Dancer, Rose Horell
The elephant pressed up against Sadie where she sat on the couch, its rough white skin scratching her thighs. It was too big to fit on the loveseat, so its knobby knees and gnarled feet were twisted underneath its massive barrel body. Its great head lolled atop broad shoulders, nodding to the quiet notes of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony on the kitchen radio. As the elephant’s leather ear brushed against her face, the tiny hairs tickled. The couch creaked and sank, tipping her closer so Sadie was practically on the elephant’s lap, her own knees bent, her own head gravitating towards its gigantic belly, which pulsed with great breaths.
Sadie was used to the elephant by now, though it didn’t used to be that way. Two years ago, after an emergency trip to Sal’s Marketplace downtown, she’d muscled open the stiff front door and stumbled her way into the flat. Stepping over the threshold, she took care to watch the heaping bag of groceries balanced in each arm, only to trip over something long and grey-white stretched out across the entryway. Her heart had jumped into her throat and six Granny Smiths had tumbled out of the bags. Slinking along the floor, receding around the corner and into the miniature laundry closet, had appeared to be a…she’d blinked a few times, certain she was mistaken. With heat flushing her cheeks, she’d crept to the closet and peeked in.
The closet was crammed with jackets and winter boots no one had bothered to store away (even in mid-July), a rickety old washer and dryer that rubbed together and made a humming sound whenever they were finishing a load, and piles of collapsed cardboard boxes from when she and Dex had moved in the previous year, all shoved wherever there was an inch of space. She’d never gotten around to cleaning the laundry closet. There had been a time when it was on her weekend agenda, but something else had always come up and by now, the cluttered space was habitual, almost endearing. Still, every Thursday evening when she put in Dex’s and her own weekly load, Sadie felt an equally habitual twinge of annoyance.
Peering into the closet that summer afternoon in search of an elephant’s trunk, she’d felt that twinge. She’d also felt dismayed when no trunk appeared. It was absurd, Sadie had thought, shaking her head and ducking back out. No elephant could ever fit in that closet.
That had been two years ago, but since then, she’d caught other glimpses. That following Christmas Eve, after Dex had gone to the bedroom to watch Pay-per-view, she’d been picking up scraps of wrapping paper on her hands and knees. Near the little living room fireplace, behind her favorite orange armchair, was a pan-shaped foot with five cornified boulders for toes embedded in leathery flesh. Her head jerked up, but it was gone. Then, on Valentine’s Day, after what Dex jokingly called (to her feigned amusement) the Lovers’ Ritual, Sadie had gone to the kitchen for a glass of water and, when filling her cup with ice, was sure she saw an alabaster tusk glowing blue in the refrigerator light. Two months later, on her birthday, after serving her signature marble-mint brownies and ice cream to Dex where he was settled in the loveseat, she’d retreated back to the kitchen counter to fix herself a bowl when she felt something rough, pancake-flat, and floppy rest upon her head. Sticking out of the the cupboard where she kept the dusty old wine glasses was an elephant’s profile. As its ear slipped off of her head, it gave a great sneeze, blinked a few times, and regarded her plaintively. She fed it a brownie.
Over the course of the year that followed, the elephant had slowly become whole. Its head would poke out from behind doors she’d just closed, and sometimes a thick, corded leg would follow, maybe two, while the rest of it hid in the shadows. Eventually, it revealed half of its pot-bellied midsection, then its hindquarters, then its tail. It grew more comfortable, too, lumbering into the kitchen while Sadie prepared mushroom risotto for Dex before he came home from the real estate office, or sauntering into the bedroom early in the morning while she got ready for her own job as a day worker at the local kids’ center. It would be there as Sadie did laundry, looking over her shoulder and draping its ears over the washer so they vibrated with the machine. It was there when they ate, listening politely as Dex commented about the unorthodox weather (it was a bit too rainy for Boston in October), his work (the secretary, Dina, never really understood that “memos” could only serve as reminders when they were timely), or friends from college that he’d run into on the street (it had been a long time since they’d seen Danny, probably not since Danny and Cara’s wedding a couple years ago—did she know that Cara was pregnant now?). At this last type of remark, Sadie’s eyes would flicker to the elephant, but it always sat there serenely, its trunk poking at the air, as if testing the mood. She wondered what it tasted like.
Sadie never asked why the elephant was there. She simply accepted it, letting it become a part of her routine, endearing and habitual, like the mess in the laundry closet. It didn’t make any noise, and it didn’t get in the way of her household chores. Before the elephant first showed up, Sadie would come home to an empty apartment, since Dex often worked until 7:00 or later. Now, however, she’d ride the little elevator to the fifth floor, rush down the hallway, stop at the door of her flat, fumble for the key, insert it into the lock, jiggle, and push—sometimes two, maybe three times before the door gave way with an indignant huff—and she would burst into the apartment and see the elephant waiting in the middle of the living room, the afternoon sun shining through the sliding door and illuminating the inverted canopy of its weathered tusks. On those days, it always contemplated her peacefully, despite her disheveled hair and heavy lids after a morning with the kids.
On the weekends, when Dex was supervising an open house or running with his cardio group in the Esplanade, Sadie would try out a new recipe from her favorite cookbook, Sweet: Desserts from London’s Ottolenghi. Back when she and Dex had started dating, they’d baked together at least twice a week. Little by little, Sadie would teach Dex the simpler techniques: how to cream butter and sugar for cream cheese sugar cookies, or when to treat cake pans with butter and flour before pouring in the batter. She’d let him measure the flour or make the frosting while she folded egg whites into bowls to make a light, foamy meringue. Sometimes, Dex would come up behind her where she worked and dance his flour-coated fingertips over her cheekbones, and she would yelp in surprise before he spun her around and pressed his forehead to hers in laughter. He was a quick learner and always eager to help. Sadie often dreamed of mornings spent beating cream into soft peaks to make rolled pavlova with peaches and blackberries or combining halva and tahini to make Middle Eastern millionaire’s shortbread—Dex and her, baking all day, just because they felt like it.
But that had been then. After those first couple of years, Sadie’s pans and spatulas grew to recognize just one set of hands. For the past year or so, while Dex clocked miles in the park, Sadie had kept her baking adventures alive with the help of the elephant. The elephant would hand her the whisk or the spatula when she needed it, sometimes holding onto it a second longer than necessary, forcing her to play tug-of-war with its trunk. When the peanut butter molten bundt cake or the honey-and-orange amaretti was done, she’d let the elephant lick the spoon, watching it maneuver the too-small silverware to its mouth and fit it in, its pink tongue pushing the batter to the back of its throat with large, circular movements. The elephant even helped her with the dishes, plunging its trunk eagerly into the soap suds, splashing Sadie where she she stood by the sink, towel in hand and ready to dry. She laughed and threw the towel over its eyes, watching it bob its head, its trunk curled up in the air in a sideways S.
Later, in the evening, when Dex was reading on the couch, she would sit outside the sliding glass door on the balcony with Sweet propped in her lap. The elephant never came outside, but it would stand at the door, its massive frame filling up the glass. It became commonplace, when Sadie went out to the balcony, for her to sit in the plastic Adirondack chair, her feet tucked under her with a mug of oolong tea steaming on the armrest. Not a minute after she was settled in, she would hear a faint tapping of ivory-on-glass as the elephant tried to press its nose to the door. It couldn’t have been easy, given the curvature of its tusks. To accommodate it, Sadie would hold her book a little higher so the elephant could read over her right shoulder if it wanted. For hours, she and the elephant would fantasize about the next time they might be alone in the kitchen, baking a chocolate tart with hazelnut, rosemary and orange, or maybe an almond ricotta cheesecake coated in a decadent chocolate ganache. Eventually, Dex would knock sharply on the glass two times, give her a little wave, and motion that he was turning in for the night. Disrupted, Sadie would take one last look at the creamy raspberry swirls of the knickerbocker glory, dog-ear the page, whisper goodnight to the elephant—wherever it was—and follow her boyfriend to bed.
She’d never really thought about how an elephant could fit in their one-bedroom flat, but now, on that Saturday, sitting on the loveseat with the elephant squished between Dex and herself, Sadie couldn’t help but notice its size. Its rough skin folded over where its shoulders met its body, creating pouches in the white-grey flesh. After each of the elephant’s breaths, the sag in the cushions grew more pronounced.
It wouldn’t be so uncomfortable if there were only two of them on the loveseat, but she couldn’t very well ask Dex to move to the armchair: Four years before, after hours of surveying the HOM Furniture options, Dex had allowed Sadie to commit to a particularly loud orange armchair under the condition that she wouldn’t make him use it. She’d laughed and hugged him, his responding boyish smile pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. That had been a few years ago, but out of what was at first playful sport and then, eventually, convention, Dex had never sat in that armchair.
Heaving a sigh, Sadie pushed her fists into the polyester of the couch. Propping herself up so she was on the armrest, she stretched her legs out, her heels brushing leathery knees. She glanced at the elephant, but it was still nodding to the music. She looked at Dex; he was watching the TV. She didn’t even know what movie he had selected from Pay-per-view over an hour before. Sadie looked at the screen, watching Bruce Willis dart around the corner of a company building—of course, it was Die Hard, Dex’s favorite.
“You remember watching this when we first started dating?” he asked, giving her a sideways smile, his gaze still on the screen. She closed her eyes, trying to remember. “You were so sure Bruce Willis was going to die,” he continued, reaching over the elephant to pinch her toes. Sadie drew her feet back involuntarily.
She gave a small smile, but Dex still wasn’t looking. “But he didn’t,” she said, because she knew that much. The elephant nodded in agreement—or still to the music, she wasn’t sure.
“But he didn’t,” echoed Dex.
Still perched on the armrest of the loveseat, Sadie tried to get into the movie. Over the last four years, they’d probably watched Die Hard ten times, or maybe more, but she never really found herself enjoying it enough to pay attention to the plot. She knew that Bruce Willis was a terrorist-fighting hero, but that was about it.
“Do you want any popcorn?” she asked, finding an acceptable excuse to leave the couch.
“Sure, that’d be great,” came Dex’s reply. On the TV, a sweaty Bruce Willis leapt from the roof of a building as a bomb detonated behind him.
Sadie slid off the armrest and went to the kitchen. Grabbing the big metal popcorn bowl, she set it on the counter with a stick of butter and went to the cupboard to get the popcorn maker. Dumping kernels in the top, Sadie jammed her finger into the start button. The elephant lumbered into the kitchen and poked around the counter with its trunk, its sensitive nostrils finding the butter. She knocked its trunk away.
“You’ll never guess who I ran into today,” said Dex from the living room, raising his voice over the gunshots on the TV. Bruce Willis must have found the terrorists.
“Who?” Sadie moved the bowl closer to the machine, carefully watching the elephant’s roaming trunk. “I thought you didn’t work today.”
“I didn’t, but while I was running I saw Adam Crevens walking his dog.” Dex paused to react to the movie.
She put the butter in the microwave and had the elephant press start. “Mmmhmmm?”
Dex rustled around to face her. “So I guess Adam and Jess are engaged—just happened this Thursday, he said. They’ll get married in the spring, probably May.”
Sadie whisked the butter from the microwave and dumped it over the popcorn. The elephant added salt, its trunk almost concealing the little Snoopy shaker as it moved it up and down methodically. “That’s enough,” she whispered, her fingers stilling its trunk and carefully undoing its grip.
“You going to buy your wedding season shoes, then?” Dex asked.
Every year for the past four, Sadie had bought new shoes for the wedding season. Sometimes it was a pair of pumps, sometimes flats. Last year she bought lace-up sandals that made her feel like a Greek maiden. Dex never went shopping with her, but at the start of every year, he would ask her “what kind of wedding shoe season it was.” Three years ago, when Sadie had showed Dex a pair of turquoise peep-toe heels, he’d insisted on escorting her to the couch, kneeling in front of her, and fitting them onto her bare feet. As his right hand cradled her ankle and his left hand cupped the shoe, Sadie had flutter-kicked her feet within his fingers in mock protest. Dex had laughed, and she’d squealed as he pinned her foot between his legs and bent down to line her exposed shin with kisses. His lips had left a trail of warm impressions, butterfly wings that had pressed to her skin and danced up her leg to alight in her abdomen.
But when he reminded her about buying wedding shoes this time, she couldn’t help but feel a different twinge in her stomach, like the one she got looking into the laundry closet every Thursday. She bit her lip and shook the popcorn bowl to spread the salt.
“I guess I’ll have to,” she said, hoping Dex hadn’t noticed her clipped tone. Sadie handed him the popcorn and sat back down on the couch. The elephant stood in front of the TV and looked at her mournfully. “Sorry,” she whispered. She wished Dex would sit in the armchair.
The rest of the movie passed without comment. Every so often, Sadie would hear Dex’s sharp intake of breath and a chuckle in response to a terrorist’s idiotic error with ammunition followed by Bruce Willis’s wry retort. In front of her, the elephant loomed in front of the TV. She stared at its chest, watching it move in and out as the elephant breathed, each deep inhale and heavy exhale rippling its wrinkled skin like waves on a grey-white sea. Sadie forgot about the movie, and she forgot about Dex, until the movie ended and Dex turned off the TV, kissed her forehead, and went to bed.
Instead of following him, Sadie stayed back. The elephant plodded over to her. Slowly, it stretched out its trunk and touched her forehead where Dex had kissed her. It tingled. She stretched out and took the elephant’s trunk between her hands, pulling the elephant gently to her side. For a moment, she felt a spark of adrenaline—what if the elephant accidentally sat on her and crushed her?—but her fear subsided. The elephant wouldn’t hurt her. It had proven its loyalty. Sadie turned her face into the cushions and curled the elephant’s trunk to her chest, feeling the trunk tighten around her forearm. She clung to it.
Sunday morning, Sadie awoke with a jolt, for a moment wondering where she was. As she rubbed sleep from her eyes, she remembered the previous night. Her head swiveled sideways, looking for the elephant. Instead, she saw Dex in the doorway, shaking the rain off his coat.
Dex turned and saw she was awake. “Oh good, you’re up.” He often stated obvious things as his own revelations. “No one picked up the mail yesterday, so I got it,” he said. He unlaced his shoes and crossed the foyer to the kitchen.
Sadie yawned, picked herself up off the couch, and shuffled to the kitchen, opening cupboards to get a bowl for cereal. Where was the elephant? It was probably hungry.
“You got something,” Dex continued, leaning in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. He held out a letter between two fingers. “Here.”
Sadie opened it. It was an Ottolenghi-inspired recipe for a wedding cake, a big, three-tier vanilla one with buttercream frosting, her favorite. She’d sent for it a few weeks before, unable to resist the stacks of mouthwatering frosting and string of intricate flowers that made a skirt for the bottom tier. Sadie dropped the recipe card on the counter and turned back to her bowl of Lucky Charms. She retrieved the milk from the fridge and poured it in, watching the marshmallows expand and rise towards the top of the bowl like little inflated life rafts.
Dex had picked up the card. He chuckled. “Wedding cake. For who?”
Sadie turned towards him and gave a start: The elephant was there, filling the space of the doorway behind Dex, a big grey backdrop to a portrait painting. She could barely see its head—its shoulders reached to the top of the archway, its front legs like trees trunks sprouting from the black-and-white pinwheel tiles. Its trunk hung just behind Dex’s right shoulder, swaying back and forth like a pendulum, its nostrils widening as it sniffed the air. Sadie watched, motionless, as the elephant’s trunk paused in its swinging and curved towards Dex’s face, pausing an inch away. Slowly, its nostrils quivering, the elephant’s trunk moved closer, closer, closer, and poked Dex’s right cheek: one, two, three times. Sadie’s breath caught in her throat. The elephant had never touched Dex before.
Dex glanced over his shoulder. “What are you looking at?”
“Nothing,” she said hastily, and put the milk away.
Dex moved into the kitchen and put the rest of the mail in a pile. He went into the living room, though she wasn’t sure how he managed to do so without tripping over the elephant’s feet.
“Did Jess ask you to make a cake for the wedding?” Dex picked up a magazine, his monthly subscription to Runner’s World, and started flipping through it, pen in hand.
Sadie’s arms prickled, and she crossed them, casting her eyes towards the laundry closet. The elephant still blocked her view.
“No,” she said, putting her bowl in the sink. She moved to the doorway and squeezed past the elephant, using her hands to push against its shoulders as she finagled her hips through the small space. The elephant’s head brushed the ceiling as it pivoted to look at her, its eyes blinking mournfully in the sun streaming through the sliding glass door across the room.
“Then whose?” asked Dex, finally stopping on a page.
Sadie kept looking at the elephant. It blinked. “Mine,” she heard herself say.
Dex looked up from the pair of electric blue running shoes he had just circled. “Oh?”
Her eyes held the elephant’s gaze, her fingers twisting together behind her back. She shifted her weight to the balls of her feet, bouncing slightly on her toes. The elephant tried to copy her, but its back was already pressed against the ceiling. It settled for flicking its tail, knocking a picture off the wall behind it in the process. She watched as the photo clattered to the floor in its frame. The elephant looked at her apologetically.
Sadie felt suspended, trapped, hanging between the guilty gaze of the elephant and the now-attentive gaze of her boyfriend. She thought about the last five years of her life: The day she met Dex, when he literally ran into her as she walked downtown with armfuls of new baking supplies for her first apartment after university. His sweaty face had turned red as he apologized over and over and offered to buy her a new, undented cake pan. She thought of the day he asked her out—a warm, sunny June morning walking through the Public Garden, bird crumbs in hand. She thought of the day they moved in together, into this very flat—Dex, buoyant and confident, she, breathless and expectant. She thought of the holidays that followed, like Christmas three years ago, when they spent December nights in the kitchen, singing “Jingle Bell Rock” at the top of their lungs as the snow blanketed the railing outside and an electric fire crackled in the little living room hearth. They’d spent hours making Dex’s favorite simple spritz cookies and Sadie’s more-complicated spice praline meringues, sugar and nutmeg swirling together and dancing, intertwining, throughout the whole apartment.
Thinking back on it now, the past few years seemed disjointed, cluttered, stacked on top of each other. Sadie thought she might try to sort it all out, to throw things in the hamper or otherwise keep them. But as much as she yearned to remember, what filled her vision now was the giant creature that towered in front of her, the grey-white mass of head, ears, legs, and trunk encompassing half of the room and all of her memories for the past few years: She thought of the elephant and their weekend baking ventures and Sweet balcony escapades. She thought of their meals together in the evenings when Dex was out wooing clients, and how even if the elephant couldn’t sit at the table, it always helped her clear the dishes. She remembered Laundry Thursdays, the hum of the washer and dryer growing steadily louder in the background as she covered the elephant’s tusks with dirty sheets to make a fort in the living room. She remembered the times she fell asleep waiting for Dex to come home from the office on late nights, and how the elephant always stood guard at the door. Though it never made a sound, Sadie always knew it was there. And through it all, the elephant had kept some unspoken vow, helping her and staying with her, never saying a word, but always regarding her with that patient, doleful gaze.
Sadie looked at the elephant now. She wondered when it had gotten so big—was it in the past year, or in more recent months? Maybe she had just never really noticed its girth, or the fact that it now took up the entire entryway and half of the living room when it stood at full height. Of course there must have been some part of her that had always known that it would grow—elephants weren’t usually small enough to fit in a city flat—but she hadn’t really given it much thought. Soon, however, they’d have to open the sliding glass door so it could put its hindquarters on the balcony, and even then, it would still take up much of the living room. And eventually, she realized, as the elephant continued to grow, it would block the door to the apartment completely.
Sadie turned away from Dex and the elephant, facing the little closet in the hallway. The small, bi-fold door was halfway open. She peeked inside. The closet was as she had always remembered it to be, from their first week in the flat until now, and despite her promises to clean it, that closet would remain a mess. It was habitual, a routine, and Sadie knew that as long as she lived in this flat, it would be a constant—the same movie playing over and over, no matter how much she wanted to change it.
When this last thought came to her, Sadie heard a click, like an old VCR player completing its rewinding of a tape. All of the images she’d been imagining from the past six years whizzed by, blurring and stretching into a thousand tracking lines across her mind, tumbling over each other until everything—the last six years of her life—ground to a halt. At that moment, one picture stayed frozen in place: The old, cluttered laundry closet, with its piles of clothes and boots and winter coats, the faint smell of caked mud, dust, and dryer sheets like a thick veil over it all.
She reached in and slid her coat off of the hanger. Turning back into the living room, two pairs of eyes still watched her: Dex’s, slightly wider than usual but unconcerned, and the elephant’s, sober and sympathetic.
Sadie turned to the elephant. “Come with?” she whispered. It regarded her sadly, looking down. She knew then that that was impossible, that the elephant had been here for quite some time, had lived here, had belonged here. And if she stayed, it would too. Sadie traced her index finger along its trunk, feeling the muscles ripple and then still. The elephant looked on, saying nothing, but she knew. She always had.
“Goodbye,” she said softly, and let her hand fall.
About the Author
Shannon Baker · Luther College
Shannon Baker is a recent graduate of Luther College in Decorah, IA. She graduated summa cum laude with a degree in both English (Writing) and Spanish. In her free time, Shannon enjoys reading, running, hiking, and dreaming of visiting all the national parks. She’s also waiting to embark on a Fulbright grant to Peru in March 2022. “Habits” first appeared in Catfish Creek.
About the Artist
Rose Horell · Assumption College
Rose Horell graduated from Assumption College in 2020 with a BA in English. Art and poetry are their lifelong passions. This piece first appeared in Muse. You can contact Rose and see more of their work on Instagram @gardengoose.art