The one-eyed elephant trainer wept. The girl lay motionless, without will or strength. He offered her tear-stained slices of white bread from a plastic bag. They did not only look stale they were furry with mould, especially at the crust. She refused by jerking her head away. He had replaced the good quality clothes she had worn with a cheap nylon T-shirt and a sarong. He said that he bought these clothes for her from the Thieves’ Market in west Jakarta.
He was a monster. He had kidnapped her from the fairground. Monster.
When she closed her eyes Sunny’s image sprung to life. She remembered him gardening for her father. How long ago all that seems now! They were going to run away, she and Sunny. She must find him. In her belly was their child.
The monster who looked far worse than any circus beast, farted long and hard, a curious popping that sounded more like a trick he was about to perform. The girl felt tiny droplets of her tears fighting to get out, squeezing her face into a rag. When they finally burst from her eyes, the girl thought she would die. The one-eyed elephant trainer’s one eye was not dead enough to withstand his emotions. It still had ducts in working condition but it made the girl feel feverish, as though his weeping was akin to his farting and sour breath. How could it represent the emotional tragedy that was now hers?
You can live here. With me. Forever, he announced. His breath stank of Red Bull and sick. Tears still poured from both his good and bad eye, shut from the world eternally. You can dance on the elephants. I will teach you. You will look so beautiful in the costumes. I made them myself. He might as well have been excreting these dreamy flights of fancy. The girl roared but the first voice that she found in her throat didn’t sound very human. It was more like a mew. Her anger fell back on her like a clap of thunder.
He did not appear to have heard her. Instead he prattled on in his stuttering trance all the things they would do together… with the elephants. You’re mine now. I found you.
The words rang in her ears. You’re mine now. I found you. They rang like the incessant gurgle of water in your ears days after you’ve swum the front crawl. Elephants never forget, he babbled on, the lunatic.
The girl closed her eyes and then she asked him if he would let her go.
Go? He inquired, not understanding. Yes, she hissed, her eyes still closed. For a few minutes, he was quiet. Then the one-eyed elephant trainer picked up a three-legged stool and threw it against the wall where the girl lay. Its legs flew out like firecrackers but missed her by inches.
The next day he said, you are going home.
I am not going home. I have to go and find Sunny. He’s in Bali.
Still the mention of Sunny’s name brought the glow of hope and childish expectations to the girl’s face.
The sea water, Sunny had said, is all cleansing, all healing. Your wounds and cuts smart a little at first. Then all would be healed. Pain would depart and wellness would be restored. Now there was no pain the girl was unable to bear.
Where are my clothes?
-I bought you new clothes.
They are not new. Where are my clothes?
-I have sold them. You will not need them here. You will wear costumes. For dancing on the elephants.
The monster showed her the costumes. They were made of silver sequins, black ostrich feathers, white tulle. The red satin slippers were her size. They were the most beautiful things in the room. He had now agreed to free his little prisoner. She was not the first. They all want to go. He made all these costumes for them but all they want to do is go. His tears fell, and dark blots appeared on the little silver skirt he was clutching.
At the harbour, the girl felt the salty cry of the sea within her belly, and her heart churned with the excitement of a motor. Tides affected the entire ocean, from its surface to its floor, every chamber, every drop of seawater. The Jakarta River was serpentine and rank with decay and silt. The Amsterdam-inspired canals had poured into the river for centuries. Today it floated with plastic bottles, dead cats and sanitary pads. Dead fish bearing all the marks of abyssal existence were cast upon the banks, their eyes atrophied, their bodies studded with phosphorescent organs.
When she found a McDonald’s at the Harbour, she washed herself thoroughly. She had to press the anti-vandal tap with one palm while washing herself with her other hand. The ship is here, said the one-eyed elephant trainer outside McDonald’s. It will take you to Bali, he said.
The SS Batavia was in the dock, as massive as a tall building on its side. Hundreds of portholes gave it that glowing ‘tall-building-at-dawn’ appearance. Men in crisp white uniform were busy loading and preparing the ship for sailing. The digital clock at the port was the colour of vampire’s blood. It said 06:13 in giant blocky numbers. Up close, the girl saw that the numbering was made up of longish hexagonal shapes all lit up.
They squatted in the shadowy recesses of the boardwalk, their feet sinking in the mud. Scrubbers sat cross-legged near the decks, eating a fried breakfast. When they got up, the girl rushed into the ship like a gust of wind.
The one-eyed elephant trainer’s breath stayed in her nostrils, a river stench.
I love you, he said, but she was already in the ship.
‘Beyond all things is the ocean.’ – Seneca
Ivy Ngeow was born and raised in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. A graduate of the Middlesex University Writing MA programme, Ivy won the 2005 Middlesex University Literary Prize out of almost 1500 entrants worldwide. Most recently she won the 2016 International Proverse Prize for her first novel Cry of the Flying Rhino (published by Proverse Hong Kong on 16 November 2017). Ivy’s second novel Heart of Glass will be published by Unbound on 5 June 2018.
Featured photo by Ethan Hoover