Opening Scene

Reading Time: 14 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lady said, “The coffee and tea business must be pretty damn lucrative. You are so privileged to have a designer organism, but aren’t they illegal now?” 

Ms. Bixen said, “No. It’s only illegal to let them breed with natural species. Technically, he shouldn’t be allowed with our African elephant, Mubwa.” Ms. Bixen leaned toward the woman and whispered, “I don’t think there is much danger of that, but let’s keep this between you, me, and the fence post.” I did not understand the meaning of the word illegal and struggled to fathom why the two women would share information with a fence post. 

Another guest said, “Let’s not talk about the elephant in the room.” And they all laughed tremendously. They stopped asking me to do baby talk and went on to conversations about the “Death Star,” saving what little remains of wild places and investing in something called the economy. I needed more context to understand these lofty topics, so they lost interest in me. I was concerned with failing to engage her guests. Ms. Bixen dismissed me, saying I performed excellently. She told me how wonderful I was, and that was all I cared about. I retreated into the invisibility of her lost attention.

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

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

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

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

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

Mubwa had told me about grieving and dying when she talked about her herd. She told me about trunk touching the body to keep the memory of the lost friend. I saw Ms. Bixen look at a picture of Mr. Bixen. And then she smashed it on the floor. The glass splattered into a thousand pieces. She shouted at it just like when he was here and still alive. I think she was trying to destroy the memory of Mr. Bixen, not keep it.

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

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

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

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

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

“One hundred thousand afros. Same as always.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She gasped and said, “Why so much?”

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

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

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

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

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

Mubwa called me an orphan, which she said is a name for one that does not have a mother, though it does not seem that way with her around. She told me I was not manufactured but had a real mother somewhere. She said my mother might still be alive where I came from. Mubwa has always been a mother to me. She said we are alike because we have both lost our herd. I understand her meaning, but I do not think we are alike. She has detailed memories of her herd. I have none. I belong to the Ms. Bixen herd with Mahout, Mubwa, and Kuchota, the dog.

Mubwa has taught me the three languages of the elephant: touch, talk, and rumble. She told me the language of touch is a form of writing for intimacy and secrets. I like the way it feels when we trunk touch. The language of talk is for everyday stuff, like when Mubwa tells me it is time for lessons or to come to eat hay or a banana bunch. 

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

Ms. Bixen had little use for me when she was not entertaining her guests. I spent most of my time playing with Kuchota. He is a simple creature that follows me like a duckling following its mother. He does not speak words I understand, but I can always read his intentions. His tiny legs quiver in anticipation of the sticks and balls I throw for him. We swim in the pond when I grow tired of the fetch game. I spray water into his trusting face every time. He never learns. His angry barking at my treachery delights me to no end. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Could I do that?”

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

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

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

Ms. Bixen never looked at me. She said, “I don’t know how to explain, Bidhaa, but things are happening beyond my control. That asshole husband of mine really screwed me over. I’d kill him myself if he wasn’t dead already.” She stepped closer and rubbed my trunk like she was trying to remember a lost friend. She touched her cheek to mine and then ran off. I did not like being touched like I was a body to grieve. I wanted to hide behind Mubwa for comfort, but I ran to Mahout for explanations instead. 

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

Then Ms. Bixen came to me with the electric prod toting NGC men. They prodded me into the trailer. Despite the pain, I tried to say the cute things that made Ms. Bixen’s guests laugh. I was zapped every time I spoke. Ms. Bixen came into the trailer. She did not come close, and two men stood between us with shocking sticks. She shouted, “Because of you, I had to return Mahout. You’ve ruined my career and made me a miserable woman.” I lowered my head to reflect my shame. “Mr. Bixen worked himself to death because of you, working so hard to pay for your food, and all you do is play with that stupid dog.” Even in the darkness, I could see that she was fighting off the tears. She blubbered, “You are not an elephant and you aren’t a human. You don’t belong anywhere. You are worthless and don’t deserve to live.” Ms. Bixen ran from the trailer, and the men backed out, never taking their eyes off me. They shut the door behind them, leaving me in complete darkness. 

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

I rumbled to ask for help. I knew the humans couldn’t hear the rumblings, and they would not attract their attention. No one answered my rumblings. I stood up, squeezing my way to the door, stood on my hind legs, and tried to push it open with all my weight. The door didn’t budge. I tried again and again. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no goodbye. Mubwa closed the large gate, and I stood outside the compound alone under the light of a half moon. It was the loneliest feeling I have ever had, running from a life that no longer existed. 

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

In the lost distance, I heard Kuchota bark. I fought the urge to feel sadness. I imagined the barking getting closer and louder. And then Kuchota was walking at my side, wagging his tail and panting. I never believed I could be so grateful for the companionship of this so-easy-to-please beast. We set off in the moonless dark together, following the road Mubwa said would lead to Neyere.

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

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

Featured image by Craiyon.

Baby Bidhaa

Reading Time: 7 minutes

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?

  1. What does the protagonist go into the scene believing?
  2. Why does the protagonist believe it?
  3. What is the protagonist’s goal in the scene?
  4. What does the protagonist expect?

Here goes again.

 I remember my first steps. I stumbled and fell to the ground before I managed to keep my feet under me. Water drops fell from the sky. I smelt a comforting smell that I was drawn to. I now recognize that smell as elephant, maybe even my mother. Could I identify the owner by its memory?

I heard shouting and a sharp prod in my hind quarters. I was pushed into a crate into which I barely fit, and it went dark like I was being unborn. I thrashed in my container, but I didn’t have the strength to break out of it. I did not have enough room to turn around.

The cage rattled and bounced. I thought I would fall over again many times. I didn’t have enough space to fall over. I smelt foul odors that burned my eyes and breathed dust so thick I coughed and coughed so hard I thought my lungs were coming out of my throat. When the rattling stopped, I heard the words of humans, “I have an Intelliphant here from Kruger.” I did not know then that the place I was sent to was Nairobi. I now know Kruger is a place farther than the greatest migrations of elephants. 

The top opened, and the brightness hurt my eyes. A man pushed a milk bottle toward my head. I instinctively pulled it into my mouth and drank until it was empty. It soothed my throat, and the empty feeling in my stomach disappeared. I wanted desperately to get close to the man with the bottle, but the cage lid closed when the milk was gone, and I was in darkness again.

The container opened once again. Two men with painful sticks led me from one crate to another. The ground was hard and cold in the cage. The light was dim. I found it difficult to sleep. Strange sounds frightened me, and acrid burning odors smelling like my urine permeated the air. I wanted to hide but could only curl up against the cage bars in one of the corners. My whole body felt nauseous. I thought I would go to sleep and never wake up.

I was in the cage alone for a long time. I despaired for the comfort of another. Men came to the cell. I heard one say, “Bidhaa?” Another answered, “Yes.” One of the men entered and walked over to me. He inspected my trunk, twisting it in ways I did not like, and spread my eyes open, unhappy with how bloodshot they had become, but I did not move from my prone position. He patted me on my head in a comforting way. I lifted my head and said, “Bidhaa.” The man laughed, repeated “Bidaa,” and stroked my trunk. I thought that was my name. It wasn’t until later that I learned that “Bidhaa” means product. Despite my wretchedness, I managed to sit up. 

The man pointed to himself and said, “Trainer,” but I did not respond. 

When the man left, I could feel my heart sink like a rock in a pond. But he came right back with a bright green ball. He rolled it around under his foot and then moved it from one foot to another. I watched, mesmerized by the toy. Trainer allowed me to touch the ball with my trunk and push it around, but when I stood up, he took it away. When I tried retrieving it from him, the man shouted, “No!” He pointed to himself and said, “Trainer.” He grasped my throat gently with his hand and said, “Say it. Trainer.” He waited and then said again, “Trainer.”

I shook my head from side to side anxiously, not understanding what he wanted me to do and desperately wanting to see that ball again. He squeezed my throat harder and moved his hand like he wanted me to swallow, saying, “Trainer.” Finally, I understood his meaning and uttered something like “Trainer.” He smiled and scratched me on the back of my head. Then he pointed to me and said, “Bidaa. Bidaa.” The name had stuck, and I repeated it back to him. The man dropped the ball to the ground and kicked it at me. I watched the ball bounce off the cage’s bars and bounce back. The man had to show me how to play. I chased after that ball for five or ten minutes before exhausting myself completely. I wanted to go over and cuddle up against the man, but each time he prodded me with a sharp stick and yelled, “No!”

I had no sense of time back then. I don’t know if I was in the cage for weeks, months, or even longer. But the lessons continued. I learned to speak in this way, trading language for toys. My favorite was the small pool where I would splash and play with an intertube. I learned “pool,” “ball,” “walk,” “eat,” “toy,” and many other words. I was never fed until Trainer was satisfied with my progress for the day.

I listened to the sounds of the workers who cleaned my cage and fed me. I did not know it then, but the workers spoke Swahili while Trainer taught me noun-verb English. I also learned words and watched images on a flatscreen which the humans turned on when they were not around to care for or teach me. It was a long time before I realized I was not a human, not understanding until later that the face in the reflection of the calm pool water was my own. 

Then they started bringing in items that were not toys, like couches, chairs, and flatscreens. If I started to play with them, I was zapped and prodded. I learned to wait for Trainer’s signal on whether I was allowed to investigate the new object. 

And then he started bringing in humans. If I approached the humans, I would be swatted. If they came to me and I backed away, I would be swatted. So I stood there without flexing so much as my trunk muscle. And still, I was swatted. I had to learn to read the minds of the humans in their gestures and facial expressions and show an appropriate response. If they smiled, I bobbed my head and flapped my ears like I was happy. If they looked angry, I would lower my head in deference. If they wanted me to be curious about something they wanted to show me, I would look interested trying to touch it with my trunk. I felt none of these things. If I was too clever or wordy, I was swatted. Mostly, they wanted me to utter simple words for their amusement. Only when they ignored me was I to become rigid as if happily anticipating their subsequent commands.

One day, Trainer said I was ready. I didn’t know what I was ready for. I was moved. When the truck stopped, I was chained with shackles about my ankles and led down a ramp into the outdoors. The light was blinding. I could not imagine a light so overwhelming. I had never seen the sun before. I was led into an enclosure and abandoned once again. I sniffed at the intoxicating mix of smells and listened to a symphony of sounds. I felt the soft dirt on the pads of my feet.

When my eyes finally adjusted to the intense light, I saw my first elephant, a massive creature in a neighboring pen. She smelt like but not quite the same as Mother. Seeing an elephant and remembering the reflection from the pool, I realized that I was a creature like these. The giant elephant approached and reached its trunk through the cage to touch and smell me. I was not trained in the expressions of elephants, but I recognized the gesture as one of curiosity. So returning the reach of its trunk with my I own, I said, “I am Bidhaa.” 

The massive creature dropped its trunk and backed away from the fence. I recognized its new emotion as distrust. I could not help myself. I so wanted the attention of this creature that was my likeness. So I ran toward her, and she bellowed out in anger. I froze and lowered my head. In words I didn’t recognize then, she said, “Why is it that you speak the language of the humans?” 

I did not know that I spoke the words of the humans. Over the days, I realized that just like humans, it is best to mimic the emotion of the other, even if that is not how you feel. I managed to strike up a cautious friendship with the beast. I learned that her name was “Kujuana.” Kujuana taught me my first words in elephant. She did not talk to me in the touch language I still had no knowledge of, but I did learn the elephant equivalent of the human handshake by trunk touching and sniffing.

Several humans came to visit. When they stood outside the gate of my enclosure, I overheard them. One human who said, “I am from the Nature Development Company,” wished to know whether the other humans wished to “buy” me. I did not know what the word meant, and it is precisely because I didn’t that I felt an uneasiness that was the same feeling I had when I ate disagreeable food. 

It was only a short time in the outdoor pen before I met Mr. and Mrs. Bixen. When I said, “I am Bidhaa,” a look of astonishment crossed Mrs. Bixen’s face that I wasn’t sure how to respond to. 

The salesman said, “Say hello to Mrs. Bixen.” 

I dutifully replied, “Hello, Mrs. Bixen.”

Mrs. Bixen looked more eager than ever. She said, “Oh, Dennis, we simply must have Bidhaa.”

Mr. Bixen replied, “Of course, Karen. He will make a wonderful pet and companion for you when I am away.”

I read Mr. Bixen’s emotion as one of tolerance rather than happiness. I did not know how to respond, so I remained frozen.

The salesman said, “Let’s return to my office to do the paperwork.”

Doing the paperwork meant the end of my brief stay with Kujuana. Even though Kujuana did not understand the language of the humans, she understood that I would be leaving. The gestures of hello and goodbye are the same in Elephant. We touched and sniffed one last time. The word for goodbye in elephant means, “I will remember you if we meet again.” It was the last time I saw Kujuana.

Picture by Craiyon

The Laws of Nature

Reading Time: 6 minutes

This is my attempt at an “Origin Scene,” as prescribed by “Story Genius.” 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?

  1. What does the protagonist go into the scene believing?
  2. Why does the protagonist believe it?
  3. What is the protagonist’s goal in the scene?
  4. What does the protagonist expect?

Here goes:

I live on a plantation in the highlands of Eastern Tanzania, not far from the Mangara Airstrip, with a human woman named Ms. Bixen, a matriarchal elephant named Mubwa, and a dog named Kuchota. Mubwa is not my biological mother, but she has cared for me the best she can for my first eight years of life. I have no memories of my mother. 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 calls me Tugwa, taking on her family sound. She says it means first daughter. She says we are alike because we have both lost our herd. I understand her meaning, but I do not think we are alike. She lost her herd, but I am at home with mine. 

My days are full and happy. I spend the mornings playing with Kuchota. 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 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.”

On most nights, Mubwa teaches me the stories of her days as the matriarch of a large herd. She tells me of her life outside the compound of the plantation, of playing with the many young ones, and of great travels. She chokes with sadness as she relives her tales but pushes forward because she wishes to pass on the memories of her legacy to me. The herd traveled hundreds of miles in the backcountry for food, water, and mates. Mubwa insists that I remember the map of her travels though I do not know why. I have never been outside the compound, nor do I wish to leave it. I am more afraid than curious. I asked her if she traveled to Kruger Park in South Africa, but she did not know of such a place.

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 normal 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. On the nights when Ms. Bixen has guests, I am made to say words in the human language, though her guests seem to have little interest in talking to me.

I have also learned much from something called a flatscreen that shows things from 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 while I lived in the compound. It is why I do not wish to leave it. And I do not watch the flatscreen anymore.

Mubwa wears leg irons and is not permitted to approach the ranchhouse as I am. I have asked Mahout why it must be so. The Mahout says it is for her own good. I am allowed onto the veranda of the ranchhouse, usually to amuse Ms. Bixen’s guests. My speech amuses most of her guests to no end, but it frightens a few greatly. One of her lady guests asked, “You are so privileged to have a designer, but aren’t they illegal now?” Ms. Bixen said, “I acquired Tugwa before the law changed so I think he is still legal, but let’s keep this between you, me, and the fence post.” I did not understand the meaning of the words designer and illegal and struggled to fathom why the two women would share information with a fence post. 

A man in a suit stopped by one day. He said he was from “The Nature Development Company.” I did not know this word company but inferred it was some kind of human-like herd. The man 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 overhear the conversation in the distance. The man said, “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.” 

I asked Mahout what this meant. He said, “They are talking about Mubwa, you, and the other animals, though I think they are mostly interested in you, Tugwa.” I asked him why, and he shrugged. I asked him what sell meant. He said, “Don’t you worry about it,” but I saw the water come down his face before he looked away. For elephants, tearing is good health, but for humans, not good. 

Ms. Bixen had many tears when Mr. Bixen died. Mahout told me to die meant he would never return, and Ms. Bixen was very sad. She had the same tears in her eyes when the man in the suit from the “Nature Development Company” left the plantation.

I asked her, “Why is there so much sadness here when I am so happy?” 

She said, “I don’t know how to explain to you, but things are happening beyond my control.” She stepped closer to me and rubbed my trunk like she was trying to talk in the touch language of elephants. She 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 elephant’s 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 Tugwa dead in three days. Sadness and despair are lethal to you in ways they are not to anyone or anything else. You must never give into sadness or despair. You must fight for your life even if have to become angry.”

I remember the words, but the advice made no sense. I nodded yes like I understood, but I did not. Why would I be sad? Why should I be angry? I didn’t feel sad or angry. 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.