May God Forever Bless the Rhino Keepers
BY TALIA LAKSHMI KOLLURI
I am a Hound and I am sitting in the dark, at the very edge of the morning, waiting in the garden for my Joseph to arise so that we can begin to work. I try to remain motionless, so that when he sees me he will know that I’m ready to work, but my ear itches and every so often I give it a few quick scratches. On other days I wait for him in his room, and I sit by his bed staring at him until he opens his eyes. Sometimes I pass the time licking his bedposts. But today I am watching my ash tree in the dark. A breeze is moving the branches and I can hear the leaves touching each other.
When Joseph emerges from the back door of his cottage and into the garden, I see that his slacks and shirt are nicely pressed. His clothes are the color of earth and savannah grasses, which I like very much. His shirt has a name tag sewn onto it. It says, “Wekesa.” That is pressed too. The other keepers wear their shirts untucked and their shirttails flap around making noise in the wind, but Joseph always wears his tucked in, which I prefer. It helps me to recognize him from a distance when there are too many smells in the air. I always try to be careful not to get my nose near him once he has pressed his slacks. My nose is wet.
We leave the garden and walk to an armory past the chimpanzee nest that holds my stinking rival, Chiku. Her musky scent overpowers what I know would be the sweet scent of the grassland drifting my way and all I can smell is her foul skin. Chiku is old and is allowed out of her enclosure sometimes. I think she is half-tame but she won’t admit it. Once, I caught her building a little stack of stones at the base of a tree in our Conservancy. She muttered at the rocks as she piled them up. I heard later from another hound that she called it praying, which I think might be useless.
I think I hate her.
“Hey, Hound!” Chiku yells as we walk past her, “Hey, you filthy Hound!”
I ignore her.
“I’ll be praying for you today.” I look back and I see a smirk spread across her face. “I’ll be praying for you to get trampled!” She starts cackling and tumbles over on her side into a hammock.
As we walk away, I comfort myself by imagining what it would be like to bite into her fat belly and watch all her guts spill out into the dirt. Nasty chimp.
When we get to the armory, Joseph brushes my head with the tips of his fingers as we cross the threshold. He leaves the lights off and prepares for the day in the dark, cleaning and oiling his rifle, gathering a pack and his GPS tracker. I wander the room sniffing the corners while I wait for him. I smell the dogs that were here yesterday and I try to imagine the day ahead. Look for the rhino. Protect the rhino. It’s what we are meant to do.
By the time we are ready to leave, the rest of the keepers have come into the armory with their dogs. Tracking hounds like me, and dogs who have been trained to attack poachers. And today, like every day, before we leave the armory, Joseph leans over me, places his hand on the crown of my head and presses his lips to the spot above my eyes. This gesture has some significance for Joseph, because every time he does it, he closes his eyes. I have lived with him for three years and I still don’t know what it means. But I love the feeling of the palm of his hand laid gently on the crown of my head.
We walk past the training boma on the way to find our rhinoceros, Zuri, for our shift. The light is coming and I can see insects gathering in the air, dancing in little swirls above the posts of the boma. Joseph says that Kenya has the most beautiful sunrises in the world, with so many colors. I can’t see all of them, but I want Joseph to know that I hear him, so every morning I pause to consider the sky so that Joseph thinks I can see the colors too.
When she arrived at the Conservancy, Zuri spent six weeks in the training boma. And then she gave birth to Zawati, and now they are free to roam the space set aside for endangered species. Two of the last of their kind.
“Come on, Hound,” Joseph says, reaching his hand out to me. “Let’s go.” He glances at his GPS receiver and we set out into the expanse of the Conservancy.
We make our way out into the grassy plains. Before we get deep into the savannah, we pass an old and imposing baobab tree. It has a wide trunk, wide like an elephant, and branches that spread out in a canopy at the top. There is no other tree like a baobab. This one marks the beginning of the wild part of the Conservancy. Past this point, none of the animals that live there have a Joseph in the way that I do. I love all the spaces past the baobab tree, but I’m a visitor here. This part of the Conservancy doesn’t really belong to me. Because I am tame.
When we pass the tree, I start to create a list in my mind of the smells I come across to make myself useful right away. I might need to know these smells later. Dirt. Savannah grass. Dung from another rhino. Dung from a deer. Cheetah scent. Details emerge in front of me as the morning begins to wash over our path. Dirt again. The sun is rising and everything seems lit up from the inside. I think I can almost smell Zuri. It is a musky, dusty smell. My heart starts to beat faster and I look around for other signs of her. It’s like this every day for me. Once we venture into the savannah, every second that we are away from her, every moment that we spend searching for her, troubles me. I feel pressure and panic mounting. I need to see her. Where is she?
I hate this feeling.
The dusty smell grows stronger, but now it’s also damp. I realize I’ve started to hold my breath, but I can’t seem to stop. We turn to walk into the sunrise and I see Zuri’s silhouette ahead of us in profile. I can breathe now. She is still. I can’t see Zawati, but I can smell her nearby. She smells like Zuri, but with a milky sweetness. When we get closer, I can see that Zuri has all four feet planted in a pit of sticky mud grunting with satisfaction. She lowers herself and settles in as we reach her.
“Morning, old girl,” Joseph says as he goes to her. He walks to her great gray head and, just like with me in the morning, presses his lips to her forehead and closes his eyes. And like with me, he does this every day. I wonder what it’s like for her. I’ve never asked, but I wonder if she also likes the weight of his hand on her head.
I give them a minute together, but I can’t stay away for long. When Joseph opens his eyes, I run up to Zuri. My tail is wagging and I know it’s obvious that I love her. I spend a few moments sniffing her to make sure she smells the same as yesterday. She does. When I reach her shoulders, I lick her rough skin. She tastes like the earth and her skin feels like the time I licked a stretch of paved road as a pup. Except supple. And warm. When I reach her face, she hangs her head low and close to me, gently nudging me with her horn. Joseph filed it down a while ago, but it’s growing back. I listen to the huff huff of her breath as she sniffs my neck, my body. Zuri may be quiet, and she may move slowly, but we are friends. We pause and I look into her dark eyes.
And then I start whispering in her ear, as I do every day. “Tell me where you’re going today, Zuri. Tell me so I can watch over you.” Sometimes she tells me, but today she just winks at me. “Ah. So is today one of those days when we will play the game?” I lick her cheek. So it is. Today is for the game.
“If you didn’t have me, you’d lose all your skills, Hound. I’m playing the game for you.” She leans her face toward me and I lick her cheek again. I taste the metal in the dust that settles on her skin.
The game we play is simple. It’s called Find Me. I try to find her and she tries to not be found. It was my idea to start playing it. I thought it would be good for her. I thought it might teach her to avoid poachers. I like the game. At least, I will like it as long as she lives.
We sit together for a while. Watching a dragonfly. And then she sighs. Heavy like when Joseph sets a bag down on the floor. “Have you seen Zawati today yet?” she asks. “She’s growing so fast.” A pause. “And someday she won’t need me anymore.”
It’s been years since a rhino calf was born at the Conservancy. And Zuri’s is the first I’ve ever known.
“Calves just grow and grow,” I say, “like they’re supposed to. Let me see her.” My tail starts wagging and I turn to look for our calf.
I see Zawati peeking out from Zuri’s back leg. I want to lick her face, but she doesn’t know me quite yet. If I give her some time, she will. She is a baby and is still nursing. She stares at me with her black eyes and then looks away. I try to go toward her but she ducks back behind her mother, hiding her face. I see her tail flicking back and forth. She’s not so good at hiding. Today was too soon for me to approach her. I’m greedy. I want everyone to love me.
It took a while for Zuri to warm up to me too. When she first arrived, she would turn around whenever I came near. She didn’t want to look at me. I started by licking her legs, right near her feet. And after a while, she let me come closer and closer to her head, until she stopped turning away from me at all. Now on long days, we rest together. If Joseph and I find her in the middle of the day, she lies down and we lean against her. Joseph eats his lunch and I curl up by her flank, feeling the slow draw of her breath. Like a great balloon filling and emptying beside me. Like a slow, long heartbeat. Today, since we found her first thing in the morning, we will leave before Joseph takes his midday meal. But not yet. First Joseph gives her a mud bath. He scoops up great handfuls of mud and smears it on her back in long sweeping strokes, murmuring to her the entire time. He told me once that this is to protect her from the sun and so I wait. By the time he’s finished the sun is flooding the grassland with light, and we walk away together to patrol the perimeter.
“Until later, Zuri!” Joseph calls out over his shoulder. He laughs to himself as we walk away, and wipes the mud from his hands with a rag he keeps tucked in his belt.
Now the game of Find Me will begin.
We don’t see her again until night has fallen. The moon has started to rise. A thin curved sliver, it casts a weak and silvery light. She stands with her back to us; still as a statue. Staring intently into the forest. She doesn’t turn when our footsteps come nearer. She doesn’t turn when the sound of my sniffing and lip licking would catch her attention on any other day. Joseph is chatting to me and to himself. When he sees Zuri hasn’t turned around, he calls out to her.
“Hey-oh, old girl. Twice in a day! That’s new—did you miss us?” She doesn’t turn. We walk up behind her and Joseph stops at her hind legs. He places a hand on her flank, pats her gently, and starts to quietly hum a little song that he likes to sing to us. I walk slowly around her in the darkness, and then I hear her whisper to me.
“Don’t go any further, Hound. He’s here.” I don’t see any-one else but I grip Joseph’s pant leg with my teeth and pull once. A signal to stop. He freezes, his hand still on Zuri. I look up at him and his eyes are wide. His body is tense now and I can feel him snap into alertness.
“Who is here?” I ask her, keeping my voice as low as I can. “The stranger. I don’t like him, Hound. He smells dangerous.” “Where is he?”
“In the bushes over there.”
I pause and I take in all the layers drifting through the air, and then I catch it. Something foul and pungent. But also human. I sniff and sniff the air trying to understand what it is. I can think of it only as sort of like an unwashed Joseph. Joseph if he were not neat. Joseph if he had spent his whole life tending a mind full of anger and fear. I learned from another hound once that these kinds of men smell a certain way. You can smell them wanting to lash out and run at the same time. The sourness that clings to a man who is made of a particular kind of raging terror. And I think this is the smell that I catch drifting from a dark patch of brush.
I begin to creep forward toward the smell. Slowly. Quietly. I smell him well before I see him. Him. The poacher. Which is to say I also smell his filthy clothes and his gun, which is not oiled and cared for like Joseph’s, but rusty. I smell rust and dirt that doesn’t belong here, and also other things.
That I smell him first is neither good nor bad, but soon afterward, I see him. He is a puzzle of shadows in the faint moonlight. And when I see him, I stop creeping forward and move to do the thing that I had been told I may have to one day do, which is to say I rush forward with the purpose of biting him and also of not letting go. Even though I am a tracking hound, and not a fighting dog, I was taught to be ready, just in case. I feel my paws slip at first on fine-grained earth, but I scramble to find my footing on a clump of short grass. I feel my nails dig into the earth and my body propel forward. The mineral scent of silt and gravel rises up around me. My vision narrows to a dim tunnel with a bright point at the center, focused on the poacher. I see his eyes grow wide at the sight of me. I dart at him from an angle, knowing I will reach him with the full force of my body knocking him down.
But he fires his gun. Not well. Not true. But fires it all the same and I feel something searing tear through my foreleg. But I have the purpose of biting him and I have also three remaining legs in good working order, and so though I stumble, I lurch forward again and land my teeth in his flesh. There is hardly any resistance from the fabric of his clothes and after a little push, my teeth drive through into his muscle. But his gun goes off again and also once or twice more. And when I hear a cry from Joseph and braying from Zuri, I realize that I have miscalculated. I know that what I am gripping in my jaw is the man’s leg and not his arm or his torso as I should have, because three legs in working order can’t propel me as far as four. I know this now.
I turn my head as far as I can without loosening my grip. I can’t see much, but out of the corner of my eye, I see Zuri crumpled on the ground. There is a dark mark on her head. I blink once or twice to refocus my eyes and I see it is a hole. The entry of a violent pathway that leads to her brain. And everything that is Zuri runs out, down her forehead in a river of blood.
She is gone.
I think I see Joseph with his body draped over Zawati like a blanket, moving with her. Zawati is crawling to her mother, sniffing her face.
I am still gripping the leg.
The rage then, the rage that I had smelled on the poacher—it becomes mine. I take it from him as I shake my head back and forth ripping the flesh of his leg away from the bone. I see his mouth open wide, his gaping mouth like a cave overtaking his face, his chest heaving, his hand trembling as it reaches for the shredded remains of his calf.
I look directly at the poacher. And I think of my Zuri. My breathing mountain. When I lunge at him one last time, he barely resists me. One arm halfheartedly lifted to his face. His windpipe gives way when I press my jaw closed around his throat. I don’t remember anything after that.
“They’ve taken your leg, Hound.” I wake to the sound of Chiku’s voice, and find myself on a steel exam room table in the vet building. My head rests in her lap and she is slowly stroking my ears. I feel as if my whole body is a wound. I stretch my front paws and see only one lonely foot reach out in front of me. The place where my leg should be is throbbing. I let the horror sink in, while I realize what it means. It is gone forever. I think about looking for it, or asking for it to be given back. But I’m weary. All the while, Chiku strokes my ears. There I am, damaged and bloody. On the cusp of a life that I will now spend teetering around with not enough legs, being haunted by the ghost of my paw. The one I had favored and used to reach out to Joseph when I wanted his attention, to turn over the sticks that I tossed around in the yard. I am vulnerable in a way that I never wanted to be, wrapped in the stinky embrace of my rival. And yet, I make no moves to leave her.
Chiku comes to see me every day that I am in the vet building. She walks in on two legs. Smacking corners as she turns past them and relaxing her lips into something like a smile when she sees the veterinarian and his staff. She thinks they like it when she shows her teeth. At first she says very little. Just sits and wordlessly runs her hands over my ears. But after a few days together, we both begin to relax. I become used to her. When I smell her coming down the hall toward me, my tail starts thumping and I don’t even think to stop it. I use one paw to push myself up so that I can greet her. The scent I once thought was rancid is now somehow comforting. We start to tell each other stories.
“Chiku,” I say, “do you remember your mother?”
“Yes,” she says. “She was fat and I hated her.” We are quiet together. “Also I loved her.”
I wonder what I remember of my own mother. Smells mostly. And the velvet feeling of her ear as I slept with it draped over me once. Oh, Mama! I feel a black rope of sadness start to twist inside me. I’m so sorry, Mama! I haven’t thought of you nearly enough! I start to whine and Chiku wraps her arms tighter around me.
After a week has gone by, I’m able to walk on three legs. Chiku was there every day as the veterinarian wrapped a cloth sling around me and held me up until I was used to my legs. And she didn’t mock me even once. I don’t feel graceful, but now I’m walking by myself. I want to be with Joseph. I want to sleep on my blanket. Walking hurts. No, that isn’t quite it. I hurt, and walking feels strange. Something is wrong and I’m trying to figure it out. I feel lopsided and sorry for myself. I move toward the front door, still not quite accustomed to the timing of my steps. I’m going to look for Joseph.
“She won’t sleep alone,” Chiku calls after me.
“Zawati. She won’t sleep alone.” It’s the first time Chiku has mentioned Zawati since I asked three days ago. “She cries and cries. That was how she was when they found her.”
“They found Zawati crying?” I hold myself still in the doorway. I don’t turn. The effort feels like it would be too much. So I wait.
“Yes,” says Chiku. “They found her crying. Over her mother. Crying while her mother died. Joseph was with her. Wrapped over her body like a shell. He was bleeding too, Hound.”
“What happened to the man?” It is the question I do not want to ask.
“I don’t know.”
“Why did it have to be Zuri?” The other question I do not want to ask.
“Because she was the one that was there. People are strange, Hound,” she says, “they do desperate things.”
“Sometimes yes. And sometimes no.” “What do you mean?”
“What about Joseph?” Joseph who has forgotten about me. Chiku is quiet and I finally turn to look at her. I see her sitting on the steel table. She is gripping her feet with her hands and rocking back and forth a little bit. I say nothing. Waiting.
“Joseph goes to her.”
“He does?” Joseph. I want to see Joseph.
“He’s gone every night,” says Chiku. “He’s stayed with her in the boma every night so far.”
I wander back to our garden, alone. I don’t wait for Joseph to come get me. If he’s spending all his time with Zawati, then he’s forgotten about me. When I pass the boma, I look over and imagine Joseph curled up next to Zawati, or covering her like a blanket. I wonder if his bed would be empty if I went to watch him in the morning.
I go to all my corners in the garden. I check for the scent of the other dogs. I pass by one or two of the other keepers, but none of them are Joseph. None of them bend down to press their lips against my forehead. None of them call me to watch them iron their clothing. I’m drifting in the wind, and with no purchase on anything, I may fly away forever.
There’s nothing left to do but go to the boma. It’s dark when I wander in. I can’t smell Joseph, but I look around for him just in case. I find Zawati and crawl into her pen. She’s lying in the farthest corner, legs tucked underneath her body. She doesn’t move at all, as far as I can tell, and she eyes me timidly. I limp over to her with my head hung low, tail straight out. If I were able to crawl to her on my belly, I would. But I can’t. It feels as if it’s taking me forever to get to her. It feels like years. When I reach her, I spend a few minutes gently sniffing her face and neck. Her little rhino body. She smells like straw and the formula that the vets are feeding her. I sit next to her, plopping my haunches down close to her chest. Then I gingerly lower the rest of myself, which is difficult and strange, doing it with one leg, until my body rests against hers and my head nestles in the crook of her neck. Her hide is dusty and warm. I feel her settle against me and our breathing starts to harmonize. I think about what it is for Zawati to be motherless. To be haunted by the vision of her mother falling. To feel so alone. I don’t begrudge her Joseph when I think of that. I’ve always had him. I will always have him. But Zawati is navigating her way through a strange forest now.
I close my eyes and sigh. I almost don’t notice when Zawati starts to make the quietest sounds. But then her voice elevates to a wail that can’t be ignored. It is high and whining, almost like a pup. Or something like the sound I imagine a whale would make when calling to friends across miles of ocean. She is crying. I don’t want her to cry alone, and so I start whining with her. And then I’m no longer imitating her sadness. I feel it as my own. I lift my chin and howl, long and ranging, a song of my own anguish alongside hers.
In the morning I wake and find myself still curled up in the boma with Zawati. Sunlight streams through the gaps in the wooden slats that make up the walls of the pen. My bandage is bloody again. I can smell it. Zawati is snoring softly and I try as best as I can to get up slowly so that I won’t wake her. I’m struggling to raise myself when I hear a sound and I give up. A sort of rhythmic rustling. Footsteps on straw. It’s Joseph. Chiku has brought him here and he stands with her in the doorway, holding her hand and leaning hard on his cane.
He says nothing.
Joseph reaches his hand out to me. It’s our signal. The one he uses when he wants me to come to him. But I don’t go. My body is hurting again and Zawati is warm. And suddenly I don’t want to go anywhere, even though it’s morning and it’s time for the day to begin. I look down at my front paw instead. At how it looks small next to Zawati’s fat and stumpy legs. I look at the straw scattered over the floor. At the dust that drifts down in the sunbeams that are streaming through the gaps in the wood. I look at things that are not Joseph.
He doesn’t say anything, but he walks over to me slowly. I can feel him coming closer. I can hear his shoes scuffing through the dirt as he tries to be quiet. I see the tip of his cane. I hear his uneven steps. I know he has a limp now, same as I do. When he reaches me, he lowers himself to my level. I still don’t want to look at him, but I feel him place his hand on the crown of my head. I close my eyes and I feel him press his lips to my forehead.
“May God forever bless the rhino keepers,” I hear Chiku mutter from a short distance away. And then she falls silent, because there is nothing left to say.
Excerpted from What We Fed to the Manticore by Talia Lakshmi Kolluri. Published with permission from Tin House. Copyright (c) 2022 by Talia Lakshmi Kolluri.