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Waterboarding Mrs Elephant by Pernilla Jansson
Art by Pernilla Jansson |

The first thing my son Oliver usually does when he gets in the bath is pee in it. Now he just stands there with his knees slightly bent and lots of toys floating around. At its thickest his penis has the circumference of a cigarette and then tapers off towards the tip. It’s hard to believe that in ten to fifteen years Oliver will actually be fucking women with that. Wearing too much aftershave, bullshitting them, and, after ten to fifteen humps, disappointing them. I wonder if it would be easier to have a daughter.

I can hear the television from the living room. It’s America’s Funniest Home Videos. I’ve seen that part. A bride is crying. Her chubby gray-haired father is rapping, oblivious, happy: “My style is wack! I am black!” I just can’t wait until Oliver falls asleep so we can make popcorn and watch the final episode of Friends. I’ve been reading the news lately and I wonder how there’s something almost symmetrical about how the conclusion of the Friends series coincides with the rise of Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army in Iraq. Maybe posterity will remember this as an important historical juncture with al-Sadr cast as a new Saladin, uniting all the natives against the evil crusaders. Even with 9/11, I feel my generation has been cheated out of a proper historical event. I’ve been watching that al-Sadr guy for a while. We’re the same age for Christ’s sake.

“What’s going on in there, Jember?” my wife calls. When she uses my last name like that she reminds me of a guy at school who used to bully me. She doesn’t like it when Oliver and I are silent. She thinks we should interact more.

I scramble to the side of the bathtub and pick up a couple of animal toys. Mr. Giraffe is really thirsty so Oliver gives him a drink from the watering can. He gets a long swig while the pig and the lion only get a quick sip. Fffp! Oliver inhales.

When it’s Mrs. Elephant’s turn I get another idea. “Tie her to the board, Private Oliver!” I order.

Mrs. Elephant just watches calmly as Private Oliver leads her to the board and helps her lie down on it. This feels like a dentist’s appointment. While he’s busy with the straps I take her leather handbag off the table and pour out its contents. It all seems familiar too: some tissues, gum, an Alcatel mobile phone, the model is old but it looks new, and a stick of pink lip-gloss with little specks of glitter. The brand name has rubbed off. Lip-gloss seems at odds with her overall conservative appearance. The only items out of place are some dusty vegetables. I lift one up and hold it at arm’s length, like Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull, and muse: “Ah red onions, the poor man’s shallots!” Private Oliver thinks this is hilarious. He laughs at all my jokes; our difference in rank sort of demands it. Well, he was stupid to laugh at this one. While shallots are more aromatic, especially when raw, it isn’t necessarily the superior onion in every situation. I would prefer finely chopped shallots for garnish on blinis and for my famous shrimp salad, but I still use red onions for most of my cooking and as a topping on pizzas.

I take a look at Mrs. Elephant’s file. It’s just a couple of typewritten pages on a clipboard along with a note in Corporal Gormley’s distinct comic sans handwriting. She must have made a big fuss at the front desk to get sent in here just like that. At this point it doesn’t really matter. Everyone who gets sent to Private Oliver and me gets 15 seconds, just for the visit.

Private Oliver tilts the board backwards and pulls on the strap that goes over her chest. She’s still not saying anything and her eyes alternate between two points on the ceiling. The wrinkles under her eyes are pale and have the matted, smooth texture of baby skin. We put the wet rag over her face and I hold down one end while Oliver has his knee on the other. He starts pouring from the watering can and we start counting in unison in low voices while the water trickles over her face. Nothing happens at first but after five seconds she really goes crazy and starts thrashing about. After ten seconds she’s just rigid in an inverted S-shape. Private Oliver starts getting uneasy and he looks up at me for some clue. At fifteen seconds we quickly pull the rag off her face and tilt the board back up. She gasps and coughs a lot before making this weird baritone gurgle. Then she coughs some more and pants before letting out a proper scream and then she’s a lot calmer. In the silence I notice the muffled sound of “The Roof is on Fire” by The Bloodhound Gang coming from the big room downstairs. It’s been on repeat since yesterday morning and the thought of that makes me shudder. For me, having to listen to that song once is torture enough.

I look at my typed sheet of paper. “So, your son’s name was Gmail?”

“No, Gamali.”


Oliver sniggers a little. It sounds more genuine this time.

“No, just Gamali,” she says, raising her voice.

“Well, if you say so,” I say looking at Oliver and shrugging. “Anyway, we just need you to sign here and then we can all go home. You’ll have a couple of nightmares that involve drowning and suffocation, but other than that, you’ll be right as rain”.

“I won’t sign,” she says. “My son wasn’t involved in anything like that.”

“So what was he doing at the back of a pickup truck way outside of town? Applying for colleges?”

She says nothing, but I see a flicker of doubt on her face.

“Listen,” I say calmly, “there were three guys with him in that pickup truck. At least two of them are confirmed enemy combatants. We know this for a fact.”

This was absolutely true. I knew their fathers had picked up their bodies earlier and they had both signed statements to the fact that they were insurgents. They didn’t even need to be softened up first. We didn’t know anything about the fourth guy. He had been driving and was more or less pulped in the explosion.

“Gamali wasn’t involved in anything like that and I won’t sign,” Mrs. Elephant says.

I’m kind of pissed that Mrs. Elephant isn’t a man, because then we could simply beat the shit out of her. I could make Private Oliver do it just to see how he’s going to work out. I wonder whether he’d hesitate and stall and throw a couple of half-hearted punches or just go totally apeshit like Gomez used to with the head-butting and the biting.

I give Private Oliver a little pointing gesture and he flips the board over and we put the rag back over her face. He starts pouring and we start counting. Just as before she doesn’t respond for the first five seconds but after that she starts thrashing about with her head and her legs, like a kid having a tantrum on a supermarket floor.

After fifteen seconds we remove the rag and raise the board again. She’s panting really hard and I wipe her face with the rag. She has a big nose. Private Oliver gives me a quizzical look.

“Listen Mrs. Elephant,” I try to make a soothing voice. “You’re being silly. Think about it. What does it even matter if you sign or not?”

There’s silence for a bit. Private Oliver is still looking at me waiting for some cue. I can feel anxiety building up. I walk to the table and take a bite out of one of her onions. It tastes sweet at first, then it tastes like crap. I spit it out. I don’t know what the hell I was expecting.

Poor Gomez. One moment he was guffawing about something, next moment he’s going haaaa haaaaa haaaa with his jaw blown clean off. His tongue kept searching for it, finding nothing, then going back to the roof of the mouth and the upper front teeth, as if to touch base. At the end of the day it wasn’t really the yuck factor that had shocked me but rather the silliness. Same when I saw the back of Matamoros’s head say flup and spit out something that looked like a wad of bright pink chewing gum. That was it for the Three Amigos. Now it’s just going to be me and Private Oliver, in here for 11 hours a day with nothing to talk about and he doesn’t even like beer. I feel my mouth beginning to contort at the edges so I make a knuckle and bite down on the thick part of my index finger until my whole head begins to shake.

I pick Mrs. Elephant up out of the bathtub, clinching my fist around her so her sides start caving in. She makes a low squeaking sound as I bring her close to my face. “You are going to sign that goddamn paper right now or I swear to god I will shit in your fucking mouth!”

I hear heavy footsteps approaching. I look at Oliver. He’s still standing in the same place with his animals floating around his legs. He’s holding Mr. Giraffe and crying so hard that for a second he looks like he’s laughing, making a sound that’s somewhere between that high pitched sound from our television and a whisper. My wife starts hitting me on the head with a rolled up magazine. When I try to cover parts of my head with my hands she moves on to some other exposed area before finally just going for the fingers, aiming for the sensitive spots between the joints. She even takes time to adjust the angle of her blows for maximum effect. Finally she goes for the ears and gives them a couple of stabs. Then she pulls Oliver out of the bath and walks out and I'm left sitting on the bathroom floor in the same mermaid position as when I proposed to her. If I sit up a little, I can just make out Mrs Elephant slopping around in the water.

Later it occurred to me how deliberate her attack had been. It was as if she'd been planning it for days, from the moment she knew something was not right, until she chose to roll up her copy of Cosmopolitan, (thicker, and with a more angular spine), rather than issues of Bon Appétit or Babytalk, both of which were closer at hand.


Friðrik Sólnes is an Icelandic electrician who holds an MA in literature in English from Stockholm University. Friðrik's stories have been published by The Wales Art Review and Two Thirds North, which nominated his story for a Pushcart prize.


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