Elephant Winter - By Kim Echlin


Iam called the Elephant-Keeper, which suits me. My name is Sophie Walker. When I am not at the elephant barns, I live in a crowded house near a tacky commercial tourist farm in southern Ontario. I have a daughter and I take care of the elephants.

I used to read about women who live with animals, women who have followed orangutans and gorillas through sodden rain forests and misty mountains. They talk about looking into the eyes of their animals and seeing the face of God. But I cannot merely observe my elephants, because I feed them, fill their water troughs, shovel their dung, take them for walks and train them to safely carry small children. They dip their knees so that I can climb up their sides to ride on their shoulders. Swaying up there, I hang between heaven and earth. In short, I live with the elephants and they have allowed me into their community.

The elephants have taught me their language. Much of it I cannot hear but I’ve filled in the spaces with invention, which is how most people listen to language anyway. The longer I am with them the less invention we need. Wittgenstein said that to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life. But I’m not imagining the elephants. They are really there.

If you choose to live with elephants you’ve chosen to live enthralled. I allow myself to be ravished by them. I risk their force, to break and blow, to untie and overthrow. I am imprisoned with them and our bonds free us. We have little language for this sort of thing.

The story I am about to tell you is how I came to live with elephants in captivity.

Batter my heart.


The place was closed for the season. My mother’s house backed on the maple forest at the far end of the Ontario Safari. While she slept each afternoon I watched the elephant-keeper take the elephants on walks through the woods. They rubbed their sides on the trees and scuffed in the fresh snow.

The keeper was a young man who wore his thick grey jacket open to the freezing winds and only a baseball cap pulled down over his long hair. He had high cheekbones and a strong jaw and his blue eyes were wrinkled at the corners from squinting against wind and sun. His jeans were tucked into barn boots but his step was light and his body lithe. He moved with the attractive, loose carriage of men who choose not to submit to offices and desks.

He thought himself unobserved as he rolled up snowballs and tossed them playfully, talking and lightly swaying, at ease in the elephants’ company. One of them touched a trunk to his face and he kissed the end and took its tip right inside his own mouth. That was when he glanced up and spotted me looking at him through the window. I lifted my hand to wave but he turned away and stamped his feet and pulled his meagre hat down over the whitening edges of his ears. He reminded me of young men I had met in Africa, easier out in the bush than anywhere else. He moved away as if to go, and all the elephants moved with him, but then he paused, looked back for me through the glass and beckoned me to come out with his hand. I shook my head, no.

The light over those snowy Ontario fields was short and grey and bleak. We were just past winter solstice and though I’d been home some weeks, I still found it odd to look through the kitchen window and see the curious face of a giraffe above the snowy maple trees. But my mother had always found unusual places to live, and soon enough I was inured even to the swaying grey silhouettes of elephants at play in the snowy fields.

I came home because she was dying. Her breasts were gone, her hair was gone, but nothing they did stopped the cancer. Each morning, after she took her morphine tablet, I arranged her bed table with her sketch pad, some charcoal pencils, and a pitcher of iced tea. She rested most of the day, and when she wasn’t dozing she moved stiffly around the house. At forty-nine she had work she still wanted to do. She was impatient with herself and churlish with me.

“Put that carnation in the morphine bottle will you, Sophie, I’m going