The Natural Causes

by Mara Jebsen

AKM080202-15aThe play I am writing has its own totem animal, an elephant. The characters in this play, who are the inmates of my imagination, do not know what to make of this elephant, and neither do I, their god.

For months, it did little more than lift and drop its trunk.

It stands to the left in the corner of my dreams, taking the vertical space available. It is tall.

I see it from below.

I see its streaked tusks rising above me as a scythe, and its thick ankles with their leathery drapes and odd toenails stand flat in a pile of elephant-colored dirt.

It knows what one cannot. It thinks of matters one cannot think of. It is old, and remembers specific things that happened before I was born—crimes and sex between animals and people of our grandparents’ age, and sunsets over now-unrecognizable landscapes, and beautiful things, and sad ones. It has lots of memories that do not belong to us, but which pertain to us. Its the keeper of the unspeakable.

For a while, I thought the teeth were important. I haven’t ruled it out. There is a tiny sculpture of a mammoth—one of the first sculptures ever made by what we call a man— carved of mammoth tusk. It strikes me as cruel to make the image of a thing out of its own teeth. I wouldn’t think to kill a man, and then carve little men out of his own bones, I hope.

But perhaps the mammoth died of natural causes? I suppose it is the circumstances of the death of the animal that determine whether the carving of its teeth into a representation of itself a cruel thing, or simply a ‘natural’ act of remembering.

This distinction governs some of the laws around the ivory trade. The ivory trade doesn’t seem like much of a problem in America, where our tastes run to diamonds. It is the diamond’s permanence and cleanliness that we consider somewhat magical and necessary for our rituals, but in other parts of the world, it is ivory that one needs, for religious purposes. The elephant is killed for a reason, and the reason seems worthwhile. It dies of unnatural causes, and, one assumes, few of its purchasers have trouble themselves about the elephants.

The mammoth ivory, and the ivory derived from elephant dead from natural causes, is legal, but ivory from poached elephants is not. This makes a sort of sense, but it is hard to tell the difference, so application of the law is quite problematic.

If you see what the creature looks like on its side, without its teeth, or know that the sons of murdered mother elephants tend to go rogue and have even been known to rape animals outside of their species, you may begin to needlessly congratulate yourself for being part of a culture that doesn’t have much use for ivory. You might also wonder whether your concern could be directed toward the desperate situations of some of the poachers. But then you may imagine that this is not your cause.

Still, it is the thing beyond the law: the sub-conscious (and the unspeakable matters that weigh on the conscience)–of whole cultures that really interests me, I think. Every nation has a different kind of elephant in its rooms.

I was in San Francisco for the first time this summer. I wandered into Chinatown and found, central in many windowpanes, whole tusks like thin moons suspended heavily, carved into elaborate cities, or carved into the images of many elephants attached to one another at the trunk and tail. They were “good”—made of mammoth tusk, it said—and very beautiful.

But soon after my trip to San Francisco, my elephant surprised me by speaking. I do not want to have a talking elephant in my play, so I take what she said as a note. . .

She said that she was a remainder. This is an ugly word I do not want, that comes from basic math–but it is my own word, and I understood what it meant because I’ve been thinking about elephants and numbers and crimes. The remainder, I begin to imagine, is the knowledge and memories of any specific personality that has been extinguished so that its symbolic force may be felt more purely.

We know that certain personalities, by the circumstances of their deaths, leave legacies that upstage their actual lives, and this seems wrong, and yet ultimately unavoidable.

At the moment, there is a boy who has been sacrificed on some altar that is presently being built around him. Somehow he looks a bit like every boy that we may consider entirely adorable or entirely dangerous, depending upon our leanings. Somehow he is an irreplaceable boy who is ultimately substitutable. He looks like Obama’s imagined son, and a tiny bit like my little brother. He looks, in his hoodie, like what some would call a ‘hood’. Because we live in an odd country of gated communities, the myth of post-racial America, a respect for vigilante-ism and the civilian carrying of fire-arms, only his intimates may be permitted for a while to remember him as he actually was. The rest of us find we must, for the sake of the enormous community we are trying to share, participate in the act of carving a new boy out of his own bones. Periodically, America’s terrible elephants make themselves known, choosing some human sacrifice.