the short story project


danit gold

An elephant in a belly button 

Translated by Chen Zausmer

I was looking for a present for mom. All I could find was a clover leaf, a half Shekel coin and a
lighter with no gas. I decided to keep them all until I chose one. The guy on the radio was
presenting anecdotes, thinking he was better than everybody. A hot puff hit us as we entered the
tent. A flamethrower in the center. The audience, looking for its place in the balcony, had red
noses from the cold. Full, soft movements, as if a dream has overcome the serious outlines of
reality. Mom grabbed my hand and led us to our seats. We were surrounded by loops, hotdogs,
whistles, curls, freckles. People were looking for their seats like crabs. Mom was the only one
buried deep in her phone. When I took a peek I saw she was texting with David something. I
pulled and nagged until she agreed to buy me popcorn. Unfortunately, as we stood up the lights
dimmed. Mom squeezed my hand. Children with antennas in their eyelashes picked up all the
frequencies, sat up and their hands disappeared in the popcorn boxes. 

A spotlight turned on
suddenly and shed light on a man with a mustache. He had an enormous smile, as if it was
professionally done by a plastic surgeon. He held a top hat. He was elastic as string. His mouth
chewed words and his mustache, having no choice, just straggled along. Flashes sparkled on his
sweaty forehead. He spread his arms to the side, opened his eyes widely and his smile splattered
sparks like an angle grinder. 
The applause exhilarated him and he exhilarated the applause. A kind of dance in which you
can’t tell who’s leading. Two more spotlights turned on suddenly and shined on two girls
wearing leotards and feathers. They looked like a flamingo turned human as if its wish had come
true. Tight ponytails. Perfect teeth. I felt mom’s body heat evaporating as she breathed next to
me and whispered impassively “Look how pretty they are”. Their butts pressed up and down,
down and up. My palms were sweaty. Mom’s eyes sparkled like a bulldog staring at bone in a
pet shop window. The drums Intensified. Something is about to happen. Something big. And
then it did. Out of nowhere an elephant suddenly appeared on stage. 
The elephant’s head was tied in a bonnet, like a baby in a carriage. His legs dragged him in
circles at the center stage, his trunk wobbled. The children stood up and ran to the front of the
stage. Mom said: “Go, go there” but I stayed in my seat. The aisles filled up with ecstatic kids
like a swarm of ants invading into a cockroach’s carcass. The mustache tapped it, and the
elephant stood up on two feet. His mouth opened and his tusks were exposed. Seeing a real
elephant standing on two feet is an odd thing. Mom squeezed my hand. For a short moment I was
hot and a ball of happiness was about to explode inside of me, as if the elephant was burning in
my belly button. 
The mustache ordered the elephant to go up a tiny staircase. He had a huge ring on his pinky that
sparkled every time the spotlight hit it. Mom’s phone rang. This David something’s name was on
the screen, vibrating and flickering, but mom devoured the elephant with her gaze and for a
moment seemed like she was a little girl. I thought of mom as a little girl, of me as a mother, my
head was blowing smoke and I felt that dizziness I get when my thoughts overflow. I did the
trick dad taught me – I took a deep breath and counted to ten. At eight the elephant went up step
by step. The crowd went wild. Mom felt her phone in her pocket and when the elephant reached
the third and final step she stopped her fidgeting, which had become a bad habit without even
noticing, and clapped her hands as if she was possessed. I knew this was a big moment. The
roaring crowd created a massive echo that pierced like electromagnetic waves. The children’s
mouths opened wide, their milk teeth came loose and fell.
From the third stair step the elephant took one more step towards a barrel that was placed in the
center of the stage. Its clumsy legs became agile, its eyes were focused on the barrel, its whole
body was committed to completing the task and his look intensified to the point of squinting. How did such a large creature wheel on such a small barrel?! Its trunk trembled, its skin
quivered. Mom sprang out of her seat to applaud. Everyone stood up. The elephant hid behind
the standing crowd’s backs. I was supposed to feel something. The will to perpetuate this
moment deep in my memory, to make its mark like a shell in cement. A dizziness siezes me. I’m
thinking grey, blue and green thoughts. This elephant in a bathtub, squeezed and stuck there
without being able to get out. The mustache screams “he needs your love!” so why are its eyes
filled with dread? Its eyes are getting smaller and smaller, the crowd stamps its feet and the
roaring thunder resonates throughout. Mom’s hands slapped against each other like a cymbal
banging monkey toy. Her phone keeps on ringing in her pocket but she doesn’t notice it. The
barrel is squeaking, smoke is heaving from its hinge. I run to the aisle, pushing kids, none of
whome notice me. The stage lights illuminate their faces as if they are wearing a yellow mask. I
try to walk between them but the crowd is too tight and I can’t push through.
A sudden whipping sound was heard from the center of the stage and then complete silence. My
breath is the only thing making sound. No one knows how to respond so they start laughing. And
the laughter is like an onion bulb being torn from the bowels of the earth, shallow and bad. The
elephant’s face goes pale and things are falling out of my pocket, the gasless lighter too, my gift
to mom, who took a day off of work, robbed dad of his Thursdays with me and traveled all the
way to Ramat Gan to take me to the circus. I bend down to pick it up and a big foot steps on my
hand. I push it and when I get up I see a double chin shoving popcorn into a big bellied child.
Everybody is staring at me, and mom pulls me back to my seat forcing me to watch. The
elephant’s eyes disappear, two little projectors switch off among the skin folds.The mustache
clears out his throat with a phlegm filled cough and spits on the ground. Smoke is coming out
him as if he has a crematorium in his head. He orders the elephant to come forward but the
elephant isn’t complying. I feel something but I don’t know what it is. It’s like that time I saw
dad’s girlfriend. There’s a certain sadness, but not a sadness you get from seeing a wilting chia
pet, although that too is very sad. It’s another kind of sadness. If sadness was made out of layers
this would be the bottom layer. Where there are swamps and stench, and weeds stick to your
The mustache orders the elephant to come forward the second time. But the elephant doesn’t
move. He moves closer to the elephant and whips it, but the elephant doesn’t move from its
place. He’s embarrassed. He smiles to the audience. Doesn’t know what to do. And then the
elephant starts marching, but probably to the wrong place because the mustache is striking it with
the whip, a sharp and nervous strike. Suddenly the elephant stands still. Something in its face
changes. It turns around to the mustache and looks at him. The crowd starts whispering. The
elephant moves towards him with determination. I stand up. My hands are clenched in fists. The
elephant stands a breath away from the mustache. His eyes widen as the elephant tightly wraps
his trunk around him. It grips and lifts him a few feet above the ground. The audience takes a
breath, crew members are running, ropes come dangling down the stage, flashes are flickering
everywhere. The mustache is screaming “help me, get me down”. His voice gets so thin it can’t
even resonate. The trunk grasps his ribs to the point where he can hardly breath, his veins are
about to explode, and he is barely moving his arms and legs. The crew members start moving
towards the elephant, preparing for a flank maneuver and in a blink of an eye the elephant lifts
him farther up and bam! – with a giant thump he throws mustache onto the ground. 
No one is breathing. The mothers cover their children’s eyes. A few seconds later an ambulance
siren is heard and then shrieks of horror like stray arrows. One trampling on the other in an
attempt to escape. The elephant lifts him up in the air again and with all its might slams him a
second and a third time, and the sound of the skull banging, cracking and breaking is so big, and
the echo settles so hard, it sounds like a closet door slamming at night. The mustache gets so
twisted in the grasping trunk that he looks like some sort of underwater creature. Mom tries to
cover my eyes but I push her hands away. The elephant’s face is like a fist, constricted to a
nameless suppressed rage which has no parallel. It has nothing but this rage. Blood splashes on
the second and third rows. “I’m going to sue their ass” and other declarations are heard all
around, abandoned popcorn boxes are scattered on the floor. The elephant keeps on banging him
on the ground, the skin tears from his face, his limbs are all distorted. I feel something but I don’t
know what it is. It’s like that day mom and dad took me out for pasta and told me they’re getting
a divorce. That feeling I buried since that day, that made everything muddy, that turned the food
moldy, that made the colors, smells and tastes disappear. Everyone around us was shoving and
screaming. Mom pulled me out but I insisted on staying. I wanted to see it. I wanted to see how
the mustache’s smile turns to a distortion of pain. Then a fat man fired a large shotgun. An arrow
penetrated the elephant skin and in less than a minute it tripped, fell on its side and shook the
ground as two hasty men rolled down the screen with the speed you use to wipe a mosquito off
the face of the earth. 
All the way home there was silence. Songs infiltrated from the radio and flew out the open
window to the murky sky. The streets spread out slowly and devotedly and only as mom stopped
the car and silenced its engine I saw dad waiting at the door step with his hands hidden in his
pockets. Mom turned to me. I handed her the gasless lighter without saying a word. She sucked on her
upper lip and little marbles of disappointment appeared on her chin. I counted to ten. At three I
stepped out. It seemed to me that a small tear was waiting for me to get out before it was torn
from her eye.   

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