THE LINCOLN ELEPHANTS
They are a spectacle, a three-ring circus: the rural Midwestern boy turned president, the distant king, and the herd of elephants. Lincoln looks out over the White House lawn to where the spectators are pressed against the fences in tight clusters, and briefly, for a moment, considers sending Seward out to sell peanuts and licorice. War-time funding, he would say in a serious sort of voice and reveal the joke only after Seward had donned the placard and uniform. But maybe it is too cruel to play such a joke on a man of such dignity as Seward.
Tad shrieks in delight, clapping as one of the herders convinces an elephant to rear and give a roar like a trumpet blast. They would, Lincoln must admit, be truly terrifying on the battlefield.
"I hope you are satisfied with the herd, Mr. President," the King of Siam says. "I handpicked them myself."
"They are most impressive, Your Majesty."
The elephants are enormous in person, wild-caught giants, gnarled boulders that ramble the White House lawn. These new elephants are much different, much fiercer than the small, sad ones that stumble along behind the circus, performing for peanuts to a gaping crowd, and The President occasionally glances to the edges of their own audience to make sure the elephants are kept at a safe distance. It would not do to have a stampede, fuel for the propaganda fire.
"There is quite the crowd today," Lincoln notes. "Perhaps you should run for president; I hear there will soon be a vacancy."
The King of Siam laughs and waves, his bright uniform glittering against Lincoln's somber black, dazzling the Americans who anxiously await the end of the years washed out by The War. The King of Siam and his elephants are bright spots among the country churning and tearing into itself, stacking bodies like building blocks, and in the background drones e pluribus unum, not to be silenced until their identity is mended and whole, for a time.
The people that have come to forget what is happening around them do not know that the elephants are another part of the war. Lincoln wonders how to tell them—how to tell Tad, who is already clamoring to have a ride on one of the elephants. Then there are the two calves that chase each other around the lawn, and Lincoln feels the loss of Eddie and Willie like a pit in his heart. He starts to reach before he remembers Mary is inside today and not by his side.
A few adult elephants wander solo or in pairs, but most are clumped in a group, swishing impatient tails at the yelling audience. There is one elephant, tucked away alone, trunk dipped low along the ground. Lincoln fishes a peanut from his pocket, put there by Tad in excited preparation for the adventure on the lawn, and approaches.
The elephant is smaller than the others, but moves slower than the calves. She regards Lincoln with a steady gaze—sizing him up, Lincoln is sure. He offers the peanut. The elephant stares.
"Not even going to get a good approval rating from you, old girl, am I?"
The elephant pats his forearm, his shoulder, knocks off his hat with her trunk. Finally, she delicately plucks the peanut from Lincoln's hand and munches. She lets Lincoln pat her trunk, but only after he's put his hat back on. An elephant of immense dignity.
"I think I know someone who might like you," Lincoln confides.
The King of Siam floats over, not weighed down by the exhausted country. Lincoln envies him for a moment, but relief is stronger. For once, Lincoln notes, he is not the giant in the room. The only spectacle the crowd has come to gape at.
"She is the only tame elephant I have brought," the King of Siam tells him. "A pet for you and your family."
Again, Lincoln thinks of the intended purpose of these creatures and wonders what the confederate troops will think when an elephant, dressed in blue and saddled with the stars and stripes, comes bearing down on them. He pictures General Grant leading the charge on an elephant, saber drawn. Or perhaps he will carry the jeweled weapons the King of Siam has also brought as gifts. Lincoln mulls over how he would break the news to Ulysses. There is no doubt the general would appreciate the animals; he is, despite his position and skills, a kind-hearted man. Lincoln can already see the twitch of Ulysses's moustache as he explains to his general that they will now be using elephants as part of the army. "Sir," Ulysses will say, only the rumble of his voice expressing uncertainty, wondering if this is another of his president's jokes, "where we will get saddles big enough?"
It would create more work, perhaps more revenue. Or more debt. And what, Lincoln wonders, would they do with all the horses? The General is a traditional sort when it comes to the trappings of war and would likely not consent to replacing his sturdy horse so easily. Lincoln does not think Cincinnati would approve of leading a charge of elephants.
"Mr. President, would you care to ride her?"
The elephant stares at Lincoln.
Lincoln stares back. He considers the headlines.
PRESIDENT LINCOLN ADOPTS ELEPHANT HERD
PRESIDENT LINCOLN FINALLY FINDS STEED TO SUIT HEIGHT
RADICAL REPUBLICANS ADD WEIGHT TO THEIR PARTY
GRAND OLD PACHYDERM
He considers the political cartoons, the possible repercussions for the Republicans. And finally, Lincoln thinks of his boys. Tad, chasing behind the elephant herders. Robert, too grown to be here. Edie and Willie, who he would give anything to be chasing along with Tad.
"She will have calves," the King of Siam adds. "If you would like to breed her. It's quite similar to breeding horses or cows, and it may have potential for a profit—elephant calves will be in demand, particularly if their heritage can be traced to the presidential herd."
Lincoln notices the way the elephant is tucked in on herself, retreating from the world and finally recognizes her great, quiet grief: children, left behind. The spectacle of very being. He gives her more peanuts, marveling at the gentle way she takes the peanuts, one by one, from his palm.
"You are very kind, Your Majesty, but that will not be necessary."
Robert Lincoln begrudgingly indulges his mother's wishes and takes her to the elephant sanctuary, escorting her through the gates to The Lincoln Elephants. On the other side of the fence, the elephants huddle together beneath piles of blankets. It's been a cold winter, and they're not used to the chill. The caretakers look up from where they're lighting a fire for the elephants to wave hello. The Lincolns wave back.
The sanctuary is a small piece of land, not far from the southern border of Illinois. The modest first of its kind, though scoffed at as an indulgence. But in the years following the war, no one dares to question the will of the martyred president, particularly not when General Grant is elected. Grant's cabinet scraped extra money from the sides of reconstruction and reservation and redesign, pennies and dollars saved for the elephant sanctuary. Already, even with such a modest sum, it has improved. There are more caretakers, better facilities to keep the elephants healthy, and more land to wander. The purchase of additional land yields a marsh, and the elephant sanctuary becomes the Lincoln Wildlife and Elephant Reserve.
Robert is busy keeping watch for scandal, and so he does not see his mother hike up her skirts and swing her legs over the fence. When he turns back, she is out of reach and he does not dare shout, afraid to draw attention.
No one knows it yet, but the sanctuary will set a precedent for wildlife sanctuaries and protection of the environment. The decision not to use the elephants in war or as beasts of burden marks a change. Lincoln's reputation as a great man in history cements the importance of living in harmony with nature. It will mean cleaner sources of power and fuel decades sooner. Healthier rivers and lakes. It is responsible for our ability to combat disease naturally, treatment discovered in the rainforests, protected legally decades ago. It means the establishment of the Till and Agrology Development colony on Mars and is responsible for our ability to cultivate the red soil centuries sooner. No one knows this yet, the way one decision, one thought of what will and what will not be sacrificed in wartime, ripples across time, growing in size and influence as it progresses. In time, they expect they will understand.
In the nineteenth century, when the decision is only the size of a few cold elephants, Mary Todd Lincoln places her hand against the elephants' trunks and wonders at her husband's legacy.
Emily Capettini is a doctoral candidate in creative writing fiction at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her work has appeared in places such as The Louisiana Review and is upcoming in Not Somewhere Else but Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place (Sundress Publications). Her story is based on a real event: in an 1861 letter, King Mongkut offered the United States some elephants to establish an American herd. In that version, President Lincoln politely declined.