Drew Simon told me this one at the pachyderm exhibit in the Denver Zoo, and I told it to Spencer Dodge at the edge of a ramshackle cemetery in Santiago, Chile. That’s a better place to tell it, and where I’d tell it to you if you and I were there together. Walking through the graveyard slums where the poor are marked with wooden crosses, I’d ask you if you knew the story about the elephant, and when you’d say “no,” I’d begin like this:
So, a young American zoologist is doing field research in Africa, and at dusk he sees, at the bottom of a huge yellow valley, an elephant. This is unusual. Firstly, because, while elephants are herd animals, this elephant is alone; and secondly, because this elephant is standing on only three legs. The elephant holds its fourth leg in the air, bending it at the knee.
The zoologist carefully approaches the elephant, examining the underside of its foot, and sees that a shard of rusty scrap metal has been jammed into the fleshy part of the hoof behind the toes. He grips the metal with his bare hands and yanks it out.
He steps back a couple of feet and the elephant looks at him. Not through the side of its head, like you’d think it would, not as a cow might look, but dead-on, like a dog, or a person. The zoologist looks back. They share something: a moment.
And then the elephant walks away.
One day, while he and his family are vacationing on the West Coast, the zoologist goes off to a local zoo and peeks into the elephant exhibit.
There’s a little waist-high fence and a steep concrete slope, at the bottom of which there is, of course, an elephant. And the zoologist thinks, I recognize that elephant, but he doesn’t know how, or from where, and as he walks further along the fence to get a better look, the elephant sees him, they lock eyes, and the elephant raises its hoof. Just like the one in Africa. As if it remembers him.
He figures it’s just a coincidence, so he leaves. But he returns again the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. Every day, the elephant gives him the same signal.
One day, when the zoo is mostly empty and nobody is watching, he flips his leg over the fence, slides down the concrete slope, and walks to the elephant.
The elephant raises its foot, just like he thought it would, and the zoologist puts his hand on the underside of the hoof. The elephant looks at him, just as before, and they have it again: this moment, an understanding.
And then the elephant reaches out with his trunk and tears off the zoologist’s head.
And that’s the end of the story.
This ending can be explained in two ways:
The first explanation is that the elephant in the zoo and the elephant in the savanna are two different elephants.
The zoologist, in a momentary lapse of professional judgment, has forgotten just how easy it is to confuse one elephant for another, and has transposed the image of an elephant from the past onto the image of an elephant in the present. Perhaps a recent, unresolved tragedy has addled his mind, sent him reeling, and now he looks for meaning where none exists.
And if the two elephants are the same elephant, he reasons, then it cannot be so by mere coincidence. It must be, somehow, fated. In the whirling, kaleidoscopic torment of the universe, he and the elephant are fixed points, two particles tied together by some unknowable, supernatural bond. Theirs is not a meaningless reunion. The two of them have met again not by chance, but by fate — it is meant to be.
But it is not meant to be. The elephant is the wrong elephant, the zoologist will be killed, and the world spins on.
The second explanation is that the elephant in the zoo and the elephant in the savanna are the same elephant.
At first, this seems impossible. What are the odds that the zoologist and the injured elephant would meet again, years later, on the other side of the earth? Or that the elephant would even recognize him? All elephants look the same, we think. Why should an elephant feel any different about us?
But what cannot be ignored is the fact of the elephant’s signal, the raising of its foot. The odds that any other elephant should learn this gesture — and that this gesture should only be made in the presence of a specific person — are so astronomically low that one might be led to conclude that the two elephants are one and the same.
To accept this conclusion, as the zoologist does in his final moments, is to choose to believe that reality is, at some fundamental level, an ordered thing, with purpose, meaning and a design.
Of the two explanations offered above, both are valid, but it’s the second that makes for the better story. Storytelling (and the same can be said for the study of history, although I’m sure there are plenty of historians who would disagree) is the conversion of unstructured experience into structured narrative. In short, meaning is discovered — or invented — where it could not be seen before.
And so when we think of the zoologist standing at the edge of the enclosure, gripping the iron fence and tensing his legs, we prefer to imagine that he’s been right all along, that the past and future are conjoined by more than the sequence of events between them, and that all this is happening for a reason.
He stares at the elephant. The elephant stares back. And behind its flat black eyes is not the dumb curiosity of a beast, but the silent recognition of Death.
Avery DiUbaldo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.