The Elephant Keepers' Children

BOOK: The Elephant Keepers' Children
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ALSO BY PETER HØEG

Smilla's Sense of Snow

Borderliners

The Woman and the Ape

History of Danish Dreams

Tales of the Night

The Quiet Girl

Copyright © Peter Høeg and Rosinante&Co, Copenhagen 2010.
Published by agreement with the Gyldendal Group Agency.
Originally published as
Elefantpassernes børn
by Rosinante&Co, Copenhagen, in 2010.

Translation copyright © Martin Aitken 2012
English translation first published in the United Kingdom by Harvill Secker, London, in 2012.

Production Editor: Yvonne E. Cárdenas

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from Other Press LLC, except in the case of brief quotations in reviews for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast. For information write to Other Press LLC, 2 Park Avenue, 24
th
Floor, New York, NY 10016. Or visit our Web site:
www.otherpress.com

T
HE
L
IBRARY OF
C
ONGRESS HAS CATALOGED THE PRINTED EDITION AS FOLLOWS:
Høeg, Peter, 1957-
 [Elefantpassernes børn. English]
The elephant keepers' children / Peter Høeg; translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-1-59051-491-7
1. Families—Religious life—
Fiction. 2. Religious tolerance—Fiction. 3. Missing persons—
Fiction. 4. Domestic fiction. I. Aitken, Martin. II. Title.
PT8176.18.O335E4413 2012
839.8'1374—dc23
2012015734

Publisher's Note:
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

v3.1

for
Awiti, Adoyo, Ajuang, Apiyo, Akinyi, and Karsten

for
Stine and Daniel

In case you wish to befriend

an elephant keeper
,

make certain to have room

for the elephant
.

—
OLD INDIAN SAYING

Contents
1

I have found a door
out of the prison. It opens out onto freedom. I am writing this to show you that door.

You might ask how much freedom he thinks he's entitled to, this boy who was born on Finø, the island they call Denmark's Gran Canaria, and in the rectory to boot, with its twelve rooms and a garden as big as a park, and not only that but born into the midst of a father and mother, an older sister and older brother, and grandparents and a great-grandmother, and a dog, all of which sounds like an advert for something expensive but a worthwhile investment for all the family.

And while there might not be that much to see when I look at myself in the mirror, being the second smallest in the seventh class of Finø Town School, and on the skinny side too, there are many older, heavier players on the football fields of Finø who can only watch as I sail by like a surfer on the wind and feel their hair stand on end when I let fly with my lethal right foot.

So what's he complaining about? you might ask. How does he think other fourteen-year-old boys feel? And there would be two answers to that.

The first is that you're right, I shouldn't complain. But when Father and Mother disappeared and things became
complicated and hard to explain, I discovered there was something I'd forgotten. I'd forgotten, while everything had still been bright, to seek to discover what will always endure, what can really be relied on when it starts to get dark.

The second answer is the hardest. Take a look around. How many people seem happy to you? Even if you have a father with a Maserati and a mother with a mink coat, as we had in the rectory once, how many people actually have anything to cheer about? Isn't it okay, then, to ask what can set a person free?

Now you might say that as far as the eye can see the world is full of people who'll tell you which direction to choose and what to do, and that I'm just one of them, and in a way you'd be right, though in another this is different.

If you ever heard my father give a sermon at Finø Town Church before he disappeared, then you'll have heard him say that Jesus is the way. My father can say that so beautifully and effortlessly you'd think we were talking about the way down to the harbor and that we'd all be there in a minute.

If you'd heard the service from a stool next to the organ, as played by my mother, and if you'd remained seated afterward, she would have told you that music was the future. She plays and speaks in such a way that you would have already booked your first piano lesson and be on your way to spend your life savings on a baby grand.

If, after the service, you'd come back for coffee on one of those occasions when my favorite uncle, Jonas, who goes bear hunting in Outer Mongolia and has a stuffed bear standing
in his hall and who has now become a union man, was staying with us, then you might have heard him say at some length that what really gets the ball rolling is having confidence in yourself and devoting your life to organizing the working classes, and he says this not just to wind up my father, but because it's something he truly believes.

If you ask anyone at my school, they'll tell you that life doesn't begin till after ninth class, since that's when most of the children of Finø move away to board at the high school or begin vocational programs in Grenå.

And finally, in a different direction altogether, if you asked the residents of Big Hill, which is a rehab center just west of Finø Town, all of whom were substance abusers by the time they were sixteen, if you ask them straight out, one on one, they'll tell you that even though they're totally clean and deeply grateful for their treatment and are looking forward to starting a new life, nothing even comes close to the long, mellow high you get from smoking opium or shooting heroin.

And I'll tell you this: I'm certain all these people are right, including the residents of Big Hill.

That's something I learned from my older sister, Tilte. One of Tilte's talents is that she can believe all people are right and yet at the same time be wholly convinced that she alone knows what she's talking about.

All these people I've mentioned, what each of them reveals is the door to their own favorite room, and inside that room is Jesus, or the songs of Schubert, or the national achievement test after ninth class, or a stuffed bear, or a steady job, or an
appreciative pat on the back; and many of these rooms are, of course, fantastic.

But as long as you're in a room, you're inside, and as long as you're inside, you're a prisoner.

The door I'll try to show you is different. It doesn't lead into another room. It leads out of the building.

It wasn't me who found the door
, I'm not cut out for that. It was my older sister, Tilte.

I was there when it happened, it's two years ago now, just before Mother and Father disappeared the first time. I was twelve and Tilte was fourteen, and even though I remember it like it was yesterday, I didn't realize that was what she'd found.

Our great-grandma was staying with us, she was making buttermilk soup.

When Great-Grandma makes buttermilk soup, she stands on two stools placed on top of each other so she can reach to do the stirring, and she does that because she was born small and because her spine has collapsed six times since then and she's become so stooped that if she's to be in that family ad I was talking about before, they're going to have to take care what angle they take the picture from, because that hump of hers is as big as an umbrella stand.

On the other hand, many people who've met Great-Grandma believe that if Jesus ever returns one day it could easily be as a lady of ninety-three, because Great-Grandma
is what's called omnibenevolent. That means she's so kind she has room for everyone, even people like Karl Marauder Lander and Alexander Beastly Flounderblood, who was dispatched by the Ministry of Education to take charge of Finø Town School, and who you'd have to be his mother to love, and even that might not be enough, because I actually saw him collect his mother from the ferry once and she didn't seem to have much time for him either.

BOOK: The Elephant Keepers' Children
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