was right to worry. Maybe this was nothing more than a strange vision like those that flooded his sight from time to time. And he remembered his panic at the thorn bushes, hanging his head in shame.
A bitter bile rose in his throat before it plonked down in his stomach like a rock to the bottom of a pond. As Theo’s trunk rose to cry in dismay he felt the warm grasp of another trunk hugging his.
The wind calmed. Golden petals drifted and in between them he saw her.
She, for it was a girl, obviously, who danced around on the beach, looked into his eyes, the good and the bad. She wrapped her trunk still tighter around his and pulled him out onto the shifting sand above the waves.
She walked to the edge of the water and Theo wondered if she would jump into the waves and swim away. She stopped however before the waves reach and, curling her trunk back, beckoned him to join her. Theo lifted up his feet, like her and took one last trembling look at the ground, and then shut his eye in anticipation of falling.
He didn’t fall, however. Her hoof balanced against his, keeping him up. Slowly she began to move her back feet, swaying with the tide.
Theo, his eyes still shut, tried his best hopping and shuffling to keep up with her. When he fell behind she waited, but she never let him lower his front legs. Instead she paused just long enough for him to catch his footing and kept moving. After a while of this, Theo began to realize how silly he must look, his face all squinched up in fear and how clumsy he must seem by continually prancing on her toes. As he tripped once again, he opened up his eyes and he realized he was all alone. His front hooves came crashing to the sand and she was nowhere to be seen.
He took his time going back to the elephant camp. This time, he would be ready to tell his mother what he had seen.
“Where were you when you went out again last night, my boy?” his mother asked.
“I went to the beach, mother.” Theo said. “And this time I know what I saw.”
“Well, what was it my son?” she said.
“It was another elephant…dancing.” Theo said.
“Elephants don’t dance.” she replied matter-of-factly.
“But there was.” Theo said. “And I danced too.”
“Huhh!” she snorted. “How silly you are being!”
But Theo knew what he had seen and eventually word got around to the whole herd (a certain precocious young elephant has a big mouth). Soon all of the elephants were teasing Theo about his dream, for that is what they assumed it was.
“Hey, twinkle-toes!” they called to him during the day. “Show us your moves.”
“Stop!” his mother said. “He’s been through a lot.”
But Theo would just shake his head and continued picking palm leaves.
That night, Theo planned on going out to the Cassia grove again. Maybe this time I can improve my dancing he thought. So he snuck out, as quietly as he could. Just as he reached the edge of the elephant’s camp, a trunk reached out and tapped him roughly on the head.
“Ouch!” Theo said.
“Hello Theo.” Grandmother elephant said.
Grandmother elephant was the matriarch of the camp. She was the one who knew where the best watering holes and palm groves were and how to walk over fences and how to make the best mud caps for your head on long hot days.
Theo bowed down. Surprised to see her, for she almost never came out of her comfortable palm grove these days.
“I hear you’ve been sneaking out.” she said, one wiry eyebrow raised on her hairy forehead.
“Yes, grandmother.” Theo answered her, head still bowed. It was the first time he had really felt bad about sneaking out.
“Yes. And for what?” she asked him. Her voice was softer now, though, so Theo told her the truth. When he was finished telling her about everything, she looked him in the eye and nodded her immense head.
“Yes…dancing…!” she wistfully exclaimed.
Theo jerked his head up in surprise.
“You mean, elephants dance?” Theo asked.
“Yes. Yes. A long time ago.” Grandma elephant said.
“Mother said that elephants can’t dance.” Theo said.
“She would not remember.” said Grandmother elephant. “It’s been a long time since any of us did.” Theo gazed at his large and venerable grandmother in wonder.
Grandma elephant…dance? Theo thought.
She sighed and said, “A long time ago, we danced on all special occasions. And sometimes just for fun. But then the men showed up. And at first they liked just to watch the dancing party, but soon they put up their fences and not long after that they put up spears and they became dangerous.” And she looked deep into Theo’s face and nodded knowingly at the scar of his ruined eye.
“I liked it” Theo said, “the dancing.”
Grandma elephant just smiled and turned around, leaving the way to the beach open behind her.
Theo looked back for a moment, watching her lumber back to camp, elation rising inside his trunk this time in tsunamic gratitude. Then he marched forward to his joy.
As he neared the Cassia grove and the beach, he could hear the sandy shuffling rhythm as before and without hesitation surged towards the water’s edge. As before, the vision of the girl elephant swayed between the rushing tides with surprising grace. Stepping towards her, hooves raised, Theo asked to join her.
Hoof to hoof they balanced and began to sway together, shuffling over the shifting sand, leaping sometimes with excitement and galloping over the dunes.
As the moon sank beneath the level of the land, darkness fell, and Theo could barely see his own two hooves. The ocean waves pitched over Theo, toppling him into the water. Shaking his ear flaps free of water, Theo noticed he was alone again, but he got back up and twirled across the sand. I can dance, he thought.