This is my attempt at the first “Turning Point Scene,” as prescribed by “Story Genius.” The objective is to write three scenes to see the escalating arc of the story with instructions to fully flush out the scenes, providing story-specific info. “Specifics play forward. Generalities do not.” The scenes should reinforce the protagonist’s worldview, referred to as the “misbelief,” while simultaneously escalating the conflict with something they desire.
Here goes the first:
I live on a plantation with a human woman named Ms. Bixen, a human man called Mahout, a matriarchal elephant named Mubwa, and a dog named Kuchota. Many other humans work in the rows and rows of coffee and tea fields, but elephants are not allowed to go there for fear of destroying the crops.
Ms. Bixen is the matriarch of our little herd. Mahout feeds, walks, and takes care of Mubwa and me. He is our caretaker. Ms. Bixen said she rescued Mubwa from poachers that killed the rest of her herd. Mahout says Mubwa had to be chained to keep her from hurting herself. She still wears leg irons whenever she is taken outside her cage. He says I give Mubwa a sense of purpose. Otherwise, she might have died of despair.
Mubwa is not my biological mother, but she has cared for me the best she can. I have no memories of my mother. I only remember being born from a crate. Mubwa calls me an orphan, which she says is a name for one that does not have a mother though it does not seem that way. She has always been a mother to me. Mubwa says we are alike because we have both lost our herd. I understand her meaning, but I do not think we are alike. She has detailed memories of her herd. I have none. I belong to the Ms. Bixen herd.
Mubwa has taught me the three languages of the elephant: touch, talk, and rumble. She tells me the language of touch is a form of writing for intimacy and secrets. I like the way it feels when we trunk touch. The language of talk is for everyday stuff, like when Mubwa tells me it is time for lessons, the hay is here, or tells me to come to fetch a banana.
Occasionally, we hear the rumbling of distant herds from outside the compound. Mubwa calls back, but the others do not come to us. Mubwa says it is damn peculiar that I can speak the language of the humans. She has never met another elephant that can do so.
I have learned the human language from Ms. Bixen, the lady of the plantation, and Mahout, the trainer. I cannot speak fast, the way people talk to one another. The words do not form in my mind nor fall off my tongue so quickly, but I hear their words and understand some of their meanings.
I have also learned much from a flatscreen that shows things outside the compound. I watched the humans and learned how to turn the flatscreen on and off. I would watch it when the humans went to the outside. The flatscreen once showed me a creature called a lion. I learned that a herd of lions is called a pride. The pride of lions attacked an elephant much larger than myself and made that elephant disappear forever. Mubwa said that I was safe from lions in the compound. And I do not watch the flatscreen anymore.
Mahout says that I am a designer species. When I asked him what designer meant, he said, “You are worth a lot of money.” When I asked him what worth a lot of money meant, he said, “It means that you are a status symbol,” but I didn’t know what that meant, either. When I asked him what a status symbol was, he said, “You are not meant to live on the outside, either in the world of elephants or the world of humans. Just be nice to Ms. Bixen’s guests and do what she asks, and you will lead a long, happy life.”
I don’t see Ms. Bixen much except when she has guests over. On those occasions, I am made to say words in the human language, though her guests seem to talk at me, not with me. I say a few utterances and do some silly tricks. When they all laugh, I flap my ears and bounce from one front leg to another to pretend I am enjoying this trite demonstration because that is what I am supposed to do. My speech amuses most of her guests to no end, but it frightens a few greatly.
One night, one of Ms. Bixon’s lady guests said, “You are so privileged to have a designer species, but aren’t they illegal now?” Ms. Bixen said, “No. It’s only illegal to let them breed with natural species. Technically, he shouldn’t be allowed with the matriarch.” Ms. Bixen leaned toward the woman and whispered, “I don’t think there is much danger of that, but let’s keep this between you, me, and the fence post.” I did not understand the meaning of the word illegal and struggled to fathom why the two women would share information with a fence post. Another guest said, “Let’s not talk about the elephant in the room.” And they all laughed tremendously. But at least they stopped asking me to do baby talk and went on to talk about the “Death Star,” saving what little remains of wild places and investing in something called the economy. I don’t have enough context to understand these lofty topics.
I spend most of my time playing with Kuchota. He is a simple creature that follows me around like a duckling follows its mother. He does not speak words I understand, but I can always read his intentions. His tiny legs quiver in anticipation of the sticks and balls I throw for him. When I tire of the game, we swim in the pond, and I spray water into Kuchota’s unexpecting face. He never learns. His angry barking at my betrayal delights me to no end.
When Kuchota languishes in the hot afternoon, Mahout feeds and grooms me. He tells me of other places and elephants he has known from a distant place called Jaipur in India. He said the Indian elephants are different from the African elephants here. I told him that Mubwa says I am different from her herd and asked Mahout if I was an Indian elephant. He laughed and said, “No, you are a Tembo. A small elephant. The only Tembo I know of live in a park called Kruger in South Africa.” Kruger is a word I remember from before the time of the Bixens.
On most nights, Mubwa tells me the stories of her days as the matriarch of a large herd. She describes her life outside the compound of the plantation, of playing with the many young ones, and of great travels across savannah, jungle, mountains, lakes, and rivers. The herd traveled hundreds of miles in the backcountry for food, water, and mates. She tells me how she dug for water and how to take down trees for their fruits and leaves. She talks of exhausting wanderings with creatures I have only seen on the flatscreen, sometimes fighting off vicious, hungry animals. She chokes with sadness when she relives the tragic stories of her herd obliterated by men that made thunder with sticks. Despite her anguish, she says it is vital that someone carries the memory of her family.
Mubwa insists that I remember the details of her travels though I do not know why she bothers. I have not been outside the compound since the day I arrived, nor do I wish to leave it. I remember the dark cages, the bad smells, and the loneliness of being isolated in a cell. I have heard the dark stories of Mubwa and seen the dangers of the lion on the flatscreen. I am more afraid than curious. I asked Mubwa if she traveled to Kruger Park in South Africa, but she did not know of such a place. It is the only place I am curious about because there might be other Tembo like myself. I might even find my mother.
I saw very little of Mr. Bixen in my eight years on the plantation. When he came to the plantation, Mr. Bixen and Ms. Bixen would shout loudly at one another, and then he would leave. After one of their yelling sessions, Ms. Bixen started calling herself Ms. Bixen instead of Mrs. Bixen. She said she would divorce soon and wanted to get into the habit.
I didn’t understand her meaning. When I asked Mahout what divorce soon meant, he said, “They don’t like each other anymore. They will pay lawyers a lot of money to argue against one another on their behalf. I don’t think we will see Mr. Bixen anymore.”
Ms. Bixen had many tears and spent long hours staring into space when Mr. Bixen died. For elephants, tearing is good health, but for humans, not good. Mahout told me to die meant he would never return, and Ms. Bixen was very sad. I did not feel much of anything when I learned he would never return.
Mubwa had told me about grieving and dying when she talked about her herd. She told me about trunk touching the body to keep the memory of the lost soul. I saw Ms. Bixen look at a picture of Mr. Bixen. And then she smashed it on the floor. The glass splattered into a thousand pieces. She shouted at it just as if he were here and still alive. I think she was trying to destroy the memory of Mr. Bixen, not keep it.
Not long after Mr. Bixen died, a man in a suit stopped by the plantation. He said he was from “The Nature Development Company.” I remembered the salesman that sold me to the Bixens was from the same human herd called “The Nature Development Company.” The man in the suit looked at me and touched me in ways that made me uncomfortable, tugging at my ear flaps and twisting my trunk roughly.
Ms. Bixen asked me to leave the veranda so she could talk to the man privately, but I could hear the conversation from a distance. I overheard the man say, “The livestock is in good condition, and I will give you better than a fair price for it and the plantation.” Ms. Bixen did not answer, and after some hesitation, the man said, “The alternative is a lawsuit. You will lose the livestock for sure and maybe even the plantation. Let’s do this the easy way. It’s better for you, and it’s better for us.”
“What about Bidhaa?” she asked. The man said, “We discontinued the Intelliphant Product Line because of intellectual property rights disputes. Bidhaa was the last of his kind. Probably best to let him self-terminate. Shame him. Put him in isolation for a few days, and the end of life gene will express.”
I asked Mahout what this meant. He said, “Termination is the same as dying. Don’t you worry about it. Ms. Bixen will never agree to it.” but I saw the water come down his face before he looked away.
Ms. Bixen had the same tears when the man in the suit from the “Nature Development Company” left the plantation. It made me very uncomfortable. I wanted to cry, too, but I didn’t know why. I asked her, “Why are you sad?”
She said, “I don’t know how to explain, but things are happening beyond my control. That asshole husband of mine really screwed us over.” She stepped closer and rubbed my trunk like she was trying to remember a lost friend. She touched her cheek to mine and then ran off.
I did not like being touched like I was a body to grieve. I asked Mahout to explain why she did this. He softly said, “You are different. You are neither an elephant nor a person. In the times ahead, a lot of unfair things are going to happen. Listen very carefully to what I tell you now. You must remember this above all things. People and elephants feel sadness when they know they can’t change something unfair. Anger is what they feel when they think they can change something unjust. You have something built into your body called an end-of-life switch. You were built differently. Sadness can eat away at a person for a lifetime, but despair will kill Bidhaa dead in three days. Sadness and despair are lethal to you in ways they are not to anyone or anything else. Humans will tell you things to hurt you. You must never give in to sadness or despair. Choose anger if those are your only two options. You must fight for your life. You cannot stay here anymore.”
I remember the words, but the advice made no sense. I nodded yes like I understood, but I did not. Where was I supposed to go? Why would I be sad? Why should I be angry? I didn’t feel sad or angry, just confused. Why would I have to fight for my life? Everything is so peaceful here. I know it had something to do with that man. I did not like him. I did not like the feeling of not knowing.
Mubwa told me the feeling of not knowing is called angst. It didn’t feel like home when I had this feeling. I hoped the bad man that brought angst would never come back. I told her what Mahout had said. She told me I must go to the wilderness south of here and made me repeat her stories about survival. The humans call the territory “Nyere National Park.”
Later that evening, more men from the company came with a trailer. They prodded me into the trailer. I tried to say cute things that made Ms. Bixen’s guests laugh, but I was zapped every time I said something. Ms. Bixen came into the trailer. She did not come close, and two men stood between us with shocking sticks. She shouted, “Because of you, I had to fire Mahout. You’ve ruined his career and made him a miserable man.” I lowered my head to reflect the shame. “Mr. Bixen worked himself to death because of you, working so hard to pay for your food, and all you do is play with that stupid dog.” Even in the darkness, I could see that she was fighting off the tears. She blubbered, “You are not an elephant and you aren’t a human. You don’t belong anywhere. You are worthless and don’t deserve to live.” Ms. Bixen ran from the trailer, and the men backed out, never taking their eyes off me.
They shut the door behind them, leaving me in complete darkness. I felt the pain stab at my heart. A wave of sadness swept over me, and I crumbled to my four knees. Mahout said humans would say things to hurt me. I did not think Ms. Bixen would be one of those humans. She was my caretaker and the matriarch of our little herd for the last eight years. I am only nine years old. Mugwa had told me of her pain at losing her herd. I tried to imagine it before, but this was the first time I felt it cut through my heart like a bull elephant sitting on my chest. But I didn’t believe Ms. Bixen’s words. Her lies made me angry. I stood up, walked to the door, stood on my hind legs, and tried to push it open with all my weight. The door didn’t budge. I tried again and again for hours. Desperation is an odd mix of anger and despair. I went into a corner to lie down and cry.
And then the door creaked open. I heard Mahout whisper, “Ssh. Be quiet. Follow me.” It took a minute for the surrender of hopelessness to fade enough to give me the strength to rise. Mahout whispered, “Hurry. Damn it. We don’t have all night.”
It was night time. He said, “Walk quietly.” In so much as an elephant can tiptoe, I followed him to a back gate of the compound. He let me out. He said, “This is the best I can do. I can’t take you because there is nowhere I could hide you and the roads aren’t safe. You will have to get yourself to Nyere. Follow the roads and travel at night. Stay off the roads in the daytime.” He pointed south in the direction of the park, the same as Mubwa had told me. “Get lost or you will get dead. Now go.” There was no goodbye. He closed the large gate, and I was standing outside the compound alone under the light of a half moon. It was the loneliest feeling I have ever had, running from a life that no longer existed. Mugwa said it was a two-day hike from here to the park if I kept up a brisk pace. I didn’t know what else to do. So I started walking. I crossed through the rows of coffee trees, grabbing at the branches and eating as I walked. I crossed a paved road onto a dirt road. In the distance, I heard Kuchota bark. I imagined the barking getting closer and louder. And then Kuchota was walking at my side, wagging his tail and panting. I never believed I could be so grateful for the companionship of this so-easy-to-please beast.