A Smile from the past and other stories
BABY BIG-FOOT’S FIRST LESSON
“Why can’t I ? why ?” Baby Big-Foot stamped impatiently, and tried to reach a bamboo shoot just out of his reach.
Mother Big-Foot looked down at him indulgently and blew away some flies which had settled on his head with her trunk.
“Because you are not big enough yet, that’s why”, she said indulgently, reaching for the shoot absentmindedly and handing it down to him.
“But I am big – I am ! I’m bigger than a jackal. I’m bigger than a goat. I – I’m bigger than a calf ! I’m getting bigger and bigger all the time “, he added hopefully.
“May-be you’re not old enough, though, all the same. And as long as you’re only a baby for your own safety you must do everything I tell you, and not try to do things on your own”.
“But – why – “Baby Big-Foot was beginning again when he caught sight of his father bearing down upon them. It did not do to argue with Father Big-Foot, and the little elephant decided to keep his questions to himself until he had got his mother again on her own.
Father had something to tell them all, and presently the whole heard of elephants had moved off to a valley beyond the forest, where the maze was almost ripe and ready for cutting.
It’s not too close to the village”, baby Big-Foot’s father had said, so if we get there early, there is no reason why we shouldn’t finish most of the fields, before the Man People even know we are there “.
And so the whole herd set off together, the young ones in the middle, and it was some hours before the valley was finally reached and the elephants broke ranks. Baby Big-foot had already smelt a smell which had filled him with curiousity. He had never smelt it before, and was determined to find out what it was, slipping away from the rest of the herd, made his way down a narrow footpath leading through the fields of maze towards some big trees. As he got nearer to them, a thin blue spiral of smoke would have told him that somewhere there must be men about, had he not been too young and innocent yet to know anything about them.
Brash and ignorant he stumbled on, trembling with curiosity. This was fun – to be right away from his mother and the rest of the herd, with no one to curb his curiously or to call him back ! Suddenly he saw in front of his something he had never seen before. Some sticks and grass had been built into a rough shelter, and lying in front of it were two human figures, asleep.
His trunk held out in front of him to pick up their scent, Baby Big-Foot advanced cautiously. He had nearly reached them when something underneath him snapped with the report of a pistol shot, and the two sleeping figures rose to their feet and stood confronting him.
Baby Big-Foot was too terrified to move. He stood rooted to the ground until something suddenly told him that his only hope was to run back to the rest of herd as quickly as possible. He wheeled and started running, but he had only gone a few yards when his foot caught in the root of a tree, and he crashed to the ground, the two youths on top of him.
What happened next he did not really know. He only knew that one of the boys had somehow produced a long hard rope like magic, and the next moment it was round his neck, and he was being dragged back in the direction of the hut, the boys shouting meanwhile as loudly as they could for help.
It was not long before the whole valley seemed to be full of humans. Humans who carried spears and other weapons, and who shouted to each other as they ran towards the maze fields.
Baby Big-Foot could not stop trembling as he strained at the rope that tied him to the tree, and wondered if his father and mother and the rest of the herd would get away in time.
The day slowly wore on. Gradually the human had returned from the fields. Groups came and stared at him, and he was given some milk in a dirty bucket, and later on some sugar cane. He had no heart to eat or drink, however. He wanted nothing but to be back at his mother’s side telling her how sorry he was that he had not obeyed her orders, and promising that he would always do so in future. He did not know, however if he would ever see her again,and his heart became heavier and heavier, as hungry, thirsty and lonely, he wished again and again that he had never left her side.
At last the sun went down and night fell. Baby Big-Foot fell into a fitful sleep, and dreamed that his mother was beside him fondling him with his trunk. Then suddenly he was wide awake. Except for the cry of a distant stillness, all the same, he knew that something had woken him. It took him some time to realize what it was, and then his dream came back to him and he recognized the smell of his mother.
Baby Big-Foot strained his eyes in the darkness but could see nothing. And then suddenly he realized something. The dark shape which was standing motionless against a clump of trees was not a rock as he had thought but outline of an elephant. His first instinct was to call out to her to tell her where he was, but something held him back. As silent and still as a little statue he stood instead, straining his eyes in the darkness to see her better. Quite suddenly he realized that she was moving – moving in complete silence, but slowly and steadily getting nearer. Straining at the rope he tried to reach her as she came gradually nearer. An then suddenly, in elephant language, which can when it wants to be, be completely silent, he knew that she was talking to him.
“Don’t make a sound “, she was saying, “but just obey me and do exactly as I say “. She had reached him now, and her trunk was already on the rope. “Now – when I tell you to PULL !”.
Baby Big-Foot needed no second bidding. At the word of command he strained every nerve in his body in the same direction that his mother was pulling, and the next moment was thrown forward on to his trunk, as the rope suddenly snapped.
“Run !” Baby-Big Foot was ready enough to obey his mother now. In a second he was on his feet, running as fast as his short legs could carry him, following his mother down the narrow path which led to the other side of the maze field. Shouts behind him only made him run faster and it was not until they had reached the safety of the forest, and all human sounds had faded, that his legs gave way beneath him, and he crashed down into the long grass and ferns that fringed a forest pool.
His mother stood over him, pouring cooling water over his head and tired body, but not uttering a word of reproach.
At last he braved himself to look up at her. She was not looking angry, however, and his fear melted.
“I know I shouldn’t have gone so far away “, he apologized humbly. “I’ll never say I’m big again – not till I really am – and I’ll never leave you again, never !”
And in case you have ever seen an elephant smile, that is exactly what Mother Big-Foot did then.
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