My Favorite Scenes: Seeing the Elephant
Image from: http://www.encounter-america.org/bump/ProducerwebSeenanElephant-Pg1.html
Seeing the Elephant is a phrase first heard in the 1840s American southwest. According to George Wilkins Kendall, an “old campaigner” in Texas told him, “I had already seen ‘sights’ of almost every kind, animals of almost every species... and I felt ready and willing to believe almost anything I might hear as to what I was yet to see; but I knew very well that we were not in an elephant range, and when I first heard one of our men say that he had seen the animal in question, I was utterly at a loss to fathom his meaning.” Kendall was confused until another man told him, “When a man is disappointed in anything he undertakes, when he has seen enough, when he gets sick and tired of any job he may have set about himself, he has ‘seen the elephant.’” (The Civil War Monitor, “Seeing the Elephant,” Tracy L. Barnett, posted 1/04/2022, https://www.civilwarmonitor.com/blog/seeing-the-elephant)
In Book 4 of the Saint Maggie Series, the old boarding house family has “seen the elephant” in one way or the other. Even though Maggie and family return to Blaineton after their difficult sojourn in Gettysburg, they still are dealing with their experiences during the battle. Once in New Jersey, they find that their town also has changed. Josiah Norton, an industrialist, runs a textile and uniform mill sound of the town. To its north, the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane has opened.
When writing the story, I stopped and wondered what it was all about. At that point, I imagined Eli standing in front of me. He grabbed my shoulders and shouted, “It’s my story, dammit!” It was so totally Eli. And he was right.
So, Seeing the Elephant is mostly Eli’s story. He is struggling with what we now know is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and fears that he might be going mad. We meet his issue head on in the first chapter, when we enter one of his nightmares. This really is not one of my favorite scenes, but it is a crucial one.
Eli Smith was inside the house. It had been eerily quiet until someone or something began to keen. He frowned. That had never happened before. Who or what would make a noise like that? And why? He went down the hall and as he did, his heart began to pound, and his breath came short.
He’d been there before. He knew what he would see. But he opened the front door anyway.
Outside was a horrifying sight. People, horses, and wrecked wagons were strewn everywhere. Knees shaking, Eli stepped onto the porch. He hated this place. Even though it resembled his old family home in Gettysburg, it was completely alien at the same time. It was his fear made manifest and palpable.
I don’t want to look, he thought, squeezing his eyes shut. Don’t make me look.
But he knew he had to. He had to see it.
He turned to his right and his breath left him.
His stepdaughter Frankie was collapsed in a rocking chair. The chair was still, though. That was because she was dead.
The haunting keening started all over again. It raised the hair on the back of his neck. What was making that noise? It couldn’t be a good sign. Its newness, its otherworldliness caused panic to rise.
Oh, God! Make it stop! Make it stop!
Eli shut his eyes again and clapped his hands over his ears.
And then, suddenly, there was a strange rustling sound, and something moved, brushing his right arm.
Eli’s eyes shot open in panic. It was pitch-black. He could still hear that God-awful wailing, though, and his heart thumped against his ribs. Oh, God, where was he? Was he dead? Was this hell?
He was startled next by the sound of scratching. It was short and sharp, like someone striking a match. The noise was followed by the smell of sulfur and a yellow glow gradually grew, splitting the darkness.
In the dim light from what he now realized was a lamp, Eli saw Maggie walk across the room. Breathing heavily, he tried to work things out. What was she doing walking around? He managed to croak, “Maggie?”
“It’s all right, love. I’ve got her.”
Then he saw his wife bend and lift something up. It was Faith, his daughter, their beautiful little girl. He watched as a smiling Maggie cradled the wailing baby.
That’s it, Eli thought. That’s the keening noise!
Was this a dream? Was the other a dream? Which thing was real?
Eli drew a shaky breath.
“Shh,” Maggie was cooing to Faith as she returned to the bed. “Just because Papa slept through your cries, you needn’t be angry.” Propping up her pillows, she settled against them and placed the baby upon her stomach. Once she opened her gown, she brought Faith to her exposed breast. The infant immediately stopped crying and, latching on, began to suck. Maggie smiled. “All is right now, isn’t it?” When she glanced at Eli, she saw that he was breathing rapidly. “What’s wrong, love?”
“Another dream,” he said.
Reaching out, she caressed his arm. “The same one?”
Maggie said nothing but kept her hand on his arm.
Eli squeezed his eyes shut. “I hate this damn war.” He wanted to say “God-damned war,” because there was no way war ever could be God-blessed. But he knew his wife would disapprove of using God’s name in vain, so he softened the expletive to a simple “damn.” Tears burned his eyes. “What’s wrong with me, Maggie? Why do I keep having this nightmare over and over again?”
“I don’t know,” Maggie patted the space beside her. “Come and snuggle up.”
Her husband edged over. Propping himself up on an elbow, Eli touched Faith as she squirmed and sucked and stared up at her mother. The five-week-old infant was blessedly warm. He had no doubt now that this was the reality and the other had been a nightmare.
No, not just a nightmare, but the nightmare.
What will happen to Eli? What will Maggie and Emily do with their rambling new home? How will the others start over again in Blaineton? And what about Frankie, who is determined to work at the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane?
You’ll need to read the book to get the details. But I’ll be back with one more scene next week.
Practice peace, friends, be understanding, and love others.
Janet R. Stafford
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder