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Of Grief and Elephants

A secret in a little black book.

By Norreida ReyesPublished 2 years ago 10 min read

Almost hidden in the intricate design of the brass handle was a small, raised notch. Surprised, Jo Bautista slid it sideways with a fingernail, and the desk drawer whispered open, as if it hadn’t given her any trouble moments before.

“Huh, what do you know?” she puzzled aloud. She had been sure this was the desk drawer Mom mentioned in her will. Looks like she was right.

The antique secretary had been a source of many happy hours in Jo’s childhood, imagining its numerous cubbies filled with secrets and treasure. Mom wouldn’t allow a speck of dust to blemish her family heirloom, except for the year Dad died. Neither of them had the heart to do much of anything that year.

Jo sat back in the rolling desk chair. The antique was hers, now, she thought as the pain of that reality rose again in her chest. Years ago, she lost her father to a heart attack. Last week, she lost her mother in a car accident.

Jo wasn’t ready. They had just celebrated her 27th birthday, not knowing it would be their last together. She felt so alone. Her eyes began to sting, but she had plenty more of Mom’s office to sort, so she blinked away her tears.

Jo reached into the drawer and picked up a sealed, somewhat bulky, manila envelope. Mom’s letter opener made quick work of the flap, and she slid the contents onto the blotter.

Jo gaped at two mustard-strapped bundles of $100 bills, a folded letter, a photograph, and two little black books, one worn and the other new. They smelled musty, as if the envelope had been sealed for a long time. Her parents had left her a little more comfortable—if she was careful—but not enough to make her run out and quit her job. How could they spare all this cash to sit gathering dust?

Is that Mom? Jo thought, picking up the photograph. She had never seen this picture before. It was her mom just after finishing graduate school. She was looking back at the camera, laughing over her left shoulder as her right hand rested on the heavy sides of an elephant.

If the evidence hadn’t been in her hands, Jo would never believe her mom would go anywhere near an elephant. She hated zoos and donated money to causes that protected animals from poaching and other crimes. Confused, Jo leaned the picture up against the desk lamp, holding it in place with Mom’s little wood Buddha sculpture.

The letter was a simple folded sheet, typed and dated a few weeks after her father had died. It fluttered in Jo’s hands, echoing her stomach, as she read:

“My dear Jo, there can be only one reason you are reading this letter, so let me begin by reassuring you that wherever I am, I am well and with your father. Always remember, I love you to the stars and back. I am immensely proud of you. I miss you, sweetheart.”

“I miss you, too, Mom,” Jo whispered, lips trembling.

“Dad left us a little better off than I told you. I’m sorry to be keeping this back, but I want to make sure you will have it when you finish your graduate degree. It’s what my Uncle Luis did for me when I was 25 years old. I never told you or your father this, but he gave me $10,000 and urged me, as I am urging you now, to quietly disappear for a while, just pick up and go where no one knows you. Which I did. It was a life-changing experience. Here is $20,000. Don’t use it for bills, don’t save it, and don’t come back until you’ve spent every last cent.”

Wait, what? thought Jo. She almost dropped the letter.

“Hopefully, I’ll give this to you in person. But, in case anything happens to me before graduation, here it is. Go. Experience limitless adventure. The world is a very big place, sweetheart. I encourage you to explore it.”

It ended simply with a “Love, Mom,” written in her own hand.

Jo slowly set down the letter, her mind spinning. Her mother was asking her to just blow twenty thousand dollars. It sounded completely off the wall. Eyes wide in disbelief, she reached for the well-fingered pages of her mom’s notebook.

The first page was blank except for one word. “Thailand.” The second page began, “I rode an elephant today.”

Jo’s eyebrows shot up. No way! She flipped through the pages, growing more astonished as they revealed her mother’s secret journey. Returning to page two, Jo began again.

“I rode an elephant today. When I arrived in Bangkok—which has beautiful skyscrapers, by the way—I was approached by a man who asked me if I would like to ride an elephant. At least, that’s what I think he said. My Thai and his English weren’t particularly good. I said sure, and he asked some others, too. We clambered into his little bus, and off we went with a perfect stranger!

“The ride took a while. I was slapping mosquitos and melting in the humidity. I’m sure my hair was wrecked. Finally, we arrived at a clearing near a river and forest. It smelled like animals, but it wasn’t bad. We stepped into a field of low grass that was dotted with some shabby huts. Outside one was an elephant, tied to a cement post.

“The man—his name was Chanchai—herded us toward her. I was so excited, I was practically jumping up and down! The elephant was absolutely magnificent, like a queen!

“When it was my turn, I had Chanchai take a picture and then help me up some steps to her back. Her muscles twitched beneath me. There was nothing to hold onto, so I leaned forward and hugged her, hanging on with all fours. She had short, bristly hairs and smelled earthy and dusty. I closed my eyes and could feel her breathe.

“Chanchai also swung onto the elephant’s back and grabbed my belt at the back of my jeans to steady himself. I nearly jumped out of my skin, but the rest of my bus companions just laughed. Chanchai slapped the elephant’s side.

“We were moving. The elephant stood at least eight feet high, so I could see everything pretty well over her massive head. We were at the edge of a forest (maybe a jungle?) thick with trees and underbrush with broad, green leaves. I couldn’t see in, but the cries of birds and animals felt really close.

“But this beautiful girl was heading to the river. When she stepped in the water’s edge, she reached down with her trunk and the next thing I knew, she was spraying water onto her back and all over us! Laughing, I let go of her and reached my hands up into the spray as she hit us again. The drops glittered like rainbows in the hot sunshine, and the cool water was so refreshing. I have never felt so free!”

Jo closed her eyes and imagined her mother, an animal activist, as a young woman in a foreign land with big ‘80s hair, happily sitting on a subjugated elephant with a stranger hanging onto her belt. Jo felt fascinated and appalled at the same time. Who was this woman? Did I ever really know her? Jo stood and began to pace as she read, pausing over snippets that jumped out at her from different pages.

“The streets are crowded during Bangkok’s rush hour. Go figure.”

“Visited Chiang Mai for the Loi Krathong festival. Whole families came out to float candle-lit rafts. The light was so beautiful, glittering in the water at night. I feel happy.”

“Keep your pad Thai. I’m a kaeng khiao wan (green curry) fan!”

“I wish I could describe just how amazing it is to sit by the lake of Ratchaprapha. The stars are starting to come out. I’m glad it stopped raining.”

“Whoops, just found out that touching someone’s head is taboo here.”

“The Tham Lot cave up north was breathtaking. I’ve never ridden on a boat through a cave before!”

Jo closed the book, keeping a finger to mark her page. Mom always loved her green curry, she thought. Biting her lip, she wondered, Why didn’t she tell me about all this? If she was that happy, why did she come back? Jo stared out the window for a while, until her eyes focused enough to notice the light was fading. She reached over to switch on the desk lamp and sat back down woodenly for more.

“The conditions and wages of some of the factory workers here are heartbreaking. I never realized. Some of them have shared their homes and meals with me. Tomorrow, I’m bringing each a big gift basket of food as a thank-you.”

“I feel terrible! Chanchai was just arrested for illegal capture! He had me riding an endangered species who likely had the wild beaten out of her. I wish I could apologize to her. I hear she’s been taken to an elephant sanctuary up north. I am so ashamed. I just didn’t think!”

“There’s my Mom,” Jo said to the empty room, somewhat relieved. Flipping to the last page, Jo read,

“The money is almost gone. Time to go home. I’m glad I took Uncle Luis’ advice and only told one person, our family lawyer, where I really am. These last few weeks are completely mine, my very own secret treasure.

“I feel a little like Dorothy, saying goodbye to the Land of Oz. Thailand is such a magical place, although definitely not perfect. It feels like home in many ways, but it’s not. Not really. I didn’t love the mosquitos and all the rain, for sure. But the people are so kind and hard-working. I learned so much. I will never forget them or my life here.”

Jo stood, restless and raw. She dropped the book on the desk and paced again, her arms wrapped tightly around herself. From what she gathered, her mother had been in Thailand for a couple of months. She crisscrossed the country, hitchhiking, staying in hotels unless a family invited her to take their couch for a night. She learned to speak the language fairly well and how to pray like a Theravada Buddhist. A couple of the families taught her some Thai cooking, too. Jo’s mother had embraced every bit of Thailand, yet Jo and her father never knew she’d been there.

Jo wished she could talk to her mom about everything she saw and felt. Looking around the small den, she saw Mom’s books on Thailand, her brass elephant on the windowsill, and the Buddha on the desk. Throughout the house were little reminders of her mother’s secret adventure 30 years ago. Jo’s throat tightened. She wasn’t sure if she was angry or proud. Maybe both.

Night was falling. Jo gathered up the cash, the letter, and her mother’s book, sliding them back into the envelope and drawer, resetting the hidden latch. Lifting her own little black book, Jo realized that she actually could do what her mother did. It was brave at any age, but it wouldn’t take much planning to disappear for a while.

She had a good job, good friends, and a special someone in her life, but Jo felt something was missing, a something her mother seemed to have found. Not to mention, she desperately needed time to heal from her loss.

“Where” was an easy decision. Picking up a pen off the desk, she opened her notebook to the first page. “Fiji,” she wrote. Closing the book, she eyed the desk. Secrets and treasure. Picking a cubby to hide her plans, Jo gently stroked the polished wood.

“Thanks, Mom,” she whispered. Overcome, she dropped her face into her hands and let the tears fall.


About the Creator

Norreida Reyes

I've served as a public policy analyst, journalist & advocate for women & children. People have more power than they know. I see the world for what it is & still own joy & humor. Above all, I'm simply a writer, fortunate to do work I love.

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