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The Elephant Who Could Play The Violin
written by: Ricky Hawthorne
Once upon a time…well, actually I shouldn’t begin like that. That opening is usually reserved for fairy tales and this is no fairy tale. This is a true story, but I won’t tell you how I know that; not just yet.
Some time ago in Kenya, a country in Africa, lived a little girl called Jenny. Her father was a hunter and organized safaris for people from all over the world.
Unlike today’s safaris, people used to shoot and kill the animals. Lions, wildebeest, and elephants would be stalked on these safaris and their killers would take home their skins or other parts of their bodies as trophies.
Jenny could not understand why and she asked her mummy one night to explain.
“They pay a lot of money Jenny” she’d say.
“But there’s no contest” Jenny answered.
“What do you mean” said her mother, a little confused with her daughter’s inquisitiveness.
“In school, I won the music trophy didn’t I?”
“Last year - for playing your violin - yes sweetheart, I remember.”
“And I beat Lisa, John, and Rebecca.”
“We were very proud of you. They were all so very good on their own instruments, but I did tell you left-handed musicians can sometimes be particularly gifted.”
“I didn’t cheat did I?”
“How could you?”
“But if I did you would be angry.”
“Of course, cheating is wrong –we’ve always told you that.”
“Why do you let them cheat then?”
“The people who come and kill the animals.”
“Why is that cheating?”
“I don’t see any lions carrying guns.”
Her mother smiled, as she finally understood which path her precocious daughter was leading her up, but as she had no logical answer to Jenny’s perceptive inquiry she could only pat her head softly and send her to bed.
One particularly hot day Jenny looked out of her bedroom window and saw another safari getting ready. The ‘hunters’, or as Jenny called them, bullies, stayed in lodges adjoining her house. They were loading up her father’s jeeps with a macabre combination of packed lunches and rifles.
She was never allowed to accompany her father on any of these ‘slaughter trips’ but decided on a whim, as children do sometimes, to sneak onto the back of one of the jeeps and discover why adults found it fun to hurt defenseless animals. It was a tradition for the hunters to drink a toast before they left; something her father insisted came from the ‘old country.’
While they did this she snuck under the flap of a large canvass held in the rear of the last jeep in the convoy. It was very hot but she’d been clever enough to bring a canteen of water and a sandwich she’d made the night before.
Jenny fell asleep unaware that they’d driven for a couple of hours but was shaken awake by the sound of half a dozen brakes being applied and a cacophony of excited voices. She peeled back the flap carefully and looked out onto the plain. Within seconds a troupe of elephants entered the periphery of her vision. There were several adults and three small babies and they walked trunk to tail. Jenny was at once both awed by their majesty and in fear for their safety.
No sooner had she experienced these conflicting emotions than a large boom cracked the air above her and she instinctively buried her head. She recovered her nerve just long enough to look back out onto the plain and see one of the elephants collapse. She began to sob. Above her cheers and celebrations broke out. The rest of the herd scattered but one of the babies was left behind. It lingered by the body of the dead elephant.
Jenny heard guns being loaded. She knew she had to act and threw herself out from the back of the jeep. “No! No! No!” she cried waving her arms and running toward the baby elephant. Behind her guns were lowered in shock and a certain parent was bewildered as to what his daughter was doing fifty miles from home. Her father leapt out of the truck but Jenny refused to come back until he promised to bring the baby elephant home. Impatiently he agreed and they captured and tethered the animal to the back of the jeep with Jenny sitting upright this time, as sentry, ensuring that nobody would let loose the elephant and that no harm came to it.
She did not want to look at what they did to its mother.
Back home her father tied the elephant to a tree next to Jenny’s bedroom window and his daughter went straight to her room to continue her sojourn whilst her mother and father engaged in an argument blaming each other for Jenny’s escapade. The baby elephant stood there all day, its trunk lolling, as if in shock or incomprehension.
Jenny waited until the sun set behind the lone acacia tree which sat on the trail that ran from the farm onto the plain, and went to sleep.
She was awoken by the sound of crying and wondered if she’d been weeping in her sleep. But no, the noise was coming from outside. She went to the window. The night sky was a myriad of stars – she always remembered that because it was the one thing she missed when her parents moved to London. It was the baby elephant that was crying. It sounding like a dog whimpering and Jenny was heartbroken because she could not bring its mother back.
“I know what I’ll do” Jenny said and went to fetch her violin. She perched herself on the window sill and played a melancholy tune she’d learnt the year before. The baby stopped mewing and turned toward her. It was the first time she’d moved since being tied up.
“That’s beautiful” the elephant said.
“Gosh!” gasped Jenny “Can you talk?” and stopped playing immediately.
“Please carry on” the elephant insisted and Jenny did so feeling obliged.
"You play a different instrument than your father” said the elephant, “It has a sweeter sound.”
“I never heard an animal talk before.”
“Perhaps it’s because we animals are good at listening. You play very well.”
“I’ve won trophies at school” Jenny beamed, showing off to her new friend like we all do.
“Am I another trophy like my mother?”
“No! You’re safe with me; what’s your name?” Jenny promised.
“Philyra. My father named me. Does your father play that?” the baby enquired.
“No – he’s not very musical.”
“Perhaps he should learn?”
“He’s too busy.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that. Are you busy?”
“Then teach me, will you?”
“How could you play?” Jenny laughed.
“How could I talk?” the elephant retorted.
Convinced, Jenny showed the elephant how to bow and pluck and then performed some simple tunes that required less complex fingering. Nevertheless, she doubted that the animal could hold the bow, never mind pluck a string. But the elephant watched her intensely, taking in every detail of her delicate instrumentation. Jenny rounded off her recitation with Air on a G String.
“Who wrote that?” the elephant asked.
“Bach, I believe” said Jenny.
“I would like to play that.”
“Here” Jenny said handing over the violin and bow.
The elephant sat back on its haunches and gathered the instrument into its chest. Whilst Jenny waited and wondered how on earth the animal would accomplish this feat, a guttural noise came from the darkness. Jenny gazed out into the blackness and saw three pairs of glowing eyes, knowing they almost certainly were attached to the heads of three Hyenas.
“Look out” she cried to the elephant, but rather than panic, it grasped the violin even closer to its chest and closed its eyes as if anticipating its own death.
Out of the night strolled the three parasites looking for an easy kill. They didn’t snarl as much as man: they knew that in the hierarchy of killing they outranked the elephant. However, they came forward slowly, even reticently, despite there being three of them to one.
Jenny was transfixed. She knew that she couldn’t fight them off and by the time she ran to her parents' room the Hyenas would have carried off the baby elephant’s carcass. In a panic, she searched her room for anything she could throw at the Hyenas but could see nothing useful there but a succession of dolls. Unselfishly she grabbed her favourite and largest doll in the vain hope that it may distract the hunters long enough for her to scream and get her parents.
She turned back toward the window again to hear the most extraordinary thing. Outside in the dark blue night, the most exquisite melody she’d ever heard was being played on a violin. She ran to see who the player was and was so astonished she had to hold onto the sill to stop herself from collapsing.
The elephant had Jenny’s violin pressed against its heart. The bow was on the ground untouched. Although the instrument appeared to be singing itself the composer could only be the baby elephant. What was even more magical was that the hyenas had sat down to listen. They had put their teeth and claws away and when the elephant had finished playing they padded off like three dogs that’d been given three very large bones.
“Thank you for teaching me” the elephant said to Jenny.
“But how did I?”
“One day you’ll know” and handed back the violin to Jenny and went to sleep on the ground.
Jenny fell back into bed overcome with the magic of the events that had just unfolded and slipped into a deep sleep herself; when she woke in the morning there was no sign of the baby elephant. Her parents assumed it had either slipped the noose or had been dragged away by scavengers but they ensured that Jenny never managed to stowaway on a safari again.
Years later after her mum died, her father moved them both to England where Jenny became a teacher of music. She never attained the prestige of being a virtuoso or a valuable member of a world famous orchestra. It was as if she understood that she would never replicate the music that the baby elephant played that night.
In time Jenny met a wonderful man, Tom, who she wished to marry and settle down with. Her fiancé was a teacher at the same school where Jenny worked, although his expertise was in Physics. She fell in love with him after she told him about the baby elephant and because he didn’t scorn or disbelieve her. He told her that Physics was like that to him. He had never invented any ground-breaking equations or laws like Newton or Einstein but he knew in the hearts of these great scientists there must have been a baby elephant that helped them discover magical equations such as E=MC
Her father could not disguise his disappointment that Jenny turned her back on a professional career and disproved of her choice of a husband. He had always imagined his daughter marrying a leading political figure or a president, someone who he thought was important in his eyes and the eyes of the world, but to Jenny, Tom was the most important man she’d ever met.
So her father didn’t attend her wedding and for many years they never saw each other, even after Jenny and Tom had an addition to the family; a baby girl. Nevertheless, Jenny wrote to her father regularly because the elephant in her heart would not allow her to bear a grudge.
Tom and Jenny were both successful teachers and loved by their pupils. Whilst Tom inspired many great unsung heroes in the field of physics, Jenny pioneered a love of music to all of her pupils and the school was exemplary in the field of education and good manners. I know this as I was one of Jenny’s pupils and became the virtuoso she promised to be.
At a very young age I was considered a protégé and nowadays I travel the world playing to people of all nations and all tongues, but I have never forgotten the place that grew me and I have been back to visit Jenny many times, because Jenny not only taught me to play the violin but she’s my mother as well; but you’d already guessed that, hadn’t you?
One June evening when I was sixteen years old I was giving a concert at the fabulous Sydney Opera house in Australia. After the concert, my mother and I were in my dressing room when a knock came on the door. When I opened it an old man walked in. He was very thin and looked quite unwell. His eyes were sad and empty as if he had lost something precious.
Suddenly my mother embraced him. I could see tears pouring out of the old man’s eyes uncannily drawing them back into life again as though some kind of bad poison was leaving him. After a couple of minutes they stopped cuddling, just enough for my mother to glance over toward me and say: “Momenta, this is your Grandfather.”
I was stunned. My mother had mentioned him, not in a bad way, but I had never seen him before, only in old photographs. Other kids had grandparents who they adored but I’d grown up with just my mum and dad. I didn’t know how to react. Then he spoke to me.
“Momenta”, he said, “That is a beautiful name, and you play beautifully, and left-handed I noticed like your mother when she was your age.”
“Better”, answered my mum, “and do you know why.”
My Grandfather gazed at her, his eyes iridescent, as if he knew what she was going to say, but my mother turned to me and said: “Why don’t you tell your Grandfather the story, Momenta?”
And so he sat down in the corner and I told him about the night my mother knew I would be a great violinist.
“It happened this way. I was about 13 and had been playing the violin since I was 6. My mother told me that technically I was very advanced for my age but that I needed to listen to my heart as well as interpret through my fingers. I didn’t understand so she told me the story about the baby elephant that could play the violin.”
My Grandfather giggled in merriment, and remembering how I’d laughed at the time, began to chuckle too. Looking back now I am so happy we did that.
“The next day” I continued, “after school I was practicing in my room when my mother came in. Her face was ashen and she was a little shaken. At first, I thought something had happened to Dad and put down my violin instantly.
‘Where did you learn that?’ she asked me.
‘What’ I replied.
‘That tune you were playing.’
‘Oh’ I said, relieved, ‘that’s just something that came into my head this morning.’
‘But that’s the tune the elephant played to me.’
“I was a little shocked; I really thought it had been a kind of fable.” My Grandfather nodded strangely in response.
“’No’ she murmured, her lips trembling, ‘every word was true.’
‘Mum’ I answered, ‘I’m a teenager now you know; I’m a bit past all the fairy tales. I’ve probably heard you playing that tune before. That’s where I got it from.’
‘I’ve never played that tune. I knew that I would never play that tune as beautiful as the baby elephant did. I knew that even as a little girl. I came through your bedroom door convinced I would see Philyra again.’
‘Why would you expect to see an elephant?’ I said.
‘Because you played it as beautifully as she did.’
“And that’s when my mum knew I would be a great musician.”
My Grandfather had stopped crying now and took my left hand in his right and walking over to my mother he also grabbed her left hand and then he kissed us both on the forehead and put both our hands against his heart.
He only lived another six months but he followed me everywhere I played. After his funeral, I asked my mother why she thought he’d come back to her.
“He put an elephant in his heart, and took out the elephant gun.”
And the moral of this true story is…well, actually I don’t need to spell that out to you because as this is a children’s story and no adults are reading, you knew that already didn’t you?
Graduate of Warwick University
Triple honors in Literature, Theater and Film