“What are you doing?”
“I’m writing another story.” I was supposed to be fixing the lawn mower.
Loretta rolled her eyes as she busied about, dusting the study.
“What’s this one called?”
“‘My Pet Rhinoceros.’”
She stopped momentarily. “Where’d you get it, the rhinoceros?”
“I won it in an adopt-a-zoo-animal contest.”
She twisted her mouth. “Never heard of an adopt-a-zoo-animal contest,” she said. “Besides, you’d need all kinds of papers to keep a rhinoceros. The only way you’d ever get a rhino is to steal it from the zoo.”
She shrugged, then wandered off to do something more fulfilling, like change the litter box.
It was a long, hard drive from Upper Granville to Nappan in Jake’s truck, hauling his purebred Hereford bull, Mean Bastard, in the cattle trailer. I unloaded him at the bull testing station without incident, and headed home around dusk. Before hitting the Trans-Canada, I nipped into Amherst to pick up a Tim’s. Tim Hortons parking lots aren’t designed to accommodate trucks with trailers, so I parked in a vacant lot across the street, next to the biggest livestock trailer I’d ever seen. The driver and his assistant were just climbing into the cab when I got out.
“How many head can ya haul with that rig?” I asked, making conversation with strangers like all Maritimers do.
The driver grinned. “Two giraffes, two elephants, two water buffalo, two hippos and a rhino. We’re a regular Noah’s Ark on wheels.”
I looked back at the huge trailer, which was swaying slightly. “Man! Some load! What’s it like hauling those guys?”
“The giraffes are pretty quiet, and so are the water buffalo. The elephants don’t like travellin’. But it’s the hippos you gotta watch out for. They’re nasty buggers. As for the rhino, she’s too stupid to know what’s goin’ on.”
The driver didn’t have a Granby Zoo hat like the other guy, so I took what he said with a grain of salt. “Where ya takin’ ’em?”
“Container terminal in Halifax. Granby Zoo had ’em on loan from Frankfurt. They’re goin’ home.”
“Well, have a safe trip,” I said, then, looking back at the trailer, added, “You guys too.”
The driver waved, closed his door, and I headed into Tim’s for my extra-large double-double. One of the elephants trumpeted its displeasure as the rig pulled away.
Back on the Trans-Canada I drove faster than normal, hoping to catch Noah’s Ark on Wheels. Now that Mean Bastard was safely delivered, the trailer was lighter, and the truck easier to handle. I caught Noah’s Ark on Wheels at the Cobequid Pass toll station. It was snowing by then, a slushy November snow. After the toll station, I followed Noah’s Ark on Wheels at a safe distance, going faster than I wanted to.
“Better slow ’er down a tad there, fella. The road’s gettin’ slimy,” I said aloud to the driver in front of me.
As if he’d heard, he slowed a little, but not as much as I would’ve liked. Cars and half-ton trucks roared past in the dark, spraying my windshield with slush. Ten minutes past the toll station, a Chevy Silverado tore past, doing over a hundred and twenty. When he pulled back into the right-hand lane, he lost it, and I saw his tail lights do an Egyptian belly dance before they disappeared over the bank. Noah’s Ark on Wheels braked, and the big livestock trailer jackknifed into the passing lane, caught gravel, then swung back across again. It hit the shoulder in front of me and flopped on its side, taking the cab with it. Together they slid another hundred metres on the greasy highway until they went over the edge, rolled onto their roof, then came to rest on the driver’s side.
Without realizing it, I’d been pumping my brakes since the first sign of trouble, easing Jake’s F-250 and empty cattle trailer onto the shoulder, then to a stop no more than twenty metres from where Noah’s Ark on Wheels lay on its side, amongst the boulders and scrub bush. I got out of the cab, leaving the headlights on so I could see, and approached the overturned tractor-trailer tentatively, praying I wouldn’t be seeing my first highway fatality. An uproar of wailing and gnashing of teeth came from the large trailer as I walked past. Somewhere in the mix was what sounded like a cow in pain — must’ve been the water buffalo. There were noises coming from the crumpled cab too. Voices, thank God.
“Where’s it hurt, Ralph?” The voice was shaky.
The other voice was even weaker, and riddled with pain. “Leg . . . chest. Shit!”
I climbed up on the undercarriage so I could see inside. The passenger-side window was gone, the door panel was a mass of scrapes, and the cab roof was stove in. I could see a man’s broad back in the dash lights.
“You guys okay?”
The back twisted and a shoulder appeared, then a hand and a bloody face. I fished in my jacket pocket for a few of the napkins I’d collected at Tim’s and handed them to the man. He dabbed gingerly at his forehead and cheekbone while he answered.
“Ralph’s not good.”
“What about you?”
“Banged my head a few times and I think my arm’s broke.” He dabbed at a cut below his right eye. “Where’s my glasses?”
He disappeared for a minute, then re-emerged. “Oh great!” The wire frames were badly bent, the right lens was gone, and the left lens had a crack across the middle of it. “I’m blind as a bat without these. Found my hat, though.”
He placed his Granby Zoo hat gingerly on his head and winced. “That’s not gonna work.”
“Here. I’ll hold it for ya.” I took his hat and laid it on the crumpled side of the cab. “I’ll see if I can get the door open.”
I climbed up on the side of the truck and tugged on the handle while he pushed from the inside. Nothing budged. “It’s no good,” I said. “You’re gonna need a cutting torch. The roof’s all busted ta rat shit.”
He looked dismayed. “And I’m too fat to squeeze out the window. Damn!”
I stood and looked around. A half-ton truck and two cars had stopped, and a kid and two women had gotten out of their vehicles. When I climbed down I noticed the Granby Zoo hat. I wiped the blood off on my jeans, then switched it with my Toronto Blue Jays hat while I was out of sight.
“Anybody got a cellphone?” I asked, coming around from behind the wreckage.
The kid, with his baseball cap on backwards, and not old enough to drive, raised his hand tentatively. “Yeah.”
“Call 911. Tell them we’ll need a cutting torch to get those guys out. Better get in touch with a vet too. I haven’t looked at the animals yet.” I turned to the two women. “Either of you know first aid?”
The older of the two women answered. “I do. I had to take a course for work last spring.” She was well-dressed and slimmer than the younger blond woman who was displaying a lot of cleavage for November.
“They’re both alive. Driver’s hurt bad and we can’t get the door open. There’s a lot of blood.”
She nodded, scared. “I’ll do what I can,” she said.
“A half-ton truck went off the road just back a bit,” I said, looking at the blond with the cleavage. “Someone should check that out. I’ll look after the animals.”
The blond gulped. “I’ll go.”
I was surprised they’d taken orders from me. I’m not a take-charge kind of guy. It must’ve been the Granby Zoo hat. Two other cars had stopped, but the drivers were more curious than helpful. I went back to Jake’s cattle trailer and got Mean Bastard’s rope and halter, then returned to the overturned zoo trailer. The crying and moaning coming from inside bothered me more than the smell, which was rank, even to my manure-hardened nose.
The crash had busted the hinges, and the top half of the rear door was gone. The bottom half swung down easily, forming a short ramp. The trailer was separated into a series of compartments, one for each species. The first one had the lone rhino. She was lying on her side in the middle of the overturned trailer, her head held up uncomfortably by a short chain around her neck connected to a ring at the front of her compartment. I eased around her at a safe distance, pressing against what was normally the floor of her pen, getting straw and rhinoceros shit on my jacket and boots. The rhino just blinked at me, but otherwise remained still.
“How are ya, girl? Are ya hurt?” I spoke soothingly, like I did with Jake’s cattle. She blinked some more. I noticed her shoulder and hip were badly scraped and blood was trickling down her tough hide. “There now. You’ll be okay, girl. I’m not gonna hurt ya,” I said, then added, “And you’re not gonna hurt me either, are ya?”
By now my heart was pounding, whether from fear or adrenalin I can’t say. I reached out slowly and touched her head. She took a deep breath, then closed her little pig eyes, resigned to her fate. I patted her head and she opened her eyes again briefly. The heavy chain around her strained neck had one of those quick snaps that are easy to unfasten. After studying the situation, I slipped Mean Bastard’s halter over the first horn, then worked it back and forth under her little chin. I stayed at arm’s length, ready to make a run for it if she got rowdy, but she just laid there. Maybe she was hurt bad inside, except there was no blood around her mouth. All the while I kept talking to her to keep her calm. “There now. You’re gonna be okay. I’ll look after ya.”
Rhinos don’t have much of a neck, but I slid the halter behind her ears anyway and tightened it snugly. Then I took a deep breath, unsnapped the catch, and let the chain fall. She opened her eyes again and looked at me. I stood and pulled gently, but she stayed where she was.
“Come on, girl. Up ya get.” I pulled harder, lifting her head. She shifted, groaned, then, like a cow, struggled to her feet, ass-end first. She was about the same height as Mean Bastard, her shoulder level with mine, but she had Mean Bastard by a good five hundred pounds. I tugged, talking quietly the whole time. She turned to me and followed me as far as the entrance of the trailer, then she balked. Maybe it was the headlights shining in her eyes.
“Come on, girl, let’s go. I’ve got a cozy little trailer for ya back here.”
I strained against the rope, keeping the pressure constant. She stretched her neck, then stepped out. Between the two of us, we picked the easiest route between the boulders and bushes, then climbed with some difficulty onto the shoulder of the Trans-Canada. A small crowd had gathered by this time, more interested in a man leading a rhino than an overturned tractor-trailer.
“Stay back,” I warned, without raising my voice too much. “If she freaks, I won’t be able to hold her.”
The crowd stepped back a few paces and whispered back and forth. “It’s a rhinoceros.” But they were quiet, and she didn’t freak. She balked again at the ramp into Mean Bastard’s trailer, and wouldn’t move no matter how hard I pulled. I knew what to do from my years of helping Jake, but I needed assistance. The kid with the cellphone was standing at the front of the crowd, so I singled him out.
“Hey, kid. C’mere.” He looked around, hoping I was talking to someone else. I wasn’t. He came closer. “Did ya get hold of a vet?”
“Yeah. They’re sendin’ somebody out.”
“Good. Gimme a hand here.”
He went pale and backed up a step. Must’ve been a townie.
“Just push on her rump there. Watch ya don’t touch her sore hip.” He didn’t move. “You got nothin’ ta worry about, kid. I got the end with the horn on it.”
He took one step, then thought of something else. “What if she shits?”
“They always raise their tail first. If she does that, step back. You’ll be okay.” The kid reluctantly approached the rhino. “Okay. Push hard and watch the tail.”
The kid pushed and I pulled, but the rhino didn’t move.
“See her knee down there? Put your knee behind it and push.”
The kid followed directions, I’ll say that much for him. The rhino’s right rear leg buckled and took a step forward. “Now do the other one.”
He started to press against the left knee, but the rhino’s tail went up, and he jumped back. “Whoa! When they shit, they shit!” He was grinning nervously.
“How ta move, kid. Now, the left knee.”
He moved back into place and pressed against the rhino’s knee again. The rhino moved her left rear leg, then, because she was off-balance, she moved her front ones. Once I had her moving, I led her to the front of the trailer and tied her to the ring. There was still a bit of hay in the feeder in front of her. She sniffed at it, but didn’t eat anything.
“Make yerself at home, miss. We’re goin’ to Inglisville.”
The kid helped me put up the ramp that served as the back of the trailer and fasten it shut. I shook his hand. “Thanks, kid. If ya ever fancy a job at a zoo, you can put this on yer resumé. Now, I got another job for ya. Guard the trailer. Don’t let anyone near the other animals until the vet arrives. The next cage has the hippos in it and they’ll bite ya in half as soon as look at ya.” The kid paled again. “Ya got that?”
“Yeah. Keep people away from the hippos till the vet comes.”
“Good. I’m takin’ the rhino to the wildlife park in Shubenacadie. I’ll arrange for the other animals from there.”
He nodded and took up his position in front of the overturned trailer.
“Hey, kid.” He turned and I pointed at his running shoes. “Some days ya step in it. Some days ya don’t.”
“Ahh! Gross!” But he was laughing.
“Leave it there,” I told him. “How many of yer friends have rhino shit on their sneakers?”
On the way home, I decided to name her Rhoda. Rhoda Rhino. I liked it. It had a certain ring to it. The snow petered out near Debert, and after that the trip was uneventful. I stopped at Tim’s in Truro and Windsor to recycle my coffee, and got home shortly after one in the morning.
“Okay. You’ve got her here. Now what are you going to do with her? She can’t stay in the house.” Loretta always reads my stories when I go to the bathroom.
“Why not? She can sleep on the bed — between us.”
“Yeah, right. And what about a vet? You’ll need a vet to look at her injuries, and he’ll squeal on you, then what?”
The next morning, Sunday, I got up early, emptied the woodshed, and stacked our winter’s wood under a tarp. The woodshed had a good solid floor, and I could put a window in later, up high so she couldn’t bust it with her hip or shoulder. Rhoda seemed content in her new home, and I washed her wounds with less trouble than I expected.
I was on the way down to Upper Granville to return Jake’s truck and trailer when I thought of a solution to the vet problem. Jake was a good friend and he knew animals — cattle, anyway. It wasn’t hard to talk him into coming up and looking at Rhoda. He even donated a load of hay and straw for her.
“She seems pretty sound,” he said. “There aren’t any flies this time of year, so the scrapes should heal well enough.” He patted her head. “Docile, isn’t she?” I was proud of Rhoda. She was behaving well. “Probably used to being handled at the zoo. She should have some exercise, though.”
So I began taking Rhoda for walks at night, just up and down the driveway at first, then along the logging road next to our place. After a few days, the story of the missing rhino faded from the news, and by spring everyone had forgotten.
Loretta couldn’t resist Rhoda for long. In fact, she was the one who tended Rhoda’s scraped hip and shoulder until they healed, and soaked her feet in diluted iodine when the rhino got foot rot from walking in snow.
Early in the summer I began letting Rhoda off her rope. She never moved very fast and seemed quite content to graze on our lawn, and on sunny days, she would sleep under the apple trees down by the road. Rhoda wandered from time to time, but never far. We live in the woods, and the only other bit of grass nearby is the neighbours’ lawn down the road. On the days she visited, I’d take a wheelbarrow and shovel down to their place, and where Rhoda had pooped, I scooped.
Rhoda spent that summer munching our lawn, sleeping under the apple trees, keeping my wife company while she worked in the garden, and following me around like a faithful old dog when I wasn’t helping Jake on the farm.
But Rhoda and I began to have a few disagreements as autumn wore on. The grass had stopped growing, and the nights became colder. I couldn’t convince Rhoda she’d be better off in the woodshed with a bale of hay instead of out in the cold, wet grass getting foot rot.
Loretta noticed the change too. “I’ve been doing some research on the Internet,” she said, “and you have to be careful with rhinoceroses. They can turn on you.” Then she started to giggle. “I just remembered that Gary Larson cartoon, the one where the guy goes to the doctor’s office with a rhinoceros horn stuck up his rear end, and the doctor looks behind him and says, ‘No, Mr. Kelly, it’s not hemorrhoids.’” I think she was jealous.
I’ve been itching to get at this story. Now that I’ve finally talked Lou into going to Greenwood to get parts for the lawn mower, I can finish it for him.
I tried to warn him, but he didn’t pay any attention to me. He should have. It was an unusually warm day in November, almost exactly a year after he’d stolen the rhinoceros from the overturned zoo trailer. Lou was trying to coax Rhoda into the woodshed for the night. The more impatient he became, the more stubborn Rhoda behaved. I wasn’t watching, so I don’t know what Lou did, but Rhoda let out an angry nasal roar. I heard Lou say, “Now, now, calm down,” then, “Easy, Rhoda,” then louder, “Rhoda!”
By the time I got to the front door, all I could see was Lou, disappearing down Inglisville Road, with Rhoda Rhino’s horn less than a foot from his rear end, trying to make that Gary Larson cartoon come true.