My father collected small elephants sculpted in wood,
as others collect carved crosses.
Praising fidelity to conscience and compass,
or reprimanding self-deceit and betrayal,
they counseled him in dreams
that woke him shaken and sweating.
Sometimes he woke to find
that he could not remember most of the women
who surrounded his disheveled bed
like angry mirrors reflecting his malignant regret.
Providence once laid a perfect gift
across his hand.
He grinned appreciatively
and shrugged; but the unlike the aphoristic swine,
his insouciance was deliberate.
As he wandered on alone into the decades,
He began to wonder where he had mislaid the gift,
not recalling when he had noticed missing it.
Regret accumulated interest
that only love could have paid.
So it was purchased by dread.
Collection agencies left messages on his phone.
Still, he listened to them,
hoping for any old familiar voice.
To my eyes, his was a sudden decline.
He lay awake, stood, sat,
walked, ate, pissed,
and lay awake again,
faithfully attended by his loneliness.
Visiting for Christmas, I lay on a mattress
by a window of his tiny house,
and shuddered at the futility that I heard
in my half-hearted call to him.
A pistol shot is an unmistakable sound.
In the driveway I held his hand.
Blood pooled and overflowed the folds of his coat.
His eyes were closed
against the world.
In days that followed,
he paced and stood in my peripheral vision,
unable to quit a nightmarish solitude
incomparable to his former loneliness.
The back yard fence I’d found him slouched against
what had become for him an impassable perimeter of regret.
His brother, who had flown out for the funeral
pointed high on a wall of my father’s bedroom,
to an azure and gold design on a circular canvas,
“I made this piece just for him” he said, smiling “as a shield
to take into the next world.”
“Let’s burn it, so as to send it with him.”
I needed a ritual.
In the back yard, as we set it on flames,
Myself, my father’s brother, his brother’s wife, and mine,
and watched it curl to ash.
We drowned the embers in wine, then
feeling foolish, I spoke out loud
as I slid the glass door back for us all to enter —
“Pop, if you’re here…”
Something fell from the shelf above,
grazing my shoulder, and disappeared
into houseplant foliage at my feet.
“Did you hear that?–that high-pitched sound?”
my uncle asked.
The air that was suddenly brittle.
“No” I replied as I groped among the leaves.
I didn’t need to see what I had grasped
when I felt its pointed tusks,
it’s delicate trunk held high
in some stately proclamation.
I held it up for all to see–
the very elephant from a poem
my father had written long before about
his final dream of the totem
that he had betrayed.
It had gazed at him silently, giving my father time
to contemplate a bullet hole
through the skull of his soul’s noble creature.
Helplessly, my father watched it “diminishing,
disappearing” as he wrote, with an “infrasonic cry.”
He followed us back to our own distant home,
where he continued to pace, or sit in our yard.
I saw him daily from the edge of my vision,
until one day, after laying with my wife beside open windows
of our decrepit farm house in leaf-song of summer breeze
I realized that he had gone.
Months later, as she lay alone in a hospital bed,
a stuffed elephant leapt down from a shelf
into her lap.
Large, violet, pink, and purple as a newborn infant,
it leaned tenderly to her lips
to press a velvet kiss.
Orgasmic spasms became contractions
waking her to find that she was in labor.
We realized later
that the child’s name,
an old family name, sounded like elephant.
This was decidedly coincidental.
But when she spoke it with her un-mastered toddler’s tongue,
It came out Ephaline,
and we could not dismiss
the communicative synchronicity.