A good writer friend of mine on THE WRITE PRACTICE wrote this beautiful story that I fell in love with immediately after reading. I call it a take on THE LION KING. So, I guess Holmes’ story is THE ELEPHANT KING. Enjoy!
“Is it water from the seas that fills the Godly Nile River…”
Thunderstorms are unsettling for most animals in the African Kingdom, but none more than
the lone elephant, Mwamba. During a sporadic thunderstorm, lightning strikes an acacia tree near
a parched watering hole, where his herd drinks, setting it ablaze. Before the family could realize
the danger, the tree falls between the herd and its mother, Akua. The family, befuddled, trumpets
hysterically to anyone or thing to save its Matriarch. The thunderstorm continues to bellow and
the fire around them intensifies. Akua is desperate. She peers around for a possible escape until
she makes eye contact with Little Mwamba. As the herd stomps around frenziedly, Little
Mwamba stands completely still, his eyes dilate with fear. Akua senses his heart fluttering
through his chest and imagines his world without her. To leave him was not an option. She rears
back, trumpets gallantly to the night sky, and charges through the hollowed tree, determined to
reach her family, her son. The smell of her charred flesh laced the air, filling the herd’s trunks
with the pungent scent of vulnerability. Rain soon follows the thunderstorm and extinguishes the
fire. The family — grateful to the deities that heard its calls — showers Akua with soft touches
from their trunks.
As the days following the traumatic event pass, Akua is ravaged by pain. Her skin tissues
are being cooked by the unwavering African heat causing her strides to lag in comparison to the
rest of the herd’s. The herd will usually only move as fast as its Matriarch but with the dry
season upon them, finding water as quickly as possible is key to its survival. Deeply sorrowed,
the herd treads ahead of its Matriarch. Mwamba, refusing to leave his mother’s side, wraps his
trunk around her tail as if to infuse his energy and strength into her. His family slowly passes as
he watches each of them brush up against his mother in a show of love and appreciation. It isn’t long before the last elephant makes their way past them. Before Mwamba realizes it, the herd’s
mass turns to blurry speckles of dark grey dots in the glare of the African sun; eventually he and
his mother lose sight of them altogether. Akua’s spirit limps in pace with her steps. She’s failed.
But she must focus on stilling her heart to keep Mwamba from losing track of his. She grumbles
a tone only elephants can hear, coaxing him to let go of her tail and walk on his own. In this
moment, he learns just how estrange love and survival are. How much he must learn to love in
conjunction with how much survival interferes. The two instincts vying for control of Mwamba’s
small but swollen heart. Love & Survival.
The evening casts a bright moon over the mother and son unit; it reveals the transcendent
tether that bonds the two together. A slowly dying willow tree provides a suitable shelter for the
night. Akua grunts and moans as she struggles to lay under it. Mwamba, half her size, uses what
strength he has to help her position herself for the long cold night. Adjusting to the prickly
branches of the tree, the two snuggle close together for warmth and safety.
As the night simmers down, Akua falls sound asleep. Mwamba gazes into the stars above
him. The Serengeti is harsh and unforgiving during the day, but at night it’s a dream. A dream
that lingers in and out of Mwamba’s conscious carrying him to a place where love is paradise;
where survival has a life without limits; where his family can be together again, united under his
mother. So, Little Mwamba dreams… He dreams until the last leaf falls from the Willow Tree,
until his eyes weigh from the heavy burden he must carry alone: Akua. The night has brought
Mwamba dips into a deep sleep. The light breeze carries his dream across the land, only
stopping to pick up the dreams of other elephants suffering during the remorseless dry season.
The night is still with only the sounds of crickets’ chirps carrying through the darkness. All seems to be in order until an unfamiliar ruffle in the bushes startles Mwamba, causing him to
suddenly twitch and awaken Akua. The slimy snickering of hyenas silences the sounds of
crickets. The two try to find their footing before the hyena’s laugh surrounds them like a barrier
of false joy. Mwamba jumps to his feet prompting his mother to do the same, but she is too
weak. The hyenas jolt out of the bushes and growl ravenously at the sight of an easy meal.
Mwamba trumpets viciously to hold the scouting troops off until his mother finds her
footing but she collapses. The earth-shattering tumble sends vibrations through the ground letting
the hyena clan know its dinner is ready. Akua trumpets in distress as Mwamba, again, tries to
help his mother to her feet. Soon more hyenas join the chaos and overwhelm Mwamba. Still, he
fights for as long as he can, thrusting his trunk and premature tusks violently at the assailants.
Mwamba and his mother are cornered against the willow tree while the hyenas are
closing in. He searches frantically for an escape and from the corner of his eye, he sees an
opening in the hyena’s formation. He knows he has the strength and speed to run through it with
little to no injury. But he looks at his aching mother and guilt instantly fills him. His instincts
want to propel him but his love keeps him buried in his tracks. The hyenas growl and launch a
full-on assault towards them. Mwamba gives up his chance to escape and stands next to Akua,
closes his eyes, and prepares for the final and most fatal strike from the hyenas. But it never
Mwamba opens his eyes to see the hyenas cowering in front of him. The thuds of
something huge is making its way to the battle. His confusion leads him astray; he’s never felt
such a powerful presence before. The sound of an elephant’s trumpet erupts from the bushes and
a huge male elephant crashes through commanding respect from everything in his path. He
stands on his hind legs and trumpets louder than any elephant Mwamba ever heard, before slamming down to the ground generating shockwaves that disorientate the hyenas and send them
scurrying away. Akua, bewildered and spent, fixes her vision onto the familiar smelling elephant.
The enormous elephant turns to look at the family behind him; Mwamba’s eyes are
gapping with a jubilant shine and Akua is lying still on the ground— breathing heavily. He walks
over to Akua and the two intertwine their trunks like a snake wrapping around a branch. Slowly,
the two release their grip from each other. The male elephant kneels on his two front knees until
the bowl of his head touches Akua’s underbelly. He knows she will not survive the night. The
old elephant has fought her last fight in the battle for survival. Mwamba admires the bull from
afar; it’s not until he allows the male’s aromatic scent to penetrate his six-foot trunk, did he
realize it smells similar to his mothers. Mwamba’s tail wags incessantly and he releases a series
of fanatic trumpets. Before his excitement could be felt, the male elephant saunters in the
direction of the hyenas, determined to put an end to their plague on the land.
The next morning, Akua lays in the same spot lifeless. Mwamba stays next to her
throughout the day until the sight and smell of his old herd arises. They’d heard the distress
trumpets Akua made and sacrificed precious time and energy to save one of their own. Mwamba,
unsettled, nudges on Akua’s abdomen with his feet, tenderly at first and then more violently after
he realizes she is not awakening. His family surrounds him and gently caress Akua with their
feet and trunks; her sisters, daughters, and cousins all pay respect to the old elephant. After a few
hours, the herd is ready to continue on its search for greener pastures. Mwamba looks back one
last time at his mother’s body as it lays still in the sway of the desert wind.
A few days pass without a single drop of water. The young and the old collapse one by
one and the rest of the herd doubt the new Matriarch’s decision to go back for Mwamba. The
tension rises as frustration permeates throughout the family. But then, a faint smell; the sweet smell of freshwater embraces the air. In a frenzy, the elephants traverse three miles at a hurried
pace towards the everlasting sanctuary. With each step they inhale the fragrant aroma of eternal
life. Mwamba rejoices at the promise of survival throughout all the odds. He thinks of his mother
and how she would have trumpeted signaling the end of famine and the wake of fulfillment to
her herd. Instead, his aunt does. When they reach the watering hole, they are greeted by another
elephant family whose smell they recognize. Each elephant splashes and wallows with each other
in the shallow pool of water; this is their first drink and bath since the last week.
When the rains return the foliage blooms and the mighty Mara River washes away the
stench of death. Mwamba is coming of age and his time with the herd is almost over. During the
next dry season, his family suddenly becomes aggressive towards him and chases him away.
Each time he tries to return, the herd stands its ground and forces him away again. A sad reality
that all male elephants face to prevent incest within the family. Mwamba directs a low grumble
towards his aunt hoping she would relinquish this rule just this once for him. She stands firm and
chases him further away time and time again. He has no choice but to navigate this world
without the support of his family. As he ambles in the direction of uncertainty, his aunt’s eyes
glisten with the mirrored image of him trekking into an unfamiliar realm. She trumpets towards
him, prompting the herd to do the same. They are all celebrating Mwamba’s independence,
showing their love by wasting energy to cheer him on. This is the last time he will see any of
them again. Mwamba is now and will forever be a bachelor male elephant, searching in and out
for adoration and companionship.
Mwamba is making his way for the first time in his life alone. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the
dry season is ending and there is a thunderstorm brewing in the distant lands. As immense as
Mwamba is, he sought shelter and comfort from the herd when nights like this hit the Serengeti.
As the storm looms, so does all the memories of Akua. She’d hum a melody that would
put Mwamba in a trance. The tune combined with gentle strokes from her trunk is a spell mother
elephant’s use to console their frightened offspring. Mwamba closes his eyes and imagines his
mother humming the harmony until a spark of lightning flashes her translucent body in front of
him. He peers around anxiously, frozen to the land his feet touch.
The thunder gains in ferocity as the storm closes in on him. Each occasional lightning
strike illuminates the land and makes it possible for him to get a glimpse at his mother’s
iridescent frame. He trumpets and chases the illusion of his mother trying to get her attention.
With each strike, she appears further and further away from him. He is so focused on getting her
attention that he forgets about his fear of the storm. A large streak of lightning hits the ground
just yards away from Mwamba and a downpour of rain drenches the land. The sound that follows
the strike makes Mwamba trumpet in fear and he runs in the opposite direction. Another strike
hits the ground, and then another, and then another. Another strike hits even closer this time and
he veers back in the direction from which he came. A final strike illumes the land long enough
for Mwamba to get a peek at a majestic tree emanating a mystical charm. He makes haste
towards the tree while preparing for the roaring thunder that trails the lightning without fail.
Mwamba makes it to the tree; its branches and leaves drape the ground making it softer
than the dry grass around it. As the storm continues to ravage the land, Mwamba indulges on the
succulent leaves, gorging himself to relieve stress. A lightning strike hits the ground close to his
tree and he cowers further into it. Walking backwards, he steps on something sharp that did not feel familiar. He turns to look at the object and waits for a lightning strike to light the ground
again. When it does, it reveals a glance of an elephant tusk. Suddenly, lightning bugs, thousands
of them, revivifies the entire tree and that’s when he sees it: the elephant bones that lay in the
same shape of his mother when she died. Mwamba stares at the bones for a moment and after
realizing it’s Akua, he carefully grips each bone with his trunk.
The thunderstorm subsides and the royal Willow Tree gleams in the sparkle of the night’s
stars. Mwamba steps outside of the tree and looks into the sky. The stars begin to form a
constellation that resembles Akua and Mwamba together under the tree. He carefully studies the
stars, rearranging them until he sees her face staring back at him. He now knows that in order to
find companionship, he only needs to look into the sky of dreams and lose himself. He returns to
his mother’s bones and carefully cuddles next to them only allowing his body to slightly touch
her skeleton. Mwamba finds himself chasing the lightening bugs with his eyes, reaching out with
his trunk every so often to grab one. It’s not long until he drifts asleep imagining the soft branch
rubbing against his underbelly is his mother’s trunk pulling him closer to her spirit.
The next morning, Mwamba marvels at the tree’s magnificence. Akua’s soul is now one
with the once withering Willow Tree giving it new life and abundance. He looks around and sees
other trees standing firm and healthy during the unrelenting dry season. Do all the elephants who
perish souls inhabit these trees? With each drop of rain, Mwamba can feel the essences of the
many departed elephants before him; the epic saga of life and death infused into each droplet.
Life & Death.
“…or is it the release of mournful tears from elephants’ ancestors?”
TIMOTHY’S REVIEW AND CRITIQUE:
What I love best about De’Andre S. Holmes’ ELEPHANT TEARS is how he writes the “human” into this nonhuman animal story. As an animal lover, I’ve been told by countless others not to anthropomorphize animals, to which I always respond, “Why not? What’s wrong with that? Aren’t nonhuman animals very much like humans?” And, of course, the answer is a resounding “YES!!!!” That’s what Holmes explores in such great detail in his story, i.e., the beauty and pathos of growing up and just plain growing, both emotionally and spiritually. He gives all the elephant characters human souls with human feelings and human ways of looking out at the world. On this basis alone, ELEPHANT TEARS teaches all us humans to acknowledge and appreciate the complexity of emotions and circumstances nonhuman animals have to go through and experience in such an oftentimes frightening world. Holmes also never refers to any nonhuman animal character as an “it,” something other writers will do which is a HUGE pet peeve (pun intended) of mine. Nonhuman animals are not an “it,” but a “he” or a “she.” Holmes gets that, and I’m so grateful he does. There are so many tender, serious moments in ELEPHANT TEARS that brought me a tender heart of serious tears. When Holmes writes about how Mwamba “carefully grips each bone (of his mother Akua) with his trunk,” I’m a tender and serious blubbering mess! It’s Holmes exploration of love and survival and life and death in ELEPHANT TEARS that makes this story one for all ages and one for the ages. I’ve probably learned more about my own human interactions through Holmes’ nonhuman animal interactions in his story than I’ve learned in all my years of therapy. Holmes writes with great attention to nature and how nature shapes and molds us and how nature holds us. “…Or is it the release of mournful tears from elephants’ ancestors?” Once again, how human is that?!?! The mournful tears we shed from our ancestors, from generational hand-me-downs as a kind of curse, from a place of trickling-down where the trauma of our ancestors can be the healing of us now. So, can elephants cry? I didn’t take the picture above, but that is a real picture of a real elephant really crying, so do I need to even answer that question? I won’t, but Holmes does in his captivating, courageous, and compassionate ELEPHANT TEARS.
Timothy J. Verret