Crack! I open my eyelids. Crack! I sit up. My blanket is lying on the floor and my legs are bare and frigid. A gust of wind blows through the open window, sending a chill down my spine. I roll off of my mattress and step onto the cold concrete floor. The curtains are drawn and the sunlight blinds me. As I shield my eyes, my gaze shifts downward. Among the bundle of blankets is a pair of grimy trousers and a dirtied shirt. I let out an irritated sigh as I gather up the clothing and start dressing myself. Once I fasten the clip on my baggy pants, I pull my knotted black hair into a tight ponytail. I wrap my blanket around myself the way my mother taught me how to tie a sarong. I start humming a tune as I lift up my head and pretend that I am a princess, waltzing across a polished ballroom floor. Before I know it, I am leaping and twirling and singing a song that only I know the lyrics to.
As I step outside, I hear it again. Crack! I search for the source of the noise. Ahead of me is a giant tusker. Teary-eyed, it glances at me and releases a loud trumpeting sound. Standing beside the large animal is a red-faced man holding a leather whip. “Vasanthi! I need you to take over. This beast is acting up,” he gestures to the elephant. Then he hands me the whip and walks off without another word. I immediately snap the whip in half and throw it on the ground. The elephant crushes it for good measure. I stroke his rough skin and whisper into his ear. “I wish we could just start over again.”
“Ayubowan,” I greet everyone who I pass by. I am looking for my father. He is the one who runs the preparation for Perahera, the annual festival that is held in Kandy. It is one of Sri Lanka's most popular celebrations. Many foreigners come to the festival, and my father is good friends with the ones who return yearly. “Vasanthi? I am over here!” I turn to see my father waving me over. He is conversing with a stout little British man. “Vasanthi. Can you do me a favor and collect some supplies from the shed?” he asks.
“No problem,” I answer. I turn to walk away, but stop in my tracks. “Should I dress in anything formal for Perahera?” I ask hopefully.
“No. Wear whatever you want. You won't be in the parade, anyway,” he answers nonchalantly.
I wish I could be in the parade. Every year, I see beautiful girls wearing colorful saris and expensive jewelry. I wonder if they know how lucky they are. I've always longed to dance across the streets, singing and carrying a basket of fruit atop my head. I've always longed to hear hundreds of people shout my name and gasp in amazement at the things I could do. I've always longed to wear beautiful saris like all of the other girls do. There are many things I long to do, but none are possible.
“Look at the sky, Vasanthi,” Father whispers. “Do you see the clouds?”
“Yes, Father. I do.” I reply.
“What do you see?” He asks. I stare at them, but all I can see are clouds.
“I see nothing, Father.” He is silent.
“What a pity,” he finally says. “Do you see the trees?”
“Yes, I do,” I answer.
“Do you see the monkeys?” He asks.
“Yes. They are quite ugly,” I remark.
“Yes they are. Legend says that when you have achieved a great goal in life, the monkeys transform into flamingos. Have you ever seen a flamingo, Vasanthi?”
“No, Father. I haven’t,” I sigh.
“Neither have I,” He says. “Neither have I.”
The shed is a terrible place. It is crawling with insects and rodents and smells of rotting food. I open the wooden doors and step onto the wet floor. I spot the pile of chains that Father instructed me to collect. I gather them in my arms and find my way out of the dank shed. I shiver as I carry the chains. They will be wrapped around the elephants' feet and neck during the parade. I do not understand why the elephants are given no respect. Everyone who watches the parade thinks the elephants are gorgeous and extravagant. They are correct, but they can't see beneath the silky caparisons worn by the animals. They can't see the chains or the sticks or the whips that the men carry. They can't see the sad looks on the elephants' faces. They can't see the truth.
“Ishan!” I call out. He turns his head in my direction. “Here are the chains,” I say as I hand him the bundle of metal. He nods in approval and walks towards a group of bulky tuskers, all of whom are wearing fearful looks upon their faces. The tallest one has its rear end facing the others. I walk around the group of elephants and stop in front of him. His chest expands with every labored breath he takes. I don't think he can see me very clearly. A deep gash runs across his face, dangerously near his eyes. His skin is raggedy and I can see several scars covering his body. I gasp. “Did they do this to you?” I whisper in shock. I can't imagine the pain he must be in. “Ishan! Can I take this one to get his caparison on?” I ask.
“Go ahead.” He answers. I pat the elephant on the shoulder. “Let's get you ready for the parade.”
The elephant won't be in the parade. I will never again watch the parade. We have left Kandy. I am sitting near a shimmering lake, the giant tusker beside me. “Look!” I shout. And there, in the glistening water, is a flamingo. “I did it, Father,” I whisper. “I did it.”
© Anya Chavez, Jarrow Montessori School, Boulder, CO