The Land of Regal Elephants

December 7, 2018
A black and white photo of elephants trumpeting at the edge of a water source
Elephants in Etosha National Park, Namibia / Photo by Richard Jacobs on Unsplash

for Reinaldo Arenas

I have seen a land of regal elephants, you wrote some years ago, not many really, back when you were convinced a cluster of signs, a cadence of perfectly chronicled images — words! — could still save you . . . and now, you’ve brought down those elephants and slowly, very slowly, carefully, you’ve set them — the wondrous, peaceable, palpable figures — at the edge of the broad plain on which your work is at last beginning to take shape.

humo en la torre, humo en las altas torres

I have seen a land of regal elephants, their fission-fusion matriarchies rambling on the steaming savannas, the cities on the water, the blue mountain, the Turkish peak, the slope of a woman’s buttocks too soft and malleable for you.

humo en la torre, humo en las altas torres

I have seen a land of regal elephants, primping and posing beyond their reflections in the water, combing those five inch long eyelashes, waving their earflaps, eating baby food from tiny glass jars, like you, writing under your one bulb, on your folding card table, begging to go to that one twenty-four-hour Chinese place on Henry Street that served cold peanut noodles. 

humo en la torre, humo en las altas torres

I have seen a land of regal elephants gathered in a circle, wailing and grieving our losses, all those unnamable and immeasurable losses, a constellation of bullet holes on the fortress walls and a sea of dirty sheets in the hospital laundry room waiting to be burned. 

humo en la torre, humo en las altas torres 

I have seen a land of regal elephants emptied when they dove into the waters, their trunks a million periscopes. 

humo humo en las torres 

Death is out there in the backyard, you said, playing with a bicycle wheel. There was a time the bike was yours when that wheel without a tire was a new bike and you’d ride it all the way up the street, to the top of the red dirt hill, your head spinning as you stared off at the land of regal elephants, the dusty smoke stirred by their cantering, their feet never leaving the ground.

Benicia, California

Author note: Some of this text is borrowed or paraphrased from Leprosorio, Arturo, la Estrella was brillosa, and Palace of the White Skunks by Reinaldo Arenas. Arenas died twenty-eight years ago today from an intentional overdose of alcohol and drugs, after having been diagnosed with AIDS in 1987.


Photo by Megan Bayles

Achy Obejas (achyobejas.com) is the author of the critically acclaimed Tower of the Antilles, which was a PEN/Faulkner finalist, an Aspen Words nominee, a PEN Open Book finalist, and shortlisted for the Story Prize. She writes fiction, poetry, and was part of a Chicago Tribune Pulitzer Prize–winning team. As a translator, she has worked with Rita Indiana, Junot Díaz, Wendy Guerra, Megan Maxwell, and many others. A native of Havana, she’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay area.

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