Zoe's Tale (Chapter Four)
My mother's name – my biological mother's name – was Cheryl Boutin. She died when I was five; she was hiking with a friend and she fell. My memories of her are what you'd expect them to be: hazy fragments from a five-year-old mind, supported by a precious few pictures and videos. They weren't that much better when I was younger. Five is a bad age to lose a mother, and to hope to remember her for who she was.
One thing I had from her was a stuffed version of Babar the elephant that my mother gave to me on my fourth birthday. I was sick that day, and had to stay in bed all day long. This did not make me happy, and I let everyone know it, because that was the kind of four-year-old I was. My mother surprised me with the Babar doll, and then we cuddled up together and she read Babar's stories to me until I fell asleep, lying across her. It's my strongest memory of her, even now; not so much how she looked, but the low and warm sound of her voice, and the softness of her belly as I lay against her and drifted off, her stroking my head. The sensation of my mother, and the feeling of love and comfort from her.
I miss her. Still do. Even now. Even right now.
After my mother died I couldn't go anywhere without Babar. He was my connection to her, my connection to that love and comfort I didn't have anymore. Being away from Babar meant being away from what I had left of her. I was five years old. This was my way of handling my loss. It kept me from falling into myself, I think. Five is a bad age to lose your mother, like I said; I think it could be a good age to lose yourself, if you're not careful.
Shortly after my mother's funeral, my father and I left Phoenix, where I was born, and moved to Covell, a space station orbiting above a planet called Omagh, where he did research. Occasionally his job had him leave Covell on business trips. When that happened I stayed with my friend Kay Greene and her parents. One time my father was leaving on a trip; he was running late and forgot to pack Babar for me. When I figured this out (it didn't take long), I started to cry and panic. To placate me, and because he did love me, you know, he promised to bring me a Celeste doll when he returned from his trip. He asked me to be brave until then. I said I would, and he kissed me and told me to go play with Kay. I did.
While he was away, we were attacked. It would be a very long time before I would see my father again. He remembered his promise, and brought me a Celeste. It was the first thing he did when I saw him.
I still have her. But I don't have Babar.
In time, I became an orphan. I was adopted by John and Jane, who I call "Dad" and "Mom," but not "Father" and "Mother," because those I keep for Charles and Cheryl Boutin, my first parents. John and Jane understand this well enough. They don't mind that I make the distinction.
Before we moved to Huckleberry – just before – Jane and I went to a mall in Phoenix City, the capital city of Phoenix. We were on our way to get ice cream; when we passed a toy store I ran in to play hide-and-seek with Jane. This went smashingly until I went down an aisle with stuffed animals in it, and came face-to-face with Babar. Not my Babar, of course. But one close enough to him that all I could do was stop and stare.
Jane came up behind me, which meant she couldn't see my face. "Look," she said. "It's Babar. Would you like one to go with your Celeste doll?" She reached over and picked one out of the bin.
I screamed and slapped it out of her hand and ran out of the toy store. Jane caught up with me and held me while I sobbed, cradling me against her shoulder, stroking my head like my mother did when she read the Babar stories to me on my birthday. I cried myself out and then when I was done, I told her about the Babar my mother had given me.
Jane understood why I didn't want another Babar. It wasn't right to have a new one. It wouldn't be right to put something on top of those memories of her. To pretend that another Babar could replace the one she gave me. It wasn't the toy. It was everything about the toy.
I asked Jane not to tell John about Babar or what had just happened. I was feeling out of sorts enough having just gone to pieces in front of my new mom. I didn't want to drag my new dad into it too. She promised. And then she gave me a hug and we went to get ice cream, and I just about made myself throw up eating an entire banana split. Which to my eight-year-old mind was a good thing. Truly, an eventful day all around.
A week later Jane and I were standing on the observation deck of the CDFS Amerigo Vespucci, staring down at the blue and green world named Huckleberry, where we would live the rest of our lives, or so we thought. John had just left us, to take care of some last-minute business before we took our shuttle trip down to Missouri City, from where we would go to New Goa, our new home. Jane and I were holding hands and pointing out surface features to each other, trying to see if we could see Missouri City from geostationary orbit. We couldn't. But we made good guesses.
"I have something for you," Jane said to me, after we decided where Missouri City would be, or ought to be, anyway. "Something I wanted to give you before we landed on Huckleberry."
"I hope it's a puppy," I said. I'd been hinting in that direction for a couple of weeks.
Jane laughed. "No puppies!" she said. "At least not until we're actually settled in. Okay?"
"Oh, all right," I said, disappointed.
"No, it's this," Jane said. She reached into her pocket to pull out a silver chain with something that was a pale green at the end.
I took the chain and looked at the pendant. "It's an elephant," I said.
"It is," Jane said. She knelt down so that she and I were face-to-face. "I bought it on Phoenix just before we left. I saw it in a shop and it made me think of you."
"Because of Babar," I said.
"Yes," Jane said. "But for other reasons, too. Most of the people who live on Huckleberry are from a country on Earth called India, and many of them are Hindu, which is a religion. They have a god called Ganesh, who has the head of an elephant. Ganesh is their god of intelligence, and I think you're pretty smart. He's also the god of beginnings, which makes sense, too."
"Because we're starting our lives here," I said.
"Right," Jane said. She took the pendant and necklace from me and put the silver chain around my neck, fastening it in the back. "There's also the saying that 'an elephant never forgets.' Have you heard it?" I nodded. "John and I are proud to be your parents, Zoe. We're happy you're part of our life now, and will help us make our life to come. But I know neither of us would want you ever to forget your mother and father."
She drew back and then touched the pendant, gently. "This is to remind you how much we love you," Jane said. "But I hope it will also remind you how much your mother and father loved you, too. You're loved by two sets of parents, Zoe. Don't forget about the first because you're with us now."
"I won't," I said. "I promise."
"The last reason I wanted to give you this was to continue the tradition," Jane said. "Your mother and your father each gave you an elephant. I wanted to give you one, too. I hope you like it."
"I love it," I said, and then launched myself into Jane. She caught me and hugged me. We hugged for a while, and I cried a little bit too. Because I was eight years old, and I could do that.
I eventually unhugged myself from Jane and looked at the pendant again. "What is this made of?" I asked.
"It's jade," Jane said.
"Does it mean anything?" I asked.
"Well," Jane said, "I suppose it means I think jade is pretty."
"Did Dad get me an elephant, too?" I asked. Eight-year-olds can switch into acquisition mode pretty quickly.
"I don't know," Jane said. "I haven't talked to him about it, because you asked me not to. I don't think he knows about the elephants."
"Maybe he'll figure it out," I said.
"Maybe he will," Jane said. She stood and took my hand again, and we looked out at Huckleberry once more.
About a week and a half later, after we were all moved in to Huckleberry, Dad came through the door with something small and squirmy in his hands.
No, it wasn't an elephant. Use your heads, people. It was a puppy.
I squealed with glee – which I was allowed to do, eight at the time, remember – and John handed the puppy to me. It immediately tried to lick my face off.
"Aftab Chengelpet just weaned a litter from their mother, so I thought we might give one of the puppies a home," Dad said. "You know, if you want. Although I don't recall you having any enthusiasm for such a creature. We could always give it back."
"Don't you dare," I said, between puppy licks.
"All right," Dad said. "Just remember he's your responsibility. You'll have to feed him and exercise him and take care of him."
"I will," I said.
"And neuter him and pay for his college," Dad said.
"What?" I said.
"John," Mom said, from her chair, where she had been reading.
"Never mind those last two," Dad said. "But you will have to give him a name."
I held the puppy at arm's length to get a good look at him; he continued to try to lick my face from a distance and wobbled in my grip as his tail's momentum moved him around. "What are some good dog names?" I asked.
"Spot. Rex. Fido. Champ," Dad said. "Those are the cliche names, anyway. Usually people try to go for something more memorable. When I was a kid I had a dog my dad called Shiva, Destroyer of Shoes. But I don't think that would be appropriate in a community of former Indians. Maybe something else." He pointed to my elephant pendant. "I notice you seem to be into elephants these days. You have a Celeste. Why not call him Babar?"
From behind Dad I could see Jane look up from her reading to look at me, remembering what happened at the toy store, waiting to see how I would react.
I burst out laughing.
"So that's a yes," Dad said, after a minute.
"I like it," I said. I hugged my new puppy, and then held him out again.
"Hello, Babar," I said.
Babar gave a happy little bark and then peed all over my shirt.
And that's the story of the jade elephant.