[A work of original fiction by Jamie Barringer, Copyright 2014, All rights reserved.]
In a box in the deepest, darkest corner of Grandmother’s basement, Alexei found a strange thing. It was a framed embroidery sampler, which is not at all strange to find in any grandmother’s boxes, but this was a very beautiful, almost 3-D picture of a rhinocerous, and a brief text that said, “Beware the Wooden Rhinocerous, for his gaze is the gaze of death and his breath is like fire.” What made this peculiar thing even more peculiar was the thing underneath it, wrapped up like a mummy in layers of old cotton sheets- a small wooden rhinocerous. Alexei thought he could feel the heat of the little rhinocerous’ breath on his hands as he held it, which he knew was silly. It was just a wooden toy, carved in some part of Africa and long ago bought and shipped to whatever store Grandmother bought it from. Still, Alexei was glad that its eyes were carved closed, not open, because at that moment he was not so sure he had the courage to look it in the eye, wood or not. For a long time Alexei sat staring at the little wooden animal, his hands clenching the frame of the sampler uneasily, but the toy never moved, and eventually he lost interest and went upstairs empty-handed to find some ice cream.
Years later, Alexei wished very much that he had taken the time to rewrap the rhinocerous and place it carefully back in its box, safely hidden by that sampler. For, a couple of hours after Alexei left his grandmother’s house with his father, that same day, his grandmother’s house burned down, along with almost everything in it, including his beloved Grandmother and her ice cream and her poodle and that strange sampler.
The rhinocerous survived.
Not only did the rhinocerous survive, but it somehow appeared on Alexei’s bookshelf a week after grandmother’s funeral. His father thought he remembered picking up the toy off the lawn surrounding the scorched remains of the house, and he thought he remembered placing the little wooden animal on Alexei’s shelf, but he had a peculiar look on his face when Alexei asked him about it, as if he didn’t really remember, and as if the memories he was seeing of his hands finding the rhinocerous were not his memories. In fact, his memories of that moment were blurry and felt very old, timeless, and those hands he saw picking up the smooth wooden body of that unsinged wooden animal were not always his hands. They sometimes looked like his newly deceased mother’s hands, or dark brown child’s hands, or maybe they were old, gnarled brown hands, or smooth long-fingered man’s hands with dirty nails. The rhinocerous, he always remembered, felt oddly warm, and he always remembered its ugly pinkish eyes and the grim smile on its face. Looking at the toy now, though, its eyes were shut, certainly not pink, and its mouth was not carved, so it couldn’t have been smiling.
Alexei could not bear to look at the toy, so he wrapped it up in a blanket and stuffed it in a box in his closet, where he forgot about it for many years. He grew up, and went to college, and brought home a nice girl he introduced to his parents, a girl who reminded Alexei a lot of his mother, and who reminded Alexei’s father of HIS mother. A wedding date was soon written neatly on the calendar in the kitchen, and when Alexei and his fiance left to return to college for their last semester, his mother dragged his old boxes of childhood things out from storage to find treasured keepsakes to share with Alexei’s fiance when next she visited. The rhinocerous, still in that old blanket, warmed a little as Alexei’s mother drew out the blanket, and as the little wooden toy tumbled out of the blanket onto the carpet its pink eyes flashed alarmingly at her, their red pupils seeming suddenly so malevolent and terrible that she picked up the little rhinocerous and threw it through the open window, out onto the well-watered lawn. Steam rose frm the damp grass where the rhinocerous landed, but by the time she reached the toy, poking at it gingerly with a stick, its eyes were closed and it was just a wooden toy. Not daring to touch the thing, she left it where it lay and went back to sorting through Alexei’s boxes of old treasures.
That night, smoke arose from the flower bed outside Alexei’s old room, and before anyone noticed where the smoke was coming from the fire spread up the wall, where it caused a short in the wiring, and soon the whole house was burning hot and fast. Alexei’s parents escaped with their cats and parakeet, but the house and almost everything in it was gone, turned to ash. And, standing unharmed in the lawn, almost right where he’d landed the day before, Alexei’s fiance picked up a small wooden rhinocerous. She thought about showing it to Alexei, but for some reason she slipped it into her purse instead, and it traveled with her back to her apartment to take up a new residence on her bookshelf, then in one of her moving boxes, and finally in a box in the basement of the home she shared with Alexei. It slumbered contentedly in that box, once again well hidden and unable to see, but it knew one day it would re-emerge to kindle a new fire.