Rumpus Original Fiction: Rhino Girl

By

The first squeal split the air like a fault line, a fracture in the world. It sang across the acacia trees, the veld of bunch grass and thorny bushes. Malaya pushed the bridge of her sunglasses higher beneath her camouflage ball cap. Her gloves were fingerless, the knuckles padded to protect her fists.

Another squeal, heart-sharp against the white-risen sun. Her face didn’t twist or scrunch, stoic as a mask, her nostrils flared like little wings. In front of her the native tracker, Big John, had his pistol out. It was an old revolver, patinaed like a grandfather’s hand-me-down, overlarge in his small dark hand. He was bent to the rooigras—red grass—reading the way it had been canted, the passage of beasts and men. The red-brown spikelets, like dry-withered flowers, rocked back and forth beneath his free hand, cradled by the wind.

The moon was still visible, fat as a spotlamp, hovering low over the flat green clouds of the acacias. Such a moon drew men like worms from the earth, and they came with guns and knives and saws. Malaya’s team had found a break in the fence just before sunrise, the watery light of dawn sitting puddled in the bootprints that crossed the road. A hole had been cut in the diamonds of chain-link, the snipped ends snarled outward where men—three of them, said Big John—had slithered into the Reserve. The squad of rangers had stepped down from the Land Rover and entered the bush, following Big John in his oversized green fatigues, a long blade of grass hanging from the corner of his mouth like an unlit cigarette.

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He rose and waved them onward now, toward the squeals, spitting out the blade of grass. They stepped lightly through the sea of sun-yellowed grass, into the dappled shadow of a leadwood tree. The crown trembled umbrella-like over their heads. Here was the tree that some called the great ancestor of all beasts and men. The shed limbs could burn nightlong, warding off creatures of the dark.

Malaya made nearly no sound, willing herself into something light-footed and predatory, a creature elided into the bush. On her right calf, she bore the tattooed scales of an eagle’s claw, triple talons inked over the bones of her foot. On her heel, the black scythe of the hallux. These were the weapons of the bald eagle, the symbol of her nation. On her left calf, she carried the yellow-tinged spots of the Visayan leopard cat, endemic to the islands of her grandfather, a Philippine Scout who’d marched the death-road out of Bataan, when the fallen were beheaded by Japanese officers wielding samurai swords from horseback. On the sole of that foot, the paw print of the island cat. These were the two bloodlines, eagle and leopard, that rooted her, that sprang her coal-eyed and dark-winged from the earth.

The unit crouched in the tree’s shadow, an eight-headed column spotted by morning light.

Big John cocked his head toward a clearing half-obscured in green bunches of shrub.

“There,” he said. “Close.”

Jaager, the unit commander, motioned for them to split into two elements, flushing the clearing in a pincer movement. Malaya would lead the second element, composed of herself and three Zulu rangers. They rose, circling the clearing, and Malaya thumbed off the safety of her carbine. She hadn’t been in combat since Basra, manning the .50-cal on a Humvee, watching her comrades spill wrecked and burning from the remains of their convoy. Her heart banged in her chest, the old I-am, and she denied its brag. She was cold, heartless. She was blood and bone, unsorry for herself.

The squeal split the air a third time, glancing off her sternum. The tattoo of a leopard’s fanged face shielded her heart. She raised her left hand and motioned her team to advance. They stepped from the bushes, weapons locked in firing position, feet moving neatly beneath fixed hips.

It was a bull rhino, gray and hulking like a battleship, fallen on its knees. This double-horned colossus of the veld, square-lipped and gentle as a wolfhound, someone had cut off part of its face. Two bloody stumps rose from the ruin of its head, like trees if trees could bleed, and the animal was still alive, beached in its own gore. Its great ribs, sized like elephant tusks, swelled against the armor of its hide. Blood bubbled from its nostrils. Long rivulets streaked from its eyes, black as mascara where they cut the dust. This great beast of the field, it wept.

Jaager knelt alongside the animal, placing one hand on its shoulder as he inspected the wounds. The horns were made of keratin, the same as fingernails, but the poachers had cut deep into the quick. He rose, his khaki shirt dark-shielded against his back.

Kettingsae.” He shook his head. “Fecking chainsaws.”

The horns would be sold to Vietnam or China, ground into the powder believed to cure fevers and strokes, or to Yemen, carved into the ornamental hilts of jambiyyas, the curved daggers worn on the belts of men of status. A single horn could fetch $350,000 on the black market.

Malaya squatted in the dust, staring at the butchery. Metallic flies jeweled the open wounds; they swam in glistening clouds. They alighted on her hands, her face, and she didn’t brush them away. She looked into the single dark eye before her, deep-set in its crater of flesh. She’d killed deer and turkeys and squirrels in the Georgia pines of her youth. She’d wrung chickens’ necks. She’d shot at men in windows and on balconies and rooftops. Never had an eye been so afraid of her, and she didn’t know if the beast feared her or her species whole.

Big John returned from the edge of the clearing.

“Poachers gone,” he said. “Three, four hours.”

Malaya rose. She inched back the charging lever of her rifle, the wink of a chambered round. The bolt snapped home. “We better get after them.”

Jaager, still squatting, shook his head. “We’ll never catch them before they cross back into Mozambique.”

“We can try. What the hell else would you suggest?”

Jaager stood and unslung the battered express rifle he wore across his back, a weapon chambered for elephant and cape buffalo. It was a relic of the ivory-hunting era, the heyday of Hemingways and Roosevelts. He worked the bolt, chambering a round.

Die genade van lood,” he said.

The mercy of lead.

*

She was born under a full moon, said her grandfather. In Visayan mythology, the moon was Libulan, son of Lidagat, sea-bride of the wind. He was made of copper, melted into a planetary orb by the sky-god’s thunderbolt. She was an aswang, said her grandfather. A nightly shape-shifter, capable of becoming a cat, a bird, a wolf in the dark. That is what they’d called him in the Philippine Scouts, when he’d hunted Japanese officers under the moon, piercing their livers and hearts. These things, he said, they were in the blood. His unit was one of the few granted United States citizenship after the war.

In high school, Beau Tolley, captain of the Chattahoochee County Panthers, asked her if Filipinos had sideways pussies like other Asians. This was on the quad, at lunch, amid the chuckling of boys with letterman jackets and glistening, pocked faces. He drove a black Z71 pickup truck with a whip antenna, chrome exhausts, fancy mud tires treaded like the hides of alligators. That afternoon, he found his tires stabbed flat in the school parking lot, four neat slits.

Horizontal.

Malaya went into the Army after graduation, like her father and his father before.

*

That night the moon was slightly ovate, like an eye just beginning to shut. It drew her from bed, from the dark of her platform tent set like a raft on the sea of grazing land. The bush was alive. She could feel heavy beasts shouldering through the dark. Elephants traveled at night, long memories of them rolling like boulders through the brush, and there were black rivers of buffalo out there, huddled against preying eyes. The leopard hunted at night, the lion. Prides of golden cats, some of them man-eaters, ambushed kudu and eland, even giraffes, toppling them like four-legged towers of the wild. On dark nights, they hunted Mozambican refugees, tattered flights of them crossing the Reserve. Some said thousands had been killed. Lone bull rhinos stalked the fences, longing for moonlit crashes of females—cows—on the far side. Two thousand miles to the north, Kenyan rangers kept a northern white rhinoceros, last of his species, under round-the-clock guard.

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Malaya was all of these creatures. She was none of them. She entered Jaager’s tent without knocking. He was reading by lamplight when she came in, his hair cropped close to the skull, his chin shaved clean. He’d been a Recce commando in the South African Defence Force, fighting in Angola, the Congo, before taking command of the Reserve anti-poaching unit. The rangers called him Impisi White. The White Wolf.

“You didn’t knock,” he said.

“Didn’t I?”

He closed his book. “Wat?”

She sat on the edge of his bed, her hand next to his boot. “The moon’s out. We should be on patrol.”

Jaager shook his head. “A waste of petrol. If the border sensors detect anything, they will radio us.”

“I can’t stand around all night.”

“You can sleep, like everyone else.”

Her fingers had begun walking up his shin. They stood now on the bony dome of his knee. “Sleep’s for the dead.”

“I told you, no more.”

Her fingers kept on, crossing the lower head of his quadriceps, finding the trouser seam that climbed the inside of his leg.

Ek wil jou naai,” she whispered.

“No.”

Her hand was high up the inside of his thigh now. She could feel him uncoiling to greet her. The leopard and eagle, they took their victims into the trees. She would clasp him in her thighs and wing him high into the black night of the mind, moon-eyed and awestruck, like something she’d killed.

His teeth glistened, wet and sharp, as if to bite.

“My wife,” he said.

Malaya’s finger touched the tip of him, his swollen bulb. “Jou vrou didn’t seem to bother you the first dozen times. In fact, you failed to mention your cow.”

He slapped her hand away, hard. “Get out.”

She stood, smiling, and walked to the tent flap. She peered out. She could almost see them, the legion eyes of the night-veld. The beam of a flashlight, and they would hover white-fired in the bush, a galaxy of glowing orbs, some constellated in herds, the eyes of killers orbiting the weak like cruel moons.

“Malaya,” said Jaager from the bed. “Don’t have your feelings hurt.”

She tried not to laugh at him. “What feelings?”

*

The kudu hung upended in a wire snare, where it had starved. It was a bull, its great horns spiraled and twinned like the god-crown of some mythic beast. Its throat was maned, its brown coat painted in thin white stripes. It was a browser, an eater of shoots and leaves. Lions hunted it, and leopards and hyenas and black-faced dogs. Pursued, it would leap over gulches and shrubs, even small trees. The snares were waiting, strung invisibly through the bush.

One of the kudu’s hind legs hung by a wire coil, straightened at an awkward angle, nearly vertical. The grass in a small radius was gone, eaten, the work of an outstretched neck. Only the scavengers had found the carcass. The eyes were gone, pecked out. The animal’s tongue stuck moony from the mouth, coated in grit. Maggots sleeved the leg-wound. The wire had sliced through the meat, gripping bone.

Malaya felt a crackle of flames behind the wall of her breast. It was hot, like panic. She did not look away. She thought of the room in the Green Zone, after Basra, where three men in non-issue balaclavas had zip-tied her to the bed. They wore gloves and unmarked BDUs, and they put a ball-gag in her mouth, red as an apple, so she couldn’t scream. Their cocks were bone-white, sleeved in rubber, and she wished for teeth in the toothless slick of her sex. She wondered why nature had not armed her with such, an evolutionary defense against the weapons of men. She was an eagle, a leopard, a she-wolf beneath them. None of these shapes sufficed. She was snared, trapped. The men were on her now, hungry as wolves, tearing away her clothes, when the bed shuddered, the walls shook, a table lamp fell shattering on the floor. It was mortar fire, raining onto the base. The three of them fled, leaving her strung to the metal bedframe, where she lay the rest of the night, gagged and half-naked, fearing they would return.

She turned now to Big John. “Find it.”

They found the bushmeat kitchen a mile to the east, a roofless nest in an island of scrub. The earth was carpeted with skins, riddled with bones. The offal appeared strangely arranged, cast as if by the hands of a sangoma, a healer. In one corner, a pyramid of skulls: eland and impala, kudu and cape buffalo. The empty crania were still dark, unbleached by the sun, their black sockets looking in every direction. A many-headed watchman of the bush. Above them, irregular cuts of meat hung drying in the sun, strung like grisly pennants from tree to tree.

There was a crash in the brush and Jaager appeared, pushing a black man before him, his hands bound in plastic ties. The man was tall and lank, his mouth jumbled with crooked yellow teeth. He wore clothes better suited to some dusty city street: slacks, abused loafers, a collared shirt torn at the chest. Jaager sat him on the ground and squatted in front of him, calling Big John to translate. The man admitted he was a poacher, a seller of bushmeat.

“Ask him if he poaches rhinoceros,” said Jaager.

“No rhino,” said the man, shaking his head. “No rhino.”

“Ask him if he knows anyone who does.”

The man dug his chin into his chest, shaking his head.

“Bullshit,” said Malaya. “He knows.”

“Tell him we will let him go if he gives us a lead on the rhino poachers,” said Jaager.

“We’ll do what?” said Malaya.

Still the man shook his head. He would not speak.

Jaager grunted and rose, brushing off the knees of his trousers. In Afrikaans, he ordered the rangers to confiscate the snares and salt, the bucket of gut hooks and skinning knives.

“What the hell are you doing?” asked Malaya. “He knows something.”

Jaager stood with his knuckles on his hips, elbows out. “What am I supposed to do? Beat it out of him?”

Malaya sniffed. She bent to pick up a coil of wire, then squatted in front of the poacher. She looked at Big John. “Ask him how many animals he’s killed with this.”

The poacher’s mouth clicked, his throat pulsed.

“He say his family is hungry,” said Big John. “He say dinner walks in the bush.”

She nodded, her bottom lip out. “Ask him if he’s ever imagined what it’s like to be dinner himself. Strung to a tree, bleeding, wondering whether the hyenas or lions will find you first.”

The man’s eyes were upon her hands. She was shaping the wire, fashioning a simple snare like the poachers used. She held the noose just over his head, like the bent-wire halo of a church play. It was slightly too small. She clucked to herself, widening it.

“He say you will not do this,” said Big John.

The rangers stood in a circle about them. They said nothing.

“Malaya,” said Jaager. The word came small from his mouth, scarcely heard.

Malaya slipped the noose over the man’s neck, tenderly, as if it were a necklace. She cocked her head to regard it, slowly tightening the cinch. “Tell him if he does not want the lions to kill him, enough pressure will cut his jugular. He can kill himself.”

“Malaya,” said Jaager again, in whisper, like a lover might.

But the man had already begun to talk.

*

She’d been one of twenty females selected to attend Ranger School in the spring of 2015, the first of their sex. She didn’t know if that was why she’d been targeted, but she knew that reporting the matter would compromise her chance to earn the Ranger Tab. It was compromised anyway, a week later, when a chief warrant officer made a crack about her ass in the hallway of the mess. There was a knowing glint in his eyes, or she thought there was. She shifted in an instant, attacking him with knees and elbows, edged hands, animal-inked shins. He was reduced to a sack of bones huddled quivering against the wall, leaking from the nose and mouth.

“You want to bite it now?”

She was removed from the list of candidates. She told herself it didn’t matter. Even if she earned the tab, she couldn’t be a trigger-puller. Only men could serve in the Regiment.

*

Jaager stood at the entrance of her tent, a matte blade against the night.

“Malaya.”

She was lying propped up on the bed, her bare feet crossed, her ball cap sitting beside her thigh. Green Hills of Africa was in her lap.

Wat?” She imitated his accent.

He stepped into the tent. He was still in uniform, wearing the mid-thigh shorts he sometimes wore in the bush. They showed the thick bulbs of muscle over his knees.

“The other night,” he said.

Uit,” she said. Out.

He stepped closer. “You don’t want me to leave.”

“That’s irrelevant,” she said. “I told you to.”

He stepped to the edge of her bed. “You don’t give the orders here. You seem to have some trouble understanding that.”

“You came to teach me a lesson, that it? Show me who’s in charge?”

His nostrils flared. His eyes were the palest blue, chipped from ice. “I want you.”

“You have a wife.”

“At home, in Pretoria, I am a pet dressed up in bright colors for parties, barbecues. Out here, with you, I am myself.”

“You mean you are Impisi White.”

He said nothing. His assent.

This man, she had tested him. He was strong enough, sharp enough to cut her, to pierce the angry leopard inked over her heart, and she knew only one thing to do. She looked him up, down. She narrowed her eyes.

“The White Wolf?” She shook her head. “No, I see only a dog.”

He stiffened, as if ordered to attention. His right eye twitched.

“Please,” he said.

“And you beg like one.”

“I could kill you,” he said.

“It might be harder than you think.”

She slid the small pistol from where it lay hidden beneath her ball cap, tapping one finger on the receiver.

His face was drum-tight, bloodless. His teeth showed. His eyes roved her. They stopped on the sole of her left foot, the one bearing the print of the leopard cat.

“You know, the luiperd is bigger than the hiëna. It has five weapons instead of one. Teeth and claws. But when the hyena comes? The leopard, it always runs.”

Malaya leaned forward.

“That’s a good story, Jaager. Have you heard the one about the African white wolf? When struck by a hollow-point, it dies like any other dog.”

He smiled, a wicked blade of teeth, and walked out.

*

She dreamed that night of the elephants that had brought her to Africa. They were war-orphans, survivors of bloody Mozambique. They had seen their parents killed, their siblings, whole herds of their kind murdered by truck-mounted machine gun, by helicopter gunship. Their tusks had occupied endless rows of warehouses in Maputo, white forests of ivory that financed the wars of men. The survivors bore the scars of shrapnel blasts, like flocks of tiny dark birds against their skin. Their great ears were riddled like country road signs, their brains laced with dark snares of trauma, waiting to be tripped.

The elephant never forgets.

They overturned safari trucks in the reserves, the iron beasts that once killed their families, and they fled the giant flies that chopped the sky, that stung their rumps and put them to sleep. Gangs of poachers haunted the land, armed with automatic rifles and night-vision goggles, chainsaws to remove tusk and horn. The elephant would go extinct, the rhino. Scientists gave them each a decade. Veterans were needed, who could train rangers and patrol reserves. Who could, if need be, pull triggers.

She’d come.

Nauman_3In her dream, Malaya was high on the back of a war-elephant. It was woolly, with great snarls of tusk crossed like swords. She was riding in the howdah, the armored carriage that rocked upon a sea of muscle, and the moon was hot copper above her, as if newly formed. Her right foot was an eagle’s claw, the talons curved obsidian black, and her left a leopard’s paw. Her heart was closed, a leopard-faced shield. In her hands, a gun. It bore a cyclopic green eye that could see at night, a drum of jacketed lightning. The barrel was an extension of her, like the arm of a god. There was an elephant before her, another behind. They were traveling in convoy, clasped trunk to tail, and she realized what would happen before it did. Like Basra, there was an explosion first. A blast of the reddest hell, sprung from the core of the world, and the elephants screamed and lurched through the bush, their ears winged and flaming, their pain trumpeted through the night.

Then she saw them, a gang of poachers come surging through the red-grass, dark-skinned and light, each slavering with desire. She turned the green eye of the rifle upon them, keen as a leopard’s, her finger flexed on the blade of trigger. She was mindless instinct, the dream of herself. But these were not men, she realized. They were a cackle of spotted hyena, bright-toothed in the dark, and they were laughing at her.

She couldn’t shoot.

*

The cairn was where the bushmeat poacher said it would be. A small pile of white stones set at the edge of the tar road that paralleled the fence, equidistant between two-mile markers. Nearby, a gulch twisted through the dry earth, storm-carved. It blasted right under the fence. There was a small opening, just big enough for a man to crawl through. Big John squatted before it, picking a lint-sized piece of cloth from a jagged end of fence wire. He rolled it between his fingers, sniffed.

“They come two, three hours ago. They are already in the park.”

“Fuck,” said Malaya. She could imagine them out there, hunting a bull rhino with his head in the grass, his little tail swishing over his great behind.

Jaager frowned, his rifle cradled in one arm. “They will use the same flaw to escape. We remain here and ambush them.”

“The only way they come back here is with horn.”

“They might already have it.”

“Yeah, and they might not.”

“It will be dark soon. There’s nothing we can do.”

“The fuck there isn’t.”

“Malaya. Malaya!”

She didn’t look back. She was already disappearing into the bush.

*

The moon hung elliptic over the edge of the world, like the slivering eye of a cat. Malaya’s breathing was almost back to normal. She’d had to outrun them for the first mile, into the red fire of the west, until it was too dark to track her. Night fell quickly at the equator, something about the angle of the sun. Jaager would have caught her and bound her hands, told her he was keeping her safe.

The trail she walked was pale in the dark, like moonstone. The sea of grass was purple, furrowed by the passage of beasts, islanded with thorny shrubs. The night was alive, choral. The cicadas roared, a mania of tiny engines, and over them the sustained churr of nightjars, sight-hunting against the moon. She stopped beneath an acacia tree and sucked on the straw of her hydration bladder. A troop of baboons, like dog-snouted old men, watched her from the high branches. They were silent, the color of ghosts.

She adjusted the sling of her carbine and kept on, moving west through the thornveld. She knew she was being pursued. There was the White Wolf and his pack of rangers, shadowing her through the bush, and the disembodied eyes of lions and leopards that floated through the night. Still she didn’t stop. She stole through the long blades of grass, barely a shiver in her wake. She bled from shadow to shadow. She was trained, armed. She was a crossbred shadow-walker, born to this.

She came upon a mound of rhino dung, laid to mark the territory of a bull. It was fresh; the beetles had yet to find it. She must be on the right track. The acacia grew denser, a long train of tree-clouds strung low over the horizon, like a gathering storm. They marked the river, she knew, and she quickened her pace.

The soil was basalt, a layer of prehistoric lava risen from deep fissures in the earth. She thought of the bull rhino’s squeal of three days ago, the hell that flashed the world of men. The ground descended beneath her, softened, and she was beneath the cool night-shadows of the trees. The dark snake of river appeared, coursing through the land. Its banks pale under the moon, almost white.

She found him there, the one she sought. He came bouncing through the tall grass on the far side of the river, heavy as a dreadnought, and turned broadside on the beach, as if just for her. He looked like the ugly brother of a unicorn, the brunt of laughs. An oxpecker stood on his shoulder like a tiny guardian. Seeing him, the leopard over her heart roared.

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The rhino bent his head to drink, and that’s when she saw them. They were coming through the grass behind him, their heads floating disembodied over the chest-high blades. Poachers. A skulk of them. An unkindness. Her heart was stammering, beating at her breast. Her fingers were numb. She brought them under the barrel of her gun.

“Don’t.”

It was the White Wolf, slunk up behind her. She could tell by his voice.

“I have a gun aimed at the back of your head,” he said.

The poachers crept from the grass over the river. They were carrying AK-47s at hip-level, approaching the bull. Malaya was neither leopard nor eagle nor wolf. She was only herself, an animal her own. If even one of them fell, the rest might run.

“You are not cleared to engage,” said Jaager.

She thumbed the fire selector to semiautomatic. She could not hear the squeals again, the pain of the world unseamed.

The sounds she’d made herself.

“Don’t,” said Jaager.

The men that knelt on the beach to aim, they were hungry. They had children to feed. They had come miles through the bush, braving lions and leopards and rangers with guns. They had their reasons. Their hungers and equations. They were men.

They were in no danger of going extinct.

“I will kill you,” said Jaager.

The men raised their weapons to the bull, this horned relic of prehistory drinking from the river, and Malaya laid her crosshairs over the nearest man’s temple. The shot was less than one hundred yards. By the time Jaager fired, her bullet would already be sent, passing through the poacher’s brain like a judgment.

“Please,” said Jaager. “Ek is lief vir jou.”

I love you.

The rhino raised his head, as if he’d heard the words.

Malaya pulled the trigger.

***

Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.


Taylor Brown is the author of In the Season of Blood and Gold (Press 53, 2014), Fallen Land (St. Martin's Press, 2016), and The River of Kings (St. Martin's Press, 2017). His fiction has been published in more than twenty journals, and he is a recipient of the Montana Prize in Fiction. "Rhino Girl" was a finalist for the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Contest, and the story was awarded second place in the 2016 Doris Betts Fiction Prize, sponsored by the North Carolina Writers' Network and managed by the North Carolina Literary Review. Taylor lives in Wilmington, NC. More from this author →