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The Elephants


Jing-Jing Lee

When the dog died, Huang decided that his daughter would do instead. The solution was simple enough. The child was six, still a baby, he thought. Didn’t he read somewhere that dogs, certainly one as bright as Teddy had been, were as smart as a young child? Smarter? The girl would do. Huang could picture her smiling her milk-toothed smile – the one she wore every lunar new year even as her mother pressed thumb-sized globes of blue and black down her arm, reminders for her to be courteous, to call out “hello uncle,” “hello, auntie.” He would only have to nudge her, just a little, and she would do what she was supposed to do. Lily would smile back and tell them to come on in. Afterwards, he would take his daughter to the drive-through and ask if she would like a new mama, the old one was sharp and slow anyway. His daughter, charmed by Lily’s rice-milk skin, the cool, floral air around her, would nod and that would be it. That would be the signal for him to go home and tell his wife that it was over, he was leaving her and taking the kid.

He decided this on Saturday morning as he drank his morning coffee and flicked through the paper, scanning the headlines.



Huang sighed and flicked the paper shut. The girl, he thought, he would have to get her to say yes first. When he found her, she was sitting at the coffee table, busy at her drawing pad. The sea, a chalky blue, filled half the page. In it perched boats of varying sizes, empty of people. A submarine with one tubular eye emerged into the air. There was blue all over her hands and a smear of it on her cheek.

“Hey,” he said, “you want to go out with baba?”

The girl looked up. “Go where?” She was sitting on the dog’s bed, a limp cushion that it’d slept on until just a few days ago. Still smelling of hide and fur.

“Out. I’ll get you french fries after.”

She seemed to turn this over in her mind. “I want Teddy. Can we go get Teddy? Tell him to come home.”

“Teddy’s dead. You know that.” Before he left for the vet, he had told her to say goodbye. This is the last time you’ll see him, he’d said, holding the dog, wrapped up in an old towel, weak but still wagging its bobtail. But when he’d returned alone, she had still asked for Teddy and he had to explain to her that he was asleep now. Would always be asleep from now on. He thought she understood. “So. French fries?”

She nodded, eyes still crumbed with sleep. He nodded back and pulled her up to stand. “Good girl. Go wash your face. And wear something nice.”

“No. No dress.”

“You can wear your overalls.”

“With the clips?”

He wanted to yell at her but didn’t. “You mean the buckles. Yes, you can wear those.”

While his daughter was changing, he went to his wife. She was in the kitchen washing up the breakfast things. There was a smell of onions and exhaust and dust from the road. Even at night, after she’d scrubbed herself with the ivory bar of Imperial soap, this was what she smelled like – of their kitchen, this life he’d been pushed into.

“I’m taking her out for a bit.”

“Where are you going?”

“To the shops. Girl needs some stationery and books.”

“Mei didn’t say anything about–”

“She told me because she was afraid you’d say no.”

That did the trick. He looked at her now, the way she stood, hands on her hips, stretching the front of her teeshirt and magnifying a stain, oily, dark, over where her belly pushed out, soft as a lower lip. “Don’t make lunch for us. We’ll be back in the afternoon.”

“Hold hands. Mama says I have to hold hands,” the girl said as they stepped out of the lift.

“No need, la. There’s no traffic. The car’s just there.” He pointed at the green Honda on the other side of the parking lot.

“Road,” she said, pointing at the narrow strip of tarmac in front of them.

He realised, when he took her hand, that he had never been alone with her before, not really. Definitely no longer than ten minutes (when his wife was in the shower, when they were waiting at the market for her to emerge from the crush of people with fish and vegetables).

Her hand was small and dry and hot. He was moved, all of a sudden, to pull her closer, as if danger lurked in the parked cars. Even the trees with their too-large roots looked like they might break free of the ground. In the car, he made sure to buckle her in, carefully easing the straps under her chin even though the girl had done this on her own since she was four. I will give you a new life, he thought, a mother who can read and write and smile and not talk in nags and snaps.

Yes, he told himself, and he began to whistle. Because this was a moment that called for whistling. Something was going to change. Something good.

“Where are we going?”

“We’re going to visit a nice auntie. When we get there–”

“Which auntie? Mama’s friend? The one with the mole?”


“Auntie Polly from your work? She always gives me chewy candy. Is it her?”

“Stop guessing. This is a new auntie. You’ve never met her,” he paused, taking his time to make a left turn, for the steering wheel to slip through his loose grip as the wheels straightened themselves. “And what do you do when you meet a new person?”

“Say hello uncle or hello auntie, then keep quiet. Don’t ask silly questions.”

“That’s right.”

If not for the heat, they would have walked because it was just ten minutes with the car. No rain was forecast for the morning but he didn’t want to show up at Lily’s door sticky with the damp heat, his shirt a wet film on his back.

He said nothing the rest of the way. Just kept on whistling tunelessly, imagining how Lily might laugh when she saw the two of them. What a surprise! she might say. What a pretty little girl.

Except the girl wasn’t pretty. Her nose was too wide. Hair too much like her mother’s – wild, sticking out on the top and sides like fine wires. Huang told himself that Lily might be able to do something about that. Would do her hair the neighbours did their little girls’, what was it – a plait. She would have to grow it out so Lily could plait it.

And afterwards the girl would want to stay on, would start to bargain, as she did sometimes when she was at her cousin’s, for ten more minutes. An hour. Even a sleepover. And he would have to be firm then, and tell her they were going to return. And when they did they would stay for good.

But Lily’s face, when she opened the door, was unreadable. “Hello,” she said, her voice small and cautious. “I didn’t know if you were coming today. You know… Because of the dog.”

“Of course I was. When have I missed a Saturday?”

“You didn't call.”

“I’m here now.”

His daughter, next to him, was silent and staring. Huang nudged her now. “Oi, what do you say when you meet someone?” The girl looked at her feet and put her hands in the pockets of her overalls.

“Go on. Say hello, auntie.”

“It’s okay,” she said and bent down, just a little. “MY NAME IS LILY. WHAT’S YOURS?”

He wanted to tell her that his daughter wasn’t deaf. That her name was Chun Mei. Spring beauty. Instead, he nudged the girl once more. “What’s wrong with you?” He wished Teddy were still alive. Teddy, who pissed and shit and barked on command. The girl was still looking at her feet. Her arms now hanging straight down by her sides, as if laden with weights. “Didn’t your mother teach you anything?” He finally said.

“Maybe you should come back another time…”

“I just got here.” He stopped. The back of his head itched. He wanted to shake the girl except he didn’t like to put his hands on her. Instead he sputtered, “If you don’t…” but the words dangled, limp, out of his mouth. Her head was down and he could only see the whorl on the top of her head, the white of it like an orange’s navel. It reminded him of when she was a baby. That too-soft head that he thought might break and spill if he so much as breathed too hard on her. “I’ll put her in the car.”

“What? Won’t it be too hot?”

“Ah, I’ll leave the windows down a little. She’s used to it.”

They were down the stairs and he could see the bonnet of the car shimmering in the late morning heat when the idea came to him. He decided to turn left instead, away from the parking lot, toward the ground floor coffeeshop. It was nothing special. There were three food stalls along the far wall and one in the centre, an island, where you could get drinks. Convenient, quiet, discreet. He sometimes had meals with Lily there. In two hours the place would be full of people gathered for lunch but now there were only the stall-owners, sitting at the tables and chatting with each other over the low hum of a Chinese ballad. There it was: right behind a pillar, a coin-operated child’s ride, bright red and shaped like a train.

“Girl,” he said, smiling, “why don’t you go on this and wait for baba?”

Still nothing. Still the whorl, white and glaring.

“You like these rides! There’s even a wheel you can turn. See? You can drive. Like baba in the car.”

She looked up now. “No. I wan go home.”

“What do you mean, no? You love these things.” How she used to plead for fifty cents whenever she saw one. When was that? A year ago? Until she realised that she wasn’t going to get a yes.

“Stay here,” he said to her, striding off to break a five dollar note at the drinks stall, trying to calculate how much time this would buy him. He counted them out to her when he returned, putting each coin into her palm. “Here. See? You can go as many times as you want.”

The coins didn’t fit into her palm so he made her cup both her hands. It almost made him laugh to see her, hands full of silver. “You’re going to drop one. Put them into your pocket.”

When she didn’t move, he lifted her into the seat and pushed one coin into the slot. Music came on. A jangle of plastic noises, slightly off-tune. The train trembled and shook. Up and down. Front to back.

“Okay?” he said, waiting for her to nod. Huang wished, as he often did, that he could pry the thoughts loose from her as effortlessly as he did with the characters on the evening soap. Happy, sad, angry. But her face was a blank stillness. An untouched mirror.

“Use the coins. Baba will be back by the time the train eats them all.” Before he went back up the stairs, to Lily’s apartment, he turned so he could see the nose of the train bobbing beyond the pillar. If he found her asleep in it after, he wouldn’t wake her up, would just carry her to the car the way he used to. When she was a baby, he thought.

“I can’t believe you brought your daughter.”

“I thought you might like to meet her. You know, since we’ve been talking about me moving in and everything.”

“Children talk. Don’t you know? You better make sure she doesn’t tell.”

“She won’t.”

She had her arms crossed but was already backing away from the door to let him in. Two cats in a narrow alleyway. It didn’t take long for him to manoeuvre her into the bedroom, sit her down, and ease her onto the floral bedspread. When they were done, she pulled up her panties and said, “I don’t think she likes me.”

“Don’t be foolish, she’s just a child. No like or don’t like. She only needs to get used to you, that’s all.”

“You better go quick. The car will be getting hot.”

He nodded and dressed, tucking two fifty dollar notes under the pillow while she was in the washroom.

The coffeeshop was a little busier when he returned. From where he was, twenty or so steps from the stairs he’d just descended, he could see the lights on the train flashing. The tinny sound of the repetitive music bouncing off the concrete floor.

But when he got to it, the girl was not in the seat. She was nowhere to be seen. Nor in any of the chairs scattered around the wiped-clean tables in the coffeeshop.

He called out to the nearest stall owner. “Auntie? The girl here. Where did she go?”

“Girl? Oh that was a girl? I thought was a boy.”

“She’s my daughter. About six. She was here, on the ride.”

“I saw her on the ride but I didn’t see her leave. Ah Bui! Did you see the child on the ride? Did she leave?”

A man from the far corner of the came closer stuck his head around the front of his stall and replied, “A child? No.”

The ride was still jiggling back and forth, its music taking up the space of between him and the strangers. He could see them watching him. The woman had already made up her mind, was frowning when he said, “I told her not to move. To stay in the seat. I wasn’t gone longer than five minutes.”

“Do you live around here? Did she walk home?”

“Walk home? She’s six! She doesn’t know…” He scratched the back of his head again, heat flooding his face and neck. The thought began innocently enough: maybe it would be easier like this. He pushed it away and started to think about what he would say to the police. She has short hair, was wearing blue overalls. Was there a picture he could give them straightaway? No, they would have to look through the photo album. He tried to remember when it was that the girl had had her photo taken. Her last birthday – almost eight months ago. What they might ask him: why did you leave your daughter alone? How long were you really gone? You said five minutes but witnesses said you were gone more more than ten, fifteen. Where were you?

He imagined the girl. Lost and so dazzled by the sun that she walked straight into traffic. He imagined a small van stopping by the side of the road, the doors sliding open just enough for an arm to reach out and…

“I checked the toilet. She’s not in there.” It was the woman again, closer this time. She had her hands on her hips, the way his wife had stood this morning. He tried to picture how she might react to the news and could only see her mouth, large and red and wide open in its rage. How she’d yelled when she found out about the previous affair, how he’d had to leave the apartment because the sound of her voice had begun blind him, cracking through his ears, between his eyes.

“Hey, I said maybe you should check the playground. She might be there.” The woman gestured east and Huang, blinking as if just woken, began to feel the delayed onset of panic.

The playground. Of course. She must be there.

He ran. But there was only a Malay family with two small children taking their turns down the slide. He stood there for a moment, contemplated asking the parents, who were watching him as if he might spring.

He went to the car. Circled around it, even ducking to check to see if she had, for some reason, curled up on the ground below like a cat. Then he straightened himself, got in, and started the car. He would drive up and down the streets, he told himself. All day and all night, if he had to. I looked and I looked, he would tell the police, his wife.

He made sure to take the same route, was halfway home when he saw her from up the road. The blue overalls. Her walk – that slight bounce, the stiffness in her knees.

He rolled down his window as he approached. “Mei! Chun Mei!” He yelled. The girl stopped and he saw from her back, how she seemed to pause and think before turning just as the car was sliding up to the curb. “Hey! Where were you? I looked all over. I thought I told you to stay.” But the girl was looking at him as if he were no one. A voice in his head asked if he was sure this was his daughter, she was acting strange. Guai tai. Alien child, the voice said, before he swatted it away and leaned over to open the door. “Come! Let’s go home.”

“Home?” The girl said, taking a few cautious steps when he nodded.

When she was seated and buckled in, Huang felt his face grow red with anger, the flush of it making the rest of his body feel cold in the cool air of the car’s interior. “Where were you?”

No answer. They were at the stop light now. He turned to watch her. Her quiet face, the stolid blankness of it enraging him even further. He grabbed her arm to get her to face him. “Did you hear me? Where were you?” Nothing again. Not even a flicker in her eye to indicate that she’d heard. “I told you to stay.” He heard a jangling. The sound of silver and gold coming from the girl. It took him a while to realise that it was the coins he’d given her that morning, even longer to realise that he was shaking her. When he was finally done, one strap of her overall slid down her shoulder.

They were almost home when he said, “Don’t tell anyone. Don’t say anything,” hoping she knew what he meant. He put his finger to his lips and only broke his stare when she nodded back at him.

“You’re back,” his wife said, surprised when they walked through the door.

“What time’s lunch? I think she might be hungry,” he said, clasping his own stomach as the girl walked away, into her room.

“But you said you were going to eat out. I’ve already–”

“I changed my mind.”

It took them more than ten days to discover that their daughter was not talking. The phone had rung all afternoon before the receptionist put her head around the door to tell him that it was his wife. He’d thought it might be Lily. Calling to ask when he was going to visit. They used to spend all of lunchtime chatting if he couldn’t get away to see her but he had dodged her calls all week. Saturday had come and gone without him going to her. On Monday, he’d had the office receptionist pick up to screen the calls instead. The last thing Lily had said to him was “Was it something I did?” He had remained silent. In truth, she had done nothing and everything; he had gone off her just like that. Like flicking a switch.

“It’s Mei. The school called,” his wife said, “Mei is not talking. Refused to say anything when the teacher asked her a question in class today.”

“What? What do you mean? Is she in trouble?”

“Trouble? That’s not what I mean. She’s not talking.” She paused to let her words echo in his ears. “Her teacher was concerned that Mei might be ill so I went and brought her home. She’s in her room now. No temperature or anything. I’m bringing her to doctor right after she has something to eat.”

“I can’t leave right now,” Huang said, staring out of his office window at the garment factory floor, at the men and women working and talking and laughing over their tools, their oiled machines and bales of cloth.

“It’s okay. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

Women, he thought, putting down the phone. He tried to remember if he had spoken to girl in the past week, tried to remember something she might have said, and came up blank.

Baba’s home! What do say when you see baba?” He said to his daughter. She was sitting at the coffee table, bent over her drawing pad. “Hey, I’m talking to you.”

She stopped colouring and inclined her head a little, looking at him from just below her eyelids.

“Do you want to go to the playground? Say yes and we’ll go.”

The girl shook her head.

“What about the mamak shop? We can get you sweets. Or iced gems. Bubbles? You know?” He mimed putting a plastic wand to his mouth and blowing. “Just say yes and then we’ll go.”

She shook her head again and went back to drawing.

In the kitchen, his wife was stuffing a claypot with chrysanthemum flowers. He watched her filling the vessel with water before putting it over the fire. “I’m making her herbal tea,” she said.

“What did the doctor say?”

“Nothing. He asked if she had been ill. Or if she’d fallen. I told him no but he still wanted to get an x-ray, just to be sure she didn’t have a concussion.”

“A concussion?” he said, his mind going back to the Saturday before, how he had driven up behind her as she tried to walk home. “And then?”

“Nothing. Nothing that he could see.”

He clicked his tongue. A waste of money, he wanted to say. These doctors. “What else did he say? When is she going to start talking again?”

“He wasn’t sure,” she stopped and looked away, out of the window. “He thought she might need to go to the psychologist if this continues.”

“A psychologist? No, no. My daughter’s not crazy.”

“Who said anything about crazy?” but she stopped once more to chew on the side of her nail. “He only said if this continues… I say give it a few days. If she’s still not talking, we should think about it…”

A week passed. Then two. He didn’t mind it much. Mei not talking. It was everyone else that was the problem – the teachers, the doctors. If they made a problem of it he would tell them it was okay. Nothing wrong with a girl not talking. But his wife took every opportunity to engage with the girl. At breakfast and dinner. In the car on the way to the market and back. She would ask if she wanted something to eat, and what her favourite food was. Mei would sit, stony and solid; the silence after the end of these questions louder than ever, louder than a shout. On their weekly trips to the grocery store, she would peruse the aisles and put whatever she wanted into the cart. Coco Pops. Even a tub of ice-cream, which his wife allowed only because she was sure the girl was suffering, she told him later, ice-cream was the least they could give her. Huang wanted to say that the girl didn’t look like she was suffering, that she looked perfectly fine. To assure himself of that, he went in to check on her sometimes after she had fallen asleep. The florescent bulb in the public corridor was bright enough, even through the windows and curtains, for him to see that her face was content, round and lit as the moon.

Then, one night, Huang dreamt that he arrived home to find their apartment building sunken into the ground. “An earthquake,” a bystander told him. Her face was familiar and he was just about to figure out who she was when he heard his wife’s voice from within the stone and cement. He was there at once, picking up boulders between his fingers, throwing them over his shoulder until he saw her face in a scooped out hollow in the earth. “Where’s Mei? Isn’t she with you?” he asked. She said no. No, she’d lost her in the quake. She was somewhere else. He waited a few hours, watching the paramedics work their way down into the pile of debris as he called out for his daughter. “Chun Mei, if you hear me, say something! Call out for help!” But no, nothing. It was late, and darkness was creeping up from within the rubble. The sun rose and set and rose again, and he watched as other people –whole families, children– were lifted out of the ground.

By the time Huang woke, he had forgotten most of it, was trying to cling on to fragments –how light the stone felt, his found wife, his daughter’s persistent silence– and feeling them slip between his fingers when he heard a child’s voice. A girl’s voice.

When he got to the living room, he saw that it was only the television. A child actor on Sesame Street talking to a blue puppet. In front of the set, his daughter and her crayons.

Again, he thought. He wanted to tear up her drawing pad, scatter and break all twelve crayons. Instead he shouted, “Say something. Say something now or I’ll put you out on the doorstep for the garbage men.” The girl sat up, as if finally listening, and crossed her arms. The bottom of her hand was a wash of red from the thing she had drawn and coloured in. It took Huang a moment to see that it was a train. Bright red from nose to tail. Huang felt himself getting warm, the heat rising to the crown of his head. “Say something.”

Born and raised in Singapore, Jing-Jing graduated from Oxford’s Creative Writing Master’s in 2011 and has since seen her poetry and short stories published in various journals and anthologies. Jing-Jing’s novella, If I Could Tell You, was published by Marshall Cavendish in 2013 and her debut poetry collection, And Other Rivers, was published by Math Paper Press in 2015. She currently lives in Amsterdam. Her first full length novel, How We Disappeared, about comfort women in Singapore will be published by Oneworld in 2018.

This originally appeared on August 25, 2017