Elephants dancing in the rain

In the middle of the night there was a loud clap of thunder, followed by a flash of lightning, and then a heavy spray of rain that drummed on the roof for a good 20 minutes. This shouldn’t have been happening. We were in the worst drought in memory; there was no rain in the forecast; there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky when we got home at midnight.

‘Noah’s Ark,’ I said to my wife, who’d also been awakened by the thunder. Noah’s Ark was the name of a song we’d sung with our band earlier that night at the folk club, a song my wife wrote, a song that puts the wombat and the kangaroo in the story, alongside the lions and the lambs.

We had jokingly warned the audience that earlier public airings of the song (and even, on occasion, just singing it in the lounge room at home) had precipitated unanticipated falls of rain. They laughed obligingly but no one seriously thought it would rain. Not on a clear night in summer, in a drought. I didn’t really think it would myself.

But it did. The coincidences were beginning to look like a pattern, and not just in relation to Noah’s Ark. There were earlier indicators that my wife had an unusual affinity for drought-breaking rain.

Late in 1982 she returned to Australia after having lived overseas for five years. The east coast was in severe drought. Her life overseas had been arid too, but in the opening weeks of 1983, in the warm embrace of family and friends, the wellsprings of her spirit began once again to flow.

One evening in February 1983, as she sat on her sister’s bed, she began to cry. Nearby, her sister’s dog, a canine with uncanny human empathy, licked the tears away. The next day Labor won the federal election, Bob Hawke became prime minister, and it rained, and rained, and rained.

It might be stretching it to say that her arrival heralded the end of the drought. But I’m not so sure it was just coincidence. Recently, while interviewing my mother-in-law for a family history, I discovered an antecedent.

My wife was born in Medan, Sumatra, in 1951. Her mother, an American who later settled in Australia, was married to a Javanese dancer she had met overseas, and they had recently moved back to Indonesia, where they were living with his family.

My mother-in-law awoke one morning to the regular contractions that indicated the imminent arrival of her second child, later to become my wife. She was taken to St Elizabeth’s Hospital, run by Dutch nuns.
‘I was put in a very pleasant room with a Dutch woman,’ she recalls. ‘There was a verandah on one side of the room, and on the other side there were windows and a door leading out and looking across a large park.’

She was taken into another room for the labour and birth, and afterwards her new daughter was taken into the nursery and my mother-in-law was taken back to her original room to rest.

‘I was back in my little bed, looking out over this beautiful park, and it began to rain,’ she recalls.

 ‘The rain was very light and very fine, making it pleasantly cool in the room. It was the first day of rain in almost two months, which was almost unheard of in Medan.

‘I dozed and slept a bit, and then woke up and looked out across that great park. There were trees on the other side, but I could see no houses or other buildings or signs of life until I saw these great grey forms moving up and down and around. I couldn’t figure out what they were. I watched intently for quite a long time, and then I realised that what I was looking at were trunks, and that in fact there were a whole lot of elephants out there in that park.

‘The nurses hadn’t given me any medication, and they hadn’t warned me to look out for elephants, but I wasn’t the least bit afraid. The elephants weren’t approaching, they weren’t coming in, they certainly weren’t charging. They were just moving elegantly and slowly around the park in the rain. It was like they were dancing—very rhythmic, very slow.

‘I’d only been in Medan a couple of months and didn’t know anything about an elephant park, but I thought it wasn’t utterly inconceivable. This must have gone on for an hour or so until the rain stopped and the elephants just disappeared.’

It’s a lovely and endearing image: elephants dancing in the rain, the first rain for months, on the day my wife was born.

Not long after the night that we sang Noah’s Ark and it rained, we moved from Canberra to Melbourne. We haven’t sung the song here in public yet, but we’ve sung it in the lounge room, and not long ago Melbourne had its wettest day on record.

Coincidence? Perhaps. But when the next federal election rolls around I think we’ll be dusting off Noah’s Ark and taking it out on the hustings, which—more likely than not—will be dry and dusty and in need of rain.

And while we’re singing I’ll be saying a silent prayer, asking Hughie to send her down—not just cats and dogs, but elephants too.    

Robert Hefner is assistant editor of Eureka Street. Illustration by Lucille Hughes. 



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