Glenn Harvey

Mammoth Steps

A strange trek through a future whose fate depends on whether humans can coexist with intelligent, de-extincted mammoths.

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Dec 3 2018, 4:15pm

Glenn Harvey

There are plenty of reasons this story is sadly timely, from climate change to advanced genetic engineering, but I won't get too pedantic here. Suffice to say that this is a strangely beautiful and important story for this particular point in time, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. -the Ed


In his young days, Kaskil would hide from Roomba in the tall, chilly grass. He crouched down, stifled his laughs, listened for the slight crunches of Roomba’s great feet compressing the ice and soil. Kaskil knew Roomba could track him by scent, but the old mammoth humored him, played along, pretending to be confused, trunk swishing the steppe grasses right over Kaskil’s ducked head. When Roomba looked away, Kaskil would jump up and sprint off to a new spot. On they went for hours, criss-crossing the tundra until the sun got low and the deep cold crept in, and Kaskil would climb up Roomba’s clumped fur and doze there in the musky warmth as the mammoth carried him home.

Kaskil’s family moved with mammoths across the Siberian grasslands, paid by the carbon traders to play doctor and ambassador for these new-old beasts. The mammoths needed Kaskil’s commonage for their nimble hands and rapport with the Yakut towns, where young calves often found trouble raiding sun-swollen vegetable gardens. Humans needed the mammoths to roam, to compact and scrape away the snow that kept the cold of winter from penetrating the deep soil, and to spread the seeds of grasses that would insulate the permafrost from summer thaw. And, more each year, the humans needed the mammoths for their sly humor and bitter milk.

Roomba was the oldest mammoth traveling with the commonage, one of the first born of de-extinction splicing. Unlike the younger generation, which romped and piled together in complex socialities, Roomba had few peers. Humans were his company, and Kaskil, who he’d known since birth, was his favorite. Kaskil, for his part, couldn’t imagine life without the mammoth. Kaskil rode him when the commonage travelled, did chores with him, read his studies aloud sitting in the crook of Roomba’s forelegs. And sometimes he noticed when Roomba stopped and stared south, trunk raised to smell the wind.

Kaskil wanted to ask Roomba what was wrong, but such an abstract question posed a challenge. Roomba knew Kaskil’s body-language, recognized many words and gestures, and likewise could signal his feelings and opinions with a nod or trunk swing, a trumpet or harrumph, or the thrumming infrasonic rumbles that Kaskil’s phone registered as pictographs or emojis. But the syntax of longing was beyond the capacities of their translator app; it would be another generation, Kaskil’s father said, before they had enough language data to train their algorithms to fluency.

So instead they played with a projected talking board, gathering clouds of concepts. Camp and family danced together into home. Where, walk, and want were counterveiled by fear. Finally Roomba’s trunk tapped on a loop of gifs representing mammoths before mammoths.

Kaskil started when he got it; he searched up videos of elephants, played them on the canvas tent. Roomba nodded, waggled his head, dug his tusk into the snow in excitement.

The commonage had no hold on Roomba; the old timer could go where he liked. But Kaskil was only fourteen, with fretful parents. Still, they knew the bond the two shared, and were grateful to Roomba for helping raising their son. After a week of Kaskil’s begging, they relented, and they helped pack saddle bags for the long journey.

At first it was much like one of their camping trips, but the days counted on and the trees grew thicker. Below the arctic circle it was slower going. They wound half-abandoned logging trails connecting the mushroom towns that foraged fungal delicacies for far-off luxe provision houses. Occasionally there was no trail south, and they forced their way through, Roomba pushing aside trees, the ground made soft by permafrost thaw.

In Ulaanbaatar they enquired after the trains that crossed the Gobi south to the industrial wonderlands of Shaanxi and Chengdu. But the trainmasters balked—Roomba was much too big, they said, to fit in the sleek compartments. Kaskil hailed at trucks, but the automated rumblers were always too full to stop for them.

So on they walked, into the desert, begging water from the seeps where the solar painters camped. Winter had turned to spring, and the sun was hot in the sky. Roomba’s wool matted with sweat. His feet dragged in the sand. One day he would not leave the shade of their tent. Kaskil went to the painters, snapping together black tiles, and borrowed shears and an ancient, shaking shaver. All day he cut at Roomba’s fur, tossing the chestnut curls in feathery piles.

The next day Roomba danced and charged with relief, Kaskil laughing at his friend’s ridiculous haircut. They made good time, but by the afternoon they realized their mistake. Under the wool Roomba’s flesh was delicate, unaccustomed to the sun. He pinked and burned, and began to trumpet with discomfort.

Kaskil again begged help from the painters. Taking pity on Roomba, they offered salve, but this was a temporary fix. Then a dusty wind gusted the camp, and Kaskil saw the painters pull robes over their faces. The white sheets, which wrapped the solar tiles, snapped and fluttered. Kaskil had an idea. For a week he attended Roomba as a tailor, measuring with his phone and following patterns projected from a stitching site. When Roomba’s sunburns had peeled, Kaskil dressed him in the white robe, and off again they went.

Walking along the busy Chinese highways, Roomba was a strange sight. In the cities children crowded around him, taking pictures and tugging at his robes. Kaskil and Roomba marveled at the chromey towers and ivy statues. They’d seen pictures, of course, but up close each city seemed grander than the next.

But the alleys were too narrow for Roomba’s bulk, and often they waited hours in bicycle gridlock. More than once officials hassled them out of parks, and old women scowled at the crates of food they took from provision houses. So much of the land was terraced crops, and the farmers did not like Roomba grazing.

They followed the Jinsha River south, both splashing in often to escape the heat. Summer was coming, and the commonage would be roaming north to the grass beaches of the Kara Sea. Kaskil messaged his parents every night, but still he missed them. He wanted to hear Russian and Sakha, not these unfamiliar languages, parsed awkwardly by his translator. The quiet, playful presence of the mammoth was a comfort, but there too was an otherness, a difference bridged by solidarity but not quite by understanding.

And Roomba, Kaskil thought, must have his own doubts and loneliness—the only mammoth for a thousand miles. Why make this trip to see the elephants? Roomba was spliced from elephant genes, born from an elephant womb. But what did that mean for a mammoth? What question could provoke such a journey, here at the sunset of his massive, new-old life?

The subtropics turned to tropics, and on they walked, until they began to pass gilded shrines where monks served milky curry. Everywhere was the image of the elephant: on flags and logos, as statues and painted murals. But, where were the elephants? Missing.

Missing too were the selfie-mobs and rubberneckers they had gathered in the northern cities. Here the humans they passed shied away—furtive glances and upset muttering. Once a nun approached them from a shadowed stall, asked if they bore instructions or news from the front. She fled when Kaskil betrayed their confusion.

Finally they found a bored constable, pestered her to explain. It’s all politics, she said, both nervous and dismissive. Thai elephants demanding money and land, accommodation and autonomy, freedom from electric fences and ear hooks; Thai humans reacting badly, not wanting a change in the order, terrorizing demonstrations with chili sprays and angry bees. Here, not so bad, she said, but they should be careful further south, where the elephants retreated and seized Phuket.

Kaskil told Roomba the news as best he could, and asked his friend if they should stop. Roomba looked north, raised his trunk to smell the wind, but then he shook his massive head, kept walking. To avoid attention they slept by day, travelled by night. They ate at temples, which stayed neutral in the dispute. Miles melted by in eagerness for a destination.

Sarasin Bridge was barricaded by protesters, a blockade of supplies to the occupied island. The crowd shrunk back as they approached—a strange-looking boy atop a huge-tusked, white-clad creature, more massive by half than the elephants they knew. But there was no getting through.

Then, in a rush, the nuns holding the Phuket side moved forward, surrounded Roomba with linked arms. Smiling at the mob they escorted Kaskil and Roomba across.

Phuket now was different than the mainland. Elephants roamed the streets, lounged in squares. Some worked with allied humans constructing elephant-sized buildings, communicating with script and hieroglyphs, drawn with trunks in the sand or on touchscreen beach balls. When Roomba rumbled at them, they seemed amused.

A procession formed, and the elephants led Roomba to the beach. Kaskil dismounted and sat in the warm sand, watching his friend touch the ocean. The elephants were oddly small next to the mammoth’s bulk. They disrobed Roomba, felt his splotchy, shaven wool with their trunks. Then, as a herd, they plunged into the surf. The old mammoth stepped south, and swam.