Elephants, when left to their own devices, are profoundly social creatures. A herd of them is, in essence, one incomprehensibly massive elephant: a somewhat loosely bound and yet intricately interconnected, tensile organism. Young elephants are raised within an extended, multitiered network of doting female caregivers that includes the birth mother, grandmothers, aunts and friends. These relations are maintained over a life span as long as 70 years. Studies of established herds have shown that young elephants stay within 15 feet of their mothers for nearly all of their first eight years of life, after which young females are socialized into the matriarchal network, while young males go off for a time into an all-male social group before coming back into the fold as mature adults.
When an elephant dies, its family members engage in intense mourning and burial rituals, conducting weeklong vigils over the body, carefully covering it with earth and brush, revisiting the bones for years afterward, caressing the bones with their trunks, often taking turns rubbing their trunks along the teeth of a skull’s lower jaw, the way living elephants do in greeting. If harm comes to a member of an elephant group, all the other elephants are aware of it.
After knowing the People for a year or so, they named me. It was not a name that was formally bestowed on me in a ceremony, but was more a nickname. Someone had probably referred to me as Elephant, and the name stuck (for a while, at least).
I did not like the name Gaja. I thought they saw me as lumbering, awkward, and big. I am not big, not massive as elephants are -- but I am taller than most of the Sng'oi. My mind was stuck on an image of circus elephants doing silly tricks. I was a slave to my own cliches.
Only later did it occur to me that they may have meant something entirely different when they called me Elephant. They had never seen a circus; they would not know elephants that did tricks. And I did not know what an elephant meant to them until one evening long after the sun had gone down. Only a few people were still awake in the hut where I would sleep that night. There was a slight rustle outside, the sound of someone tiptoeing very lightly through dry grass.
"Elephant," one of the women whispered.
"They are very curious, and they walk very softly," a young boy added, also in a barely audible whisper.
I do not think I said anything, but the catch in my breath must have given me away.
"Elephants are also very careful," the boy said. "They do not step on anything."
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