This is my second attempt at an “Origin Scene,” as prescribed by “Story Genius.” The assignment after the “Origin Scene” is to create three “Turning Point” scenes. When I started the turning point scenes, the original origin scene seemed too late in the story, so I started about as early as you can start in a story.
Origin Scene. The objective is to establish the protagonist’s worldview before the story begins. The “Origin Scene” motivates the protagonist’s thinking: why does the protagonist have the belief or worldview they will have in the story?
- What does the protagonist go into the scene believing?
- Why does the protagonist believe it?
- What is the protagonist’s goal in the scene?
- What does the protagonist expect?
Here goes again.
I remember my first steps. I stumbled and fell to the ground before I managed to keep my feet under me. Water drops fell from the sky. I smelt a comforting smell that I was drawn to. I now recognize that smell as elephant, maybe even my mother. Could I identify the owner by its memory?
I heard shouting and a sharp prod in my hind quarters. I was pushed into a crate into which I barely fit, and it went dark like I was being unborn. I thrashed in my container, but I didn’t have the strength to break out of it. I did not have enough room to turn around.
The cage rattled and bounced. I thought I would fall over again many times. I didn’t have enough space to fall over. I smelt foul odors that burned my eyes and breathed dust so thick I coughed and coughed so hard I thought my lungs were coming out of my throat. When the rattling stopped, I heard the words of humans, “I have an Intelliphant here from Kruger.” I did not know then that the place I was sent to was Nairobi. I now know Kruger is a place farther than the greatest migrations of elephants.
The top opened, and the brightness hurt my eyes. A man pushed a milk bottle toward my head. I instinctively pulled it into my mouth and drank until it was empty. It soothed my throat, and the empty feeling in my stomach disappeared. I wanted desperately to get close to the man with the bottle, but the cage lid closed when the milk was gone, and I was in darkness again.
The container opened once again. Two men with painful sticks led me from one crate to another. The ground was hard and cold in the cage. The light was dim. I found it difficult to sleep. Strange sounds frightened me, and acrid burning odors smelling like my urine permeated the air. I wanted to hide but could only curl up against the cage bars in one of the corners. My whole body felt nauseous. I thought I would go to sleep and never wake up.
I was in the cage alone for a long time. I despaired for the comfort of another. Men came to the cell. I heard one say, “Bidhaa?” Another answered, “Yes.” One of the men entered and walked over to me. He inspected my trunk, twisting it in ways I did not like, and spread my eyes open, unhappy with how bloodshot they had become, but I did not move from my prone position. He patted me on my head in a comforting way. I lifted my head and said, “Bidhaa.” The man laughed, repeated “Bidaa,” and stroked my trunk. I thought that was my name. It wasn’t until later that I learned that “Bidhaa” means product. Despite my wretchedness, I managed to sit up.
The man pointed to himself and said, “Trainer,” but I did not respond.
When the man left, I could feel my heart sink like a rock in a pond. But he came right back with a bright green ball. He rolled it around under his foot and then moved it from one foot to another. I watched, mesmerized by the toy. Trainer allowed me to touch the ball with my trunk and push it around, but when I stood up, he took it away. When I tried retrieving it from him, the man shouted, “No!” He pointed to himself and said, “Trainer.” He grasped my throat gently with his hand and said, “Say it. Trainer.” He waited and then said again, “Trainer.”
I shook my head from side to side anxiously, not understanding what he wanted me to do and desperately wanting to see that ball again. He squeezed my throat harder and moved his hand like he wanted me to swallow, saying, “Trainer.” Finally, I understood his meaning and uttered something like “Trainer.” He smiled and scratched me on the back of my head. Then he pointed to me and said, “Bidaa. Bidaa.” The name had stuck, and I repeated it back to him. The man dropped the ball to the ground and kicked it at me. I watched the ball bounce off the cage’s bars and bounce back. The man had to show me how to play. I chased after that ball for five or ten minutes before exhausting myself completely. I wanted to go over and cuddle up against the man, but each time he prodded me with a sharp stick and yelled, “No!”
I had no sense of time back then. I don’t know if I was in the cage for weeks, months, or even longer. But the lessons continued. I learned to speak in this way, trading language for toys. My favorite was the small pool where I would splash and play with an intertube. I learned “pool,” “ball,” “walk,” “eat,” “toy,” and many other words. I was never fed until Trainer was satisfied with my progress for the day.
I listened to the sounds of the workers who cleaned my cage and fed me. I did not know it then, but the workers spoke Swahili while Trainer taught me noun-verb English. I also learned words and watched images on a flatscreen which the humans turned on when they were not around to care for or teach me. It was a long time before I realized I was not a human, not understanding until later that the face in the reflection of the calm pool water was my own.
Then they started bringing in items that were not toys, like couches, chairs, and flatscreens. If I started to play with them, I was zapped and prodded. I learned to wait for Trainer’s signal on whether I was allowed to investigate the new object.
And then he started bringing in humans. If I approached the humans, I would be swatted. If they came to me and I backed away, I would be swatted. So I stood there without flexing so much as my trunk muscle. And still, I was swatted. I had to learn to read the minds of the humans in their gestures and facial expressions and show an appropriate response. If they smiled, I bobbed my head and flapped my ears like I was happy. If they looked angry, I would lower my head in deference. If they wanted me to be curious about something they wanted to show me, I would look interested trying to touch it with my trunk. I felt none of these things. If I was too clever or wordy, I was swatted. Mostly, they wanted me to utter simple words for their amusement. Only when they ignored me was I to become rigid as if happily anticipating their subsequent commands.
One day, Trainer said I was ready. I didn’t know what I was ready for. I was moved. When the truck stopped, I was chained with shackles about my ankles and led down a ramp into the outdoors. The light was blinding. I could not imagine a light so overwhelming. I had never seen the sun before. I was led into an enclosure and abandoned once again. I sniffed at the intoxicating mix of smells and listened to a symphony of sounds. I felt the soft dirt on the pads of my feet.
When my eyes finally adjusted to the intense light, I saw my first elephant, a massive creature in a neighboring pen. She smelt like but not quite the same as Mother. Seeing an elephant and remembering the reflection from the pool, I realized that I was a creature like these. The giant elephant approached and reached its trunk through the cage to touch and smell me. I was not trained in the expressions of elephants, but I recognized the gesture as one of curiosity. So returning the reach of its trunk with my I own, I said, “I am Bidhaa.”
The massive creature dropped its trunk and backed away from the fence. I recognized its new emotion as distrust. I could not help myself. I so wanted the attention of this creature that was my likeness. So I ran toward her, and she bellowed out in anger. I froze and lowered my head. In words I didn’t recognize then, she said, “Why is it that you speak the language of the humans?”
I did not know that I spoke the words of the humans. Over the days, I realized that just like humans, it is best to mimic the emotion of the other, even if that is not how you feel. I managed to strike up a cautious friendship with the beast. I learned that her name was “Kujuana.” Kujuana taught me my first words in elephant. She did not talk to me in the touch language I still had no knowledge of, but I did learn the elephant equivalent of the human handshake by trunk touching and sniffing.
Several humans came to visit. When they stood outside the gate of my enclosure, I overheard them. One human who said, “I am from the Nature Development Company,” wished to know whether the other humans wished to “buy” me. I did not know what the word meant, and it is precisely because I didn’t that I felt an uneasiness that was the same feeling I had when I ate disagreeable food.
It was only a short time in the outdoor pen before I met Mr. and Mrs. Bixen. When I said, “I am Bidhaa,” a look of astonishment crossed Mrs. Bixen’s face that I wasn’t sure how to respond to.
The salesman said, “Say hello to Mrs. Bixen.”
I dutifully replied, “Hello, Mrs. Bixen.”
Mrs. Bixen looked more eager than ever. She said, “Oh, Dennis, we simply must have Bidhaa.”
Mr. Bixen replied, “Of course, Karen. He will make a wonderful pet and companion for you when I am away.”
I read Mr. Bixen’s emotion as one of tolerance rather than happiness. I did not know how to respond, so I remained frozen.
The salesman said, “Let’s return to my office to do the paperwork.”
Doing the paperwork meant the end of my brief stay with Kujuana. Even though Kujuana did not understand the language of the humans, she understood that I would be leaving. The gestures of hello and goodbye are the same in Elephant. We touched and sniffed one last time. The word for goodbye in elephant means, “I will remember you if we meet again.” It was the last time I saw Kujuana.
Picture by Craiyon