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A Fine Rhino

Rebecca Pyle

Already buried five times over—a saying about those who are jealous: because the very jealous are somehow buried more than once, five times over, figuratively in one grave atop the other and then another, the order of the graves constantly shifting, as each buried person is trying to outdo each other: even the coffins of these dead are persistently jealous of each other.

This happened to a younger sister of a Jane. Lifelong, instead of admiring the sister Jane she wished she was like (the only way, if you are less, to avoid becoming your own foe), she made Jane a foe she must stalk, defeat. Indignant, as all jealous are, she hired out all her brain-swords to kill off, figuratively, that more graceful, more lucky, somehow more integrally charmed person she could not be: her sister Jane. Her sister Jane understood this situation, and for years showed confusion which then turned to quiet pity; but that pity, which the younger sister could sense, drove the younger to desperation: being pitied is a very terrible feeling. Eventually the sister Jane had to end their connection, from a safe distance.

The younger sister had been named a fine many-syllabled name: her sister had been named the plain, simple name Jane, one plain syllable, but the most famous character among all novels by all three Bronte sisters, and, also, the beloved and only surviving woman in Burroughs' Tarzan tale. So deeply adored by both Rochester and Tarzan; all unfair and unbearable and undeserved, in younger sister's eyes. Why could she herself not have been named that simple pure Jane? A name as pure as a one-syllable name for a color: green, brown, red, or blue; white or gray, black.

One summer while still very young her Bronte-character-namesake-sister (the still-unwitting Jane, who then thought it was too bad, that all younger sisters must be this way) had even travelled to England visit the real Brontes' house. (The Bronte sisters of old had lived in their father's parsonage just beneath a cemetery, on a hill, in England.) Little sister, left behind, soon thereafter began her strange lonely decades of adopting and naming cats and dogs after the Bronte sisters themselves, and many characters in their novels; one dog was even named after the Bronte brother, Bramwell, yet another, a scrawny cat, was named Tarzan. This resentful sister reasoned she in this way could take over those damnable books which contained a Jane in them: somehow she would play superior author, too, make herself master of the Burroughs novel and the Bronte novel. That sister Jane simply, passively, happened to have the name Jane affixed to her: Jane had not been a novelist, naming characters! That name Jane, like the pets' names, was only a copy-cat name!

It worked, sister of Jane thought. She liked the sounds of the names, the feeling of irritation she was sure her older sister named Jane must feel whenever the names, often repeated, as cat and dog and bird names are, in a thousand different intonations, as if by a person practicing to be a voice-over artist, were said. Pleading. Mocking. Upbraiding. British. American. Old-time. Angry. Imperious. Dramatic. Romantic. Low-key. Slyly, inference was made that Jane was only an animal, too, cavorting about with a ridiculous and imitative name stuck onto her. (The only name the little sister left out of the menagerie was, of course, Jane.) So, whenever her sister Jane appeared in her sister's house, there was Jane: but all the animals refused to treat Jane the way they would have if they understood Jane the lead character or actress had appeared. Jane, in other words, as misnamed as they: every single named creature in the room, including Jane, now an awkward, incorrect, impostor. Burroughs' and Bronte's fine novels had, thanks to Jane's cunning sister, fallen apart in younger sister's animal-sheltering home, into shades of satire, mockery.

But what would it come to? Where was her fine rhino? Fine rhino was lately a popular surrealist image: much more amazing than a unicorn, because one pale imagined immense magic rhino would stand still near you, quietly, let you pat its lavender, cliff-like flank, even let you ride on its kind, sturdy, dependable back into deep water. There it might stay above, float, save you: if it loved you it didn't swim down into the deep and leave you fumbling, thrashing, at the surface. Instead it bore you up, carried you across deep water, just like a horse. Saved your life. After you rode that magic rhino (who loved you, who sensed your happenstance magic) back to shore, it might even fly through the air with you; with your fine magic rhino, there was no need anymore to impress anybody with anything, no need to try to steal anything away from anyone, or compete. Not even with her lucky sister who years ago had moved to Russia to work in an embassy, then had been married to an art historian who was an expert about the fabled Faberge porcelain jewel-box eggs which had survived the Russian revolution of 1917. (In the little sister's eyes, it was unbearable nightmare, all of that: while no one had ever cared as much about her, he the Russian, who spoke perfect English, had courted Jane with bouquet after bouquet of flowers—and one perfect Faberge antique egg, all delivered in beautiful, always be-ribboned parcels, one after another to Jane's door.) How could it be? Her sister Jane had surely drawn the magic, surrealist, rhino, and this was so lucky for Jane and unfair for younger sister it could not be gracefully borne.

Look at her, poor thing, they said about her, the sister of Jane. Her sister Jane had gone to Moscow and was with her brilliant and proud and happy husband; younger sister was, despite her sister being far away, transparently angry, envying. But towns, out of pity, sometimes find something for everyone to do, even the loneliest and unhappiest: someone told her she had a great reading voice, and she should read, in that superior voice, every day, up the hill, in a small recording studio: they would be called her "sharing information recordings"—her "community outreach"—but all it was was her reading, with great pirouettes of emotion, from the labels of canned goods. Every brand name, ingredients; every false claim about quality ingredients he dramatized as if she herself had cooked what was in the can. Some tried to call it "consumer education," or, depending on which tin cans' labels she read, arch comedy, or humor. But it made no difference: she was talking to herself, reading from full, or empty, tin cans' labels. Their preening labels! Every company wanted to be the Cinderella at the ball, the factory product one everyone should choose: but the lures and falsehoods on their labels were sometimes as evil and obvious as the Cinderella's evil stepsisters' claims of beauty, greatness—all to fool you about the heartless contents, usually, within. No one wanted to hear the words; but neither did anyone want to free the poor young sister from her new, proud, feeling she had something singular, special, to do. She had something to do, as a can-reader: she was like a madwoman of long ago, sent to a church tower, told to safely, away from others, ring bells, knit sweaters, count coins.

Her own husband (how had she found a man with almost the same first name as her sister Jane's husband?) had begun, every day, apologizing when she came home about not having been 'a good enough' hunter, that spring. This strange apologizing began the day after a letter had come to his wife from her sister Jane in Russia saying she was sorry, but she could not communicate with her younger sister anymore. It was unacceptable, her sister said, that she and her husband had traced the computer message A Special Birthday Card for You, from unnamed sender, with its link she was supposed to press, had found what they had found. Her Russian husband had traced it, and its spying code, to her younger sister's place of work (the place where cans' labels were almost daily read). Apparently during her relaxing moments between the intense and dramatic readings the younger sister had chosen a jealous program which would allow her to read anything her sister or her sister's husband ever wrote to each other, or any letter either ever received; all Jane or her husband had to do was claim their birthday card, which would never appear, as soon as they touched the magic link. Had Jane's husband not traced this, and dismantled it, she could have spied on them possibly the rest of their lives. What if, Jane's husband said to Jane, she happened also to be privy to every letter I ever sent you, while we were courting? This is all we need to know about her, ever. Jane's husband was best described as livid; Jane herself was numb with shock.

I'm sorry, Jane wrote, but our communication must cease. I also, for many reasons, recently felt uncomfortable in your home; it also makes no sense to Victor and I that you would keep suggesting a hunting trip with us in Russia. We do not hunt. We will never hunt.

All this followed a terribly friendly letter from younger sister, announcing she and husband were planning on appearing in Russia sometime in September, and wanted to include Victor and Jane on a 'wonderful and prolonged hunting trip through the steppes of wild Russia'. This was curious, as Jane and her husband would never hunt or kill animals, nor want to watch others do so; and the younger sister and her husband had never been, before, to Russia, and knew nothing about 'wild steppes').

Jane decided, finally, her sister would cheerfully kill her if she could. She had felt it before: after traveling alone to her mother's funeral, when she had made the mistake of staying in her younger sister's house. Upon arrival she noticed a tall gun propped by their front door. She asked why it was there, not locked away (the gun's casual placement suggested it was homey, familiar, trusty, as a favorite broom, or coat, or pair of boots: always ready). Jane was told over and over, in an excited voice—that as they lived in the country, it was for their own protection. But—most of all it was for the younger sister's husband's passion about hunting. You never know, the younger sister said, suddenly very animated, when a deer might come along. He climbs up in his deer stand, sometimes right away as soon as he comes home. He usually bags it with one shot. There was excitement, an impending-victory tone, in the younger sister's voice, somewhat similar to the-delicious-meal-just-eaten tone she spoke in when reading cans' labels aloud, greedy companies' promises of finest-quality ingredients. All this frightened the sister, made her wish she had stayed in a hotel, far from the offending, unnecessary gun.

Certainly she could have afforded a stay in a hotel. But it had seemed the sisterly thing to do: to be together, as now both of them had no parents. Through the five days of her stay, from before the funeral, to the day before she returned to her husband in Russia, she heard her younger sister repeatedly, urgently, asking her husband: Don't you think you should go out there up in the tree stand and look for deer? After that, she would turn to Jane and say, Come with me, Jane, we'll go look at the gardens, I'm sure there's no poison ivy in them. I've looked. We can watch the sunset and watch my husband, see if he has gotten anything even though the sun may be in his eyes. We'll be near enough. To watch him. This she kept repeating, despite her knowing her sister Jane had always abhorred hunters, hunting.

Happiness is protection; because only from a position of happiness and security, from the back of the fine rhino, can you sense hatred between the lines of a letter, which, to less-happy people, would only read like a normal, possibly over-enthusiastic letter. The older sister, lucky and happy, borne by her magic rhino, saw beyond the seemingly nice words of the letter, the forcefully-suggested happy hunting trip in Russia, far from American law; saw beyond the normal hope among normal people that an accident couldn't possibly happen before or after her mother's funeral, beyond the conventional feeling that no sister could want such a thing to happen to you. She remembered long ago an animal of her sister's—the cat Tarzan—looking so unhappy, forgotten, after being hurt in an accident on the road; her sister had for some reason not taken him for medical care. She remembered the leaning gun, so pointedly, casually there, not locked away, instead propped by the front door in the spot a broom or boots were usually in. A visual threat. How the new husband and his love for hunting and his expertise were referred to again and again, almost until it was time for her to return home. Grateful to return to Russia and her husband, her luggage heavy with keepsakes from her mother, Jane had asked them both in turn if they would bring their car up close to the front door so she could load her heavy luggage easily. No, they said, suddenly cold and cruel, their voices. You can bring your luggage to the car yourself, the younger sister said. In back. The husband said we are not going to drive the car up there for you. You can bring your luggage to the garage in back. We'll all drive from there. This seemed, on the surface, to be only about luggage; but it was also the tone people spoke in when they were mad they hadn't won at a game of cards, when they hated the winner. Then, when the car finally reached the airport, her hosts said they had important other plans; if she didn't mind they wouldn't be helping her with her bags and luggage. They could only drop her off. We're really sorry, they had said in unpleasant voices. Jane, in the back seat, wept, making no attempt to hide her tears; this was the first and only time in her lifetime her younger sister would ever have been in an airport with her; that day she was beginning a series of flights to return to her home in Russia, after her mother's death, and it would surely be a very long time till they saw each other again.

By the second jet she climbed aboard, looking out the window, above clouds, it occurred to Jane if she had been shot by accident, or on purpose, on their country property, they could have been done with her. Perhaps that was what they wanted, and they were disappointed. (She could have been bagged in one shot.)

The husband of the sister of Jane from that date did not last much longer than a year from that day. What the younger sister told police was they were intent on hurrying home that night to be there by dusk (the best hunting time twilight, as they'd repeatedly told Jane, when deer were wandering everywhere in the sun-warm air, but not seeing as well; best of all was spring mating season, when deer were really stupid, they had laughed). Dusk was closing in, she told police, and they were a few miles away from their home in the country. She was urging him to hurry: it was almost dark. They were listening to a Christian sermon—she even told them its title and premise ("Did You Know God Has Your Best Interests at Heart?"). A deer, following others, soared through glass of their windshield, leaving a shape, she said, that was like a complete, large, arc, like the reaping-tool symbol on an old Soviet flag. She couldn't understand, she told the police, how the deer sprang away alive, to join the other deer; yet, her own husband at the wheel was dead! To comfort him she'd kept the radio sermon playing, she'd told police; but he died before they arrived. Yes, he had been driving too fast; it was dusk; but there was nothing you could do about deer and shadows from trees, and glass windshields and cars. Except pray, she said. And she'd done that, she said, already.

Life insurance brought his widow a new, brilliantly colored car with shiny chrome trim (the better to frighten deer away on the highway, she told townspeople), and new tooth-braces for herself, also shiny metal, as shiny as antique cars' bumpers used to be, shiny as chrome. I need to move on, she would often tell acquaintances, who noticed with interest her new car and her newly-shiny-and-arranged mouth. Once long ago her own mother had almost managed to arrange braces for her, as she was not the best-looking sister, hoping it might help soothe and placate her, make her feel favored. When she was very young, and should have been at her loveliest, she could, on a bad day, look a little like an animal with crooked teeth, even her own mother could see. But even then, when she was young and looking her best, an orthodontist would not have been unable to correct the lopsided (think Elvis as he sings) shape of her mouth (which she the little sister, of course, could not see: sometimes, in desperation, we arrange our faces so we can see what we like in mirrors). Her teeth now were very perfectly corrected, no longer tipped different ways with strange points; but the slightly lopsidedness of her mouth, her expression, could not be corrected or changed. The expression of the lips was sharper, now, un-prettier, in contrast with the ordered and pretty teeth. Though townspeople, out of pity, repeated her declaration that she was ready to move on, to help her make new connections, the sister of Jane never married again, had no new romances. But she did have her shiny car, and her newly arranged teeth.

Sometimes those who pitied the younger sister listened to her babbling about good looks, new things, could possibly change a person's fortunes for the better; they understood she meant those things could draw good luck to her, possibly, like the magic gentle surrealist-dream of the magic rhino. But those who had known her for a long time knew it was comparison of herself to her older sister that caused all her miseries, almost at illness-level. One or two even pointed out how distant her sister Jane was: she was in Russia, for God's sake, was she not? Did she have to suffer so much, comparing herself to her sister? Jane was very far away.

It's so good her name is Jane, sister of Jane had said to more than one of them. Those incredibly stupid Russians must have no difficulty pronouncing that name! It's so nice she has that easy, stupid name!

They sighed: this younger sister had an even prouder and lovelier a name than her sister, a name of many syllables. She was a widow of a man crushed by deer and glass while hurrying home to hunt before the sun set, but she still had life ahead, was as good-looking as she could be with with teeth now fixed and arranged, and a new car also, both for the beneficiary of an untimely death. She still had the country house (guarded still, she said, by his still-standing-in-a- corner-by-the-front-door gun—you never knew when it might come in handy, it could save you, she said, to those who asked about it).

Yes, she worked in a sad lonely job that went on forever and forever, as cans and tins and perennially promoted new, false promises about what was inside a tin; tins were never out of production. Talking to herself, reading whatever was written on tin cans, in a voice of gloating triumph, though it was said all she ate was ramen noodles, Mars bars, and Little Debbie snack cakes, and on occasion soups heated on the stove in cans she brought home from the can-label reading site.

She, though alive, was somehow buried already, as fate would have it, and as the saying goes: five times over. Her pets Tarzan and Charlotte and Emily and Acton Bell and Bramwell and Reverend and Rochester were innocents, unaware their purpose was to maintain the flame, the angry righteousness of her jealousy. Little did she know their names were also keeping away the fine rhino, who might have taken pity on her, might have come silently to her aid if she gave her pets other names, and began to have, at least, kind or remorseful daydreams; a fine rhino is mighty, able even to unbury anyone from five graves.

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Rebecca Pyle is a fiction writer in Fugue, Posit, Guesthouse; a poet in Otis Nebula, Penn Review, and Chattahoochee Review; and a writer of essays in Festival Review and HitchLit Review. Her fiction has been nominated for both the Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She is also a visual artist, her artwork/photographs appearing most recently in West Trestle Review, Otis Nebula, Wilderness House, and on covers of Rock Salt Journal and Pithead Chapel (see also Rebecca lives in mountainous Utah.