(* This story was created for Lena, when, sitting in my kitchen in Moscow, she said that she was bored, and would I tell her a story (in Russian). The next day I wrote it out in English. *)
Once upon a time there was an elephant with very big ears. His ears were so big that he could not hear. In order to hear, he would stand near a tree and shake his head until his ears would sit on the branches of the tree, and he then could hear everything.
One day a lion who was the King of the jungle saw him standing with his ears in the trees and asked him why he was standing like that. The elephant answered that he liked to talk with other animals, but he must lift up his ears to hear what they said. He told the lion that it was very boring, because nobody wanted to stand with him to talk, they were always playing or working and had no time to simply stand and talk.
The lion suggested that they have a race to relieve the elephant's boredom, and the elephant agreed. They said they would meet in one week and race to a spot that was very beautiful and peaceful.
During the week, the elephant decided to buy some sneakers for the race, since he always heard that runners wear such things on their feet. He bought his sneakers in the village and the other animals thought it was very strange to see such a big animal buying sneakers. The elephant was not bothered by their jokes, because he was excited about running a race with his new friend.
On the day of the race, the elephant appeared with his sneakers and greeted the lion. It was very difficult for the elephant to tie his sneakers, because it was his first time doing so, and because he had four feet and no hands. He had to use his long trunk and his tusks to hold the string. While the elephant was tying his sneakers, his ears were not in the trees, and so he could not hear.
The lion told the race director to start the race. The director said, "Ready, set, GO!" and the lion started to run. When the elephant finished tying his sneakers he looked for the lion but could not see him. He put his ears in the trees and asked the director where he could find the lion. The director said that the lion had started running the race, and that the elephant would have to hurry to catch up with him.
The elephant started to run after the lion. After some time, he caught up to the lion because the elephant's legs were very long and he could take big steps. The lion could hear the elephant coming, because when he ran very fast the ground shook and the tree branches were pushed to the side by the big elephant.
Up ahead was a river which was a little too wide for the lion to jump and which was too deep for the lion to walk across. The lion did not know how to swim, because he was afraid of the water. The lion hid in the bushes and waited for the elephant to cross the river.
The elephant started to cross the river and only the end of his trunk was above the water to give him air. The lion waited for the elephant to get to the middle of the river and then jumped into the water. He started to sink in the water, but landed on the back of the elephant, and took one big jump and landed on the other bank of the river.
When the elephant reached the other side, the race continued. The elephant soon was in front of the lion. He started to think about how clever the lion was and understood why he was considered the King of the jungle. As the elephant continued, he became tired and bored, so he stood and shook his ears into the tree branches. He knew he was close to the finish of the race.
As he stood, he heard the lion crying "Help me! Help me!" The elephant did not know if the lion was really in trouble, or playing another trick on the elephant. He thought of the congratulations that would be shouted if he was the winner of the race.
Then he started to think of the lion. He was very happy that the lion had offered to have a race and he was proud of his beautiful new sneakers. He started to feel uneasy inside, making excuses that he would tell to the others if they criticized him for not helping his friend. He resolved that he could not be happy winning the race if he did not know if his new friend needed his help. He realized that his heart was telling him that he would be wrong to win the race under such circumstances.
The elephant decided to turn around and search for his friend. He would walk for a time and then put his ears in the tree branches and listen for the lion. When he heard him, he would start off in the direction of the sound.
After some time, he found the lion. He was hanging from a rope, with one foot caught in the noose of the rope. The elephant did not have a knife to cut the rope, but he told the lion that he would try to cut the rope with his tusks. Because they were not very sharp, this was a very slow process. The lion picked up the elephant's ear and they talked together while the elephant worked.
They started to talk about their families and friends, then they started to tell each other funny stories to make each other laugh, then they talked about their hopes and fears, revealing more and more about their inner selves as they became aware that the listener was truly interested in understanding the other person for who he was, and not for any personal gain except to make a friend.
The lion realized what a nice animal the elephant was. The elephant never used his great strength to harm others, except to protect his family. The lion decided to help him with his hearing problem, as well as speed up the process of cutting the rope. He told the elephant that there was a man who lived nearby who could help cut the lion loose, and who would ride on the elephant's neck and lift the elephant's ears when he wanted to hear.
The elephant was surprised when he heard about this man. Usually people only wanted the elephant to work for them because he was so strong. The lion said that the man must do what the lion asked, because many years before, the lion had saved the man's life.
The lion had seen the man being strangled by a big boa constrictor snake. The lion did not feel it was important to save the man, but he thought that the snake was a very sneaky hunter, and he did not like snakes. So the lion killed the snake and freed the young man. Now the man owed the lion a favor, if the favor was something that would help another, as the lion had helped him.
The elephant stopped cutting the rope and went to find the man. As he approached the man's house, a very beautiful maiden was nearby. When she saw the elephant in sneakers, she wanted to burst out in laughter, but she held it inside, not wanting to hurt the elephant's feelings.
The elephant asked the maiden if she knew where the man was who lived in the nearby house. She said that she lived in the house and the man was her father. She said he would be back shortly, and asked the elephant what business he had with her father. The elephant told her his story while waiting for her father to return.
The maiden fell in love with the elephant, but was afraid of what her father would say if she told him. When her father returned, she told him the story and volunteered to go with the elephant to free the lion and then return to their home. Her father then would have time to decide how to care for the elephant.
When the elephant and the maiden returned to the lion, she cut the rope and the lion landed on the head of the elephant, who knelt down, allowing the lion to walk away safely. Now that he was free, the lion proposed finishing the race. The maiden was by now good at riding the elephant and they discovered that they had many things to say to each other. They agreed to finish the race, but only after telling her father of their plans.
Instead of telling her father only about finishing the race, the maiden told him that she loved the elephant and that she wanted her father's blessing and approval. The maiden said that it would not be a burden for her to ride the elephant and help him to hear more easily, and then her father could take care of the rest of the family. Finally her father agreed, and the elephant, the maiden, and the lion prepared to continue the race.
The maiden was very pretty and had a very kind heart, and loved to make jokes with the elephant and laugh with him. The lion became jealous of their love and companionship, but realized that as King of the jungle, it would not do for him to seem jealous . He decided that during the race he would try to split them apart, so that he could take the maiden for himself.
During the race, the lion told the maiden that if she hit the elephant on the behind, he would run more quickly. The lion was hoping that the elephant would get mad at the maiden. At first the elephant did get mad but instead of yelling at her, he asked her why she was hitting him. She answered that she wanted to win the race.
The elephant responded by agreeing with her desire to win, but he reminded her that all that she had to do was tell him of her concern, and that he would try to do as she wished. They were both happy that they could talk so freely, and they merrily made their way through the jungle.
The lion realized that their easy way of talking together would prevent the lion from creating misunderstandings between the elephant and the maiden.
The lion then tried to convince the maiden that he was more handsome than the elephant. He exclaimed to the maiden "Isn't my long hair beautiful, compare it with your elephant's hair!" The maiden said nothing but took her hair out of the bun and braids on the top of her head. The maiden's hair was the longest and most beautiful the lion had ever seen, and it covered the elephant, making him look handsome. The lion then tried a new trick.
The lion told the maiden about a bird that could sing the most beautiful songs of the jungle. Whenever anyone heard its songs, they started to dance with joy. The lion promised the maiden that if the elephant won the race, she would receive the bird as a gift. The lion was hoping that when the maiden was busy dancing, the elephant would get mad that she was not helping him to hear the bird sing by lifting his ears.
The maiden answered the lion that she indeed loved the songs of this bird, but that she could get no pleasure by seeing the bird caged for her benefit.
The lion soon realized that he too could get no pleasure out of splitting apart two such kind and loving creatures, and he simply tried to run the best race that he could.
The elephant and the maiden finished first, and the creatures at the finish line shouted and cheered for the couple. The lion proved that he too could be a good sport, and wished them a happy future. They all agreed that they would hold a race for friendship and understanding once a year.
The bird with the pretty songs agreed to sing each year, for the benefit of the audience, after the race was run and new friends had been made.
The elephant and maid were always present for the race and gave the official start, shouting in unison, "Ready, set, GO!" The lion, as King of the jungle, always greeted the finishers of the race and quieted the audience when the bird began to sing. Of course, someone always had to hold up the elephant's ears.
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