Lydia chose Thailand because that’s where her four closest friends from Barnard told her she simply must. “The jungle! The spices! The color! The culture!” Their time in Bangkok and its surrounding villages was all they could even talk about after they returned from teaching children rudimentary English. They raved about the exotic cuisine, the spectacular wildlife, and the cheap, cheap alcohol. And while Lydia heard little about actual Thai children, she was never really listening when her friends raised that subject.
She was too distracted by the ineffable sense that somehow, they had changed.
In truth, Lydia felt left out. She could have easily joined them on the Great Adventure; instead, she spent 2013 dating a wealthy Manhattan lawyer she was sure she should marry, traveling far less than expected, (only once to Paris, twice to LA to meet his parents), before deciding she really needed to start living her life before she turned 24 and it was too late. The lawyer, who had been cheating on her, took the rejection gracefully.
Now that she was planning her own Great Adventure, it mattered little that Lydia hated muggy climates, had a terrific fear of insects, and had the tolerance for spicy food of a toddler; she was going to experience the land her dear friends loved so much, even if it killed her. And for her first few days there, she was halfway convinced that Thailand would kill her...
That is to say, her bug spray did not work nearly as well as advertised, she anguished over every strange flavor burning its way down her esophagus, and she particularly resented the nasally twang of the Thai accent. The lower percentage of English speakers than anticipated was yet another outrage (especially since her friends came here to teach the damn language!). Tip-toing through the crowded streets of Bangkok, she was too upset to even ask for directions. And so, with a heavy heart, she began to make plans for an early return to America.
Then, on day four, The Miracle happened.
After finishing a modest Continental breakfast in her room, Lydia wandered out of her hotel lobby onto a tour van, white and red with blue stripes. It drove her clear out of the city to a nearby village. There, it deposited her group by a small, dusty park. Looking around with a grimace, Lydia suddenly saw something that would change everything. There in the middle of the park stood a baby elephant before an easel and blank white canvas. In its trunk danced a small black paintbrush. Lydia could not believe her eyes; the elephant was painting! Taking shape on the canvas was an image of a baby elephant lifting a flower to the sky. And it wasn’t just a crude image — it was actually good!
Lydia felt a deep, impassioned swelling in her breast as the little gray elephant before her stared intently at the canvas before it, marking out each brush stroke with exacting yet trembling finesse of trunk. Lydia marveled. She herself could not paint so well.
Finally, the crowd of wealthy Westerners erupted in applause as the little elephant took a solemn bow, its stern-faced trainer by its side, an attendant lifting the easel in the air to move the finished work to the sales booth. Lydia’s sense of awe and wonder restored, she spent fifteen American dollars for an identical image painted earlier — signed “Suda” — then returned to Bangkok and her air-conditioned hotel room feeling she had found exactly what she was looking for. Lydia cut her trip short the next day, was back in the airport the next night, and upgraded her return flight to America to first-class.
And it was, as Lydia flew over the Pacific, that the little elephant Suda lay awake in her tight metal cage behind the village park, her right ear itching its phantom itches — on the same spot where her trainer tugged it when she failed to follow the correct choreography. Suda knew deep down that she could paint much better without the fear of painful tugging; but she also knew it would continue. The Trainer would not risk letting her paint on her own before those strange white faces. Suda remembered well the beatings from her youth whenever she made a mistake.
An elephant never forgets.
That night, Suda again wondered about the baby elephant she knew so well by heart, the one in the picture she painted each day, holding its pretty flower up to the sky. Suda knew one thing for sure — that this happy elephant in the image was not Suda. Suda was not even sure such a happy elephant existed anywhere in the world anymore, or ever would again. She herself had not felt such happiness since she was four years old… before they ripped her away from her mother… before the paintbrush…
And on her first-class plane ride back to America, Lydia sipped her champagne and savored the memory.
What a marvelous story she would soon be sharing with her friends!
What a transformative adventure this was!
What a well-earned treat!
And she reclined in her seat with a sigh, and she slipped off once again, to sleep.
Benjamin A. Friedman is from Northern New Jersey, the child of a Tai Chi-loving biophysicist and a Conservative Rabbi’s daughter. His personal religion as a child was dinosaurs and space aliens. He received his BA in English and Cinema Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007, and his major interests include philosophy, social justice, the history of civilization… and of course paleontology and astrobiology.