Jeff Conant   © 2014

Book One: The Gone Rhinoceri

Where we learn of the mysterious and sudden vanishing of a particular charismatic creature from zoological institutions, in which some few had until recently remained.

“You win some, you lose some.”   — anon.

I

It so happened that the rhino was gone.

*

On a dull, cold New York City March morning, the lackluster gaze of subway riders and the tedious crowding through turnstiles, the tiny swish of the metropass card past the electronic eye of the card reader; the insipid coffee and the equally insipid newspaper purchased for a dollar and a quarter at the corner bodega; a lipless kiss from his wife of how many years, and no hug from the child, still asleep (for work starts early at the zoo) – all of it added up, by the time Bill got to the darkened park to unlock the exhibits and begin feeding the animals, to a familiar listless brooding, like a mild but chronic and possibly infectious illness.

Bill, like so many others in New York, in America, in the world, wore a sort of metaphysical undershirt emblazoned with the slogan, “Life is Elsewhere.” Little did Bill know – little do any of us, in our vulgar mortal coil – that there comes a day when what we advertise to ourselves in our frightened interior becomes just so depthlessly true that it carries us away as if on a flood of raw sewage.

*

That morning, Bill walked his usual route from the subway, 2 ½ blocks down Boston Road alongside the vast and vacant expanse of the Zoo parking lot and through Gate A (for Asia), to the cinderblock office. He opened the heavy grey steel door, slipped his time card from its slot and slid it into the timeclock, an old cast iron piece of machinery that had hung there possibly for half a century. He felt with sickening assurance the familiar jolt when the machine bit the paper. He collected his keys and clipped them to his belt. He fastened his badge. He left the cinderblock shelter, let the door swing to behind him, and strode, now that the coffee had kicked in and the badge had slightly boosted his sagging esteem, to the area that was his charge: the African Savannah.

*

High overhead a flock of white cranes spread their wings against the pale winter sky, their whooping cry lost on the wind.

*

As Bill descended the slope toward the rhino’s pen, he sensed something amiss. His eyes began anxiously scanning left and right, up and down, and trying to pierce below the dark water and into the brown and dying stands of papyrus reeds. When he registered the problem, Bill’s listlessness suddenly evaporated.

The rhino was gone.

*

In Cleveland, about the same time, the same thing: the rhino was gone. And in San Diego, and in Miami, and in Washington D.C., and Seattle, and St. Louis, and Dallas, and Phoenix, and Denver. No rhino, anywhere.

*

Thelma Martin, the vet at the St. Louis Zoo, arrived at the large animal inspection lab that morning expecting to perform the rhino’s regular check-up. She’d received a memo the day before that Barabbas, the zoo’s lone black rhino, had been exhibiting signs of irritation; he’d eaten little for weeks, and angered easily, and spent hours at a time rubbing his horn on the thorny acacia trees in his pen, as if with an itch he couldn’t scratch.

All the night before, Thelma had done her research. It appeared true that rhinos suffered periodic exfoliation of the bone on their horns, and that at such times rhinos show signs of antisocial behavior, even sometimes engaging in senseless acts of brutality against members of their own species. But Thelma, always equivocal, noted at the same time that animals held in captivity – and especially the charismatic megafauna whose role in the wild is nothing less than to maintain the integrity of their ecosystems – sometimes succumbed to strange diseases: viral, bacterial, cancerous. Thelma arrived that morning with every intention of deducing the cause of Barabbas’ strange behavior.

But, she couldn’t because, upon arrival at the large animal inspection lab, it was immediately apparent – more than apparent – that Barabbas the rhino was gone.

*

All across Canada, the same thing: gone rhinoceri. In Ottowa, in Toronto, in Montreal, in Vancouver. Everywhere there’d been a rhino, it was gone.

*

In the Washington D.C. Zoo, when it dawned on Leo the zookeeper that Ravi, the two-ton Indian white rhino, had gone AWOL, he alerted Zoo Security, who alerted Homeland Security, who alerted the National Security Council and the Council on Foreign Relations. When the latter agency protested that rhinos were beyond their bailiwick, names were taken. “You do understand that there’s a War on Terror going on, yes?” said someone to someone. Would the rhino appear stalking the Mall or charging the Capitol? Would it turn up in Foggy Bottom, an armored and biological threat to the Pentagon and the National Security Agency?

*

In Mexico City, there had never been a rhino, though a polar bear there had died some five years previously, cause of death unknown. There had, however, been a rhino at Cancún’s Casino del Conejito, somewhat dejected and wanting for attention. Now, Cancún’s rhino: gone.

Nor had there been rhinos in Oakland, Houston, Baltimore, Fort Lauderdale (though there were dolphins and flamingoes there), Oklahoma City, Detroit, Las Vegas (believe it or not), Cincinnati, Jackson, Knoxville, Harrisburg, Providence, or anywhere else south of the Texas border, save Rio De Janeiro (where there was a white rhino known as “Sparkles”) and possibly at the extravagant hacienda of a Colombian drug lord somewhere in the rugged folds of the Northern Andean cordillera, where rumors of a rhino circulated, unconfirmed.

*

But everywhere there had been a rhino in captivity, that rhino was gone.

*

The zookeeper in San Francisco was Zach Jenkins – the same man who in 1967, in September or perhaps October, had been guarding the bison in Golden Gate Park, when one of them went missing. Incredible as it seems, a band of hippies in full Orphic Bacchanalia had declared the bison “common patrimony of the universe,” (this was, recall, in 1967), and liberated it from its pen, only to be forced into the difficult position, once they had successfully – miraculously, even – transported the bison to their commune in West Marin – of having to take responsibility for the animal. After a long session of group meditation during which the implications of hiding the animal became clear, the collective decided that the only way forward was to follow the Orphic path and sacrifice the beast for the good of all. With nothing short of archaic inegenuity, reborn in them as if the spirit of ancient Eleusis were rekindled in the rangelands of Olema, they undertook collectively to kill the bison, bleed it, skin it, gut it, butcher it, and clean it, and over the course of an entire year of feasting – 1968, the year of global revolution (whose fuel, this particular small band came to believe, had been their very sacrifice) to cook it and consume it. And it was good.

For Zach Jenkins, sadly, it hadn’t been so good. What had once been called shellshock, then battle fatigue, and in Zach Jenkins’ time was known as combat stress, is now diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – syndrome from which Zach, four decades after the sequestration of the bison, continued to be afflicted.

When he grokked the disturbing fact that the rhino was gone, the old twitching of PTSD rattled his wiry frame; Jenkins hoped to god that the same thing hadn’t happened to the rhino that had happened to the bison forty years before: history repeating itself, the first time as farce, the second as tragedy.

*

Karl Marx, homo economicus europeus, had never seen a rhinocerous. But he did, for a brief period in his later life, when he lived with his wife and children, impoverished in London, own a reproduction of Albrecht Durer’s famous 17th century gravure of a rhino, heavily armored and studded with knobs and horny plates, which he dearly admired but, sadly, at a dark moment, was forced to sell in order to keep his family fed, even if only in cakes and lard.

*

Bill, at the Bronx Zoo, now stood transfixed by dread.

“The fuck!?” he said to himself. “Where the fuck is the fucking rhino?”

By then the fact was inexorable; unsuppressible; irrefutable; impossible to deny: there was no rhino.

So, what to do?

Action, in such cases, is a mere succor for the inability to explain away terror and grief and gloom, an absurd and improvisational modern dance in an ontological vacuum – but it’s what we have, isn’t it? And so we must act.

Or so Bill told himself.

He picked up the phone and dialed.

“Give me the Department of Interiority!” he hollered.

“I’m sorry, sir,” said the girlish voice on the other end. “The United States government has no Department of Inferiority.”

“Not inferiority, dammit, interiority!”

“For the Department of the Interior, please dial 09.” Click.

*

Elsewhere on Planet Earth, in a brick and plaster cell where no legal instrument or enlightened humanitarian decree could come between the prisoner’s head and the bucket of excrement, this scene unfolded:

“Bif! Pow!”

“Smack!”

“Oooof!”

“Graaaaa!”

“Aaarghhhhh.”

Akbar, prone on the cold concrete, grasped the rim of the bucket. His face against the floor, legs splayed out behind, the ribs in his torso cracked and broken, two hands clawing the bucket’s ridged lip, his bulging forearms pressed and trembling against the force of gravity, struggling to maintain his dignity, struggling to maintain some slight distance, if only inches, if only fractions of an inch, between his head and the bucket’s cold, rank, fecal contents. A single thought flickered in his brain, like a current of electricity in a wire so frayed that only a single strand binds end to end: I were but a mere crustacean, scuttling sideways on the floors of ancient oceans.

*

Days went by before news of the rhinos’ disappearance was reported to the public through official channels. But in those few days, the word spread overland like blight on grain. One zookeeper called the next, asking if any such event had ever occurred before. What does one do? Is there a protocol?

Holly, the zookeeper in Vancouver, thought, though she couldn’t say it, that the Aboriginals were to blame. Hadn’t they, just months before, gone out of their way to try and spoil the Olympics?

Zach Jenkins, after days of deliberation, determined, through the nervous telepathy that accompanied his PTSD twitching, that it was the fucking hippies again.

*

From the Redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters, every zookeeper was wrenched with an unnamed dread.

And they didn’t know the half of it. But their collective not-knowing, transmitted wirelessly, as if the ether itself were the medium for their fear, triggered an instinct toward collective blame. Someone was at fault. But who?

*

The media telegraphed the fear.

First, a brief note in the LA Times: Missing Rhinocerous: A Sign of Hard Times? Then, The Washington Post: Animal Negligence or Criminal Mishap? And soon, Reuters, AP, and the BBC: The Case of the Missing Ungulate. When the Mexican papers got ahold of the story, they cast blame on the narcos: Treinta-mil muertos y un rinoceronte desaparecido: De peor en peor.

                            II

But sometime between the zookeepers’ collective anxiety and the media storm that darkened the horizon of global events, the parents found out, myself among them.

It was in San Francisco, on a Sunday. My wife Ophelia was out of state on business, and I was to spend the day at the San Francisco zoo with Natasha, our five-year old.

The previous evening, Natasha and I had cleaned the kitchen while Ophelia prepared for her travel – some kind of political meeting, as her profession remotely involved campaigning for elected office every few years and running government administrations between: town councils, state assemblies, interstate commerce boards, city and county governments, that sort of thing.

We had shuttled Ophelia to the airport for her flight to, Cleveland, was it? Or Grand Rapids? Somewhere, anyway, in the middle of the country. It all blurred together for me (and for Natasha, too, no doubt). We had said our mildly anxious but generally affectionate family farewells, and then returned home, where I would prepare for Natasha a dinner of mini-hot dogs and frozen peas with persimmon ice (real persimmon, milk, dash of nutmeg, set in freezer to condense).

*

Natasha was our girl. We hadn’t borne her – my wife was past childbearing age by then. We’d adopted her. We did mountains of research, looking at programs in Guatemala, in Ethiopia, in Cambodia. Our search finally came to focus on the Balkans. We’d remembered that the dark blooming of AIDS across the Cold War-scarred region had made adoption of orphans a virtual industry in Romania in the 80’s. Decades later, after the wars in Serbo-Croatia, children were still being abandoned by the cartload, the culture no longer able to shelter its young.

After months of arrangements, we flew to an orphanage in Bosnia-Herzegovina to meet our new baby. The nuns had named her Natasha – Natasha being the Russian name for Natalia, Natal Day, referring to the birth of Jesus – because she’d been found on Christmas on the orphanage steps. The infant, only months old, was found wrapped in a shawl handwoven of dogbane fiber. Around her little neck was a leather cord from which hung a small clay ocarina, a little whistle shaped like a miniature swallow’s nest with four holes for fingering notes and one for blowing. Pinned to the blanket she was wrapped in was a note that said, in Romani Cyrillic, ‘stranger’. Because of the note, the nuns determined that Natasha was a gypsy – one of that race of nomads that had come into Europe only lately from the milky Asian steppe.

From the moment we learned her story, we loved her.

*

The doctors had diagnosed her as polymorphously perverse with atemporal inclinations, and sick in the body. The nuns at the orphanage said that at age two, she’d begun babbling in six languages, from Coptic to Gaelic. A rumor had it that she was blessed. One of the Sisters claimed to have heard the child reciting Finnegan’s Wake as if it were a fairy tale.

Natasha had a rare auto-immune disorder, contracted before birth, that, the nuns said, would give her magical powers while she lived, but would one day put her in great danger of a young death.

Natasha’s condition – her little life that unspooled like a thin filament that could be cut by the slightest of destiny’s blades – taught us to live as if each day might be the last.

After we brought her home, she quickly came to feel our love, and to give hers to us in return, in abundance. We were truly blessed.

*

After she finished her persimmon ice, Natasha got her jammies on; then a little popcorn with salt butter and powder (powder being our name for Red Star nutritional yeast, a terrific product, though apparently its production is somewhat toxic to those in proximity to the Red Star plant), and then we settled into bed to read what was, at that particular moment, her favorite book, a sort of parable starring three frogs and a strange old toad titled “It’s Mine,” by Leo Lionni.

Natasha sprawled out on her Tinkerbell™ duvet in her flame retardant mauve footy pj’s and gazed dotingly up at me with her big brown komikku eyes as I began to read:

<< In the middle of Rainbow Pond there was a small island. Smooth pebbles lined its beaches, and it was covered with ferns and leafy weeds.

On the island lived three quarrelsome frogs named Milton, Rupert, and Beatrix. They quarreled and quibbled from dawn to dusk.

“Stay out of the pond!” yelled Milton. “The water is mine!”

“Get off the island!” shouted Rupert. “The earth is mine!”

“The air is mine!” screamed Beatrix as she leaped to catch a butterfly.

And so it went.>>

Natasha’s eyes glazed as if they’d been buttered and her head slumped into the pillow. I read on: one day a large toad appeared and upbraided the frogs for their selfishness: “I live on the other side of the island,” the toad said, “but I can hear you shouting ‘Its mine!’ all day long. You can’t go on like this!” As soon as the toad hopped away, Milton ran off with a large worm. When the others protested, calling out, “Worms are for everybody,” Milton was defiant. “Not this one. It’s mine,” he said.

Suddenly, the sky darkened and thunder rumbled and rain filled the air and the water turned to mud. The island grew smaller and smaller and soon was swallowed up by the flood.

Natasha looked asleep, but when I stopped reading and put the book aside she lifted her head and glared. I read on:

<<Desperately the frogs clung to the few slippery stones that still rose above the wild, dark water. But soon these too began to disappear.

There was only one rock left and there the frogs huddled, trembling from cold and fright. But they felt better now that they were together, sharing the same fears and hopes.>>

Finally the flood subsided, and the frogs were amazed to discover that the large rock that had saved them was not a rock at all – it was the toad. So they thanked the old toad, and soon the water had cleared. Sunrays chased silver minnows on the sandy bottom of the pond, and  the frogs played and swam around the island and leaped after swarms of butterflies that filled the air.

Natasha’s breathing had grown heavy, and I tried for a second time to put the book aside. And for a second time, she glared at me. I read on:

<<Later, when they rested in the weeds, they felt happy in a way they had never been before.

“Isn’t it peaceful,” said Milton.

“Isn’t it beautiful,” said Rupert.

“And do you know what else?” said Beatrix.

“No, what?” the others asked.

“It belongs to no one.” she said.

“And to everyone!” they all shouted happily. >>

I closed the book and set it aside.

“Night-night, sweetie,” I said, and laid a kiss on Natasha’s brow. But to my dismay, the story’d gotten her excited. Natasha bolted from her duvet and began leaping in the air and swatting after the swarms of imaginary butterflies that seemed to suddenly flutter cloudlike into our apartment.

I tried to settle her down with a series of distractions (another bowl of ice, a burst balloon, her stuffed baby jaguar giving a muffled goodnight purr) and persuasive gestures (inviting her to hide under the blanket with me, the old dad’s trick of feigning sleep myself), but to no avail.

So I tried the old talking trick:

“Hey honey, did you like the book about the frogs?”

She huffed and squawked and then began to settle down a bit, just as I’d hoped, and she looked up at me, her purple jammies appearing suddenly too small (the children, they grow so fast!)

“It reminded me of Das Capital,” she said.

Das Capital? Of Marx?”

Yes, all children are special, but my daughter’s precociousness was sometimes just too-oo cute.

“Yes, dada, Marx. In its aspect of enunciating an ethic of communalism over primitive accumulation.”

“Don’t you mean communism, sweetie?”

“No dada, communalism. Do you think Marx was a communist? Not in the Soviet sense he wasn’t. And in any case, It’s Mine rings more of the scientific anarcho-socialism of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid than of what would soon become the farce of Orwell’s Animal Farm, don’t you agree?”

The mention of Animal Farm took me aback, as I would’ve never drawn the connection (and me an old Wobbly!).

“Sweetie, now that you mention it,” I said, “the story does have its utopian elements, a la Proudhon.”

“Exactly. Property is theft, isn’t that the message?”

“Well, I think, yes,” I said, now ready to engage at her level. “But it goes beyond that, don’t you think, to include…”

“A spiritual dimension,” Natasha finished my sentence. “Yes, I do think so. If we are to live on one finite earth, we must enjoy her bounties as a form of prayer.”

“Yes, yes,” I said. “That must be what Lionni means when he says the frogs felt happy in a way they had never been before.”

“Of course,” Natasha said. “It’s the peace that surpasses the bounds of understanding!”

“OMMMM, Shanti!” we both chanted, from deep in our bellies and then burst into a raucous fit of family laughter.

“No, but seriously, dada, at the very end, when the frogs say ‘It belongs to no one, and to everyone!’, it’s like they’re articulating the kind of mystical earth-wisdom or radical democracy that Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers fought for in the seventeenth century.”

“In 1649…Saint George’s Hill,” I sang, putting on my best British brogue. Natasha joined in, “A ragged band of diggers came to show the peoples’ will! They defied the landlords… They defied the laws! They came in peace, reclaiming what was theirs!”

We rolled on the floor laughing, and before the bedtime ritual was through we’d decided that Lionni’s masterpiece encapsulated all of the great ethical philosophies, from the Nichomacean Ethics where Aristotle wrestles with the question of how men should best live, to the Dhammapada, written, so they say, by the Buddha himself.

And finally, my little talking trick worked, and as it is and must be for children everywhere at one time or another, my darling Natasha curled up like a pill bug and fell asleep.

*

And so morning came, with its tender glances. Morning, and off to the zoo with us.

*

We passed the flamingoes, flaming pink in their pen at the zoo entrance, and the seals, frolicking in the coastal fog, occasional shafts of sunlight bursting through like promises of celestial goodwill, and the meercats, scrabbling for bits of kibble at the dark mouths of their subterranean encampments. Natasha was in good spirits, as was I, as we made our way downhill toward the African Savannah.

*

Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies. Did I know, or did Natasha, that by the time we rounded the wild boar pen and passed the turn-off to the Big Cats and came upon the mocked-up swamp where the rhino had lived, that we’d be drawing dangerously close to the home front, as it were, of just such a secret war? That somewhere behind the missingness of the San Francisco rhino – and all the other rhinos, too, as it would turn out – was some shadowy Illuminati or World Bank, a Wallflower Order or World Trade Organization or Knights Templar, some Gnostic Organizm of Economic Cooperation and Development, some addled avatar of an off-the-rails Earth Liberation Front or Armored Anti-Vivisection Brigade? Could I have known, the events that followed – my abandonment of Ophelia and temporarily, of Natasha, my enrollment with the League of Unsettled Indians, Natasha’s great sea journey, the sewage spill to end all sewage spills, the fall through the center of the earth, the Burning of the Forests – might perhaps have been avoided.

But then, the world being a continual contest for power among unequal forces, and destiny being what it is, perhaps not.

Someone once said that History is like an hourglass, all the sand draining eventually through a single pre-congested point where all of time converges and all events collide; Natasha’s and my stumbling upon the gone rhinocerous in San Francisco that day appears to have been such a moment – the window through which we were able, nearly, to see the world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour – the hand of fate pushing us inexorably onward beyond all reason.

*

            All of that, in any case, by way of clues to lead the reader on. But first, back to the zoo:

  1. We rounded the wild boar pen, and laughed, as we always did, at the sign urging silence, lest the boars be stirred into a fit.
  2. Natasha held her cardboard tube of cotton candy before her, and put her mouth on the fluorescent pink fibrous treat, letting it melt on her tongue. (Her mother has no need to find out.)
  3. We passed the turn-off to the Big Cats. The smell wafted.
  4. Somewhere above, a flock of white cranes arced into the nether blue distance.
  5. Downhill we walked, step by absent-minded step. What need had we then for concern? The word antediluvian comes to mind as I reflect upon those moments now.
  6. We approached the wrought-iron fence, and saw the sign: Rhinocerous. Family: Rhinocerotidae. Genus: Dicerorhinus. Subspecies: D. s. sumatrensis. Native to: Sumatra, Indonesia. Status: endangered.
  7. Beyond the sign, the mocked-up swamp. Reeds and sedges, water hyacinth and duckweed greened the shallow pond where, we’d expected, the rhino would be wading.
  8. We drew dangerously close to the outermost reach of what can only be considered a secret war.
  9. We looked and looked. “Put me on your shoulders dada!” Natasha said. And then, “I don’t see it, dada.” And then, “Dada, I think the rhino’s gone.” And then, “No honey, the rhino can’t be gone. Rhinos don’t just disappear.” Such antediluvian innocence…

10. We stood as the day grew warm and pondered the eventuality. After what felt an eternity, a zookeeper approached, in starched white uniform, with a nameplate at his breast, Z. Jenkins. “Where’s the rhino?” I asked him, credulously. The news struck like thunder: “It, uh, seems to have, well, appears to have, er, disappeared.

*

            After that unsettling morning, I spent many an unsettled night delivering myself over to the Mystery: where had the rhino gone? I’d never been much a great Believer in anything – who is, in the twenty-first century where all things great and small have been removed to the merest spectacle, the greatest Gods diminished to mere flakes of Lucite for the hungry soul? – and yet, under the gathering shadows, as the ontological snipers took positions on the rooftops of reason, as the wild whooping cranes passed above and far beyond reach, something began to change…

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