“The Elephant”

Chan Chi Wa trans. by Audrey Heijns

April 9, 2020 
The following story was published in That We May Live an anthology of dystopic Chinese fiction. Chan Chi Wa is a freelance writer, editor, and film critic. He was the president of the Hong Kong Film Critics Society from 2012 to 2015 and editor of the literary magazine Fleurs des lettres from 2007 to 2011. His short story collection The Elephant That Vanished was published in 2008.

After the elephant vanished, my life fell into chaos. Strange things happened during that extremely dry summer. It was the kind of drought that O City experienced only once in a century. Many water reservoirs had dried up and drinking water was in short supply, while asphalt roads were full of cracks and trees began to wither. Sweat evaporated as soon as it passed through the skin and people had a thin layer of salt on their faces and backs. Residents complained bitterly and everywhere there were cries of discontent. Officials of O City took turns on television asking for patience. For several days in a row the missing elephant made the headlines in the newspaper, including: “Disappearance of Elephant Damages Popular Trust in the System” and “Matter of Elephant Adversely Affects Public Opinion of the Government.” As a result, the government of O City had no choice but to take the matter of the missing elephant seriously. Everywhere in the street, police not only put up posters with advice on how to use water sparingly but also notices asking the public for leads. All kinds of rumors about the elephant started to spread in the streets, such as that it had been buried hastily by authorities in an attempt to cover up its horrible death from extreme dehydration. My husband Apat said that there was another even more bizarre version saying that the elephant had succumbed to the drought and melted like ice cream, turned into a heap of salt on weeds. Nobody knew what had really happened. I could have regarded the incident as merely a topic for small talk over tea, just like all other citizens of O City. However, on the fourth day after the disappearance of the elephant was made known in the news, two policemen came knocking at my door. I was asked to come to the police station for interrogation. 

The tall constable pulled a photo from his pocket and place it in front of me. “Miss Yip Yau Yau, do you know who this is?” I recognized him immediately. The man in the photo was Ting Wai Ming. He had been my classmate when I was studying in V City. I knew that he had come to the park in O City especially to see the elephant. Several years ago, the park had been built in the suburbs of O City to stimulate the economy. The world’s largest tent was built, and the most famous circus was invited to O City from abroad to perform in the tent and attract tourists to come and see the show. The government even bought an expensive elephant. I did not personally go and see the elephant, but I saw what it looked like on TV and in newspapers. Many people from afar came to see the elephant; Ting Wai Ming was one of them. The tall policeman told me that on the day that the elephant disappeared Ting Wai Ming had been seen near the park. And then Ting Wai Ming had also vanished. His luggage was still in the hotel and he had not checked out. There was also no departure record indicating that he had left the country. They found out that the last call he had made from the room was my cellphone number. In fact, the day Ting called me, he only told me that he had finally seen the elephant, but it was all dried up and much smaller than he had imagined. I said it was probably the dry weather that must have affected its appetite. Then I heard him sigh before he hung up. I relayed this conversation to the officer exactly how it had been, but he only frowned. He asked me if I was sure that I had told him everything, if I had not omitted anything. I had no other choice but to repeat the conversation again. Eventually they made me sign a written statement that was full of spelling mistakes and urged me to notify them immediately should I hear from Ting Wai Ming. Then they let me go home.

Strange things happened during that extremely dry summer. It was the kind of drought that O City experienced only once in a century.

However, my life fell into chaos. From then onward it felt as if I were being followed. In the streets, where normally nobody was about, there were strangers who circled around me front and back, and often there was a strange static on my cellphone. When I told Apat that I was being followed, he laughed at me and said I had read too many detective stories. The headlines in the newspapers were still about the elephant, including “Who Stole Our Elephant?” and “Police Offer Reward for Finding Elephant.” I stared at my computer screen to watch the news until my eyes began to hurt, and I tried to find eyedrops. While I searched in vain, I happened to come across a notebook with Apat’s handwriting on the cover. It had daily records of the times that I went out and came home. I didn’t know why he had made records of that, and I wondered if I should ask him for an explanation. Maybe it was only a weird habit of his. We had been married for five years, but I had never realized he had such a weird habit. I could not find any eyedrops, so I went out to buy them. The dry weather was really unbearable; my lips were so dry all the time that, when I touched them with my tongue, I tasted blood. My skin was so itchy it was unbearable; I had to apply lotion to my face and body all the time. There was a Taoist priest on the corner of the street praying for rain, waving an umbrella, chanting incantations. I walked along the street to the pharmacy that I usually go to. The price of eyedrops had gone up again. While I was walking down the street, I had this extraordinary feeling that I resembled a withered leaf. The bottle of water that I had brought with me was empty. Therefore, I went to find shelter in a coffee shop along the road.

The jukebox in the coffee shop was playing a song. It was a female voice that sang slowly, “It was me and a gun, and a man on my back…” I turned my head away and looked at the wizened tree outside, when I saw Apat stealthily coming out of the building on the opposite side of the street, followed by the tall policeman. They looked at each other and then parted company. I quickly put some eyedrops in my eyes, which must have blurred my vision. I wondered if I was hallucinating—the scene in front of me must have been an illusion, a misconception, a mirage in broad daylight. I blinked and they were already far away. When I returned home, Apat was watching TV in the living room. It was the new model that we had bought in installments last year. People on the screen were talking, but the voice of the song in the coffee shop was still stuck in my head, unwilling to go. In order to dispel my suspicion, I planned to put Apat to the test. I input an appointment in the calendar app of my phone: Wai Ming, Fai Lok Restaurant, Fok Man Road, 8 pm. I left my phone on the side table on purpose and told Apat that I was meeting a friend for dinner that night. I went to the bathroom, staring blankly and breathing in the mirror. Just as I was about to write something on the mirror, the vapor cleared. I changed and went out. I went to Fai Lok restaurant alone. I pushed open the door of the restaurant and saw a reproduction by Bacon, hanging high on the wall. It was Pope Innocent X with his hideous face, mouth open in terror, as if screaming silently at the patrons of the restaurant. I was wondering if this was a new way to stimulate our appetite. The waiter served me a steak that was dripping blood. While I was chewing my steak, I rejoiced that my test had failed. No policeman came to disturb me during dinner and I had no reason to suspect Apat. It must have been the arid conditions that had let my imagination run wild.

I paid the bill and was about to leave when I saw that, to my surprise, it was pouring rain outside. Actually, nobody had expected it would rain. People sought shelter from the rain under the eaves of the restaurant. They were confused and excited at the same time. Everyone was talking and making all sorts of comments. There were even some people running around and cheering in the rain. One man was so shocked by the rain that he stood with his mouth open, a spitting image of Pope Innocent X in the painting on the wall. I looked back at Bacon’s reproduction, but I only saw the tall policeman. He gave a nod in greeting and said in a dull tone: “It’s raining, at last.”

Nobody had expected it would rain. People sought shelter from the rain under the eaves of the restaurant. They were confused and excited at the same time.

Raindrops splashed, hitting the cracks in the road ferociously. We watched the rain for I don’t know how long, when I finally plucked up the courage to ask: “Have you been following me?” He remained quiet for a long time, until he said: “I thought I would see Ting Wai Ming. I did not expect to see rain.” I said: “It was an elephant. Did you really think Ting Wai Ming would steal it? And where could he have hidden it?” He pulled a book from his backpack. It was a collection of Japanese short stories. He said: “This author describes the disappearance of an elephant and his keeper. It also mentions that for some unfathomable reason the body of the elephant kept on shrinking. We think that Ting Wai Ming is involved. Therefore, we must find him.” I said: “But that is fiction…” He retorted: “Don’t they say that truth is stranger than fiction?”

With the end of the dry weather, O City recovered its vitality. The news headlines reported: “Finally Rainfall. Authorities Are Happy to See That Public Opinion Has Gone Up Again.” To celebrate the event, there were fireworks displays in the harbor of O City for several days in a row. They also ordered a couple of specially made robot elephants for the park in the suburbs. They were remarkably true to life. They even imitated the sounds of elephants, while their ears, tails, and trunks could also move. As before, local residents and tourists alike flocked in masses to see them. Apat was still my husband, but between us some things had melted like soft serve, impossible to describe. Yet because of financial considerations, we still continued to play the role of a married couple. And I was still happy to go to Fai Lok restaurant alone and have my steak. I cut the steak and blood slowly seeped out. Outside it was drizzling, moss was growing in the gutter that had once been dried up. On the wall of the restaurant, Pope Innocent X was still hanging with his mouth open. I looked at him for a very long time until my eyes hurt, and then I put eyedrops in. They stopped following me, which felt strange in the beginning, as if life were lacking something. There was no longer anybody concerned about the whereabouts of the elephant or Ting Wai Ming. I remember people saying that the elephant didn’t stop shrinking, but to me it had never shrunk; on the contrary it was growing larger. Both the elephant and Ting Wai Ming were getting larger. They became so large that I couldn’t see them anymore, and I was forever living in their shadows.


“The Elephant” by Chan Chi Wa, translated by Audrey Heijns, from That We May Live, the first in the Calico series by Two Lines Press, 2020.

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