At first I thought I was four-handed. Later I found I had one, and later still, five: one to grasp, two to kick, two to crush the beetles – shining / hunting /crawling – and the hunting people within. Before I thought — before I thought as I now do — I knew no hands at all.
Take stock of my appearance, as so many others – fleeing / staring / immortalizing — in tales around the poacher’s fire, in the jellied milk-white of the eye — – have. I was an elephant, once. My head is domed and tall, my eyes wild. My tusks are sloped and piercing and can be used to lift machinery. I have become quite good at lifting machinery. The beetles, primarily – scuttling / rolling / flashing piecemeal bugeyes – are a type of machinery, but they are not the only machines I can lift. I can lift generators, or fenceposts, or bits of roofing — oh, how I love fenceposts. I keep track of the technology humans use, to hunt us, to keep us out out of some misguided paternalism, and the fencepost is so brilliant at these things. A wall that spreads at the speed of a nerve. Easy to uproot nonetheless. Some nights, when the moon is high and there are no men to kill, I will walk miles pulling fencing, humming a low booming song — my herd can hear it, they do not answer — and so at peace. Had I been born man and not elephant perhaps I would have practiced dentistry.
I have spent hours as of late sharpening on my tusks on rocks. They have gotten brittle, but they pierce so easily, these days. If they break, so be it. The discovery of The Full Unfolding has made me uncertain of the permanence of breaks, certain of the possibility of deliverance – under gray hand / across the plain / above each piece of land, suffusing each piece of land – from any injury. No weapon forged against me shall prosper. I learned this from a balding man in a white shirt – stained / buckled / staining – who shot high-caliber at me from a watering hole. It was Summer — all mud there; I stopped by out of habit, and to see a small family of crocodiles I have become quite fond of — and I lost him in a stand of trees. He was, as most men, surprised by how fast, how quiet an elephant moves. Perhaps, aside from my certain abilities of learning, this is what has kept my war so successful. Humans are incurious but I have never ceased to live in wonder of them and their acts.
He was a Christian. At first his actions confused me, as my brain wrestled and pinned christ-words, christ-image, but then I remembered there is no Christianity for elephants besides a misplaced one. I considered forming a Christianity for elephants, but lost thought of it — that thought unpinned and wily — as I had no herd to minister. It left me with one image that to me suggests supreme beauty, that would later be confirmed and cemented in my mind – as if a telephone pole or / a concrete tree with red electric branches or / a foundation pit – by the unveiling of The Full Unfolding:
A tall spire moving spirewards towards the sunlight. It moves and worms and spindles, inlaid in itself are bits of cathedrals — it is embossed with them, birds and apes and other flying things shuttle to and fro for prayer — and each day a new layer of the spire pushes out of the Earth towards God and towards an infinite – yearning / forward-backwards dreaming / moving of the hands – capacity for belief in a unifold divinity. The base of the spire lays below the dry soil of the savannah, the countless buried there. Its ears flap in the geothermal heat, its milk-brown eyes flutter lashes which shake nations and drown cities. Its trunk a leathered serpent running amok in the underground. An enormous elephant, heart of burning churning earth, its ivory carved and made perfect before the lord of burning whiteness.
Anyhow, the man in the white shirt began to pray when I found him. Dashed his head against the rocks and fed half of him to the crocodiles — three pups that year.
Little else to take stock of in my appearance: my skin is gray and furrows — the skin is a great organ, I have learned, which means a pulsing meaty vital thing, the largest upon me. It, like my brain, is furrowed: on some days when I have felt dull I have wished to shed it all and fold it and place it with my fifth hand, my – water-drinking / bough-moving / hold-not-crushing – hand, in the spot where my brain currently is, among the soft liquids of the skull. My head is domed and furrowed and it places thoughts in triplicate and sets them like bones, with shimmering liquid concrete. The arrangement of my teeth within my mouth is like a concert hall. I have taken to eating men.
Take stock of my history. Like many heroes I am fatherless. I knew my mother for a short time; she was taken from me. No knowledge has yet brought me to the land of men who killed her. The Full Unfolding has brought it close; I am too afraid to walk into the shadow of my mother’s death, the technicolor of her life, but that door is open to me and has been ever since I found the graveyard and the tunnels underneath it. It is perhaps that fear that has kept me from walking into all times. I was a skittish child; the herd knew me – red-eyed / dark-eyed / wild – before I knew myself; for that they cast me out. I cannot blame them; they saw a hatred in my heart they could not heal with song or good pasture. Or they called it hatred; though they identified I was not fit for this world they named the wanting I felt wrong.
It was not hatred but a hunger that had not yet learned what it hungered for. It was an eggshell-colored grub, like those who grow in dying trees, and it had intertwined – scolex mouth on nape / legs deeps in joints / my nerves, my hotblood veins its branching orchard tongue – itself around my spinal column. In my years alone it would send waves of hunger through me — my legs trembled, my head grew low, mouth frothed; I uprooted trees — and for days I would rage in endless war with the beasts of the field. I hunted lions until my four stomping hands were scarred and they were as solitary as myself; had I sewn a gown of them it would trail long and bitter, a river of stinking, slinking pelts. Once lions were sparse I took to consuming riverbeds of clay.
My methods were methodical; I stripped the bank, flattened the earth and transformed it with my hands into slabs. With my fifth hand I rolled them and swallowed them whole. In this way the rivers of my country became known as my domain; their history was mine. I did not know it then but I was finally sating my hunger — the halfwit beetle demanded histories.
It was by the riverbank that I found the first man who would feed it.
The river was scarred – as my legs / my tongue / my face – and in a hollow I had carved by its bank a man lay deposited. I was in the midst of my rage — I wouldn’t have thought to leave him alive; men were more loathsome than lions — yet nevertheless his consumption was accidental – I grabbed his neck in my hand and rolled it as I rolled the clay. I had fled from man before; I knew their ways, their scuttling insect machines, and feared them. They seemed difficult to uproot, wide, in a way that the trees and the rivers were not. Those things grow down; they attune themselves with the earth and its rhythms, their survival, its survival. I myself was an elephant, a beast of the field, and as they too were beasts of the field I felt our lot was linked, and for that reason, they were to consume and trample and run my tusks against in my anger.
Man spread wide, its roots thin; it could leave no earth and prosper regardless. They were triumphant in a way I knew I was not, and my – wandering / far-off / unwelcoming – people certainly were not. They were the horizon; they had lifted themselves up from the earth and spread far, with no deepness, hungrier than I and no less raging. They could kill my mother — as they did — and leave no instinct towards vengeance in me, such was their killing will and my inability to understand their history. My hungry second spine wanted them, that it knew; I ate the man who died like clay and felt sated in my hating rapacity for a time greater than any I had ever known. I wished to apologize: to lions, to baobabs, to the river, a great pythonic amoeba. They had never been meant to sate my hunger: my herd had been right to exile myself, for I had never been an elephant. I had limboed as one for a time, play acted as a beast of the field — I had consumed the beasts of the field in an attempt to consume myself — but I found myself beyond that upon receiving this sacrament. Perhaps that moment, not later, was when I thought of myself as Christian.
Anyhow, I ate the man; strange things rumbled within me, thoughts of expansive cockroach eras fixed themselves in my mind. I hauled my aching clayfull belly to a soft dry spot in the river — blocked it with my body, my scarred hands, my lolling eyes — and opened my mouth so as to drink it all dry. This was how I slept, and when I awoke I was named.
The identity of that first man still haunts me. Next to my mother’s death, it is the history I most hope to dredge from the dry earth, from between tufts of sandyellow grass. He was astonishingly literate. He elevated my opinion of humans, the history they could contain, far beyond reasonable levels. Each disappointment in subsequent consumption felt like a blow; my hide was weeping sores; I feared I had consumed so many tumors, forever besmirched myself. I skinned my hide raw against sharp relict rocks and termite mounds that bit with a million teeth in an attempt to cleanse myself — all this because of how I adored what the man in the riverbank had taught me.
The name I was given is Incognitum. This is how I have called myself since, though it is in effect unutterable: I cannot speak the languages of men, and no elephant will speak to me. It is my name, my history, and I hold it close and safe. Before it belonged to me it was that of an elephant from a Western land. It was furred – boarlike / bearlike / gulonlike – — its tusks curved downwards, its teeth were sharp; its mouth was a colosseum. It had been found as bones — I still wonder if a hunt for such had brought the man to curl up in the river bank — but lived, in the South, until history marched towards it and it walked into shadow and obscurity. It was a proof of God; I learned of its, my, significance, from words inscribed in the brain of my sacrament:
“Stars, well known, have disappeared, new ones come into view, comets, in their incalculable courses, may run foul of suns and planets and require renovation under other laws; certain races of animals are become extinct; and, were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos.”
These words, that name, moved through my body as a prion; each muscle of my form was rewritten. The maggot in my spine shuddered, and had there been another like me perhaps it would have set me to a madness, ready to lay eggs and spawn more hungers like it. My skin, my bulk, was infinite. When I awoke within the river it was dry.
Take stock of my hunts, now: bearing a name and purpose I set out hunting and uprooting metal with my tusks. I lost few battles; devoured a Japanese hunter early in my pursuit of the horizon and learned, then, of the story of a certain giant from the East. Assembled from the bones of war dead, hunger dead, it succeeded in its hunts because it was so tall it met the rooftops, met the mountains, and because its prey never thought to look up. The giant was no Incognitum, it lacked a certain sentimental – yearning / archaic / rooted – value for me, but I too was a collection of men. In another era I would have taken its name. Perhaps there is still a chance.
Bones too I found on the low flat savannah, in a shattered asteroid-like basin far from scuttling humvees, from piercing lead rounds. It was where my family, my herd had laid to rest the hundreds dead for generations. It is, I am sure, where my mother was laid to rest, though I have not found her bones on my sojourns there. I do not know how I would recognize them.
They learned of it through songs, through the soft gestures of the eye towards a spot due north, surrounded by pure pasture, if they ever needed to learn of it. I have become convinced, as of late, the knowledge of this place was genetic, a birthright. My fellow elephant’s bones scuttled with a thousand tidbits of history that buzzed – like termite mounds enraged unto benevolence or / straining filaments of water-moving fungus or / a great fat honeyguide perched gray-eyed and squawking – within them and instructed them on how to live and where to die. I had instead received the maggot. They were of a kind, a people, and as such all came natural and free and just to them, raised by mothers, known by all and admired for what they brought to the migration or to the songs trampled out in handprints in the dust.
I received knowledge of the graveyard all the same from another bested hunter: a camouflaged ranger in a beige beret which tumbled from his head in panic as I emerged – scar-legged / wild-eyed for show / hate-toothed – from a stand of trees by the dead river that had long knew my depredations. He was, I learned, from the histories in his skull, the histories of surrounding towns that wanted me for my bones, and the government like a great amalgam of fencing squatting bowlegged over the cities rising like brushfire past the plain, who wanted my type alive for future generations’ bone harvests, and I dead for my uprootings and my upturnings and the way the audience of molars in my jaw came down on skin. This made little difference to me; he was unremarkable aside from the path to the elephant graveyard that he provided me.
I spent several days in thought or miasma — the path being clear made no difference in the attainability of each step, or in my rage. I began to feel isolated in a way I had not since those days when I had hunted lions. What was owed to me was absent; or, worse, it was something that I had gathered by means of those same groups that thought to kill me rather than shun me. I sat, not eating, wasting, considering the wet watering hole so near, with the crocodiles. I thought to stomp them out with my hands in the water, raised myself upon my legs, then did not think at all as I moved, hungering, until I thought to and commanded myself to sit again. I thought of myself as one of those beetles – wheelhanded / manned / blinking out light unthinkingly, or no light at all to hide – and I plunged my hands below the soil as if to dig out the elephant I had dreamed beneath all I knew and began to plow a highway. Southeast, towards the graveyard, towards The Full Unfolding.
The Full Unfolding is not something, I fear, even I have properly taken stock of. I will attempt to nonetheless: recently I became aware of the concept of fractals, images that loop, expand, digest themselves. They are themselves in macro and microcosm. Spreading images. There is a white salt-tunnel under the elephant graveyard; it burns my skin, its roof sits as rows of tossed-out bodies in the ditches of my curled hide and its floor gets between the nails of my hands and sits there biting. In it is history, congealed. I ate the salt and I remembered – too much, too much to fix within a single skull – and became addicted to that remembering. I move through it as a gray iris. The tunnel’s floor is clear, moves parallel. It does not move downwards, it is so spire spiring downwards towards some absolute path but a clear and linear space. It is parallel — I can see, can try to see each and every point it intersects with (so many of them, so many it burns, flakes of points within the whorls of my mind, they sit as the salt does). Infinite. It opens beneath the ribcage – shattered / shattered by my hands / shattered, cleared and rearranged by my sharpened waning tusks – of a great elephant. Its head lies gaping open in wonder next to it, single fifth-hand-socket staring. I consumed an educated man and in his thoughts I learned of a race of giants, not my own race, nor that of the skeleton-race I ought to name myself after. One-eyed giants who forged weapons for human gods, and for it were chained in fetters. They tended flocks of sheep on islands near Cyprus, in a sea far to me. Perhaps one ought to have thought of a Christianity for them as well, but isolated, they had no flocks besides the literal, no herds of their own type to tend.
It is said, by some, by the memories of the educated man who placed these thoughts into some sort of canon, that these giants were never real but instead inspired by skulls. The skulls of my kind. Humans took the sockets of their arms for great eyes as wide and singular as the sun. When I first learned this I took it as a wellspring of power — the movement of my arm as a glare, a great outpouring of will and vision — but now I fear that it is merely a premonition of what will happen on my continent. Time will make cyclopes of all of us, unless history is to be unfolded.
The shattered body is not my mother’s as far as I am aware, but nonetheless I feel it has birthed me. By entering the tunnel that it guards I have found a way backwards, inwards. I am not sure if the dead elephant ought to be thought of as a guardian, however. Perhaps its bulk was loaded atop the tunnel as a blockage against the force of history, a warning to those attempting to enter it that they must first obliterate one of their own’s most sacred rest. Perhaps those that brought the body there thought that, as the body arrested movement into history, it would be arrested from history. Its hide would not peel; its flesh would not jelly in the warmth of a summer rain nor would become jerky and waste in the dry heat of the night but instead would sit perfectly unwilling to budge, to allow any movement of either enzyme-oozing bacteria or wandering freaks like myself, both equally ravenous. I have imagined in my times in the graveyard and in the tunnel a whole line of proboscidean pallbearers hauling the corpse across the plain and into the yard to put a stop to all history. The journey must’ve been arduous — the body’s bones are great, far greater than those of any elephant I have seen across the plane, as large as the distorted memories of herdmates I bear from when I was small and wild. But the task of these imagined figures was noble, and to see the task succeed made the journey with it. This imagined victory did not happen. Vultures alighted on its corpses and stripped it of its skin. Hyenas traveled on pilgrimage and took from its reliquary corpse sinew and muscle. Beetles – six-not-four-legged / bug-eyed, eyes not shining / wheelless, unmanned – kissed from it chunks of fat. And so it wasted away into nothing and I took it with my hands and with my bulk and crushed it until it was passable, then swept the remnants around the mouth of the tunnel, made them a guardian, even if the body from which they came wanted anything but that.
This will be the fate of all elephants. History will eat them. I fear I shall never die — The Full Unfolding has left me unable too, but before that still I feared — and having made peace with that I fear in my trembling legs that I shall not be able to find all their bodies, consume them all. If I cannot place them in a tradition, in the history that lives in rivulets of capillaries, in my spine, they will vanish unseen and unspoken. I am silent, I will run silent, if I can, across the savannah, but I will never be fast enough. They do not speak to me anyhow, and I will not find them for I cannot hear their songs. Too many bodies in the graveyard these days. I have found a new one each time I have come to visit the tunnel, walk it a little further. Our type piles up — I still call their type mine. I do not want to be an elephant, I cannot – too wild-eyed / too knowledgeable / far too illiterate – but more and more I wish for a way to strengthen an association between myself and all that I have lost. I have wandered too long: I will wander longer, it makes me sick.
This is the difficulty with The Full Unfolding. In attempting to describe it, to move outwards, I have only moved further and further inwards. This symptom in my speech, my thought, is echoed by a reticence in my legs — I simply cannot walk the tunnel as I would wish. Let me take stock of myself again, and then try to take stock of it.
When I first discovered it there I was unsure if the effect was physiological or mental. This, to me, suggests something higher — a great wide cloud, a white and glaring god who penetrates – by beams of light / beams of truth / beams of hungry chattering movement – my soul and skin alike and at unanimous times. I am enveloped by this form. Remember fractals; as I realized The Full Unfolding I found myself placing events in fractal, spiraling outwards from each other but all effectively fungible. One event was the same as the other; only some obscure principle of distance or immensity separated them. They could be rearranged and reassembled at will; a cyclops could walk at the same time the skull that made its myth was being formed of proteins in some long gone mammoth’s womb. Beetles drove backwards into their own crashes, far off forwards, they drove in rings. Empires rose and the decadent styles of their declining, skeletal forms inspired great cathedrals; Romanticism, gothic literature sired their own mother cathedrals. I was digging the riverbank and digging the riverbank and digging the riverbank hungry – starving / craving / aching – because his children had stepped sideways and been able to bury him. All this was possible, had been; few had memorized so much as me and so few had realized it. I considered myself heroic at first; I still do. My knack for disassembling memory in churning chambers of my gut had excluded me from life but placed me at a unique opportunity to live all lives. I found The Full Unfolding while I sorted, tasted bones in hopes that one would taste of my own flesh; none did, the sheer immensity of types of memory intoxicated and overwhelmed me. I was discovering my physiology was not fit for cannibalism. I ought to be an eater of men and not elephants.
There were – have been / are / will be – vast, sunlit lands in front of me and all around me. The tunnel an eye, my eye. I will walk into the tunnel and sort it and pin it, wrestle it with my five hands and stamp it out and make it mine, a legacy of my works, as riverbanks, as lions, as men. No herd calls to me; I will go back and make them call. I will form a Christianity for elephants — for though I have not traveled deep, I have traveled far, will travel further — and if it fails I will form myself again. The Earth is an instrument for history and will play it and I will weep. I need to leave it all behind, to travel — if there is no room for elephants in the future then I shall make the past immense. I will meet my mother. I am ready to live in the fields again.
I will make the journey tomorrow, I promise you this. I have become too erudite to bother with anything else. Perhaps by putting this all in writing – tattooed / whittled / cuneiform-engraved – I can break the shackles on my legs and move. First I will say goodbye to the crocodiles; their pups are strong, too many for the watering hole, they will haul their lumbering splayleg bodies cross the plain as I have, silent, so many times. Will the hunters and the poachers miss me? I brought a thrill to their hunts. Will my lost herd miss me? I cannot help but feel those few calls I’ve heard, in the distance, were boomed out in order so that they could know I heard them and did not respond. Calls meant for dead numbers. Will the dead miss me? I do not know, for I can only speak to those dead I eat. It does not matter regardless. I will see them all at all times, in time.
Even these thoughts are triplicate. I have become so good at pinning thought. I am an excellent wrestler. I would fail at the role, were I human, however — I have no mind nor talent for theatrics.
I can only pray this will kill the grub. I will feed it until it bursts and boiling boil-fluid abscesses in my back, hunches me.
Yes, that is all. Take stock of me: I am going to force you to take stock of me, a night before you read this, like something out of a bad dream.
I will see crocodiles tomorrow. Tomorrow I will see all things; there will be as many days in a week as I please. Once, I knew not of weeks, in a time before I knew I had hands. I now know enough that I can abolish the concept entirely with a punching, grasping eye.
I cannot go extinct. Comets may run afoul of planets, certain animals will go extinct, stars will disappear. But they will reappear in the before. I will be the preserving and regulating power.
– Goodbye / hello / the sun is up; it gallops in the sky and glares and I will pull its teeth. –
— Noam Hessler is a poet from New England. They are currently a student at Vassar college, and can be found on Twitter at @poetryaccnt1518.