The first time my sister and I were left alone to look after our eight-month old baby brother, he wouldn’t stop crying.
“Eric, what’s wrong? ” Ally put her hand in the crib and let him grasp her index finger.
Eric kept screaming, mouth open, eyes shut.
I picked Eric up out of the crib—his tiny hand still holding tight to Ally’s finger.
“Did you burp him already? ” Ally asked.
“Yah. He spit up a bit.” I pointed to the stain on my t-shirt near my collar-bone. A mix of baby food: peas and strawberry. When I’d fed him, I had to slip in a spoonful of the peas after every other spoon of strawberry, otherwise he’d spit the peas out right away. A look of disgust, one I wouldn’t have thought a baby could make, came each time he tasted the peas. The next spoon of strawberry made it better, and he held his mouth open again. I got him to finish both jars like Mom had said.
“You changed him already? ” I asked.
“Right before you fed him.” Ally quickly undid the diaper sticker and took a peek. “Nope. Eric, what’s wrong? ” She ran her fingers through his soft, black hair.
The cries kept coming. I carried him over to rocking chair by the window in our parents’ room. I rocked the chair back and forth, but Eric continued to cry.
Our parents had gone to the funeral home for their old driving instructor—she had taught them both to drive when they first came to Canada. Dad had found the driving instructor’s obituary in the newspaper; he paid attention to things like that. He always read the paper and knew what time the bank closed when Mom asked.
Mom had told us they would be back before long. She reminded us that the O’Brien’s were home next door, and the emergency numbers were on a piece of paper held on the fridge by a photo magnet of a real estate agent with a fake smile. Mom always worried about emergencies. She kept baking soda next to the stove and had so many flashlights in the house that Ally and I prayed for a blackout. “And don’t answer the door if it’s not someone you know,” Mom had said, just before she left. She used to say, “Just tell them, my mom’s in the shower,” not wanting us to tell a stranger we were home alone. But then one time a few years ago a man and a woman came to the door with a Bible. When the man asked if our mother was home, Ally said, “She’s in the shower.” The woman asked if our father was available, Ally hadn’t anticipated this question, and glanced over at me. I said, “He’s in the shower too.” The man and woman eyed each other, and said they’d come back. That was a few years ago.
“Should we call Mrs. O’Brien? ” Ally asked me over Eric’s screams.
“Mom and Dad won’t ever leave us home alone with him again.”
“Maybe he’s sick again,” Ally said, and felt Eric’s forehead.
Eric had caught a cold a few weeks back. I remember he had a mini-cough, and when his nose got stuffed up, Mom had to suck the liquid out from his nostrils and then spit it out. I thought it was the grossest thing I’d ever seen. “What else can you do? ” Mom said. “You can hold a tissue up to a baby’s nose, but telling a baby to blow isn’t going to work. I did the same for both of you when you were babies because I love you.” I loved my brother, but I wondered if I could ever do something like that.
“He looks okay,” I said, feeling his forehead too. The last of the evening sun lit the room. It bounced off my parents’ mirror and made a rhombus rainbow on the carpet. “Maybe he just needs a story.” I thought back to the ones Mom used to tell us before we went to bed. “How about the Elephant in the Mountain? ”
“Can I tell it to him? ” Ally sat on the bed next to the rocking chair.
“Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there lived a herd of elephants. And because the elephants had five toes instead of four, they were Asian elephants. And so the faraway land had to be somewhere in Asia.”
“Ally, that’s not part of the story.”
“Mom always adds things to her stories. I’ll get all the important stuff in.”
“Fine, keep going,” I said. Eric still had tears in his eyes but his cries got a little less loud.
“In this faraway land in Asia, a new elephant had been born. A very special elephant. His name was Om, and he was born the day the sun hid behind the moon. The elder elephants said it was a day of great fortune, but they changed their minds a little while later when they realized something about the new elephant. Om tripped over the ground much more than any other young elephant. And, although, Om always tried to keep his trunk in contact with his mother, Radha, he kept running into her legs. If Om lost contact with Radha, he’d wander, and accidentally get kicked by the other elephants.
‘An elephant that can’t see won’t survive,’ the elder elephants said to Radha.
‘He will, as long as I love him,’ Radha said.
And so Radha only let Om walk underneath her to protect him. Om learned to walk within her four legs, and then learned to walk behind his mother holding her tail with his trunk. The only place where Radha didn’t have to guide Om was in the water. The large pond was Om’s favourite place. He was clumsy everywhere else, but in the water he could feel all around himself and swam easily. Om could spend all day at the pond—he liked to shoot the water out of his trunk as high up in the air as he could, and then feel the water fall down on him.
But Om’s happiness didn’t last long. It hadn’t rained in a very long time, and each day the large pond shrunk a little bit. Eventually the water turned muddy, and at different times in the day many other animals, from the deer to the monkeys, huddled around the edge to drink. Even the tiger, who kept to himself most times, came out to sip the water. Radha noticed the way the tiger eyed Om, and she made sure when he came to the pond there were other elephants around.
The elder elephants told the herd it was time to move on, to cross the dry lands to find water. Radha pleaded with the elders, ‘But Om won’t survive such a long journey.’ The elders said, ‘But if we stay we’ll run out of water.’
Radha didn’t know what to do. If she stayed they’d run out of water and she’d have to keep Om safe from the tiger on her own.”
Ally paused the story to glance at Eric—his cries had quieted and with the chair rocking back and forth, he was calm against my shoulder.
“But don’t worry Eric, that’s not how the story ends,” Ally continued. “It wouldn’t be a very good bedtime story if it did. So luckily one of the birds that stood resting on the elephant’s head had overheard Radha. The little golden oriole said, ‘I know where you can find water, but it’s in the mountain and only the birds who can fly visit it. All others who go in never come out.’
‘Please take us there,’ Radha said.
And so before the other elephants left, the three of them went. The golden oriole perched on Radha’s head, and Om held Radha’s tail as usual. They climbed the mountain, but had to stop a few times so Om could keep up.
The oriole stopped them once along the way at a deep hole in the thick stone. ‘The water is down there.’
‘But how do we get to it? ’ Radha said, looking down at the water far below.
‘We have to go to the other side.’
And so they pressed on to the other side of the mountain. Radha soon let Om walk ahead and held her trunk under him, lifting his body to lighten his walk.
When they finally reached the other side, there was a cave that became narrower and narrower. Radha realized she couldn’t take Om any further as the opening was too small.
The oriole flew ahead into the opening of the cavern with the water, and then returned.
‘Is the water through that opening? ’ Radha asked.
‘Yes, but if he goes down there, he won’t be able to get back out. The walls are smooth and run straight down. But there is an island in the middle that’s shaped like an egg and big enough for an elephant to live on. And light gets in through the hole we saw.’
Om didn’t want to leave his mother. It was difficult for Radha as well, knowing she was sending Om somewhere she couldn’t follow. But she told him, ‘My love will keep you alive.’
Om walked further into the cave and was just small enough to squeeze through the hole in the rock.
Radha heard a splash a few seconds later, and got worried, but when she heard laughter and saw water trickling down from the hole, she knew he was okay.
That day Om sprayed so much water up into the air, the mist rose from the hole, and a rainbow formed over the mountain.
Radha visited him often, gathering leaves and fruit and dropping them down the hole.
The golden oriole told the other birds of the elephant in the mountain, and the birds told the monkeys and other animals. Whenever they passed by the hole they would drop some fruit or leaves down the hole.
As time passed, a stream of water flowed out from the cave. This stream grew stronger as the years passed and ran down the mountain even in the driest days when there was no rain. All the animals drank and also thanked the elephant below by sharing their food with him.”
Ally stopped the story and motioned with her hand against her tilted head that Eric was asleep. As I laid Eric back into his crib, I thought of him dreaming of the elephants, like we had when we were younger. I pictured the elephant in the mountain then, and thought again about what kept him alive.