Writing inspired by a Sunday Writers’ CLub prompt, which included a fantastic image of Elephant Rock in Iceland.
The Sleeping Elephant
By Sandra Völker
Marie sat on top of her favorite cliff by the seaside and looked out over the intensely turquoise and azure blue water. Wet mist crept over the nearby rock formations and kept the world at a distance. Moss in many different shades of green and ochre surrounded her and all she could hear was the meditative sound of waves breaking against the grey rocks countless feet below her.
Marie was at peace with herself and breathed deeply and calmly. Her chest, which had given her troubles lately, had decided on a ceasefire and let her take deep breaths which sent the oxygen flowing through her body and relaxed her nerves and muscles.
“Here we are, old friend,” she said and patted the ground beside her. “You and I and this misty kingdom of solitude and wide horizons. I am very happy to be here. Actually, I am glad I made it. You should have seen the sorry sight of me, resting every few minutes, hardly able to go on.”
Marie did not expect an answer but knew she was welcome. She had walked up from the small town a few miles away. When she had been younger it had taken her half an hour, today it had been a two-hour journey during which she begun to doubt her ability to reach her old friend. The sleeping elephant in the sea – as the town people called the very peculiar rock formation – had been her place of escape and reflection throughout her long life. Marie moved her rheumatic fingers over her face and traced some of the countless wrinkles that dominated her face now. Oh well, she thought, I finally look like my grey friend beneath me.
The first time Marie had come to this place had been a lifetime ago. She had been at the beginning of her life, four years old and her parents had taken her on a Sunday picnic. Her father had carried her on his shoulders for most of the way and her mother had told her fantastical stories about all the creatures that could be found along the coast. Marie remembered that early summer day with the distinct memories that only childhood produces. She could still hear the loud and aggressive screeching and squawking of the seagulls and the thunderous breaking of the waves. She could still smell the earthy odor of moss and the fishy scent of lichens covering the cliffs. Everything had been louder, saltier, greener and more intense. Most impressive, however, had been the creature whose unexpected acquaintance she had made when they reached their destination.
“Look Marie,” her mother said when they approached from the east side which presented the best view of the rock. “This is the sleeping elephant in the sea. I told him we were coming today and he is looking forward to meeting you.”
Marie gawked at the huge sleeping head partly immersed in the green water. “But he is sleeping, Mommy,” she replied while at the same time wondering where his enormous trunk ended.
“He can hear everything we say and he will always listen to you. And if you are very attentive you will be able to hear and understand him, too,” her mother continued. “Elephants are very wise and this one is even more special for having made this coast his home. He has traveled very far and when he came here he was very tired. He liked this place very much so he decided to take a long rest until he is ready to move on again. If you become his friend, he might stay a little longer.”
Marie fell in love with the sleeping elephant right there and then. She felt an immediate affinity with the sleeping creature and the magical spot he had made his home. As she would later describe it to her friends and family – it was a love that never left her, that she would find nowhere else in the world and that would always bring her back. The conversation she started that day never ended.
She brought all her important people to this spot, her first love, her closest friends, then later her husband and life partner Patrick and her son David and daughter Karen. Mostly though, she liked to come by herself. On top of her sleeping and travel-worn friend she felt complete and at peace. They only talked when it was just the two of them although she could sometimes hear his whispers when she came with other people. Over the years she shared her joys and successes with him, her happiness about her job with the publishing company and her delight when she moved her family from the capital back to her hometown. She poured her sorrows, frustration or just her tiredness into the grey and patient rock and always he gave something in return. Marie left with more energy or with a new idea or the ability to make a decision. The sleeping elephant knew all of Marie’s secrets and more – her deepest longings, her darkest fears. It was never a one-sided conversation, however. Over the years Marie got to know him intimately. When her mind became really quiet and calm he told her his story. He told her about his loneliness and sadness for being the only elephant in this cold, green ocean. He told her his secrets and his hopes and offered his soul in warm friendship. Sometimes Marie thought that theirs was the only true and meaningful relationship in her life. When she told him he would laugh at her with a loud roar and send her packing home.
Marie shifted her position slightly and tried to wiggle her toes in her sturdy walking shoes. She was not sure if she was successful. Her circulation had gotten very bad lately and certain sitting positions led to numb limbs very quickly. She was quite impressed with herself for having managed to walk up here but then again, she had known that she could still activate some energy that she had saved for a special purpose. She closed her eyes and visualized herself sitting on the elephant rock, becoming one with him, turning into grey stone covered by green moss. Other visitors to the place would walk around her, maybe wonder about a rock shaped like an old woman sitting on top of an elephant, and have a picnic next to her. The more imaginative visitor or a child might come up with stories why an old woman had come here and decided to stay. Marie smiled at the notion of being surrounded by cheerful hustle and activity. Maybe one day a writer would come and write a story about the woman on top of a sleeping elephant.
Marie thought about Karen and David, her children. After Patrick’s death, David and his family had stayed with her for a week before returning to their lives in the capital. Afterwards Karen had taken some time off and travelled over from Kenya where she worked for an international organization. Marie was proud of her children for leading lives they wanted. That she had been able to install in them a sense of independence and self-confidence she considered one of her biggest achievements.
He, of course, knew all about them, their childhood pranks and illnesses, her frustration with Karen’s unwillingness to learn anything she was not interested in or David’s sleeping problems. She had told him all. She had confessed her secret relief when they finally left home and she and Patrick had gotten their life as a couple back. Some time later he offered comfort when she shed tears because she missed her children. He knew how proud she was when David started his own company and Karen, after many years of searching and experimenting, finally found her place with an international NGO. They were fine people, her children.
“You know”, she said, “ I always thought Karen would have a big family with at least three children and David would travel the world. The exact opposite happened. I am not sure we ever know another person fully.”
She winced when a wheezing cough sent a sharp pain through her. She tried not to move at all for a few minutes until the pain had passed. The presence of her friend gave her comfort as his wise voice had guided her throughout her life. She told him about Patrick’s last year and how much she missed him, his humor, his wit and his impressive cooking skills.
“We had a good life and a wonderful relationship. I was with him in the end and promised him he did not need to worry about me but I know he had a talk with Karen and David. I told him that for once I would let him go first – he said he wanted the winner’s medal before reaching the goal. We had a good laugh.”
For a while the two old friends conversed about their long lives and reminisced about past successes and defeats. Then everything was said and the windy silence of the coast returned. The sun had not managed to fully break through the fog and clouds. Instead it sent individual golden rays to illuminate a few crests of the waves and otherwise hidden hollows in the cliff. Apart from these few, lonely rays, the fog had grown denser and Marie could not see very far, nor make out the horizon anymore.
She heard her friend’s whispers and understood that this ancient counselor and world-traveler was finally rested and ready to move on once more. He asked her a question which was followed by an offer. Marie did not need to think twice before answering and agreeing.
“Hold on, Marie”, he said. “My bones and joints are rusty from my long rest.” He moved his crusted ears, flapping them carefully so as not to upset Marie’s balance. His trunk left his watery home and he flexed his muscles and tested the sea floor beneath him. Then the waking elephant slowly rose from the ground. Rising upwards through the wet air Marie felt her cheeks flush and excitement rise within her. She grabbed on to whatever was near her, some moss and rocks. Slowly, carefully, yet with powerful strides her friend straightened up and for the first time Marie saw his imposing body and legs. He threw up his trunk and sent a magnificent trumpeting into the waves and fog, matching her sense of exhilaration.
“Are you ready, Marie?” the elephant asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
He rumbled appreciatively and slowly started to wade into the water and the mist.
Author and Sunday Writers' Club Member
Sandra was born and raised in Austria. She studied and worked in the US for a number of years and writes in English and German.
She mostly writes short stories and other fictional texts and has taken various writing courses over the years, f.ex. at the Faber Academy in London. Sandra currently attends a 5-months creative writing programme and participates in some writing competitions. Her declared goal is to publish some texts until the new year. In her other life she has worked for an number of international organizations and presently works for an environmental NGO in Vienna.