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Biologist Naming Privileges Revoked

Chloe Woods has been writing stories since she was six, about everything from far-flung futures to ancient history. She currently lives in London, pays the bills with an office job, and enjoys swimming and bouldering.
Later, Becca will have a tattoo and a story about her ex. Right now she has Leanne.
On the day that will become the story to amuse new colleagues and scare off potential future suitors, Becca arrives home late. She shucks off heels and blazer and has started mentally brewing coffee when she hears a thud. She assumes it's the cat.
Another sound follows. Rumbly. Not feline. Becca hesitates and turns, with regret, away from the kitchen. The source of the thud stares at her mournfully, shifting against the bath's white sides.
Leanne appears, pink-cheeked, behind Becca. She wraps her hands around Becca's waist. (This detail rarely makes it into the story.) "Oh. I was going to tell you."
"Uh-huh."
Becca has no idea how she's done it. They live on the third floor.
There, in their bathtub, is--she takes in the delicate trunk, the small ears; the long, damp, reddish-brown hair. Eyelashes like feathers. No tusks yet. There, in their bathtub, is an elephant. Leanne's still talking, nervously now, but Becca only snags words from the stream: "mother" and "labor" and "security" and "legal."
"So you thought you'd bring her home?"
"Only for a few days. It'll be like fostering a kitten, Becks."
"Right. If a kitten weighed a hundred kilos and needed fifteen liters of milk a day. And was a highly valuable cloned mammoth."
Leanne looks proud. Becca studied economics. Anything she knows about mammoths, she learned from listening to Leanne. Smug, too, because Becca's faint protest is no argument. It's late. The mammoth is kind of cute. They're probably not going to get arrested. She's not hauling a hundred kilos of mammoth-flesh down three flights of stairs.
It's just that there's an elephant. In their bathtub.
There's Leanne, hair a mess, unapologetic. "She's only a baby. A non-mammoth mammoth. A minute mammoth. You'll love her."
Becca loves her. She kisses Leanne then. (This never makes it into the story.) She decides she'll have to learn how to give a mammoth a bath.
"Her name's Lyuba."
"Of course it is."
Despite her earlier efforts to escape, Lyuba thinks baths are wonderful fun, particularly once she figures out how to splash. Becca does too, despite that. They hoist her out and rub her down and so begin three days of bizarre babysitting. Newspaper on the kitchen tiles. Neverending bottles. Becca takes two days off work and tries to make Leanne handle cleaning-up, because this is her fault, both Lyuba's presence and her existence.
A thing she learned from listening to Leanne: elephants are acutely social. And Lyuba is--Lyuba. There are other elephants, but there are no other elephants like her. Becca watches when the cat emerges from under the bed to befriend this lumbering interloper, outstretched nose meeting tentative trunk, and thinks of how alone she will be.
What Leanne's team have done is incredible and impossible and genius. Becca will never be able to decide if it was kind.
Lyuba, as baffled as the cat, turns to her and Becca stops dwelling to reassure her. Apparently she's the mammoth-mum. She buys bath toys. The woman at the counter asks how old her little one is. Fifty hours, fifty thousand years. She tells herself not to cry when Lyuba leaves and cries anyway and Leanne teases her.
She will have a story. Pay attention. It will be a story about Becca's ex, who worked with elephants and genetics and--isn't it wild?--one time Becca came home to find she'd put one in the bath. (One time Becca came home to find her packing.) She will have a pair of shaggy long-haired elephants on her wrist, one big, one small, staring not-too-mournfully. She will have bad dates and seafood poisoning and memories.
Right now she has Lyuba. Lyuba, who is only a baby, new and old and out of place (but any elephant would be out of place, in a bathtub: and there are not many elephants left) and isn't hers. They stand covered in suds in a gleaming white bathroom, craggy ancient newborn eyes, with the light off glaciers glinting across the cabinet mirror, while the wind of the short-grass steppe blows in through a window three floors above a city street.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, September 23rd, 2019


An earlier version of this (in first-person with an awkward framing device) sat in my drafts for about a year before being dug out and resurrected. My background is in human evolution, as much palaeontology as anthropology, so I've had plenty of conversations about de-extinction over the years. I understand the particular allure of the mammoth, as a de-extinction project; elephants are awe-inspiring enough, and their extinct cousins hold an extra layer of wonder. But much as I'd love to live in a world with mammoths I'm not sure they would enjoy living in ours.

- Chloe Woods
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