Elephant Speak

Amber D. Tran

My mother held up my Power Ranger panties. A tiny red smudge lined the belly of the cotton hammock. She contemplated dropping the undergarments directly into the washing machine, but then she paused, the jagged fronts of her teeth pulling back her bottom lip, and I heard her say something brief, “Hey, did—” but she stopped. Then she furiously pummeled enough clothes into the mechanical basin so that she could not see the blood in the underwear of her seven-year-old, and she walked away.

What she wanted to ask me was, “Did you sleep in the same bed as Gerald?”

And I would have told her, “Yes, I did, Mommy.”

And then she would have asked, “Did something happen?”

And I would have split from underneath my own skin to just tell someone, “Yes!”

But she did not.

After I got a journal for my eighth birthday, I documented the monstrous thoughts that weaved in and out of my innocent little brain. The words that I produced from the tip of my green Crayola marker were not the sore, pleading statements knocking against the crumbling walls of my skull. On May 25th, 1998, I wrote, “Today, I played my sister’s PlayStation. She wasn’t home,” when I meant to write, “Please, God, don’t make me go back there, don’t let me go, he will, he will—”

I threw myself into that journal. I ate the pages in the very back, perhaps my desperate attempt to become some sort of walking book, a creature that someone could read just by pressing their fingertips against my forehead. Braille. That was what I wanted to be.

Ignorance left me untouched. So I tried something else.

The utterance, “No,” hid in between each word. I waited for my sister to find my journal unlocked and open on my bed, the sad invitation to delve into the mind of an eight-year-old, but she refused to learn my thoughts. Instead, she verbally assaulted me straight into a corner because I no longer removed my Lisa Frank t-shirt in front of her, an act she said meant that I, “Must like girls, you sick-o.” I absorbed her insults like a sponge, my skin swollen, and the feeling of warmth filled my cotton shorts. When my mother found me with a puddle of urine in my lap, she just told me to take a bath.

Again, she did not say anything else.

She found blood again a few days before I turned nine.

And again in the summer of 1999.

Then she told me that I would be spending Thanksgiving with my grandparents that year, and I ran straight to the bathroom and tried to swallow fingernail polish remover. My tongue barely tasted the glass-sharp, nose-burning acetone before my throat filled with stomach bile. Wiping the tears from my face, I stared at the mirror. It was strange seeing the tangible form of emptiness in my eyes. I had to unravel my skin after it ran straight from my bones into a reckless, knotted escape thing of flesh. A clean, contradictory smile stretched across the freckles of my cheeks, and I nodded and assured myself, “You will be okay.”

So when the turkey was served and the apple pie moonshine was brought from the cellar out back, I feigned sleep on the couch. When my grandmother tried waking me up, I released a snotty snore, and she laughed and shook me and said, “Now, you best quit. Get to bed.” I first felt the heat filling the tips of my toes, and then it bled into the curve my stomach. Afraid that I was a few moments away from urinating on the couch, I leaned up and dropped my hand across my grandmother’s face.

She spanked me on the front porch in front of Highway 250.

She spanked me again as I stood naked in the bathroom, moments before my bath.

Then she dressed me in my white fleece nightgown and its matching floral vest with pink pearly buttons and shoved me into Gerald’s bedroom and said, “Bed. Now,” and closed the door.

He looked up from his computer. “Hey.”

A wave of ice washed over my skin. I barely spoke through the lump rising in the back of my throat. “Hi.”

Gerald was my cousin, a boy almost twice my age, a blonde-haired country heathen with chicken pox scars down the left side of his jaw. He had seen the inside of my body. He knew what it looked like.

“Let’s lay down.”

He turned off the lights.

And it happened again.

The next morning, my grandmother found me crying in one of the living room windows. My broken little body hung in the open frame, toes scraping old wood, heels brushing against the river of larvae carcasses stewing in the creases. She told me that crying in front of the Appalachia was an insulting gesture and that I needed to go outside and plant a tear in her front yard to ask for forgiveness.

Her facial expression registered the pain in my face as I stepped into my winter boots. Her cold eyes studied the trembling nature of my knees, the precious position of my hands as I pressed them between my legs to ease the throbbing core there.

She, too, opened her mouth, a fragment of a phrase spilling from her chapped, wrinkled lips, “Hey, why—” but she filled her voice with coffee and ushered me out the front door with last Sunday’s newspaper.

Instead of planting my tear in the hard, dead soil next to the basketball hoop parallel with the front porch, I sat on the ground next to a dead rose bush and tried to figure out what was happening to me. It had a word, because Gerald always growled at me, “Don’t tell anyone this happened.” So what was it? How was I supposed to tell someone what was happening to me if I did not even know how to describe it?

My mouth morphed into strange shapes. Syllables smashed against the back of my teeth. “SirchekBlood skinburnTangletouchBroodishming.” 

My grandmother called from the front door. “You plantin’ yet?”

I dug five holes and filled them with salt.

Before I was taken home, I went to my grandparents’ small bathroom and deflated at not seeing a streak of pink blood staring up at me. My heart’s gasp floated straight out of my throat. “Oh.”

That was my body’s way of admitting that it was done fighting, that it was too exhausted in its entirety to even craft the internal injuries of my undeveloped womanhood, that it was no longer hopeful at leaving sweet, innocent, misunderstood and striking, brutal messages in my panties, only for those around me to read them, overlook them, throw them with the other bodily waste dumps, and pretend as if it was not happening.

My mother did not even look at my underwear that day. She unpacked my overnight bag, tossed my holiday dress and frilly ankle socks in the washing machine, and not once did her eyes curiously glance in the cotton pocket of my panties. She found me watching her from my bedroom. Her voice danced over the loud, soapy slushes of water gushing from the stomach of the washing machine. “What’s wrong?”

“You didn’t even look.”

“Look at what?” Now she faced me.

I tripped over my own tongue. “The, umm, the, uhh, my—”

“Use your words.”

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to use.”

“Well, when you do, tell me.” She stepped away from the washing basin, her body collecting the smells of discounted detergent and fabric softener as she crossed me with a gentle brush along my hairline, and I opened my mouth, the word there, right there, but nothing happened. It dissolved on the tip of my tongue, leaving behind a bitter residue against the shells of my front teeth. The taste alone was a virulent flavor, something decayed and burnt, almost as if I had bitten into the pit of a rotten fruit and filled the curve of my tongue with the vile, slimy flesh of the ovary.

By the time I was an adult, my grandmother’s front yard was plagued with seventeen holes. I once overheard her and my mother commenting on the tiny mounds of dirt. My mother sipped on her coffee while I carried a few stray kittens from the front porch to the side of the small house, earbuds in my ears but no music in my brain. “You told her to plant her tears, didn’t you?”

“By God, I did.” My grandmother kicked off the porch swing. It shrieked like a cat in heat.

My mother placed her Precious Angel mug on the overturned rust bucket. “But there are so many out there.”

“Lots of forgiveness, she needed.”

My mother opened her mouth, but I knew my grandmother would hiss her quiet. They were not supposed to talk about it; that was safer than admitting that they already knew, but the words congealed and formed, a cut-off, “But what did she do? What—”

I spoke in a language nobody else could hear, nobody could understand.


A Pushcart Prize nominee and a two-time Best of the Net nominee, Amber D. Tran graduated from West Virginia University in 2012, where she specialized in lyrical nonfiction and contemporary poetry. Her work has been featured in Calliope, After the Pause, Spry Literary Journal, Cheat River Review, and more. Her award-winning debut novel, Moon River, was released in September 2016. Her debut chapbook, Salt, was released on May 2018. Her debut anthology, Mountain Fever, is forthcoming in August 2018. She currently lives in Alabama with her dog, Ahri.

%d bloggers like this: