Elephants and Stars
Photograph by Jon Jones, Story by Helen Avery
“Tell me the story again Mama.”
“Okay,” said Mama, straightening out her long skirt.
“Many moons ago when Earth was just one big ocean, there were two suns, and on one of these suns lived a herd of elephants. As the years passed, however, their sun became hotter and hotter turning from white to yellow to red. The elephants began to worry until finally the Queen called a meeting. ‘Elephants, we can’t live here anymore,’ she said, but there is place that is much cooler.’ And she pointed up into the sky at the Earth. ‘But how can we live there? It’s an ocean,’ said the other elephants. The Queen pointed her trunk up to the sky, and they watched in amazement as it stretched and stretched until it finally reached Earth. Then, she sucked with all her might, draining Earth’s ocean until mountains began to appear and finally lush lands and forests. When there was just enough land for the elephants to live on, the Queen withdrew her trunk, and then sprayed the water in a long line through the universe – making every star in the Milky Way.”
I smiled. “You know that’s not how stars were formed though, Mama?”
Mama looked nervously out from where we were crouching in the dry grassy field towards the road.
“This is it Rafi. Are you ready?” she said, her tired face and chest etched with red dust and hope.
“Yes Mama,” I said and gripped her long skirt in my nine-year old hands.
“Don’t let go.” And she stood up reaching her hands to steady our small amount of belongings balanced on her head, and walked us towards the road and into the sea of people.
Elderly women, young women, old men, young men, children, babies, goats, pots and pans, plastic, tin kettles, rice bags and flour sacks - a giant centipede of faceless bodies beneath small piles of necessities. And us, another four legs of twenty thousand legs shuffling along the road that led to the mountain border.
Mama had said that my football wasn’t ‘a necessity’. Nor was the astronomy book the man in the army truck had given me when he came to visit Papa. The last time I saw Papa he was on the back of that truck blowing a kiss to Mama with one hand, while the other held onto a rifle.
No good comes from no water Mama said.
Among the legs, my face banged up against khaki trousers to the front and a fist to my left. A steady rhythm. I was thirsty and hot. My eyes were filled with sweat and dust so that I could only squint, careful not to trip up as the person behind clipped my heels, and all the while gripping onto Mama’s skirt with both hands.
Between laboured breaths to the rhythm of the shuffling feet I chanted: elephants, stars and a red hot sun, elephants, stars and a red hot sun... And the caravan lurched forward.
“How long do you think it took the elephants to get to Earth Mama?” I had asked the night before as we lay propped up on an empty water can under the sky.
“Well, they were lucky elephants,” Mama said. “They only had to walk across the Milky Way for two days.”
“So they didn’t have sore feet,” I had said as her fingers worked on the soles of my feet.
“Sure they did. Stars are hot.”
And then no good happened. It started with muffled shouting coming from above the shoulders that held heads I couldn’t see, and I felt Mama’s skirt freeze in my gripped hands. I heard a rifle shot, and the steady shuffling broke its rhythm as confused feet began to move in different directions. The khaki trousers veered left banging into the fist, and the fist unclenched and pushed the trousers. Tin pans made their way through the dense ceiling of necessities, raining down to bounce off a foot, a head. A voice yelled out from behind me and I felt a shin connect with the back of my calves, and my knees gave way, and, eyes closed, arms up to protect my face, I fell to the ground. And there were no more elephants, or stars or the red hot sun. Just empty hands, screams, and chaos.
When I came to, I was lying in a small tent and two young girls were poking me with a stick. A wind whipped through the tent seams, while an old man smoked a cigarette in the corner and stirred a pot.
“Wakey wakey elephant boy,” the girls sang jumping up and down. “The elephant, the stars and the red hot sun. The elephant, the stars and the red hot sun,” they chanted theatrically waving their sticks like orchestra conductors, stopping only to make the sound of elephants.
Suddenly the tent entrance flew open and a woman ran in, pushing the girls out of the way as she reached for my arm. “Boy! Get up. Get up! “ she shouted. “You have to come now.”
She hoisted me off the floor, and dragged me out of the tent into the wind. Pulling my aching body through rows of tents and staring faces, the woman finally stopped and turned to me shouting above the wind:
“Look! Look!,” and she pointed to an enormous tent up ahead over which clouds loomed heavy with rain.
She slapped me on the back. “Look at the pole!” And there, flying aloft the large tent, attached to a pole by a cord, was a bright red skirt, printed with stars, and a large elephant.
“This is what you’ve been muttering about, right? Say I’m right Elephant boy!,” the stranger said laughing.
And running out of the tent towards us was a woman, arms outstretched, tears running down a face etched with red dust and relief, the white and blue UN HCR flag pinned around her waist dangerously close to flying away.
Helen Avery is the Sustainable Finance Editor for Euromoney Magazine covering conservation finance, social finance (such as refugee finance and finance for lower income communities), and inclusion. In her spare time she teaches yoga and meditation in Brooklyn, New York where she lives, and leads a regular Astronomy for the Soul livecast for astronomy channel Slooh. You can find her on Twitter at @helenavery123
Jon Jones is a photographer and editor, most recently he was the director of photography for the Sunday Times Magazine. He was the editor and producer of a major retrospective photographic book documenting the Bosnian War, which was published in 2013. As a photojournalist for the Sygma Photo Agency in Paris, he documented conflict all over the world, most notably in Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East. His work has been widely published by Time, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, the Sunday Times Magazine, Paris Match, and Stern.