From the author: The mysterious case of a man and the horn of a rhino lost in Lisbon.
Lost for Ten, Lost for One Thousand
“Every human being reminded him of an animal.”
Hercules twisted his moustache in the same fashion as someone who regulates a watch. It was a habit of his to follow his gaze around that castle of wind. Some objects and scenes spontaneously glued to his retinas and it was possible to pin a fragment from that involuntary selection of memories with fingers working as tweezers. Hercules had attentive and peering eyes and from his disquieting orbits, an unicorn rhino horn sprouted, together with a beetle with an identical horn. The anatomy of the mammal and the insect were such that they emerged from the torax to pair with a protuberant horn from the forehead, both ready for the attack. Hercules breathed the sweet fragrance from the horn laid on a red handkerchief on his lap. At each new dawn, the days softened by the heat and humidity, the river, an old beach, came back to its course and the salt from the Atlantic evaporated in the fog that besieged the seagulls.
Life in that earthly square could have been less hostile, commiserated Hercules who arrived to that spot filled with plans. As soon as he installed himself in a corner close the Tower of Bethlehem, with a beach chair, a sun umbrella and a small foldable table, numberless passersby talked to him. Coming from the patisserie on the opposite side of the street, these curious souls, not contented by an appetite satisfied by pasteis de nata manufactured in a joint effort, asked him on the whereabouts of the animal whose horn he exhibited from his lap. “It is with my wife, she takes care of him better than of a child”, replied Hercules, apparently not submitting himself to judgement by strangers. He rid himself of neighbors and also Luzia, his wife left in flooded rooms where she floated in a wooden vessel pulled by no other animal than the rhino. The body bumped in bloated walls and its noises reverberated in the couple’s house transformed into an amplified sounding board.
Perhaps Hercules was undergoing a belated middle age crisis. He refused to consider a brief closure for that what he called existence. Luzia irritated him with her conversations about quantic love, the posterity of hair and nails and her extreme loyalty to the rhino. Luzia’s fanaticism was one of the reasons he tried to rescue his sanity by risking a solitary adventure. He sipped glasses of spirit and got the courage to take the rhino and the beetle far away from home. He realized that he had acted with greed, refusing obedience to a clockwise order. He was not a man who bended even to have sex. Luzia disagreed with him on the gains he wished to extract from the beast. However, after many a fight, the two of them compromised, Luzia would retain custody of the rhino and he, the possession of the most valuable item, the horn. The rhino beetle, part of the couple’s belongings, would assist in the transportation of the prized horn and to dribble the border police. To his luck, beetles were not sent to prison for breaking the law. As the strongest insect in the animal kingdom, the beetle could fly with a string holding the horn eight hundred and fifty times stronger than the actual rhino’s body mass. By organizing the expedition this way, Hercules avoided accusations of smuggling.
Near the Tower of Bethlehem, Hercules took advantage of his mornings to count the queues of tourists and the number of street sellers in tents, an open air circus with acrobats, plumbers and guitar players. He leaked his lips with a hot tongue, a light fever fed his not so extraordinary secret. His aspiration was to become rich and amidst the crowd some crazy buffoon would buy his bone. With monies from the sale, he would hire a Thai massage expert to step on his painful bones, a symptomatic cure for a pain that could win over another pain. Meanwhile, he relieved his suffering by rubbing the horn on his back and scratching with the horn’s sharp edge, almost perforating his skin. He also caressed the precious object with his chubby fingers, gliding his sweaty digitals on the ivory organic surface. Hercules grew fond of that object more so than of Luzia or a member of his body, to the point that he disdained the strength of his arms and legs or uneven toes with excessive nails on his feet; there was something touching in that horn that could be transformed into a dagger from Oman or simply dissolve into a white magic powder.
Under the fraying tissue of the fog, the seagulls oscillated between screams and murmurs and the Tagus river did not interrupt its flow into the ocean. In past times, Hercules walked down the margin of the river with Luzia in the role of the couple that they never were. The rhino had always been with them, active day and night, agitated in the room next door or roped in the backyard, requiring attention and fresh herbs to be fed on. Not to mention the moments when the animal, in spite of being solitary, exploded into loud bursts announcing his failed coupling rituals. Perhaps with his horn removed from the snout, the rhino would feel more tranquil and ever nagging neighbors stopped insisting on eliminating it. Indeed, Zé Pinho from the deli had demanded of the authorities to remove the rhino to the Zoo in Lissabone but there were not enough conditions for the transfer. Other neighbors recommended that the creature returned to Asia or to Africa, whilst some opponents said that a domesticated animal would not adjust to its original habitat and that the measure would be too cruel. Neighbors who were hunters and owned weapons considered that a few bullets would do the job and a barbecue feast could entail after the erasure.
In spite of investigations initiated by Hercules, nobody could explain how the rhino found a house. Neither he nor Luzia remembered their lives prior to the rhino’s presence. Their attentive eyes had been captured and later on it was impossible to store the animal in their dormant memories. Hercules and Luzia did succeed in forgetting endless things, facts and persons but the image of the rhino did not waver, it persisted as a living fossil in their thinking brains, a bond with a pre-human antiquity and history. Following the extravagant gifts from Al Rashid to Charles Magnus, a rhino called Ganja greeted King Manuel in the sixteenth century and remained since then in the palace interior. Further to the kingdom’s demise, the highest authorities treated the rhino as a matter of State and kept it incarcerated for the ordinary duels and flamboyant orgiac parties in hidden palace rooms. These rumors inspired Hercules to speculate on an action to remove a second horn and double his chances of profit.
Considering Luzia’s temper, it was truly a miracle that she consented to Hercules operating an electric saw around their rhino’s two horns. Surprised and provoked, the animal bore the loss of his bodily parts with a kind of resignation to impress Brazil’s first and last saint canonized by the Vatican. The rhino accepted Hercules’s abuse with dignity, lowering its head for the procedure. Naturally, the rhino showed some discomfort with the beetle on top of its saddle and butting the frame and yet it froze boldly. Luzia’s teary eyes confronted the rhino’s crumbled, bloody face. The rhino had relied on her for living, or better, on her desire for it to live and all she could do was clean the blood and hope for survival. Hercules hugged the biggest horn of the two he had removed as soon as it fell on the mud ground in the house’s backyard and held him like an infant wrapped in a red velvet cloak. Following this scene, it was when Hercules went to the tourist zone with an explosive hope for his future. He did not plan on returning to the flooded Plato cave with a decapitated beast inside.
Surrounded by free air molecules and without a ceiling, Hercules drank beer and wine given to him by the street sellers or found by him in almost empty bottles left behind by foreigners. Now the drink was only for him, he had had enough of sharing the alcohol with a rhino over the centuries. Hercules felt joyous. The bitter taste generated by the beer mixed with distinct wines did not deter his upbeat mood. Rhinos and unicorn beetles took over his mind and Hercules closed his fists, admiring once more the strength of his muscles that readied him for worthy negotiations. In his pocket, Hercules had a small cheese grater in case he needed some powder from the horn to help with his hangovers, an efficient Chinese medicine remedy.
Soon, a bus parked and upon opening its door discharged hundreds of foreigners, people with very different faces from Hercules, blond and tall people, a man identical to Odin stood in front of Hercules with a camera ready to photograph him and the horn for sale. Hercules flushed in his face caught by the sight on him and frowned with a degree of arrogance. The strange man quickly asked: “how much?” and Hercules, rubbing his hands, stared and did not translate into another language. He had thought about so many things but was unsure of the exact price for the horn. His communication skills failed him and the promising customer left, giving rise to a phantasmagoric frustration or a rock in his path and he found it justified to grate a little of the horn to take some of the powder, thereby granting him a mild relief for yet another hangover and sour mood.
During the successive hours, there were many perspective customers willing to acquire the horn from Hercules and he learned to bargain with conviction, behaving as if he was the main merchant in an Arab market. He thought that Luzia would barely recognize him but then recriminated himself for thinking of her, a piece from his past that he wished to erase from his archive of memories. With regard to his flourishing business, he fought over unexpected obstacles. The first difficulty lied in convincing the public that the horn was an authentic rhino horn and not from an American buffalo. Tourists did not fall easily into his sack and they went back to their buses empty handed. Thus, Hercules grated the object of his intent a bit more, losing himself to his anguish to consume some of the powder to alleviate his physical pains and fevers. Additionally, many visitors did not carry paper money and could not compensate him for the horn in loco. One tourist invited Hercules to his hotel locker but Hercules did not find it worthwhile for a mere five hundred. He wanted to make his fortune. City wardens observed his movements.
The prolonged hours transcended into shorter and not so elastic days, without triumphant and relevant happenings. As a man motivated by pretenses of his own making, Hercules insisted on sleeping close to the Tower and the Palace, the corners of which were where he laid embraced with the horn, newly a stump rounded and reduced in size by excessive grating. Hercules resisted selling powder from the horn, he used it for his own consumption, without noticing the diminishing horn. Across the Palace’s walls, he heard the noise from another rhino, confirming the suspicions generated by word of mouth. The stubborn sounds from the animal in the palace relived his past and a gargoyle from the palatial Silent Cloister tightened his neck, blocking his airway, jolting his head, spanking his face and forcing him to kneel down. Hercules, unbeknownst to the existence of gargoyles, was convinced that an obscure force unjustly punished him.
In an intimate conversation, Hercules advised himself that it was important to interpret what put him down as a playful game of fate. He should not entrench himself in a tower of solitude or give up the conquest of his desires. The horn was reduced to a few broken fragments but Hercules still saw the primitive horn with which he envisaged achieving his aim. He reckoned that something could have gone wrong as he approached the tourists in an attempt to sell an almost invisible object and was met with laughter and jokes in incomprehensible languages. Hercules opened the red handkerchief as someone who gets undressed whilst nothing was to be seen. The bony and dry face of Hercules filled with wrinkles and created a peripatetic smile, furthering him away from a practical life and he rose from his position of begging prayer covered in embarrassment.
At the end of a month, Hercules, bored by his monologues and surfing on the wave of unbalanced health, walked towards the Palace gates under a sky full of arabesques. The powder evaporated as the soap does in the hands of a launderess and, even if Hercules covered his right and left eyes in intervals, he could not find the rhino horn. The rhino beetle left by beating its wings in a sudden. Through a side exit of the majestic edification, a turmoil was caused by the back and forth of cars and a chain of hundreds of women in black with colorful fans made of silk in their hands caught Hercules’s attention because each one of them reminded him of Luzia. A passage was lit, trusting him into a tunnel that led to Ganja. While his heart palpitated, he swallowed from his bottle of spirit and moved in the direction of the darkness that adjusted to his sight as the memory figment of a grandiose animal does. He jumped belly-on on the black spot. If he could not remove the horn, at least he hoped to cut the long nails from the animal’s feet.
(Speedily, the municipal wardens surrounded Hercules and interned him in a clean sanatorium where he could tirelessly entertain a talk with the King, a monarch whose style was engraved in the underwater walls of the Tower.)
Luzia had remained in the house where hares jumped around the rhino roped to a cork tree. In a surge from nature, the animal awoke with a bump raising from the torax and the forehead. At a distance, a train crossed the scenery and the warm wind gave the sentiment that it was regressing in time and sculpting powder.