Keerthi Sridharan with the elephant"

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Washington, DC – Should I be nervous? It feels odd to be nervous. Nervous at a time like this, that is. The keeper is right next to me, ready to step in if anything goes awry. It’s the smallest one. It isn’t going to hurt me.

(Secretly, I wonder what will happen if it does hurt me. Will it show up in the papers? Dumb Teenager Mauled By Elephant. How will my parents tell all my friends? Will I really die without having ever played Eponine?)

It was my dad’s idea. “You know what you should do, Keerthi? Go touch an elephant!”

Thanks, dad. (I mean, if it’s filicide he has in mind, it’s a pretty good plan. It’ll look like an accident, and all he has to do is slip the keeper a few bucks to look the other way while the elephant impales me.)

From a distance, it seemed easy enough. But now I’m less than two feet away from its trunk, and the top of its head seems miles above the top of my own. The keeper tells me to stroke its trunk.

Okay. I can do this. Okay.

I put my hand out, but before I touch it, I look into its eyes. Her eyes. A female; that’s what the keeper said. It’s – she’s – staring at me. “Hi.” The whisper comes out of my mouth; involuntary. “You’re beautiful.” She is. Huge and bulky and loud, but still graceful. I must look like an idiot, talking to an elephant. And there’s no way she can understand me. But the whispering continues.

“You’re not going to hurt me.” It’s not a question, it’s a statement. But I hear the request in my own voice, the plea. Please don’t hurt me. My fingers uncurl outwards, splayed out and reaching. I stop whispering out loud, but the conversation continues in my head.

Though I suppose it isn’t a conversation. That implies a reply from the other participant.

Your eyes look human, I think. Do you know that? Do you know that I can see how bored you are? My hand is two inches away from her trunk. I’m just another stupid human to you, aren’t I? We’re all stupid to you. An inch. I don’t blame you. We’re all stupid to us, too. And then my fingertips reach a wall.

It feels like a wall. A leathery, hairy wall – like a statue covered in tough fabric. “You’re beautiful.” I say it again, out loud, just in case she didn’t hear me the first time. I can feel muscle under her skin, under the thick, tough layers of leather. I close my eyes; I want to remember this. I want to remember this feeling of insignificance; how small and unimportant I am next to her. A melancholy thought – but for some reason, it frees me.

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