The cries from the elephant could be heard throughout the jungle.
Kanita could no longer ignore the elephant’s suffering. Even though her father—he king’s mahout—had warned her to stay away, she had to see what was happening for herself. She snuck out of her bedroom window and ran through the jungle to the royal stables where the white elephant was in heavy labor.
Even though it was late at night, the stables and yard were lit with torches, and mahouts were running here and there, trying to calm the rest of the elephant herd.
But they seemed incapable of being consoled, and each one trumpeted in distress.
“Bring more hot water!” Kanita heard her father call to one of his men. “And my kris. I fear I will have to cut the baby loose.”
Her father had asked for his dagger! The poor elephant, Kanita thought. If the elephant—one of the sacred white elephants—died, the king would be displeased. She moved a bale of hay to a stable window and climbed on top of it to get a better view.
On the floor of the stables was the large white elephant. She was straining to birth her calf into the world and tears seeped from her eyes.
She looked at Kanita, and Kanita’s heart froze in her chest. It was as though she could hear the elephant begging her for help.
The elephant raised her trunk toward Kanita.
Kanita jumped down from the hay bale and ran into the stables. She had to do something to help. As she entered the building, she saw her father walk behind the elephant with his kris.
“Por! No!” Kanita cried as she ran to him, pulling on his arm. “You’ll kill her.”
“Kanita!” he said sternly. “I told you to stay in the house with your mother. Get out of here.”
“No, I can help,” she said. She went to the elephant and looked at where the baby was supposed to come out. The area was red and swollen, but she thought she could see a trunk trying to wiggle out.
She had never helped birth a baby elephant before. As a girl, she was forbidden from becoming a mahout. But she had helped her mother, a midwife, bring a woman’s baby into the world just a few days before. It didn’t look so different to her. She just needed to reach inside and pull the baby out. And with her small hands and arms, she thought she was just the right size to do it.
She slid her hands inside the mother elephant.
“Be careful,” her father cautioned. “Can you feel the calf’s legs?”
She wasn’t sure what she was feeling. It was like nothing in the world she had felt before. She closed her eyes and let her hands tell her what they were touching.
She felt it. The trunk. She could feel the length of it and the ridges up to the baby elephant’s face. She felt the trunk wrap around her arm.
“I feel it!” Kanita cried.
“Keep going,” her father said.
She pushed further into the elephant, all the way to her shoulders. She slid her hands down the side of the baby elephant and gripped it under its front leg.
“I have it!” she said. “I have the leg!” She tried to pull it out, but she was not strong enough. “Help me!” she cried.
Her father wrapped his arms around her waist and pilled. “Don’t let go!” he ordered.
She could feel her hands start to slip, but she refused to release her grip. The baby elephant’s trunk wrapped even more tightly around her arm. She started to feel the baby elephant’s mass give way.
“It’s coming!” she yelled, and the mother elephant trumpeted again, forcing the baby out.
Kanita and her father fell backward as the baby elephant plopped out of her mother on top of them covered in birthing goo. She struggled, still partially trapped in her amniotic sack. Kanita’s father used his kris to cut the sack away.
The baby elephant took her first full gasp of air, and Kanita wrapped her arms around the baby, the baby that was probably ten times the weight of eight-year-old Kanita. The baby girl elephant.
“You did it,” her father said, patting her on the back.
Kanita breathed a sigh of relief, happy to have saved the baby elephant and her mother.
But then the mother elephant trumpeted again and let out a horrifying moan. Blood and other fluids poured out of the mother elephant, soaking the stable floor.
“Oh no!” Kanita cried as she stood, her chong kraben drenched with blood. Her feet slipped on the floor as she made her way to the mother elephant’s face.
The mother elephant groaned as Kanita stroked her face.
“I’m so sorry,” Kanita said. “I’ll take care of her. I promise.”
The mother elephant sighed one last time and then closed her eyes.
Kanita stood back and then kneeled and kowtowed to the white elephant, thanking her for her service to the king and honoring her as his representative. All of the mahouts in the stables—including Kanita’s father—did the same, as was proper. All of the other elephants in the king’s stables—white and gray—let out a mournful trumpet, as though they all suffered the loss of one of their own.
Kanita was the first to raise her head, as her thoughts were now with the baby elephant left behind. The baby elephant was sitting up, it’s eyes wide, apparently confused about what was going on. Kanita raised the baby’s trunk and coaxed her to follow. She led her to her mother so she could nurse. Even though the mother was dead, the milk she made in preparation for her baby should still be good for the baby’s first drink.
As the men discussed what to do next with the deceased royal elephant—they would have to inform the king and then hold a royal procession for her—Kanita grabbed a bucket of water and started washing the baby. As she did so, she was greeted with an incredible sight.
“Por!” she called to her father. “Look!”
Her father and some of the other mahouts came to see what she was excited about.
“Well, I’ll be…” her father trailed off as he sunk to his knees.
The baby—like her mother—was a white elephant.
Once again, everyone in the stables—including Kanita—prostrated themselves before an auspicious elephant.
“Is this the first time a white elephant has been born in captivity?” Kanita asked after they all were standing again.
“King Sakda is truly a blessed monarch,” her father said.
“Hey, boss,” one of the mahouts said, calling her father to him. He went to him, and the two talked quietly for a moment, frowning at the baby elephant.
“What is it?” Kanita asked. She went to her father’s side and realized what they were looking at.
The baby elephant had a long red birthmark down one side of her face. On her pale pink skin—white elephants were not really white, but only a pale gray or pink in color—the mark showed dramatically.
“It’s nothing,” Kanita said, remembering that her friend Boonsri had a red birthmark on her back. “She’s still a white elephant. We will still honor her.”
“It’s a bad omen elephant, boss,” the other mahout mumbled.
“Don’t say that!” Kanita yelled.
“Enough,” her father said firmly. “I will send an urgent message to the king, telling him what happened and about the new white elephant. In all his wisdom, he will know what to do.”
“We should take good care of her,” Kanita said. “The king will want to know his auspicious elephant is well cared for.”
Kanita went over to the little elephant, who had now finished drinking her mother’s milk, and led her to a clean area of the stables. She finished washing and drying the elephant and laid her on a fresh bed of straw.
“Don’t worry,” Kanita said as she laid down with the elephant, wrapping her arms around her. “I won’t let anything happen to you, Safi, my sweet little friend.”
But in her heart, she worried about the mahout calling the baby elephant a “bad omen.”
From the royal stables in Chiangmai, it took messages several days to reach the king in Bangkok; and it took many more days for his reply to arrive. During the wait, Kanita busied herself taking care of Safi.
It was a challenge finding the elephant enough milk. There were other young mother elephants in the king’s herd, but they were loathe to allow Safi to nurse from them too much, lest their own babies not have enough milk to thrive. So all day, Kanita would move Safi from one mother elephant to another, hoping the mothers would be kind enough to let Safi nurse. But even then, there was not enough milk to go around. So Kanita spent many hours a day offering to nurse the cows of people in the village in exchange for some of the milk. Kanita stayed with Safi through the night, and Safi would wrap her trunk around Kanita.
After only a few days, Kanita and Safi had bonded in a way that astounded the mahouts, who also each had strong bonds with their own elephants.
“Too bad she’s a girl,” one of the mahouts jokingly said to her father one day. “She has the soul of a mahout.”
Kanita’s face burned with pride. She hoped that one day her father would defy tradition and let her join the mahouts, but he only shook his head and walked away.
That night, from all the way in the stables, she was awoken by her parents fighting. Kanita tried to slip away from Safi so she could find out what the trouble was, but as soon as she moved Safi was awake.
“Stay here,” Kanita told Safi as she left the stables, but Safi followed closely behind her. “Okay, but at least be quiet!” Kanita warned the elephant.
“This is all your fault,” her father yelled at her mother as Kanita snuck to a window and stood on Safi’s back to peek in. “You have always spoiled her.”
“If that is what you think, you do not know Kanita,” her mother said. “She is headstrong and willful. Nothing you or I do will stop her from doing whatever she sets her mind to. She is like a bull elephant. I don’t indulge her, I only move out of her way to keep her from trampling over me.”
“That is what the ankusha is for,” her father snapped, referring to the hook used to control and guide elephants in their training. “You never punish her.”
Her mother waved her hands as though to brush off his concerns. “You can criticize my parenting later. The question is, what are we going to do now? You have seen how attached they have grown to each other. This king’s edict is going to devastate her.”
“There is nothing I can do,” he said with a sigh, looking at a piece of paper in his hands stamped with the royal seal. “The elephant must be put to death.”
“What?” Kanita shouted, standing up so quickly she lost her balance and fell backward off of Sufi.
Her parents ran out of the house and her mother helped her off the ground, dusting the dirt and leaves from her knees.
“Kanita!” her mother scolded. “What are you doing out so late?”
“He didn’t mean it, did he, Mae?” she asked, grasping at her mother. “He’s not going to kill Safi!”
Safi let out a worried snuffling sound.
Her mother sighed and held her daughter tight. “I’m sorry, my darling,” she said.
“No!” Kanita pulled away from her mother and wrapped her arms around Safi. “You can’t! I won’t let you!”
“Kanita!” her father said harshly, waving the letter from the king. “The king, in all his wisdom, had deemed the baby elephant a bad omen. She killed her mother. She is marked. She is not a true white elephant, but a cursed one. He has ordered she be put to death lest she bring more sorrow to the elephant herd and the king himself.”
“But it’s not her fault,” Kanita cried. “She’s innocent. Just a baby! She needs me!”
Her father went back inside the house, leaving Kanita’s mother to comfort her daughter.
“I am sorry, my love,” she said. “But we cannot defy the king. He knows what is best.”
“But he doesn’t know Safi!” Kanita cried.
“Shush, child!” her mother cautioned. “You cannot speak against the king!”
Kantia’s eyes went wide in horror as her father emerged from their house with his rifle.
“Por! Stop!” Kanita yelled, wrapping her arms more tightly around Safi. “You can’t!”
Her father stomped forward, grabbing his daughter roughly by the arm and pulling her away from Safi, who let out a weak, scared trumpeting sound.
“You know how it is, Kanita,” her father said, shoving the girl into her mother’s arms. “Hold her,” he ordered, and her mother held her tightly. He then took a rope and looped it around Safi’s neck to lead her away from the house.
“Por! Por! No!” Kanita continued to yell, fighting to escape her mother’s grasp.
“Come on, you damn beast,” her father grunted as he tried to get Safi to follow him back to the stable, but even though she was a baby, the two-hundred-pound infant was impossible to shift if she didn’t want to move, and right now she was too terrified to leave Kanita. “Fine!” he finally yelled, dropping the rope and aiming his rifle at Safi right there in the yard.
“Hey, boss,” one of the mahouts said to get her father’s attention.
Kanita and both of her parents looked at the man they hadn’t even seen approach. The mahout tossed his head, motioning around the yard. They all looked and realized that the whole village had gathered around to see what the commotion was about, and most of their neighbors were staring, horrified at the scene playing out.
Her father lowered his rifle and shoved the letter from the king at the mahout. “What choice do I have?” he asked.
The mahout read the letter, which he then showed to another mahout who had come over.
Safi had slipped away and back to Kantia’s side, who wept as she wrapped her arms around Safi’s neck.
The mahouts looked from the letter to Kanita and Safi and then to her father.
“It’s just a little elephant, boss,” one of the men said, handing the letter back.
“Just a little…” Her father was so stunned at their words he couldn’t finish his sentence. “She’ll grow to be just as big as any other elephant. And what about defying the king?”
“I won’t tell him if you don’t,” the mahout said with a goofy grin.
“The gods will know!” her father snapped. “How will they punish me if I defy my king?”
“The gods never punish mercy,” Kanita’s mother bravely said.
“Why should I show mercy to an elephant?” Kanita’s father asked. “Do you have any idea how expensive it will be to raise without the king’s blessing?”
“Not mercy for the elephant,” her mother hissed. “Mercy for your daughter.”
Kanita looked up at her father and begged him with her eyes to do the right thing.
Her father looked at his daughter, his wife, the men in his charge, and the villagers. He let out a frustrated grunt before saying, “Fine! The elephant can live. But I only pray the wrath of the king falls on all of your heads, not mine.”
He stomped back into the house, slamming the door behind him.
It was not until he was out of sight that Kanita was able to stop crying and breathed a sigh of relief.
One of the mahouts went to Kanita’s mother’s side and patted her back in comfort.
“We are all watching him, Miss Boss,” he said, and she nodded her thanks.
“Kanita,” her mother said. “Take Safi back to the stables. Everything will be fine.”
Kanita was still shaken from the experience and was glad to get back to the safety of the stables.
She took Safi to her stall and laid a blanket over her.
“Don’t worry, Safi,” Kanita said as they snuggled together and tried to fall asleep. “I’ll always protect you. And we will always be together. I promise.”
Eight Years Later…
“Whoa! Safi! Look out!” Kanita cried, bouncing along, trying to hold on to Safi’s ears as the elephant bounded excitedly toward the river.
Safi trumpeted as she ran into the river for her bath, causing the water to rise suddenly and splashing the other elephants and the young mahouts who were ordered to wash them.
“Kanita!” the boys yelled as they ducked into the water or behind their elephants. “Get out of here!”
Kanita laughed. “What? You think I’ve never seen a naked boy before? Our mothers used to bathe us together, Anurak.”
“Yeah, then show us your boobs, Kanita!” one of the other boys yelled.
Kanita’s face went bright red, and the boys laughed.
“Just wear a chong kraben like a normal person so I can swim too,” Kanita said. “Safi needs a bath.”
At that, Safi filled her trunk with water, which she shot at Kanita with the power of a cannon, knocking her into the water.
The river was shallow, so Kanita easily found her feet and sputtered as she wiped the water from her face.
“Safi! Shame on you,” she said. “Hey, since I’m here, toss me a scrubbing brush, will you?” she called to a boy nearby, but he didn’t move to give her the brush. “What’s wrong? Got elephant dung in your ears?”
“Come on, Kanita,” Anurak said. “Get out of here. You aren’t a real mahout you know.”
“But I could be,” Kanita said. “I raised an elephant. I trained her. I know more about elephants than any of you. I can be a mahout.”
“You know your father wouldn’t allow it,” Anurak said. “And girls can’t be mahouts anyway. Not real mahouts. It’s too hard for girls.”
Kanita was grateful that her dripping hair hid the tears that were threatening to fall. While she knew their words were true – her father and the other mahouts would never let her join their ranks – they stung coming from her friends. But she knew this moment had been long in coming. Ever since Anurak first had a crush on her friend Boonsri a couple of years before, she noticed that the division between boys and girls had grown more pronounced. While once all the children played with and bathed the elephants that sustained the village, one by one, the girls were confined to their homes to learn to cook and clean while the boys spent more time in the jungles, training the elephants and using them to work. Kanita’s mother had tried to contain her, teach her to learn the ways of the home, but Kanita would still spend as much time as she could outside with Safi.
But Kanita stuffed her emotions down deep into her stomach and held her head high. “Fine!” she said. “Let’s go, Safi!” Kanita grabbed Safi’s ear, and Safi listed Kanita up with her leg onto her back. “We don’t want to play with a bunch of piglets anyway!”
Safi turned out of the river and up the bank, back into the jungle. As soon as the boys were out of sight, they could hear them splashing and playing with their elephants once again.
“Kanita!” she heard her mother calling long before they had arrived back in the village. She wondered why her usually docile mother could be yelling for her so frantically.
Safi raised a branch over Kanita’s head and the village came into view.
They lived in a small village outside of Chiangmai in northern Siam dedicating to the raising and training of the king’s elephants. The king had eleven white elephants, and it was against the law and Heaven to force a white elephant to work, so the white elephants lived in relative peace in the large pastureland and cordoned off area of the jungle just for them. The king also had over fifty elephants that were used to transport the royal family when they traveled, to work on the king’s lands, serve in the king’s army, and provide whatever other service the king needed. Even though the king lived in Bangkok, the city environment was not the best for elephants, so the king only had ten elephants at his service at a time in the capital city, and they rotated regularly so the elephants would have plenty of time in the fresh air of the countryside.
As the king’s top mahout, Kanita’s father was an important man in the village. They had a large teakwood house in the center of the village and lots of land around it for goats and chickens. So the fact that Kanita’s mother’s voice was carrying through the village and into the jungle meant that whatever she needed was certainly urgent.
As they exited the jungle and crossed the village toward home, Safi trumpeted to announce their presence.
“Oh! Kanita! Hurry,” her mother called, wringing her hands.
Kanita slid down Safi’s shoulder and ran to hug her mother. “What is it, Mae?” she asked.
Her mother gripped her wrists to stop the hug. “Look at you! Such a fright. Covered in mud. Stinking of elephant.”
“Safi doesn’t stink!” Kanita said, stomping her foot.
“Well, you do!” her mother said. “Get inside and wash. Your father has a very important guest coming tonight. Please, you must be on your best behavior.”
Kanita groaned but did as she was told. As Kanita entered the house, Safi walked around the outside, from room to room, keeping an eye on her. Safi never let Kanita out of her sight.
“Kanita,” her father called warmly, which she found a little strange since her father was rarely affectionate toward her. “Come, sit by me and meet my friend, Chakri.”
Kanita did as she was told and kneeled on a pillow on the floor at her father’s side. She glanced to the window and smiled at Safi, who was peeking in at them. “I am happy to meet you, Naai Chankri,” she said politely.
Chakri smiled and nodded to Kanita’s father. “Very polite,” he said approvingly. “You have trained her well.”
Chakri was considerably older than Kanita, at least in his forties, and he was dark skinned from the sun and already wrinkled. But Kanita could tell from his clothes and gold bangles that he must be wealthy, and for some reason her father wanted to impress this man, so she kept her head bowed and her mouth closed.
“You are too kind,” her father said. “I’m sure you are aware of my daughter’s wild reputation.”
Chakri laughed. “Nothing a good husband with a firm hand won’t easily correct.”
Kanita’s head shot up at the mention of the word husband. She looking worryingly at her mother, who was sitting silently across the room, not meeting her gaze.
“In truth, it was that wild nature that first drew my attention,” Chakri told Kanita’s father. “Many years ago, my wife died in childbirth. The child died as well. I was greatly distraught. I wandered, mindless, into the jungle. I happened upon a beautiful girl in a river, playing with her baby elephant. The sun was shining and the water sparkled. It was as though Heaven was telling me that there was still hope in the world.”
Kanita’s father put a hand to her shoulder and squeezed. She looked up at him and saw him beaming with pride. It was the first time her father had ever looked at her like that. She was so conflicted. She was glad to have brought Chakri comfort in his hour of despair, but the fact he had been watching her in the river years ago—when she still would have been a child—made her skin crawl. She tried once again to gain her mother’s eye and noticed that her mother was glaring at Chakri, something neither Chakri nor her father seemed to notice. At the window, Safi snuffled loudly.
“I have thought of that girl many times over the years,” Chakri continued. “But only recently did I hear about the girl and her elephant, the daughter of the king’s mahout. So I came here in search of her and was so glad to find her again. And when I learned that she was still available for marriage, well, could anything else be so destined by the stars?”
“Wait,” Kanita finally said, and her father gripped her shoulder tighter. “What is happening?”
“Kanita,” her father said. “Chakri has asked for your hand in marriage, and he has offered a generous bride price.”
Kanita twisted her shoulder from her father’s grip and stood up. “But I don’t want to be married,” she said. “I want to help you with the elephants.”
“Stop this nonsense,” her father said, doing his best to keep his temper in check. “You are a girl, not a mahout. Your only path in life is to marry.”
Kanita feared this day would come, but never imagined it would be so soon. She had been living in denial since it was common for girls to age to be married.
“But I am not ready,” Kanita said. “I cannot keep house. I cannot cook.”
“Chakri is already aware of how your mother has failed you,” her father said. Kanita looked to her mother pleadingly, but she still had her eyes averted, her hands to her mouth as though to stave off tears. “But he has agreed to marry you anyway.”
“My mother is more than willing to oversee your training,” Chakri interjected.
“A more generous or kind offer is not likely to come our way, Kanita,” her father said. “I have already accepted Chakri’s proposal.”
“Por!” she said to her father dropping to her knees again and clasping her hands in front of her. “Please, reconsider. I’ll be a better daughter, I promise! Please don’t send me and Safi away!”
“Who is Safi?” Chakri asked.
“Her elephant,” her father grumbled.
Chakri nodded. “Ah, yes. The bad omen elephant.”
“Don’t call her that!” Kanita said.
“Kanita!” Her father gripped her arm and shook her. “You will speak with respect to your betrothed.”
She felt the bile rise in her throat at her father calling Chakri her betrothed.
“Your father and I have already discussed the elephant, sweet Kanita,” Chakri said, laying a hand on her father’s shoulder to calm him. “Your father showed you great mercy and kindness in allowing the elephant to live. You should honor him for all your days for that. But no, you cannot bring the elephant to live with us. The elephant is bad luck. I cannot have it near my home.”
“I cannot leave Safi,” Kanita said, suddenly more terrified of being separated from Safi than of having to marry Chakri. “We have bonded, just like any mahout and elephant. She thinks I’m her mother, her family. She can’t live without me.”
“Then maybe the kind thing would be to put the elephant down,” Chakri said. “Better than have her die of a broken heart or to starve to death.”
“Don’t say that!” Kanita said, pulling away from her father’s hand and stepping away. “I can’t leave Safi! I promised that I would never leave her.”
At the window, Safi shuffled back and forth and let out an irritated groan. She could tell that Kanita was in distress and was responding in kind.
“Sweet Kanita,” Chakri said, standing. “Your devotion to your elephant is admirable. It shows what a caring and attentive mother you will be when you have your own children.”
Kanita did not hide her feelings of revulsion at this thought. “I will never have children with you,” she said without thinking.
At that, her father stepped forward and slapped her across the face.
Safi trumpeted loudly, and Kanita gasped in shock and pain.
Her mother jumped to her feet. “Kasem!” she said softly, the first word she had uttered all evening.
Kanita looked at her father, tears burning her eyes.
“The elephant is bad luck,” her father said. Kanita wanted to protest, but the rage was still present in his eyes, so she said nothing. “Had I known that the elephant would render you unmarriageable, I would have killed her as I was ordered to do. Heaven is punishing me for defying my king!”
Kanita sank to her knees and did not stop the tears from flowing. “Por! I beg you! Please spare Safi! I’ll do anything! Please, don’t kill my elephant!”
Her father and Chakri whispered among themselves for a moment.
“If you agree to marry Chakri,” her father said, “I will only release the elephant to the wild. I won’t kill her.”
This still was not good enough for Kanita. Anything short of keeping Safi with her for the rest of her life was not something she could accept. But if she agreed, it would at least buy her time to come up with a plan for them to be together.
“I will only agree,” Kanita finally said, “if I am the one to turn Safi out.”
“It is agreed,” Chakri said.