The writing below was in response to a prompt for a writer’s group in 2018. The events described took place in Victoria BC in October 2016.
“You can just let me out here,” I said to my carpool. We were one-and-a-half-weeks into a two-week intensive training, and my healing brain was cooked. (Of the 14 people in the program, two of us were in long-term recovery from traumatic brain injuries, and one was in recovery post cancer treatments.) Our bodies were beginning to break down, and our abilities to learn and function were waning.
For me, I was not only losing my focus and my temper, but I was also beginning to lose my immune system. My eyes were red and puffy every day, watering throughout class for no clear reason. My roommate, the cancer survivor, spent most of her class time on the floor, coaxing her body to relax throughout the lessons. Although the intensive was focused on our collective passion – music – and set in a beautiful church on the heavenly water’s edge of Victoria, BC, we were all beginning to reach our breaking point. I could feel it.
“Just let me out here,” I said again, although we were nowhere near our homestay. “I’ll meet up with you later.”
“You sure?” my host and driver said.
“Yeah, this is good.”
Cathy pulled over and let me out on a street corner at the edge of town. I was past the main drag with all the shops and restaurants, but the closest thing to me was the Royal BC Museum, which boasted a mammoth exhibit inside. “Perfect,” I thought to myself.
I loved museums, and I loved visiting museums in foreign cities. But even more, I loved mammoths.
I looked at my watch. It was almost 4:30 – the closest thing we’d had to a day off during the whole intensive so far. The museum closed at 5pm, and tickets were $15BCD. I decided to go for it.
Ticket in hand, I dashed up the escalator toward the art exhibits. My aim was to see as much art and local history as possible in the time allotted, then take a spin by my beloved mammoths on the way out. I grew up in LA and frequented the La Brea Tar Pits, where mammoths were a feature. They felt familiar, like home. I wanted to at least pay them a visit.
But as my body reached the top of the escalator, I felt it pull left instead of right. There was the sign, clearly pointing to the right for art and history. But my body went left, and I found myself in the ice age, face to face with a hologram projection of a mammoth.
A smile broke out across my face immediately, and the child I keep not-so-deeply-tucked inside my heart came instantly to the surface of my personality. I began playing with a trunk simulator, trying to pick up objects with a mechanical protrusion, driven by a joystick. A security guard walked by and chided me for beaming at my own success. “It’s hard, eh?”
“Yeah, not for a pro like me tho.” I smirked at him.
Aware of my time and feeling the minutes tick away, I blasted through more of the exhibit, trying to see it all and get to the art galleries before the museum closed. I discovered pygmy mammoths – little ones that lived on Catalina Island where I spent my childhood summers, and delighted in this discovery. I said hello to the saber tooth cats and bears that were mounted alongside the full-grown mammoths for scale and scenery. I took selfies, trying to soak it all in, determined to have something for my healing brain to look at besides sheets of music that night.
I had dashed through a small room on my way to the end of the exhibit, and was about to shift gears and head into the rooms of arts and history, when something stopped me.
What had been in that small room? It was darkly lit and crowded when I had gone through. I took a step further toward the exhibit exit, but was pulled back again.
Art would have to wait. Before I left Victoria BC, I needed to see what was in that room.
When I returned to the darkened chamber, my breath caught in my chest. It was quiet now – all the museum patrons having left at this point, except me. One security guard remained, at the edge of the room. It was silent in there, and dim, except for a lit Plexiglas display case mounted in the center of the room, inside which stood a real mammoth.
A real one.
A baby one, surely, for she was only about 2 ½ feet tall. Her wrinkled skin mostly covered her eyes, still in their sockets, and eyelashes and ear hair brushed outward from her lovely creases. Even on the back of her knees, I noticed, there was hair there – bristle-like and course, a tan color. Lighter than I expected. She looked familiar.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” the security guard asked from the doorway.
“She’s stunning,” I answered, breathless.
I put my hand to the class, mere inches from this 4,000 year old creature. A real mammoth.
“Her name’s Lyuba,” the security guard continued. “It’s Russian for ‘Love.’ A farmer found her in his field, out in Russia. They were going to tour her around North America, but I guess they don’t trust the United States right now. That’s how we got her.”
I had to come to Canada to meet a mammoth, I thought. Of course. It all made sense. I had grown up around mammoth bones in LA, seen whole adult and juvenile skeletons unearthed from under Wilshire Boulevard. I had loved them as long as I could remember. But here was Lyuba, the littlest, and the most perfect, most in tact, most innocent, most ancient being I had ever been face to face with, and all I had to do was cross the border to meet her.
There was 10 minutes left until closing time. More than once, I tried to leave, but Lyuba called me back. I gave in to her Siren song, and stayed. The security guard politely let me have my moments with her. I put my hand on the glass and closed my eyes, trying to remember every crease, every wrinkle, every curve and detail of her perfectly preserved little body. Lyuba means Love. Of course it does. She is Love.
Lyuba’s eyes contained messages. I asked her what she had come through time and space to say. The answer came immediately.
“Time is long,” she said. “Slow down.”
When the museum closed, I floated down the escalators on a cloud. I had met Love, and been granted 10 minutes alone with her. She had died young – only 33 days or so in the body – before going on to be preserved immortally for another 41,800 years until an unsuspecting human found her. Until she traveled to Canada, and I traveled to Canada, and we shared 10 minutes together on the planet. That’s impossible. But it happened.
She was young, and old. She was ugly, and gorgeous. She was dead, and very much alive. The youngest infant; the most ancient elder. Lyuba was everything.