Have you ever seen an image that took hold of you so strongly that you woke up in the middle of the night thinking about it?
When I saw it, I was horrified, but I thought I would just file it away.
When I started waking up, thinking about her-the rhino I had seen-I knew I needed to do something.
The image was of a female rhino whose horn had been chainsawed off her face by poachers.
They had tracked her from the air in helicopters, used darts to sedate her and then executed their violence. She survived, somehow. Her beautiful calf did not. In the picture, she's been rescued. You can see one of her eyes. It looks wild, like there is too much white showing.
You can see her trauma in that eye.
The caption described how she and another male rhino at the sanctuary had become inseparable. Rhinos are normally solitary creatures.
I started to write a story.
The female rhino is the narrator. I began like this:
"There are great kelp bladders, air mouthed into their growth, fed into them. The process of lifting near rootless: sea constant against each hollow knuckle: falling, unfalling.
I have no built-in buoy. I collapse into the undrinkable.
But mostly, I remember the river. My head rooted under that water, pulling against anything that wanted to lift. The plants thin green and mucus-rich in my teeth.
Arms, off. Legs, off. No, that's not true. Just the horn and some skull.
My hard hollow frame for breath collapses under sedation. A matter of giving away, of no longer resisting. Heaviness from needled sleep.
I would like to continue."
Her voice, coming through me, was strong and undeniable. I never once doubted how strange it was to be writing as a grieving, angry rhino. All the surreal elements seemed like natural extensions of the surreal violence that had been done to her, and to thousands like her.
I wrote more:
"I have a daughter.
I imagine her cracked mouth, her dry throat. I imagine her hunger and collapse. I see the way her thin body looked when alone.
I am a land beast and in this story I am in the sea. A creature of simple needs. Mud, protection, grass. The hard roaring of males. I do not struggle against this.
I carried my daughter for sixteen months and my body could not shut off the awareness of her heaviness. I found myself counting sunrises to her birth."
I wrote enough to make a short story. I submitted it to The Collagist, and Matt Bell accepted it for publication.
I kept writing.
My rhino wasn't done speaking.
I was still being woken up by the brutalized image of her face.
In time I had enough for another story, plus some. I pulled in elephants at the end. I had the idea I wanted Land Beast to become a book. My good friend, the artist and writer, Katie Feild, made some forty watercolors as illustrations. With these images, the story reached another level of consciousness.
We live in an incredibly violent world. What can we do?
We can make art. What can art do?
Art can connect people.
I hope to connect people to the real tragedy of poaching, to make it real enough that people will act to change their habits and live more compassionately.
Land Beast, the illustrated novella, was published on International Rhino Day, September 22nd. I am giving 100% of the proceeds from the book to anti-poaching charities. Please visit the website for more information.