This story is part of our Summer Fiction Month 2020. Click here to view the stories featured this Fiction Month, as well as past fiction pieces.
Except for the light breeze everything is different from all she had ever known. The temperature, the humidity, that she cannot see the horizon, the colors and the way the light dances over the ground. She has never smelled anything like this before, but it is not unpleasant. It comes closest to a combination of heavy wet mud and the youngest grasses. Behind her she could still have seen the familiar blue sky, green water and yellow sand through the trees, in case she had looked back.
As she proceeds into the forest, the air becomes darker and even more humid. If she stuck her tongue out, she would almost be able to drink the water, hanging in the air. Most of the ground is covered with a soft green something which she has never seen before. Everything seems quite still, not because all things are silent, but because all sound is absorbed by the green around her. Normally, she needs a long time finding a tree suitable for scratching her back, but here there are plenty. She is still heading straight and more light starts to break through the ceiling of leaves again. Quite suddenly she finds herself at the end of the forest, relieved to see the sky again, but unable to find some blue. The sky is so evenly grey that it is impossible to distinguish clouds, or the place that the sun is supposed to be hiding behind them. She steps out of the cover of the trees. Still no sun. So this is it. A few steps. She sits down.
She was supposed to walk on, actually, into the void, but apparently our protagonist doesn’t feel like walking any further. And actually, she’s right. You only go extinct once, so you’d better make the most of it. In case you hadn’t noticed, our protagonist is a female rhinoceros, the last female rhinoceros, which you call a cow, just like female cows.
So after she sits down, she stays there. For a very long time. I’d like to tell you how long, but it is very hard to keep track of time here, for there is neither night nor day, neither dark nor light, only grey. She sits up proudly straight and quite still. Not how I would expect a rhino to sit at all. Really on her buttocks. If you wouldn’t know what is sitting there, you wouldn’t even recognise her to be a rhinoceros. From behind, she looks rather like an oddly shaped rock. She sits so still that you could think she’s trying to fade out into the grey of her surroundings. Or that she’s simply waiting for something to happen. Let’s wait with her.
During her trip through the forest she had not encountered one single living soul, but since she sat down, many have come by. Not too long ago something blue flew past her, never to return again. Had she been paying more attention, she could have seen it was a parrot of some kind. First she thought it had been a figment of her imagination, but the little white speck a bit behind her, which had certainly not been there before, could be considered proof.
All the animals that had come out of the forest had disappeared beyond the edge in front of her. The first she had seen had been a goat. After that a snail, which was outpaced by a walking bird. Then a fast crawling brown animal that was too big to be a mouse, but too small to be a rabbit. A golden frog had hopped back and forth a few times before finally jumping over the rim while letting out a last quack. Although she felt that the quack was not addressed to her, she still had the urge to reply, but the frog was already gone. After that, a butterfly had taken a short rest on her horn before flying into the grey and she had tried to watch it, with eyes crossed, but it sat too close. Then a lion that, with one paw already hovering over the edge, looked back at her, as if asking for some support. She had wanted to be consoling, easing this lion’s end with one gesture, but a shrug was all that she came up with.
A mole bumped into her back a few times, before finding its way around. A group of different insects came and went together. Corals had formed on the rim, to tilt over and fall in. She was not even surprised anymore when a fish fell right out of the sky, just next to her. It had still a very long, breath-gasping way to jump itself over the edge. After the fish, a moose, walking very slowly but without hesitation, without looking back to where it came from. All animals had come out of the forest, had walked through it, just like her, but the rhino thought this moose must have actually lived there. Its antlers looked too much like the trees to be a coincidence.
The snake’s disappearance had been most impressive; it lifted its head up, hovered over the edge for a while, inspecting where it was going, then slowly moved forward, first its head and then its body gradually dissolving into the mist.
There isn’t really mist there. It looks like mist. Or very sandy water where you can see your own hands disappearing.
So this rhino is sitting in this pseudo mist for a long, long time. She might sit there forever. She is already extinct, so there’s no need to eat or drink any more. Nor to poop or piss. She can stay there, as long as she’d like. I, on the contrary, do not have endless time. There is something else I need to talk to you about: the tree she scratched her back against.
I’ve been desperately wanting to talk about a falling tree. Now, trees fall all the time when it storms, but then it’s hard to distinguish its sound from all other cracks and slashes and gusts and blows. So I’d rather talk about a tree that falls by itself.
Trees never fall suddenly, their descent is preceded by death and decay, probably by years, or even by decades. If they are lucky they die from the exhaustions of old age, but more probably they die prematurely, because insects ate away all their leaves, or pests attacked the root system, an invading fungus that found its entry into the trunk after a moose broke one of the lower branches on its way out of the forest. Or because of a lightning strike, or too many dry
summers. This tree found its death because a rhino had an itchy back.
The seemingly innocent scratching left a small wound in the bark. Due to the absence of protection all sorts of explorers find their way into the trunk. To lay their eggs, for example, and when these eggs hatch the tree has no way to get rid of the hungry infants. They fill their bellies with the soft, moist wood of the trunk, leaving bigger and bigger holes in the transportation system of the tree.With every generation the tree grows more helpless. A slow, but inevitable, death.
What’s been bothering me, for quite a while now, is the following: Why do people ask themselves whether the falling of a tree makes a sound, when there are no human ears around to hear it? It seems an account of self-overestimation more than anything else, to have human perception as a requirement for something to exist. As if anyone would meditate whether a person, who’s only found dead after the upstairs neighbors started smelling something, had a last breath. ‘Well, we can never be really sure, if there was no one there at the moment.’ Well actually, we can. It’s logic. Everybody knows that heavy things make a sound when they hit the floor and everybody knows that in order to die, you have to stop breathing.
Dead wood can stand up straight for a while, but some day, when weather and decay have had their time, the tree will fall. Announced by several loud cracks. Internal fractures. Birds push off, find somewhere safe to land and hoot back and forth. All good? Yes, all good. Some insects cling on for dear life, others abandon ship, hoping to survive the jump. A deer skips aside. You can hear the animals fleeing before you even see the tree move. Slightly slowed down at first the tree begins its fall. Rushing leaves, snapping branches. The vibration of the landing travels through the soil and all that is light is lifted up in the air.
Some hundred meters away the rhinoceros, still sitting there, hears the muffled sound of the tree truck finding the ground. She had almost dozed off. For the first time since she started her crossing, through the forest, towards the edge of extinction, she turns around. She looks back at the place where the sound came from. Years must have gone by and she had almost forgotten what the forest looked like. In her memory it had become one greenish cloud, so she is surprised to see how many colors she can distinguish now. With some hesitation, she starts moving her muscles, turning her joints, replacing her limbs, until she faces the forest instead of the grey.
The tops of the trees surrounding the crash are still waving back and forth, as if they are celebrating the newly opened space that will allow them to expand towards a better place in the sun. Later that day an unsuspecting squirrel searches its earlier buried macadamia nuts in vain. A fox starts digging a new hole, because the entry to his old one is blocked.
A lot happens while people are minding their own business. Half the world could collapse without noticing. But now you know it. I had rather not written this down, but fact is, it’s a lot less demanding to invite you to listen to these words than to take you on an actual stroll through the forest. Words can ignite the most vivid images to your mind, and you don’t even have to leave your couch. I can construct any story out of sentences, out of words, out of letters, out of symbols. One wonderful bunch of components, put them together and voila, everything can be described. Even those miniscule details that you’d overlook if you’d been there for yourself.
Next time I’ll try to paint it. There’s less reinforcing opposites in painting. Words teach us how to distinguish between rough and smooth, between yellow and brown, boy, girl, human, other, winning, losing. Of course a human is not a fruit fly even though we both have dreams, and a carrot is not a giraffe even though they are both orange and pretty skinny.
In telling you this, I have attributed that polarizing construction onto a rhino’s thinking. I wanted her to be relatable. She’s the protagonist. I almost gave her a name. Perhaps the tree is the true protagonist, and our rhino the evil opposing other. Well, in her defense, she had absolutely no way of knowing that the scratching of her back would bring about the dying of a tree. And besides, if your arms don’t reach your back and it’s really itching, you don’t have much choice.
Many more trees fall on our account, though. Most of the time there are also human ears involved. As well as sawing machines and running engines. Unless there’d been a heavy nightly storm, saving the lumberjack some work in the morning. But then, at least, a human could take account of the falling afterwards and imagine the sound it had made, like the last breath of the lady on the second floor.
Ever since the rhinoceros had turned around towards the sound, she was unable to find the stillness she had before. So after a short time of looking at the forest she stands up. Turns back around. So this is it. A few steps.
Eliane Zwart was an academy year student at BCB, delving in some engaged academics for one year, before entering the work field. Before coming to Berlin she finished a bachelor in theatre, and found that the theatrical always entered her writing.