Cookie - 1954
© Copyright 2020 by Thomas Turman
2021 Animal Story Contest Winner
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
"Ah, Denver's finest. Rise and shine officers." There is snorting laughter from inside the truck and a shorter man jumps out of the other side of truck onto the gravel.
The cops have been only 20 feet from me all the time I've been standing out here. Maybe that's why I hadn't felt alone.
At a safe distance, I lean my bike against a large trash can and follow the cowboy and his partner through the small door cut in a large overhead door into a high damp room filled with all kinds of equipment now lit by two, big bare 100 watt bulbs. Before I can say anything, the cowboy barks, "Which one are you?
Squinting at his hat-shaded eyes, my first attempt to speak comes out as sort of a squeak, then I get out, "Tom, uh, Tom Turman."
Running his thick, dirty finger down a list on a clipboard, he growls, "OK, you're on the list.” He jerks his thumb toward his chest, “I'm Beecher and that's Valdez. He runs the watering crews."
"How old are you?" Valdez asks.
"Jesus, Beecher, all we ever get is drunks and kids!"
Before Beecher can respond, three men and another high-school kid slouch through the door. The three men are old guys in their 40's or 50's. One is coughing the other two have very red faces and watery eyes. The young guy looks as fresh and eager as I. We are all there for the $1.60 an hour, but, to me, it looks like these old guys could use the money right now!
While Beecher checks people off his list, I glance around the big room full of all kinds of junk. A red door at the back, between two 50 gal. barrels, which is almost totally blocked by garden tools has a red, hand-lettered sign over it, which reads, DANGER. As I wander back toward the door Beecher roars, "Get away from there! You got no business back there!"
"That's Cookie's place," Valdez quickly shouts, "you wake her up she'll wake up the whole damn town. We'll never hear the end of it."
Before moving away from Cookie's door, I hear a heavy, shuffling sound and notice that the barrels beside the door are filled with some kind of feed.
Valdez takes each of us to our specific areas of the park, shows us what to do and leaves us to water vast areas of the park for 8 hours with long hoses and big sprinklers. At 1:30 Valdez picks us up in the old Chevy truck and takes us back to where we'd met that morning.
The building, which had looked and felt so sad and scary in the early morning darkness, is a nice old, 1930's brick structure in the sunshine of the afternoon. The watering crews use the rear portion of the zoo building. After walking around to the front, I realize we work in the back third of the elephant house. The 'Cookie' Valdez had referred to earlier is the zoo’s 15 year-old, female Indian elephant I had read about who’d retired from the circus to the zoo about 3 years earlier.
Sneaking in "our" door of the elephant house, I notice that no one is watching, so I quickly climb over the stuff under the DANGER sign, and slip through Cookie's red door. The dung and sweet hay smell is strong. I can just make out her huge form in the light coming through the splintered wood door to her outside yard. She is swaying slowly from side to side in the cool darkness, but is silent. We are separated by a 5 foot-high, wood and steel partition.
Not knowing what to do or say, I just hold out my hand over the top of the fence.
As she moves across her side of the room toward me, I realize I have misjudged her size. She reaches right over the high fence with her trunk, past my hand, knocks off my straw hat and "snuffles" my hair, face, chest, arms and finally back to my hand. Her trunk, now wrapped around me, is as big around as my waist, and very powerful.
I stare up into her right eye the whole time she is checking me out, and begin to think that I may have made a big mistake. Going in here alone and introducing myself to a 9 foot high elephant could be the last thing I do if she decides to scoop me up over this fence and throw me around for exercise. But, oddly enough, I’m not afraid. I don’t know what I’m feeling. It is more like embarrassment by an unexpected hug from some old relative.
I wiggle a little closer and reach up to touch her forehead. She quickly releases me and takes a step or two backward, which makes me do the same thing; still not a sound from either of us.
Then we both start forward again until we are each pressed up against the partition. The smell of her is foreign and strong, but somehow safe. Her skin is rough, with stiff, prickly hairs all over.
As she reaches over my shoulder again to search my back pockets, I lightly stroke the top of her trunk up to the broad forehead between her eyes and feel something like a delicate shudder in her, which transfers straight through my whole body to my feet. It is one of the best, most complete feelings I’ve ever had.
I can't move and don't even want to.
The door behind us flies open and Beecher, silhouetted in the doorway, shouts, "There you are! God damn it, I told you not to mess around in here."
Before I can break out of my hypnotized state and answer, Cookie, seeing the tall man with the cowboy hat, steps back from the partition and lets out the loudest and angriest trumpeting noise I’ve ever heard.
Beecher, eyes wide with fear, backs through the doorway with me stumbling after him while Cookie stomps and trumpets up a storm.
"God damn it, see what you done?" Beecher yelled, "I told you if she got going we'd never get any rest. You damn kids never listen. You're lucky she didn't kill you." Grabbing me by the back of my shirt, he hisses, "Now stay out of there," and he launches me toward the door to the outside.
As I tumble out into the daylight, I’m thinking, Cookie wouldn't kill me, but Beecher might. I know I have to get back in there. I hop on my bike, and decide to find out who the keeper or trainer in charge of Cookie is, hoping that is isn't Beecher.
At the zoo office, a stiff, silver-haired woman peers at me over her rhinestone glasses for a few seconds and then jerks her head towards a heavy man walking out the door and says, "Jeremiah Dean. He's the one to talk to, but watch out, he don't like tourists."
"Thanks," I say, and hurry out after the big man. My dad has always taught me to go after what I want.
About two paces behind him, pushing my bike, I say, "Mr. Dean?" The large man doesn't even turn his head.
I catch up to him and look up into his face as we march along, "Mr. Dean, I work for Beecher on the watering crew and I want to talk to you about Cookie."
The large man whirls quickly, bringing his face surprisingly close to mine, stopping me in my tracks. I almost drop my bike. From under very bushy eyebrows his even, clear, gray eyes nail me to the path as he says, "If you know what's good for you, sonny, you'll stay away from me and Cookie." Then as quickly as he’s stopped, he marches off in the direction of the elephant house again, with me following timidly at a distance.
As we reach the elephant house, Dean, with his back to me and his hand on the doorknob, says, "I thought I told you to stay away from me. We don't do elephant shows for tourists around here."
I take a deep breath and say, "I'm not a tourist. I told you, I work for Beecher on the watering crew on the first shift. I don't want a show. I want to help take care of Cookie."
Looking hard at me over his shoulder for a couple of seconds, he says, "What would a skinny kid like you know about takin' care of a cantankerous old circus elephant? Her toys are bigger'n you!
She could smash you and not even notice it."
"Yeah, well that's what Beecher said, but I was in there with her for a few minutes earlier and we got along ok and..."
Before I can finish the sentence, Dean spins, slams open the metal door of our shared building and shouts, "You been in there? Damn it! I told Beecher to keep his derelicts out'a my area." He stomps inside. Beecher! You in here?
Hearing my dad’s advice once more, and not knowing any better, I follow.
There is no one else inside so the old bear of a man is just fuming around, swearing at Beecher and kicking garden equipment left and right. Then he sees me again and the look on his face makes me think I’ve made a second fatal move today in bothering this guy.
Before Dean can do or say anything, I speak fast out of fear, "C'mon, give me a chance Mr. Dean. I'll work for nothing. I get here at 5:00 in the morning and I'll stay after watering and do anything you want. Beecher and Valdez are afraid of Cookie. They only tease her and torment her. I can stop that." I hoped my dad’s approach would work with this guy.
Squinting hard at me for what seems like hours, he says, "Don't call me Mr. Dean. Name's Jeremiah." Then he barges through Cookie's door. Taking this as some sort of acceptance,
I follow him into Cookie's indoor area.
Dean turns on the lights and is at the other end of the warm, smelly room. I can see the space clearly for the first time. Cookie, is at the far end of her section, right up against the door to the outside. She leaves the door and comes over to the dividing partition where she and I had met earlier to greet me again. Dean takes a couple of anxious steps toward us and stops, studying the pair of us. Cookie again reaches over the partition and snuffles all of me she can reach while I instinctively stroke whatever part of her trunk is available. She quiets down a bit as my hand reaches the space up between her eyes. This time, however, I really feel the shudder through both our bodies. It is an odd feeling but very close to how excited and speechless I had felt when I touched Mary Lou Benson's breast at the movie last week.
Dean came up slowly to us and says, "Ya' know, when I come in here in the afternoon she's always wait'n at that door to go out. She don't even come over here for food. For three years it’s been like that. You got someth'n strange going on with this elephant kid." Even as Jeremiah speaks, I feel Cookie talk to me, or that I can hear her, but I didn't dare tell Jeremiah that.
"OK, kid," Jeremiah says, "you can hang around here with me. I'll tell Beecher to give you an hour or so with her in the morning before you go watering. You keep that idiot and his bums out o’ here, do what I tell you, and we'll get along. You screw up and one of us will kill you."
Over the summer I get closer to Cookie, no closer to Jeremiah and because of Cookie’s smell, further away from Mary Lou Benson. My friends tease me about my new love, but it doesn't matter. I can't wait to get through with watering so I can get back to my new friend.
Entering her side of the brick building early one morning at the end of summer, Cookie is waiting right by our red door. She reaches over the barrier and grabs my battered, old straw hat and throws it into the far corner of her area. I have only been inside her area with her when Jeremiah is around. Studying my indecision, Cookie then ambles over to the corner, picks up the hat and brings it back. She holds it over the fence, but up high where I can't reach it, then sails it back into the corner and stares at me again.
She keeps her eye on me but doesn't move so I unlock the gate and timidly push it in toward her. My hands are shaking, but I turn and get the gate open and locked again. As it clicks I feel her at my back. She is pressing her trunk and forehead against me from my head to my heels. When I move toward the hat she stays in contact with me, gently pushing and even directing. This is the most powerful and gentle feeling I've ever experienced. As I bend over to pick up my hat, she nudges me head over heals into a pile of hay, picks up the hat and flings it into the opposite corner and stares down at me with one blinking eye. She’s laughing at me.
"Keep-away, eh?" and I scramble quickly for the hat and beat her to it. She is right behind me though and backs me and the hat into the corner bringing her massive forehead to within inches of my face, keeping me there long enough to let me know who she thinks is boss. She then backs up a few paces, raises her left foot and set it down lightly three times, and waits.
"OK," and I flip the hat into the far corner.
She turns, moves quickly to the hat, picks it up and throws it back!
I am playing catch with a four thousand pound elephant at 5:00 o'clock in the morning! She has lured me into her pen and made me understand her game. This is very eerie, but I love it and hope it will go on forever. But summer ends.
"Goin' back to school on Monday, eh? You goin' to miss your girl friend? I know she's goin to miss you!" Jeremiah, as usual, is talking to me with his back turned while feeding Cookie some grain. Cookie towering over both of us ignores the offered food and stares straight into my eyes. She knows. She turns abruptly and faces her door to the outside. I shiver and suddenly feel cold and lonely.
I have connected with Cookie, but I can't explain to anyone how it works. She can show me sadness, humor and even fear. I can talk to her and understand her, but no one believes me. Actually, Jeremiah believes Cookie and I understand one another, but when I ask him to explain it he always shrugs and says "Don't try figure'n it out, kid".New York Times, Tuesday, February 11, l986
"Researchers at Cornell University have discovered that elephants emit low-frequency, `fluttering' vocal sounds from a spot on their forehead just between their eyes. It is inaudible to man, yet at low frequencies could be felt as vibrations. 'This discovery is like suddenly finding a tribe with a hitherto unknown language,' said Dr. Lovejoy, vice president for science of the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, 'I think it will add a whole new dimension to our understanding of elephant communications and social systems."