• Kay Andrews-Kuhn

New (old) writing

This week I found a folder from a creative writing workshop I attended in 2009 while I was studying for my degree. This was pre-Hood and part of my confidence building to try and find my voice and develop my writing skills.

The starting point for the story was a place, a colour and an animal.

From my notes I can see that I had recently read Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter which may have inspired me and who doesn't love an elephant, right? A little digging unearthed a turn of the century photo of elephants walking through Baraboo to embark on the circus train after overwintering in Ringlingville. What fantastic place names! I loved the sound of them and knew I wanted to use them. That mix of magic and reality; the mundane behind the fantastic. The circus has a whiff of the exotic mixed with the animal smells and surely, a community of families cooped up over winter must lead to some romantic encounters. Also spotted: early signs of my trademark wordplay in the title.

Anyway, as I haven't any new writing to share, this will have to do.

Nelly’s Tale or Pride and Pachyderm

The skinny human with the kind voice splashed cold water into the trough. “Drink up, Nelly” he said. As I bent my head to drink, he scratched my ear. “There she is, Nelly” he murmured as the small she-human walked daintily past the door of the elephant house. “Isn’t she beautiful?” I saw her wrinkle her tiny pointed nose as she caught the whiff of straw mixed with fresh dung. She didn’t look very beautiful to me, all pink and smooth like a baby mouse. She turned her head away and did not see the kind boy’s stare or hear his sigh.

The boy continued to chatter away to me as he worked. I learned that the girl belonged to a family of Italian trapeze artistes who had recently joined our circus. Along with everyone else they were busy rehearsing their acts and packing up to go back on the road after the winter months spent here in Ringlingville, Wisconsin. Any day now we would be herded over the bridge, along Main Street and onto the hissing, steaming train that would carry the entire circus from town to town.

The boy pulled an apple out of his pocket and took a bite before he shared the rest with me. “She doesn’t even know I exist, Nelly. I’m just the dumb kid who cleans up behind the elephants but Eloisa…” he sighed “she is like a bird. A beautiful bird who swoops around high over our heads.” He gazed up at the roof with a goofy look on his face. I looked over his shoulder. Right at this minute that bird was down to earth and hovering around just inside the door of the elephant house. I nudged the boy towards her with my trunk. In my experience with humans, sometimes you just have to interfere. “Would you like to come and meet Nelly?” he asked her shyly, offering his hand, “Mind where you tread.”

Her fingers fluttered like conjuror’s doves as she reached to touch my trunk. “Don’t be afraid, Nelly won’t hurt you” reassured the boy, in the kind voice he always used with me. I heard them talking softly to each other, smiling, cheeks flushed and eyes bright, when a large human with a red face and a harsh voice strode in and pulled her away. He shouted angry words at my kind boy and shook his fist. I stamped my feet and rattled my chains to warn him off. The other elephants joined in, relishing a little excitement to relieve the winter boredom. Some of us remembered lives before the circus; I myself was born in a zoo and travelled across the sea like Columbus.

The next few days were busy; all the humans scurrying around like ants on a dusty floor. When the time came, we were lined up, two by two, on parade. Some of the boys rode on our backs. The wagons stuffed with animals, props and paraphernalia rolled off over the bridge that crossed the Baraboo river. Clowns and lion tamers, aerialists and tumblers, horses and riders, with the elephants bringing up the rear, a rolling grey tide that swept up Main Street towards the railroad. The townsfolk waved and cheered as we passed by.

I spotted Eloisa and her family walking alongside, loaded down with baggage. The boy smiled and waved but the red-faced man scowled and hurried the rest of the family on with his head down. In their haste, Eloisa stumbled and dropped one of her bags. As she tried to pick it up she overbalanced and fell right in the path of a fully loaded cart. The boy cried out to me and quick as a flash, I stepped in front of the cart and whisked the girl high above my head and safely onto my back. I do this in every show with one of the small clowns and it brings the house down. After a lot of fuss the parade moved on, but Eloisa was still sniffling and holding tightly onto the boys hand. Red-faced man, also crying, was shaking the boy’s other hand over and over again and gabbling like an ape. Not to be outdone, the rest of the family cried too and one of them finally gave me an apple.

All that happened ten years ago, in 1897 so I am told. Eloisa flew on the trapeze for six more summers after that. We still winter in Wisconsin. The boy still speaks to me kindly and now he and Eloisa bring their chicks to ride on my back. They squeal and pull my ears but I don’t mind; they always share their apples with me.