Thursday, 5 November 2009

#FridayFlash: First Place

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

I have been preparing for this day for a year, but it feels like a lifetime. Ever since the prize for first place was announced, I knew I would have to not only enter the race, but also win it; all year I have been training for it, to the exclusion of almost all other activity. I whisper a prayer to the Great Lady of the Eastern Plains and look into my beast's eyes.
"We can do it, Squibs." She flaps her ears and smiles at me as only an elephant can, and I feel bolstered. We make a strong team - the bookmakers have declared our odds to be astronomical, but I believe we can prove them wrong. Squibs knows what is at stake: the prize is a dance with the Princess Alita, the brightest jewel in the kingdom's crown. I am only a cobbler's son, but tonight I have the chance of holding in my arms the most beautiful girl in the land.

I put on my tunic; it is an understated white tunic with grey threading, depicting elephants and the sign of the Great Lady. My mother spent five months on the embroidery, in stolen moments between tending to the younger ones. My father pretends to disapprove of all this, but I see the twinkle in his eye. It is the last time I will have the freedom to do something like this; we both know he will not see another winter through, and I will have to take on his mantle as provider for our family. It is my last chance to be young and foolish and he does not begrudge me it.

Squibs gives me a leg-up with her trunk and my family wave me off. We head in opposite directions - Squibs and I to the racecourse, they up the steep hill overlooking it: they have no money for spectator tickets within the ground. As we amble towards the starting line, Squibs blowing air in my face as if it were any other day, I take a look at the opposition and grow pale. I have known who they are, of course, but seeing them in their finery brings it all home. These are not cobblers' sons, riding their family's only elephant, having robbed their frail father of his beast of burden for a year. These are men who had entire herds of elephants to select their ride from; whose tunics are threaded with gold; whose mothers would have picked the tunics from the best items on offer in the West. These are men, whereas boyhood still lingers in my look. What was I thinking? We will be the laughing stock of the race. My heart sinks. I will never dance with the Princess.

A tremendous trumpeting noise distracts me: the favourite walks past me, his elephant louder even than his tunic. He is Khalith, the merchant's son and last year's winner. He looks us up and down and doesn't even have the courtesy to hide his smirk. As he flounces off on the fabled Principal Boy I feel my blood boil and Squibs blares out what can only be an expletive.
"We'll show him, Squibs", I exclaim. "By all the gods of the mountain and the riverbed, and by the Great Lady of the Eastern Plains, we will give him a run for his money." Squibs hoots her agreement and we saunter into our allocated starting position. 

                    .................................................................................

"And they're off! Around the first corner it's Principal Boy by a length and a half, Mousey Girl second, followed by Midshipman, A Tart Taste, Spring Chicken and The Gazelle, and bringing up the rear is Squibs on the outside...

"Principal Boy leads into the second turn by two lengths, followed by Midshipman who moves up to second, and there is a battle going on for third place. At the rear of the field, Squibs - an outsider at 500/1 - has gained a length on Spring Chicken who is falling farther behind...

"And we're into the backstretch! Principal Boy still in the lead by two lengths, but oh no! Disaster: Mousey Girl has fallen, taking A Tart Taste and The Gazelle with her. They are trying to get up, but Squibs has taken the advantage and is fast closing on Midshipman...

"Into the far turn - Principal Boy still holding the lead by two lengths, but Squibs has found a burst of speed. Closes in on Midshipman. Passes Midshipman - and it's now a two elephant race...

"Coming down the stretch - Principal Boy ahead by a length, but Squibs is gaining!  She's pulled another burst of speed out of nowhere, by the Great Lady - Principal Boy and Squibs are now neck and neck - a relentless drive to the wire...

"Principal Boy, Squibs. Squibs, Principal Boy. Principal Boy, Squibs... and it's Principal Boy by a tusk!"
                    .................................................................................

She was so close I could almost smell her hair. Everyone is congratulating me on a fine performance but I feel like crying. I am never going to dance with the Princess. I dismount Squibs and give her a hug, which she returns tenfold with her trunk, as ever. We walk dejectedly, a few paces behind Khalith and Principal Boy, over to the King's platform to receive our loser's medal. I will have to watch the odious man receive his prize - the one thing I wanted more than anything in the world. The King puts his hands on Khalith's shoulders.

"Well done, young man! A fine race. But now I have a bigger honour to bestow on you than you were expecting. My eldest daughter Elmina has returned a week early from her coming-of-age travels, so as the rules of courtesy dictate, you must dance with her instead of Alita.

"I am loath to disappoint my youngest daughter, however. I promised her a dance partner and what sort of father breaks such a promise? Perhaps our valiant young contender would oblige?"

"I would be most honoured", I say, bowing low, and Squibs makes a sound sweeter than I ever thought possible.

27 comments:

  1. Awww. That was a great race, full of tension!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great depiction of elephants and racing. I could envision the lumbering beasts and the ears flapping. You gave the elephant great personality. I also happen to love elephants.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I actually shouted and applauded, I'm not ashamed to admit it! A very nice story.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Fantastic flash! Love the Great Lady of the Eastern Plains. Love the names you gave the elephants - it was the Melbourne Cup horse race here this week, so this was an excellent nod to current events for me!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Losing the race, winning the dance with the Princess, yay! The Great Lady of the Eastern Plains was certainly listening.

    Love the names you've given the elephants!

    ReplyDelete
  6. This is fine stroytelling. I saw the whole race unfold as I read it. Well done.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Loved the tension in the race, and the resolution with the "consolation prize". Nicely done.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The visual of sprinting elephants pleases me to no end. I've always loved the naming convention for race horses, and it's used to good effect here.

    ReplyDelete
  9. "Kept my eyes glued to the screen" is a cliche, but that's what I did as I read. I love how you take the "exotic" (not many of us watch elephants racing!) and link it to emotions many of us can identify with. The description is great--of scenes and the main character's emotions. Also loved the tension of the race. Oh--and "Squibs" is such a great name for an elephant!

    ReplyDelete
  10. You had my heart pounding throughout. I was so rooting for Squibs that I startled myself with the "oh no!" that escaped me when they lost the race. I'm so glad you amended that and gave them the prize.
    Super storytelling!

    Funny - I read "looked into my beast's eyes" as "looked into my breast's eyes". Until I reread, I thought we were in for another feast. :)

    ReplyDelete
  11. I too love elephants and could easily envision your highly entertaining race. Loved the elephant's names and was so glad in the end that the young romantic got to dance with the princess!
    Karen :0)

    ReplyDelete
  12. Awe, sweet Squibs! Such gentle creatures, I love elephants. I guess the gods were smiling down on them. Wonderful story!

    ReplyDelete
  13. That was a great way to mess with our heads. So much more real that he did not win, and so much more satisfying when he really did win in the end.
    ~jon

    ReplyDelete
  14. Oh how nice, he did get to dance with the princess :) Beautiful story, certainly reminds me of the stories my grandfather read to me when I was little, although those didn't have elephants :P

    ReplyDelete
  15. A nice tale. Great description throughout, and you easily convince the reader of this world and what's in it.

    ReplyDelete
  16. There's nothing like a day at the races! Fun story and I like the payoff at the end.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Another sweet story. I love these characters you paint. Peace, Linda

    ReplyDelete
  18. Great story. His feelings really came through and the reace scene was very well done.

    "...to receive our loser's metal." Great line. Great piece.
    ~chris

    ReplyDelete
  19. Nicely assembled story. I actually moved to the edge of my seat. Thanks for that ending.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Nice story, tight writing, I liked the unpredictable yet satisfying ending.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Not only a great story but an entire world in just a few pages. Great stuff.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Another great read with a lot of heart.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Aww yay! Happy ending :D

    I really love the little details of the worlds you portray each week that are merely hinted at.

    ReplyDelete
  24. A great message to not give up even when it looks like everything is stacked against you. And even if you don't win, good things can still happen. Great story!

    ReplyDelete
  25. Great use of pace and structure to control the reader's expectations and emotions. You can't help but root for your narrator. Nice use of the commentary to build tension too. Really enjoyable read.

    ReplyDelete