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Elephant Teeth

by Zandra Renwick

3514 words
Listen to this story, narrated by the author

Act I

Charlie is an orphan. The last known elephant disappeared from the world twenty years ago when she was eight. Loss of habitat, viral pandemic, human insatiability long since devoured the whale, the honeybee, the domestic chicken, but Charlie is especially conflicted over the disappearance of elephants. Her parents collected netsuke all through her childhood, avidly, obsessively, prizing most their ivory carvings of other extinct species: the aurochs; the tiger; the giant panda. Her childhood is over now, spent in a steel and glass penthouse too similar to the sterile operating theaters of the surgeons forever trying to repair her disintegrating bones. Since their accident, Charlie’s parents are dead as elephants. Their netsuke collection is hers, beautiful and terrible as it is. Her bones are still disintegrating.

With creaky fingers she lifts the letter that arrived that morning and sniffs the opened envelope’s ragged flap. She’s never before received an actual letter, delivered by automated drone like any pizza or recreational pharmaceutical. On the envelope’s front is written her name and exact geopoint, and below that, the name of the city where she lives. This last is an anachronistic flourish; precise geotags would be sufficient for pizza and mail delivery even if more than one functioning city existed in the world. But it’s the first pen-and-ink handwriting she’s seen outside museums and curio shops. It makes the envelope seem precious, a commodity of exaggerated value or importance.

Inside is an invitation, a linen card inscribed with a second geopoint her phone tells her sits at the edge of the city, the encroachment edge, where it pushes back the north’s new humid untamed jungles of hyper-rapid vegetal mutations and asphalt-eating microbes and newly secret secrets. She swipes for terrain settings with her arthritic thumb, but live satellite feeds show only enormous swaths of unsettled greenery, treetops relayed back to her from space. On the heavy linen card’s front is an embossed stylized print of an elephant, all precise circles and triangles, more architectural than animal. Flipping it over she finds, in the same decadent pen and winding ink of the envelope’s front, a lone sentence: The elephant can free you.

A zipping tingle tugs the base of her crooked spine, ripples up and inward before dissipating back down between her chronically aching legs. Anyone with access to Charlie’s public consumer data and aggregated personality profiles could guess this would be a good calling card, a compelling lure. Elephants might be gone from the world, but there’s no denying Charlie has always felt trapped. Trapped by the physical limitations of her grinding joints and constant pain. Trapped by her parents’ eternal nebulous fears for their safety and wealth (moot now, their safe expensive airplane scattered across the bottoms of oceans deeper than mountains are high). On good days, the glass tower where she grew up and still lives feels like a prison. On less-good days it’s more a mausoleum, and in the middle of those nights she lies shaking with rage and dread and agony alone in darkness by herself—all her bones unknitting, her life ticking past one wet breath at a time—it feels most like a luxury coffin.

Her hands are extra stiff today, connective tissue loosing its tenuous grip on the rubbled ends of her knucklebones, the bases of her opposable thumbs, her clicking wrists. With difficulty she tugs over her swollen offkilter kneecaps and the pelvic ridges of her canted hips her best outdoor frock (black sheath neck to ankle, with long scooped square pocket sleeves like an antique kimono) and swipe-orders a car which pings its own arrival an instant later. On her way out the door she pauses at her parents’ netsuke case, an illuminated towering display of glass and slim metal bands rising from floor to ceiling in unintentional mimicry of the sky-scraping tower where it sits. From the thousand exquisite ivory carvings the size and shape of bleached chestnuts her gnarled fingers clamp on one, an elephant, and drop it into her deep sleeve.

City stutters past the automated taxi’s tinted grey windows, a tinted grey scape of concrete and squared puzzlebox patches of sky. The land shifts subtly, then abruptly, tall buildings then short buildings then no buildings. Jungled vegetation outside suggests the luxury of private ownership rather than the desolation of abandonment.

The driverless vehicle spits Charlie out and pulses away on the slick black road under inaudible instructions riding invisible waves. A path cuts through tangled mutated jungle growth, leading to a low sprawling manse under a treed canopy. The massive irregular house clutches the ground, dense looping roots of trees and vines crowding its foundations. Unfamiliar insect chirring saws the air.

A man answers her cramp-fisted knock. Small, exquisitely formed, polished skin and etched features reminding her of the netsuke weighting the fold of her pocketlike sleeve. “The invited has arrived, yes, yes!” he sings out with breathy sibilance, announcing her to no one Charlie can see. He smiles widely to expose flat empty gums pink as newborn mice, no teeth at all, and holds out his hand. “Your device, please. Yes. Yes.”

Charlie welcomes the first stirrings of unease. She hates about herself the numbness increasingly clogging her insides like a fungus, a cancer. The handwritten invitation has sparked in her something she’d classified extinct as sabretooth tigers, rare as unicorns: curiosity.

She hands over her phone and steps in behind the toothless man.

Inside, she sees the house is not a house. It isn’t built as houses are commonly built, hacked stone stacked on hacked stone, murdered branch spiked and hammered to murdered branch, the violence of it all. This enormous house is a grove, a ring of immense trees growing tight together, knots and gaps appearing from outside as eccentrically crafted windows fluttering with spidersilk curtains. Inside, branches have been trained or enticed to grow in astounding formation to create walls, a winding labyrinth with leaf-mould carpeting, a lofted green ceiling illuminated by dappled sunshine filtered through arbor canopy. Twisting branches ziggurating up into dim alcoves clearly function as stairs, bark oiled smooth by hands and feet of what surely must be a primate if not a human climber—someone who doesn’t wear shoes, with a grip surer and stronger than Charlie’s hooked fingers and splintered wrists could manage on their best days. Her guide, in the incongruous outfit of an oldfashioned butler, is barefoot.

But an elephant does still exist in the world. She hears it before she sees it, a low-frequency rumble that sets the living walls quivering and resonates inside Charlie’s jelly bones. The labyrinth’s central chamber feels smaller than the entry hall of her parents’ penthouse with its mirrors and metal and its netsuke display case spanning concrete. Her rigid fingers clutch at the small bulge in her square sleeve. The netsuke feels warm even through cloth. She extracts it and holds it in her palm, approaching the elephant with the lump of violated pachyderm like an offering, an apology, an acknowledgement of crimes so vast and inexplicable they only vaguely hover at the edges of Charlie’s comprehension.

Elephants—at least this elephant, an animal extinct more years than some species, fewer years than others, which shouldn’t, can’t, be here—aren’t as large as Charlie imagined. She steps close enough to count its eyelashes, to see bristlebrush hairs making a lie of the velvety appearance of rumpled skin. She sets the small carved ivory piece in the crook of its curled trunk. The elephant lifts the tiny carving lost in its folds of flesh, cradles it to its cheek with a low coo similar to how one might comfort a baby. Its tusks are small, maybe only a thousand netsukes-worth of ivory between the two including the invisible portions buried inside the animal’s jaws, its skull and bones. Charlie’s teeth hurt at the thought, and her heart.

The tuxedoed man’s bare feet strike noiseless on trampled leaf carpet when he steps past her to accept the netsuke from the elephant. To Charlie, he says in his toothless whistle, “The carvers are waiting, yes, yes.”

The elephant had drawn all Charlie’s attention; for the first time she notices a silent row of humans crouched in shadowed recesses. People of different shades and ages and shapes, rendered similar by the elegant plainness of their simple clothes, the calmness of their collective gaze and the strange concave cheeks over their uniformly toothless gums. Beside them rises the only jarring human-made structure in the place: a curio display shelf, mirror, metal and glass, illuminated by a lone shaft of sunlight angling down through the branchy ceiling. Even from a distance Charlie sees miniature netsuke densely stacked and piled on the shelves by the hundreds, the thousands. Ignoring the usual stabbing pains in her ankle tendons and collapsing arches of her feet, she goes to the incredible display. The intricate carvings are proportioned like most common netsuke, like her parents’ collection… but a fraction of the size, more eerily familiar than they have any right to seem. This primal familiarity is because, Charlie realizes, it’s not elephant ivory. Not ivory from bison, walrus, narwhal. Not from wild boar. Not from any extinct creature.

She reaches to stroke one, a lifesized ant clutching a pea, with telltale netsuke cord holes on its underside. Smaller across than her fingernail, an astounding feat of dexterity, skill far past anything she’d thought existed. Her parents would’ve hunted the world for such carving. They would’ve paid an artisan’s lifetime salary for such a perfect piece. They would’ve given their eyeteeth.

The elephant is patient while Charlie makes her way back to its side, watching her stiff-limbed progress with enormous lash-fringed dichromatic eyes. When she nears, it reaches its trunk out to support her the way Charlie imagines a real-life friend might support one with an arm behind the shoulders, if one ever made a friend in real life not filtered by screens and avatars and those invisible waves that might be anything or anyone or no-one at the other end. Charlie never has managed to make this sort of friend.

The elephant draws her close enough to steady herself on its tusk. Its living ivory feels warmer than her own skin, warmer than her own spit when she reaches into her mouth to tug the first tooth from its shabby mooring in her disintegrating jaw. Warmer than the smear of her own blood where she grips the animal’s long pale extraordinary tooth, fighting vertigo accompanying her swimming vision, her head spinning with the first extraction.

Charlie’s barefoot guide holds a wide carved wooden bowl toward her, murmuring, “Yes… yes… ” in soothing tones. The bowl’s clean and smooth, stained deep splotched rusty black from, she suspects, other visitors, other initiates, other invitees. She senses but does not feel compelled to define forces larger than this single event, this single room and her single feeling of relief when she tugs the second tooth from a jawbone as feeble and rotten as the rest of her infrastructure, as willing to collapse into dust and nothing. She knows some things are unknowable. And then there are those other things. Things like crimes and disappointments and griefs so vast and inexplicable they only vaguely hover at the edges of her comprehension.

With the first sense of rightness Charlie has ever felt from her traitorous body, the first sense of harmony, she prods and rocks the next tooth back and forth, back and forth, watching from her peripheral vision the carvers approach, seeing that the tools they grip in their powerful dexterous strong-boned artisan grasps might be good not only for polishing and carving human teeth, but for harvesting. Catching the elephant’s soft brown gaze she slumps into the warm supportive cradle of its trunk, and opens her mouth wide for the approaching carvers, and tilts her head back as far as her unspooling vertebrae allow.

But that’s only the end of her first act.

• • •

Act II

Charlie is a warrior. Sabotage experts, she and her primate colleagues slip through night-slick city streets, invisible because the possibility of them, the reality of them is not readily understood by the dominant city-dweller mindset. The saboteurs blend too deeply with shadows in nighttime urban corners to register on the consciousness even of any who catch fleeting glimpses and are curious enough to give a second look, in person or via blurry captured pixel. They flow like viscous sentient fluid between towering glass stacks disappearing into skies too choked with sorrow and soot to let in the light of stars. Any negligible fraction of urban residents who walk the lower city streets at midnight instead of nesting safely in one sleek rectangular megalith or another, or whisking between these towers in sealed driverless automatons, are more afraid of being seen than seeing. Charlie and her rebel gang are safe from such eyes as find them.

Left to herself, Charlie would prefer to never meet face to face the residents in the towers, the bankers and doctors and lawyers and clerks and executives and programmers and investors and consumers and all other persons of import and consequence or even mere social compliance who make up the citizenry of their automated world. It is a utopia, this world. It is perfect. Just ask anyone who lives here, rather than in the places on other continents that have been ground up in the machine of technological advancement, stripped of minerals and water and arable topsoil and anything else useable as fuel or raw material or wealth. The only thing left really is city, and beyond that, the mutating jungle spurred by off-gassed waste and by immeasurable energy pollution shed by the advanced technologies of the era, electricity and microwaves and gamma rays and rapid particles and particle manipulators and particle accelerators and particle destroyers. Environmental tipping points were reached well before Charlie was born, and for the last decade or more, beyond the new jungles and the old silent algaed oceans lie continents of only sparsely and tenuously populated desert.

The crew’s lead chimp gives the sign to the rest of the group: two fingers jabbing westward and a feral grimace. Charlie and the others follow his command, surging amoebalike toward a windowless building. She has long since cast off her city trappings, shoes and clothes and fear, and now daily drinks tart vegetal sludge the elephant’s herbalists and alchemists distill from the jungle, adaptive cellulose binding agents and curative properties of self-repairing plant DNA that enable Charlie’s bones to strengthen and solidify. Her skeletal frame will never be straight—her body is as it is, bones curved and crunched, spine slightly twisted, limbs too long or too short for “human” perambulation. But Charlie doesn’t care what other humans think she should look like. If anything, now the pain is manageable and her bones no longer feel in danger of shattering, her tilted posture and tendency toward a crouched stance make her feel at ease with her mixed primate crew. Bonobo, chimpanzee, the occasional orangutan break-in specialist or gorilla muscle who usually make up her fellow special operatives—they’ve never communicated to Charlie that they find her lacking. Her fingers are the most dexterous, after all, and her past experience with city living is a definite advantage to the team. She, like the rest, has her special talents.

Tonight’s mission is similar to every other: the disruption of rapacious human endeavor. They’ve been sent to remove key programming nodes from an energy redistribution plant, a low-security substation with the misfortune to exist in a crucial hub location. The elephant has indicated that tonight’s operation will cause a third of the city’s distant production facilities to go dark. It’ll be temporary—little more than a nuisance to automated urban maintenance, really—but will grant the elephant’s resistance faction breathing space to set up other sabotage operations with larger consequences. Charlie neither knows nor cares what those consequences might be; she follows the elephant, and the elephant, or more accurately the act of following the elephant, sets her free.

Charlie’s crew has more opposable thumbs at their disposal than most, but hers are the most opposable, the best adapted to human design. She enters codes the elephant’s hackers provided, and the exterior substation door whisks open. She doesn’t know it yet but in a very few minutes she and her crew will encounter a human watchman. He will be surprised, and afraid, and in his surprise and fear will strike one of her colleagues with his electrical stunning baton and kill the small bonobo dead. Charlie will be swift and stab him through the heart with a blade made from sharpened human femur, and he will bleed red viscous human guts into the sterile white corridor not designed for living traffic. One of the primate operatives will sling their fallen comrade over her shoulder and the crew will complete their objective and melt, amoebalike, back into the outside nighttime shadows. Charlie will leave imperfect irregular human footprints in the watchman’s blood, but won’t notice or care. Returning to the ruffled green growth shoving back the edge of the city, the chimps and remaining bonobos and the capuchin and macaque will beat their chests and bare their hard ivory teeth in defiance of the rectangular concrete landscape they travel through. Their teeth are intact, strong and clean as nature made them, untainted by the millennia of rapine which vibrates through the human ivory littering the elephant’s shelves. They gnash and screech, the lone human primate in their crew fiercely joyous to spill human blood that night on their collective behalf. “Yes, yes,” she growls in ferocious sibilant whispers alongside their howls and hoots, baring empty pink gums unable to grind meat even if she wanted. “Yes, yes! Yes!”

This will be the tenor of Charlie’s days and nights for a long time, through much of the middle of her story.

• • •


Charlie is a priestess. The last known elephant disappeared from the world twenty years ago when Charlie was old. She was old yesterday. If she wakes up tomorrow she will be older. It isn’t the custom to keep track of how many times the jungle cycles its seasons as one lives through them. Her people reckon the jungle has eight seasons: Waking; Gathering; Tentative; Demanding; Fierce; Tired; Contemplative; and At Rest.

In the language of her community, the sign/sound combination for the word priestess also implies teacher. She lopes slow but confident down the path toward her classroom, a wide clearing with tumbled stones to perch on and the ruins of an enormous tiled fountain at its center. Water ripples in the fountain, tinted pale purple by new generations of restorative algae which have been gaining strength in standing ponds and pools of still water since the human city fell. The elephant’s scientists still work with the jungle to reclaim cubic millimeter by cubic millimeter the organic world from its devastated state. It’s a slow process, but no one is in any special hurry—why would they be?

As Charlie nears the clearing, several of her pupils emerge from the jungle to join her. She’s not supposed to have favorites and so pretends not to. But these are certainly some of her brightest, her gentlest, her most inquisitive students. A small human child walking fully upright on only two limbs, the way Charlie was taught as a baby, shyly falls into a bowlegged lope beside her. His chimpanzee playmate makes a humorous face at the boy’s efforts and the two break off to roll and cuff each other in typical friendship dominance play. Charlie and the others ignore the pair and continue to the fountain.

Day and sky are clear. Charlie joins the ritual dance her students improvise, homage to their elephant founder who set their parents and grandparents and sometimes great or multi-greats grandparents free. The rituals and homages change class to class, season to season, often involve petting and inquisitive strokes of the great yellowing tusks resting in the carved wooden cradle under the impermanent shelter Charlie and her students build each year or season as part of their instruction. Already the dead elephant’s enormous distinctive ivories are wearing thin in spots, the thousand touches of tiny primate fingers faster acting than some erosions, slower than others. Charlie, their priestess/teacher, doesn’t preach/teach them to fetishize the dead elephant’s teeth. The world has already seen that season and barely survived. She’s happy to watch the last of the elephant’s teeth disappear along with the last of her own generation, who extracted the ivory from their jaws in their Demanding season, their Fierce one.

These days all her seasons feel Contemplative. Thought of being At Rest doesn’t frighten or repel Charlie. She turns her attention to her day’s flock of students, proud of their strong teeth. She feels their Waking season gathering as it nears, the way clouds thicken with rain to wash everything fresh and green and new, heavy with what might be, what will.

Zandra Renwick’s stories appearing under variations of her name have been translated, podcast, performed live on stage, and developed for television. Recent fiction in Asimov’s, Alfred Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazines, and The Year’s Best Hardcore Horror. More at zandrarenwick.com.

Issue 31

June 2020

3LBE 31

Front & Back cover art by Rew X