Manzano Mountain Review is an online New Mexico literary journal affiliated with UNM-Valencia.


by Carol Samson

It must have been the stone lions, rough-hewn, at the entrance to the park.  I was walking there, in the town park where, a hundred years ago, a town banker, had placed two monuments, the lions, side by side. There were yellow leaves falling. The Farmer’s Market was holding its last Saturday market. A guitar player played music about endings and farmers were selling radishes and golden beets and one grey-haired woman sat next to a bucket of yellow sunflowers and the bee lady sold honey from bees that live over 10,000 feet, bees that would be gathered and transported to the almond groves of California for the winter. I passed by the crocheted-hats-and-afghan lady and the masseuse and used book man and the woman who lived in a trailer by the river and stitched cloth napkins with moose patterns.

It might have been the stone lions’ eyes, small drilled holes, their blind-eyed stare, because I turned there to go down the last row of white market tents and saw the booth, a card table with a wire pen. A bearded man sat under a sign that said: “RHINOS FOR SALE/$50.00.”  The man had an earring in his ear, a turquoise chip, and he had one rhino, not too big, in the pen. The rhino stood on some straw staring out at something. There was a dog bowl at its feet. It did not move. It was stoic thing amidst the children and the dogs and the straggling couples and the Amish man selling pies.
I asked the man, Would this rhino be hard to raise?

He said, No, you just have to know it has no teeth in the front. To eat, it has to reach with it lips. It folds food in its front lip.

I asked, Have you raised many?

He said, I used to raise camels, sell the camel milk. Rhinos are more passive. Just keep it in the backyard.

I asked, Do they get angry?

He said, Only when the wind blows.

When I was a child, my Father told me a rhinoceros lived in the backyard, and pointing toward the window, he would say, Look out there. Do you see a white one or a black? Or is it a blue one with black markings?

I knew he always wanted to own a rhino of his own. Once he called the Big Animal Rescue people and asked if there might be a rhino available. I could hear him answering their questions: did he have a veterinarian who could vouch that he vaccinated his animals? Did he have a fenced yard? Were there other animals in the house? Did he have a soft bed for it or would it sleep on the couch? Would he walk it? Did he have references?

As I sat by him on his reading chair, he showed me old drawings of a rhinoceros painted on the cave walls of Chauvet, of horses running with buffalo, and of the places where shamans traced their hands in red-powder, making spots on the walls, framing the palm and fingers of a single hand, creating a red totem to tame the beasts. Father said I should read Pliny, the Elder, and he reached for that book. And once, his voice ever so serious, Father told the story about the King Manuel of Portugal who, in the summer of 1515, wanted to show his rhino to the Pope. The rhino had come to Lisbon in a wooden ship, and the King housed it near the palace. Father said the King brought it to a stadium to fight an elephant. Surely, everyone thought, the rhino with its fighting horn would win against a lumbering elephant. Father said that the King stood the beasts together and that someone had draped the rhino’s head and back in orange and yellow cloth with bangles. But the crowd in Lisbon cheered, and, said Father, the noise frightened the elephant and it ran from the arena and out into the hills. What is important here, my Father told me, leaning close, is that someone took time to draw the beast, its horn, the texture of the folds of skin. Someone translated it, is how my Father said it.

My Father’s voice waffled. This, I knew, was the sad part. When the King of Portugal prepared to send the animal to the Pope, Father went on, the sailors secured the animal, strapping it in the wooden boat, using chains to keep it still. Some say, Father said, the ship sailed off toward Rome and dark clouds came up and the boat rocked and turned and tilted in the wind and all things were tossed into the sea. Except the rhino. It was tied there, strapped in by chains, unable to break the bonds, unable to swim. My Father’s eyes filled with water as he described the taunting of the seagulls and the booming of the thunder and the flapping of the sails. The rhino must have heard the tearing of the ship’s wooden timbers and its own bellowing, its grunting calls, in the howling of the winds as all went down to the bottom of the sea.

I think often of my childhood pets and of captivity:  the small turtle with its red painted shell marked with name of a movie cowboy that was purchased at the dimestore, the Easter chicks who lived in a box in the kitchen and created gruelly masses of green poop, the guinea pig and her son who sang staccato chirpings sounds and mated with each other and had a child so Father changed the male’s name from Jock to Oedipus, the salamander with its palm-tree fringe of skin around its face who fed on live crickets, the goldfish tribes, found floating upside down in the bowl then flushed down the toilet, the blue parakeets that flew out of the house to somewhere, the frog from the Frog Rodeo that hopped under the couch and was eaten by the dog, the starling bird named Francis that we found fallen from a nest and the Bird Lady who lived next door who said, We’ll see, we’ll see, because, you know, you cannot save them all.
My Father’s stories became my dreams. I would consider the rhinoceros in its orange and yellow drapery looking at me with its sad eye. Sometimes in the daylight I tried to draw the rhino, at first in shaman drawings in red crayon and then with the colored pencils Father gave me, creating them in purple and green and pink.  I came to oil paint and made the rhinos look like those in science books. I made surreal ones with many heads. Once I painted out a wooden boat with window holes, each window with a rhino looking out. I filled the walls of my room with drawings. I detailed the rough coat, the kind of goiter chin. I rescued them in images.

Then I looked at Durer’s drawings in my Father’s books. Durer never saw a rhino, my Father told me, but his beast seemed worldly wise. When I looked at it, Durer’s version seemed to have its own Thunder Jacket, the kind Father put on our dog when the dog heard strange noises and began to shake. I could see that the rhino’s sides seemed to be etched with underwater plants and strewn with seaweed blossoms. Its hindquarters
looked costumed as if it wore frilly and pleated pants and, up under its neck, I saw it had a kind of bib, a flattened plate near its jowls, a solid piece of armor. Mostly, I favored its eye. The creature seemed resigned to its fate, willing to be defined by someone who did not know it.      

Perhaps, then, it was the stone lions in the park. There were yellow leaves falling. I bought the rhino. It is in the backyard tethered to the tree. I made a fenced pen.  I bought a Walmart child’s pool which I fill with water each day. I go out every morning to feed it grain. Sometimes I hold the grain out in my hand and feel it work its lips across my palm because it has no teeth in the front. Sometimes I just sit with it. I suspect it is waiting for me to tell it stories of that King in Portugal or of Durer. I may do that in time. But, for now, I cannot because sometimes, when I look into its glassy eyes, I suspect it is aware that I will someday translate it or will frame it in images so limiting that it cannot get out. I think it knows it is peculiar, an oddment in this world. Peculiar things know. And sometimes when I see its eyes fill with water as it stands in my backyard next to a blue plastic pool, I know it is listening to something I cannot hear, some ancient and internal bellowing coming to it on the wind.

Carol Samson is Professor Emerita at the University of Denver where she taught in the DU University Writing Program. A short story writer, she has published stories in literary journals including Ghost Road Press and Black Ocean Press, and her story "Even the Stones" was included in the Ghost Road Press anthology, Open Windows, which won the Colorado Book Award. She has also adapted and directed the diaries of Virginia Woolf for a staged performance at the International Virginia Woolf Conference and two novels by Kent Haruf for staged performances by the Chalk Horse Theatre in Salida, Colorado.