A very old man and a very young man sat on a west-facing porch in front of an Ohio farmhouse. The old man reminded the young man of Ernest Hemingway—full white beard, tan face, squinty eyes all screwed up like he was always looking into the sun. The young man had never read Ernest Hemingway but he had seen his face on the backs of books his parents kept around the house. The two of them sat on rocking chairs, gently rocking back and forth, slightly out of synch with one another. The old man went forward. The young man went back.
A storm brewed on the western horizon. The land was flat and they could see almost all the way to Indiana. A breeze had picked up, washing over them, blowing the old man’s thin white hair back from his reddened scalp.
The old man sniffed the air and said, “An elephant wind.”
“A what?” the boy asked.
“An elephant wind.”
The boy liked elephants. He thought about them a lot more than was probably healthy. When he was even younger he told people he wanted to be an elephant. When he grew out of that he told them he wanted an elephant as a pet. Or a whole herd of elephants. They always told him elephants would be too expensive to keep. They never told him he was ridiculous for wanting a herd of elephants. He liked the image “an elephant wind” conjured but he still didn’t have any idea what the old man was talking about.
“What’s an elephant wind?” He knew the old man wouldn’t tell him if he didn’t ask.
“That’s what the Nefarions called it.” The boy didn’t know what a Nefarion was. The old man pointed out to the horizon. “Look out there.”
The boy did. He saw gray clouds gathered on the horizon. The storm, coming toward them.
“Imagine those clouds were elephants. A whole herd of them, marching right toward us.”
The boy looked at the horizon, shifted his gaze, tried to make his vision go blurry. He forced his sight beyond the field of dancing green corn stalks. Try as he might, he couldn’t imagine the clouds as a herd of elephants. He didn’t even see the point in imagining them as a herd of elephants. The old man, he knew, was not without his quirks and odd beliefs. Sometimes he would make the boy follow him around the yard while he tried to lift things, his wiry old man body straining, all the cords and veins standing out on his neck and arms, almost always unsuccessfully. The old man had told him the stars were Native American arrow holes and before the whites had come the natives had known what it was to enjoy true darkness. He told him when grass made you itch it meant you had done something to make it angry. He said if you were asleep here it meant you were awake in China.
“I don’t see any elephants,” the boy said.
“You have to use your imagination.”
“But why would I want to imagine a herd of elephants instead of a storm?”
“Well, the Nefarions did it because theirs is a rebellious lot. Have I ever told you about the Nefarions?”
The boy shook his head. It sounded like something from one of his storybooks.
“Remind me to tell you more about them some day for theirs is an interesting history...” The old man trailed off, gazing out at the impending storm, lost in thought.
“The Nefarions, Grandpa?” the boy reminded him. The boy’s chair had stopped rocking and now he sat sideways in it, staring at the old man, listening to the wind slice itself against the cartilage of his ear.
“Oh, right. Anyway, theirs was a rebellious lot. All of their children were completely out of control. The out of control children grew to become out of control adults. But the children’s safety was very much these out of control adults’ concern. Anyway, the Nefarions live on a remote island in the Malefic Ocean...”
“I’ve never heard of that one.”
“You will, maybe, someday. Or maybe you won’t.”
The boy, as with many other things his grandfather told him, filed it away in the back of his head in the place of soon forgotten things.
“So this island in the middle of the Malefic Ocean was prone to storms a million times more violent than the ones we have here. It was rumored a bolt of lightning could shoot from the sky and cut a person clean in half if he happened to be caught out. Hair was blown from people’s heads. Skin was pushed back and frozen that way.” Here his grandfather pulled the loose skin on his face back to demonstrate, the result skeletal and terrifying. “Everything was more powerful there. But the adults couldn’t make the children understand that. A storm would come and the adults would tell the children they had better get inside and the children would laugh at them. ‘What is a storm?’ they would ask and then they would answer themselves, ‘It is nothing but wind and water and fire. These are the things of the earth. Are we supposed to fear them because they come from the sky?’ Very philosophical, those children.
“Their island was, however, home of a legendary herd of elephants, rarely seen, but large in number. One day these elephants broke free from the forest in the middle of the island and rampaged through the town, trampling everything in their path. It scared many of the children to see their parents and classmates driven into the ground by the weight of these enormous, vicious creatures. Soon, the adults thought up an idea. Whenever a storm gathered itself around the island the adults directed the children’s gaze to the gathering clouds and told them it was the elephant herd, come back to finish off the villagers. The elephants ran so fast, the adults said, they generated a wind. An elephant wind. They had the children so thoroughly convinced this was the truth that most of the children would say they could smell the elephants on the wind. Coming for them. Rampaging toward them. Hurriedly, they would retreat into their homes and hope the giant beasts were not able to desecrate their modest shacks and houses.”
The boy looked out over the corn toward the advancing clouds. Now he could see how one might mistake them for being elephants. So many shades of gray and black. Rounding curves that could be ears. Thin strands that could be tails or maybe even trunks. And all throughout the bank of clouds, the little glimmers of white tusks, eager to impale any straggling little boy. If he listened carefully, he thought he could even hear their unmistakable horn-like shouts. And, yes, if he thought about it hard enough he could even smell them—the faraway scent of straw and manure, hide heated up in the summer sun.
“I think I’m going inside,” he told his grandfather.
“Of course, here, here we don’t have any elephant winds.” The boy thought maybe his grandfather sounded a little sad about this. “Here we don’t really have anything close to magic at all. So you can stay out here as long as you want and nothing will hurt you. You might get a little wet, is all.”
But the boy couldn’t get the image of the trampling elephants out of his head.
“I’m going to go inside and have a snack.”
“Sure. Sure. I’ll be in in a few minutes.”
The boy knew this was a lie. His grandfather was a weather enthusiast and any time there was anything out of the ordinary in the sky which, in Ohio, was just about every day, he would be out in it, looking at the horizon or up toward the heavens. Once inside, the boy made a peanut butter and marshmallow fluff sandwich and sat down on a chair in the living room. Two large picture windows looked out over the cornfield, toward the approaching storm. He wondered where his parents were. They often left for hours at a time, taking his sister with them, and returning after he went to bed. After eating his sandwich and turning on the television, the boy must have dozed off.
He awoke to what could only be the trumpeting of elephants. Standing up, he ran to the window and watched wide-eyed as something strange and horrific unfolded in front of him.
His grandfather stood in the front yard, clothes flapping around his skinny body, hair swirling around his huge head, arms thrust up toward the heavens. Rain fell from the sky, huge fat drops, turning everything gray. Thunder rumbled under his feet. Lightning slashed the sky. And from everywhere he could hear the trumpeting of the elephants.
Then he saw them tearing through the cornfield. Dividing as they reached his grandfather. Hundreds of them. The boy grew very worried about his grandfather. He went to the door and opened it. The wind nearly ripped the storm door from its hinges.
“Grandpa!” the boy shouted.
The old man was oblivious. It looked like he was confronting the gods and, if so, it was a confrontation he lost. The sky darkened. Rain pelted off the backs of the pachyderm parade, swirling around his grandfather. Lightning strobed the dark day bright and, like that, his grandfather was gone. The boy sat down on the same chair he had fallen asleep in and cried.
Later, he would often think he had been depressed from that point onward.