Big Mary: How to Hang an Elephant

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Erwin, Tennessee 1916

Deny that it must be killed. Deny you could, even if you wished, without a gun large enough. Your name is Charlie Sparks. You own the circus and the piece of flesh called Mary, worth eight thousand dollars.

Call for execution. Call for justice. You are the town of Kingsport, witnesses to the elephant parade down Center Street, when Mary snatched the trainer from her back and tossed him carelessly, like a handkerchief, into the wooden stands. You heard the crunch when her great foot stepped upon his head. Since then, the sight of ripe watermelons, your summer favorite, makes you sick as sin. Still, you packed the circus tents that night!

Threaten to cancel shows, you little towns, unless the elephant is killed. Call for Civil War cannons to be cleaned, armed, and aimed. Call for electrocution. You, preacher, call for exorcism.

Accept, Sparks, that it’s too late to sell the beast to another big top, even if you changed her name. Decide to make a show – for isn’t that your talent? – of her death.

So now, connect the railyard derrick car to a length of chain. After the matinee, you, the clowns, remove your greasepaint. You, the acrobat who rode, spangled like a crystal chandelier, on Mary’s back, hide in your shabby trailer now and weep. The rest of you – lion tamers, dancers, fire-eaters, jugglers, fortune tellers – join, now, the plainclothes parade.

You, the trainers, must calm Murderous Mary, so link the elephants trunk to tail and march the company from the circus grounds. When Mary, nervous, stamps the muddy street, waves her trunk, and trumpets like Armageddon, stroke her ear and whisper, easy, girl. Chain her leg to the rail, her neck to the crane. Lead the other elephants away, out of sight. Let the show begin.

No three-ring here, no exits. Only this: the derrick reeling in the chain, her head lifting as if she’s heard a curious sound, then her feet kicking empty air. Then the chain snaps. She falls. You recoil, but the killer doesn’t charge the crowd. Her hip is broken. You watch her mutely suffer while you attach a stouter chain, then reel again until she dangles like a trout.

And now, you’ve lynched an elephant. Now, you’ve entered a sort of history. You, photographer, take the grainy shot, obscured by rain, that some will call a fake. You know what really happened. You’re lowering her corpse into a hole, big as a barn, somewhere unmarked beside the railroad tracks. The show is over. Time to put on costumes for the sold-out evening show. Go now, all of you, and don’t you dare look back.