**Hook Wounds is the winning short story from our first themed Short Story Contest!**
MONA cradled the head of a stuffed elephant. She sniffed it, inhaled her daughter Libby’s intoxicating scent, a mix of condensed milk and orange Mentos, like the Creamsicles Mona ate as a child. Mona ran her fingers along the edge of the antique changing table, the dresser, the mirror. She didn’t touch the crib. She struggled to look at the cushy purple bumper tied to it. The white accent pillow with Libby’s initials — LRS — embroidered in lilac was too pristinely white for a nursery. It shouldn’t stay so crisp. It should have spit up marks and drool. Signs of life, not death.
S.I.D.S. Sudden infant death syndrome. Mona rolled the initials around in her head. SIDS. LRS. SIDS. LRS.
“I want this out of my face,” she said, more as a distraction to herself than to her husband, Alex who watched from the doorframe.
The movers were coming in an hour, and this was the only room left untouched. Where would the fluffy bunny and the pink piggy bank go? The gauzy white dresses, the size two Pampers, the miniature shoes for feet that couldn’t yet walk? Mona couldn’t put Libby in a box.
Alex adjusted his glasses, ran a hand through his grey-flecked hair, and stepped into a beam of sunshine. He methodically started to pry the crib bars from their sockets.
“Stop it,” Mona said, snarling the words, like gravel under a speeding tire.
Alex furrowed his eyebrows. Mona sighed. She hadn’t resigned herself to the fact that Alex did everything calmly. He had chosen a casket for their daughter calmly. Committed the final mitzvah—piling dirt on Libby’s grave—calmly. Existed calmly. Even in the face of leaving their first home and especially in the face of leaving Libby’s only home, Alex was calm.
“I hate your stoicism,” Mona said. Her voice a whisper. “How can you possibly be so calm?”
The walls were lined with neatly packed cardboard boxes—a literal lifetime. Mona stroked the elephant again, but she wanted to rip its head off. She wanted to hear the satisfying sound of torn cloth. She didn’t, though. It had been Libby’s favorite thing. Its fur impossibly soft. She ran her thumb over the tag. The words “Lincoln Park Zoo” reminded her that she would have to go back to work soon. Was she able to care for animals after losing her only child?
Alex pressed his hand against Mona’s shoulder, bringing her back.
“Libby deserved stoicism, didn’t she?” he asked.
“No,” Mona answered. “Libby deserved a life. Love. College. Normal. Libby deserved normal.”
“She did,” Alex said. “But you don’t always get what you deserve. She needed you while she was here. And you just couldn’t….” His voice tapered off, incapable or unwilling to finish the thought.
Mona shrunk into herself, her shoulders shoved forward and her arms wrapped tightly across her chest.
“Maybe she deserved a father who waited to kiss her good morning. Who was there when,” she said.
“When what, Mona?” Alex said. “When she died. You can’t even say it. Half her life, you couldn’t love her, and now that she’s gone, you’re the only one suffering?”
Alex paced the room. Mona watched the terse trek, scared to leave but satisfied that he’d finally reached her level, lost control. She could feel his eyes burning into the side of her face. She resisted the urge to check her watch. His steps made loud thuds despite Alex’s bare feet. They were like thunderclaps in the middle of a quiet evening. Mona fingered the eyelet curtains, refusing to really look at Alex.
“I was bored and scared. I didn’t know myself anymore,” she said.
She wanted to continue. To tell him how claustrophobic the post-partum felt. Like she looked in the mirror and some stranger was looking back at her. Like the gulps of air before a tidal wave drags you under.
“I tried to change, to get better.”
Mona didn’t know if that was the entire truth though. Things are rarely that simple. She honestly believed Libby lead her through the fog post-partum produced. Taking her hand and slowly convincing Mona that she was a mother. That happened in death though. People take on a mystical quality, immortalized in perfection.
“It’s just easier for you. Your entire relationship was easy. You always wanted to hold her. You never screamed or left when she cried. You didn’t have to find her.”
“Easy,” he said, still pacing in tight circles around the small room. “You think any of this is fucking easy for anyone?”
He pushed a stack of books from Libby’s nightstand, and they bounced and cascaded across the wood floor. Goodnight Moon, Pat the Bunny, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, and The Giving Tree clattered against one another like a disorganized drum roll.
“When they cut her from you, they handed her to me.” He paused. “When you weren’t there. When you couldn’t hold her, I held her. I fed her bottles. She cried for me,” he said.
Mona felt the C-section scar along her abdomen. The raised flesh felt like a long welt, a belt lash branding her skin. She touched her tender breasts, engorged with milk. Slowly, the sticky liquid leaked onto her grey cotton t-shirt, circling her nipples.
“I don’t care whose she was,” Mona said with a resigned sigh. “She’s gone now.” Mona slid to the floor and rested her back against the purple walls. She held her knees to her chest, gazed sideways at Alex.
“I don’t want to fight,” she said. “I just want to be near someone who knew her. Someone who loved her better than I did.”
Alex bent before her and rested his forehead against hers. They stayed that way until they heard the footsteps of movers.
Mona sipped the tea slowly. Allowed it to dribble across her tongue as she tried to enjoy the bitter taste. When she was young, Mona couldn’t be blasted from bed. But late in Libby’s life, the two of them had fostered a routine that made the daybreak hours endearing. While Alex started his day at the office, Mona woke early and changed Libby, nursed her leisurely, snuggled in bed. She didn’t have to be in for rounds at the zoo until nine and Libby would wake at six, giving them three undisturbed hours of hazy happiness.
Now, she spent each morning hooked to the breast pump and listening to the droning “er…er…er…” of the machine’s rhythm. She was producing less milk but the process of drying up was slow and painful. The veins in her breast ached, pulsing blue and vicious.
Mona was glad Alex had found an apartment with a different route to the zoo. She wouldn’t have to ride the same bus she took Libby on. She wouldn’t have to smell the same hot dogs from Weiner Circle as she passed. She wouldn’t have to hear the same street music from the saxophonist who played on the corner of Clark. She didn’t have to pass Libby’s daycare center with the fluorescent art in the window. The bright sign that read Little Green Treehouse.
But today, she was going back to work. The night before, Mona received a call from her supervisor, Katherine. Mona and Alex had been relaxing after dinner, two glasses of Scotch and piles of backlogged work between them. Before Libby died, Mona had artificially inseminated an elephant named Evie who was overdue for a prenatal checkup.
“Mona,” Katherine said, her voice high and nasally. “I know we said two weeks, but I was wondering if you could possibly come in sooner?”
Mona paused. She hadn’t showered in a few days and her long brown hair was forming dreads without the benefits of shampoo and a brush. She thought about sawing the tangled mess off with a steak knife.
“Are you there?”
“Is everything ok?” Mona asked.
“Evie needs a detailed exam and she has a preference for you. But if you’re not up to it, I can certainly have Mark take care of it.”
Mark and Mona were friendly without the benefits of real loyalty. Like everyone in the field, Mark was competitive and outgoing and eager to step into the head vet role. Mona hated that he prioritized his career over the animals’ best interests.
“I’d be happy to come in,” Mona said.
Alex crinkled his forehead, looked up from a stack of briefs. She shrugged as if to say what else do I have to do? He flipped another page, though it seemed clear he hadn’t finished the previous one. Katherine paused. Stagnant awkwardness grew between them like moss on a moist rock.
“San Diego made an offer on the calf,” Katherine said.
“And Evie?” Mona asked quickly.
“Just the calf,” Katherine said. “You know we don’t really have the space—”
“Then why did we inseminate Evie?” Mona interrupted. Don’t cry—she reminded herself. Don’t you dare cry. She chewed on the inside of her lower lip.
“Mona, you know how zoos work.”
And why people despise them, Mona thought as she clicked off the phone and looked over at Alex.
“I’m going in to see Evie tomorrow. Just Evie. It won’t be a full day.”
Alex hadn’t returned to work at his family law firm yet. Mona knew he wouldn’t for a while, too comatose with grief to focus.
“Are you ready for that?” Alex asked.
“I need to take care of Evie,” Mona answered. “Just Evie,” she repeated and thought about the sweet animal who loved lemonade and Libby.
Five months prior, Mona hadn’t felt like anyone’s mother. Libby’s cries grated and bounced against her. She struggled to get Libby to latch to her breast and flinched as Libby dug her crescent-shaped infant nails into her flesh. The children’s books that lined the walls were dull, and she couldn’t force herself to read them aloud. The room smelled of piss and sweat, a smell that butchered Libby’s baby scent. Mona’s body felt like broken flab. It didn’t move the way it once had. Her thighs chafed against one another, and her stomach resembled an old man’s face. Her arms were constantly tired from holding Libby, rocking her, caring for her. Mona fought the instinct to run.
Then, towards the end of her maternity leave, Mona introduced Libby to her world at the zoo. It was early in the morning before crowds arrived, when the sun wouldn’t scorch their necks. Mona walked through the gates to the elephant enclosure, using her clearance as the head vet in this one instance.
Trees curved and cast shadows over mud holes where four female elephants rested. The air smelled of manure and hay and stale popcorn. Mona called Evie into the barn behind the display—clicking her tongue and snapping her fingers.
She had brought a thermos of sweet lemonade. She carefully unscrewed the lid, allowing Evie’s meticulous trunk to inhale the sticky treat in a few loud gulps. Mona didn’t tie Evie to the stake despite the elephant’s towering frame. She stood in her shadow, so close they were breathing the same air. Evie ran her trunk up and down Mona and Libby, scanning their bodies. The baby’s eyes were wide with awareness, focused and attentive on the beautiful beast. The elephant used the two fingers inside her trunk to caress Libby’s foot, her pink toes the size of acorns. Libby giggled lightly as Evie tickled her. The sound was soft and unimposing. Libby reached out a hand, straining away from Mona, and flattened her palm against Evie’s brown hide. As she touched the elephant, the sound of Libby’s laugh enveloped them as if it were a wave slowly carrying them away. Evie trumpeted, a loud burst that Mona had only heard elephant calves make.
Mona wanted to bathe in the noises, washing away the banal existence she’d had with Libby until then. She buried her face into the spongy spot between Libby’s ear and her neck. She kissed it softly and memorized her scent. Mona brushed her lips against Evie’s back with an exaggerated smacking sound before releasing her back into the pen. Mona felt certain this was a turning point. For the first time since becoming a mother, she felt whole. The love she had for Libby spread over her like the sun warming an errant patch of snow. Mona marched to the gift shop and bought Libby a stuffed elephant to commemorate their day. Her daughter combed it over her face, soothed by the fluff on its back. She turned it over, presented it to Mona, allowed her mother to snuggle it against her cheek before handing it back.
After that, the post-partum continued—a dull slog that would sneak up behind her. But it lessened. A faded blue rather than the darkest black night. Mona no longer wanted to flee.
The medical tent, as the staff at the zoo called it, was a towering weathered barn with heated cement floors at the northern end of the property. It held five long stalls big enough for the largest animals. Each stall was separated by insulated walls to block sound and prevent panic. Mona sat on a rolling stool so that she could easily access Evie’s legs. She held four long syringes between her fingers, turning herself into the veterinary Freddy Kruger. The needles used to draw Evie’s blood were nearly twelve inches long and felt cumbersome in Mona’s hand. Evie was standing, tethered to the ground with a chain attached to a stake, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. Mona calmed her, talking softly about the weather as Katherine lightly stroked Evie’s chest. In the past, the elephants were drugged with a dart gun. Thankfully, that practice had fallen out of favor.
Evie’s demeanor changed to near stillness as Mona spoke. Slowly, Mona eased the first needle into the elephant’s leg. She pulled the plunger back, and Evie moaned softly, presumably in discomfort. Mona had drawn blood from elephants hundreds of times. Still, the force necessary to pierce the skin always surprised her, like the kickback on a gun after it’s fired. Katherine readied a blue caddy so that she could easily take the tubes of blood to the clinic in the zoo’s main building.
“What’s Mark’s day look like?” Mona asked. She plunged another needle into Evie’s leg. With each puncture, the elephant got more agitated, pawing the ground lightly to signal her displeasure.
“Kala, the anteater, has skin abrasions,” Katherine said. “Then he’s got to examine the newest bear cubs and anesthetize a python.”
“Big day,” Mona said.
“Then, of course, he’ll help analyze this blood sample and sit in on my conference call with San Diego.”
Mona pivoted on the chair so that she could see Katherine’s face. The full vial hung from her left hand.
“I never would’ve inseminated Evie if you told me about the transfer. You knew that, right?” Mona asked.
“I called you as a courtesy, Mona. You’re close to Evie. You’ve been through a lot.”
Mona bit her lower lips, sucking in air hard. Katherine wore a condescending smirk, her eyebrows angled in an aggressive V.
“Have you ever heard the sound an elephant makes when she’s upset?” Mona asked.
Katherine fiddled with the vials of blood—lifting them from the blue plastic carrying case and swirling them in the sunlight that shone through the barn’s wall of windows.
“I studied African elephants with the IUCN for three years after I graduated,” Mona began. “We were tracking a large female herd with strange migrant patterns. Every month or so they’d return to the same spot.”
Katherine clicked her tongue lightly. Mona knew it was a signal that she should hurry the story along.
“When the elephants were there, the matriarch of the herd made this noise, a wail. A scream. The only thing I can compare it to are the sounds a woman makes in labor combined with the heart-wrenching cries of devastation.”
“What was it?” Katherine asked.
“Two guides went and examined the grounds to see. There were elephant bones there. Small elephant bones in a shallow grave. We could only assume it was a burial site for her baby.”
“You understand we’re not harming the calf?”
Mona laughed quietly and smoothed the wrinkles on her forehead.
“Calves nurse for three years. The males live with their mother for twelve years or until he reaches puberty. The daughter,” Mona stopped. “The daughter never leaves.”
“I’m aware,” Katherine said.
“My point is that your version of harm and mine are vastly different.”
Mona stood and walked to the corner where she’d left Evie’s chart. She leaned against the small folding table and filled in a few blanks on the form, signing her name in slanted script at the bottom.
“Have Mark analyze the progesterone levels for elevation and irregularities,” Mona said. “My notes about her previous levels are in a file in the main building. In five months, we’ll monitor Evie’s serum prolactin levels as well. If, I were you, I’d wait until then to broker your deal.”
Mona strode from the barn, thinking of the cries from the African elephant. Of Evie and her new calf. She rubbed her temples, fighting a headache. She wanted to save her friend, Evie, from the heartache. Mona knew it was silly to think of Evie that way but it was a naked and undeniable truth. Mona had lost a daughter, and now Evie’s daughter would be stripped from her, fed with a bottle rather than her mother’s teat. Some part of that equation made Mona feel less alone but also, deeply sad. For so long she felt she had absorbed all the heartbreak in the world. Now she longed to prevent it.
Mona wanted to quit, but Evie kept drawing her back. Evie struggled with her equilibrium as she gained weight. She would stumble and fall when it rained. One morning, during a thunderstorm, Mark couldn’t get her into the barn. Evie was afraid to cross a muddy pit. She refused to have her blood drawn a few times. Wouldn’t lift her leg for foot care. She responded to Mona alone.
In return, Mona advocated for her. She sparred with Katherine. She brought in statistics about emotional damage to elephants. She spoke to experts researching African elephants in the wild. She contacted a sanctuary in the Tennessee, desperate to find a place for Evie and her calf.
“Retire her,” Mona said, cornering Katherine on a Monday when visitation was low. They were walking through the flamingo forest, pink feathers floating from the trees like gently falling snow.
“Retire Evie?” Katherine said. “That’s a joke, right?”
“Retire her and retire the calf and let them live in the wild.”
Katherine’s mouth hung open, her eyes unable to focus on anything. “Evie was born in captivity. She couldn’t adapt.”
“Fine. Then a sanctuary. A reserve. Or transfer them both to San Diego. Just don’t separate them. You can’t.”
Mona’s words ran together. She reached out to grasp Katherine’s shoulder, to turn her around so she could read Mona’s desperation. But Katherine was too fast. Katherine pivoted as she entered the zoo’s main offices, pressed the door open with her back.
“Those elephants are our biggest draw. They’re the zoo’s most popular exhibit and as such, they raise money. They ensure we can continue to offer free admission. Evie was born here.” She paused. “Drop. This. Now,” Katherine said, poking at the air. Mona watched Katherine disappear in the row of offices, her shoulders pressed back and hair glistening. There was a confidence in her strut, an unending determination that Mona envied.
Mona walked to Evie’s pen. The elephant lay behind a thick log with her back to the crowds. Her belly was hard and round. She had been pregnant a year and still had ten months to go. Mona remembered that point in her pregnancy when she was so uncomfortable, moving hurt. Her ankles swollen. Sweat under her stomach pooling and chafing. Her back in tight knots. Mona ran her fingers against the bars. She hated being pregnant. She hated the way her personal space was consistently invaded by friends and family and the occasional stranger as they stroked her tummy. How a bizarre combination of cravings and morning sickness would ruin her day. She despised feeling like a vessel as Alex continually asked what she ate and drank and did. How his gaze felt accusatory as she told him a ham sandwich, one that wasn’t warmed to fight listeria. As Mona stared at Evie struggling to stand, she knew she never wanted to be pregnant again.
Mona thought of Alex and how tentative he was when he first told her he wanted to
have a child. They had been in the bedroom of their old apartment on Sheridan Road and he had lightly traced her shoulders, the pads of his fingers delicate like a ripple on a pond. Let’s start a family, he’d said in a voice that was part man, part purr. The moment had excited her, before she understood the sacrifices and the risks.
Alex had reached for her recently. His fingers traveled from her lower back and inner thighs. He wanted her to consider having another child. The thing she couldn’t say aloud was that she had a child. She had the only child she wanted to have.
“I’m not ready,” she said to him, grasping his hand as it trailed along her body and pulling it on top of their blue and cream duvet. Alex smoothed the covers as he tried to avoid Mona’s eyes.
“Do you think—” Alex stopped. “Do you think you will be soon?”
“What’s the question exactly?” Mona asked. “Is it, are you ready to have sex? Or, are you ready to have another baby?”
Mona twirled a loose strand of hair around her pointer finger. She pretended to scratch her shoulder—an excuse to hug herself more tightly.
“Can we talk about this later? It’s really a bad time.”
Alex propped himself up on his right elbow and fingered the papers on Mona’s lap. Mona leaned her head against their padded headboard, her eyes fixated on the ceiling. Alex rolled over and lit a cigarette, holding it in a pucker between his lips.
“I know we need to talk,” she began. She grabbed his free hand, rubbed the peaks and valleys of his knuckles with her thumb. She fought the urge to cry, squeezing his hand a few quick times. Alex undoubtedly noticed the tears that seeped from her. He nodded towards the black files with Evie’s medical records and Mona’s research.
“How’s it going?” he asked, blowing the smoke away from her.
Mona looked at the files on her lap, then at her husband. She had known Alex for ten years. She’d built a family and lost one with him. He’d seen her graduate vet school. They’d lived in five different apartments. She knew in the morning he ate almonds. She could predict the book he would buy in an airport as they rushed to their gate. Still, knowing him didn’t help her explain anything. She stared up at his face, memorizing the new lines that streaked across his forehead.
Mona laced her fingers through his, resting her temple on his shoulder. She wanted to tell him how important Evie was to her. At the same time, she needed him to know that she couldn’t be a mother again. The title was permanently shucked from her like some form of karmic punishment.
“I don’t know what to do,” Mona said. She looked up at him. She wanted to add more, unsure if the comment was about his desire for more children or about Evie or both. She let the words float in the air with the lingering cigarette smoke.
Later that week, Katherine called in the middle of the night. Evie was making a loud, alarming noise. It echoed throughout the zoo, causing the other animals to chatter deafeningly to one another. When Mona arrived, she heard the squawks of the flamingos, the deep roar of the lions, the restless groan of the trees as the apes swung aggressively through the branches. It was a symphony, and Evie’s painful cry underscored the rhythm.
The air was unseasonably cool and a thin layer of dew rested on the ground. The three other elephants in the herd had been removed from the pen. Evie was alone. The lights were bright, but Evie was in a shady grove by a tree line. As Mona got closer, she noticed Evie was bent over a small, immobile lump. The calf was a deep gray color—a combination of its natural hue and the blood from delivery. Evie’s trunk was wrapped around her baby’s stomach. Even with her experience in Africa, Mona had never heard a sound as fresh and raw as Evie’s bawl. She thought back to the day she had discovered Libby, her chest no longer rising and falling. Her skin tinged blue. Somewhere within her, Mona knew she’d made a sound like Evie’s. The wails were long and low, sorrowful.
Evie lifted her head, suspicious of anyone who encroached on her and her daughter.
“Evie, it’s ok. I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to hurt her.”
Mona made herself smaller; she got on her knees and crawled the remaining distance between them. There was a rim around the elephant’s eyes that looked strange, like bright blue eye shadow. Her eyelashes were highlighted by moist condensation. She couldn’t stop crying.
Mona laid her hand on the calf’s side. Even wildly premature, the calf would weigh over one hundred pounds.
“She’s beautiful, Evie,” Mona said. She remembered her own daughter’s birth. The cold, sterile room. The white blinding lights. The shrieking wail of life filled with hope rather than pain. “She’s really special.”
Evie cried again and Mona wanted to carry her away. She wanted to take her some place to be alone, to grieve. Instead, she sat with Evie and the dead calf. Mona collected a few branches that had peeled from the trees nearby, leaning and stretching her fingers so that she wouldn’t have to get up and startle Evie. Mona stacked the brittle twigs, two or three layers high, around the calf’s body in a tight square. She thickened the lines with pine needles that were nearly the same texture, brown and stiff. Evie stared intently at Mona as she worked. Then, the elephant followed suit—extending her trunk and breaking a limb from a thin tree nearby. They encircled the stillborn with a casket and laid just outside the makeshift box, gazing at the baby Evie had created. The one she lost.
Mona pushed through the door after an hour. Katherine waited in the barn. She had a nervous habit of chewing on her nails, and she aggressively worked on her pinkie. There was blood on Mona’s hands and down her jeans. She smelled like mud and pennies. She started washing her hands. The water scalded her stained skin, causing them to flush pink again. She was unable to speak.
“Well,” Katherine said, her voice sharp as she came closer to Mona. “What happened?”
Mona stopped, ran her hand over her eyes, and lightly scratched her jawline. When she was uncomfortable, tiny hives formed at the base of Mona’s face and she felt raised bumps as they corroded her skin. She dried her hands even though they were still tarnished with Evie’s blood.
“Stillborn. And that elephant.” She paused. “That elephant will never be the same.”
“What can we—?” Katherine began.
“Just stop.” Mona slammed her arms against the sink, the paper towel clenched in her fist. “Let her go. Let her go anywhere else. Let her have a life outside.”
Katherine’s arms were crossed defensively and her mouth was a thin, definitive line.
“There’s space at a sanctuary in Tennessee. Let Evie retire there. Please.”
Mona sounded like a petulant child as she begged. She crossed her ankles and looked at the cheaply paneled ceiling.
Mona sighed. “My kid looked like that, Katherine, and I had to figure out what to do. Before I really knew how to be her mother, I had to bury her.”
Katherine didn’t say anything. She scurried around the room, stacking and rearranging files in a flurry of nervous energy. Mona crossed the floor and touched her forearm, a way of calming her.
“You have a son, right?”
Katherine nodded her head slowly.
“Now imagine you don’t. He’s gone. You wouldn’t want to be in the same space. Can you hear Evie wailing? If she stays here, she’ll die of a broken heart. I can see that happening. Please. It’s an extenuating circumstance. Please let us take the spot in the sanctuary.”
Katherine was unable to speak, her lips forming words that didn’t come out. Mona imagined she was picturing the terrifying scenes that go through all mothers’ minds. The glimpses of anxiety and worry that accompany every skinned knee and broken bone. All late night phone calls when their children have missed curfew. That burning question that lingers. What if I can’t protect them? Mona gently rubbed Katherine’s back, the slideshow in her mind conjuring Libby’s lifeless body.
Two weeks later, Mona chose a quiet spot to bury the remains of Evie’s daughter. It was on a slight incline within the sanctuary’s one hundred and twenty acres. The eastern perimeter was lined with mango trees, and Evie had eaten so many within her first week at The Farm, her fecal matter had turned fluorescent orange. Evie visited the tiny grove daily and lingered there well past dusk when the sun hung so close to the ground it looked like low-hanging fruit.
The ground’s keeper had dug a shallow grave in preparation for the burial. It was a grave that would easily be uncovered. Alex stood next to Mona, wearing a plain white t-shirt and khaki shorts. The two had driven the calf’s ashes and a few small bones removed from the calf’s foot in a simple pine box to the sanctuary’s grounds. The bones would help Evie stop and recognize and mourn, her sense of smell able to easily detect her daughter’s remains.
“Have you ever heard of a sky burial?” Alex asked.
“No,” Mona replied.
“It’s this. It’s what we’re doing. You bury your loved ones at the top of a hill. You allow them to be exposed to the elements. To the animals. You let nature take its course.”
“What about visiting? Talking to them?” Mona asked. She remembered Alex placing black seashells on Libby’s grave, remnants of a recent vacation. He had mourned in the cemetery, visiting often to replace flowers and clean Libby’s headstone. Mona found no peace in that place but sometimes she would buy pink balloons and, standing at her grave, she would send them into the air, picturing her bubbly girl extending her hand to graze one.
“Do you think the only place you can talk to Libby is a grave?” he said. He removed the elephant calf’s cremated ashes, scattering them into the hole and sifting sand around them. Then Mona placed the few bones Evie would uncover just below the surface of the grave, an ecru slice jutting from the earth. “Libby’s everywhere. I see her in everything. Sometimes I think I hear her laugh in the next room or on a bus. It’s like a phantom limb,” he said.
Mona sat on the ground beside the grave. She wrenched her knees to her chest, hugging them tightly as she rested her chin on them.
“I sing to her sometimes,” Mona said. “That awful Barney song about family. I smack my lips together after the line with a kiss from me to you. Just the way I did when she was alive.”
An elephant walked behind Alex. She used her trunk to pry the tall braided grass from the ground. It was Tia, the African matriarch. She was forty-four years old, retired from the circus. Her hide was puckered with hook wounds. They looked like round track marks, each a perfect circle highlighted by raised skin.
“I wish I could’ve done anything right.”
Alex dusted the clay and the ashes from his hands. He sat down beside her and rested his forearm against the small of her back.
“We can try again,” he said, half-heartedly.
“No,” Mona said simply. “I can’t.”
She picked the dirt from her nails.
“Do you have a cigarette?” she asked. He shook one out of a new pack, held a Zippo lighter to the end. The tip glowed orange in front of her. She hadn’t smoked in years but at this moment, something about the smell made her feel more like her. More at home. She didn’t take a drag. She let it burn to her fingertips.
“You look at home,” Alex said, leaning casually against a thick tree trunk. His tone wasn’t laced with anger, the way it once had been. Mona smiled.
“I like it here,” she said.
“You’re not coming back, are you?” Alex asked, cutting through the chitchat.
Mona looked down at her shoes. She watched Tia and wished she could run her hands along her skin, excavating the physical pain.
“I think this is where I should be.”
“I thought you might say that.”
Alex stood and looped his pointer finger through his belt loop. He towered over Mona until she climbed to her feet with a grunt, facing him. He pulled her to him, smelling her hair. Mona heard another elephant moving through the grove. It was Evie. She played with a deflated soccer ball nearby, watching Alex and Mona. A jubilance exuded from her as she high-stepped through the course straw.
“Stay with me,” Mona said, placing her hand on his elbow.
Alex shuffled his feet, knocking over his red backpack. On it was an enamel pin of an elephant and the sanctuary’s name.
“I want another baby,” he said bluntly. “I want to choose the first song my kid hears and get up at three a.m.”
“I think I’ll always look for Libby in any baby we have,” Mona said.
Alex pigeon-toed his feet then rubbed the sole of his shoe against his calf. He slipped his hand into the side pocket of the bag and pulled out the impossibly soft elephant with the words “Lincoln Park Zoo” on its tag.
“I know you give yourself hell,” he said. “But you were a good mom.”
Mona scrubbed the stuffed animal over her eyes, wiping the tears. She inhaled deeply, smelling Libby.
Katie Sherman is a freelance journalist and author who covers fine food and parenting—two things rarely related—in Charlotte, NC. She has an MFA in fiction as well as an affinity for Southern Gothic literature, cider beer, Chicago, and morning snuggles with her two daughters. Katie has published stories or has work forthcoming in Mothers Always Write, Donut Factory, Bluestem, Literary Mama, The Remington Review, and in Owl Hollow Press’s Pick Your Poison anthology. Katie is working on her debut collection. She can be found on Twitter @KatiePSherman and Facebook @KatiePiccirilloSherman44.