A Cold Elephant

“I’ve never seen a cold elephant before Mammy!”  
Anna gripped her mother’s hand more tightly and looked up with a troubled expression.
“They’re not cold, that’s just your imagination. They’re fine”
Her daughter still appeared perplexed, so she added,
“Well, I think they put a woollen jumper on them at night to keep them warm.”
The little girl pondered on this for a few moments, uncertain whether to accept this explanation or to demand proof, to see the jumper, to ask who knitted it and who dressed the elephant. Sensing that her mother was not in the mood for questions, she cast her doubts to one side, put on her broadest smile and started skipping down the path toward the bus stop, all the while thinking how cold the elephants must be at night.
They stood alone at the bus stop. Icy gusts blew down from the mountain and Anna’s mother shivered in her spring raincoat. Her gaze remained fixed on the horizon as she drew distractedly on her cigarette and crumpled the empty packet in her fist.
Anna sat down on the kerb and began to trace circles in the roadside gravel with an old lollypop stick she kept in her pocket. Looking back, she was disconcerted to see tears in her mother’s eyes.
“Why are you crying, Mammy?”
Her mother smiled and dabbed the tears hastily while insisting that it was just the wind that made her eyes water and that she wasn’t crying, she had no reason to cry, what reason could she possibly have to cry on a day like this when they were at the zoo? The last few words were blown away on the wind so Anna didn’t hear them and she didn’t feel like asking Mammy to repeat them. Instead, she registered the dull presence of dread in her chest. It had been wakened by the sight of her mother and was growing inside her, moving from her heart and chest down into her stomach. She began to panic and longed to turn to Mammy, to bury her head in her mother’s coat and cry. But Mammy looked distraught and Anna felt that her tears would only make things worse. She took a deep breath, pulled her long dark hair over her face so that Mammy wouldn’t see what she was doing, bunched up her fist and shoved it into her mouth. Biting down hard on her own flesh was the only way she could make the blackness go away. As the pain flooded through her it began to recede.

When they arrived home the house was bitterly cold because the new glass-fronted fire had gone out. Mammy set about lighting it and was just lifting the coal shuttle when she realised with a start she’d forgotten to buy more cigarettes. Anna watched as her mother sank her head into her blackened hands moaning in despair.

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