I’m a massive fan of Orson Scott Card. He got me hooked with Ender’s Game and then I got into the Alvin Maker series. To my surprise, I received an Audiobook from one of my friends with a story I had not read or come across before. The Elephants of Poznan.
About the story
The story is set about 20 years after a plague kills off most of humanity, in the city of Poznan in Poland. The author did mention in the intro of the book that the story came to him after visiting Poland and wanted the story to be based there, so he wrote it and unlike his other books, did not want it immediately published. In the end, his friend and interpreter translated this book into Polish and it was published first in a Polish Sci-Fi Mag. This audiobook I received was the first English reading of the story. Lucky me!
The book continues with an interesting twist – the Elephants from Africa had migrated north, past Ukraine, past Belarus, into Poland and were now in Poznan checking out the humans.
Why were they interested in us? Humans were no longer killing them for their ivory. The world was theirs. We were going to die—I, who was only seven years old when the plague came, am now past thirty, and many of the older survivors are already, if not at death’s door, then studying the travel brochures and making reservations, their Bibles open and their rosaries in hand.
The main character even asks himself this:
No other animals from Africa had made the journey north. Only the elephants, and not just from Africa—the elephants of India were roaming the Orient, and on the most recent Radio Day we learned, through messages relayed many times, that they had somehow crossed the Bering Strait and were now, in ever greater numbers, grazing the prairies of America, small-eared cousins to the great-canopied beasts that now shadowed us on the streets of Poznan. I pictured them swimming, or piling onto boats that some last human pilot guided for them onto the stygian shore.
They had inherited the Earth, and were bent on surveying their new domain.
The story goes on to show the struggles of finding a hope for the human species, as the few survivors were found to be sterile. Hope comes in the form of young girl called Hilde who was too young when the plague hit to be affected by it. She soon becomes a treasured possession of the community and her parent’s pride and joy.
She had been sexually immature when the plague came, but now was womanly, ready to bear if bear she could. One man at a time would husband her, for three months; then a month of solitude, and then the next man’s turn to try. That way there would be no doubt of fatherhood if she conceived; he would be her husband, to father more children on her. She agreed to this because there was no other hope.
Our young man, fifteen at that time, becomes one of her husbands and when the girl becomes pregnant, they are overjoyed. They even bring a doctor from far, far away to help with the birth and they practice on sheep and other animals to get used to the blood.
The surprise is huge when they find out she is not yet due, even after nine months of pregnancy.
And then the worst news. “But the head—it is very large. And strangely shaped. Not a known condition, though. I looked in the books. Not seen before, not exactly this. If it is still growing—and how can I tell, since it is already as big as an adult human head—this does not look happy for her. She cannot bear this child normally. I will have to cut the baby out.”
They also find out that the baby boy (because it was a boy) was slowly draining the mother of resources and after the Cesarean was done, she died on the birth bed. Our hero likes the child for what it means but can’t bring himself to love him as he had caused the death of his wife (and only bearing female) and he was very un-human like. He had two orifices on his cheeks that would sometimes leak a smelly fluid. By the time he was five, the elephants came into town, probably drawn to the small boy and he gets accepted into the heard immediately:
Her trunk reached up to him; I feared that she would sweep him from her head like lint. Instead she touched the leaking aperture on his right cheek, then brought the tip of her trunk down to her mouth. To smell and taste it.
That was when I realized: The matriarch, too, had an aperture between eye and ear, a leaking stinkhole. When I did my reading, I learned that it was the temporal gland. The elephants had it, and so did my son.
The boy goes with the elephants and only returns after fifteen years as a young man with a new bride – a half-breed like him who had a pouch to carry a half-breed for the future. Our hero had developed a theory that his child was the future of his species. Humankind will die out and human-elephant breeds will appear instead.
I had conjured up a picture of the world. The elephants, the true gods of antiquity. They had reached the limit of what they could do with their prehensile noses. What was needed now was hands, so virus by virus, seed by seed, they swept away one species and replaced it with another, building and improving and correcting their mistakes. There was plenty of the primate left in us, the baboon, the chimpanzee. But more and more of the elephant as well, the kindness, the utter lack of warfare, the benevolent society of women, the lonely wandering harmless helpful men, and the absolute sanctity of the children of the tribe. Primate and elephant, always at war within us. We could see the kinship between us and the apes, but failed to see how the high-breasted elephant could possibly also be our kind.
In the end it’s a cute story, about what makes us human and extinction is never a happy-end story. The last few lines talk about legacy and the desire to leave something behind which is such a human feeling that no-one can replace.
You can read the entire story online at: