The Brahmaputra River has trash that floats by like alligators and music notes. I never stop to watch it sing. Even traffic has the attitude of moving quickly. I feel like I am always driving over the Saraighat Bridge in the early morning to go home to my family. Most don’t cross the river this early in the morning so I have the job of waking up the dust and dogs only to have them chase me across. There are stains on my car seats from the tea I drank when a cow stopped in the middle of the road. It is very expensive to hit a cow so I allow my tea to spill instead. Every Indian man knows to drive behind a cow in the street. Most things in nature don’t have the ability to go back; they are always moving forward. This is why you drive behind a cow in the street.
I work at a food cart in the city of Guwahati; , it is much busier there than my home village. To get to my family’s house I must leave the main city of Guwahati and cross the north bank of the river over the Saraighat bridge. I drive only a little way until I see my mother’s orange and purple kameez drying in the wind. My childhood home has a powder blue paint job 30 years old. My sister has matching blue eyes. Father says her eyes are a mistake; mother says they are a gift. My sister must marry soon because my father is getting old. My father’s face is greasy and he has the hands of an older man. My mother has the smile lines of an aged servant who doesn’t know better, ; but she has the wisdom of Goddess Kamakhya. My father has told me he will not be able to dance when she dies but he will make temples over the soft spots on her head. He worries that it won’t be good enough.
It is April fourteenth and I am taking the drive back to my home village very early in the morning for the Bihu. We celebrate the New Year with the cleaning of the house and thoughts; it is bad luck to be without family when the calendar starts over again. It is slow going to the bridge because many go home for the Bihu including cows, chickens, children, and elephants all crossing the river. Ahead of me are two elephants and a trainer who sits on the big one’s neck. The trainer has a bald head and equally bald mouth with rotted teeth. It is normal for elephants to cross the bridge in the sunrise; elephants must cross rivers too. Although I am sure they can play an Ekkalam longer than their trunks to sing with the music notes and alligators in the river, it is easier for the trainer to nap on the elephant’s back as they cross the bridge. Sometimes he will bring his son to ride next to him. Today the son stands on the elephant’s back and flies his kite twenty feet closer to heaven. I like to think about where the kite will go if the child lets it. Will it carry the child’s prayers to Shiva? What would a child pray about? Would Shiva listen to a kite prayer? What prayer would I attach if I could? I think Shiva would like prayers on kites. But is it a kite when the child lets go? Is a kite still called a kite when it is detached? These are things I wonder as my car spits slowly, far behind the elephants.
The larger elephant is a mother. Sometimes I hear her trainer call her Ayed. Today she carries the sleeping trainer with his feet on her ears and his son flying his prayers on her back. The smaller elephant is her daughter, Tuffi. I watch Tuffi grow up from my car window. Every week when they cross the river Tuffi seems three feet larger. Still, she is only about two feet taller then my car. Ayed’s ears look worn, like a kite that was stuck in many trees; she lets them drape like drying a silk sari on a rainy day. She has eyes that look too small for her wrinkled head but somehow she always looks like she is smiling. Baby Tuffi still likes to flare out her ears like a butterfly that just came out of the cocoon; she is always smiling like her mother. If a car comes close to the baby as they walk slowly on the road she does not become mad like her mother. Ayed will yell at the car, swing her trunk, and stare right at the driver if he becomes impatient and tries to come too close. Tuffi, in turn, tries to reach into the window and eat whatever banana or bag of chips the driver saved for lunch.
Sometimes little elephant Tuffi will run to the side of her mother and hit her with a trunk that looks like a high-pitched bansuri . She seems to laugh as Ayed sighs and keeps walking, too focused for her daughter’s silliness.
Today the bridge is a strange sight; , very few cars are coming on the right side toward the city but there are many cars backed up behind me trying to go to the villages. Nobody dares pass one another because of the elephants. Elephants do not like cars in their walking space.
I wait in line with car horns, dog barks, and coughing. The river is below us and the sun is dressed in dust above. My car spits behind. I sip my tea and wish elephants walked faster. I picture my mother’s face as it was when I was a child, forgetting how old she has gotten. I am happy to be coming home to her.
Ayed has not noticed that Tuffi stopped walking. The baby is trying to reach into the window of a construction truck. The truck is much taller then she is but her trunk can easily reach the window. The workers have dirty faces and weathered shoes but they are smiling. They pet Tuffi’s trunk as she searches each of their pockets for apples. When she does not find anything to eat she exhales harshly at them in frustration. Breathing is a universal language. The workers understand that she is frustrated with them, teasing her like that. They shrug at her. It is doubtful they will have much to eat today either.
An exhale much louder and stronger comes from farther up the road. Ayed has noticed that her daughter is off with the cars, this annoys her. She does not like being on this bridge. Tuffi realizes that she has been discovered and runs up the road and takes hold of her mother’s tail.
The trainer is still sleeping and the kite is still flying. The elephants are about halfway across the Saraighat Bridge by now. I am safely behind them. A layer of empty dusty road and two cars separates my car from the elephants. Traffic is heavy today.
They walk slowly, mother in front of daughter. Mother stoic but smiling still, she continues carrying a sleeping man and a flying boy. Daughter bobs her head from side to side as her bansuri trunk holds loosely onto her mother’s tail. She seems to be bobbing her head to music. I wonder if she is listening to the music of the car horns or of the river.
Tuffi is distracted once again. I sigh this time, we are so close to the end of the bridge. She has found a piece of an orange, or maybe a dead bird in the middle of the road. She is picking up something orange with her bansuri trunk. Ayed has not yet noticed that her daughter has fallen behind but I am sure she will soon. Tuffi drops the object and it rolls farther to the right side of the road. , She is not very good with her trunk yet.
From farther up the bridge a loud sound reverberates through the dust. Ayed yells. Tuffi looks up to realize how far away she is from her mother. A tour bus as big as Ayed, full of white faces became impatient waiting and is speeding up the right side of the road. The mother is chasing it, continuing to yell a horrible sound. Before Tuffi can turn to get to her mother I hear a screech and a loud banging noise, a scream in a minor chord, a shriek, I see the reflection of the sun off the bus and a cloud of dust. I cannot see exactly what has happened.
The men in the cars around me do not move. We have forgotten how. Our hands collectively clench the steering wheel and feet press the brake. Our bodies are frozen. We are trying to make sense of these noises.
The dust dissipates. There is glass, a broken headlight, red, grey, dust, butterfly ears, and more red. I see the nose of the bus bent in, looking like a sneeze waiting to come from the dust. The tire is flat, the side windows fallen on the road. A bansuri is smeared red and in the center I see a mound, only a little bigger than my car. It does not move. A grey mound. It does not move.
Dust settles on and around Tuffi.
There is more screeching and pounding and yelling as the mother has started into a run up the bridge. Her trainer has fallen off her back onto the road; his son has reeled in his kite. The son begins to run after Ayed, towards Tuffi. The father holds him back shaking his head. They stand by the guardrail holding hands.
Ayed kneels on her front legs in front of Tuffi, still yelling. Gingerly she reaches under the baby with her trunk, pulling the mound closer to her face. I cannot see that far, but I imagine her face no longer looks like it is smiling; I imagine tears running down her coarse wrinkled skin, powerful enough to be a river themselves.
Breathing is a universal language. I know Ayed’s deep exhale, slow and long. “Deep sorrow,” she whispers. She breathes. Ayed holds her baby in the middle of the Sarighat Bridge, breathing and yelling.
The bus driver, having inspected that everyone in the bus is not hurt, tries to start up the bus once again. There is nothing he can do for a dead animal. The driver has blood dripping down his forehead. The bus spits and putters, clicks and clicks, but does not move. The stirring and clicking of the engine prompts Ayed to raise her head from her baby’s limp clarinet trunk and lifeless little eyes. She neatly tucks her daughter’s ears next to her small body and trunk along her legs. Then Ayed stands.
Her breathing changes. She exhales so hard that the dust runs away from her feet. Her ears are spread; no longer limp silk around her face. There is a pause and a moment where everyone, the drivers, the bus driver, and Ayed take in a large breath. The drivers hold their breath out of anticipation and fear but Ayed lets it go in the form of a roar more terrifying then any machine. She moves her head from side to side, like a cobra ready to spit. Still roaring, she runs up to the bus as the driver frantically turns the keys again and again, right hand outstretched and palm opened wide. I think she will fight the bus. Knock it over and stomp on it. I should call the ambulance for those people in the tour bus. She will not leave any life to save.
She does not fight the bus. She stops right as she reaches it. The driver has stopped trying to start the engine in fear of what Ayed will do if forced to chase it. There is another breath and another roar. This one shakes in my chest and rattles my ribs as if they were railroad tracks.
Ayed paces the bus, looking through each window. She nods her head again, returning to the front of the bus near the dented nose. Another roar, she uses her forehead to break off more glass of the window in front of the driver. Glass is everywhere; some of it is stuck in her head. She does not notice. Maybe she does not care. There is another pause. I am still holding my breath. Ayed’s trunk reaches into the broken window.
Sirens behind me say someone else has called the ambulance. I do not know what they will do.
Ayed’s trunk wraps around the waist of the driver. He struggles, scratches, tears, and spits at Ayed’s coarse, spiked skin. He tries to cut her with a shard of glass but they are both already bleeding red. Ayed’s trunk forces his body through the window. Her breathing is hard and rapid. I hear his screams, I hear the sirens, I hear car doors closing and men yelling; I cannot hear the river. The police have arrived. They form a circle around the scene with their machine guns. Now there is more yelling than breathing.
The bus driver is only in Ayed’s trunk for a few moments. She raises him, screaming and crying and kicking. His head hits the metal guardrail with a crack and slam. His body is limp in her trunk. Less yelling and less breathing. His body is raised once again over the guardrail. Ayed throws the bus driver’s limp, bleeding body into the river.
The yelling picks up once again, the police are deciding who should shoot Ayed. She must be shot; she is a rogue elephant who just killed a man. The trainer and his son sit on the guardrail; the father covers his son’s eyes. No man wants to shoot an elephant; no man wants to shoot a mother. She is a mother who just watched a man kill her daughter. I think of my mother’s wrinkles that only came after I moved into the city.
In the confusion, Ayed’s ears go limp. Her breathing slows to a groan. She is wailing crying. Her trainer tries to reason with the police, every machine gun pointed in the same place. Ayed looks into the windows of the bus. I imagine she sees the tourists’ faces, horrified and crying. She walks past the bus slowly. Sorrow is also a universal language.
Finally I hear the police officers decide. The Chief will shoot the elephant. They follow the groaning sobbing mother as she marches off the Sarighat Bridge. I hear no shots but I see Ayed in the distance fall on the bank of the Brahmaputra River. No shots were fired but her body goes limp in the dust.
The mother makes one more exhale into welcomed death. It is bad luck to start the New Year without family. All of the drivers exhale with her and begin to cry.
Today the trash in the Brahmaputra River floats by like an elegy of alligators and minor notes. I think I will fly a kite with my mother tonight.
Alyssa is a newly-certified adult, living and working in Philadelphia PA. She graduated from the University of Delaware in May of 2014 with degrees in Women and Gender Studies and English Writing. The day after graduation she began working with Gearing Up, a fantastic non-profit aimed at empowering women in recovery from abuse, addiction, and incarceration to ride a bicycle. When she’s not working or writing, Alyssa is watching Netflix with her girlfriend, playing with her cat, or riding her bicycle.