Friday, November 5, 2010

How the elephant got its trunk

The U.K.'s Daily Mail pointed out life imitating art in a recent photograph taken by amateur photographer Johan Opperman in the Kruger National Park in South Africa, so I offer a retelling of one of the Just So Stories by British novelist Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936):

In olden times, the elephant had no trunk, just a bulgy nose that wiggled, but was useless for picking things up. This fact and many others were questioned by a juvenile Elephant brimming with insatiable curiosity. He asked the Ostrich, why her tail-feathers grew the way they did and instead of an answer received a blow from her hard, hard claw. He asked the Giraffe what made his skin spotty, and was answered with a spanking from his hard, hard hoof. He asked the Hippopotamus why her eyes were red, and she swatted him, too. Every question - about what he saw, or heard, or felt, or smelt, or touched - was met with a spanking, but the Elephant's curiosity was left unsatisfied! It occurred to the young Elephant to ask, "What does the Crocodile have for dinner?" As a group, the animals hushed him loudly and spanked him immediately. When he put the question individually to the Kokolo Bird, the Elephant's child was sent to the Limpopo River to find out. He gathered lots of bananas, sugar cane, and melons for the journey, and said goodbye to the other animals. They spanked him once more for luck, even though he asked them most politely to stop. He went on his way, dropping melon rinds in his tracks because he could not pick them up.

The Elephant found the river just as described, but did not know what to expect because he had never before seen a Crocodile. Coming upon a Python, he asked where the Crocodile could be found and what he had for dinner. Without answering, the Python struck him with his scalesome, flailsome tail. Thinking this odd, the Elephant thanked him just the same. When he stepped on a log at the edge of the river, it winked an eye. It was the Crocodile! The Elephant was unaware that he had found the animal he sought, even when the Crocodile winked his other eye and lifted his tail out of the mud. The Crocodile beckoned the youngster closer and revealed who he was. "It is you I seek!," exclaimed the Elephant. "Please tell me, what do you eat for dinner?" Promising to whisper the answer in his ear, the Crocodile grabbed his little nose in his musky, tusky mouth and offered to show him. The Elephant screamed in surprise and pain. The Python heard his cries and suggested that he pull as hard as he could. Sitting back on his haunches, the Elephant pulled, but the Crocodile held on, so the nose began to stretch. The Elephant pulled, and the Crocodile thrashed, and the nose kept stretching until it was 5 feet long. As his legs began to slip, the Elephant was helped by the Python and at last pulled free of the Crocodile.

The Elephant's child thanked the snake and then hung his sore nose in the river to shrink. He soaked his nose for 3 days, but it got no smaller. A fly bit him on the shoulder, and the Elephant was able to kill it by hitting it with his trunk. At the Python's suggestion, he then used the trunk to pick up, dust off, and eat a large bundle of grass. Feeling the heat from the sun, the Elephant was able to use his trunk to scoop up some mud from the riverbank and slather it on his head. He then headed home, frisking and whisking his trunk and using it to pull fruit down from the trees, pluck grass up from the ground, and make himself a new mud-cap whenever the sun was hot. As he sang, the tune reverberated down his trunk sounded louder than several brass bands. When he got home, the animals all teased him about his nose, and threatened to spank him for his insatiable curiosity. Instead, he took a swipe at his brothers with his new nose and sent them tumbling. When the Baboon called his trunk ugly, he used it to grab him by the leg and throw him into a hornet's nest. He pulled out the Ostrich's tail-feathers, dragged the Giraffe by the hind leg through a thorn bush, and blew bubbles into the ear of the Hippopotamus as she slept in the water. He did not, however, swat the Kolokolo Bird. The other Elephants hurried to the Limpopo River to get their new noses from the Crocodile. They returned with trunks like that of the insatiable Elephant's child and from that time on, there has been no more spanking.

* In my retelling, the story admittedly loses some of its charm. If you prefer, you may read or listen to the original here.

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