Of Mirrors and Elephants

by Mae Siu-Wai Stroshane

At night I dream of elephants. Those gray behemoths on four legs, clothed in wrinkles like oversized uniforms. Everything about them is oversized. Their huge bony skulls, their dusty toenails and protruding tusks, their snake-like trunks, their giant swaying asses decorated with ridiculous tails like whips. They parade past me, winking and calling to me like a trumpeting army. I awake bathed in sweat, gasping for breath and clutching the pillows on my knees. My heart hammers like a shutter in the winter wind. What have I to do with elephants?

It's been three years that I've lived in these rooms, this velvet prison of silver picture frames, bland meals on fine china and fresh flowers brought every day by cheerful hospital staff. In all this time, Mr. Treves has forbade anyone to bring any sort of mirror into my presence, as if the sight of my own face will cause me to shatter like the glass.

He doesn't know I can see myself whenever I want. All I have to do is remove my mother's portrait from its silver frame and gaze upon every outrageous bump and twisted lump on my head, every warty fold that my fingers explore. I stare at my reflection in the picture frame, then compare it to the portrait of the dark-eyed beauty I remember so well, the loving mother who taught me to read and sewed special garments to fit my monstrously changing form.

I know very well what I look like. My resemblance to an elephant is debatable, but it's the best the freak show managers could come up with. Those men were a godsend, freeing me from the hell of the Leicester workhouse where I had lived for four years.

I remember Messrs Torr and Ellis gazing at me as I slowly turned in front of them like a music box figurine, clad only in a loincloth. They thought a loincloth would imply something exotic and animal-like, something from an African jungle.

"Hm...he's covered in those warty lumps. The Human Warthog, perhaps?" They laughed, and even I had to chuckle in my skittering way. They prodded me and even lifted the loincloth, much to my embarrassment.

"Nothing wrong with him there. Think we could pair him with the Rhinoceros Girl?"

The droll Mr. Ellis remarked, "Say, what happens if you mate an elephant with a rhino?" Pause. We looked at him expectantly.

"Elephino!" The dapper little man slapped his sides and I rolled my eyes. Bad puns didn't help matters any.

Mr. Sam Torr rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "That gets me thinking, though. Merrick, didn't you say your mother was knocked down by an elephant whilst carrying you?"

I nodded, feeling the old grief thumping in my chest. Mother had always told me that story in tones of deepest tragedy, though she had meant it as an explanation for my condition.

Mr. Torr toured around me again. "These lumpy gray folds and the bumpy head...you look like an elephant, my boy. Enough so, anyway, and your mother's story would account for it. 'The Elephant Boy.' Yes, that's it!"

I was twenty years old, hardly a boy. Apparently Mr. Ellis thought so too. He leered at me.

"Not after what we just saw. I say we call him the 'Elephant Man.'"

So they came up with the pamphlet that trumpeted me as "The Great Freak of Nature, Half-a-man, half-an-elephant." They left it up to the audiences to guess which half. I wasn't too keen on the name but at least I wasn't a Human Warthog or something worse. Elephants do have a peculiar dignity.

They allowed me to tell my story in "The Life and Adventures of Joseph Carey Merrick," such as they were. Thus, audiences could read about me before they pilloried me with hoots and horrified screams.

We toured around England for two years and the managers split their earnings with me, 50-50. Soon I was independently wealthy. After several changes of managers, I ended up with Mr. Tom Norman, who treated me as kindly as any of them. But the public began to be squeamish about freak shows, and I was the ultimate freak. Soon we were shut down in town after town, moving only to stay ahead of the law.

My last manager, an Austrian, took me to the Continent where freaks were still a novelty. Same story, though, and again "The Terrible Elephant Man" was forced to move on. The manager gave up on me and stole every penny I had saved. I had to struggle back to London on my own, starved and exhausted.

By happenstance I still carried the business card of Mr. Frederick Treves, the doctor who had seen me and exhibited me to his fellow anatomists two years earlier. The police summoned him to the Liverpool Street station, whereupon he brought me to the London to get me fed and washed up.

From that day on, Mr. Treves spared no effort to ensure my safety and comfort, even breaking hospital rules and appealing to the hospital authorities to give me a permanent haven there.

I am quite comfortable in these rooms at the London Hospital, but now I live in a sideshow of a different sort. These audiences pay in silver snuff boxes and rings, trinkets I will never be able to use. Come and see the Elephant Man in his natural habitat! Dressed in my ill-fitting but elegant suit, I will use my beautiful left hand to pour your tea, and chat for three-quarters of an hour on the topic of your choice. Step right up and I will tell you once again of the life and adventures of Joseph Carey Merrick!

Then you will present me with your signed portrait and leave me hungering to touch you through the cold glass.

Only in my dreams can I lie with a woman. She plants sweet kisses on my monstrous lips and opens to me like a lush, ripe peach. But then those fearsome elephants push between us and trample her beneath their pounding feet. And I awake to the cold reality mirrored in my mother's glass.

BIO: Mae Siu-Wai Stroshane is a longtime Boston writer. She specializes in historical fiction and enjoys time traveling on her days off.