If you missed the first part of
“A Hen, a Lion, a Passenger & a Pachyderm,”
go back to Part I.
giant was coming down the grassy slope. I was riveted to the cold ground. I wanted to escape but I couldn’t stand. I turned my torso back around quickly to see if anyone else was observing his approach, but the number of kids had diminished even more by that point, and Sandra was still talking to the boys with her back to me.
Twisting back around so that I faced awkwardly up the slope again, I got a better view of the approaching figure. He was like no stranger I had ever encountered. Immensely tall, much more so than my father; he had to have been over six feet. This man was very thin and seemed almost rubbery, to judge by his delicate, loping strides down the incline.
What he was wearing greatly contributed to how slender and how high his form seemed to reach. On top of his narrow head was a vertical, black, stovetop hat. For the moment I thought the man was Abraham Lincoln; after all, this was Illinois. But that impression changed after I could see the man’s face a few moments later.
He also wore a body-length, tattered brown overcoat, cut like a suit jacket towards the top, but slowly broadening out towards the bottom like a dress. The hem was ringed with a mangy-looking fringe of what appeared to be some sort of animal fur. This coat extended all the way down to the man’s ankles, and billowed loosely around his feet as he walked, over black shoes that tapered to an almost sharp point.
The closer the man came to me the odder he looked. I saw that he wore a brightly colored vest underneath the coat, with rainbow stripes running lengthwise, buttoned up neatly; below that was a lavender shirt, believe it or not, with ruffles leading straight up to his cleanly shaven but chicken-like neck. He looked both dapper and utterly ridiculous at the same time.
As he approached, I found the courage to look up. When I did I encountered a face that could only be described as hatchet-shaped. It was like watching the blade-like hull of a warship drift brazenly into your personal space. Except for the man’s wild, jet-black, curled moustache, which one usually didn’t find underneath a ship’s figurehead. He had long, thin lips, which the moustache did not obscure, that when I first saw them were flattened broadly in a wide, inviting grin.
Time seemed to suspend, and the surrounding noises stopped, or maybe they all merged somehow into one steady tone, a chord, ringing out over everything. Yet I could also hear the wind, the ever-present wind, the perpetual rush of air. The giant-man seemed to descend the hill in three to four long, bow-legged strides. Suddenly he was standing right in front of me, still seated on the grassy slope, looking up the long, absurdly draped flagpole of him. The man bent down at the waist, his ship’s-prow nose and the bridge above it carving its way to the point that I almost thought it would ram into mine. It stopped just short, so that the man could inquire:
Boy, have you seen an elephant nearby?
A wizard, I thought. A magician. The only possible explanation for who this man could be. My throat froze and my vocal chords flat-out vanished. I stared up at him. He waited. The man had wrinkled skin, parchment-like, but his eyes were the most unusual green-blue shade I had ever seen. They bore deeply into my own and dragged up from within me a memory, some moment when I had seen the exact same color. Then it came to me. A few months earlier my family had spent two days at a hotel right alongside Lake Michigan. This man’s eyes were the exact same color as the water, the way it looked from our hotel balcony. My mom had called Sandra and I out to look at it as the sun was falling one night.
The man still waited for my answer. I tried to remember what he had asked. My voice suddenly returned, sort of.
I’m not supposed to talk to people like you.
You’ve never met a person like me, said the man, leaning back to an upright stance. His voice was dry and wistful. He sounded old, but it was hard to tell exactly how old he might have been.
People I don’t know, I said.
Yes, but we do it anyway, don’t we. Your sister’s doing it.
Yeah, but she’s not supposed to.
Don’t you want to know how I know she is your sister? Aren’t you curious? The man dragged out that last word to twice its length, again drawing his face nearer to mine.
I didn’t know what to say, so I shrugged.
The man leaned back again, standing upright.
Hmmm, he said. I think you are a more inquisitive boy than that. I hope you’re a more inquisitive boy than that. I’ve just startled you, is all. You haven’t seen me before.
I shook my head.
Yet I’ve been around for so long – right here in Chicago. A really, really long time.
Again I couldn’t think of a reply. I felt like I had been there a long time too. But I was pretty sure he was talking about longer.
How long? I asked.
Who are you?
Just a passenger.
But … but … what’s your name?
Oh, you know, said the man. How about Passenger. James T. Passenger. I’m at your service.
He suddenly reached up, plucked the stovetop hat off his cylindrical skull, and executed a long, graceful bow. It seemed like a gesture he had done before, perhaps lots of times.
Oh. Okay. Well … I’m …
Not to worry, boy. I know who you are. Which is good, because I always will. More importantly, you will know me. There won’t be another day in your life when you don’t.
I was not sure what was happening, for I felt intrigued and confused at the same time. I did the only thing I could think, which was to twist around and look for my mother. But she wasn’t there.
Ah. Thanks for reminding me, said the man. She’s not done yet, boy. But there’s not much time. So, have you seen one or not? He stepped down next to me, on the side of the hill.
What was going to happen? For some reason, although I didn’t want to, I turned slowly to look at his face, where I found his eyes boring directly into mine once again.
Seen what? I almost whispered.
An elephant. A huge, white elephant.
Around us, the remaining kids kept right on playing. Sandra had finally moved away from, or more likely had been dismissed by, the older boys. I could recognize her bunched-over brooding from five miles off. She wasn’t even facing away from us anymore, but she was in her own world. She didn’t see either one of us on the hill.
I haven’t seen any elephants, I said. I don’t think they live around here. But I did see a lion.
I never did know why I said that. I knew the man wasn’t talking about an artificial elephant. That seemed clear. Yet, for whatever odd reason, he terrified me in the exact same way that lion did. I never felt in physical peril that day. It was a terror more difficult to name, or to explain away. Like a dreadful anticipation of something you think may be coming, but you just aren’t sure of. Something that could happen, that maybe should have happened, but by some inconceivable calculus of chance and conditions, hasn’t happened yet.
In any case, as soon as I said that, the man’s lake-eyes widened, and for a moment that water, or at least the color of it, seemed to flood out over everything in the world. But then he was in front of me, dry, his face near to mine yet again, asking me a question in one forceful, elongated word:
I pointed past his upper arm to an area behind him, towards where that lion held its empty court, waiting patiently for victims. But I wouldn’t look at it. For my fear of that lion, and of James T. Passenger, had reached their apex, together, at that very moment. Whatever is happening here, I thought, it doesn’t include me, it has nothing to do with me.
But of course it had everything to do with me.
ext thing I knew, I was trying to make a getaway. I had my back turned to Passenger. In another instant I would have taken off at a sprint, forgetting my sister. But I was too slow, and the stranger’s long hand with its talon-like fingers outstretched had grabbed the hood of my Bears jacket. The very same way Sandra had! Could it be possible that she had cooked this guy up somehow, elaborately, to bump me off? If so, at the very least, Sandra was more inventive than I had previously given her credit for.
Are you sure you have not seen an elephant? asked the stranger.
The iron-like grip guided me backwards, until I took the not-very-subtle hint and turned around. He stepped to one side, and there was the lion, the fountain, mostly at a profile to where we were standing. But that was not all I saw. Reaching out of the lion’s wide open jaws – slowly, waving around in the air, as though feeling for something not seen – was a massive white trunk. An elephant’s trunk.
knew it, he was saying. Suddenly his hand felt protective on my shoulder. Like a father’s.
As soon as I set eyes on you from the window of that train, I knew it. I don’t know how I knew, but there was something about you that told me instantly that you would be able to see. That you are one of those who can perceive what so many cannot.
I stared at the elephant’s trunk, just waving around, from inside the drinking fountain. How could that be? How many times had I stuck my own head into those same jaws? Had I ever seen a hole, a tunnel … a passage? No. But my eyes were seeing, obviously, what this man’s were.
Yet, the other kids, the adults walking by … no one was making any noise, or saying anything. No one acted like the trunk was even visible! Let alone the weird-looking man towering over the innocent five-year-old on the side of the hill!
I could not remove my eyes from that waving appendage. Now that the shock of seeing it had sunk in a little, I wondered what the thing was doing, why it was sticking up out of there in the first place.
I felt the man grab both of my shoulders, so he could gently turn me away from that wildest of visions and talk to me face-to-face, mano a mano.
Boy, he said, leaning over so he could look at me closely once again, his eyes twinkling with a rejuvenated energy and excitement I hadn’t seen there before. You have no idea how long I’ve waited for this. How long I have searched for it!
What is that thing? I asked.
An elephant. As I’ve been saying. I finally tracked it down. Or it tracked me down.
What’s it doing?
Looking for me. Its job is to carry me across.
I will try to tell you, he said.
ou may not understand all of this now, but that’s okay.
A long time ago, there were a lot of people around here that were like me. There was, right here in this city, a great big gathering of people from all over the world, with all kinds of events and exhibits, entertainments, tents, carnival rides, crazy inventions, food stands, even wild animals. People came from near and far to represent their culture, their experiences, to see how other people lived, and, most importantly, to share stories. It was glorious. It lasted for weeks. So many people gathered together at once, interacting, teaching one another. Like school, but more fun.
Along the way, while all this was happening, something took place. Something amazing! With so many people visiting it at once, so many cross-currents of stories, so much energy and information and memories together at one huge event, the city of Chicago created its own great big imaginary world – its own place that people could visit in their minds, in their hearts. It’s a little hard to explain. It’s as though everyone in the city combined their ideas and creativity together and came up with another, separate place. Then they put a lot of things in that place: all kinds of people and animals and fantastic machines and vehicles. I am one of them – a man, yes, but built out of the memories, ideas, and imaginings of a million different people. That’s why I seem so oddly assembled.
I stared at him, completely dumbfounded. Yes, I was having a tough time understanding. But then again, somewhere inside of me – this is a feeling I can remember so clearly, and that I have tried to recreate for my entire life – there was a small light glowing, gathering heat, trying to catch fire. In a way that I could not grasp, what he was saying made perfect sense.
For a while, the man continued, all of us, the creations of this city’s imagining, lived here, together. Adjacent to your world, but accessible to nearly everyone. Over time, though, something terrible took place. Other human events occurred, awful ones, which tore people’s minds away from the stories they’d created. There were wars, great crime waves, fires, bouts of destructive weather, political battles. It all led to one simple but devastating tragedy: the city began to forget. It became disconnected from its own experience. It lost its stories.
Those of us who were living in that sideshow world, the alternate place, became separated, and gradually began to fade into nothing, one by one. There was a great agony of confusion. We no longer belonged anywhere. We wandered for years in darkness, looking for each other. We tried to reach people in your world, talk to you, but it was as though no one could see or hear us anymore.
You folks changed. Everyone began to look and act differently. Only rarely would someone be able to see us at all. But by then so much time had passed and so many other events had happened that our world had been dismantled, disbanded. Some of us were still alive, still around, but there was no longer one place for us to go.
Along the way, I heard somewhere, I don’t remember where, rumblings that a new place had been created for those of us who were still left. Whether it was created by the same people, their children and grandchildren, or by one singular imagination that had not been around here before, I have never known. I’m hoping to find out – today, in fact.
There were rumors among my kind, those of us who could still be found, of a creature, a carrier – a white elephant. If you could find the elephant, it would carry you into that new place. There you could find out who was responsible for the place and why it had been created.
Thus, I began to search for the elephant, so that it could carry me there. Only the white elephant knew where to find the passage through. I hunted high and low for years and years. And now, through you, I have found it.
ime to go, he said.
Can I go with you?
No. It’s not the place for you. But you can visit. In fact, you will need to. However, you will have to find your own passage. You have a lot of searching and exploring to do.
Will I need the white elephant?
I don’t know the answer to that.
Will I ever see you again?
What do you think?
With that, the stranger turned on his heel and started off towards the lion. The wind threw leaves at his ankles and danced with the fringe of his overcoat. I watched his back as he walked away. Suddenly, he turned around.
One more thing. Someday, I don’t know when, you will discover the courage to tell this story. As soon as you do, I tell you now, someone will be there to say it isn’t true. Don’t believe it. You know better.
He turned again and walked off.
When he got to the fountain, with the white trunk still flailing around, he positioned himself directly in front of the lion’s open maw. Out of nowhere, leaden clouds rumbled thickly overhead. He did not touch the trunk, but it seemed to sense his presence. He leaned forward at the waist one more time and whispered something.
Then, very deliberately, he looked at me one final time. The elephant’s trunk slowly, painstakingly, encircled the man’s waist. The stranger removed the stovetop hat and tipped it in my direction. I held up my hand.
Next, in one shocking, rapid motion, defying everything I understood to be possible, the trunk simply whisked the man into the lion’s jaws. All of him. The hat, clutched in his long fingers, vanished last.
ast year, when I was having a hard time, I acted against my better judgment and told this story aloud for the first time, to my former therapist. She listened closely, then nodded with a curt smile.
Well, she said.
There’s only one explanation for that.
Really. What is it?
Well, naturally. Your father was studying L.S.D.? Obviously you got into it somehow. Tell me, did he bring it home often? How long was he a junkie?
I feel sorry for her, truthfully. For such people will never understand. And it’s so simple. Unless you are willing to pursue the world within the wonder, the wonder within the world will never pursue you.