Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
In the Herd of the Elephants

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Smiling Cadillac wide, Julia Roberts stares out from the television. She's riding on top of an elephant somewhere -- Thailand, maybe -- and manages to look graceful, hair piled up, and unfazed by the heat. In their ninth and eighth months, Lucy and Jenna are considerably less cool; sweat dollops run their jagged course from temple to Lucy's jaw while perspiration seeps through her bra, oozing from the underwire until Jenna can feel it on her stretched stomach.

Bloated like a pair of bullfrog cheeks, they are nevertheless sitting right next to each other, not bothering to leave a space in between.

"I wish I had a trunk," Lucy says putting her forearm to her nose and flinging her wrist. "I would splash myself in a waterhole."
They debate the merits of a trunk versus a marsupial pouch then drink the last of their Russian Iced tea. Lucy's mother made a jug of it -- loose tea tied in cheesecloth sacs submerged into hot water -- and stuck it in the fridge and they've been sipping at the ginger-orange of it until their tongue tips are slightly burning.

"What about Ella?" Jenna says to Lucy.

They still haven't settled on names for the babies -- now too big to swirl inside them so they just punch and roll -- and the women are desperate enough these days that they look to everyday objects or anyone they encounter to see if they can pick something suitable; Lottie was the bag packer at Shaw's Market, Jinelle was the vacuum brand Lucy thought sounded good for a girl. The Baby Romaine from their salads didn't seem right for a child, but they decided it would work for the rock group they'd never form.

"Ella's nice," Lucy says. "You could have Ella and I could have Louis."

They don't know if they are carrying boys or girls or one of each, but the husbands, who both work on the farm, have a feeling they'll soon be surrounded by a herd of females. Today they sift through the harvested brussel sprouts and bunch the snap beans into crates to be shipped. When they come home, linted with cornhusks, Jenna and Lucy'll go out to the truck and see what remnants they've got in back and fashion dinner out of the bruised tomatoes or button mushrooms.

On the television, Julia heads into the jungle to be with orangutans, leaving the heft of elephant she rode on to wait in the dusty shade.

"There's only two kinds of elephants," Jenna says, "The Asian elephant and the African -- the African's the biggest, so that's me."

"Give me another couple weeks," Lucy says still facing the screen, "Then we'll see. You'll be in labor and I'll be sitting here, sweating and packing on the pounds."

Since Jenna is due three weeks before she is, Lucy is terrified her friend might have the baby and suddenly leave her behind, back in the world of the non-parenting.

"Maybe we'll go at the same time," Jenna says to try to make her feel better, even though it's best if she is full term. The last thing she'd want is to have Lucy stuck in the NICU while Jenna's home breastfeeding on the couch.

Lucy perks up. "Maybe we will! Can't you see it? The guys running back and forth, checking on us, comparing how much dilation."

They joke about being crops the men need to tend, about wetting through the pick-up's seat when their waters break, or the way Jenna's husband's face would curl up if he were rushing her to the hospital, driving with his chest pressed to the wheel like he did when the main pipe burst and nearly flooded the cabbage crop two years ago.

Jenna flips channels for a minute to look at the weather, which annoys Lucy.

"Can't you just leave it? You know it's still hot out, so why bother checking?" she asks. She fans herself with a paper towel and then says, "This isn't working."

"Hey -- what about Windy or Cloudy or Cirrus?" Jenna asks, going back to their name game.

"Cirrus isn't bad -- for a boy."

"Those are ice clouds," Jenna says and then, feeling the need to explain herself, "I only know this because I watch the Weather Channel too much."

She tells Lucy about thin Stratus clouds that sheet the sky, the patchy Altocumulus ones that are made of water but hardly ever produce rain, and the Mammtus clouds that have pouch-like shapes hanging out like bosoms.

"Hey -- we're Mammtus," Lucy says and makes Jenna turn back to the animals.

~

Back at the documentary, one of the orangutans is old and might not make it until the end of filming. Movie-star Julia is clearly upset and watches mothers bug-pick their children to feel better while the gray-haired one ails in the distance. Lucy starts to cry when Julia talks to the camera about her experience in the jungle, about how it changed her, how she liked watching the primates use sticks to fish a row of ants out from a hole in a log, about how surprised she was by the way the group communicated.

Watching Lucy cry makes Jenna start. When they watched a documentary about seagulls, they learned that depending on the species and where they lived, a quarter of all newly paired gulls split up. Lucy's first fiancé died in the water and when the seabirds dove in, beaking for their dinners, alone and apart from their mates, Lucy told Jenna again about how part of her still missed Matt. Here she was, married to Justin and having a baby, but the slice of her that still loved Matt would always wonder what love and children would have been with him. Maybe those feelings will trickle away, Jenna thinks, thin out and fade as Lucy gets further into life with Justin, when the baby is born.

Jenna knows what Lucy means, though, the curiosity about what might have been. This pregnancy is her fourth. The first three didn't take. Actually, Jenna knows the first one wouldn't have worked at all -- it wasn't with her husband, but with her first fiancé, Hull, who went off to teach an outdoor course in Colorado the summer after their engagement.

Jenna's real husband, Jay, saw her heaving behind the bakery before Hull had gone. He stopped his truck and offered help she didn't take until about a year later when she burned an arm making rolls and he drove her to the emergency room. At their wedding, each guest left with a loaf of braided molasses, the same kind she'd had been making when Jay came to her rescue.

Jenna didn't meet Lucy until a year later, when she was pregnant again and Lucy was mourning Matt, working part-time on the farm. Jenna could say Lucy is the sister she never had, but it's different than that. All her life Jenna felt she deserved a friend like Lucy, that fit like she wanted with a husband, a woman Jenna knew she wanted to spend her life with. When she saw Lucy, crouching in the bulbous pumpkins that fall, and then later, wiping tears back as she hedged the shrubs at the farm's entryway, Jenna knew she'd found her. Jenna raked the clippings up for Lucy and listened to her talk about the engagement, about her unused law degree, about her guilty crush on Justin, who had been Matt's good friend.

"Hey, look, she's back on the elephant," Lucy says, pointing to Julia Roberts, who has to leave the jungle and head back to Los Angeles where there are people instead of orangutans.

"She looks so different without the make-up and lighting," Jenna says.

"She looks really awake," Lucy says.

She puts her hand on Jenna's baby-belly and Jenna touches hers. Jenna remembers the elephant footage they saw the year they'd first met, when Jenna was miscarrying again and again and Lucy still slept in Matt's ripped tee-shirts. The elephants slugged along the dry land, females remaining with females as the males went out to live independently. The bulls liked to be alone, or didn't know how not to be, and they only long-distance communicated when it was time to mate. There wasn't a set breeding season for them, and the cow stayed in heat only three to six days at a time, so the process was tricky.

Jenna remembers Lucy saying, "Can you imagine having a pregnancy last for nearly two years?" And how that made her cry since she couldn't hold onto hers for longer than five months. But now she could imagine it; living huge and round for another couple of months, walking around ill-balanced but with a whole other person inside. In the elephant documentary they watched, they saw a cow birth a too-weak calf. The herd needed to migrate towards water and the mother elephant had to leave her baby's unmoving body to dry and disintegrate in the sun. Each year that same mother, buoyed by her female friends, revisited that place and stood for a while, remembering the baby she didn't get to have.

"Borneo," Jenna says reading the credits on screen, "They were in Borneo, not Bali."

"Let's go make something for dinner," Lucy says and pulls Jenna up by both upper arms like you do when someone's drowning.

"Sounds like a plan," Jenna says and exhales hard and up, blowing the hairs off her forehead. They walk -- hands linked like they're walking trunk to tail -- into the kitchen where there's bread rising, and stay there together, just like this.


Emily Franklin is the author of the novel Liner Notes, a mother-daughter road trip story, and The Principles of Love, a series forthcoming from Penguin in July 2005. Her work has been published in The Boston Globe, Pindeldyboz, Brevity: Creative Nonfiction, and The Improper Bostonian among others. She is on the staff of National Public Radio’s “Car Talk” show and lives near Boston with her husband and three children, ages 5, 3, and 8 months. She writes during nap time.


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