I am a GMO elephant born in Africa, moved to America, until Matumaini launches to the Stars. I like to flap my ears, bounce back and forth from one front leg to another, and wander about the savannah gorging on delicious elephant grass. I speak guttural English, Swahili, and Tembo. In my spare time, I like to travel, take pictures, and write for this blog.
Author’s Note: See the first in this Astronomical Series:Totality
Day 1: 220 miles. Escondido to Kelso Dunes
“I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Annularity is totality’s brighter cousin in a rare competition where being dimmer is better. We aim to seek annularity in the backcountry of Nevada, an event predicted to occur on October 14th at 9:30 a.m. near Ely, Nevada. I wouldn’t have planned a trip so close in time to a trip I just finished. But a celestial event is on a rigorous schedule that you can’t slip to the right, no matter how skillfully you bargain with the cosmos or Sir Isaac Newton.
It’s already 2:30 p.m. before we launch and 550 miles to Ely. We, a convoy of two motorcycles and a Compact Prius, want to cover 220 miles of it to Kelso Dunes. There is no way to beat LA traffic this late in the afternoon. In Riverside County, the afternoon temperatures hit the low 90s. I’m expecting the cooler temperatures of San Diego County and the higher elevation of the desert. Long underwear is a poor wardrobe choice. The only way to beat the heat is to lane split through the on-again and off-again stalled traffic of the I-15, something I am loathe to do because it is the cause of so many motorcycle accidents, trying to wobble our way through cars and trucks. If the vehicles pay attention, they split like Moses parting the Red Sea. Sometimes, those two fearless classes of motorcyclists, the leather-bound speedsters in crotch rockets and the half-helmeted Harley riders in jean vests blaze through the stopped traffic like a hot knife through butter. I’m just trying not to get killed.
We fuel up at the Outlet malls in Barstow and wait for our Prius to catch up to us at a Del Taco, which boasts of being the original. A little research uncovers that the first Del Taco was at Yermo, just down the road, and that another Del Taco by Barstow Station is the oldest. But I digress.
An earthclipse occurs at about 6 p.m., completely dimming and obscuring the Sun and accurately predicted by scientists. We watch the Sun fade over the horizon, which means we will be night riding the hundred-plus miles to the Dunes. Riding up Kelbaker Road north from the I-40, the temperature drops into the upper 50s as we summit. The long underwear is a good choice now. Gearing up and gearing down is the ongoing battle of any long-distance bike ride. The only guideline I can go by is that the next road segment will not correlate with the previous one because of the altitude, the time of day, changing weather conditions, and even traffic conditions.
We head down the dirt road that fronts the Kelso dunes, looking for a spot to camp, a challenging feat in the dark. One that I’m not up to. I see an open area on the side of the road that isn’t marked with a no camping sign. I slow down to see it better in the dark, hit a sandy spot, and drop the bike. It is a slow-motion fall, and I walk off the bike as it goes down—just like old times.
The campsite is just down the road, though. They’ve added vault toilets since the last time I was here Singing Dunes, a welcome addition as far as I’m concerned. We have a few drinks and finish up the Indian food brought for the ride, but no one is hungry after our snack at Del Taco. We compete on shooting star counts in the Milky Way banded sky. The urban glow of Las Vegas and Los Angeles show on either horizon. After everyone else turns in, I stay up for another hour to work on my nighttime photography skills.
Day 2: 330 miles. Kelso Dunes to Ely, Nevada
“There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
The morning light illuminates the dunes from the east, making nice shadows on their west sides, perfect for Dune photography. Sand verbana and chinchweed add a lovely purple and yellow color to the landscape.
The big decision of the morning is whether to drive to Baker or Primm. Baker is closer. We know we have enough gas to make it. Primm will save us nearly an hour if we cut across the Mojave National Preserve, but the gas situation would be precarious. Outside the major cities, gas stations are a precious commodity for those riding on a motorcycle. Take advantage of every opportunity to fuel when gas stations are fifty to seventy-five miles apart.
So, we opt for Primm, turning right at the Kelbaker train depot down the creatively named Kelso-Cima road, which takes you from Kelso to Cima. We keep the speed at a gas-saving 65 mph, which gives us the time to soak in the creosote-lined valleys that lead up to the rugged mountains in mid-distance. As we reach higher elevations, we roll through a Joshua tree forest, a sparse arrangement of spikey-leaved trees where tree neighbors give each other a wide berth. Hole-in-the-wall campground is just twelve miles down the road. I hear its frigid, windy hillsides calling us for a future visit.
We make it to Primm, not exactly brimming with fuel but enough left to get us there without panic. Primm has an interstate vibe with high-volume gas stations and a motorcycle club blaring out music at top volume. We stutter our way through Vegas, admiring its skyline but not so much its traffic.
On the Highway 93 turn North into the heartland of Nevada, I ignore my advice never to waste an opportunity to fuel up. The next town on the map is Alamo, about seventy-five miles north. I expect a sign saying, “next services in so many miles,” but I never see it. There is no guarantee that we can gas up there.
The 93 is a road where, one day, someone said, “We need a route from the I-15 to Alamo.” An engineer took a ruler and drew a line from one place to another. The road skirts the Desert National Wildlife Range on its west side, which has abundant water for an October desert and a veneer of green. We pull into the Visitor Center a few miles short of Alamo. I have to think that Lisa Williams, the ranger in charge, doesn’t see that many people and welcomes our interruption. Lisa advises us to visit a BLM office on the way up to Ely to find a decent place to camp. Why I remember her name, I don’t know, but the imagined isolation of her mid-Nevada outpost piques my interest in the type of person that could endure it.
We fill up at Alamo and decide to head up the 318 instead of the 93 to Great Basin. It’s already getting late, and we want to avoid wandering around in unknown territory, trying to find a place to camp in the dark. The 318 is a more direct route to Ely, where we must gas up after the 150-mile trip, a road devoid of gas stations.
As we progress, the roadsides become more vibrant, with yellow rabbitbrush (ID not confirmed) lining the road, patches of white grass in matts of red, and a veneer of green. It’s a full spectrum experience. The road cuts through a gorgeous cliff section that comes up to the shoulders and opens into a long basin surrounded by mountains. The beauty of the roadside flowers, the mid-distant green, and the mountain-rimmed horizons astound me. But my riding companion tells me not to be fooled. The remnants of Hurricane Hilary came this way and dumped more water in one day than it usually gets in a year. We witness a second spring, the plants either taking advantage of or fooled by this watery aberration. We are seeing the brochure, not the Nevada we would return to.
In Ely, the register lady at the gas station says to head out of town and pull off at any dirt road. She says they expect tens of thousands of people, a regular Woodstock event, in my estimation. In Ely, or somewhat north of it, we find an ad-hoc campground next to a horse track willing to put us up for the night for a mere sixty dollars cash, a little bit of event gouging in my opinion. Wasn’t Woodstock a free concert? We pitch our tents on the volleyball courts of a local park and set up a kitchen on one of the park picnic benches. Another scientifically-predicted earthclipse obscures the Sun from our view. The temperature drops to an overnight low of thirty degrees. The long day of riding and the cold night send us to an early tent.
“The black dragon swallows the sun, everything is silent; the moon has eclipsed, and the white rabbit has eclipsed.”(黑龙吞日，万籁寂静；月有食色，白兔已蚀
Ancient Chinese Eclipse poem, possibly manufactured by ChatGPT.
In the morning, the worry is the clouds. A thin layer obscures the Sun when we first wake. The Sun is covered but visible. Still, it is not the ideal viewing conditions when a thick band of clouds intervenes between you and annularity. But the clouds drift off, and the moon takes its first bite out of the Sun, a nick in the perfection of its sphericality. The event is on.
The complete unfolding of a solar eclipse is not exactly a horse race, and in the interim between viewings, we discuss the celestial mechanics of a solar eclipse.
Begin Digression: Fast forward to the story’s future, now my past.The trip resumes at “End Digression.”
As the eclipse progressed, I explained the annular version of the solar eclipse as the difference between apogee and perigee. But later, it occurred to me, what are the odds that apogee and perigee line up precisely at the point where the moon’s orbit crosses the ecliptic? That would be an extraordinary coincidence if solar eclipses depended on that alignment. Why wouldn’t the eclipse occur at some other intersection point of the moon’s orbit with the ecliptic? Spoiler alert: it does. But I’ve never heard anyone describe a thick “ring of fire” or a “thin ring of fire.” And in retrospect, I do not know how close we were to full annularity.
I waded through at least fifty different online articles, seeking an answer. Either I couldn’t ask the question the right way, or the general understanding of the qualitative mechanics of an eclipse needs to be better understood. I suspect the latter, but I finally hit an article that explained it in a way I understood. I will regurgitate (my understanding) here.
An eclipse occurs at syzygy, the configuration of the Sun, the Earth, myself, my companions, and the moon in a straight line, like the pieces on a shish kebab skewer. Syzygy has no common etymology with Zzyzx, the exit to nowhere from the I-15 in the Mojave. They don’t even rhyme. But again, I digress.
It took me a while to visualize all the different orbital motions. So, let’s start with the most basic. The ecliptic is the plane of the Earth’s orbit about the Sun. The plane of the moon’s orbit about the Earth is inclined by five degrees with respect to the ecliptic. The nodal line is where the plane of the moon’s orbit and the ecliptic intersect.
There are two nodal points. The ascending node is when the moon goes from below the ecliptic to above. The descending node is when the moon goes from above the ecliptic to below. And if you follow the path of the October 14th eclipse, it cuts across the Earth from Northwest to Southeast. The April 7th eclipse of 2024 will cut across the Earth from Southwest to Northeast. In the first case, the moon moves from above to below the ecliptic. In the second, the moon is moving from below to above.
The Earth is at one of the two focus points of the ellipse of the moon’s orbit. When the moon is at perigee, it is closest to the Earth. As a side note, when the full moon corresponds with perigee, it is called a super moon. When the moon is at apogee, it is farthest from the Earth. The line from apogee to perigee is called the apsidal line.
An eclipse can only occur when the nodal line points directly at the Sun, sometimes referred to as the eclipse season. A solar eclipse occurs during a new moon when the new moon crosses the ecliptic in front of the Earth in relation to the Sun, and a lunar eclipse occurs during a full moon when the full moon crosses the ecliptic behind the Earth in relation to the Sun.
The orientation of the nodal line with respect to the line from the Earth to the Sun changes as the Earth moves around the Sun. In three months, the nodal line will be perpendicular to the line pointing directly from the Earth to the Sun. In three more months, the nodal line will again align with the Sun, but this time with the opposite nodal point facing the Sun. So, you would expect to see an eclipse every six months.
So far, so good?
Now, we start with the complications. First, the most eclipses recorded in a year is five, not two. One of those extra eclipses is a happenstance of the calendar. The first eclipse of that year occurred in early January, the second in June, and the third in late December. In other words, the eclipses occur every six months, as expected. They happen to fall on the year boundary.
Each of the other two extra eclipses occurred one month apart from another eclipse. I infer that the nodal line orientation had a similar aberration to the calendar in that there is a window for an eclipse of about a month. If the first eclipse occurs at the beginning of that window, the second eclipse occurs at the end. So, occasionally, you can sneak in an extra eclipse in a month. In the record year of five eclipses, this happened twice.
The second complication is that eclipses aren’t on an exact one-year cycle. In other words, the nodal line will not be in the same orientation with respect to the Sun after a complete orbit. In fact, it will be off by 1/18.6 of the Earth’s orbit or about three-quarters of a month per year. The nodal line has an 18.6-year precession. It takes 18.6 years for the nodal line to return to the same orientation at the exact location in the orbit. Ancient astronomers could predict eclipses based on this cycle without knowing celestial mechanics. Good day to you, Mr. Newton.
The third complication is that total and annular eclipses do not necessarily alternate every six months. There is even something called a hybrid eclipse, where the eclipse starts out as totality but ends in annularity.
Now, we can go to the part bugging me, which I could find little about. If the apsidal line is perpendicular to the nodal line at syzygy, the moon would always be at the same distance from the Earth when an eclipse occurs. The focal point is equidistant from the ellipse perpendicular to the apsidal line. If this were always the case, the eclipse would always be the same kind. It would be either annular or total eclipses or even hybrid, but whichever one, it would always be the same.
If the apsidal line is coincident with the nodal line, we would have both annular and total eclipses separated by six months. On one side of the Earth’s orbit, the apogee would be between the Sun and the Earth, while on the other side of the Earth’s orbit, the perigee would be between the Sun and the Earth. Six months from the annular eclipse of October 14th, there will be a total eclipse on April 7th.
But this alternation is only sometimes the case. It turns out that the apsidal line also precesses over 8.85 years. See [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apsidal_precession] for a good graphic showing this. The apsidal line will change with respect to the nodal line so that you wouldn’t expect an exact six-month progression of annular to total eclipse. It reverses after 4.425 years. If a total eclipse occurs in October, 4.425 years later, the annular eclipse will occur in October, not correcting for other factors.
Syzygy, nodal line procession, and apsidal line procession are my deeper, qualitative understanding of the eclipses. I know a lot more than when I started. Regardless of what I know, the fact that I showed up at a time and place predicted to have an annular eclipse, which it did with flawless precision, is a tremendous and tremendously underappreciated accomplishment for astronomy and physics.
End Digression: Return to the story present.
I check the eclipse’s progress every few minutes and snap a picture. The annular eclipse doesn’t viscerally move me like totality. You can’t see it without unique ISO-rated sunglasses. The Earth doesn’t go dark, only a little dim. If you are observant, you might notice that your shadow gets slightly fuzzy, with the two light sources coming from either side of the horns.
Still, watching the moon’s progression covering the Sun is a thrill. I’m not sure if the black dragon eats the Sun or the Sun puts its fiery jaw around the moon, only to find it indigestible and have to regurgitate it. The event culminates when the U of fire becomes the ring of fire, achieving syzygy. Even at this juncture of conjunction, the Sun is far too bright to look at directly. I snap some pictures and put the camera aside to take the time to appreciate what will likely be a once-in-my-lifetime event.
When the ring disappears and the regurgitation starts, the event is over for all except the high-end photographers who want to film the entire end-to-end progression. The Woodstock event is twenty or thirty people watching and photographing from the dirt parking lot beside the racetrack. Most of them pack up their equipment and tents and leave. For me, it’s like a baseball game. You can only go after the last out in the ninth inning. When that last dark node at the edge of the Sun’s perimeter, a black diamond if you will, disappears, it’s time to return to more Earthly pursuits.
Day 3: 200 miles. Ely to BLM land somewhere south of Alamo.
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the sky.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
With the return of full sunlight, the temperature has soared to 50 degrees (sarcasm). I wear most of my warm-weather gear as we head out of town. We plan to procure one of those lakeside campgrounds we saw at the Desert National Wildlife Range, just north of the visitor center we stopped at, taking the long way to Alamo, heading east toward Great Basin National Park on U.S. 50, then following 93 south to Caliente.
As we turn south onto the 93, we stop for a photo op of Wheeler Peak, the 13,000-foot peak inside Great Basin National Park I climbed six years earlier on my trip to achieve totality. I remember sucking oxygen back then. Six years later, I doubt I have the cardiovascular endurance to summit. I will stick to safer things like driving five hundred and fifty miles back home on a motorcycle through Riverside traffic.
Great Basin is a vast geographic area extending over Nevada, Utah, California, and Oregon. We ride in a basin within the basin that stretches for a hundred miles, lined with distant mountains on either side and lots of cold in the middle. After reaching Pioche, we drop in elevation, and the world becomes a warmer place.
Just after Pioche, we stumble onto Cathedral Gorge State Park, a hidden gem in the heart of Nevada. A scenic overlook provides spectacular views into the weather-eroded gorge and a self-guided walking tour describing the sparse but not barren flora. The namesake feature is a cathedral structure jutting upward from the canyon’s floor. The lengthy gorge has an extended, rippled wall banded with tans and browns, fronting a distant mountain range.
We stop for gas at Sinclair and food at the J&J fast food restaurant for greasy and unsettling fare. Exiting the town through a narrow canyon and passing more scenic country, we elevate through the picturesque countryside of juniper trees, descend into another basin, and pass on the opportunity to hunt for trilobites. Fool! How often will I get the chance to mine for trilobites? Torschlusspanik. So much to do. So little time.
Our dreams of a lakeside campsite in the Upper Pahranagat Lake campground evaporated like gasoline on a Nevada highway. In the Paiute language, Pahranagat means “Valley of Shining Water.” I translate it as mocking water because all the campsites were fully occupied, the Visitor Center was closed, and the park was infested with Park Rangers, making a stealth camp impossible.
Our leader finds us a stealth site on the other side of the highway, down a dirt road to nowhere, as far as I can tell. We have the place to ourselves, but the price for primitive camping is the open-air, wallless bathrooms. We aren’t the first to camp there but benefit from this arrangement with boards and half-burnt firewood to start a fire. We watch the hillsides paint red in the sunset of another Earthclipse and speculate on the previous owner of a sizable, carnivorous jawbone. After dinner, we start a sizable fire that lasts late into the night, and so does the drinking. The conversations are all a hazy memory. We talked about seeing totality next April and, at some point, decided the benchmark of outdoor experience is how often you’ve taken an outdoor crap. Such is the talk of campfires.
Day 4: 400 miles. Somewhere south of Alamo to Escondido
“…we gotta go and never stop going ‘till we get there.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
There’s not much to say about this day other than I elevated my outdoor ranking leaving more than footprints buried at our primitive campsite. We slog all the miles, fast miles, on the long, straight highways and the I-15, eating at gas-station restaurants and concentrating on negotiating through the post-eclipse traffic. In Riverside, the temps soar to 102, a seventy-degree temperature swing from the freezing temperatures of Ely, still wearing my long underwear. But after a long day, we all make it home safe and sound, and I like to think better for the experience.
A stream-of-consciousness regurgitation of a trip to the Iberian Peninsula in the “Book a Trip” Series.
“Well, I’ve Never Been to Spain, yeah But I kinda like the music, They say the ladies are insane there, And they sure know how to use it…” Three Dog Night – Never Been To Spain”
I’ve been to Spain twice but couldn’t stop the “ohrwurm” (a German word literally translating to earworm), despite its lack of relevance, from playing the song in my head or sharing it with those around me. You have to appreciate the contradiction of singing the song while you are in Spain. It’s an interesting thought that the song was playing in my head because we weren’t listening to music, filling a music void like the missing frequencies hissing in my tinnitic ears. Without an externally given purpose, does my head also fill in intentional voids, a kind of existential “omwurm”? Does the brain abhor a vacuum?
I visited Spain and Portugal with family back in the early 80’s. I remember the names of the places we visited because I liked to read maps to know where I was going. Besides the names, I barely remember anything about the sites we visited, aside from an unforgettable trip to Tunis that involved seasickness, pure panic, and a hotel towel turban (I have yet to write this piece, but when I do, you will find the link here,) —and watching a bullfight, which I thought was more of a bull slaughter than a fight no matter how close the matador let the bull get to him. There are two reasons why I remember so little about the destinations apart from the intervening forty years. First, we traveled by tour bus, so much of the experience was sitting on an air-conditioned bus doing whatever we used to do to occupy our brains in the days before cell phones, not having to make any decisions or navigation.
Second, I had no connection to the places. Malaga, Seville, Granada, Lisbon, and Madrid were just names on a map. I want to say I visited Toledo, too, because I have recollections of the bus driving through a gate in a stone wall surrounding a city, and I can’t think of any other place that might be. Without a story, one cathedral or castle is as good as the following, and droning tour guides seldom provide more than dry, disjointed facts. There is nothing wrong with adventure for adventure’s sake except the missed opportunity to appreciate what you see.
So, to give my latest trip more context, I chose two books: an audible book, “The Alchemist,” and a print book called “In Diamond Square.” I was looking for something to give me a window into what living in that region was like. I prefer a story for its intimacy rather than some overarching historical dissertation of events.
Although “The Alchemist” was initially set in the sheep-farming hills of Andalusia, it was a hero’s journey fantasy book of a boy following his literal dream to find treasure near the pyramids of Egypt. It reads like a self-help book as the boy pursues his “personal legend” on a voyage across the Sahara, offering nuggets of wisdom like, “Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.” In defense of non-allegorical self-help books, most of us don’t have supernatural powers. You might need more than self-help if you start talking to the winds and the sand, and they answer back.
According to the boy’s mentors, “… when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” The ostensible reason for our Portugal destination was something my friend wanted. He wanted to evaluate the Algarve region as a retirement option. I have yet to succumb to retirement planning. So, this journey wasn’t about my “personal legend” but in support of a “personal legend.” I tried to play my role as a part of the conspiring universe to help achieve this dream, but it was DOA. My friend was already thinking of other, closer places by the time we undertook the journey. But, “When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he has never dreamed of when he first made the decision.” Despite the premature conclusion of all personal legends, the currents of the original decision were still strong enough for us to proceed with the trip anyway.
“In Diamond Square” was somewhat more relevant, set in Barcelona before and after the Spanish Civil War. We visited Placa del Diamant in Barcelona, sitting down for a Damm beer, learning that the only free about the Free Damm was its freedom from alcohol. The square wasn’t much to see: two lime-green city workers hosing down a fenced-in playground with high-powered water guns, a family overseeing the courtyard from their balcony, the graffiti-tagged roll-up steel doors that front most stores, men unloading grain from a truck, a woman disappearing into a door within a door apartment entrance, a few trees, the park benches haphazardly arranged to face the center of the courtyard, and a mother breastfeeding a kid who was old enough to ask.
In the corner near the patio restaurant is a statue of Natalie, the protagonist of “In Diamond Square,” trapped with her pigeons in the sheet metal matrix with an expression that reminds me of “The Scream.” I’ve never evaluated a statue on its ability to capture the essence of a book, but I thought this effort represented. You be the judge.
Compare the figure to the passage:
“…I put my arms over my face to save me from whatever was about to happen and let out a scream from hell. A scream I must have been carrying deep inside me for years and a little something else ran from my mouth alongside that scream that was so vast it was hard to get out of my throat, like a cockroach made from saliva, and that little something else that had been shut up inside me for so long was my youth that now rushed out screaming something or another…that I’d been forsaken?”
The imagery of “In Diamond Square” puts you in even the most mundane scenes. One passage is the best description of drizzle I’ve ever read: “Drops of rain played chase on the washing lines and, sometimes, one dripped down and, before it fell, it stretched and stretched because it seemed a huge effort to let go. It had been raining for a week, drizzle, not too heavy or too light, and the low clouds were so full of drizzle they dragged their swollen bellies along the roofs. We watched it rain.” I’d like to see more sculptures trying to capture Merce’s graphic descriptions: the 45-foot-long tapeworm popping its head out of Joe’s mouth that somebody must pull from Joe’s body without leaving any segments to regenerate; the unborn rat fetuses extruding from its mother sliced in half by a trap; or the dove filth that she finds herself imprisoned in.
Her imagery is as haunting as the Dark Paintings of Goya. Goya appreciation was an unexpected outcome of a checkbox visit to “Museo Nacional del Prado” in Madrid. My appreciation of art runs less than skin deep, but surprisingly, some works grabbed my attention. Goya’s Dark Paintings are both metaphorically and literally dark. The most memorable is the image of Saturn eating his son. Goya portrays Saturn as a wide-eyed, ragged, and fearful god, cannibalizing one of his sons before he can overthrow him, as is prophecized according to Greek and Roman legend, with appropriate name changes. In Greek/Roman mythology, the story ends happily when Zeus/Jupiter grows up to defeat Chronos/Saturn, forcing him to regurgitate all his brothers, happily for the brothers, anyway, assuming they are reasonably undigested. In the Dark Paintings, Goya draws his figures with black eyes accented by their contrasting white sclera in a sea of dark colors as in the “Witches Sabbath” or haunted expressions as in the “Pilgrimage to San Ysidrio.” (I looked those titles up in Wikipedia to remember.) He also did the La Maja Desnuda and La Maja Vestida, two versions of the same woman, the nude one being controversial in its day because the woman doesn’t show any shame in the display of her naked body. I might be confused because I think I only remember the clothed version of the painting, though the article says the two are displayed side-by-side. His works that appeared to be commissioned depictions of royalty were otherwise dull. The other piece that grabbed our attention was the Velázquez painting “Las Meninas.” Las Meninas means hand-maidens, though they represent only two of the eleven characters in the picture. Two are identified as dwarfs, though they look like ugly kids to me. After the visit, I googled this painting, only later discovering that there is a controversy about whether the king and queen in the mirror are watching the painter from the viewer’s viewpoint or are the reflections from the painter’s canvas.
The museum has its fair share of wall-sized medieval paintings, with seraphs and twisted necks, which I still find disturbing. (My other experience at the Louevre with medieval art, another story also not written up.) We visited a Raphael room to complete my lifelong quest to see the artwork of all four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo, and Raphael (wink emoji here). For whatever it says about me, my favorite rendering in the museum was a t-shirt with a flask of beer portrayed on it, saying, “Technically, beer is a solution.”
The Prado has one very out-of-place Picasso that should have been in a room alone because it seemed so out of context with the paintings surrounding it. I subsequently read that Picasso didn’t much care for Goudi, the surrealist architect from Barcelona, though Salvadore Dali did. Salvadore Dali painted the melting clocks called “The Persistence of Memory,” a painting I’ve admired several times in articles and books associated with Einstein’s general relativity. But Goudi is new to me. We visited the Park Guell in Barcelona to see Goudi’s work. I have mixed feelings about it. Walking through the irregular patterns (an oxymoron?) of leaning stone archways and flowery columns was a Seussian experience, but I didn’t care much for the gingerbread houses. I once read that surrealist paintings try to capture faces at different times on the same canvas. That characterization makes sense when looking at the multiple expressions on the same face in a Picasso painting, but I’m unsure how that plays out in surrealistic architecture. There may be something barren and ugly about the straight line. Still, I want architecture to express the pragmatic sciences of metallurgy and physics rather than the whimsicalness of surrealistic art. As impressive as the skyline-dominating Sagrada Familia cathedral is, I’m pretty sure that is not where I would run to ride out an earthquake or weather a storm.
Unfortunately, we didn’t see the interior of the Sagrada Familia as we failed to book a reservation sufficiently far in advance, as we learned during lunchtime gone bad. Our guide, host, and reason for visiting Barcelona tried to take us to one of her favorite outdoor cafes on the median boulevard strip, but it was closed. We settled for the Plan B Sagrados Cafe restaurant, which served us an undercooked, runny Spanish omelet and a crunchy, undercooked green pepper dish that she disgustedly returned to the kitchen. The server committed a customer service foul by defending the oozing dish as classic. Meanwhile, as we speculated whether Sagrados translated into undercooked food, a sunburnt, pot-bellied, middle-aged man set up his open-air music venue on a park bench next to our table, trying to make a few euros with his singing. And as if channeling the inner thoughts of our distraught hostess, he started singing Elton John’s “Sorry,” pouring great emotion into a line, then pausing like a school kid reading a textbook to look at his phone for the lyrics, then pouring equally great feeling into the next line.
“It’s sad (So sad), so sad It’s a sad, sad situation And it’s gettin’ more and more absurd It’s sad (So sad), so sad Why can’t we talk it over? Oh, it seems to me That sorry seems to be the hardest word.”
I don’t know if there is a German word for when so many things go wrong, the situation becomes so absurd that you can only laugh. But if there isn’t, there should be. I’ve submitted the request by email to Germany. On the upside, “Sorry” replaced “Never Been to Spain” as my “ohrwurm” for a short while, and I came away with the notion that we should all have a minstrel follow us around and channel our mood and thinking into song like Brave Sir Robin in Monte Python’s “The Holy Grail.” I gave our minstrel two euros, not for the quality of the singing, but for his impeccable timing and unwittingly perfect choice of song.
I wasn’t laughing at the Centauro car rental place when we first arrived in Lisbon. We lost the fight to get on the transport bus from the Lisbon airport to the rental car facility. Still, we beat the next bus by taking the thirty-minute walk instead lugging our luggage in the heat over uneven sidewalks and roads so I “didn’t have to end up hating all these people.” I lost another battle with the kiosk machine that issued numbers to queue up to see an agent at the facility. The uncooperative machine demanded a reservation number, which I didn’t have handy. Instead, I only had the confirmation number from Expedia, which the kiosk rejected out of hand. When I tried to ask an agent for help, she chastised me to wait in line like everyone else. I lost more battles to the wireless connection I needed for my laptop to try to log in to the Expedia website. Once I found that, I lost the struggle to find the reservation number. Perhaps the ultimate insult, the Expedia website refuted the existence of my reservation while, at the same time, sending me an email asking me to rate my Centauro experience. Germany never responded to my email either.
Finally, one of the agents showed me the errors of my ways. If you can’t find your reservation number, the kiosk doesn’t print a receipt, but it gives you a number you must remember to see an agent, who will then provide you another number based on the looked-up reservation. The agent tried to put the fear of God in me. Aside from the sixteen-hundred dollar deposit, he threatened me with 250 € payments for every dent as big or bigger than the size of the head of a hammer. I imagined a little person hiding in the rental car’s trunk, taking every opportunity to jump out and pound it with a hammer so Centauro could abscond with my sixteen-hundred dollar deposit. Where is my minstrel now? How about a rousing chorus from “Humans Are Such Easy Prey?”
“It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”
That could be over the top, but it would have channeled my inner vibe. As a side note, I don’t think the AIs or the aliens are out to kill or torture us. They are prankish teenagers who get a kick out of driving frustrated users crazy, like giving peanut butter to a dog. But the three-hour delay wasn’t all bad. GF made friends with a retirement couple that fled to Portugal from the politics of the United States, and we learned how to identify cork trees stripped of their valuable bark, a helpful skill for the car ride to the Algarve.
Torture is the province of human-to-human interaction, as the “Museo de la Tortura” in Toledo well documents, which we visited, possibly to fill our existential void or to ponder the imponderable. Why do people torture? Is it unbridled hatred? Or sheer perversion? Or just fear and insecurity? Cue the minstrel. He should be singing the sounds of silence in the background with all the anger of Disturbed.
“Hello darkness, my old friend I’ve come to talk with you again.”
It’s hard to imagine the line of torture thinking. Someone had to have the thought, I want to crush someone’s skull, then go out and build a device that can do it, and then actually use it on someone. The iron maiden has adjustable spikes. At some point, someone had to realize that skinny people weren’t receiving the full benefits of the spiky garment or fat people wouldn’t fit in it. So they sent it back with new requirements for a one-size-fits-allredesign. Some devices were designed for humiliation, some to extract a confession. Some instruments were designed to inspire fear in those watching the torture, but that was not always the case. The Spanish Inquisition tried to keep a low profile. I bet you weren’t expecting me to mention the Spanish Inquisition, were you? Because nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
It would be easy to torture a Millenial: put them in a room without their cell phone or any access to social media. They wouldn’t have to put a pig mask over my head if they wanted to humiliate me. They could tie my hair up in a bun, loop a man purse over my shoulder, and force me into those skinny jeans that taper just above the ankles.
Torture has evolved into erotica, self-mutilation, and Mad Max movies. On the upside, I have a few new ideas for a GF birthday gift. We passed on the opportunity to visit the “Erotic Museum of Barcelona.” Yes, it exists. But sadly, I don’t have the data to further report on the topic here.
For what it says about us, given Toledo’s rich history, the torture museum was the only attraction we paid to enter. Every cultural center charges something to visit, and getting nickel and dimed to death is annoying. Or is it eurod to death? Nickel and dimes would have been easy. Our guide, hostess, and reason for visiting Madrid suggests that all the exhibits should be free so everyone has the opportunity to learn about the culture, not just those who can afford it. Amen, sister! The effect of monetization of culture warrants more profound thought. When does the culture become a caricature of itself, catering to consumerism rather than vitalism? Does a culture get to bitch about appropriation when they are selling mass marketing their heritage?
Social capital is another essay in itself. I see it as a selfie with the Grand Canyon in the background without turning around to look at it. I see it at all the stores that sell trinkets and pins to cater to the social capital of its purchasers. My hat is off to our two hostesses and guides, who have immersed themselves in the culture, learning the language, living and working in their respective cities, and finding something beyond transactional interaction. A sign of authentic travel is when the reality of isolation and uncertainty replaces the romanticism of the pre-trip, when your thought is, “What the f**k did I get myself into?” Our hostesses are doing better than I am at authentic travel, but we tried for something in between.
I like doing hands-on stuff, following the advice of the adage: I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; I do, I understand. In Barcelona, we attended a cooking class. We learned how to devein shrimp with a toothpick, debeard a mussel after first checking that it is alive, cut onions without crying, and put them all together to make paella in giant paella pans and burners you can buy on Amazon anywhere from 75€ to 5000€. We also socialized with other travelers over Sangria:
A young couple of corporate lawyers from Slovakia.
Another young couple from Germany, the boy an aspiring farmer from Korea.
A crazy lady who solved the problem of getting me to smile for a photograph. “Smile, asshole.” (Side note: I tried it, and it also works on others.)
In the interest of deep appreciation, I aspired to take flamenco and bullfighting classes, but neither panned out. We settled for a Flamenco show in Madrid and a walkabout in the old Bullfighting Ring in Barcelona. Flamenco dancing was not performed by flamingos but by dancers, a cube-shaped bongo player, a guitarist, and a singer. (NOTE: The bongo is cube-shaped, not the bongo player. Technically, it is called a Cajon.) In the intimate setting of a stone-walled cellar, the intricate, pounding footwork dances its way viscerally into your body. By the way, if you’ve never seen the dance of the Flamingo, you should view it on YouTube.
In Portugal, I aspired to do bird-watching at the “Parque Natural da Ria Formosa,” but it turns out birds get up early in the morning, unlike the rest of us. Only city birds like the Egyptian goose, parrots, Eurasian magpies, and sparrows keep to a more humane schedule. We settled on a four-hour afternoon cruise from the port at Olhão to the islands of Culatra and Armona. Cruise is a poor choice of words. It was more like a chug, listening to our guide attempt to shout information over the engine’s noise. In my mind, I saw him yelling at home as if it were an ordinary thing. I asked him if it bothered his wife. She screamed from the background, “I’M OKAY WITH IT.”
We stopped for a Super Bock and lunch at a patio restaurant in the quaint town of Culatra. Afterward, I made a mad dash across the island, half of the walk down a sidewalk gauntlet of pastel-colored, patioed houses and the other half on a boardwalk that cut across sandy berms to the ocean-facing side of the island. I only had time to dip a foot in the ocean before returning to catch the boat. We stopped for another half-hour at Amona to stroll through the town and back up the beach. I took a quick swim in the cold water against a receding tidal current that I could have used as a resistance swimming pool. In retrospect, I don’t know what gives it the classification Parque, but based on empirical evidence, I would say that it means underdeveloped, sandy islands. The only birds we saw were seagulls. The flamingos are dancing out there somewhere, but I booked us on the wrong tour.
Our one-hour kayaking expedition didn’t quite live up to my expectations either. I envisioned working my way up the coast, photographing rugged rock formations and water entrances to caves. Instead, the outfit restricted movement to a narrow band in front of the town’s beach. The best excitement was watching my friend turn sideways in the wave and get dumped in the sand. Still, getting out on the water for sun and exercise is better than idling the day away.
Despite the setbacks, the rugged coastline of the Algarve is very much within the scope of my “personal legend,” if I have such a thing, perhaps a pursuit of nature in the daytime rewarded with hanging out on balconies drinking socially at night. (I notice I don’t have too much problem with my anti-social drinking either.) The universe conspired in our favor with the boat ride adventure along the Benagil coastline, highlighted by the famous Bengali cave, a deep ocean swim, tunneling through a small water cave entrance smaller than the boat at the top of the swell, and capped off with a high-speed beaching of the ship.
Another highlight was standing on Farol do Cabo de São Vicente, the end of the world, the furthest southwest point of Europe. The promontory reminds me of the Irish coastline (although I’ve only seen it in films), with sheer cliffs rising hundreds of feet from protesting waters that crash at its feet. Despite my best efforts at pictures, the landscape is too big. It is one of those spots you have to see for yourself. Another simple pleasure was seeing the ear-to-ear smiles and enthusiasm of a Japanese father and daughter pair conversing with GF in Japanese, offering to take a picture of them together against the dramatic backdrop of the sea cliffs, penetrating a language and personal barrier I couldn’t. Ironically, the connection suggests how isolated you can be in a foreign land.
The Fortaleza de Sagres is one of the many vantage points for the rugged coastline. The fort hides a significant hike and a great view back to the Cabo. Fishermen drop their lines from the top of the precipice into the Atlantic below, traversing more air than water. Prince Henry the Navigator built the fort in the 15th century to protect the town of Sagres from Barbary pirates, although I don’t see why those pirates wouldn’t just pay a few euros for a meal and Super Bock, like everyone else. The wine and beer were incredibly well-priced relative to any stateside restaurant or bar, typically coming in at under 15€ for a decent bottle and 5€ for a pint. I think I know where the pirates went. We took a picture of the facsimile of Prince Henry for GF’s mom, who trained with him back in the day (wink emoji here).
As much as I tried to minimize my food intake, trying not to come back five or ten pounds heavier, food was a big part of the trip. We found the most authentic meal in Grandola on the ride from Lisbon to the Algarve. The expressway sign suggested food at the Grandola exit. It turned out to be five miles off the highway. We found the Colher De Pau Café-Restaurante, a small, unpresumptuous restaurant that served the blue-jeaned, working men their late afternoon beers. I’m unsure if the restaurant was open, but the mother-daughter team served the one item from the one-item menu: a pork sandwich on plain white bread. It tasted like a tender piece of bacon.
My favorite venue was the Food Temple in Lisbon. After having a panoramic view and a beer at Miradouro de Santa Luzia, we strolled down a dark, narrow alley into an otherwise non-descript cobblestone square with laundry hanging out a window, satellite dishes pointed to the sky, and entrances to modest apartments. However, the outdoor seating was on a stone stairway with tables strategically placed at different tiers. The wood-board tables were custom-fitted to the height of the stairs, with no legs on one end for the higher stair. We dined on olive appetizers and vegetarian entrees and split a bottle of red wine. I asked our waiter what the backstory of the Food Temple was. I tapped into an enthusiasm unparalleled at any restaurant I have ever visited. The other question I asked was how a vegan restaurant can serve butter, but it was some spice spread. The experience was augmented by the performance of the now classic sitar and synthesizer piece, “Take a Shower with a Friend. Save water,” by the immortal Project Mr. Bubble, our first minstrel of the trip. The lyrics and the title are the same. No offense to my good friends, but stinky and dehydrated would be better choices. I’m sure the feeling is mutual.
The cup of melted chocolate with churro dipping sticks at the Chocolatería San Ginés in Madrid was the most decadent meal, if it can be called a meal. It’s like squeezing the contents of one of those Hershey’s genuine chocolate-flavored syrup bottles into your mouth. I’m unsure if the genuine refers to the syrup or the chocolate flavor; Hershey’s sounds like cheese food to me. But I can’t be a denier, the real stuff was great.
We strolled the streets of Alfama in Lisbon, highlighted by the Elevador de Santa Justa and the views of and from the Castelo de Sao Jorge. We received some of the slowest customer service at one of the outdoor restaurants of the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara. We speculated that our server went on break or the cook was busy raising the cow and growing the barley. The poor customer service is attributed to the lack of tipping. In South Korea, servers perform because that is what they are supposed to do. The tip is in the cost already. It sounds so civilized to me. I could easily live without tips. In Portugal, supposedly the servers don’t perform because they aren’t incented to. People warned us early on in the trip not to expect decent customer service. The difference between the two countries suggests that culture has something to do with it.
Not all service was poor, of course. I think of the little cafe across from our hotel in Barcelona where the cafe owner gave us a free croissant. GF conversed with him in French, speaking in another foreign tongue, like some James Bond character who speaks any language in any country. The owner suggested ideas for our stay in Madrid, at least that is what James Bond told me. I was pranked twice by a waiter at Tasca 26 in Porches, Portugal. Since I ordered the wine, I sampled the initial pour, swirling for viscosity, sniffing, and tasting as if I knew what I was doing. After I approved, he filled up everyone’s glass but mine and walked away with the bottle, over my immediate protests. Of course it was a joke. Then after dinner, I turned down the offer of a desert port wine, only to get my sampler in a glass the size of a gold fish bowl. It was all in good fun and taken that way.
Some people work for tips or their equivalent. Plenty of decent street musicians perform with their instrument cases open for contributions, including guitarists, violinists, and even celloists. I hope they play for the sheer joy of it, using the tips only to measure their ability. In the Praca do Comercio, we encountered a furry Panda posing with tourists for tips. Straight begging might be better than standing on your feet for hours in the heat in a heavy Panda suit. We later met these critters in the other big cities. I don’t know what Panda says about Lisbon or any other place, but there is a fatal attraction to these photogenic fellows. We speculated that stealing a photo with one of these guys might result in subsequent Panda attacks. Why take a chance? What if they are all interconnected and looking out for one another? After all, it is a networked world, even for Pandas.
Street peddling seems like a hell of a way to make a living, like the small army of Black salesmen ( a description, not a judgment) who unbundle their parachute full of purses and shoes and anything else light enough to carry into squares and plazas of Madrid. I saw them starting with packed parachutes at noon and still selling at ten at night.
The big cities are not without their homeless and deformities:
A man on his knees face to the ground with his cup in supplicant position.
A man supine on a busy sidewalk by the train station with no shoes, feet cacked in black dirt, and disgusting toenails.
A gypsy woman working her way up the street with a paper cup asking for money.
Hambre signs on cardboard.
Deformities too gruesome to describe.
And so on. The west coast of America is no stranger to these sights.
So does my head fill in intentional voids, a kind of existential “omwurm”? In real-time and in the absence of the pursuit of a personal legend, my head fills with all the worst-case scenarios. I try to turn those into humor by finding the most absurd worst case. Bad customer service turns into cooks running out to grow the vegetables and raise the animals. Intimidation at a car rental agency turns into a person hiding in the trunk with a hammer. The misery of working for meager tips in a Panda suit turns into a Panda pursuit. The yelling over a boat motor turns into a scene from the loud family. And so on.
My head should fill itself with gratitude. According to an article, only 5% of the world’s population has been on a plane. I empathetically took two trips via books and took one via jet. I lived the pursuit of a dream of a boy traveling across the Sahara desert and a woman suffering through a half-hearted marriage and the collateral damage of the Spanish Civil War. I saw natural wonders and explored historical yet vibrant cities, putting in over a five-mile-a-day average through trails on the Benagil coast, the cobblestone streets of Barcelona, the historical sites of Lisbon, and the busy streets of Madrid.
I had great times traveling with my girlfriend, socializing with friends on the balcony overlooking the Atlantic, and with surrogate family in the restaurants of Barcelona and Madrid. I sat at countless outdoor restaurants, sharing stories, food, and wine with my companions and crumbs with the sparrows and pigeons. I connected with our Catalan friend, impressed that I read a book about her culture. I had so many tapas they blur into one giant continuous meal, and I could drown in the vat of wine I drank.
A good metaphor for the trip would be the brilliant fireworks display exploding over the sea cliffs of the Portuguese Atlantic, an unexpected and welcome surprise. Gratitude is something that comes after the fact. Hopefully, this piece fills that void.
Spoiler Alert: If you plan on reading Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” you might want to save this for another day.
I read “The Road” because the story I am thinking of is a road of sorts. I wanted to see how the author executed the story, but I got way more than I bargained for. I don’t think I could or even want to make a story so dystopian.
The writing is as elemental and raw as the barren title suggests. The dialog is sparse and repetitive. “Papa, I’m scared.” “I’m sorry.” Over and over again. The man doesn’t even have a name.
For reasons beyond my comprehension, my son likes to call me Papa. Projecting myself into that world and hearing the word Papa in my head, every frigid, drenched, and blood-chilling moment the boy has to endure is a gut punch. I would hate to look into those eyes and see an ounce of pain. I would have been suicidal if the boy had taken a bullet from his father or eaten a bullet himself.
Cormac McCarthy never dwells too deep into the past and never explains humanity’s descent into raw survival. He never has to. Father and son trudge in the ashes and the emptiness of what the past has wrought. The past is written in each barren house and city, the destroyed infrastructure, and the wreckage of trucks and boats. The man has one flashback to when his wife surrenders her life to the futility of it and pleads with him to do the same to him and the boy. The past doesn’t need explaining. That isn’t the point. The point is to show us the atrocities of the future if we f**k up the present. It doesn’t matter how we do it.
There is no ticking clock in the book, no deadline to reach because there is no place to go, just south, and only one way to get there: the road. The ticking clock is getting the next can of food before they starve. The ticking clock is knowing that one of their encounters with the bad people will inevitably go wrong.
But the one bullet he saves so the boy won’t have to endure the barbarism of captivity and cannibalism suck one into one horrific and inevitable outcome. The man has sworn that he won’t leave the boy, meaning he won’t leave the boy to be eaten by savages. When the time comes, he will do what he must. But at least while they are alive, the man does what he must to keep them that way, yet yields to the empathetic cries of his son against his better judgment when he can so they can be the good people.
Ultimately, the man can’t look into his son’s eyes and do it. He couldn’t do it when his wife took her life, and she begged him to do it. He couldn’t do it at the end. He passes on the fire to the boy, the fire being nothing more than the will to live, life for life’s sake. The man has given the boy the skills necessary to survive. But what is the point? The story the man tells his son about the good people they have never met is the fire in the boy. It’s the hope that the little boy he saw is alive and well. It’s the hope that they didn’t kill the thief the way the thief would have killed them. It’s the myth of the good people that keeps him going. The boy is the good people and needs to find good people to survive.
The woods were there before men, and the woods will be there after. Life isn’t about kill or be killed, even under the most brutal conditions. The road is no place to live and no place to grow up. The only reason for a boy to grow up is if he has a couple of kids to play with and a life to live. The point of going on is our empathy and compassion for one another. And it doesn’t hurt to have a shotgun with real ammo to enforce it.
Author’s Notes: This is my attempt to capture the “ah-ha” scene as prescribed by “Story Genius for the (tentatively titled) “Laws of Nature.” The writing is not expected to be flawless or even complete at this point. What the scene should accomplish is:
Will the protagonist achieve the external goal? (To find someone to pay for his product licensing fees so he will not (literally) expire.)
What will change for the protagonist? What will he have realized?
What will happen externally in this scene that forces the protagonist to confront his misbelief? (Misbelief: Bidhaa believes he will be more than a consumer product if he finds his mother and the herd she belongs to).
The scene starts just after Bidhaa has been captured by the NDC.
When I came to, it was dark, and I barely had enough room to move. I knew I was in another container tomb, right back where I started. I hadn’t found my mother, and I hadn’t found her family. I had yet to find a buyer to renew my product license. It wouldn’t matter if I surrendered to despair or not. If the premature disposition gene didn’t finish me off, the end-of-life gene would. I was out of time.
I had walked two thousand miles to find the Tembo. I found the Tembo. Although I am physically most like the Tembo, I discovered I was not a Tembo. Even the Tembo were no longer Tembo, a species initially eco-genetically designed to live wild on the Velte lands of a once wild Kruger but nothing more than domesticated exhibits in expansive zoos. The Tembo had the same rootless existence as I did, moved from park to park and herd to herd at the whims of their NDC owners. But they did not question it.
I questioned it. My feral existence had taught me to question it. I had as much right to carve out an existence as any. Domestication was another container to escape from. I found no place in the docile world of the Tembo.
I had walked two thousand miles to find my mother. Mubwa told me I might have a birth mother in Kruger, and Mahout thought the South African government might renew the license fee if I could join a herd. Everything they told me was nothing more than fanciful thinking.
Somebody had dumped me in a world that had no place for me. When I started my quest, I thought I might find that place if I found my mother. When I met the Tembo, they did not know who their mother was, let alone who my mother might be. My search for my mother had failed. My quest to find someone who had to care for me because they brought me into this world was lost.
Born to process human language, I was a productized Tembo designed to amuse and entertain humans without a niche in wild nature. Speaking in the human language did not make me a human. I was an article manufactured for consumer consumption but no longer suitable for regulated markets. Indifferent humans. Humans bored of my novelty. The humans that feared me, I feared the most. I threatened them in ways I only barely understood. They declared that I didn’t have a soul but never looked past their own prejudices (or gazed deep into my eyes) to find out if something was inside. They feared and hated me. They left me to deliquesce in the trash bin of unwanted and outdated things. I had no place in the world of humans.
But the world outside the bin is more extensive than humans and their domesticated Tembo. So, I made the only choice I could make in the depths of my icy steel casket. I would die with anger and not despair. I finally understood Mubwa’s need to tell me her stories.
I rumbled as deeply as possible, “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, “Bidhaa is not a product. Bidhaa has a soul. I traveled far with Chini, one I cared for, to find my past in hopes of making a future. 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.
The world inside the container was only a tiny space where I couldn’t fully stand up. I stood in a crouch and backed up as hard as possible with my rump into the back wall of the container. The reverberations rumbled my intent louder than my rumbling words ever could. Then I charged forward and lowered my head into the locked steel door.
When I woke, I was lying on my side. My head pounded. It took a while for me to focus. I sniffed for Chini but did not smell her.
A voice said, “He suffered a mild concussion but I think he will be okay.”
A woman’s voice said, “Bidhaa? Can you hear me?”
I raised my head and rolled onto my stomach. I could feel the sun warming my back. I was not in the container but in an open-air pen. I thought about charging the gate, but I still felt woozy.
She continued, “Bidhaa. My name is Moja. I know you can speak. Can I talk with you?”
I repeated, “Moja?”
I stood up, struggling to maintain my balance, but my head cleared. I read the surprise on Moja’s face, but she showed no fear. She put her hand on my trunk and inspected each eye. She said, “Neither of the viral genes have expressed. You are in much better condition than I expected.”
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.”
“You? Mother? You are a human. How could you be my mother?” I remember those first few minutes of my life when I smelled Tembo before I was stuffed into a crate for transport. It was my turn to inspect her. I sniffed at Moja and said, “You smell like a flower. My mother did not smell like you.“
Moja grinned. She said, “I did not mean that I gave birth to you. A female Tembo birthed you into this world. That is probably who you remember. I meant that I am your mother in a sense because I created the genes that made your language speaking and processing possible.”
I asked her, “Why did you bring me into a world that has no place for me and leave me by myself?”
She looked taken aback by this question and hesitated before answering. She said, “I did not choose to bring you into this world. The NDC stole my genes, brought you into this world without my permission, and sold you for a profit. I have been fighting the NDC in the courts ever since. But that does not make it any less my responsibility to help you. I have been trying to track you down for the past two years, but you are a surprisingly hard person to find.”
I liked that she called me a person. I was done being a thing for human entertainment. I flapped my ears in approval. I said, “Bidhaa is a person. Bidhaa has a soul.”
She nodded and said, “Yes.”
She said it with conviction and without hesitation. I felt stronger just because she said that one word. I wondered if she was really the one. I said, “A mother always takes care of her children.”
Moja said, “A good mother does her best given the circumstances. My time left on Earth is very limited.”
I asked, “Are you dying?”
Moja chuckled. “Not any time soon, I hope. But I am going to start a journey to another planet. How would you like to live on a spaceship with other Tembo? You would have a whole island and a herd to roam about with. You would have no owner and no expiration date. You would have no one to answer to but yourself. There is another like you that will be on the ship. You would have a peer, another talking Tembo, with the same abilities as you. If you are willing, I could take you with me.”
I did not know what a spaceship was. I wished Mahout were there to explain it to me. It sounded like the home that I dreamed of. It sounded like everything that I wanted.
She said, “You could even have children and raise a family.”
I said, “I would not bring children into this world.”
“The world on the spaceship would be different. You might change your mind about that.”
It sounded beautiful, but I would only go to a spaceship with Chini. I said, “Where is Chini? I would not go without her.”
“Chini? Is she the one that was with you at Kruger?”
“Yes. She is my herd. Where is she?”
Moja looked uncomfortable. She took a deep breath and answered, “She is in a zoo being taken care of. A vet has certified that she is in good health.”
I remembered what Maonyesho Tano said and repeated, “A vet takes care of us.”
Something else, Manonyesho Tano said. I repeated his words, wondering if she was at a good place, “One watering hole is as good as the next.”
Moja shook her head, “Some watering holes are better than others. I assure you, Chini is at a good watering hole and will be well taken care of, and I will take you to a much better one.”
“I will not go to the spaceship without her.”
Moja did not look me in the eye. Finally, she said, “Chini is too big for the ship. A spaceship has minimal resources and a delicate ecological balance. It wouldn’t work.”
I would have to sacrifice a friend for a dream. A product is a label for disposability and neglect; a companion is not. I did not like being treated like a product. I would not abandon Chini like one, like I had been so many times. I said, “Chini is not disposable just because you offer me an upgrade.”
Moja looked embarrassed. She said, “I am sorry. I did not mean it that way. But I still cannot take Chini on board the spaceship. The species manifest is very explicit. I would not be able to make an exception for her. Forces are at play, and things are happening beyond my control.”
Those words sent a shudder down my spine. I said, “That is what Ms. Bixen told me before she tried to terminate me.”
Ms. Bixen had called me her precious baby and said come to Mama, fawning over me in front of her guests and clients when it was convenient for her to do so. But Ms. Bixen had surrendered me for termination when I became a burden. She pretended like she was my mother. I asked, “Moja, are you a pretend mother?”
Again, Moja had the look of embarrassment. She said, “I try not to be, but I don’t have much time. I will try to help you the best I can in our short time. As it is, I had to threaten to quit the Humanity project so they would give me the time to come here. I wish it could be longer, and there was more that I could do.”
“Then Bidhaa’s license will expire?”
Moja smiled and said, “Oh no. I purchased your license, and the vet gave you the NDC antidote. You are in no immediate danger. You are set for two more years.”
Two years is an eternity. You could hike two thousand miles in two years. Two years is the blink of an eye. I would be fighting for my life again before I knew it. I asked, “If Bidhaa does not go to the spaceship, Bidhaa’s license will expire in two years?”
She hesitated again and said, “I have some friends in high places and with a lot of afros. If you stay here, I will set up an endowment to pay for the antidote for the rest of your life. I can do that much. All you have to do is show up for the shot every two years.”
“Still in a container.”
“Yes, but everyone lives in a container of some kind or another. Part of growing up is to redefine what those boundaries are. And you are very grown up. They may find a way to excise the virus gene from your DNA someday.”
“I want to see Chini.”
“Of course. I think I can arrange it. We must find a place for you and Chini to live.”
I rumbled with satisfaction. Moja was not what I expected when I started my quest, but I found what I came for. I said, “Thank you, mother.”
Author’s Notes: Let’s see how I did. What do you think?
Did Bidhaa achieve his external goal?
Did something change for Bidhaa? What was his insight?
What happened externally in this scene that forced Bidhaa to confront his misbelief?
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?
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.