Yanai sometimes worried that the little monkey would forget to come. It wasn’t that he thought it stupid; it had proven time and again to be a clever friend. It was that he’d come to realize it was a special sort of monkey—one of the naked ones that sang words to the heavens but killed without eating. These monkeys were untamable. His mother taught him to fear them, a lesson reinforced by his aunts after his mother succumbed to starvation and thirst. In the year since, the rains had returned, and Yanai liked to believe it was his tears that brought them. None of his kind disagreed with him. Unbeknownst to humans, elephants are a superstitious lot given to repeated movements and gestures that could bring good fortune, while they eschew bad omens and places they deem cursed. Yanai’s watering hole was such a place. They would not return there, but he did, each morning, to see his friend.
At nine, Yanai stood well over eight feet at the shoulders, tall for his age, but nowhere near his adult size. He was, however, elephant enough to lift the small, excitable monkey from the dusty ground and carry it over the rising lake to the other side. There were big cats on the side from which the monkey came, and Yanai did not feel safe there. Once safely ashore, he eased his friend to the hard ground and waited. It was a ritual that reassured him.
“Down, Yanai,” she said, gesturing with her hands. She removed a satchel that draped over her shoulder and knelt before him. “Here,” she said, reaching into the bag. “Breakfast.” She handed him a large fruit that he took from her palm with the delicacy of a surgeon and plunged into his mouth, pulverizing it with one bite.
“How do you use your big trunk to pick up such a small thing?”
“Proboscis,” he answered, crunching while the sweet juices ran along his tongue.
“Proboscis. It means ‘before the lip.’ We do not use the other word.”
“Oh, I see. Is it offensive?”
“No, merely inaccurate. It is not precisely a nose nor a lip. And, since you monkeys do not have one, I believe you should not get to decide what ours is called.”
Praful had been flipping through her book for something to read and paused, peeking up at him. “I’m not a monkey. I keep telling you that. Why don’t you believe me?”
“Why do you believe I am an elephant?” he answered.
“Because … because you look like an elephant.” She was going to add he smelled like one, but wasn’t certain that wouldn’t be offensive.
“Do others of your kind talk to elephants?”
“Some do, but I don’t think they talk back.”
“Well then, how do you know we wish to be elephants?” he asked.
Praful stopped, fluttered her eyelashes at her friend, and spoke. “I am sorry, my dearest friend. What do you wish to be called?”
“Yanai, and by no other name,” he answered.
“Then I will only call you that. And you may call me Praful, but no other name than that.”
Yanai bent his head in agreement. “I am sorry to have considered you to be another monkey.” He slowly lowered his heavy body until he was resting on the knees of his back limbs and the elbow of his forelimbs. He faced the kneeling girl, looking her almost in the eyes. “Surely you are wiser than the monkeys I have met. Exactly what, may I ask, are you?”
Praful’s eyes widened in surprise. “I’m a people, of course.”
“A people, ah. And are you a male people or a female one?”
“I’m not sure exactly,” she answered. “I’ve never seen anyone else without clothes. My amma said I was a girl, but Appa tells everyone I’m a boy now. So, I suppose I have changed from one to the other.”
It was Yanai’s turn for his eyes to widen, though his vision diminished as the sun grew brighter. “Can you … peoples … do that?”
Praful shrugged. “I suppose we can, although Appa tells me not to talk of such things. I would ask our Swami, but he says we are beings beyond the flesh in which we live.”
“What does that mean?” Yanai asked.
“I have no idea.”
The pair sat quietly for a time, pondering that thought. After a long think, followed by grunting and an even longer one, Yanai spoke up. “Perhaps it means that you peoples are spirits, like the stars, able to leave the world.”
Praful shrugged again. “Maybe so. I guess that’s what I’m supposed to be learning in school then, how to fly to the stars.” She made a frowny face. “So far, though, all we’ve done is learn to read.”
“What is read?”
Praful held up her book. “This is reading. There are words that tell stories. We learn to read them so we can remember them.”
“So you understand?”
“Not at all, no.”
“Oh.” Praful thought for a time, then shouted, “Oh! Maybe I can read you a story, and then you’ll understand what I mean.”
“Why, that would be excellent, said the elephant. He lowered his massive head, curling his proboscis over his forelimb, and grunted a low, happy note that Praful could feel but not hear. She read him a short story she’d been made to practice, one about how a man made of mud came to have the head of an elephant. Yanai was delighted, then horrified, and finally enraptured upon learning the elephant, or at least its head, had become a divine being. “However,” he said, “I must admit I thought the elephant was divine before your kind cut his head off in the first place.”
“Yes, that part makes my stomach hurt. The first time we read the story, I had to pretend there was dust in my eyes.”
Yanai shook his head in a rolling motion from one side to the other, as if the lolling would shake the thought from his ears. After a time, he asked, “Do you suppose that is the sort of divine being we would make? You know, the elephant-headed peoples?”
“How would we go about making one of those?” There was a distinct edge of excitement in the girl’s voice.
“I’m not certain, exactly,” he answered, “but my aunts tell me that the males sometimes make new elephants with the females. I think it involves rain in some way … and dancing. The big males love to dance, although the females never seem to join in properly. Perhaps …” He lowered his head even more, such that his lower lip practically dragged in the ground’s dust. “Perhaps you can become a female again and we can try our hand at making one of those elephant-headed peoples. I am certain to be good at making things, by all accounts.” He lifted his head proudly, sending dust flying into Praful’s eyes.
“That would be an adventure, she said, wiping away dusty tears. I suppose we’ll have to wait until you learn how. The swami doesn’t like to talk of such earthly things.” Praful stood, looking as the sun rose to the tip of the tallest tree. “It’s time for me to go,” she said. “Will I see you tomorrow?”
“If there is fruit, I will be here,” answered Yanai. He stood, a delicate movement that belied his lumbering size. “Tomorrow, I will tell you a story, one my mother told me when I was small.”
“Oh, that would be marvelous,” said Praful, stuffing the book in her satchel and starting towards the school. “What is the story about?”
“It is a true story of my uncle and how he learned to fly,” the young elephant answered, without looking back.
“A true story is the best kind,” Praful whispered to herself as the first clear rays of sun burst from above the forest, signaling she was late again.