My father often said, “You can’t really understand someone unless you walk in their shoes”. I didn’t understand what this meant until the day I went with my mother to visit a small flea market that had suddenly popped up at the edge of a nature reserve that was close to where we lived.
There were the usual tables with old china and glassware, old books and pieces of antique furniture. But what caught my eye was a table tucked back behind all the others that had carvings of wild animals. All the carvings were made of wood or stone except for one very beautiful ivory elephant.
As I inspected the elephant closely, I noticed it had an expression that looked to be between sadness and fear. I had an inexplicable feeling of concern and affection for this miniature animal and I decided I had to have it.
“How much for the ivory elephant?” I asked the young man sitting behind the table.
“You can’t afford it,” was his curt reply.
I had my new weekly allowance burning a hole in my pocket; a crisp $10 bill, so I said, “I have $10. How much?”.
“This is a priceless piece, but I tell you what I’ll do,” said the salesman. You can have it if you try on some special shoes.”
“Shoes?” I said. I imagined perhaps the man was overstocked with some cute, fuzzy animal slippers, so I decided to play along. I really wanted that ivory elephant. “Ok,” I agreed.
The man reached under his display table and brought up a very large shoe box. When I say “large”, I mean microwave oven size large. Perhaps he kept several pairs of slippers or shoes of different sizes in the big box. He also brought out a sturdy chair and instructed me to sit down and take off my own shoes. I kept my eyes on the little ivory elephant and played along with the man’s silly instructions. It wasn’t until he lifted the lid off the oversized shoe box that I stopped staring at the little elephant.
The man reached in the box and took out two huge, real looking elephant feet. They weren’t fuzzy or cute. They were covered with dusty soil and smelled like wet grass.
“Those aren’t fuzzy slippers!” I shouted as an anxious feeling started to crawl up my spine.
“Never said they were,” answered the man. “Now look at the ivory carving,” he commanded in a a voice not unlike a stern mother.
I glanced over at the ivory elephant and I could swear it turned its head towards me and lifted its trunk. The sun wasn’t strong enough for sunstroke and I didn’t have a fever. Why was I hallucinating? While I was trying to understand what my eyes were telling me, the man swiftly and gently placed my feet inside the giant elephant feet.
“Whoa!” I exclaimed. I was about to protest, but the feet felt cool and surprisingly comfortable. I started to reach down to touch them but suddenly something I can’t even start to explain happened.
I was no longer sitting on a chair at a little flea market. I found myself in a wide open expanse of grassland. Towering above me was the largest elephant I had ever seen. I’d always heard that elephants can stampede and kill you with one swipe of a trunk or stomp of a foot. I stood stone still but couldn’t help looking down to investigate my own new elephant feet. I wanted to touch them but realized I had no arms and something was swinging in front of my face- a trunk! Now another large elephant behind me gave me a strong push and I found myself walking with my new four elephant feet. Strangely I felt quite comfortable with these huge animals and I began to understand I was one of them and the elephant behind me was my mother. How did I know this? I just knew.
We walked along, eating grass as we went. I’d never thought grass could taste good, but it did and my rumbling stomach told me I needed a lot more of it. I was also very thirsty, but there was no water in sight. So we all kept walking and walking and walking.
After what seemed like forever, we came to a pond of water. I automatically used my trunk to slurp up the refreshing liquid into my mouth. Water never felt so good.
All of a sudden the elephants around me stopped drinking and shoved me away from the water. They formed a tight circle around me and a younger elephant. From between their legs I caught a glimpse of a pride of lionesses circling our herd.
My mother elephant trumpeted a warning for them to go away. After awhile the lions grew tired of waiting for an opportunity to strike and they walked away. I understood that lions can attack and eat young elephants and I felt great relief at being so well protected and loved. Only now did the circle around me disperse and we took a few more drinks of water before resuming our journey.
We walked on for hours. The sun climbed up and back down the sky. Where were we going? We ate grass when we could find some. I sensed the herd was aiming for a special place. Just as the sun was beginning to set, we reached a barren patch of desolate, dusty land. My mother elephant began making noises that seemed almost like crying. I walked from behind her and saw the most disturbing sight I’d ever seen.
Lying on the ground was a large female elephant. As I ventured around it, I saw its tusks had been brutally cut off, leaving raw holes. My mother elephant and the rest of our group circled around the dead elephant. I came to understand this was my grandmother who had been visciously murdered by poachers wanting her ivory tusks. We all stood around the lifeless elephant like mourners at a family funeral. No one moved or made any noise. Then, the great stillness was shattered by the sound of a gunshot. I immediately knew there were poachers nearby ready to target their next elephant.
I rammed my mother’s column like legs. “Run!” I wanted to shout. “Run away before it’s too late! Run before they come!”. I kept bumping her legs until she looked down at me and seemed to understand. She trumpeted a warning to the rest of the herd and they all began to walk hurridly away from the sound of more gunshots.
“Run, run, run!” I trumpeted.
“Run, run, run!” I was now shouting. I opened my eyes and saw my human mother staring at me with a questioning expression.
I was back sitting on the sturdy chair at the flea market table with the animal carvings. I looked down at my feet and was surprised to see my own sneakers neatly attached to them. Looking over at the display table, I no longer saw the ivory elephant, only ones carved in wood or stone.
The young man behind the table smiled and said, “The purchase of any of these wood or stone carvings goes to help in the preservation of elephants and other endangered animals.”
I saw a wooden elephant that had a happy expression. I bought it for $10.
Story and illustrations by Carol Boquet
Carol Boquet is an American who grew up and worked predominantly in the northeast US. After graduating from Drew University (Madison, NJ) in 1972 with a BA in studio art, she began working as a professional puppeteer with companies including Bob Brown Puppets, Pandemonium Puppets, Poko Puppets, the National Marionette Theatre and her own theaters, Dancing Stars Marionettes and Morningstar Marionette Theatre for which she wrote and performed puppet plays for children. During the summer of 1988, she led a marionette workshop for the Young Resident Associate Program at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. This was a program for 7-10 year olds where they rewrote a well known story (The Snow Child), made scarf marionettes and presented a performance. In 1976 she wrote, under the name Carol Coombs, The Four Sisters which was published in Cricket Magazine Vol. 4 number 1. Author Jane Yolen said of The Four Sisters, she admired its “charm and vitality.”
Carol has also had a number of her drawings published in “Once Upon A Time” and have sold hand painted original floorcloths, fireboards, folding screens and paintings. From 1989-1993 she worked as an assistant to the director of The Washington Dolls’ House & Toy Museum in Washington DC. She was also the English teacher for the preschool and kindergarten at The French International School, (Bethesda, MD) from 1996-98. In 1998 she moved to France with her family, and until 2012 taught English on all levels from pre-K to adults and occasionally lectured at Charles de Gaulle High School in Dijon. She is currently a volunteer at Les Doigts Qui Rêvent (Dreaming Fingers), which is an association that produces tactile books for the blind. She has written a number of stories for children of ages from 4-12.