Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Elephant Audition

So, the call went out on Warren Ellis's ENGINE that this guy - Nick Papaconstantinou - was looking for some prospective writers for his new flash fiction site - Elephant Words.  I saw that and - taking any opportunity to stretch my writing muscles and work toward publication, I jumped at the chance and decided that I would take the image and turn around a short story within the 24-hour window that any of the writers on the site would need to do at some point during their tenure (which would last at least six weeks with the six-writer schedule that can be seen here)  
The first week's image was this:

And the story that came from this image follows:

The Wide Expanse

By Chris Beckett


Stifling heat rises off the veldt, perspiration gluing my shirt against my back.  I stand up in the jeep and stare into its eyes.  My shoulders tighten, tension settles over me, a heavy cloak refusing my limbs their full range of motion.  I roll my shoulders to no avail and curse under my breath, a whisper barely audible to my own ears.  I want to cry out as my body works against me, the skin around my skull feeling as if it is slowly being stretched to its limit as a throbbing drums in my temples, blood rushing through my ears, drowning out all background noise.  The elephant and I lock in a silent staring contest, and I ask myself again, what are we doing here?


“Ha ha ha ha ha!  Look at the cute wittle animal.”  My wife’s words slur behind me as Janet lifts the wine bottle to her mouth again.  I can smell the alcohol hanging on the air assailing my nostrils as I try to think. 


“Aren’t you going to shoot the evil thing?”  Her voice takes me back to when I was a kid reminding me of Miss Gladys who lived down the street from us.  At the time she seemed ninety, and her voice cracked so badly it sent shivers up my spine every time she spoke.  The hair rises on the back of my neck to hear that voice again out here in the bush. 


I raise the gun to my shoulder, but I pause before dropping my eye to the sight.  The elephant lifts its trunk, snorting as it does.  Is it marking its territory?  (Or, does it piss like a dog?)  I can’t tell what’s going through the huge beast’s mind.  My knees begin to ache from the strain. 


“Hooooney,” Janet crows.  “Can’t we get this macho shit over ‘n go back?  I’m starving.”  Slumping against the side of the jeep she stares off at the sun making its way toward the horizon.  It will still be light for a couple of hours, but the stillness that comes with evening is leisurely crossing the plains lulling me into a false sense of security.  


“Phil!”  She snaps the name off violently but follows it with silence – icy and cold, just the way she’s cultivated it over the years. 


Why hadn’t Janet announced what a bitch she was when I first asked her out?  It was such an inconsideration.  But no, she had been amazing – introducing me to new things, interested in everything I said, and crazy in bed.  The sex was ridiculous; we couldn’t get enough those first few years, and she was always up for experimenting.  


It wasn’t until after the marriage, and to be fair it was at least a few months, that she started to change.  It was subtle at first – not wanting to go for a walk after supper or showing no interest in taking in a play anymore.  These were easily overlooked at the time, but upon reflection, I see that now as the start of it all.  It wasn’t until some time later that it all went bad.


Janet started going out with friends, only a couple times a month, perfectly understandable.  But it wasn’t long before these late night excursions increased in frequency, and where Janet used to get picked up by one of the other women, she would now go off on her own to “meet the girls.”  I chalked my suspicions up to jealousy and knew if I said anything it would only turn out poorly.  So I remained mute and allowed it to fester.


After a while, I noticed this increase in girls’ nights out also coincided with my wife’s diminishing libido.  It used to be a day never went by without the two of us attacking one another, but as Janet discovered her new social outlets it seemed I was lucky if we fucked once a week.  Of course, age diminishes the sex drive.  But that happens gradually, not within the first few years of marriage?  She always had an excuse, and on those few occasions when I tried to push her all it won me was her enmity and a harsh stare that made my stomach sick. 


That was a feeling that reminded me of the time when I was nine and discovered our cat dead in the field behind our house.  Jake, which I christened because I always wanted a dog, had been gone for a week when I finally came across him.  His eyes were open and lifeless, and there was a gaping hole in Jake’s stomach.  At that young age, I could only imagine that some rabid dog had attacked Jake and left him once his body went limp.  As an adult, it always hurt to remember that incident because I could now peer at Jake through the mirror of experience and realize that there had been no rabid dog. 


Philip!  Janet’s screech is chilling.  I shake my head violently, wiping the memories from my eyes.  I squint once, returning my vision to the present, and see the elephant charging toward the jeep.  I quickly bring the sight of the gun up and settle my finger on the trigger. 


But I don’t squeeze.


My legs stiffen as a pain clutches vigorously in my scrotum.  I notice pressure in my bladder of which I was previously unaware.  The bull elephant takes two more crashing steps and halts barely ten feet from our grille.  Staring through the sight, the “+” quivering faintly over the large gray skull, I feel the pressure building in my bladder.  I know I can’t hold my water much longer.


“Philip!  Din’t you come out here to be a f’cking man?  Wha’s wrong with you?


“Fuckin’ pussy!”  Janet spits these last words out, and I turn to see her reaching for me, falling into the space between the seats as her hand rests on nothing but air.  “Fck,” comes her mumbled response as I return my gaze to the behemoth in front of us.  I set my eye to the sight once more and rest my finger on the trigger guard, afraid that nerves might prematurely set off the charge.  I take a deep breath but am unable to quench my need for air and inhale deeply a second time. 


Focusing, I again stare into the elephant’s eyes, and I behold a majesty that I could not see as it stood so many yards away.  It is a magical and a scary moment, like those expressed on nature shows, but one that I had previously considered a myth.  A shiver ripples through my body and I feel my bladder give way.


I clutch my legs tightly together, but it is of little use as urine runs down my legs, soaking my shorts as it puddles in my boots.  Intensified with the heat, the smell is pungent and unmistakable.  Janet begins to laugh again as she pulls herself up.


“My man,” drips her sarcasm.  “What th’ hell is wrong wif you? 


“Yer a fuckin’ pussy and I’m the fool that married you!  What a f’ckin’ joke.”  Her voice stops for a moment.  Must be tipping the bottle again. 


I hear the clink of the heavy glass – now empty and of no use to my wife – as it strikes the bottom of the jeep.  The fact that I was correct does little to temper my embarrassment.  I can think of nothing else to do so I continue to stare at the elephant through the gun sight. 


“Why’d ya piss yer pants, Philly?”  Janet’s cackle strikes me in the back, worse at this moment than any blade struck Caesar, and my tension shifts, no longer a product of this primal standoff but a reaction to my loving wife.  I want to answer her but realize it is useless. 


I reply under my breath anyway, maybe as a way to cleanse myself.  “I cannot kill him,” the whisper comes to my ears.  And suddenly, I am at peace.


The crack of the gunshot rolls over the plains like heavy thunder, vainly trying to distance itself from me.  I sit down, and as I drop the large gun over the side of the jeep I see, out of the corner of my eye, the large elephant raise its trunk one final time before turning and rushing off to find its herd. 


I drop my head into my hands and weep uncontrollably. 




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