Space Elephants and Giraffes

by Tim Ryan

(For Maura. She asked.)

HANNA was cold. The fine red hair on her arms stood on end. Goosebumps. The unicorn on her shirt pranced on its tiny patch of grass with every gust of wind. Dark clouds had rolled in above her. Rain was coming, she could smell it. She wanted to be down from this metal arch. When she had finally climbed all the way to the top, each blue rung cold on her hands, except where the paint was chipped – still cold, just not blue, she realized an important part of the climb was unconsidered: getting back down. She would have to move to get back down. But she might fall, if she moved.

Hanna wished someone was around. Some person. The stupid crow in the nearby tree didn’t count. He just tilted his head and cawed every few minutes, laughing at her. She didn’t much like crows.

“You stuck?”

Hanna had thought she was alone in the park.

“Are you?” the question floated up again, a little louder.

“No,” she answered.

“You’ve been up there a long time.”

“How long?” Hanna peeked down.

A boy stood below her. He wore a baseball cap, shorts and, for some reason, a big grey raincoat like detectives wear in movies. He was older, maybe fifteen, with rounded shoulders and very thin. Curly blonde locks pushed their way out of his cap in every direction. “It’s been ten minutes since I first saw you.” The boy pointed across the river. “From the bridge.”

The bridge spanned the river valley. Hanna had walked across it to the subway, had ridden her bike across it to go to Lucy’s house and had driven across it in the family’s car. It was a long bridge.

She looked down again. The boy had buried both hands in his coat pockets.

“Where are your shoes?” Hanna asked.

The boy looked down at his feet. “I dunno. Say, do you need help? How about I come up there?” Before she could answer, he shrugged off his coat and climbed onto the structure. “The bars are cold!”

“I know,” Hanna said.

The boy climbed effortlessly. In no time he was halfway up. He stopped for a moment and scratched his bruised elbow. Hanna could see a rainbow across the chest of his T-shirt. Hanna figured anyone with a rainbow on their shirt was okay – a rainbow or a unicorn.

Drops of rain started to fall as the boy climbed. When he reached the apex of the structure, the boy twisted and sat on a rung letting his legs dangle. He didn’t seem to mind the rain.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Hanna.”

“And you are stuck?”

Hanna shrugged. “A little.”

“Are you afraid of falling?”

“Yes.”

“How’d you get up here?”

“Climbed.” Hanna looked down at her hands.

“Are you afraid of heights?”

“I fell out of a tree once and broke my wrist.”

“Which wrist?”

Hanna held up her right arm. “This one. I had a cast for six weeks. Then I had fizotherapy for another three weeks. So…”

“Why’d you climb all the way up here if you don’t like heights?”

“Jenny,” Hanna answered.

“Who’s Jenny?”

Hanna could see that the boy’s eyes were almost purple. Above his left eye a scar creased his fine, blonde eyebrow. “Jenny and Maggie. They’re in grade four, like me. We walk home from school together and this park’s on the way home. Last week, on the way home, Jenny and Maggie climbed up here.”

“And you didn’t?”

“I didn’t climb up. They called me ‘scaredy cat’.”

“Not very nice.”

“Yeah, Jenny’s not as nice now that Maggie lives on our street. Jenny used to be my friend. We liked hopscotch and swimming and road hockey.”

“What happened?”

“Maggie came. She doesn’t like hockey and she doesn’t know how to swim. And at school, she told everyone I was afraid of heights and can’t be a pilot.”

“Pilot?”

“That’s what I want to be. A pilot. Fly planes and go to Pluto.”

“Why can’t you be a pilot?”

“Because I’m afraid to go high.”

“So?” he asked.

“Because you go up high when you fly.”

“And?”

Hanna twisted around and sat on a rung. “How can someone who’s afraid to go high be a pilot?”

“You sound like a giraffe,” the boy said and wiped rain from his brow with the back of his hand.

“A giraffe?”

“Tall animal with a long neck? In Africa? With the spots?”

Hannah frowned. “I know what a giraffe is.”

“Well, I should think so. Being in grade four. I bet you’re pretty smart.”

“I get all three’s and four’s on my report card.”

“Just like I thought. Smart. Knows what a giraffe is.”

“I’m stuck, because I wanted to prove I could climb.”

“Like an elephant.”

“Elephant?”

“Big ears, long nose, lives in –”

“I know with an elephant is!”

“Of course, you do, being in Grade four with all three’s and –”

“Would you stop it!”

“What?” He looked around.

“Giraffes and elephants aren’t important.”

He asked, “Not even space elephants?”

“What are you talking about?”

He put both hands on his hips. “You know. Elephants and giraffes – and Mars.”

“Mars?! What Mars?”

“The fourth planet from the sun. Big and red and – “

“Cut it out! I know what Mars is! What does me being stuck have to do with Mars and giraffes and elephants?”

He paused and his brow furrowed. His left eyebrow went up. “Maybe it’s a grade five thing?”

“Grade five?”

“Well, if you don’t know about it and you get all three’s and four’s ...”

“What about grade five thing?”

“Maybe I shouldn’t …”

“Tell me about the elephants.”

“Not just elephants, giraffes too.”

“What about elephants and giraffes?”

He said, very quietly, “If I tell you, you can’t tell just any other grade four. I’m telling you because you get all three’s and four’s.”

“OK,” Hanna shuffled a rung closer to hear better.

“You know giraffes are the tallest animals, right?”

“Yeah.”

“And you know elephants are the heaviest animals, right?”

Land animals,” Hanna corrected.

“Right, land animals.”

“OK.”

“And you know elephants want to go into space.”

“They do?”

“Of course. Think how great it’d be to be a weightless elephant, floating around, no more sore knees. The elephants wanted to go to space – and be weightless – and use their trunks to grab an asteroid to Mars.”

“Cool!”

“Yeah, but the giraffes said it wouldn’t work.”

“They did?”

“When the elephants asked, ‘Why not?’ The giraffes said, ‘Because you’re too heavy. You can’t get into space.’ So the elephants said, ‘We’ll climb the highest mountain and jump into space.’ The giraffes answered, ‘We can see the highest mountain and it’s not high enough to jump into space.’”

“What if they took a rocket?” Hanna asked.

“That’s what the elephants said. But the giraffes said no rocket was powerful enough to get a heavy old elephant into space. And, laughing at the elephants, the giraffes strode away to find some high tree leaves to eat.

“But the next day, the giraffes felt they could help the elephants better understand. They loped over to where the elephants lived, but they couldn’t find them. The giraffes went to the watering hole and to the waterfall and the Banyan trees. They asked around, but no one – not the hyenas, not the lemurs, not the antelope, not even the hippos – knew where the elephants had gone. The giraffes gave up and went back to the tall trees for lunch.

“The next day, the giraffes found the elephants sleeping in the tall grasses and woke them. The giraffes explained, very precisely, why the elephants could not possibly go to space. They even drew a diagram in the sand. The elephants thanked the giraffes and wished the giraffes a pleasant day.

“Satisfied, the giraffes turned to consider which treetop to taste next, when they heard a small voice ask: ‘If we can’t go to space again, can I keep the moon rock?’

The giraffes turned as an elephant calf held a big rock up to her mother. The other elephants hid their red-dusted toes in the grass.”

“So they got to space?”

The boy shook his head. “Of course not, it was impossible.”

“But they did!” Hanna dangled her legs through the rung on which she sat.

“Whaddaya think?” the boy asked.

Hanna looked down through the rungs at the ground. Then she looked into the boy’s purple eyes.

“Should we show Jenny and Maggie you can do it?”

Hanna nodded.

“Ok. You first?”

Hanna shook her head, “No. You.”

The boy rolled onto his stomach and started down the arch, slowly, rung by rung.

Hanna gazed over at the tree. The crow was gone. She took a deep breath, turned over, and stood with two feet on a rung. She moved her hands down a rung one at a time. Then her feet. Then her hands again. Then her feet. Halfway down, one foot slipped off and fell through the space between the rungs.

“Be careful!” the boy called up to her.

Like that was any help. She’d been being careful, but now her knee hurt and she was straddling the rung she had slipped off of. Plus, she still had to climb down the rest of the way.

“I can’t!”

“Sure you can,” he called up.

“I can’t!” Hanna snivelled. The park was empty, apart from the boy and her. The rain spattered the ground. Hanna listened to the rain and rested her head on a round of the arch. She looked for the boy.

“I’m here. I’m waiting for you.”

“But …”

“Think elephant,” he called.

Hanna raised her head from the rung. He had come all this way to help. He had told her about the space elephants even though she was only in grade four. He was waiting, in the rain, and he hadn’t called her ‘scaredy cat’.

She’d think about the elephants.

Hanna gripped the rung with both hands and pulled her one leg through so that it joined the other leg on the outside of the arch. Both feet found a rung for both of her feet. She stood and breathed.

“Only seven rungs to go,” he called from the grass.

Her hands were cold and wet. She shivered, but the boy was waiting. For her. Hanna took one foot off the rung and dangled it down, searching for the next rung lower. Her toes touched something and found purchase. She lowered herself one rung.

“Good job!” he called. “Only six to go now.”

Hanna moved her other foot down. Then she moved her hands.

“Hand. Hand. Foot. Foot,” he said.

The bars were cold and wet and slippery. Her shirt was soaked. Rain dripped into her eyes from her hair, but she moved again. And then again.

“Can you jump?”

Hanna glanced down. Maybe she could jump. This would be over. She’d be on the ground. With the boy. Wet, but down. She might land on her bum, but she’d be down.

She let go and dropped. Her insides hardened as she slipped through the air, down. She clenched her eyes shut. Then her feet hit the ground and her knees bent and the palms of her hands pressed into the wet grass.

Hanna opened her eyes. She was down.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“You good?” he asked, his face leaning down toward her.

“Yup,” Hanna answered.

He said nothing.

“I should go home,” Hanna said, shivering. “Get warm.”

“Do you live close?”

“Just down the hill. Two minutes.”

His eyes followed her finger. “Need me to come?”

“No. I’ll be okay. No giraffes between here and home, unless … do you want to come to my house? Have a hot chocolate?”

He shook his head. “As long as you think you’ll make it home, I better get my shoes.” He lifted a bare foot.

“You never did tell me about your shoes.”

He shook his head. “It’s not important, anymore.”

Hanna asked, “I’ll see you around?”

“See you on the moon.”

“Or Mars,” Hanna giggled.

“Or Pluto,” he winked.

Hanna turned and walked across the park. At the sidewalk, she turned and waved to him. And then, for no clear reason, Hanna sprinted down the hill, around the corner toward home.

***

He watched her go. Then he picked up his dad’s gray trench coat, put it on and walked across the park. His feet were very cold now. He crossed the road and walked through a smaller park – a place where you could just play catch, or Frisbee, or take your dog for a short run. Not that he did any of those things.

At the end of this park, he crossed another road and stepped onto the sidewalk that led across the bridge. When he reached his things, he stopped. He rested his chin on his hands on the balustrade and peered down at the river. He spit and counted five before the gob hit the water and disappeared. The water moved quickly, gray and murky. A few leaves and branches floated under the bridge. It was a long way down.

Across the river, he located the street Hanna would be home now. Home and warm.

A crow landed on the railing beside him and cawed. The boy moved to touch the crow, but the crow backed away. So, he stood there, on the bridge, with the crow, and his shoes, and his backpack, and the traffic and, down below, the river.

When the wind picked up again, he bent down and put on his socks and shoes. He reached into the backpack, took out two large rocks, and heaved them over the balustrade. He watched them plunge down, down, down into the river. The rocks made two very large splashes.

He slung the backpack over his shoulders and walked away across the bridge.

About the Author

Tim Ryan

Tim Ryan is a writer based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has published stories in the the distant past, then took a break to encounter the "real world" and recently somehow found himself come full circle back to where he should have stayed. His story “Scottie” won first prize in the 2017 Alberta Views short story competition and was published in the January/February 2018 issue of Alberta Views. He is a member of the East Village Writers Collective. When not writing Tim coaches his daughter's soccer and hockey teams, does the dishes regularly, and tries not to get in people's way too much.