She hadn’t moved except to cry for an hour or two and she was in the shade, true, but she was under a bush, where the equatorial air had sunk beyond still and was closing in on decaying. Also, shade or no shade, it was hot. Hot. This was original heat, the heat that first descended on Earth as a warning and sent the less confident and oblivious mammals scurrying back toward amoebahood.
And so the giant headphones she wore were slick with sweat. A careless adjustment and the ear pads squeaked—her father shot her a look. A sniffle that didn’t seem too loud—a harder look and a mouthed rebuke. A questioning “what?” that startled their bush and others—he gripped her forearm and squeezed. She howled and he pulled off the headphones with red-eyed paternal fury. “I told you to be quiet!” he tried to hiss.
“Owwwww I was being quiet.”
“You were yelling.”
“Owwwww you’re hurting my arm-y.”
He dropped her arm and whispered, “Stop crying or whisper cry.”
“I (hiccup) don’t want to do it.”
“You’re going to do it.”
“I cannnn’t! You do it Daddy.”
“I can’t do this alone. Elephants are as big as fables and I’m just a man, just an itty bitty man.”
That didn’t help. She cried harder.
“Stop that. What did I tell you in the car?”
She whimpered and squeaked.
“Daughter! What did I tell you in the car?”
She lifted her head up and said with a bouncy whisper, “Don’t (hiccup) don’t shoot them in the face.”
“That is correct. Do not shoot them in the face. That is disrespectful, and you might accidentally shoot them in the tusks. I need to take the tusks back to Khartoum. Wait a minute…”
She abruptly put her face back in the dirt.
“Daughter, where is the saw?”
“Daughter, I asked you where the saw is. Look at me. Daughter, look at me. Look at me! Where is the saw?”
“It’s in the car.”
“It’s in the car?!”
She nodded her head.
“You left it in the car.”
“You left it there on purpose.”
She shook her head.
“Yes you did. I know you did. Now go get it.”
“No, it’s too far for you.” He carelessly spit out the grass he was chewing. “Why did you leave it? I know why, but why? Argh! Now I have to go get the saw. You stay here.”
“Shh! Quiet! We can’t both go. What if an elephant comes while we’re gone? You have to stay here.”
“Nooooo.” Such pure desperation in her eyes.
“Quiet! You left the saw in the car on purpose so your punishment is that you have to stay here under the bush. Listen, if an elephant comes while I’m gone, start shooting it in the chest and I’ll come running.”
“Noooooo I’m not (bawling) going to do thaaaaaat.”
“Maybe that’s a bad idea. Oh, but what if one comes? Maybe we could get the saw later. Oh, this is too complicated. What’s that noise? Shh! Stop crying, quiet, what’s that noise?”
There was no sound.
“I heard something. I think that’s it, I think that’s an elephant.”
There was no sound at all, not even wind.
“Pick up your gun.”
The girl shook her head swiftly and put her face in the dirt. He silently cursed and poked the gun barrel out from under the bush and in his excitement it waved back and forth like sunbird wings. Still there was no sound. Without moving anything else he stretched his lips out and plucked two blades of grass—bope, bope.
Biggest thing he’d ever seen standing there all of a sudden. There was nothing there and then it was there, swaying, about to fall over and not falling over. He looked over at his daughter and a clop of dirt was stuck to her nose, eyes big as hearts she stared at the thing, headphones around her neck and music streaming out into an insensible clearing.
How could he have ever thought that he could do it? What qualities did he mistakenly attribute to himself?
He had no qualities. Nothing that would stiffen in the moment. He had nothing but transient, flitting weaknesses.
Thank God for that! As soon as his weaknesses returned to his empty vessel he would commend them.
“What is that?”
“It is a rhinoceros.”
“But they don’t live here anymore.”
“Why is it here?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s a rhinoceros?”
“Where are its horns?”
“Somebody cut them off.”
She breathed twice, slowly. “Were we going to do that?”
“No… No… No… We were not going to do that.”
“What’s going to happen to it?”
“It’s going to die, daughter. I cannot believe it is possible for it to still be alive.”
“Should we help it die?”
“Do you mean shoot it?”
She bit her lip and nodded her head quickly.
“I don’t think I can do that. Could you do that?”
She didn’t say anything. The many qualities in her were in protracted discussions.
“I don’t think I can do that,” he said again. “Maybe we could shoot together? Like one, two, thr—”
Without making a sound—not a sound, you understand, not a gulp, gasp, or grunt—the rhinoceros all of a sudden gave birth. The mother fell dead and after a few moments the baby started moving.
He put the headphones on her and hugged her shoulders and arms and neck and head and squeezed his eyes shut and cried. She didn’t recognize the song. She’d never heard any of the songs on this device. Her daddy had nicked it from a tourist haggling in the market. So she didn’t know that the song filling her head as she stared at the baby rhino was the only recording of an original composition by the tourist, who may or may not have been struck dead by a taxi earlier that morning.