News for the ‘Written Word’ Category

A Daguerreotype

Business had long since migrated to the western and southern parts of the city, when I turned onto Graybar Street on an especially chilly and overcast day. The area had an abandoned and specter-like quality.

But fifteen or twenty yards away in the direction of the waterfront, a dog … a beagle, was dragging or pulling another dog by its front paw. The dog being pulled lay on its side and did not move. Around the larger dogs hovered two beagle puppies.

On the other side of Graybar Street a woman stepped off the curb and moved slowly in my direction, walking with a noticeable limp. When my attention returned to the dogs, I was surprised to now see two children, a girl and a boy, possibly ten or eleven, standing a few feet from the animals. Both the children, I was certain, were crying.

The woman stepped onto the sidewalk. She wore a brown coat with a tattered collar and clutched a faded green shopping bag in her right hand. The woman nodded. She was about my age I thought. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that.” I motioned in the direction of the dogs.

The woman put her shopping bag down.” The children were jumping on the dog.”


“Playing with the dog. In their way.”

“The dog isn’t moving.”

“I think they may have killed it,” the woman said calmly.

“What?” I stared at the boy and the girl. Both of them were pale and kept rubbing their noses. Their clothes were worn and shabby, clearly not from the privileged class.

“She must have cared for him.”


“She is pulling the male dog.”

“The children ought to help.”

“It’s never clear is it,” she remarked.

When I turned to answer her, she was already limping down the street. I watched as she disappeared around the corner, a faint aroma of cheap, homemade soap trailing after her. The sky to the west began to darken, and I saw flickering lights behind the sullen clouds.

The dogs and the two children were farther away. But what I had not realized before was the steep descent of the street, nearly a forty-five degree angle I estimated. Not only was the scene receding off into the distance, but it was also slipping below the horizon because of the precipitous incline of Graybar Street.

I glanced at my watch. I knew I should be getting on my way. I had come to this part of the city as I was to meet Madoc Gelker at the pier on a Liberian steamer, which was owned by a Panamanian holding company, supposedly belonging to a firm in Singapore, whose principal stockholders, I’d been informed by my accountant, were three Hungarians and four Chinese businessmen from Shanghai.

The dogs and the children had now vanished from sight. I decided to follow them as long as they continued in the general direction where  I needed to be. I was naturally curious.

I reached the beginning of the incline and stared downward. In the distance the female dog still pulled her mate, the puppies hovered nearby, and the two children continued to rub their eyes and noses. Jagged lacerations of light snarled from the west, beginning to now push aside the cloud curtains.

I was annoyed, I realized that. Of course the children ought to be helping in some way. Was something wrong with them? The sky continued to darken, and I turned up the collar of my overcoat and adjusted my homburg.

I started down Graybar Street and within a few minuted I felt the tightness in my thighs as I tried to control my pace. A small box-like house squeezed between two decaying brownstones took shape in the distance. Could that be where they live?

The dogs and the children arrived at the bottom of the street. I halted. They were indeed heading for the small house. I wondered who might open the door. For a brief moment they waited by the door, almost frozen in place I thought. The boy then pushed open the door. The one dog pulled the other dog inside, followed by the puppies, then the girl, and finally the boy. The door closed.

I looked at my watch once again; I did not have a lot of time to get to my appointment. All the same I could not shake off my growing curiosity. Was it also somehow vaguely familiar … in some obscure way? I glanced over my shoulder in the direction where I had just come from. No one was in sight.

At the bottom of the street I stopped and stared at the house. What could I possibly say? That I was following children? There had been an incident many years before regarding an eleven year old girl, only indirectly involving me, but nevertheless not one I wished repeated. It had turned out to be a nasty bit of business.

I knocked tentatively at the door. And waited. I knocked again, this time louder. No one answered. I reached down and lifted the latch. “Hello. Is there anyone here?” Only dead silence greeted me. I opened the door wider.

It was, however, not the lack of a response which surprised me, but the fact that the one small room was absolutely empty, no furniture, clothes or any indication of human habitation whatsoever. “What the devil?”

I now stood in the middle of an empty room, but saw that there was another door directly in front of me. I lifted the latch of this door and slowly pulled it open, leery of what I might discover. But of all the things I briefly considered, what I found myself staring at I could not have expected.

I was outside, but in front of me was a large field-gray tent, the kind you’d expect to come across during a military campaign, where overall battle strategy was being planned. I strode quickly over to the tent, pushed back the flap and entered. The interior was spacious and could have accommodated fifteen or twenty persons. While at the moment empty, there were signs of recent occupation.

In the middle was a long rectangular wooden table surrounded by several canvas chairs. In one corner of the tent were three large metal trunks, and on top of one of the trunks lay a gnarled walking stick with a polished saddle-horn handle.

My attention turned to the table. An inexpensive writing pad lay on the table and beside it a black fountain pen. Near the pen was a half-eaten pear in a pewter dish. The pear had just started to turn brown in color. I thought I also detected a vague aroma of cigar smoke. Then I noticed a photograph partially turned toward the rear of the tent.

“Good god,” I heard myself gasp. I now stared at the old sepia-colored photograph. In the picture a young boy and girl stood in a room, their hands at their sides, looking down at the floor. At their feet were four beagles. One dog lay on its side, its eyes closed, appearing to be asleep, while the other dog held the sleeping dog’s paw in its mouth, as though expressing a protective affection.

Two slightly blurred beagle puppies stared up into the camera. They apparently had moved just as the picture was taken. A minute later I put the photograph down. I rubbed my hand across the wooden table, needing to feel the texture of the wood. Absentmindedly I picked up the fountain pen and noticed the initials M.A.G. engraved in gold letters on the side.

I went to the rear entrance of the tent, pushed aside the flap and stepped outside. The sky was a dark blue, and a cool breeze ruffled my hair. In the distance was the waterfront. Without thinking I put the pen in my coat pocket. I saw the steamer with the Liberian flag waving in the breeze. So many memories I said to myself as I strode to the wharf … and so little time. “Isn’t that always the case, Mr. Gelker,” I exclaimed to no one in particular.

Posted: March 25th, 2010
Categories: Written Word
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Absence of Rain

The larger of the two male elephants wrapped his trunk around the four foot long ivory tusk lying on the dusty ground and deposited it in some nearby bushes. The tusk was all that remained of their dead comrade. He then turned to his companion, who nodded his massive head three or four times.

They lingered for no more than a minute and then the two bulls moved off across the barren, dry landscape of Etosha National Park in Namibia. A man and a woman waited quietly in the Land Rover until the elephants had nearly vanished from sight.

“I was nine years old when I saw that the first time,” the woman said.
“I only saw it once before, in Botswana.” The man put his binoculars under the seat.

“They know their tusks are a danger to them. They’ve learned from–” The woman hunched over, coughed, and pressed her hand against her chest. The skin around the corners of her mouth tightened for an instant.

“Let’s go back,” the man said placing his hand lightly on the back of her neck.

The woman smiled at him. “I love you, Robert,” she said finally.

Robert Zimmer started the vehicle. They had not gone quite a quarter of a mile when the woman asked him to stop. They gazed toward the far horizon; the two elephants were gone. “They’ll all be back in four or five weeks,” he said.

“And I’ll be here then.”

Etosha National Park was about the size of the state of New Jersey. The central feature of the park was a huge salt pan surrounded by flat bush land. The minerals in the water that evaporated away completely killed the soil, giving the entire area a scorched earth look, devoid of life. But when the rains came, the pan provided water for all the wildlife that gathered in the area.

The woman and the man had been coming to this part of the huge national park for the past seven months, in order to complete their study of the shrinking, desert-dwelling elephant herds. It was about sound. It was about silence.

Their small cabin was more than an hour drive from the parched desert region. By the time they reached their destination, the late afternoon sun had touched the horizon.

Inside, the woman collapsed in a chair and stretched out her long legs. She closed her eyes and took shallow breaths. The man squatted down, untied her boots, and pulled them off. “Thank you,” she said, her eyes still closed.

“Want something to drink?”

“Is there a Coke?”

The man studied the woman for a moment. She had gotten thinner in just a week he thought. She opened her eyes. “What?” The man shook his head and went to the small refrigerator.

Perhaps two hours later, as they sorted through some field notes, the woman said, “Did you get a letter from the university this week?”

The man glanced over at her. “Uh, huh.” He looked down at his papers.


“Jack wants to know my plans.”


“Well … I’ll let him know.”

“You’ll let the head of the department know what?”

“Do we need to talk about this right now?”

The woman sat up in her chair and dropped her papers on the floor. “Yeah, Robert, I’d like to. Communication is good for humans as well.”

“Kam, I’m going to write him, when I decide what I’m doing.”

“Decide what? Your sabbatical is over in three months, the research will be finished. And you go back to America.”

“Maybe I’ll stay in Namibia.”

“Stay in Namibia? And do what?”

“I don’t know yet.” He stood up.

“Robert, I won’t be here.”

“You don’t know–”

“I’ll be dead.”

“Fuck.” He hurled his folder against the wall. The rage washed over him and then slipped away.

Robert turned when he heard her cough. He knelt down and held her in his arms. Kamaria Grellmann, the woman he’d met fourteen months before, who now meant more to him than any living person in the world, was being consumed by ovarian cancer. “Kam, do you want your medicine?”

“Just hold me.”

He watched his fingers slide across the back of her neck. When he had first met her at a cocktail party at the American Embassy in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, the first thing that caught his attention was the perfection of her cafe au lait complexion. Robert Zimmer was certain he’d never seen a woman so beautiful in his life.

He learned later that her mother had come from the Ovambo tribe and her father, Volker Grellmann whose ancestors had arrived in what was then called Southwest Africa in 1900, was of German descent. Her mother had died when she was fifteen and her father was killed by elephant poachers while she was attending Cambridge University in England. She had just twenty-one when she learned of her father’s murder.

On the day of her forty-first birthday, Kamaria learned she had inoperable cancer.

“I sent letters to Cornell and Cambridge last week.”

Robert sat back. “Why?”

“I told them you would be handling everything from now on.”

“Our research is nearly completed,” Robert said.

“Robert, as long as there are elephants here…”

“Kam, I’m not a bioacoustics expert.”

“No, but you’re one exceptional zoologist. You can find other good people. And the training of Namibians must never stop.”

“Kam, please–”

“Promise me.”

Robert had all he could do to hold back his emotions at that moment. He nodded slowly. “Promise.”

A smile spread across her face, the same smile that he had fallen in love with immediately. “Come here you.”

It was midnight when they went to bed. Kam told Robert that she seemed to need less sleep lately. He knew that was not the reason.

“Do you know what the San people call Namibia?” Shadows from the moonlight skipped along the wall. Robert said he did not. “They call this country the land that God made in anger.”

“Do you agree?”

“I don’t know anything about God’s state of mind. But I do know I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

“You’d miss the elephants.”

“Yes. Would you miss them now?”

“My answer is important isn’t it?” he said.


“The truth is I would miss them as well. I couldn’t have said that even two months ago.”

“When did you know?”

“When Zita’s baby died five weeks ago, and we spent the day watching them all grieve. I experienced something I never felt before.”

There was a long silence until Kam said, “This was always the best place to study them. Because survival is so difficult here. I knew it when I was a little girl, watching the elephants with my father. They had to be able to communicate over long distances. We humans just couldn’t hear it.”

“You can take a lot of the credit for this knowledge.”

“Only some credit.” Kam paused. “But will it make any difference? Will they survive anyway?”


“Yes what? All these elephants won’t become little white carvings in jewel boxes?”

“Yeah, I think there’s some hope.”

“Is that just American optimism?” said Kam.

Robert felt the smile at the edge of his mouth. “Well, we know a female is receptive only a few days every four or five years. And as soon as a female is in estrus, the males appear from practically nowhere. And, because of people like you, we understand how the communication works. More than two miles away–below the range we humans can hear–the elephants are speaking to one another, watching out for one another.”

“And your point would be, Professor Zimmer?”

“The female will always know how to get her man. The elephants are going to survive.”

The rains started withing three weeks. At first, only dark clouds appeared on the horizon, then some sporadic rain drops bounced off the parched ground. A couple of days later the air smelled different, fresher, foreshadowing a change. Several wildebeests appeared not far from the cabin, then some zebras, a few kudus, and two giraffes. The rains began in earnest within the week.

At the end of the fourth week Kam and Robert rose early, packed what they needed, and departed. Because of the rain and the wet roads, it took longer than usual. They reached their observation point at 9 o’clock. Then they waited.

At 10 o’clock Robert saw something move on the horizon. “It’s him,” he said a minute later. The huge bull, at least 13,000 pounds, with two long ivory tusks and a jagged scar on his left side, moved quickly across the scrub land, headed in their general direction. “Where’s Masaku?”

Kam and Robert had always seen the two bulls together. Masaku, the smaller and younger of the two, always accompanied his larger comrade. Male elephants generally lived alone or in small bachelor herds, but once in a while one or two males would travel together.

“I know Masaku is all right. There’s got to be a reason.” She grasped Robert’s hand. “I want to get out.”

“We don’t want to go too far from the Land Rover,” he said. Kam pushed open the door. Robert hurried to the other side of the vehicle as she clutched the side mirror to steady herself.

The large bull was now close enough for both of them to see clearly. Suddenly, he half turned in their direction and raised his head. His ears spread out and he became perfectly still. “He’s freezing,” said Kam in a whisper.

Robert felt an incredible stillness all around him yet, at the same time, it was as though the surrounding air was now throbbing like distant thunder. Slowly he raised his binoculars and scanned the horizon. “Look,” he said, handing the binoculars to Kam.

“I knew it.” In the distance Masaku waited alone. Kam slowly scanned across the scrubland. “My god.”

“What?” Robert took the binoculars. At first it was only a vague outline, but then he saw them. The herd was making its way toward them. Now the large bull began to sway from side to side, glancing occasionally in the direction of the herd. “Hell, he wants us to know.” Robert started to say something to Kam, when he saw her tears. “You okay?”

“I need to sit down.”


“I’m fine.” Unexpectedly the large bull let out a loud trumpet sound, startling both of them. Kam

began to laugh. “Yes, yes.”

The male elephant looked in their direction for just a moment, then turned and started toward where Masaku waited. Kam leaned her head against Robert’s shoulder. “You want to tell me.”

“Just wait,” she said.

Slowly the herd came into view. The two bulls headed in the opposite direction. Kam’s eyes were now closed and her breathing was labored. Robert raised his binoculars and then he understood.

In the middle of the small herd was a baby elephant walking beside its mother and the other females. The baby’s father, along with his friend Masaku, had disappeared from sight. “He wanted to let us know,” Robert said. “What do you think of that, Kam?” He felt the tears running down his face

He held her tighter because he knew she wouldn’t answer. “It’s okay, Kam, you can go now.” Several of the elephants raised their trunks as they passed by. The rain had stopped.


NOTE: In the U.S. a group of dedicated people have maintained The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee since 1995. See

Posted: March 18th, 2010
Categories: Written Word
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Musings of a Member by Thoral Ibn Said

Professor Ivan Kurtz of Moscow University, a respected mibo-ethnologist, recently presented a novel hypothesis regarding the future of our species. His published paper entitled “The General De-Evolvement of Homo Sapiens” will be presented to the National Academy of Science in November.

The late Stephen J. Gould, the well known evolutionary biologist, said in his book A Full House that we humans are here by the “luck of the draw.” For Gould, it has nothing to do with any grand design or evolutionary mechanism. Evolution has been full of “fits and starts,” frequently leading to evolutionary dead ends.

Gould believed it was pure arrogance on our part to think that evolution has traveled in a steady, predictable direction toward human life. And, if it could be done all over again, it’s unlikely the universe would come up with anything remotely resembling us.

In Professor Kurtz’ view, Homo sapiens may in fact be reaching some sort of evolutionary “brick wall.” His paper also suggests that the speed at which we humans could be arriving at this dead end might be increasing by a factor of two every 24 months!

While it would be impossible here to cover all of Kurtz’ paradigm, a brief review of his two principle concepts are worth mentioning. The first he calls the survival/fear constraint. Kurtz believes all living organisms, including something as supposedly “simple” as bacteria, create a kind of knowledge log, which acts as an internal gyroscope, keeping the organism’s survival instincts focused.

Professor Kurtz has developed a numbering system from one to ten. Number one represents a species that possesses total fear of almost everything. Number 10 represents a species that lacks essentially all fear. It can be assumed in Kurtz’ model that no species is a perfect 1 or 10, as that would make its survival virtually impossible.

Predators in general cluster closer to 10 because they are hunters and, if not completely carnivorous, will eat meat from time to time. For example, Kurtz assigns the number 8.6 to a lion and an 8.0 to a cheetah. The cheetah gets a lower number than a lion because of a weaker jaw and a “kill” rate of only one in five attempts, a lower percentage than a lion.

An elephant, on the other hand, is assigned a number 6 because it is not carnivorous and has a highly developed sense of group responsibility to its own immediate herd and its species. In general, species that fall in the middle of the scale are more willing to integrate into their environment.

In Kurtz’ classification scheme, only humans go above 8.9. As well, unlike any other species, they fall into a range of between 9.0 and 9.5. Without going into lengthy detail, the broad factors the professor uses for assigning numbers for humans include population expansion and habitat destruction; environmental degradation attributable to humans; species cooperation; and human belief systems.

Professor Kurtz has concluded that Homo sapiens have a low fear threshold because of a poorly developed internal gyroscope. According to Kurtz, because of the primitive alarm mechanism of humans, our survival as a species is uncertain.

Of particular interest is the possibility we may be actually reverting or “retreating” back to a state we had passed through at least 40,000 years ago. If this hypothesis proves to be true, it would make our species truly unique.

But an even more astonishing possibility may be presenting itself, at the same time, according to the professor. The reason Kurtz has used a range of numbers is because he is strongly suggesting the possibility–admittedly tenuous right now–that we could be at the beginning stages of creating a new species, one that is related to us.

In a worldwide population of 6.8 billion people, the professor estimates, using his classification model, that possibly from one to two million individuals are consistently exhibiting a more highly developed internal gyroscope, thus the reason for a number in the range of 9.0.

The second principle is called the revelatory/egoism constraint. Simply stated, the essence of human character is a profound belief in magic, which can be interpreted as a deep-seated need for spirits and gods. It is virtually impossible for our species to see things as they are and not as they believe.

But, what Professor Kurtz is suggesting, is that a new species could be in the incipient stages of branching off from Homo sapiens; this new species is more willing to accept things as they actually are!

The revelatory/egoism constraint says that humans have a near pathological confusion between self and other. In other species this separation occurs at least by the time of puberty. At birth all species make no real distinction between self and other–or between wanting and getting–but they eventually outgrow this egocentric confusion. Not so for humankind.

Kurtz maintains that while “words” certainly influence behavior or can direct people to particular courses of action, words themselves possess no power whatsoever. Rational or objective thinking can only take place when humans are able to grasp the subjective nature of thinking. Thought has no “actual” power. You may hear voices emanating from the ether late at night, but whether or not those voices exist in the external world is another matter. (As an aside, Kurtz claims that the United States–among all developed nations–is currently showing the steepest negative rise in the revelatory/egoism constraint paradigm).

Allison Harper’s book Public Buffoonery, Welfare Capitalism, and the Political Process in America offers both an amusing and a serious commentary on the changing American politician and revelatory decision-making. It is worth reading, especially in light of Professor Kurtz’ contentions.

Finally, in an interview in Rypin, Poland two months ago, an American reporter with the respected Fox News Network, asked Professor Kurtz what one piece of advice he’d give to humankind. The quiet, soft-spoken professor hesitated for just a moment and then said to the young blonde reporter, “Look hard for pink elephants at dawn.” Before the confused Fox News reporter could ask for clarification, Professor Kurtz hobbled slowly up the steps of the zeppelin EMU and vanished inside.

Posted: March 15th, 2010
Categories: Written Word
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