Norah’s Skin

Norah’s Skin

 

“Norah’s Skin”

By Jasmine Gower

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A perfume both sweet and dusty assailed Jupita’s senses every time she entered Norah’s pen, dizzying her mind and stinging her nose regardless that she had been tending to Norah for years and her ancestors decades before then.  Jupita’s bones, sturdy for sixty years of daily and draining farm work, were only now beginning to creak and ache as she swept muck off of Norah’s back and hauled bales of hay.  That was where the dust came from, of course, and her sinuses had grown tender before her bones had, but even then, the hay had never bothered her until the time at which her body signaled the end of her child-bearing opportunities.  It was odd to think of the curious ways in which the Human body marked the progress of time—it was never enough to simply grow, no.  Functions had to change, hormones had to storm and fluster.  The skin of her hands—once a rich, dark oaken color—had grown dry and ashen from time and labor, although her hair was still deep as a summer night, only now barely streaked with grey.  Jupita never figured herself to be one to resent aging when she was younger, and she supposed that she wasn’t truly bitter about the process.  It was a damned annoyance, though, to have her eyes tear up while she did chores as simple as feeding and cleaning her elephant, and that was something she wasn’t sure she would ever adapt to.

That evening was no different from any other since her allergies emerged—farm work never varied much, and less so on an elephant farm, calm and constant as those beasts were.  Norah watched Jupita drag in a fresh bale of hay, her eyes disinterested and patient.  Jupita sighed once she had pulled the bale into Norah’s trough, not only for the relief of her bones.  Norah had been stomping and trumpeting earlier in the day, while Jupita had been inside the hut washing eggs.  The mooing had been nervous but not panicked, so Jupita left the matter until she was finished with her current chore and examined the farm afterward.  Whatever had spooked Norah had darted off, leaving behind a few scuffed boot-prints in the dust on the hill leading up to the road.  Jupita had heard that more thief-children had been moving into the area lately—fleeing the recent famine in the Tangle and the general and constant poverty in the Greylands and the Holds.  The footprints she had found indicated a sneak no larger than such a rascal, and so Jupita left the matter alone.  Children, even confused and starving teenagers, were little concern to her, especially considering that her visitors had already vanished.  Even if they had been little thieves, there was not much that Jupita feared losing on her family’s old farm.

Her great-great-grandfather had started the elephant farm in his youth, buying that stretch of open, dry land when ivory was becoming as rare and valuable as mythril.  The farm has cost him almost nothing, but it took his and his wife’s life savings put together to purchase the first two elephants for breeding.  They had no desire for wild ones and found a farm close to the border of Westeye that had a male runt, and another to the west that sold them a female with a broken leg.  They took both to their farm, allowing the female time to heal and doing what they could to initiate mating between them.  It was eventually successful, and when the calf had grown almost to adulthood, Jupita’s great-great-grandparents sold the runt for his ivory, hide, bones, and meat.

It wasn’t an effective business model until they could convince investors that they could reliably get the animals to breed, but even once they became successful, having enough money to purchase three separate sets of mating pairs and sell their offspring to expectant investors, it was a cruel business.  It was both a misfortune for their family and a mercy of the universe when ivory fell out of vogue and investors began expressing their concerns about the inhumane qualities of elephant ranching.  During Jupita’s great-grandfather’s generation, the farm fell on hard times, but his daughter, Jupita’s grandmother, spent much of her youth figuring out how to market domesticated elephants as luxury household pets.  It saw some success, and by the time Jupita’s grandmother took over the family trade, they were selling elephants to wealthy merchants all over the Veldtland, as well as at least two to the ruling princeling of the Veldtland at the time, Prince Tribitio.  It was still sorry to see those animals ripped from their families, though—as elephants tended to value family connections even more than Humans did—and after a while, even the highest of wealth began to notice that domesticated elephants were costly to care for and destructive to marble manors.  By the time Jupita’s father was ready to pass the business on to her, it had fallen into a decline so steep that none of their family held out hope that it might recover.

Jupita, unlike her great-great-grandfather and her grandmother, had little head for business.  She left most of the business dealings to her nephew, Ricard, a quiet but clever boy with a plain face.  Their farm still produced quail eggs and some produce, and her late brother, Ricard’s father, had managed leatherworking services when he had been alive.  Jupita could handle some of the leatherworking still and was attentive to the farming, but her primary concern with the farm was, rather, the elephants themselves.

Norah was the last remaining, having lost her mother two years before.  She was a quiet thing for one so big.  She had been so accustomed to a small family unit that the loneliness following her mother’s death and the sale of her father to researchers of animal behavior did not seem to bother the young elephant that much.  She was fond of Jupita, and her twice-daily visits were enough for Norah, apparently.  Sometimes Ricard stopped by to pet her and give her treats, too, and she appreciated that, but Jupita never sensed that Norah desired much more socialization beyond that.

Jupita was much the same.  She never desired to marry or have children, nor did casual romance or platonic living partners appeal to her.  Occasional visits from her nephew—once or twice a week, usually—were all that she needed.  She and Norah were enough for one another, it seemed.

Dealing with young rascals poking around the farm was certainly even less appealing than any other form of social interaction, Jupita thought, but so long as they stayed out of sight and left most of the eggs and crops alone, she saw no reason to raise a fuss about it.  Pushing the scuffed footprints from her mind, she returned to her chores.

Once every two weeks, Ricard asked Jupita to meet him in his office downtown.  It was a long walk for her, but stretching her legs without the burden of hauling a bale of hay behind her was a nice relief to have every few weeks.  The road was mostly uphill and about four miles long, but so long as she brought a full waterskin and refilled it while she was in town, the trek did not seem so severe.  Even the sore ache in her legs that she usually got the days following such trips was a refreshing reminder to her own strength.

She was less thrilled to actually meet with Ricard, most days.

Ricard was a good boy, of course.  He worked hard and did what he thought was best for the family, but he had a sort of emotional stiffness to him that Jupita noticed in businesspeople.  He wasn’t callous or heartless, but when he sat behind his rickety little desk in his single-room office rented out of a somewhat moldy old building, all he knew were numbers and probabilities.  Family and love and altruism were things for his off-hours, it seemed.

That week was particularly challenging, sitting in the sticky, overheated room with little lighting peeking through the wooden shutters on the office’s single window.  Jupita sat in an old chair upholstered in green velvet, but the stuff was worn and flattened and stuck to the seat of her pants.  Ricard sat across from her, leaning over papers spread out across his cluttered desk.  His nose was so close to the documents that Jupita knew it was too dark for him to read them, but he was too proud to give up on any task that he began, no matter how minor.  He eventually lifted his head to look at her, though, either having finally managed to make out the letters or pretending to have done so.

“It’s good to see you, Aunt.  How are you?”

“Fine as ever,” she answered, feeling that mentioning her ever-intensifying allergies would only come off as complaining, and predicting that if she brought up the secretive visitors from the day before, Ricard would make a bigger fuss of the matter than it deserved.

“I’m glad,” he said, and leaned forward, resting his folded hands on his desktop.  Without further preamble, he said, “Aunt, I feel that our family’s farm is nearing its end.”  This was nothing new to Jupita—Norah’s father had been sold under the impression that he would produce no more valuable calves and the money from the researchers would be better.  That had been Ricard’s idea, and it had taken much reassuring on his part to rid Jupita of the idea that the researchers secretly intended to kill the bull for his bones and sell them to supposed “witch-hunters” in the north for their false rituals and fraudulent trinkets.  Before that, it had been Norah’s older brother, sold to a mining company that used domesticated elephants to transport heavy loads of coal.  Their elephants—the ones who didn’t find their end in old age or sickness, that was—had been sold off one-by-one to buyers that Ricard deemed humane enough but still willing to put forward at least a healthy fraction of what the beasts should rightfully cost.  It gave them enough money to pay their property taxes and continue feeding whatever animals were left on the farm—anymore, it was only the quails, Norah, and Jupita herself.  Still, it didn’t alarm her to hear that their earnings for the previous elephant sales had already run dry.  Little seemed to surprise her since she had begun considering herself old, and there was a stony certainty in her heart regarding what Ricard might propose next.

“I think it is time that we sell the property.”

Jupita nodded but thumbed the thick, woven fabric of her pants like a petulant child.  She had expected it, but that didn’t mean she had to like it.

“Things will be better if we live in town.  You can stay with me.  I don’t ask that you keep house any more than your fair share—you deserve the luxury of retirement, or at least as much as we can afford.  I can make my living doing something with more prospects for upward mobility.  With any luck, we’ll get a fair price for the property.”

“And Norah?” Jupita asked, knowing it was inevitable.  She had cared for Norah since the day of her birth, a giant even as an infant.  Norah was a tender creature for all her size, and although she never expressed any outward loneliness in her current living conditions, Jupita still feared for her emotional welfare if her Human keeper was no longer there to tend to her.

Ricard cleared his throat and leaned back, reaching out to the papers before him to shuffle them with the focus of someone avoiding an awkward topic.

“Obviously we can’t keep an elephant in town.  But this will be better for us—and, I think, this will be better for your health.  You told me a while back that you wouldn’t mind living closer to the medicine clinic, just in case anything—”

“Ricard.  You’re derailing.  I know what will become of me—tell me what will become of Norah.”

He set the papers down and ran his hand (shaking just slightly, Jupita noticed) across the top of his skull, pushing back loose strands of frizzed, dark-brown curls.  A soft and sad sigh whistled through his nostrils, but he gathered the courage to straighten his back as he delivered his answer.

“There are some traders who are going to offer me a handsome sum for her.  More than twice what we received for her father, in fact.”

Jupita wondered about this.  Unless elephant breeding as a business was resurging, there would be little reason for these traders to offer up so much for a live elephant.  Certainty of dreadful events to come was a small comfort, but it was better than the squirming uneasiness she felt at Ricard’s evasiveness.

To her nephew’s credit, he didn’t leave her wondering even when she refrained from raising any question.  “They want her for her hide, Aunt.  I know I’ve tried to be as fair to our animals as I can when I sell them off, but it’s a healthy sum of money.  This can pay for your retirement and, even if we fall on hard times again, we’ll have something stored away.”

Jupita matched his quiet sigh with one of her own.  “I can think of better things to aspire for in life than money.”

Ricard shrugged.  He was never the sort to be insensitive, but much like his father, he tended to duck away from conflict when he could.  Jupita could sense that his decision hurt more than just her.  “Sometimes we are not in the position to aspire for much more than what we need.”

When she felt a loose thread twirl between her pinched fingers, Jupita realized that she was still picking at the fabric of her pants.  A dozen arguments marched up to the forefront of her mind, ready to form a bastion against this assault against her way of life.  I’d rather stay on the farm.  You took such care to see that the other elephants would not come to harm.  I can take care of Norah until the day I die.  The last argument rung in her mind like an echo, but even through her sorrow and panic she knew that it was a moot point.  Without selling either Norah or the farm, they would run out of money within months.  That they had survived so long on eggs and produce was a spark of chance.

“I’m still negotiating with the traders,” Ricard added.  “They’ll want to see her and haggle the price down over some imagined flaw or another, but I’ll do my best to get a fair deal.  I’d not have her loss rewarded with too little.  I’ll let you know what the finalized plan is once we get closer to the sell date.”  Jupita shook her head, wondering if Ricard’s business jargon was meant to be reassuring to her, but bid him as polite a farewell as she could manage and left, heading to a food stall in town to obtain lunch for the walk home.

Jupita could hear Norah stamping about and letting out a shaky trumpet as soon as her owner arrived on the edge of her property and, stuck with a curiosity that she hadn’t experienced since her young adulthood, decided to sneak back to the house, hoping for a glimpse of the visitors that kept upsetting Norah.  Tip-toeing down the hill and slinking into the shade of her house, Jupita peeked around the corner to spy two silhouettes poking around the quail roosts, shifting in the evening dimness.  She could see Norah in her pen, looking out warily at the visitors and rubbing her face with the tip of her trunk uncertainly.

“I’m telling you, it’s a bad idea to revisit places,” one of the visitors said.  He—a lanky youth—stood upright and kept glancing back and forth between his partner and the gargantuan animal staring out at them from behind metal bars.  “Aren’t elephants known for their memory?”

“Sure.  And I bet it will tell its owners all about us.”  The quip came from the other boy, kneeling by the lower levels of roost boxes and plucking out an egg from each, even though each held about three eggs a day.  He had a bag slung over his shoulder and, after wrapping the eggs in some sort of padding—perhaps woven out of grass or cotton—slipped them into his pack.

“What if the owners see us?” the first asked, and Jupita was certain she would have busted out laughing if he turned around to spot her spying on them in just that moment.

“We have to be sneaky.”  The kneeling boy—she guessed both to be in their early teen years—reached out to swat the other on the leg.  “Be sneakier, Ian!”

Ian knelt but turned his gaze to lock onto Norah.  She eased her trunk a bit and tilted her head as she watched him in return, blinking every few seconds.  Jupita had been reading the mannerisms of elephants her whole life—they tended to be simpler and more consistent than those of Humans—and she knew that Norah was growing easier with and more curious toward the young thieves.  Jupita felt the same, and tried to examine them the best she could as her eyes adjusted to the growing dimness of the flaming orange sky.

Both lads were skinny—she expected that the lanky one, Ian, was typically so, but they both appeared malnourished in addition to that.  Their clothes, while complete outfits made of whole garments, were dirty and stretched out.  They each carried one of those sling-packs, and from the way they held themselves—feet planted wide apart, ready to bolt at a moment’s notice or wander aimlessly if nothing chased them away—suggested that they probably did not own many more worldly goods than those bags could contain.  The lanky boy had dark tan skin while the other was pink, and each had hair grown just past their ears, matted and tangled from too long without washing.  She suspected they might be from the east, considering their accents, but then wondered if they might not come from the Holds, that impoverished province in the icy north, when she heard the second boy’s name spoken.

“Dmitri, this needs to be the last time.”

“And it will be, if we can find an easier way to eat.”

“We’ll have a hard time convincing anyone in this town to hire us if we get caught doing this.”  Norah grunted, and both boys looked her direction cautiously.

Apparently taking the elephant’s noise as an omen, Dmitri said, “Right.  Let’s get going, then.”  Jupita sunk further back into the shade of her house, continuing to watch as the young men scurried away and up the hill, none the wiser to her spying.  Once they crested the hill and were out of sight, she emerged from the shadows and went to examine the roosting boxes.  Most still contained at least one or two eggs—all in all, what remained was still a larger haul than what the quails sometimes left on bad days.  Awfully thoughtful, she thought, kneeling with creaking joints to gather up the rest of the eggs, for thieves, that is.

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Text copyright © 2014 Jasmine Gower
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