Jakaranda, The Great Elephant Dancer Part 5
After breakfast Jakaranda led his two friends through the forest, leaving clear signposts of dung and urine for the others to follow later on. Soon they arrived at the glade, where the shaman sat still staring at the sky – though the moon was not yet visible. He remained covered in shit, but now it had dried to his fur and matted it together so it stood up in little brown tufts. The Tyrant spotted the elephants and ran up to meet them.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded.
“I have come to dance,” replied Jakaranda. “Have you forgotten?”
“Haven’t you caused enough trouble already?”
“Watch your tone!” Sapturpani glared at the little creature. “This is Jakaranda, the Great—”
“I know who he is,” snapped the Tyrant. “Like everyone else, I’m a big fan. Or at least I was until he took a shit on our shaman. That ruined it for me. Look at him. It’s still clinging to his fur!”
“Yes, I heard about that. It was an accident, I thought. He only meant to fart in his face.”
“Oh, is that all?” The Tyrant shook her head. “Disgraceful. And extremely dangerous!”
Jakaranda chuckled. “The hares believe that if the shaman is woken early from his trance, the world will come to an end.”
“Not just the world,” the Tyrant corrected him. “The entire universe – past, present and future!”
“What?” giggled Bilimbi. “Why?”
“The wavefunction is mysterious,” said the hare, “and probabilistic in nature. The end of the universe is just one possible outcome. There are many alternatives. The forest might burst into flame! Leopards could turn vegetarian! The rhubarb might become sapient and choose to take its revenge! If the wavefunction is corrupted, literally anything will become possible.”
Bilimbi roared with laughter. “Sapient rhubarb!” he spluttered. “Oh, that’s brilliant!”
“It’s no joke,” said the Tyrant. “You need to be careful with this stuff.”
“Don’t worry,” said Jakaranda. “We’re not here to make trouble. We only want to dance. I give you my solemn word that no-one will disturb the shaman.”
“I trusted you before – but then you shat on him!”
“I know. And I regret that. Let me assure you that I will not shit on the shaman again.”
“You’d better not. And don’t fart in his face, either!”
“I promise. No-one will touch him; nor even speak to him.”
The Tyrant remained unhappy, but there was nothing she could do to prevent Jakaranda from dancing. Eventually she withdrew to the edge of the clearing and sat there glaring at the elephants. The shaman ignored them all completely, and continued staring at the sky.
When the herd arrived that afternoon shortly before moonrise, Bilimbi and Sapturpani were waiting to greet them. The elephants were shown to their seats at the edge of the glade, looking down into the bowl-shaped depression that was to serve as the stage. Scattered here and there were great piles of leafy branches, fruits, and root vegetables for the elephants to snack on as they enjoyed the show. They sat chattering excitedly and nibbling as they waited.
At first, many individuals threw sticks and unwanted bits of fruit at the shaman, but Bilimbi quickly intervened. He explained that the hare was an important part of the show, and should be treated with the respect due to any other performer. This dance was something of a concept piece, and Jakaranda had carefully chosen the opening scene: a hare sitting on a rock gazing up at the moon, his fur plastered with dried shit. According to Bilimbi this would set the mood for Jakaranda’s big entrance, infusing the whole piece with a subtle interplay of interpretational possibilities that, taken together, would elucidate a common theme. Not even Bilimbi was sure what he meant by this, but it didn’t matter; the herd were impressed. They stopped throwing things at the shaman and began to quiet down. All around the glade, the animals of the forest emerged gingerly from their hiding places and found comfortable places to sit.
The moon rose, and Jakaranda prepared to enter the glade. Upon his head he wore the peacock’s tail, fixed in place with a liberal plastering of his own shit scraped up from the ground. It had dried a little over the last few days and undergone some sort of fermentation, transforming into a thick gum. It was wonderfully sticky, and by now Jakaranda had got so used to the stink that he hardly noticed it. In any case, the entire glade now stunk like a cesspool; apart from the drying remnants of Jakaranda’s digestive accident with the green figs, the other elephants had wasted no time in adding their own contributions, and heaps of elephant dung now nestled discreetly among the trees at the top of the slope.
Sapturpani had found a chunk of yellow ochre and used it to lighten Jakaranda’s fur from its usual deep orange. Against this pale background she had used more dried shit to create small brown spots, mimicking the coat of a leopard. She had also collected several banana leaves and carefully laminated them with sticky poo before leaving them to dry in the sun and stiffen up. These had been painted with more ochre and glued to either side of Jakaranda’s head; they were supposed to look like the long ears of a hare, but the resemblance was minimal.
Nevertheless, Jakaranda was ready. He raised his nose high and trumpeted the opening theme; a slow, almost teasing sequence, softly articulated and somewhat hesitant in its rhythm. It spoke of mystery and danger and ancient wisdom, and stories untold to outsiders. It spoke of the forest. As the music unfolded, Jakaranda moved sinuously into the glade, holding his body low. He reached the centre and began to circle, adding the rhythmic element of a low growl made deep in the throat. He paced back and forth, then made a sudden run towards the crowd; this elicited screams of delight.
“A leopard!” cried the herd. “How wonderful!”
Jakaranda growled some more, then made a great show of noticing the shaman sitting on the rock. The music took a darker tone as Jakaranda began to stalk him.
“Leopard?” spat the leopard from her perch in a nearby tree. “He’s a jumped-up elephant daubed with ochre and bits of shit! He looks ridiculous.” She watched a little longer. “He’s not a leopard.”
The music stopped as Jakaranda pounced at the shaman, missing him completely. He leapt into the air to perform a series of neat pirouettes; then, flapping his ears to gain extra height, he flung himself away from centre stage.
Several monkeys applauded from their seats in the lower branches of a tamarind tree; the Tyrant of Hares overheard and ran over to shout at them: “Hey! Have some respect, will you?”
The monkeys peered down at her. “What?” asked one.
“That’s our shaman, that is! He holds in his mind the mysterious—”
“Shut up, will you?” interrupted a second monkey. “I’m trying to watch the show.”
“I will not shut up!” yelled the hare. “The shaman—”
“Filthy mice! You’re all the same. No manners at all!”
“Mice?” screamed the Tyrant. “Filthy mice?”
“We’re not mice! We’re hares!”
“Hares? Never heard of em.” A third monkey scrutinised the Tyrant. “You look like a mouse to me.”
“Well, I’m not!”
“What’s the difference?”
The hare wracked her brains. “We have longer ears,” she said. “And our tails are much fluffier.”
“Big deal,” said the third monkey. “Do you live in a hole in the ground?”
“Do you eat your own shit?”
“Well,” said the Tyrant, “yes. But it’s not as bad as—”
“Right then,” said the third monkey. “You’re a mouse.”
“I’m a hare!”
“What? Mice don’t eat their own shit!”
“Are you sure?”
“Will you please shut up!” hissed the second monkey. “You’re ruining it for everyone! Can’t you talk to the mice later?”
“Yeah, okay,” said the third. “But get this.” He pointed at the Tyrant. “She looks like a mouse to me. But she says she’s not.”
“I’m a hare!”
“She’s lying. Filthy creatures, mice. That’s what they do. Ignore her and she’ll go away.”
The second monkey was right, of course. The Tyrant stopped trying to argue and returned to her place among the hares, where she sat seething with rage as Jakaranda continued his dance.
As the music became more upbeat and whimsical he strutted up and down, thrusting his head forward in an exaggerated manner to match the rhythms of his feet. These movements drew attention to the dazzling plumage ripped from the tail of the peacock. Atop his head the feathers waggled wildly, stained with shit but still shimmering with vibrant bursts of colour. The herd gasped in amazement; truly this was a sight to behold! It was a peacock, of course, but it was more than that; Jakaranda had captured the peacock’s very essence! Through the transcendent medium of dance, he had created an idealised version of the creature – not what it was, but what, in a perfect world, it ought to be. Few elephants had ever considered the peacock’s beauty on any but the most superficial level; the depth and subtlety of Jakaranda’s portrayal was a revelation to them. Clearly they were witnessing an extraordinary performance from a great artist at the height of his powers! They stood up in their seats and applauded wildly.
The peafowl, meanwhile, were horrified. One hen in particular was so upset she began sobbing uncontrollably. “Honk!” she cried. “Oh, my love – what have they done to you? Honk! Honk! Murderers! Honk! Oh, my angel! My dear sweet cock!” The peahen fainted briefly. When she regained consciousness she was gently led away by concerned friends.
Jakaranda had been dancing for close to half an hour now. During that time the wind had picked up considerably, and the sky had grown dark with clouds. The elephants had been so absorbed in watching the show they hadn’t noticed, but nothing escaped the attention of the dholes. The entire pack raised their noses to the air and sniffed, smelling rain. It came slowly at first, but as the dholes sought shelter beneath dense foliage the downpour intensified dramatically, and the rumble of distant thunder rolled across the glade. Jakaranda improvised a dramatic bass response, and a flash of lightning lit up the sky; it was much closer now, and the thunder that followed was almost deafening. Jakaranda stood frozen in awe.
On the rock in the centre of the glade, the Shaman of Hares opened his eyes. The sky flared again, still brighter than before, but this time there was no answering peal of thunder. The lightning faded, leaving behind only silence. Even the rain had stopped.
Into the silence, the shaman spoke:
“For three days and nights I have travelled the unseen paths that weave through time and space to bring shape to the cosmos. I have observed the twisted strands of history knit together to form the hidden structure of the present. I have danced on the moon with the Great Hare of Transition, whose wisdom I sought. I have learned much upon my travels. I have faced dangers beyond the leporine imagination – but I have returned safely. And at last, the reign of the Tyrant is over.”
“All hail the Tyrant!” shouted the other hares in unison. “Hip hip – hooray!”
The Tyrant of Hares stepped forward a little from the crowd. The shaman turned and spoke to her directly. “We thank you for your hegemony, O exalted one. But your time is over. Do you relinquish the throne willingly?”
“I do,” replied the Tyrant.
“Then you are Tyrant no more. What name do you wish?”
“I shall be called Berberis Vulgaris.”
“Very well.” The shaman nodded. “So ends the reign of Berberis Vulgaris, Tyrant of Hares.”
“All hail the Tyrant!” cried the hares.
“Now we are free,” said the shaman. “Free at last.”
“Free at last! Free at last! All hail the Tyrant; we are free at last!”
Now came the thunder, in an almighty roar that shook the entire forest. Time came unstuck, and the rain poured down once again. Jakaranda was delighted – it was all so theatrical! He could hardly believe his luck. This dance would be a once in a lifetime spectacle, to be remembered for generations to come. Thanks to the bad weather, his legacy was now assured.
The hares shouted through the rain: “O Shaman! Speak of your visions!”
“All things must come to an end,” observed the shaman. “For without an end there can be no beginning. We ride the jagged edge between order and chaos as the universe unfolds, and our lives slip softly away. As I danced on the moon with the Great Hare, I looked out into the void, and saw—”
Jakaranda sensed the audience getting restless, but he did not want to interrupt the shaman. After all, he’d played a big part in making this dance such a massive success – so far, at least. But the crowd had not come to listen to a hare give a sermon. They had come to see Jakaranda. And so, as the rain fell and the shaman rambled on, the elephant resumed his dance.
At first he kept silent, and his movements were gentle and unobtrusive. But in his head, the music never stopped. Soon Jakaranda succumbed to the rhythm; his feet began to move of their own accord, and the music strained to break free. He found himself humming a tune as he danced around the shaman, fitting his movements to the voice of the hare. There was no need to listen to the words – only the sounds were important. But a few fragments crept in to impinge on the elephant’s consciousness:
“— a lush forest that sails between the stars blah blah… keeps them from extinction for his own amusement blah blah blah… hunted by this vile and ignorant creature, the noble swine…”
But Jakaranda could make no sense of this at all. Instead he ignored it, and kept dancing. The rain was still pouring from the sky. Rivulets of filthy water streamed from the top of the slope, bringing with them the debris of the forest floor. Leaves, twigs, and dissolving lumps of poo cascaded down towards the stage, where the ground, thick with mud and shit, grew slippery beneath Jakaranda’s feet. Suddenly he lost his footing and went careening across the glade at high speed, leaving a long brown trail behind him. At last he thudded heavily into the trunk of a large banyan tree and fell over.
“— but all that is in the future,” said the shaman. “It may not come to pass.”
Jakaranda groaned and sat upright. Above, he heard a branch crack, and looked up to see a large object falling towards him. There was no time to move – it ploughed into his face and slammed him back into the mud. As he lost consciousness, he wondered what had hit him.
It was the remains of a dead gaur. The leopard had caught it a few days earlier and stashed it up the tree for safe-keeping. It had provided the cat with several meals already, but the huge carcass was still mostly intact, and weighed almost half as much as Jakaranda himself. The leopard had placed it securely, but the elephant’s impact with the tree must have shaken it loose. It had knocked him out cold.
“It is true the mango was rotten,” said the shaman. “But nevertheless—”
“Oh no!” cried the elephants. “Jakaranda! He’s been hurt!” And they all rushed down the slope to help.
The shaman was knocked from his perch on the rock, and quickly disappeared from view among the chaos. Seeing this, the hares let out screams of outrage. Several ran onstage in an attempt to save him, but were crushed to death themselves. The former Tyrant Berberis Vulgaris appealed for calm, but it was no use – the hares were now a free people, and all her authority was gone. More hares ran into the glade; some to rescue the shaman, and others to help their stricken friends. Fortunately the elephants were moving more slowly now, hampered by the mud. It was thick around the banyan tree where the Great Dancer had fallen, and those closest to him were struggling the most; two had got stuck and were slowly sinking into the mire. None had reached Jakaranda. He lay still, his face hidden by the huge rotting carcass of the gaur.
Still the rain continued, flushing more stinking debris down the slope. Water began to pool, and the ground grew muddier all the time as the herd thrashed around, churning up the wet soil. As the waters rose, more and more elephants got stuck in the mud. Soon, they began to panic.
By now the hares had given up their hopeless attempts to save the shaman. He was presumed dead, though his body had not been recovered, and probably never would. He had, in all likelihood, been crushed to a pulp beneath the elephants’ feet, and mashed up together with the mud and shit. The hares, who could not swim, emerged from the mudhole and sat around in small groups weeping, and haranguing the elephants from the sidelines.
The leopard descended from the tree and went to retrieve the dead gaur. She was light on her feet, and easily crossed the glade without sinking into the mud. She seized the carcass in her jaws and dragged it off into the forest, where she hid it up another tree before coming back to watch the unfolding drama.
Bilimbi called out to her: “Hey, leopard! We’re stuck in the mud here! We can’t move!”
“But how about some help?”
“Help?” said the leopard. “How?”
“Isn’t it obvious? With your strength, you can pull us out! Just as you did with the gaur!”
“But you are much bigger than a gaur.”
“Yes, but I’m alive, too – I can push!”
The leopard shook her head. “It won’t work.”
“We have to try! Just grab my nose and pull as hard as you can.”
“No,” said the leopard. “That would just rip your nose off. And then what? You’d bleed to death, that’s what. And as for me – well, I’ve been chased by an angry elephant before. I have no wish to repeat the experience.”
“No-one will chase you,” promised Bilimbi. “Not if you help us!”
“By tearing off your noses with my teeth? No thank you.”
“Please!” sobbed Bilimbi. “I don’t want to die.”
“You’ll be fine,” said the leopard. “The mud will dry and crumble in a day or two. Once the rain stops.” She glanced over at Jakaranda. “Him, on the other hand? He’s got problems.”
The Great Dancer was still unconscious. The peacock’s tail had fallen from his head and lay crumpled in the mud. The fake bunny-ears drooped down, the layers coming apart as their bindings of sticky poo dissolved in the rain. The ochre had washed from his body to lend a yellowish tinge to the surrounding pool of mud, shit and rainwater now lapping about his face. Bilimbi watched in horror as a small turd, borne by the waters, drifted inexorably into Jakaranda’s mouth and disappeared forever.
“Save him!” begged Bilimbi. “Oh, please – just try! I promise we won’t be angry – even if you do pull his nose off!”
“Rubbish,” said the leopard. She stepped forward. Jakaranda’s nose was lying on the ground in a shallow pool. As she watched, a stream of bubbles formed in the water. “He’s still breathing.” Gripping Jakaranda’s nose in her jaws, the leopard lifted it from the water and draped it carefully over the elephant’s head. She nudged it into a stable position with her paws, then turned back to Bilimbi. “Try not to let him drown.” And she began to slink away.
“Where are you going?” cried Bilimbi. “Come back!”
But the leopard did not reply.