The next morning, dawn swept to the edge of the land, and with it, Praful. In no longer a time than it takes for a wisp of smoke to clear, she was pacing along the water’s edge, anxious for her friend’s arrival. Yanai was on time, as always, and not a moment earlier. He was a clock by which she could always set the rhythm of her day. They repeated their daily ritual of greeting, with long bows and mutual, silent consideration. Then it was fruit and small talk, before Praful again bent low to the ground extended her hand, caressing the young elephant’s trunk. “Please, gentle friend, may I have your story now?” she asked.
Yanai settled into the dust and beckoned his friend nearer by tugging her from the earth with his proboscis. Though already powerful enough to do rough field work should the loggers capture him, his pull was as tender as a baby’s embrace.
“You must sit close,” he said. “My mother made me promise to tell no one, lest bad things happen.”
“Wh-what kinds of bad things?” she asked.
“I do not know. She died before I could learn more.”
Praful turned and hugged her friend, needing to stand on tiptoes to reach his back, though he was lying on the hard ground. “I’m so sorry you’ve lost your amma too,” were the only words she could think to offer. They were sufficient.
“I will tell you my uncle’s story, but you must promise to tell no one.”
Praful lifted one hand in a solemn vow. Yanai mirrored her movements with his trunk.
“Good. Then we have sworn it, and so it shall be,” he said. “It is a sacred vow, and harm befall whomsoever shall break it.”
Praful exhaled in a gush. “Wow, such fancy words, Yanai.”
He responded in a deep sound that might have been a chortle had she understood his language better. “That is how my Uncle Gajarajan would speak. My mother said he was quite an educated fellow.” Praful settled in next to Yanai’s front, left limb and cooed with delight. “Did you know that there has been a Gajarajan in my family for six generations in honor of him?”
“No, I did not.”
“Yes, it’s true. I heard one descendant even had a statue built someplace.”
“Ooh, that’s wondrous. I wonder if we can see it sometime.”
“I would like that,” said Yanai. “I’ve long wondered precisely what a statue is.”
Praful shrugged and lifted her palms skyward. “I do not know, but I am certain it is lovely.”
Yanai rolled his head from side to side, a simple, excited gesture that made Praful want to imitate it. Being an impulsive child, that is exactly what she did, and together, the two waggled their heads in a happy, spiritual bond, that to Yanai was a sign of deep affection. After nearly a full minute of this, he suddenly stopped moving and spoke in a low, solemn voice.
“Uncle Gajarajan was a very clever fellow,” he began. “In fact, he was the first elephant to attend University.”
“Oh really, in a real school?”
Yanai harrumphed. “If by real you mean a people school, then yes, although my family have always thought it was a monkey college. That is, until you taught me that you naked monkeys prefer another name.
“Dear Yanai, please don’t be surly. I meant no disrespect.” He tilted his head toward the sky, ignoring her bequest until she began soothing strokes along his trunk. “Do continue the story, my lovely friend.”
“Humph. Well, yes … yes, I shall.” Praful stifled a giggle, as it was obvious he was putting on his Uncle Gajarajan voice once again. “As I was saying, Uncle, whom the family called Rajan for short, or even Raj by those who loved him most, was quite clever. After University, he began to travel the lands, seeking his fortune, so to speak. It is said that Uncle could not find his particular fortune because no one had told him what form that was to take.”
“Isn’t a fortune money?” Praful asked.
“Only to those who value things that aren’t gifted by the All.”
“The All what?”
Yanai swept his trunk toward the horizon. “All of this. All of all.”
“All,” his friend repeated, in a whisper.
“Anyway,” Yanai continued, “after a time spent drifting from forest to village and yon, Uncle came upon a high mountain. Uncle looked up toward the top, but could see nothing but clouds. He walked along the base of the structure, but could see only small footholds that would carry only the most diminutive of creatures.
” ‘I must reach the top,’ he said.”
“Why must he reach the top?” asked Praful.
“Ah, for the usual reason. Because he had already seen the bottom.”
Praful nodded as the elephant continued.
“After a few hours’ walk, which is quite a distance for a large bull such as Uncle Gajarajan, he came to a path. It was narrow and quite twisted, but sturdy enough that he could make his way along it, if he was careful. He’d barely placed one foot on the path when a white bird with grey wings landed upon his back.
“ ‘I wouldn’t go up there were I you,’ it said.
“ ‘Were you me, I would be now speaking to myself, which would make me a bit of a madman,’ replied Uncle.
“The bird seemed to consider that for a moment. ‘Perhaps you are speaking to yourself. I’ve seen no one else here. I suppose it is possible that even I am not here.’
“Uncle turned to the bird and snorted. ‘You are a puzzle, cheeky bird.”
“ ‘That is precisely so,’ it replied. ‘And since you seemed to have solved me, perhaps this is the path for you after all.’
“It fluttered up into the air, rising along thermal currents until it was only a small, white dot against grey clouds above. Uncle stepped fully onto the path, heading toward the peak.
“ ‘What do you expect to find up there anyway?’ the bird asked, scaring Uncle so badly that he tumbled back down the path to the ground below. Although he’d watched it disappear into the clouds, there it was sitting again on his back.
“ ‘What are you doing here, trying to get me killed? And … how are you here? I saw you fly away!’
“ ‘Of course I flew away. I’m still there. I love to fly.’
“Uncle was confused, but managed to stammer out, ‘Well, I suppose that makes sense, since you are a bird. But still, how is it that you are here, if you are up there?’
“ ‘Well, no one ever told me I could not be in two places at once, and so, I am in both.’
“Uncle thought about that for a great while, as he ascended the mountain with the small bird on his back. After the greater part of a day, just as Uncle was reaching the mist of the cloud cover, he stopped and called to his companion. ‘Bird! Come here where I can see you.’ The bird did as he was asked. ‘I think I have figured out another of your puzzles.’
“ ‘I have no puzzles,’ it said.
“ ‘Ah, yes. Well then I have solved another of my puzzles.’
“ ‘Indeed? And pray, what might that be?’
“ ‘How one can be in two places at one time.’
“ ‘Truly? Do tell. I have recently been informed that such a thing is impossible.’
“ ‘So have I,’ said the bird’s other self, which was now circling on thermals closely overhead.”
Praful giggled, laughing at the thought of two copies of the bird tormenting Yanai’s poor uncle. “He must have been quite frustrated by now,” she said.
“Oh no,” said Yanai. “Mother said that Uncle, being quite wise and educated, was enjoying the bird’s company immensely.” He gave as pensive a look as an elephant is capable of giving. “Or is it birds’? I am not sure, exactly. Still, to continue …
“Uncle looked from the flying bird to the standing bird and spoke. ‘I have determined that anything is possible as long as one chooses to remain ignorant to impossibilities.’
“ ‘Possibly so, but how can one, in good conscience, choose ignorance when so much knowledge is available?’
“Uncle pondered that thought for quite some time as the bird amused itself by catching and eating insects that had found their way up the steep mountain. Finally, he spoke. ‘One cannot confuse knowledge with knowing.’
“ ‘Say what now?’
“ ‘I mean to say, one must find one’s own truth. Just because I know you cannot be in two places at once doesn’t prevent your doing so, if you know my truth to be your lie.’
“ ‘Quite so,’ said the standing bird. The flying bird echoed his response. ‘But how do you know that I am actually in two places at once?’
“ ‘Be-because I can see you.’
“ ‘What if that is not me, but my brother?’ asked the bird who was pointing to the sky with one wing.
“ ‘If you claim that your brother is you, and I cannot prove you wrong, then perhaps you are still right and you remain in both places.’
“The flying bird landed and disappeared in a great poof of smoke. Before Uncle could cry out, the other bird lifted into the sky, grew to twice his former size, and said, ‘And so, great Gajarajan, you likewise must find your own truth within. If you must travel the world, do so not to find your truth, but to make it.’
“And with that, he too disappeared, but in a great clap of thunder that shook the mountain.”
“Ooh,” said Praful, clapping. “I do so love magic, although the swami disapproves of it.”
“I have come to believe that swamis disapprove of most things,” said Yanai.
“No,” she answered, pouting, “only the things that are enjoyable.” She brightened as quickly as her mood had turned to sunset. “But where did the bird go? Was … was he a god?”
Yanai gave her a stern look. “No, he was a bird. Were you not listening to the story?”
Praful sank again into sunset. “Not as well as I’d hoped, apparently.” She sighed, leaning against her friend’s great bulk. “What happened to your Uncle after that?”
“It will have to wait until tomorrow.” Yanai pointed to the sun, now high over the trees. “Your sun calls you. Once again, you are late.”
“Oh my!” Praful exclaimed, jumping to her feet and heading out in a dead run. “I will have to wash at the school before the boys show up. Swami says that I come smelling of elephant each day.” She waved and disappeared into the trees.
“You are fortunate,” said Yanai. “Smelling of elephant is an improvement.”