Suki knelt on her forelegs to allow the masters to climb on. She growled, as her skin stung. She longed for them to take off the master-seat. She needed water. She needed to flap her ears, but they were pinned back. She was so thirsty.
Master yelled in master-speak and she stood up, the chain clinking around her feet. They were all masters to her. She didn’t know any difference. She yelled, as Master yanked her ear up. Why did he do this? She had been walking this route since she had been a calf. Treading over the same dirt. Under the same sun. With her fellow sisters in slavery.
They needed to go right next. She knew that so why was Master pulling on her ear with his master tool? She stamped on, as her ears were pulled and yanked. Her sides whipped.
Master yanked both ears up. Suki stopped. She had reached the arena. The master games were already there. As was her oldest sister Tatiana. At ten years old and eight feet tall, she looked absolutely ridiculous tossing a ball into the air. But that’s what the masters wanted. Suki knelt and the masters disembarked. Master brought her a paintbrush. She stared at it. He poked her with a sharp stick and shoved it into her nostril. She howled, as it pricked her skin. Master gripped onto her ear with a sharp thing in his palm. He grabbed onto her trunk and moved it back and forth. She couldn’t see what she was painting, but the masters loved it. They were cheering and shouting. Why were they so excited? What did they think she was? A dog?
But all they wanted was a good show and Suki had to provide one. Or she would be whipped or worse have the bull-hook. Master grabbed her trunk again, before jumping back. Big Mama had burst into the arena.
She turned around and roared. Suki’s mother and queen. But what was the ten-foot matriarch doing? She was so tired. Her skin was pink and blotchy. Her belly was full. She needed to save her energy. She roared again. She was awesome.
“She’s a foolish old woman.” Tatiana growled.
Suki stared at her. How could she say that about their mother? A group of masters streamed in. Armed with sharp sticks and whips. Suki bellowed. Of course the cowardly masters would gang up on her. Big Mama could easily defeat one master, but not a whole group of them.
“Mama, what are you doing?” She yelled. Master whipped her, but she stayed where she was.
“Get out of here, Suki.” She trumpeted.
“Leave the fool to her idiocy.” Tatiana declared.
“I’m not leaving you.” Suki howled.
“Go.” Mama cried out.
Suki yelled, as Big Mama looked for an escape route. As the masters cornered her, cracking their whips. Lunging with the spears. She blinked and turned away. The masters that had ridden her had the biggest smiles on their faces, holding up their clicking master-machines.
Suki and Tatiana were sitting in silence that night. Their younger sisters were all asleep. The youngest, Delphi, was curled into a ball. And twins Sappho and Regan huddled together.
“I hope Big Mama is okay.” Suki worried.
“She is a silly old cow. She has a family here who she needs to look after. Not to go charging around like a panicking wildebeest.”
Suki was about to fire back but looked up as she felt vibrations through the ground. Her huge ears could hear a soft footfall. She stood up, the chain around her feet, just long enough to permit her to do so. Big Mama limped into the cabin. Suki squealed, as she nestled her head against Mama’s body. She fell on her side, her whip marks shone in the moonlight. She panted, flapping her ears back and forth.
“Why did you do that, Mama?”
“Because she’s selfish. Thinking about herself when she has five daughters here who need her.” Tatiana grumbled.
“I had to try and escape.”
“There’s no escape from here. This is life from when we’re calves to when we die.”
“No. I might be a slave. All my daughters might be slaves. But my Cassandra needs to be free.”
Suki stared out into the wilderness. What was it like out there? What was it like to be free? She tried scooping up dirt, rubbing it on Mama’s body, but she was too weak. Mama cried out, waking up her other daughters.
“Cassandra’s coming. I’m not ready.”
Suki and Tatiana pulled at their chains, but they couldn’t get any closer. Mama was only a trunk’s length away. None of Suki’s sisters could get any closer either. Suki’s heart screamed, as Mama yelled out. And there was nothing she could do.
Big Mama rolled to her feet. She forced herself up, staggered to her daughters. Suki smiled in admiration. Even like this, Mama was still a fighter. She and her sisters huddled around her, keeping her warm, as she struggled and screamed. Fought and battled to birth Cassandra. As one all five sisters trumpeted. Big Mama ran her trunk over her howling daughter who was struggling to stand up.
“There she is. My beautiful Cassandra. Promise me one thing, Suki. You make sure my Cassandra is free. She can’t die here.”
“We’ll do that together, Mama.”
“I’m too weak, remember…” Mama’s eyes were rolling back into her head.
“Mama, don’t leave us.”
She lifted her head one more time. “Remember, we’re not masters. We’re elephants. We’re meant to be free.”
Suki and her sisters gathered around their mother and trumpeted in unison. She brought the crying Cassandra towards her, felt her take hold of her teats.
“What do we do now,” Delphi asked, “master will come for Cassandra. He’ll take her to the Crush.”
“We can’t let that happen. Master will turn her against us.”
“How will we stop him? We’re just elephants.” Tatiana said.
Suki stared at her. As well as being the oldest, she was the biggest of the sisters. But she had no fight in her. As the second oldest, Suki had to take control.
“We’re not letting them take Cassandra. We’re breaking her free. All five of us will honour Mama’s last wish.”
Morning light crept in. Suki and her sisters were ready. Even the grumbling Tatiana had agreed. Standing in a circle, as best they could with the chains, around Mama and Cassandra. Suki sounded the alarm as the masters arrived. Armed with sharp sticks and master-machines. They shouted in their master-speak, but Suki stayed put. Master lunged with the sharp stick. Suki screamed but refused to move.
Another master whipped at Delphi. She was the smallest of the five. She whimpered, before retreating.
“Delphi, stay there.” Suki roared. She tried running over, but the chain held her back. Master yelled in his master-speak, lunged with the sharp stick. She shrieked, as she watched them drive Delphi back, exposing Cassandra. The other masters were shooting stones, bellowing in master-speak, driving Tatiana and the twins against the wall, revealing Big Mama. Master lunged forwards, stabbing Suki on her side. She swung her trunk back and forth, but he nimbly dodged and stabbed again.
“Give it up.” Tatiana said.
“We can’t let them take Mama or Cassandra.”
“Why not? What’s the point? What’s the point of any of this?”
Suki screeched, as she watched a master drag away the howling Cassandra, followed by Big Mama.
“Save your energy.”
“For what, Tatiana? Being a slave. No, I refuse to accept that.”
“Slaves are all we are. All we will be.”
“No. Cassandra needs to be free.” Suki looked out of the window at the cage that was waiting for her screaming baby sister. She wished she could help, even just to offer some comfort. But that would be a lie. The crush was hell. Mama had had more than five daughters. Suki and her sisters were the lucky ones who survived. She snorted. Lucky was relative.
And although they survived physically, they were mentally broken. Cassandra was prodded along with sharp sticks. Screams followed every lunge. Suki’s heart screamed with her. Cassandra was forced into the cage, so small, she couldn’t sit down. Her legs were chained to the ground. She writhed and struggled but couldn’t move an inch. The cage was only wood. Suki knew that if she and her sisters worked together, they could break Cassandra free. They couldn’t fail Big Mama.
Cassandra had her back to her sisters. She couldn’t turn her body, look around or even raise her foot. Suki shrieked. The crush was about to start. She couldn’t look. But she couldn’t block out the sounds. The cracking of the whips. Thumps of the sling-shotted stones. And the cries of her youngest sister. Her confusion. Her panic. Why were they doing this to her? Where was her mama? Where were her sisters?
And Suki could do nothing to help her. As she would endure day after day of her spirit being crushed. Until she snapped and became another slave. No. Suki growled. Cassandra was going to be free. She turned to her sisters. All of them were sitting in silence. Heads resting on their mighty feet, trunks flopping from side to side. Suki approached Tatiana. Although she was the big sister, she looked tiny curled up in a ball.
“Tatiana, wake up.”
Her eyes flicked open, glanced at Suki, closed again.
“What is it?” She spoke with her eyes closed.
“Can’t you hear Cassandra? That’s your little sister.”
“And what? We can’t help her. We can’t free her.”
“So what? We shouldn’t even try?”
Tatiana shook her head, flapped her ears. “Say we help her escape into the wild. She’ll be dead within days.”
“Better dying free than in the Crush.”
“Better dying in the Crush than living as a slave.”
Suki didn’t respond. There was nothing she could say. She couldn’t believe her oldest sister was giving up so easily.
“And where do we fit into this escape plan? If we escape with her that’s great but if we don’t, Master will use the bull hook.”
“Don’t you remember what it was like in the Crush? What they did to you? To us?”
“Of course I remember,” Tatiana roared, her great eyes watering, “I also remember my sisters. You know Mama had more than five daughters. I wasn’t always the oldest. Alexandria, Helena…they were so noble. So brave. We all tried escaping with Mama. It was my idea. But we failed. Master used the bull hook on all of us. Mama and I survived. They didn’t. And that was my fault. And I can’t lose anymore of my sisters.” She curled back into a ball.
Suki turned away. Her heart on fire and the screams of her baby sister ringing in her ears.
Morning had arrived with a snap of a whip. Suki hadn’t slept at all that night. It wasn’t just the never-ending pleas of her baby sister, but Tatiana’s refusal to take action. She blamed herself for the death of her sisters. How could she ever have any hope again? Master unchained Suki, Tatiana and Delphi. Suki yelled as she was pulled along by the ear. The other masters were standing back, holding out their sharp sticks. The master-seat shone in the morning sun.
Master screamed in his master-speak and Suki knelt down. Her sisters followed suit. Carpets were laid on their backs. She snorted. Why did they think this would make wearing the master-seats any easier? Two masters carried over the seats and placed them down. She cried out at the weight and was whipped. After, a hook was clipped into her ear. The masters appeared. He-masters. She-masters. Tall masters. Skinny masters. Young masters. Old masters.
All the same. All masters. At the back were two of the fattest masters she had ever seen. They could be elephants themselves. She braced herself, but Master didn’t take them to her or even to Tatiana, but to Delphi. What were they doing? She was the youngest and the smallest. Suki pleaded to be picked instead, but Master held up his sharp stick.
The fat masters climbed onto Delphi, while Suki and Tatiana bore their own loads. The two elder sisters stood up, but Delphi struggled. She panted, tried flapping her ears, but Master yanked them back. Master whipped her. The fat he-master yelled in his master-speak and Delphi tottered to her feet. Suki wanted to help, but Master speared her. She began walking, the chain rattling on her feet. It was so hot. How she wanted to flap her ears, but she couldn’t. Panting, she tried stopping, looking around, but Master pushed her forwards.
She focussed everything on the walking. One foot in front of the other. They would all be okay. They would get through this. The arena was in sight. Everybody stopped, as there was a mighty crash. Master turned her around. Delphi had collapsed, sending her fat masters flying off. She was sprawled on her front. Mouth open. Panting. Eyes rolling into her head. Ears struggling to flap. Trunk flopping around. Suki tried running over, but Master held her fast. Tatiana howled, her eyes watering.
The fat he-master stood up and grabbed a whip. He bellowed in his master-speak and cracked it. Again and again. Across Delphi’s back, breaking the skin, eliciting whimpers. Suki cried for her baby sister. But her masters marched away the fat he-master. Once he was out of sight, Master held out something Suki hadn’t seen before. It was shiny. It wasn’t a sharp stick. He smiled at Suki, pointed at her before holding it to Delphi’s head. She jumped, as there was a bang. Delphi’s trunk fell still. Suki broke down. She thrashed. Trumpeted. Screamed. Writhed, tried to break free, but the whip crashed across her back. Sharp sticks prodded into her skin.
“Save your strength.” Tatiana said.
She looked at her sister through her misty eyes, allowed Master to pull her to her feet.
“What are you talking about?” She asked, as they were led back to the cabin.
“Master knew she was trying to protect Cassandra. He knew Delphi was too weak for the fat masters. That’s why he made her carry them. Those bastards aren’t killing anymore of my sisters. We’re breaking Cassandra free.”
Suki inwardly cheered. This was the Tatiana she knew. The oldest sister with the heart of a lion.
The two sisters returned to the cabin and knelt down. The masters gave out bananas that everybody gobbled up. Suki knew this was more cruelty. Rewarding them like they were dogs doing tricks. But she was hungry. And she needed her strength. As she devoured banana after banana, Master began rubbing powder into her pink, drying skin, trying to disguise his abuse. Tatiana looked over at Sappho and Regan. They were still chained to the ground.
“Sisters, the masters killed Delphi. But they won’t kill anyone else. Suki and I will free Cassandra and we’ll come back for you. We’ll escape together. The masters are stupid. They haven’t chained us up. They think we’re too broken to try anything. But they’ve forgotten one thing. We’re not masters. We’re not slaves. We’re elephants and we will be free.”
She turned back to Suki. “You free Cassandra and I’ll fight off the masters. Are you ready?”
Suki nodded and flapped her ears. She erupted up, snatching Master with her trunk, throwing him across the ground. Tatiana charged forward, trampling him, slammed into the other master. Suki ran to Cassandra.
“I’m breaking you free, baby sister.” She grabbed onto the wooden bars and ripped them apart.
Behind her, the masters called. She didn’t have long. Her heart stopped, as she heard a bang. She turned, but Tatiana was still fighting on. A force of nature like a rampaging rhinoceros. Throwing stones at the masters. Sending them flying like birds. Snapping their sharp sticks. Another bang. Suki yelled, as Tatiana stumbled. But she fought on. Suki didn’t have long. The cage was almost destroyed. She ripped aside the last bars. But Cassandra was still chained to the ground in four places. Suki wrapped her trunk around one chain and pulled. It came free. Three left. She growled, as she felt a whip crack across her back. But then Master screamed, as Tatiana crashed into him.
The second peg came free. Cassandra writhed, but couldn’t escape yet. The masters were closing. There were more than ever. Suki pulled on the third peg. Roared as a sharp stick stabbed her. Tatiana tried helping, but the masters whipped her. The peg came free. One more. A bang. Suki screamed, as Tatiana fell forwards. She took hold of the last peg and pulled. As the sticks stabbed into her, the stones bruised her, the whips flayed her skin. It came free.
Her baby sister hesitated before bolting away.
Suki yowled, as the whips were tangled around her feet, sprawling her onto her belly. Master stood in front of her, holding out a sharp stick. But this was no ordinary sharp stick. It was sharper. Bigger. A bull hook. Suki panted. Stared at her sister, whimpered at the flies buzzing around her. She had been so brave. Suki would be brave too. Like Tatiana. Like Big Mama. She roared as the bull hook was forced up her back side. It was more difficult to breathe now. Her vision was blurring. It was even difficult to flap her ears. She jumped as the bull hook shocked her. Again and again. Wrapping her trunk around Tatiana’s, she closed her eyes. The last thing she saw was Cassandra pausing, before running into the wild.
In February, I went to Thailand where I went to an ethical elephant sanctuary. I was adamant about not supporting elephant riding in any form. Sadly, it is still a very popular activity, so I decided to write an an article exposing the true horrors of the trade.
From there, I wrote this short story. This was a very tough story to write, which involved reading some horrific articles and disgusting videos, particularly centring on the Crush. To all the elephants like Suki, Tatiana, Delphi, Sappho and Regan. I hope Cassandra you can be free in the wild once again.