Jodi Picoult – An extract from Jodi’s next novel Leaving Time

Jodi Picoult – An extract from Jodi’s next novel Leaving Time

Now, ten years later, Jenna is determined to find Alice, whom she believes would never leave her behind willingly. With the help of a publicly disgraced psychic, Jenna uncovers new information which could transform her mother’s case and finally lead her to the answers she’s been searching for all these years…

Out Autumn 2014

Alice

When I was nine – before I grew up and became a scientist – I thought I knew everything, or at least I wanted to know everything, and in my mind there was no difference between the two. At that age, I was obsessed with animals. I knew that a group of tigers was called a “streak.” I knew that dolphins were carnivores. I knew that giraffes had four stomachs and that the leg muscles of a locust were 1,000 times more powerful than the same weight of human muscle. I knew that white polar bears had black skin beneath their fur, and that jellyfish had no brains. I knew all these facts from the Time-Life monthly animal fact cards that I had received as a birthday gift from my father, who had moved out a year ago and now lived in San Francisco with his best friend Frank, whom my mother called “the other woman” when she thought I wasn’t listening.

Every month new cards arrived in the mail, and then one day, in October of 1977, the best card of all arrived: the one about elephants. I cannot tell you why they were my favorite animal. Maybe it was my bedroom, with its green shag jungle carpet and the wallpaper border of cartoon pachyderms dancing across the walls. Maybe it was the fact that the first movie I’d ever seen, as a toddler, was Dumbo. Maybe it was because the silk lining inside my mother’s fur coat, the one she had inherited from her own mother, was made from an Indian sari and printed with elephants.

Every month new cards arrived in the mail, and then one day, in October of 1977, the best card of all arrived: the one about elephants. I cannot tell you why they were my favorite animal. Maybe it was my bedroom, with its green shag jungle carpet and the wallpaper border of cartoon pachyderms dancing across the walls. Maybe it was the fact that the first movie I’d ever seen, as a toddler, was Dumbo. Maybe it was because the silk lining inside my mother’s fur coat, the one she had inherited from her own mother, was made from an Indian sari and printed with elephants.

But those were facts that everyone knew. I, on the other hand, became obsessed and dug a little deeper, trying to find out everything I could at the school library and from my teachers and books. So I could also tell you that elephants got sunburned, which is why they would toss dirt on their backs and roll in the mud. Their closest living relative was the rock hyrax, a tiny furry thing that looked like a guinea pig. I knew that just like a human baby sucks its thumb to calm itself down, an elephant calf might sometimes suck its trunk. I knew that in 1916, in Erwin, Tennessee, an elephant named Mary was tried and hanged for murder.

In retrospect I am sure my mother got tired of hearing about elephants. Maybe that is why, one Saturday morning, she woke me before the sun came up and told me we were going on an adventure. There were no zoos near where we lived in Connecticut, but the Forest Park Zoo in Springfield, Massachusetts had a real, live elephant – and we were going to see her.

To say I was excited was an understatement. I peppered my mother with elephant jokes for hours:

What’s beautiful, gray, and wears glass slippers?

Cinderelephant.

Why are elephants wrinkled?

They don’t fit on the ironing board.

How do you get down from an elephant?

You don’t. You get down from a goose.

Why do elephants have trunks?

Because they’d look funny with glove compartments.

When we got to the zoo, I raced along the paths until I found myself standing in front of Morganetta the elephant. Who looked nothing like what I had imagined.

This was not the majestic animal featured on my Time-Life card, or in the books I had studied. For one thing, she was chained to a giant cement block in the center, so that she couldn’t walk very far in any direction. There were sores on her hind legs from the shackles. She was missing an eye, and with her other, she wouldn’t look at me. I was just another person who had come to stare at her, in her prison.

My mother was stunned by her condition, too. She flagged down a zookeeper, who said that Morganetta had once been in local parades and had done stunts like competing against undergrads in a tug-o’-war at a nearby school, but that she had gotten unpredictable and violent in her old age. She’d lashed out at visitors with her trunk if they came too close to her cage. She had broken a caretaker’s wrist.

I started to cry.

My mother bundled me back to the car for the four hour drive home, although we had only been at the zoo for ten minutes.

‘Can’t we help her?’ I asked.

This is how, at age nine, I became an elephant advocate. After a trip to the library, I sat down at my kitchen table and I wrote to the Mayor of Springfield, MA, asking him to give Morganetta more space – and more freedom.

He didn’t just write me back. He sent his response to the Boston Globe, who published it, and then a reporter called to do a story on the nine-year-old who had convinced the Mayor to move Morganetta into the much larger buffalo enclosure at the zoo. I was given a special Concerned Citizen award at my elementary school assembly. I was invited back for the grand opening to cut the red ribbon with the Mayor. Flash bulbs went off in my face, blinding me, as Morganetta roamed behind us. This time, she looked at me with her good eye. And I knew, I just knew, she was still miserable. The things that had happened to her – the chains and the shackles, the cage and the beatings, maybe even the memory of the moment she was taken out of a forest somewhere in Africa – all that was still with her in that buffalo enclosure, and it took up all the extra space.

For the record, Mayor Dimauro did continue to try to make life better for Morganetta. In 1979, after the demise of Forest Park’s resident polar bear, the facility closed and Morganetta was moved to the Los Angeles Zoo. Her home there was much bigger. It had a pool, and toys, and two older elephants.

If I knew back then what I know now, I could have told the Mayor that just because you stick an elephant in proximity with others it does not mean that they will form friendships. They are as unique in their personalities as humans are, and just as you would not assume that two random humans would become close friends, you should not assume that two elephants will bond simply because they are both elephants. Morganetta continued to spiral deeper into depression, losing weight and deteriorating. Approximately one year after she arrived in LA, she was found dead in the bottom of the enclosure’s pool.

The moral of this story is that sometimes, you can attempt to make all the difference in the world, and it is still like trying to stem the tide with a sieve.

The moral of this story is that no matter how much we try, no matter how much we want it . . . some stories just don’t have a happy ending.

Jenna

When it comes to memory, I’m kind of a pro. I may only be thirteen but I’ve studied it the way other kids my age devour fashion magazines. There’s the kind of memory you have about the world, like knowing that stoves are hot and that if you don’t wear shoes outside in the winter you’ll get frostbite. There’s the kind you get from your senses – that staring at the sun makes you squint and that eating worms isn’t the best choice of meal. There are the dates you can recall from history class and spew back on your final exam, because they matter (or so I’m told) in the grand scheme of the universe. And there are personal details you remember, like the high spikes on a graph on your own life, which matter to nobody but yourself. Last year at school, my science teacher let me do a whole independent study on memory. Most of my teachers let me do independent studies, because they know I get bored in class and frankly I think they’re a little scared that I know more than they do and they don’t want to have to admit it.

My first memory is white at the edges, like a photo with too bright a flash. My mother is holding spun sugar, on a cone; cotton candy. She raises her finger to her lips – This is our secret – and then tears off a tiny piece. When she touches it to my lips, the sugar dissolves. My tongue curls around her finger and sucks hard. Iswidi, she tells me. Sweet. This is not my bottle; it’s not a taste I know, but it’s a good one. Then she leans down and kisses my forehead. Uswidi, she says. Sweetheart.

I can’t be more than nine months old.

This is pretty amazing, really, because most kids trace their first memories to somewhere between the ages of two and five. That doesn’t mean that babies are little amnesiacs – they have memories long before they have language, but weirdly, can’t access them once they start talking. Maybe the reason I remember the cotton candy episode is because my mother was speaking Xhosa, which isn’t our language, but one she picked up when she was working on her doctorate in South Africa. Or maybe the reason I have this random memory is as a trade-off my brain made because I can’t remember what I desperately wish I could: details of the night my mother disappeared.

My mother was a scientist, and for a span of time, she even studied memory. It was part of her work on the cognition of elephants. You know the old adage that elephants never forget? Well, it’s fact. I could give you all my mother’s data, if you want the proof. I’ve practically got it memorized, no pun intended. Her official published findings were that memory is linked to strong emotion, and that negative moments are like scribbling with permanent marker on the wall of the brain. But there’s a fine line between a negative moment and a traumatic one. Negative moments get remembered. Traumatic ones get forgotten, or so warped that they are unrecognizable, or else they turn into the big, bleak, white nothing I get in my head when I try to focus on that night.

Here’s what I know:

1. I was three.

2. My mother was found on the sanctuary property, unconscious, about a mile south of a dead body. This was in the police reports. She was taken to the hospital.

3. I am not mentioned in the police reports. Afterwards, my grandmother took me to stay at her place, because my father was frantically dealing with a dead elephant caregiver and a wife who had been knocked out cold.

4. Sometime before dawn, my mother regained consciousness and vanished from the hospital without any staff seeing her go.

5. I never saw her again.

Sometimes I think of my life as two train cars hitched together at the moment of my mom’s disappearance, but when I try to see how they connect there’s a jarring on the track that jerks my head back around. I know that I used to be a girl whose hair was strawberry blonde, who ran around like a wild thing while my mother took endless notes about the elephants. Now, I’m a kid who is too serious for her age and too smart for her own good. And yet as impressive as I am with scientific statistics, I fail miserably when it comes to real life facts, like knowing that Wanelo is a website and not a hot new band. If eighth grade is a microcosm of the social hierarchy of the human adolescent (and to my mother, it certainly would have been), then reciting fifty named elephant herds in the Tuli Block of Botswana cannot compete with identifying all the members of One Direction.

It’s not like I don’t fit in at school because I’m the only kid without a mother. There are lots of kids missing parents, or kids who don’t talk about their parents, or kids whose parents are now living with new spouses and new kids. Still, I don’t really have friends at school. I sit at the lunch table on the far end, eating whatever my grandmother’s packed me, while the cool girls – who, I swear to God, call themselves “The Icicles” – chatter about how they are going to grow up and work for OPI and make up nail polish color names based on famous movies: Magent-lemen Prefer Blondes; A Fuchsia Good Men. Maybe I’ve tried to join the conversation once or twice, but when I do, they usually look at me as if they’ve smelled something bad coming from my direction, their little button noses wrinkle, and then they go back to whatever they were talking about. I can’t say I’m devastated by the way I’m ignored. I guess I have more important things on my mind.

The memories on the other side of my mother’s disappearance are just as spotty. I can tell you about my new bedroom at my Grandma’s place, which had a big girl bed – my first. There was a little woven basket on the nightstand, which was inexplicably filled with pink packets of Sweet ‘n Low, although there was no coffee maker around. Every night, even before I could count, I’d peek inside to make sure they were still there. I still do.

I can tell you about visiting my father, at the beginning. The halls at Hartwick House smelled like ammonia and pee, and even when my grandma urged me to talk to him and I climbed up on the bed, shivering at the thought of being so close to someone I recognized and didn’t know at all, he didn’t speak or move. I can describe how tears leaked out of his eyes as if it were a natural and expected phenomenon, the way a cold can of soda sweats on a summer day.

I remember the nightmares I had, which weren’t really nightmares, but just me being awakened from a dead sleep by Maura’s loud trumpeting. Even after my grandma came running into my room and explained to me that the matriarch elephant lived hundreds of miles away now in a new sanctuary in Tennessee, I had this nagging sense that Maura was trying to tell me something, and that if I only spoke her language as well as my mother had, I’d understand.

All I have left of my mother is her research. I pore over her journals, because I know one day the words will rearrange themselves on a page and point me toward her. She taught me, even in absentia, that all good science starts with a hypothesis, which is just a hunch dressed up in fancy vocabulary. And my hunch is this: She would never have left me behind, not willingly.

If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to prove it.

You can buy Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult In Book and eBook formats