Excerpt of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
(Page 2 of 7)
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A rumble coursed through me as I approached, and it
scared the hell out of me because it was on a register lower than noise. The
ground was vibrating.
I staggered inside and met a wall of yaka great expanse
of curly-haired chest and churning hooves, of flared red nostrils and spinning
eyes. It galloped past so close I leapt backward on tiptoe, flush with the
canvas to avoid being impaled on one of its crooked horns. A terrified hyena
clung to its shoulders.
The concession stand in the center of the tent had been
flattened, and in its place was a roiling mass of spots and stripesof haunches,
heels, tails, and claws, all of it roaring, screeching, bellowing, or whinnying.
A polar bear towered above it all, slashing blindly with skillet-sized paws. It
made contact with a llama and knocked it flatBOOM. The llama hit the ground,
its neck and legs splayed like the five points of a star. Chimps screamed and
chattered, swinging on ropes to stay above the cats. A wild-eyed zebra zigzagged
too close to a crouching lion, who swiped, missed, and darted away, his belly
close to the ground.
My eyes swept the tent, desperate to find Marlena.
Instead I saw a cat slide through the connection leading to the big topit was a
panther, and as its lithe black body disappeared into the canvas tunnel I braced
myself. If the rubes didn't know, they were about to find out. It took several
seconds to come, but come it didone prolonged shriek followed by another, and
then another, and then the whole place exploded with the thunderous sound of
bodies trying to shove past other bodies and off the stands. The band screeched
to a halt for a second time, and this time stayed silent. I shut my eyes: Please
God let them leave by the back end. Please God don't let them try to come
I opened my eyes again and scanned the menagerie, frantic
to find her. How hard can it be to find a girl and an elephant, for Christ's
When I caught sight of her pink sequins, I nearly cried
out in relief - maybe I did. I don't remember.
She was on the opposite side, standing against the
sidewall, calm as a summer day. Her sequins flashed like liquid diamonds, a
shimmering beacon between the multicolored hides. She saw me, too, and held my
gaze for what seemed like forever. She was cool, languid. Smiling even. I
started pushing my way toward her, but something about her expression stopped me
That son of a bitch was standing with his back to her,
red-faced and bellowing, flapping his arms and swinging his silver-tipped cane.
His high-topped silk hat lay on the straw beside him.
She reached for something. A giraffe passed between
usits long neck bobbing gracefully even in panicand when it was gone I saw
that she'd picked up an iron stake. She held it loosely, resting its end on the
hard dirt. She looked at me again, bemused. Then her gaze shifted to the back of
his bare head.
"Oh Jesus," I said, suddenly understanding. I stumbled
forward, screaming even though there was no hope of my voice reaching her.
"Don't do it! Don't do it!"
She lifted the stake high in the air and brought it down,
splitting his head like a watermelon. His pate opened, his eyes grew wide, and
his mouth froze into an O. He fell to his knees and then toppled forward into
I was too stunned to move, even as a young orangutan
flung its elastic arms around my legs.
So long ago. So long. But still it haunts me.
I DON'T TALK MUCH about those days. Never did. I don't
know whyI worked on circuses for nearly seven years, and if that isn't fodder
for conversation, I don't know what is.
Actually I do know why: I never trusted myself. I was
afraid I'd let it slip. I knew how important it was to keep her secret, and keep
it I didfor the rest of her life, and then beyond.
From Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen. © 2006 by Sara Gruen. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.