Pachyderm Pearls

Short Stories May 25, 2020

A cacaphony of jungle cocks accompanied the emerging pre-dawn as each rooster seemingly attempted to outdo the others in a macho symphony. If they had arms, they would be beating their chests. A hint of light was now seeping into the darkened hills in the surrounding Chiang Mai region and it was possible to distinguish the canopy of the surrounding jungle from the sky. The moist ground was strewn with leaf litter, and the sweet smells of decomposition permeated the cooler morning air. A pair of unseen eyes had been watching, waiting. From the protection of the thicker areas of vegetation, he’d been secretly observing the nearby elephant enclosure for almost an hour. He could wait no longer to break from his hide.  It was becoming lighter and he must not be seen. There were no signs of movement inside Khun Thet’s modest shelter next to the enclosure. Hopefully, the old lady, owner of the two Asian elephants, was still asleep.

Nick Gavrilis had graduated from a school of hard knocks, in a tough suburb of Melbourne, with majors in petty theft and standover tactics. At seventeen years of age he’d fought his way into some minor street dealing and set about proving to other badarses that he was more than just a tough with a bad case of acne scars and an eye-arching police record. Yeah… he’d shown them that he was up for anything. The warders at Her Majesty’s Barwon Prison were also acutely aware of that when, on his twentieth birthday, a surprise cell inspection uncovered a hidden mobile phone, some ecstasy tabs, and a wad of almost $600 in small notes. But he was framed… of course. Knew nothing about it. After his release, Nick had wandered into an association with an outlawed motorcycle gang for a couple of years but he never became a fully patched member. The Sergeant-at-arms had given Nick a severe beating after he’d made some unwise suggestions to the girlfriend of a high-ranking member. Subsequently he drifted in and out of menial work, interspersed with the Russian roulette of runs to Asia as a drug courier. By the age of 30, Nick was living in Thailand, drawn to the fleshpots, easy lifestyle, and cheap bars. Supplying small amounts of drugs to tourists in Chiang Mai, then busting their heads when they became obnoxious, gave Nick both a source of income and the rush he craved.

It was through another westerner, while working as a bouncer at a bar, that Nick first heard of the emerging Ivory Coffee trade in the villages outside Chiang Mai. It piqued his interest enough to make inquiries and pursue the source. Nick didn’t fancy coffee at all, his interest was in the money that he could either extort from the producers by offering them “protection,” or just steal if they refused his services. Hey, they were mostly humble villagers subcontracting their elephants to an entrepreneurial Canadian with an innovative mind. Nick felt compelled to dig deeper to see what could be in it for him without his need to expend cash or effort.

Raw coffee beans have a bitter tartness. Roasting removes a large amount of that bitterness and there are countless ways it is served up to coffee aficionados worldwide by clever baristas. Premium blends command top dollar, and cups of excellent coffee require almost a second mortgage from a thirsty world. But the most expensive coffee, without peer, is the coffee produced by beans that have been shat out of an elephant. It’s even more expensive than kopi luak which is passed through the intestines of civets in Indonesia. Yep, unbelievably, coffee beans are fed to elephants, fermented by the digestive juices in their gut, then pushed slowly through nineteen metres of intestine before dropping onto the earth at the rear end. These precious nuggets are embedded inside spheres of herbivorous, protective poop. Local workers are employed to hack and sieve through the huge steaming balls of fresh elephant dung to retrieve those pachyderm pearls. To the coffee industry, they’re gold. After being cleaned and roasted, it produces a slightly sweet and nutty coffee, with its own unique flavor, but can command up to $70 a cup. The Canadian entrepreneur was paying the village elephant owners, the manure miners, and the processors. The coffee beans were supplied by the entrepreneur, and coffee traders paid wads of cash to the entrepreneur. So many points in the chain of production whereby Nick Gavrilis could make a “protective” intervention and skim off easy money from the efforts of others.

And it’s this reason he darts out from his jungle reconnaissance position just before dawn to purloin a sack of fresh dung in the elephant enclosure belonging to the old village lady. Why? Take it away and break it down to test the veracity of the story he’d heard. Nick had learned that the Canadian paid the old lady to feed the coffee beans mixed with other vegetation to her privately owned elephants. These animals are private property in Thailand, and are handed down from generation to generation. In the days before bulldozers, elephants were used for hauling teak logs to rivers where the logs would be floated downstream to mills, but times had changed and the old lady was happy to receive a small amount of money for the use of her elephants at her own village.

In the semi-darkness of the thick wooden post enclosure, he placed his hessian sack on the ground at the rear end of one of the elephants where a pile of dung lay on the ground. It didn’t smell fresh, it must have been dropped earlier in the evening. Opening the sack at ground level with his left hand, he reached across to fumble for a short flat stick with his right hand. At the moment it was touched, the tokay gecko bit down hard on Nick’s right hand and wouldn’t release. Instantaneously, Nick’s reptilian brain short-circuited his reasoning brain and took control of his actions. Fearing he’d been bitten in the dark by a venomous king cobra, he exploded to his feet and his hand swung involuntarily but violently back and forth to dislodge it.

“Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiitttttttttt!” he screamed, piercing the solitude of the early morning and trumping even the most raucous jungle cock.

His flailing arm, with attached tokay gecko, smacked unexpectedly into the rump of the nearest elephant which, abetted by the sudden scream, startled the usually placid pachyderm. In response, the elephant kicked backwards with a hind leg as it trumpeted a short, pissed-off blast through its raised trunk.

Patellas are crucial components of the human skeletal structure, and vital for mobility. With the force of the elephant’s short startled kick, Nick’s kneebone disintegrated and his right leg was hideously hyperextended. It was a sickening crunch. As he hit the ground writhing in agony, clutching his right knee and swearing profusely, the gecko let go of Nick’s hand and scarpered. The elephant, being a natural quadruped, regained its preferred state of having four feet on the ground. Unfortunately for Nick, his good leg was directly underneath where that huge foot was replanted and his left ankle was crushed into the earthen floor of the enclosure beneath four tonnes of startled beast. With another piercing scream which brought disturbed villagers running and old Khun Thet hobbling to investigate, Nick Gavrilis suffered the final humiliation from ground level. In shock from the searing pain of shattered bones, and unable to move, he watched unbelievingly as the frightened elephant raised it short tail and defecated. Huge balls of steaming green manure, the size of grapefruits, dropped unceremoniously onto the now ashen face of Nick Gavrilis. Each dull plop on his face was caffeine laden and worth a lot of money, but Nick Gavrilis’ days of standover and extortion were as truncated as his future mobility. His vision of an easy future, founded on frothy crapuccinos, disintegrated and dispersed into the beauty of that Chiang Mai dawn.


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