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ON A GRAY, FOGGY MORNING THEY CAME, rising on the cold north winds from the icy peaks, sweeping across the timberland into the gray, misty valleys of the Black Forest... baby sounds! Somewhere below the fog layer, the insistent wails of a baby could be heard, their temerity as if from Mother Earth herself.
And then another voice arose. Deeper, brassy, trumpety, but still a... baby sound. It, too, was whisked away through the thermals, swirling and dashing about until it met its kin. A quiet moment hung over all. Then, together, they joined--the wailing and trumpeting became one. They drifted over the countryside, beyond the river, across the corn rows and the desolate fields of last summer's picking.
The first sunlight of the morning bathed the chilly Hagendorf Valley with its burnt ochre sphere. It seemed to rest, but for a moment, at the foot of Olymstroem Mountain upon a rather small but quaint old German farm. It was from there both baby sounds emanated.
A rutted dirt road snaked up the center of the farm, separating the pale yellow German-Swiss style two-story house from the large, old, rock and timber barn. The barn's rock supports had tumbled down at every corner, resembling small volcanoes with boulders spewed in all directions. The rotting wood structure seemed to be part of the earth itself, and spoke bluntly of the many years of winter storms it had survived.
Circus paraphernalia lay everywhere. A huge old wooden circus wagon, its hitch buried deep, wheels dug into the mud from years before, showed chips of red and gold paint still visible on its frame. Pieces of candy-striped tent hung over the barn's windows. A broken ticket booth lay in shambles, its GENERAL ADMISSION sign still hanging from the roof. Chickens, geese, a few pigs ran free around the dwellings. This was the Gunterstein farm.
The baby sounds had separated. From the second-story window of the house only the soft crying of an infant could be heard. Hannah, the midwife, an exceedingly large and buxom woman, finished powdering the infant's behind. After bundling him in a soft, warm blue blanket, she handed the baby boy to his mother. Katrina Gunterstein gently took her firstborn. A pretty woman in her early forties, the daughter of a dirt farmer, Katrina had a wide strong jaw and a high forehead that spoke well of her inherited German peasant stock. Kissing his bright pink cheeks, she opened her nightgown and offered the baby her full breast. The touch of the infant's tiny mouth on her nipple sent a ripple of pure ecstasy through her body.
"Oh, Josef! This is a boy to be proud of. Is he not wonderful?" She looked through tears of joy at her husband, who stood at her bedside.
Josef was the epitome of a proud father gazing down at his infant son. His slender body and chiseled high cheekbones made him appear much taller than his six-foot frame. Katrina had found the man of her dreams in Josef, a quiet, gentle man of the Jewish faith. After many failed attempts during their ten years of marriage, they were now blessed with a marvelous boy child. Although his blond hair and features came from the strong Nordic side of Katrina's family, he had the sweet and gentle warmth that radiated so strongly from Josef's heritage. They named him Bram, after Josef's father
"The boy's going to make a fine elephant trainer," said Josef, his eyes full of anticipation.
Josef, as his father years before him, worked for a small village circus in the nearby town of Hasengrossck. He was a trainer, a trainer of animals. More precisely, Josef was a trainer of elephants. At times Katrina thought he loved the elephants more than he loved her, but better it be animals, she thought with a smile, than another woman. Besides, this love for animals was what made him the wonderful, caring man he was.
An ear-splitting trumpet shocked them out of their bliss. Realizing there was another baby to celebrate, Josef kissed his wife, the infant, and, in his excitement, even Hannah, and dashed downstairs, embarrassed at the mistake he had just made.
He felt a chill in the air as he stepped out on the porch. As morning broke, the earth's shadows eased their way down the mountains. Winter had worn out its welcome and spring was pushing the flowers up in the meadows. By the look of things it was going to be a wonderful day. Josef hugged himself briskly to keep out the cold and headed for the barn. Swinging open the large, creaky barn door, he stepped inside.
The scent of alfalfa, oat hay, and saddle soap, and the pungent odor of elephant stool in the damp musty air greeted Josef's nostrils. Bale upon bale of hay was neatly stacked against one side of the wall and formed large rectangular steps leading to the very top of the barn. From there one could touch the huge rafters that held the old structure together. On the opposite side of the barn were animal stalls, tack, and feed rooms. Inside the spacious tack room, the leather horse saddles, bridles, and halters had been buffed and polished to a high sheen. The brass buckles, D-rings, and cinches all sparkled, each piece having its appropriate place.
Hanging in an area of their own were huge elephant cinches and girth straps. A large elephant headpiece straddled a wire-and-cloth dummy elephant head. Heavy chains, clevises, a large coil of rope, and various elephant hooks and shackles were neatly laid out on rough-cut wooden shelves. Adjoining stalls housed the farm horses, goats, pigs, and milk cows.
Silhouetted in the rays of the early morning sunlight filtering through the large open doors at the rear of the barn was a giant living form. Vapors rose from the monolithic body, spiraling up to the single hooded lamp hanging from a rafter high above in a feeble attempt to light the area below. The form had a strange resemblance to the locomotives hissing and steaming in the darkened train barn at Frankfurt station, waiting to be hitched to a long line of boxcars.
'Curpo, are you there?" Josef's voice echoed in the cavernous barn.
Out of the shadows emerged a small hunchbacked man, barely four feet high, with a chin as prominent as the hump on his back. He wore a pair of leather shorts, high-top shoes, and a gold chain around his neck, from which hung the small tip of an elephant tusk. He was bare to the waist. His strong body, covered with the sweat and blood from his latest chore, accentuated his powerful arms and torso. Wiping his bloody hands on the towel draped over his shoulder, he swaggered out from between the elephant's legs.
"I'm under 'ere, boss, with the punk," he replied in a high-pitched, raspy Cockney accent.
As Josef approached he heard a couple of short chirps and a raspberry. A grin crossed his face as he circled around, patting the mother elephant's huge wrinkled rump. Emma responded with a low rumble.
"My, my, would you look at this?"
The same expression he had had for his son now crossed his face as he beamed at the tottering baby elephant. Still wet from her mother's womb, the fragile infant stood on her tiptoes, reaching up to the huge teats full of milk. Curpo handed Josef a towel. Squatting down at the side of the little punk, they gently proceeded to dry her soft gray body.
"She's a real beauty, she is," said Curpo.
The little elephant was so small that even Curpo could look over her back. The baby nursed on her mother, slopping and guzzling as milk oozed down the side of her mouth. Her tiny trunk, some ten inches long, curled up in the air, staying out of the way for this most important activity of her first day.
Josef settled back, leaning against one of Emma's massive legs. He felt at peace with the world. Curpo had toweled off his own sweaty body and was putting on his undershirt.
"I 'eard about the baby, boss--I mean, t'other one. Congratulations to you and the missus."
"It must be one of those special happenings that has a mystical meaning, Curpo, to have my son born on the same day, let alone the same hour, as the baby elephant."
"Amuugghh," Curpo mumbled, having gotten his hump stuck while trying to put on his shirt. Josef smiled as he reached over and pulled it down.
"I always wanted a boy and a girl, Curpo, and now I have them both."
The baby elephant had stopped nursing on Emma and was now trying to nurse on Curpo's pointed chin.
"Let's not get started on the wrong foot 'ere, youngster," said Curpo, gently guiding the baby back to her mother's teat.
Josef grinned, "She's going to be the best, Curpo the very best."
C Copyright 2000 Ralph HelferModoc
Excerpted from Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived by Ralph Helfer
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.