Weekly Write: “Save the Elephants” by Erin Conway

Save the Elephants

Mamá liked travelling. Mamá liked to talk about what to bring,
Or what not to bring.
Mamá grabbed a palm sized ball
Of masa dough ground from Gloria’s trip to the molino.
It tapped and tapped around to tell the story of her hills and nestled village
Monte and cayukos.
Mamá loved to plan trips she would never take
Behind Mamá’s steps rested her shadow.
The elephant’s mother always casts
The largest, the longest
Shadow on its skin.

I was only four when Mamá packed for Mexico City.
I was only four when she did not return.
Ten years later, I study geometry. Gloria counts micro credit.
I study history. Gloria listens to stories.
I study geography. Gloria walks between rural villages.
I study physical education. Gloria brushes toddlers’ blackened teeth
Left by the fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers who headed North.
Spanish. Maya. Large, expansive names.
San Cristobal de las Casas.
All missing paint in lime green.
Yaxchilán. Chipapa de Corzo.
Jungle. Pine trees. Coffee. Chocolate.
Drunk on mist.
¿Y yo?

My skin tone is a blend,
A highland blend of coffee
That gringos drink
In large mugs that are not supposed to have bottoms
In large mugs Gringos find the energy
To step on and over the stones, the stories,
Of our past.
I close my eyes.
I hear Mamá empty frijoles parados into my dish.
I smile and add chilé.
I close my eyes.
I hear Mamá pour coffee into my mug.
I smile and add sugar.

“Where are you working today Gloria?” I ask.
“The woman’s coop.”
“Can I come?”
“Instead of school?”
“I love sitting near the weavers.
Untangling strings. Cutting knots.”

Señoras squint through donated lenses.
Elephants do not have good eyesight.
I know I don’t know the strings’ colors,
My colors, I don’t know.
In the women’s midst, I return to a herd.
But it’s not my herd.
I’m an orphan. I’m homeless.
I’m an immigrant? Migrant? Refugee?

I sit on the front step,
Leaned back against the stones,
I stretch forward. I write.
“Related elephant females stay together for life.
Related elephant families share resources,
Avoid danger,
Care for young.”

The flowers reflect days’ yellow brightness through ever present dust.
Their husbands saw the same
Scattered in corn kernels. Spread out to dry.
Free trade brought new colors in cotton string.
New demand for old traditions. Cheap corn

Mamá had wrapped her faja
Like the ones strapped in these looms
Mamá had covered her guipil in her rebozo.
Inspired by Comandante Ramona
Mamá had boarded a bus to the First Indigeneous Congress.
If Mamá had reached México City, I don’t know.
I watch the women’s fingers.
The women pick up strings and drop them.
If only one string had been long enough
To help Mamá find her way home.

I think of elephant matriarchs.
Which woman will throw herself
On the electric fence?
Or learn to open the gate?
For the rest to escape.
I stare upward, beyond
Barbed wire. Chipped cement. Broken glass.
The sweep of the mountain is also the sky.
The top is not a peak.
There is more room than people would say,
Would want me to believe.
We can all fit on the mountain though I started farther down.

Blue, the green of grass.
White, the water spray of clouds.
Gloria’s heavy feet climb.
Others feel her trail in their soles.
Like elephants, I lean forward on my toes.
We refuse to be on our heels.
When I stand on tiptoes, I know
The mountain is not so high.

In the evening,
We turn beans from parados to colados to volteados.
“The thicker the better,” I say.
“But less to go around,” Gloria reminds.
I was only four when Gloria kept me.
I was only four when Gloria became the leader of our orphan band.

Gloria shows me nothing directly.
Instead she shows me
Hooded sweatshirts, holy cards and birth control.
I eat my supper alone. Flip cable channels.
I trace my finger along the tortilla
Wrinkled, elephant, skin.
I dig through the garbage
Between two fingers gently, I hold buried papers
With my elephant’s trunk

$2,000. $8,000. Mexico.
Petitions. Protests. El Salvador.
Felony. Theft. Guatemala.
Muertes. En camino. Honduras.

Night steps forward.
I fall asleep and dream.
Baby elephant. Orphan elephant.
Surrounded by lions. Far from home.
Baby elephant. Orphan elephant.
She screamed to keep the jaguars away, for the family to accept her.
Baby elephant. Orphan elephant.
She wrecked her vocal chords.
It was her voice,
Or, her life.

I completed my undergraduate and graduate degrees at UW-Madison. I began my professional career as a bilingual teacher in the Madison Metropolitan School District, but this work stems from my desire to seek a deeper understanding of my students and foster intercultural connections in the field of education. I accepted a Peace Corps assignment in Guatemala. For the past ten years, I worked both teaching and training teachers in Guatemala, including Atitlan Multicultural Academy, and most recently I worked as the Director of Literacy Staff Training and Curriculum Development with Child Aid. Previously, working in education in Guatemala, I currently work for UW-Madison, Division of Extension. My literary efforts focus on diverse books initiatives. Publishing credits include Midwest Review, Sonder Review, Vine Leaves Press, The Hopper, Cleaning up Glitter, Kind Writers and Adelaide Literary Magazine. I manage a blog and website, http://www.erinconway.com.



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