“Choon and the Runaway Elephant,” Friend, Feb. 1985, 11
The youngest elephant, the one called Mija, was missing. Choon’s father told him about it while they ate their breakfast.
“Late last night Mija pulled up the stake that holds her tie-chain and wandered away. Into the forest, no doubt.”
Choon stared at his father in dismay. He knew that elephants could move on their huge feet without making noise. “But her bell!” he cried. “Did no one hear it tok-tok?”
“All the elephants wear wooden bells that tok when they move in the night,” his father gently reminded him. “This is a sound we are used to.” There was worry in his eyes. He was the foreman of the lumber camp, and an elephant, even a young one, was valuable and must not be lost.
Choon’s own heart was troubled. Mija was his playmate. Because she was not yet old enough or big enough to work at carrying logs, she had plenty of time to walk with him in the forest. There they listened to the jabbering of the monkeys and watched little birds dart among the trees. They waded together in the river. With her trunk, Mija would squirt water over her back and shoulders. Swoosh! She would squirt water on Choon, also, while Choon ducked and laughed and shouted and splashed water back.
Now as his father made ready to search for Mija, Choon said, “I know the forest. I will go with you.”
His father answered firmly, “No, Son. Runaway elephants often become frightened. Then they are dangerous. Besides, who would carry food to the workers at noontime?”
This was Choon’s job, the boy well knew. Sighing a little, he trotted after his father through the door of their small house and across the clearing to the edge of the teak forest, where the elephants stayed at night. There were more than twenty of them—great, strong, wise creatures that did tasks too heavy for other animals or men.
Choon’s father patted the leathery trunk of his own elephant and spoke softly, “Ah, Mem Chang, fine one! This morning we go on a very important mission.”
Mem Chang gave a shrill squeal of welcome. Lowering her head, she wrapped her trunk around the man and lifted him onto her flat, broad forehead. Choon’s father didn’t use a pointed goad stick. Instead, he tucked a brown foot behind each ear and pushed against one or the other to tell Mem Chang which direction to take. Choon watched as the elephant shuffled down the forest trail. Her feet, as big as cooking pots, made scarcely a sound.
Soon there was noise from another direction. The elephant riders were coming to work. They shouted to one another and to Choon. “Sawaddii (hello)!”
Mahouts (elephant masters) these men were called. They wore white turbans on their heads. Tied around their waists were bright-colored panungs (long cloths).
At one of the mahout’s command, his elephant dropped to the ground and pushed its long ivory tusks beneath a teak log. Wrapping its trunk around the log to secure it, the animal rose slowly and carried it to the river. The log would float downstream to a mill, where it would be cut into boards. Teak logs from Thailand were strong and much sought after, Choon’s father had told him. They were used all over the world for making furniture and fine carvings.
Someday, when I am older, maybe I can be a mahout, Choon thought wistfully. He would willingly scrub his elephant clean with coconut husks. He would polish its long ivory tusks and whisper in its ear and sing to it. Choon knew that an elephant must love and trust its rider, or it would do little work and cause much trouble.
“And there will be trouble if I stand here daydreaming,” Choon scolded himself. The sun was climbing higher and higher. When it reached the top of the sky, the men and their animals would stop to rest. And they would be hungry.
Choon ran back to the house. Hanging from the pole outside the door was a great stalk of bananas that his father had brought from a nearby grove. Choon began to pull ripe golden fruit from the thick stalk. “Nueng, song, sahm! Si, hah, hok …” He counted rhythmically as he placed the bananas one by one into a net bag.
All at once he stopped counting. Had his ears really heard a tok-tok? Then he heard another sound, a kind of rattle. Choon gasped. “It is an elephant’s tie-chain.”
His heart beat fast. As the sounds came closer, he made himself turn slowly—until he was looking into the small eyes of a young elephant. “Mija!”
At the sound of her name, Mija’s big ears fanned the air. She shuffled, rattling the tie-chain that was still around one foot. A shiver of fear ran up Choon’s spine and down again. Mija was a runaway. Was she frightened and dangerous now?
Mija grunted and struck the ground with her trunk. Choon laughed out loud with relief. He knew what this meant. “Of course, Mija. You are hungry.”
Quickly he reached into the net bag and picked out an especially fine banana. Mija took it with her trunk and popped it into her pointed mouth. Choon gave her another, and another. The elephant ate eagerly. Then she wrapped her trunk, like an arm, around his shoulders and gently nuzzled his cheek. Choon, in turn, fondly rubbed her trunk.
They were still standing there when his father rode up on Mem Chang. “Choon!” he exclaimed. “You have found Mija!”
“No!” Choon laughed. “Mija found me!” Then he told about hearing Mija’s bell and tie-chain. “I was afraid,” he said truthfully. “But Mija wasn’t dangerous. She was only hungry—and lonesome, I think.”
“You have been a kind friend to Mija.” Choon’s father looked pleased and thoughtful. “When Mija is old enough to carry logs, she will need a mahout—someone she loves and trusts. I think, Choon,” said his father, “that Mija will want you to be her rider.”
Choon’s heart leaped for joy. “Mija! Oh, Mija, did you hear?”
Mija heard the happiness in Choon’s voice. She lifted her trunk and whistled—a squealing, singing, little whistle of pleasure.