When I was a child, we’d often play a game in school to help us learn to read. The teacher would tell us to find an animal with the first letter to match the first letter in our names. I ended up vexed for many reasons when we played that particular game. The first reason was that I could read already, and the second was because the letter E was quiet depressing for me.
E is for Emu. Who ever heard of an emu anyway? What good are they, except that they’re not quite even as cool as an ostrich? Apparently emu oil is good for something, except terrible for the emu. That’s horrible and depressing. Why would I want to associate my name with the murder of a funny-looking bird? Ugh.
E is for Echidna. Is it a hedgehog? Is it an anteater? It has spikes and a beak and what the hell is this thing supposed to be, anyway?! At least that’s what 7-year-old Emmie would have thought if she had known echidnas existed. As I write this, even the red squiggly line doesn’t know what an echidna is. See that, spiky beaky, anteatery thing? You don’t exist.
E is for Eel. Never mind that at this point in my existence, The Little Mermaid rained supreme and anything that resembled Flotsam and Jetsam would have been immediately blackballed from the realm of what I thought was cool. My rejection of eels for my animal happened at slimy and ew.
Why on earth couldn’t there be an animal I liked start with E? I convinced myself at the tender age of seven that my name sucked because I wasn’t like Jon Bailey who could be a jaguar, or Tiffany the tiger. I couldn’t be a dolphin or a lion or anything I remotely liked.
I eventually settled on elephant.
After probably a year of self pity. Elephants were gray. Wrinkly. Not aggressive. Whenever this game came up in class, I got progressively more mournful. I wanted to be a stalking jungle cat. Something dangerous and predatory and beautiful. And yet instead, little Emmie was forced to endure a litany of strange creatures. I’m not quite sure why I never thought about eagles — I think at the time they were old and stuffy like the presidents I usually saw them paired with.
As I got older, something changed. I started learning more about the world and about the animals I shared it with. One day, I stumbled across a documentary or a National Geographic article about elephants.
Elephants have families they will defend to the death. They trek thousands of miles across Africa in search of water and bountiful food each year. They love their young, and they mourn their dead. Elephants remember the grave sites of their herd members, and they return to these places even when they’re out of their path. They have emotions.
Elephants play and frolic and like to swim. And as I grew older and began to visit zoos by myself, I discovered that elephants seem to like me. One at the Denver zoo used to reach out his trunk to me whenever I showed up. He’s point right at me in a crowd of people as if he wanted to shake my hand.
“Elephants like me,” I told my husband when we took his parents to the DC zoo. “You’ll see.” I could almost hear his thoughts. Mmm-hmmmmm….all right, Emmie.
When we arrived at the paddock, all the elephants were up at the feeding trough on the opposite side, about fifty meters away. The moment I reached the fence, one turned and walked right toward me. All fifty meters, directly toward me. I can’t find the picture right now, but I snapped a photo of this young bull walking in a bee-line to where I stood at the fence. Within moments, the rest of the elephants followed.
It’s probably just a fancy, a leftover whim of a child who needed an animal to match her name. But the more I learned of these creatures, the more beautiful they became. The more I related to them. The more their strangeness became wondrous. Beyond the favorite animals I harbored through my youth, it’s become my dream to meet an elephant in person. To get close enough to touch. To say hello.
So now at 27, I can proudly say I have an animal. I have an answer to the game.
What animal starts with E?
E. E is for Elephant.
Elephants are artists. Give an elephant paint and a canvas, and they make beautiful pictures.
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