In Husk of Rhino, an aging rhinoceros contemplates the damn gorillas’ dubious call for yet another zoo jailbreak and discusses philosophy with an Eastern Indigo snake named Serpent.
About the Author
Tyrel Kessinger lives and writes in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a perpetually childlike stay-at-home father who loves comic books, obscure ambient music, and owning too many guitars. He has been published in over 30 journals, released two poetry chapbooks, and freelances for several different publications.
You can learn more about Tyrel’s writing at his author website: tyrelkessinger.wordpress.com
Husk of Rhino by Tyrel Kessinger
Bird delivers another message. I don’t know if I’ve met this one before, and I don’t care. I call them all Bird, and Bird doesn't seem to mind. I certainly couldn’t care less that they call me Rhino.
Jailbreak tonight, Bird says, perched on the branch of a nearby poplar tree. Be ready, Rhino.
Sure thing, Bird. Sure thing, I tell him, managing to stifle a condescending smile. Ready as rain.
Bird flits away, deaf to my sarcasm, spreading the news as if it is real. I know damn well the gorillas are the bastard architects of it all. They are relentless with their promises of freedom. At this point I can only assume they enjoy riling the animals, to get their kri-kri as it were. Otherwise, I refuse to believe it until I see Tiger padding by footloose like the queen she thinks she is.
Woman comes and tops off my water tank and fills my food trough, sighing and looking as if she'd rather be doing anything else than slinging a bucketful of sustenance for some dumb animal. I remember when she first arrived, years ago, maybe months. I can’t say with accuracy. The movement of Time is indistinguishable for me. I know sunup and sundown, a cycle that is hard to forget but which the repeated passing of makes things harder to remember. Why, perhaps she came only a few days ago. Either way, she carried herself differently then, her shoulders as proud and straight as a baobab. She sang songs to me then, or tried; she stayed consistently a bit off pitch. (Rhinos have impeccable hearing.) She spoke to me in reassuring tones and often rubbed my ears in a most enjoyable manner. I'd say that I wish I knew what had changed in her, but I find myself caring about these things less and less. About most things really, if we're showing our hands here. I’m afraid if I'm not careful, in all likelihood, I will soon be nothing but a husk of Rhino.
Beyond my corral, as it were, past the giraffe pasture is a building called the Herpaquarium, which I know because an Eastern Indigo snake, that I called Serpent, told me. She’d just escaped, she informed me, after slithering into my domain on her way out. We conversed some before she continued on, talking about our old lives and our time as captives and where she might go from here. We got along well even when our differences of philosophy were revealed: her belief in predestination against mine of free will.
I hope you make it out, Serpent, I said as she oozed away.
She turned and smiled the way only a snake can. What is to be, will be, Rhino.
I hope you're wrong about that.
And I think neither of us was foolish enough to seek hope in hope.
As I've never heard otherwise, I can only assume she made it out unmolested. I know better than to hope for it.
Anyhow, coming from behind the Herpaquarium, I hear a small tide of uproar. For the briefest instant, I wonder if the Gorillas have called my bluff and the breakout is underway. But I know it is too early. They won't risk that. Surely. But since when does any animal really know another? Then I can make out the mechanical voice of a microphoned Human. Seal and Sea Lion have performed some tricks, and the crowd is cheering. I wonder, would Seal and Sea Lion try and make a run for it? They are an exhibit that still possesses a respectable amount of allure, mesmerizing crowds of children that ooh and ahh. To some of us, being so admired is worth a great deal. Not that I care anymore. That’s what I tell myself at any rate. Sometime later—seconds? hours?—the brouhaha settles. I know the show is over by the raggedy march of Humans drifting by my enclosure. For the most part, none linger very long for a view. I've found that by day’s end, when Humans are spent and cantankerous, they have no desire to stop and look at other spent and cantankerous creatures. It’s understandable. Who wants to be reminded?
Woman reappears, readying everything for the night. She is preparing to leave and gives me a last look over. She does not twirl my ears or even give me a bit of a pat, which I would particularly enjoy tonight. The sun has been merciless today, and I have withstood its reign unprotected. It's been some time now—months? years?—since they cut down my second favorite shade tree, the dying Japanese Zelkova. The Humans have no way of knowing though, honestly. Possibly they’re puzzled as to why I don't seek reprieve under the cluster of oak trees on the other side of my pavilion. The shade there is embarrassingly luxurious after all. Prime coverage. But that's the problem with Humans, isn't it? Can't see the forest or whatever? How they were so unaware that Grey and I had shared those shade trees for years—decades? centuries? How they couldn't puzzle out that I hadn't stood under that particular copse since the day she'd left was a mystery for the animal ages.
Have Humans learned how to enjoy the things they shared with loved ones even when their loved ones are gone? Perhaps they’re as black-spirited as I’ve been told Maned Wolf is. Bird once reported they saw her eating the corpse of one of her own newborn pups. Now, I was not present at this event, so I do not know firsthand Maned Wolf's circumstances. Quite possibly the poor cub was a stillbirth or died soon after birth from natural causes. (Do we not all have at least a general knowledge as to the depths of Nature's singular cruelness?) Is it possible that Maned Wolf thought she might be able to absorb the spirit of her dead child by eating its lifeless body, leaving not a scrap behind for this inexplicable world to lay claim to? Eh? Maybe? Or, perhaps, it's as Bird tells it and Maned Wolf is simply a heartless beast. One can never definitively know these things.
I can feel it, she said once. Grey. Inside me.
Feel what? I asked.
A sickness. I'm sick. I can feel it.
I laughed away her concern. Bah. You ate too much. What you're feeling is probably the wind you're about to break.
They came for her soon after. I wasn’t immediately worried; they often took us individually for various examinations and inconsiderate proddings. By nature, I am a patient being. The sun went up and down several times before real concern sat in. Woman fed me and watered me, rubbed my ears and sang songs in wobbly pitches (back when she still did so). But no mention of Grey was made. Bird shrugged their wings with no answer and said she’d most likely be back soon in that way creatures do when they could care less whether something that isn't theirs returns. Now I was the one who became sick. I blackly asked myself if it was only wind I was about to break. It wasn't. And I didn't laugh.
But I’ve long since reconciled that the movement of time travels in one direction only. Grey is either still moving forward in another place, or she is a stagnant spirit in the past. I reside in the limbo of dual realities and the passing of more time will not cure that. Certainly, either way, the result is the same. Admittedly, when rumors of the breakout first began, I asked myself what Grey would have thought about the (hypothetical) escape the Gorillas were (supposedly) crafting. I entertained the thought that she would be content here with me; all the shelter, fresh food, water and healthcare we'd ever need. All the shareable shade. Hey, look, I'm old now, ancient even. I can dream however I please. I know that it doesn't matter a stalk of savannah grass if it comes to pass or not. More importantly, I believe, is to understand that there is always a point in one's life when dreams of the future no longer dwindle in the realm of plausible reality.
The sun is nearly doused now, its fading multi-colored fire taking with it the last of the scuffling Humans. It is now approaching The Time When No One Walks. The dark mane of oak trees above shudders, and I watch as a gaggle of birds scatters wildly, their droppings pelting the ground like rain. I'm hit with two hot splashes, which, as it would anyone, annoy me unendingly. I remind myself to air this grievance to Bird the next time I see them, though I'm doubtful I'll remember or that Bird will much care.
Only seconds—milliseconds? picoseconds?—later comes the reason for their sudden departure. Things are happening. In the distance, I can make out another wash of sounds. Then it grows. Lion's roar. Elephant's trumpet. Monkey's very nerve-grating lunatic cackle. This has happened before though. The Gorillas had issued the signal and deployed their aerial support, but nothing ever materialized. Fools, every damn one. Pining and pawing for freedom. Pah. If only I could share my wisdom with them. Because as vexing as the quantifiable nature of time is, surely I've seen enough of it to be considered wise by now. Why do I care, you might ask. I’ll tell you: because I have no use for freedom. What would I do with it precisely? Out in the open, foraging for food in a foreign land, no one around to sing me a song or rub my ears. No one to share a nice shade tree with. No, sir, no thank you. It could be because I'm too old, too tired, and too lazy. Maybe it’s because I have a wickedly temperamental back right knee (which, by the by, is true). Could be that you expect me to confess to some silly secret dream. That I'm still waiting for Grey to return. But you may also recall my earlier thoughts on the nature of dreams.
From every direction, the sound of animal activity rises. The Peacocks and their ghostly croons fill the air. Lion roars again. Maned Wolf howls. It's dark now. Dark enough to render me nearly blind. Though not entirely. These crippled eyes can still see shadows that move; see even now a streak of orange and black and tail gracefully blurring past the outer wall of my enclosure. I imagine the sound of Tiger's purr is full of thick heat, her disappearance as wholly silent as her appearance. I find myself surprisingly pleased. It's good to know Rhino is not simply a husk just yet. There’s still Time. Whatever that means.
About the Story
Tyrel Kessinger wrote Husk of Rhino after reading a story about the rhinoceros at his local zoo. The rhino’s mate had recently died, and Tyrel explained this to his young daughter. As many a child might, she asked Tyrel if the rhino was lonely, and Tyrel told her that he was. From there, the concept of a story told through the rhino’s eyes developed.
Tyrel was immediately drawn to both the character and the idea of telling a modern, adult, Orwellian-esque story that didn’t involve pesky Humans.