Opening Scene

Reading Time: 14 minutes

Author’s Notes: This is my attempt at an opening scene for the (tentatively titled) “Laws of Nature” as prescribed by “Story Genius.” The writing is not expected to be flawless or even complete at this point. What the opening scene must accomplish is:

  • Define the overarching plot problem. 
  •  Identify the main ticking clock. 
  •  Establish the protagonist’s worldview that will be challenged throughout the story.

I was born from a container but was trying not to die in one. The men from the Nature Development Company, the NDC, had forced me into this steel crate with electric prods, and I had no way out. It was pitch black and cramped. They left me with no food or water. They left me to die without having to do the dirty work.

But the worst was Ms. Bixen. She told me that I had failed as a product to deliver her either happiness or satisfaction. I was devastated by her betrayal. I have lived on Ms. Bixen’s tea and coffee plantation for seven years, entertaining her party guests with stupid tricks and my ability to speak human. I have always done my best to ensure they are entertained and their curiosity satisfied. 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 I was manufactured to please my product owner for whatever serves their purpose. My speech amused most of her guests, but I heard one man whisper to a woman that I was a soulless creature. The couple did not express anger but kept their distance from me.

My failure to engage the couple concerned me, so afterward, I asked Mahout why the man called me a soulless creature. Mahout was the hovering, metallic human figure that took care of me. Ms. Bixen called him a Guardian drone caretaker. Mahout had a way of explaining things to me in a way that made sense. Mahout explained that the man wanted to justify his right to despise me by denying that I have an inner life. I rejected this explanation because I had demonstrated my inner life with my performance. Besides, I had never seen this couple before, and they had no reason to hate me.

One night, one of Ms. Bixen’s lady guests said, “Bit of a white elephant, isn’t he? Does he do anything practical?”

Ms. Bixen growled, “Bidhaa is nothing but a pleasure.” She stroked my trunk affectionately like Mubwa, the matriarchal elephant who raised me, often did. She continued, “Bidhaa is one of the main attractions at the farm and brings in the most exciting guests and patrons. I couldn’t imagine running our plantation without him.” I was quite pleased that I was of service to Ms. Bixen.

The lady said, “The coffee and tea business must be pretty damn lucrative. You are so privileged to have a designer organism, 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 our African elephant, Mubwa.” 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. They stopped asking me to do baby talk and went on to conversations about the “Death Star,” saving what little remains of wild places and investing in something called the economy. I needed more context to understand these lofty topics, so they lost interest in me. I was concerned with failing to engage her guests. Ms. Bixen dismissed me, saying I performed excellently. She told me how wonderful I was, and that was all I cared about. I retreated into the invisibility of her lost attention.

Later, Mahout explained that a white elephant is a coveted status symbol, expensive to maintain, and challenging to dispose of. It told me to keep charming the guests, and I would be worth to Ms. Bixen every afro she paid for me. It said it was a privilege to be a white elephant and I would have a long, happy life.

Mr. Bixen was the one dark cloud in our bright sky. I saw very little of Mr. Bixen in my seven years on the plantation. But when he came to the plantation, Mr. Bixen and Ms. Bixen would shout loudly at one another, Ms. Bixen would cry, and then he would leave. After one of his visits, Ms. Bixen started calling herself Ms. Bixen instead of Mrs. Bixen. She said she would divorce soon and wanted to get into the habit. 

Mahout subsequently told me divorce meant leaving your herd for good to go live somewhere else. When I asked Mahout why anyone would leave their herd, it said, “They don’t like each other anymore to the point where looking at the other is painful. They will pay lawyers a lot of afros to argue against one another on their behalf so they don’t have to see one another.” I did not feel much of anything when I learned Mr. Bixen would never return. 

It all changed when Mr. Bixen died. Mahout explained that dying was a lot like being decommissioned. Of course, I didn’t understand what that meant either, but Mahout said that its hive would eventually be turned off and replaced by newer, more advanced models. Mahout found it strange that biologics manufactured their own replacements. It said the newer biological models were called children, but in its estimation, they did not seem like upgrades. I asked it if I would someday make my own replacement. It told me it was illegal for a designer to do so, which sounded okay since I did not want to be replaced by an upgrade. 

Ms. Bixen had many tears and spent long hours staring into space when Mr. Bixen died. For elephants, tearing is good health, but it means something is wrong for humans. Ms. Bixen was very sad. 

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 friend. 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 like when he was here and still alive. I think she was trying to destroy the memory of Mr. Bixen, not keep it.

An NDC man stopped by not long after Mr. Bixen died. Ms. Bixen and the man talked on the veranda, where Ms. Bixen entertained her guests. She did not allow me to engage the man, but I overheard the man say, “The livestock is in good condition and has some resale value. I will give you better than a fair price for it and the plantation, including the old elephant.” Ms. Bixen did not answer, and after some hesitation, the man said, “Your husband left you with a huge debt. Your only assets are the plantation and the livestock. We will even let you stay here and manage the plantation for a salary. If you don’t accept our offer, you will lose both, and your credit rating might as well be zero. Let’s do this the easy way. Keep the lawyers and accountants out of this. It’s better for us, and it’s better for you.” 

“What about Bidhaa?” she asked. My ears perked up.

The man said, “His last product license renewal was a month ago, just before Mr. Bixen’s death. The product license won’t expire for another two years from that date. He is yours until then. If you choose not to renew, his end-of-life, product obsolescence gene will express.”

I did not know what “expire” and “obsolescence” meant, but I didn’t like their sound, even before Mahout explained their meaning to me later. It told me that I was legally the property of Nature. If no one paid the renewal feed and the product license expired, I had a unique gene that would decommission me unless the NDC gave me a booster vaccine. It said my unique genes made me a designer product, an Intelliphant® different from other Tembo. When I told Mubwa I didn’t like being unique, she told me that being unique kept me from getting eaten by lions or shot by hunters.

Ms. Bixen asked the NDC man, “Mr. Bixen always handled those things. How much will that cost?”

“One hundred thousand afros. Same as always.”

“Oh, dear. I don’t have that kind of money. Would you include the renewal fees in your offer?”

“No, ma’am. I’m sorry, but you don’t have any leverage to negotiate, and I was not given permission to change the offer. Consider the NDC offer best and final.”

“Two years. My god. I can’t afford the two-year maintenance, let alone the license renewal fees. Damn, you, Mr. Bixen. How could you? I should have finalized the divorce and separated our assets when I had the chance.” I heard Ms. Bixen starting to cry. She sobbed, “I don’t have that kind of money.” Through her sniffling, I heard her say, “What other options do I have? Would you repurchase Bidhaa from me?”

“Sorry, ma’am. As the ‘Property of Nature’ viral branding on his flank indicates, we already own Biddha. But, your contract requires you to handle all disposition fees and processes. We don’t really want him back. We discontinued the Intelliphant® Product Line because of the endless intellectual property rights disputes. Bidhaa was the last of his kind. If you can’t afford to maintain him, I think self-termination is best. It’s a simple process. Shame him. Put him in isolation and darkness for a few days, and the premature disposition gene will express.”

Ms. Bixen said, “Oh my. I don’t think I could do that. A few days is a long time to suffer. It sounds so inhumane. Bidhaa is like family.” 

“We could do it for you, but it would cost fifty thousand afros.”

She gasped and said, “Why so much?”

The man answered, “Veterinarian fees. Coroner fees to certify the legal cause of death. Final disposition fees. Attorney fees for filing the death certificate. It all adds up.”

Ms. Bixen stared into the distance, though I don’t think she was looking at anything in particular.

I was pretty alarmed at this talk and didn’t like the man at all. I didn’t understand afros so well, but it sounded like she would consider doing those things to me if she had had enough of them. I wanted to find the afros and hide them from her. Still, I dismissed his words, thinking they were like what I heard on the flatscreen. Mahout explained that the flatscreen is a way to learn how things might happen without having them happen to you. 

I had watched the humans and learned how to turn the flatscreen on and off. I would turn it on 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. On the flatscreen, I saw a pride of lions attack an elephant much larger than myself, and the lions decommissioned that elephant forever. I was horrified and ran to Mubwa for comfort. Mubwa said I was safe from lions as long as I stayed in the compound. I stopped watching the flatscreen and vowed never to leave the safety of the walls. 

Mubwa has been like a mother to me, though I didn’t meet her until I was a couple of years old. I always thought my mother was a container. My first memories were of standing on all fours in the dark womb of a box in the belly of a truck. I choked on the fumes of gas and the dust rising from the ground, jolted by the potholes and ruts of the unpaved road, unable to lie down in the cramped quarters. When the rough ride ended and the package was delivered, I glimpsed my first rays of painful sunlight. I remember hearing men yelling, “Bidhaa. Bidhaa. Hapa.” I thought my name was Bidhaa and have gone by that name ever since. When I was educated enough to question its meaning, Mahout explained that Bidhaa is the Swahili word for product. Mahout explained that it, too, was a product and that we had both been manufactured in South Africa and shipped to Tanzania to serve the Bixens.

Mubwa called me an orphan, which she said is a name for one that does not have a mother, though it does not seem that way with her around. She told me I was not manufactured but had a real mother somewhere. She said my mother might still be alive where I came from. Mubwa has always been a mother to me. She said 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 with Mahout, Mubwa, and Kuchota, the dog.

Mubwa has taught me the three languages of the elephant: touch, talk, and rumble. She told 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 or to come to eat hay or a banana bunch. 

Occasionally, we heard the rumbling of distant herds from outside the compound. Mubwa called back, but the others did not come to us. Mubwa said it is damn peculiar that I can speak the language of the humans. She had never met another elephant that could do so. 

Ms. Bixen had little use for me when she was not entertaining her guests. I spent most of my time playing with Kuchota. He is a simple creature that follows me like a duckling following 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. We swim in the pond when I grow tired of the fetch game. I spray water into his trusting face every time. He never learns. His angry barking at my treachery delights me to no end. 

When Ms. Bixen spoke again, she said, “Can I release Bidhaa in Nyerere Park or a sanctuary?”

“Not legally. Tanzanian law forbids the release of designers like Bidhaa or even ecogenetically engineered organisms (EEOs) like the Tembo into the wild. You can’t even sell them here.”

“What do you mean? We bought him here from you, didn’t we?” 

“Ten years ago when it was legal. The “Keep Tanzania Wild Act” forbids selling designers in Tanzania anymore. Bidhaa was grandfathered in under the new law. You could take him to Mozambique or South Africa. Mozambique is closer, but you would have to find a buyer. In South Africa, there are other Tembo on the Kruger reserves. He could even live with the herd he was sourced from. The South African government pays for all of their licensing fees.”

I was intrigued. The man said I came from a herd in Kruger. I didn’t know where Kruger was, but I wanted to find out. Maybe I had a mother there like Mubwa said.

Ms. Bixen seemed interested, but the man dissuaded her. He said, “However, the trafficking of large animals across international borders is legally tricky, with enormous tariffs, and someone would still have to pay the license renewal fees when the time comes. International processing would be even more expensive than termination on a million afro product like your Intelliphant®. You would be better off just shooting him.”

“Could I do that?”

Her voice sounded cheery. My jaw nearly fell off my face. I knew what shooting was. Mubwa had told me what happened to many of her herd and how they died from the thunder sticks, as she called them. I must have heard Ms. Bixen wrong. I couldn’t imagine she would contemplate doing such a thing to me. I wanted to run to Mubwa, but I had to keep listening.

The man answered, “Legally, no. It could be considered poaching, and its penalties are very harsh. You don’t want to risk twenty years in prison, do you? I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t mean shoot him literally. It’s just an expression.” 

At least, that was a relief. The NDC man left. Still, I wanted to cry. I thought of the terrible things that could happen, just like in Mubwa’s stories. I decided to confront Ms. Bixen. I approached her on the veranda. She was staring off into the emptiness of the sky again. I asked, “What will happen to our herd?”

Ms. Bixen never looked at me. She said, “I don’t know how to explain, Bidhaa, but things are happening beyond my control. That asshole husband of mine really screwed me over. I’d kill him myself if he wasn’t dead already.” 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 wanted to hide behind Mubwa for comfort, but I ran to Mahout for explanations instead. 

Mahout explained that designer biologics have something inside them called the premature disposition gene. He warned me not to succumb to sadness or despair because the premature disposition gene would express and kill me in three days. 

Then Ms. Bixen came to me with the electric prod toting NGC men. They prodded me into the trailer. Despite the pain, I tried to say the cute things that made Ms. Bixen’s guests laugh. I was zapped every time I spoke. 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 return Mahout. You’ve ruined my career and made me a miserable woman.” I lowered my head to reflect my 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. 

Sitting in the stillness of my tomb, I was determined not to make it that easy for Ms. Bixen and the NDC to decommission me because Ms. Bixen couldn’t afford to pay for my upkeep and licensing fees. Still, I might have given up if not for Kuchota’s howling and scratching on the metal casket I was trapped in.

I rumbled to ask for help. I knew the humans couldn’t hear the rumblings, and they would not attract their attention. No one answered my rumblings. I stood up, squeezing my way 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. 

Kuchota’s barking and pawing stopped. When Kuchota gave up on me, my hope vanished, and a wave of sadness swept over me. I crumbled to my four knees. Desperation is an odd mix of anger and despair. The shame of displeasing Ms. Bixen burned in my brain. I had no value to her anymore. I realized I was a burden. I had failed my purpose as a product to bolster the ego and status of Ms. Bixen.

Mubwa had told me of her pain at losing her herd. I had tried to imagine it as she told the stories, but this was the first time I felt real hurt cut through my heart like a bull elephant sitting on my chest. My energy left me, and my eyes dried. I hadn’t believed all that talk about premature disposition and product end-of-life genes until now. I could feel the disease within me. I realized I was going to die, and I could do nothing to save me from myself.

I heard the ripping of metal. And then the door creaked open. I looked up and said, “Mubwa?”

Mubwa reached in, and with her trunk, she said in touch, “Ssh. Be quiet. I would have been here sooner, but I had to silence that damn dog. Follow me. We don’t have much time.” It took a minute for the surrender of hopelessness to fade enough to give me the strength to rise. Mubwa touched, “Hurry. Damn it. We don’t have all night.”

I followed her to a back gate of the compound. She let me out. She touched, “This is the best I can do. I can’t take you because I am too old and slow. You will have to get yourself to Neyere. Find yourself a herd that you can run with. Remember all the stories I have told you about lions, hyenas, and poisonous snakes. Follow the roads and travel at night. Stay off the roads in the daytime. They aren’t safe. Don’t trust anyone until you get to Neyere. It is a strenuous two-day hike from here to the park.” She pointed south in the direction of the park. 

I said, “I’m not leaving here without you.”

She said, “Get lost or you will get dead. Now go!” 

I started toward her, but she raised her tusks as if to charge. I could see in the wildness of her eyes that she was serious.

There was no goodbye. Mubwa closed the large gate, and I stood 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. 

I didn’t know what else to do. So, I started walking toward Neyere in the direction Mubwa had indicated. 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. Mubwa told me to trust no one, but I would be decommissioned by an end-of-life gene in two years if I could not find someone to pay my licensing fees. I would have to do more than trust someone. I would have to find someone who valued me enough. I thought of living in a herd with my mother in Kruger, if I had a mother in Kruger. But I did not know how to get there. I didn’t even know where it was.

In the lost distance, I heard Kuchota bark. I fought the urge to feel sadness. 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. We set off in the moonless dark together, following the road Mubwa said would lead to Neyere.

Author’s Notes: Let’s see how I did. What do you think?

  • Is the overarching plot problem unavoidable? Will it escalate?
  •  The main ticking clock? What are the stakes?
  •  The protagonist’s worldview that will be challenged throughout the story? Does it cost emotionally?

Featured image by Craiyon.


Reading Time: 10 minutes

 is my attempt at the third “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 third:

We used the smells of fresh water, animals, and elephants as our guide. Chini said the air held my smell, the smell of a Tembo. But there was also the smell of people, lots of them, so we moved under the cover of night. The scent of water led us to a watering hole, which we approached cautiously. Not because we were worried about lions but because the watering hole had bright lights surrounding it, and the smell of humans was strong. 

I said, “I hear the mumblings of people.”

Chini said, “Me too. Look up there.”

I looked. I could see the outline of human shapes on an elevated balcony in the tree line. Large shadows danced in the crowns of the trees behind them. I heard a voice much louder than the others ring out, saying, “Looks like we are in for a treat tonight, ladies and gentlemen. Observe two Tembo approaching from the North.” 

I told Chini, “They’ve already spotted us.” 

She paused, “Should we retreat?”

“I don’t think they have bad intentions. They are watchers, not hunters. They think you are a Tembo, too.”

Chini snorted. 

I said, “Think of it as a compliment.” 

She snorted again. 

The night air was crisp, and a mist hung over the water. In the fog, we saw shadowy images of warthogs, wildebeests, and gazelles drinking and grazing from hay feeders and bins without concern as we approached the watering hole. They were about half the size of those in Kyerere. They seemed relaxed enough, and there was no smell of a big cat. We hadn’t drunk for two days, so we risked it. We had our fill of water and hay before retreating into the darkness of the bush, not wishing to draw any more attention to ourselves than necessary. 

I heard the loud voice say, “What a treat for our visitors. Never a dull moment here at Kruger with the Nature Development Company.”

I told Chini, “We have to go. Nature Development Company is here.”

We ducked under the cover of the bush, And when we were safely away, I told Chini, “The man says we are at Kruger!”

Chini let out a massive sigh of relief. She said, “Finally. Let’s see if we can find your herd. I smell Tembo that way.”

In the morning, we approached another watering hole. The scene was even more chaotic than the night before. I saw a creature with a long pointy horn where its trunk should be. Chini told me it was called a rhinoceros and was not a trunk but a horn, more like a tusk than a snout. We saw miniaturized water buffalo, wildebeest, impala, and zebra. Drones flew overhead like a drunken flock of birds heading in every direction but never seeming to collide. Guardian drones stocked the hay feeders. In the distance, we could see an elevated platform with hundreds of humans watching over the watering hole. On the far side of the platform, moving jeeps lifted clouds of dust that drifted on the breeze before falling back to the ground.  

We saw a dozen or more Tembo playing at the water’s edge. The apparent serenity of the playing and bathing Tembo bolstered our confidence. Seeing the objective of the journey before us, nothing short of a pride of lions could have stopped me from interacting. 

As we approached, I noticed the brand on the side of the Tembo, the same as the markings on my side, “Property of Nature.” Disturbingly, I saw the same markings on all the animals. I surmised that humans from the “Nature Development Company” were also after them and that this was a safe place to hide from them. 

I spoke English to the closest Tembo when we reached the water’s edge. I said, “Hello there.” A few Tembo looked over but immediately returned to bathing and spraying. So I said again, “Hello there. Can we join you?” I looked at Chini and cocked my head because I couldn’t explain their indifference.

Chini said, “Maybe they don’t understand English.” She turned to the herd and said, in ordinary Elephant, “Hello there. We have come a long way to meet you. Do you mind if we join you?”

All the Tembo stopped what they were doing. The closest to us approached us as if this occurred every day. He said, “Good day to you. I am Maonyesho Matutu.” He looked Chini over and said, “Oh my, you are a rather large one. I have only seen large ones like you in cages. I didn’t think you were allowed on display.”

Chini said, “I have a funny feeling about this.”

I ignored her. I had the same funny feeling when I met her family in Kyerera. Besides, I was too exuberant to think about it. For a moment, I was no longer alone in the world. Despite Chini pulling at my tail like she did when I ran into the river without looking for signs of crocodiles, I ran over to Maonyesho Matutu and nearly purred. “My name is Bidhaa, and this is Chini. We’ve traveled two thousand miles to meet you.” 

The others surrounded me, trunk touching and introducing themselves. “I am Maonyesho Mawili,” said one. “I am Maonyesho Tisa,” said another. “I am Maonyesho Kumi,” said a third. They were all named Maonyesho.

“Your tribe is called Maonyesho?” I asked. They looked back and forth at one another like they were waiting for someone to offer an answer. I wanted them to call me Maonyesho Bidhaa, but I knew it was too soon to ask.

Still standing off to the side, Chini asked, “Who is the matriarch?”

Maonyeso Kumi asked, “What is a matriarch?”

Chini responded, “You know. The leader of your group.”

“Mahout is the leader of our group.”

“Mahout?” I cried out. “He is here.”

“Yes,” they replied. “He is right there.”

A guardian drone hovered to one side of Chini, then the other. When Chini took a couple of errant swats at it, the Maonyesos all gasped. The group lowered their heads, dropped their ears, and knelt on their front knees. I did the same.

Chini chastised me, “What’s wrong with you? Get up?”

I stood back up, but my head still sank at embarrassing myself in front of her. I tried to offer a credible rationalization. “Mahout trained me before I met you. Maybe this is his drone.”

Chini let out a high-pitched guffaw, all but calling me an idiot. She said, “They remind me of you when we first met. Deferential. Naive. Trusting.”

I reasoned it out. If that is how I was, and that is how the Maonyeso are, then that is how the Tembo should be. I said, “I am the same as they are.”

Chini bellowed at me. “Look at them. You have not come two thousand miles to defer to a man drone.” Then she growled at the Maonyesos. “Get up.” 

They followed her order as if the man drone had given it. 

Chini asked, “Matutu, who is your mother?” 

Matutu looked at her blankly as if trying to determine what answer would make her happy. 

Chini snorted, “Who gave birth to you? Who brought you into this world?” 

Matutu said, “Look over there.” Matutu pointed to a truck that was releasing young gazelles from crates. “I was born from a box. Just like those gazelles. We all were.”

I remembered coming from the box and the truck. I remember the smells of gas and choking on dust. I convinced myself that my memory of having moments before the box was the false memory of someone desperately wanting to belong and have roots. I even convinced myself that the Tembo smell of my mother that I remembered so vividly just days ago was my own. 

I was excited. It got the better of me. I moved away from Chini and practically danced into the middle of the herd. I conveyed the closeness I felt by announcing our shared heritage. “That is how I was born. From a box.”

Chini was livid. “Are you telling me we trekked two thousand miles to find a box?” She turned and headed away. I started chasing her, but she shouted, “Don’t.” She retreated to the sparse shade of a baobab tree. 

I was mad at her too, but I had many questions to ask of the Manonyeshos, so I let her go and sulk by herself, thinking she would come around. Before I was able to ask them a single question, Mahout returned. Mahout shouted an instruction, “Formation.” The Maonyeshos lined up one behind another, grabbing the tail of the one in front of them. 

Mahout flew over to me and said in English, “You have a problem finding the line today?”

I said, “No problem.”

Mahout said, “Who said that?” Mahout flew over and around me but didn’t get its answer. 

I took a position at the end of the line behind Maonyesho Ishirini Na Moja, a curiously long name. And so Mahout paraded the train toward the eager humans. The train stopped in front of the platform and performed. I was back on the veranda at Ms. Bixen’s all over again, doing stupid tricks and parroting human emotions. I heard a human say, “Wasn’t that amazing? They are so intelligent. Only an intelligent animal could keep a formation.”  

The performance ended at a newly stocked hay bin. The Mahout said in a monotone voice, “Great performance! You made your audience very happy. Enjoy a well-earned treat.” The metallic human drone was much different from the Mahout I knew. 

I looked back at the watering hole to check up on Chini. I was hoping she hadn’t watched that. I rumbled to her, “Come get something to eat.” 

She rumbled back, “Trouble. Run.” I saw a caravan of jeeps stopping near the Baobab tree. I shouted to the Maonyesho, “Quick. We have to go back and help Chini. She is in grave danger.”

Maonyesho Tano said, “No. I’m hungry, and I want to eat now.”

I looked back in Chini’s direction. The men in the jeeps surrounded her in a big circle. In a panicky voice, I said, “Please, we have to help her. Now. Come on. Let’s go.”

Maonyesho Tano said, “If you go over there, you will probably get shot yourself. Don’t worry. It’s probably just the vet. The vet takes care of us too. Or they move one of us to another place. One watering hole is as good as the next.” The others rumbled their assent.

I was angry at their indifference and perplexed by their lack of loyalty to their own herd. I didn’t know what a vet was but didn’t have time to wait for an explanation—the time for words had run out. I hustled to Chini as fast as my four legs would carry me. 

Chini wobbled and struggled with her balance like she had eaten too many fermented berries. Her legs nearly fell out from under her. She lowered herself to keep her legs beneath her, but her head was oddly twisted. I ran past the men and put myself between them and Chini. Chini lay down on the ground and said, “Tired. Head hurts. Spinning.” 

When they continued to approach Chini, I mock-charged a cluster of the men to drive them back. They retreated for a moment before again advancing on Chini. I yelled in English, “Stop! Leave Chini alone.”

I heard a man say into a small box, “It’s the talking one.” And then a voice in the small box said, “Take it down too.” I heard the thunder from their sticks and sharp pains in my sides and back. My vision grew foggy, and my head spun. I took the drunken walk and laid down next to Chini. That was my last memory of Kruger.

When I came to, it was dark. The ground was hard. I felt the walls that I pressed against. I recognized the hardness and coldness of metal. I realized I was in a container. I felt around in the dark with my trunk. There was enough room to stand up and about two body lengths from one end to the other. I did not feel or smell water or food, or another elephant. I grumbled to make sure, but only the darkness answered.

The Nature Development Company had me. Mahout would not be coming to save me. A wave of despair passed through my entire body. My eyes crackled. My head pounded. But I remembered the words of Mahout about how I could “get dead” in three days if I chose despair. The wave of nausea passed. I rumbled as deeply as possible, “Chini, are you there?” No response. I tried again, “Is anyone out there?” 

I heard the resounding rumble answer back through my feet on the cold floor. It said, “You are not alone.” 

I rumbled back, “I traveled far with one I cared for named Chini to find my past. I never found my home. If I die in here, hold the remembrance of Bidhaa.”

It rumbled back, “It is done.”

I took great solace in the acknowledgment. I laid back down on the icy floor, wondering if I would ever see the light again and what I would do with a second chance if I escaped. I closed my eyes and tried to picture the world where Bidhaa could hold his own thoughts and not have to run. I told myself it could only happen in my dreams.

I didn’t know how much time had passed. Maybe a day. Maybe two. My throat was painfully dry, and my stomach railed at its emptiness. The place stunk from my urine and excrement. 

The metallic creaking of the container doors opening startled me. The bright light hurt my eyes. I saw the silhouette of a woman standing in the doorway. She looked like an angel. I thought I might be dead.

But the woman said, “Bidhaa. My name is Moja. I know you can speak. Can I talk with you?”

I repeated, “Moja?”

I stood up. I read the surprise on Moja’s face as she stepped back. She said, “You are in much better health than I expected.”

I thought about charging the door, but I felt weak. I said, “Thirsty. Hungry.”

She said, “I will get you food and water if you let me. I am here to help you. Can we be friends?” 

Her face showed hopefulness. There was something I liked about Moja. She asked for permission instead of giving me orders. But I remembered what Chini said about me always being too trusting. I said, “Why trust?”

She said, “I know you’ve been through a lot and don’t know me. But I can answer many of your questions about who you are. In a way, Bidhaa, I am your mother.”

“Mother?” I approached her, and she didn’t back away. I could see her face trying to hide the fear. I sniffed at her and said, “You smell like a flower. My mother did not smell like you.”

“It is a long story. I will try to explain to you later, but first we have to get you out of here. Do you want to come with me?”

“Where is Chini?”

“Chini? Is she the one that was with you at Kruger?” 

“Yes. Where is Chini?”

Moja looked uncomfortable. She took a deep breath and answered, “I don’t know, but I promise you, we will do everything we can to find her. But we need to get you away from here right now. I have men with me that can take you to a safe place where we can give you food and water and have a vet examine you.”

I remembered what Maonyesho Tano said and repeated, “A vet takes care of us.”


“One watering hole is as good as the next.”

Moja shook her head, “I assure you, we will take you to a much better watering hole.”

I said, “Trust for now.”

Moja smiled, “I can’t ask for anything more.”


Reading Time: 9 minutes

This is my attempt at the second “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 second:

When the sky rumbled, it felt like it was talking to me through my feet, not in the language of elephant, but in a mysterious language I didn’t understand. The sky had been a constant companion for many days, and I was despondent when it stopped speaking because I knew it would take the water with it. Mubwa had told me the dry season is a dangerous time for elephants. 

Food was still available, and I felt safe deep in the thickets of the park, too deep for lions and men to hunt. But Juu, the matriarch of my adopted herd, said we must make it to the river before the worst of the heat set in or die of thirst and starvation. Juu told many stories of her journies and time at the river, of the enormous congregations of animals and dear friends lost to the hunters and lions. She shared the remembrance of her fallen comrades. She feared being so close to so many humans. She said most just watched and followed. But some were lethally dangerous, and she could not tell the difference between them until it was too late. 

She told us of a cold-blooded killer called a crocodile that lurked in the shallows of the river. She has seen a crocodile the length of two elephants but said a crocodile is not strong enough to take down a full-grown elephant. She warned the mothers to take every precaution because they would take a calf. If a crocodile tried, Juu told us to act quickly by stomping on the crocodile before it could take the calf to deeper water. She said the herd would lose the calf if the crocodile succeeded in moving the calf from the shore. I thought it unnecessary for her to frighten the young ones this way, but she told me fear would keep them alive, not delusion.

I’m bigger than a calf but only about half the size of the older cows and a third the size of a bull. Juu looked me over from head to toe, wary of my small size, then said, “You, I don’t know about. Not bull. Not calf. Maybe a big crocodile could take you.” She said, “Why don’t you grow?” 

“If it were up to me, I would. It’s not my choice.”

Juu wasn’t satisfied with my answer. She kept staring at me. She said, “You are more like one of those domesticated elephants that let humans ride on their shoulders. And act like one too. Too damn trusting.” Juu examined the scars on my flank and only said, “Damn peculiar.”

A mosquito had bit me grazing in the deep forest, something I scarcely even noticed then. But the itch grew worse, and I scratched myself against trees so hard I bled. When it stopped hurting, I had the most peculiar scar. Humans never taught me to read, but I saw the spot in the reflections of the still waters. It looked like human writing. The words expressed even more clearly after the wounds healed. I didn’t like it any more than Juu did. 

She repeated, “Damn peculiar. Everything about you is damn peculiar, and I don’t like peculiar. Why don’t you return to your herd?”

I said, “The matriarch of my herd tried to kill me, but I escaped. I may have another herd in Kruger, but I do not know where Kruger is.”

“Hmph,” snorted Juu. “An elephant of three herds?”

I didn’t say anything, but she was right. I ran from the herd of my past. I wasn’t getting a welcome feeling in the herd of my present. And Kruger was nothing more than the hopeful fantasy of a herd planted in my imagination by Mahout’s off-the-cuff comment about Tembo.

Juu continued her ruminations. “You left the herd that tried to kill you. If you endanger any of the herd, I will do the same. The only reason you are here is because Chini vouched for you. But she holds the least rank.”

Chini was the lowest-ranking and smallest cow in the herd. She was still larger than me. The lowest rank is a difficult life. When Juu became angry or irritated, she took it out on her immediate subordinates. They took their frustrations out on their direct subordinates, who took it out on their subordinates in a chain of displaced dissatisfaction. Only Chini had no one to deflect down to until I came along. She had vouched for me because she finally had someone to hold rank over. Still, I was grateful to her for accepting me. I had no aspirations to rank, and she took great comfort knowing she would not return to the lowest rank. 

We became good friends. We looked out for each other on the long march to the river. Being of the lowest rank, we would be the last, even after the calves, to receive water when the herd stopped to dig for it in the sandy ravines. While waiting, Chini sniffed water nearby, and I remembered what Mubwa had told me about digging. Chini and I took turns digging and drinking while watching out for the others so they wouldn’t discover us. I capped it the way Mubwa told me to do so we could drink again in the morning. We even made a pretense of disappointment when our turn came at Juu’s by then dry watering hole.

It took us a week of thirty-mile days to reach the river, but I immediately understood why we undertook the tiresome trek. I had never seen such an incredibly vast body of water, long and twisting like a rock python. After the long dry march, the water would be a welcome relief. The plants around the river were as lush as the forest in the rainy season. I could smell on the breeze the scents of many animals that I did not recognize. 

As soon as we reached the river’s edge, I plunged into the water and played like I was in the pond with Kuchota. Chini shouted, “Wait,” but she was too late. I wondered why all the others hesitated on the river’s edge. Juu looked up and down the shore and then at me. After a few minutes, she said, “No crocodiles.” She nodded, and the others took the plunge. I realized she had used me as crocodile bait and felt two sizes smaller than I was. Chini told me in touch-elephant, “You better be wiser if you want to live.” 

I had only seen a boat on the flatscreen before but instantly knew what it was. As the vessel approached, people stood on its deck, taking pictures of us as we sprayed and snorkeled about in the water. I looked towards them, flapping my ears and bobbing my head like I used to do on the veranda. I heard them say the exact words spoken by Ms. Bixen’s guests. “Isn’t he adorable? He looks so happy.” Chini tried to pull me back by the tail, but I knew what I was doing. If there was one thing I had learned, it was how to entertain humans. After all, I was a status symbol.

I saw other boats headed our way on the river. Juu ordered us out of the water and led us into the safety of the undergrowth like we were evading hunters. When she felt safe, we stopped. I wondered what the panic was for. Juu bellowed and charged, driving her thick forehead deep into my shoulder. She didn’t use her tusks to gore me, but my shoulder winced in pain under the heavy blow. She charged again, and I retreated, hiding behind the protection of a rock. She bellowed loud enough for all to hear, “Don’t ever draw the attention of the humans to the herd. They cannot be trusted. I said if you ever endangered the herd, I would kill you. I will keep my word.” And then all her subordinates took their turn berating me, including Chini. 

Chini came to me later at night when we laid down to sleep. In touch-elephant, she said, “I had to pretend to speak out against you.” 

I responded, “I know. But I know humans better than Juu does.” 

Chini said, “It doesn’t matter. Don’t cross Juu, or you won’t live to regret it.” 

I did not sleep that night. Sharp pains shot through my shoulder where Juu had struck me, and I was still furious that Juu had not allowed me to help the herd by making things good with the humans. I was angry that I had to let the rebuke slide. I knew Chini was right about the danger I had put myself in, but Juu was wrong about the risk with those humans. Their faces showed appreciation. I finally dismissed it as one of those unfair things Mahout had cautioned me about.

In the morning, we walked to an open field. As we grazed on the brush, more humans showed up to watch us from their jeeps. One jeep came too close, and one of Juu’s seconds chased it off. But humans weren’t so far away that I could not hear their words.

I overheard a woman say, “Honey, aren’t those words printed on the side of that small elephant? What does it say?”

Honey responded, “My dear, I think it is a brand. It says, Property of Nature. It must be a GMO.”

When the man said ‘Property of Nature,’ I froze. He had my complete attention even when Chini accidentally bumped into me from behind.

My Dear said, “I thought all the wildlife out here was wild. We paid top dollar for this damn safari. If we wanted to see designers, we could have gone to Kruger. Is this some kind of a joke? Honey, can we get our money back?”

Honey said, “Ask the guide.”

The guide said, “Madame, I assure you this is the only pristine wilderness left in Africa. Our tour company guarantees nothing but the best experience of authentic Africa. Tanzanian law forbids designers. About six months ago, a woman reported her Tembo missing. I think this must be it. I will report it when we get back to the camp.”

These people knew about Kruger. I ran toward the jeep. The driver raced the engine and backed up, but the noise didn’t frighten me. I stopped before the jeep and asked, “Where is Kruger?”

Honey and My Dear’s equipment dropped to their sides, and their mouths dropped to the ground. I recognized the look of astonishment but didn’t have time to pander to it. So I asked again, “Where is Kruger?”

“I’ll be damned,” said Honey. He pointed to the south and said, “If you are talking about Kruger National Park, it is about two thousand miles that way in South Africa.”

Guide said, “Hand me my walkie-talkie. I think the Nature Development Company will want to know about this.”

When I heard the words Nature Development Company, terror filled my gut. I stood there drooping like I was sad and playing to an audience. I didn’t know what else to do.

My Dear was tugging at Honey’s shoulder, saying, “Are you getting this on your camera? We’ve got to post this on social media.”

Juu trumpeted, making the sound to head for the thickets to escape danger. Her roar snapped me back into the moment, and I fled from the jeep. It didn’t occur to me that I was the danger until we were well out of sight of the humans.

Juu puffed herself up and flared. I heard some of the calves whimper. Juu spoke accusingly, “How is it that you speak the language of the humans?” She rumbled out the words so loudly that I’m sure they would be heard by every elephant in the park, “The herd is in grave danger because of you.” 

Juu was ready to charge. I knew that she would not lower her tusks this time when she rammed into me. I ran into some thick thickets. I heard Juu crashing through them behind me. It’s the one time in my life I was glad to be small. 

Fear carried me for miles through the bush along the banks of the river until it was near dark. I collapsed under the small trees behind some rocks. I was neither hungry nor thirsty but exhausted from the strain. Dark rose up over the river basin. I slept a false sleep, neither awake nor dreaming. A lone elephant in the wilderness doesn’t have much of a chance. In my visions, I saw Juu goring and ripping my side open with her tusks, the Nature Development Company pushing me into the pitch black of a metal container to wither away, lions dragging me to the ground and sinking their teeth into my neck, and crocodiles pulling me underwater for my last breath. 

When I woke, despair settled over me. I failed in the world of humans. I failed in the world of elephants. I could think of no world in which I could succeed. I lay motionless behind the rocks all day. I felt my eyes dry and my head pound with a fever.

In the evening, I heard something crashing toward me in the bushes. I struggled to lift my head to greet my end. Then I heard a voice call out, “Bidhaa, it’s me.”


Chini emerged from the scrub into the opening. I was never so glad to see a friendly face. Strength filled my legs. I ran to her, and we exchanged intimate greetings with our noses in touch elephant. My headache disappeared, and my eyes glistened with her comfort.

When we parted, I asked, “How did you find me?”

“It wasn’t easy. You must have run ten miles last night.”

“Why did you come?”

“Once you slipped away, Juu came back and wanted to hunt you down. But her seconds said it was wrong to kill. She was angry but said the humans or the lions would get you anyway. That’s when I decided I had to find you.”

“You took a terrible risk. You have to go back.”

“I don’t want to go back. I was miserable there until you showed up.”

“It’s not safe with me. I will get us both killed.”

“I came here for you, you stupid idiot. Maybe I will kill you if you try to send me back.”  

Even with her threat of murder, I had never felt so attracted to another being. We touched trunks again but said nothing. Nothing needed to be said. But such moments are fleeting under the demands of survival. We separated, and I said, “We have to go to Kruger, no matter how far it is. There is nothing for us here.”

Chini said, “I will follow you where ever you lead.”

And so we set out under the evening sky, a herd of two on a great migration to find a distant place called Kruger two thousand miles to the south.

Featured Image by Craiyon