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September 26, 2022

Maybelle's Curse 2

By William Schwarz

Maybelle the Manatee Queen has cast a spell on Jeremy Mankins for his youthful impetuosity: The Curse of the Creamed Cornucopia causes him to ooze creamed corn from his head on each night of a full moon. The only way to lift the curse is to gather magical Nose Boulders from the Purple Rhino of Kilimanjaro ...

Six weeks later, Jeremy was driving a Range Rover in Kilimanjaro National Park, gritting his teeth in anger. The reason? It wasn't because the Range Rover was stolen, nor was it because he was utterly lost and that nightfall was approaching, although these would have been fairly good guesses, at least from the standpoint of pure factual accuracy. No, Jeremy was punching the wheel in frustration because, after spending countless fruitless hours over the past month scrabbling through the park looking for any sign of the purple rhinoceros, today he had finally broken down and asked for directions. That's when he learned that this was all a colossal waste of time: back at park headquarters, every guide he spoke to told him, in polite if puzzled tones, that there were basically just two types of rhino -- the black rhino and the white rhino -- which were both, names aside, pretty much what you would call gray if you saw them. There were a fair number of black rhinos in Tanzania, and they'd be happy to put him on a tour so he could see one. But a purple rhinoceros? "I'm sorry sir, I know of no such animal."

I know of no such animal. He wanted to get the phrasing, the elongated vowels of the east-African accent just right for when he repeated it all back to Madame Mamie. He was kicking himself for not having the guides sign some sort of statement he could stick right under her nose, but he didn't think of it until after he'd stolen one of their trucks. "Certainly can't go back and ask for one now," he muttered to himself for about the twentieth time, glancing nervously at the great snow-capped peak looming over the horizon. Even now, after spending a month out in the park, he was still amazed at the sheer size of Kilimanjaro. It was big enough to hide dozens of purple rhinos, if they existed -- which, of course, they didn't. He gunned the engine, pushing the stolen truck over the rutted and crumbling tracks that his map assured him were 'roads,' his shoulders hunched against the oppressive glare of the mountain that he was now convinced was angry at him.

"I'll give the truck back when I'm done with it," he whispered, but received no reply.

The sun set, and the air that blew in through the open window was filled with the chirps and buzzings of countless frogs and insects. Jeremy was more determined than ever to keep driving, although by now he had no particular destination or even any idea of where he might be going. The madness had set in. He grinned and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. He was going well over what would be considered a safe speed for the terrain and conditions, and that pleased him. "I'm going to crash, I'm going to crash," he kept singing tunelessly to himself. So it was that when a large purple shape suddenly appeared in the circle cast by the Range Rover's headlights, he did just that, slamming right into it, and then bouncing right off.

Now, a Range Rover is a large, rugged truck with big fat tires. It doesn't bounce off of things, it crashes through them, leaving behind wreckage and big fat tire tracks. That's how it was designed, and that's what it does. Nevertheless, the large purple shape that still loomed in the headlights seemed, at worst, to be slightly annoyed at being run over in this way. It cocked its head and glared at the truck with a baleful purple eye.

The monstrous shape turned to face Jeremy and lowered its head, displaying an impressive purple horn that was easily as tall as he was. It stamped its foot. Jeremy stared at the thing, which could be nothing but the Great Purple Rhino himself, curse that flea-bitten park ranger. The beginnings of a plan were utterly failing to form in his mind, so he did what any American would do when faced with an implacable obstacle: he laid on the horn, giving the rhino a good twenty-second blast.

"Move it, Chubbsy! You're blocking the road!"

The rhino took two steps back, as if trying to process what it was that it was seeing. Then -- moving much more quickly than Jeremy would have thought possible -- he charged, slamming into the Range Rover before Jeremy could react. The force of the impact rattled Jeremy around the inside of the truck like a nickel in a washing machine, and he found himself in the backseat, bruised and disoriented. Jeremy peeked out the window. The rhino was circling the truck, prodding it lightly with his horn as if looking for an opening he could use to pry it open like can of juicy sardines. Jeremy scrambled back into the front seat, threw the truck into reverse, and stomped the gas. The engine roared to life and the truck lurched rearward just as the giant horn stabbed in through the driver-side window, narrowly missing Jeremy's head before puncturing the roof. The truck rattled and shook, the engine howling in complaint, but it was held fast, like a big metal beetle pinned to a board.

At this point, if he had even the slightest ration of common sense, Jeremy would have simply slipped out the passenger-side door, walked back to park headquarters, and booked the next flight home, where rhinos are gray and safely confined to zoos. This is not what he did. Moving slowly so as not to startle the great beast -- which at this point seemed well past the point of mattering -- Jeremy reached over and turned the ignition off. The engine subsided, leaving just the sound of hoarse rhino grunts and tearing metal as the rhino tried to free himself. The truck was shaking pretty severely, but Jeremy was still able to climb out the window and, wrapping his arms and legs around the base of the horn, perch there, right between the rhino's eyes.

"Let's see if you ride as good as a sea cow," he said, leaning back to whisper into an ear the size of a palm frond. "Now giddyup!"

It wasn't as bad as it could have been, but it was pretty bad. Rhinos can't bound and kick like a horse -- they're just too massive for that sort of thing -- but they can thrash their heads around pretty well, and are of course immensely powerful and strong. Once he'd freed himself from the husk of the Range Rover, the Great Purple Rhino took Jeremy on a bone-rattling ride through great swaths of the park. But Jeremy was nothing if not stubborn, especially when faced with near-certain death, and he held fast.

"Not exactly built for stamina, are you, Chubbsy?" Jeremy shouted when the rhino started slowing down. The rhino responded by roaring and then charging through a nearby cluster of thorny acacia. Jeremy closed his eyes and hunkered down. From the sound of his ragged panting, the rhino was definitely tiring; a couple more minutes and he'd run himself down for sure. Then all Jeremy would have to do would be to hop down, give him a quick kick in the shins, and amble off to the nearest hospital. Easy as pie. That's when he first noticed the golden rim of the full moon as it pulled itself up over the horizon.

Jeremy didn't even have time to swear before his mouth filled with delicious creamed corn. How could he have lost track of the date? Don't go rhino hunting during the full moon, that was the one rule he'd made for himself. It just made good sense. But here he was, holding on for dear life, and the stuff was just pouring out of him like a sweet and chunky geyser. Before long, it got all over everything and started to interfere with his grip. His improvised seat had turned into a slippery, soupy mess. He wouldn't be able to hold on much longer.

Sensing weakness, the rhino jolted forward with a new burst of energy, leaving Jeremy clinging on by his fingernails. Then, just as Jeremy had almost regained his hold, the great beast stopped short, digging all four hooves into the dirt and sending Jeremy flying. He landed a good distance away and rolled a good distance further. He looked up, fully expecting his last ever vision to be a huge mass of horned purple death bearing down on him. But the expected impact never came; instead, only a loud, liquid slurping sound: slup, slup, slup. The rhino stood there noisily licking creamed corn off of his face and horn. Jeremy watched with weird fascination as the long, purple tongue worked its way out of the rhino's mouth and over as much of the rhino's face it could reach. The creamed corn was still flowing, and it occurred to Jeremy that he'd left a long trail in the dirt that led directly to the smallish crater he'd made when he landed.

Jeremy had learned long ago that there was nothing he could do to slow the flow of creamed corn, once it got going. Increasing the flow, on the other hand, was no problem -- you just had to sort of push from the diaphragm. That's what he did now, leaning his head over the little crater to fill it up to the top. It steamed slightly in the cool night air. He backed away and hid behind a bush.

Sure enough, the rhino soon ambled over, ears twitching and nostrils sniffing. He looked once, disdainfully, over to where Jeremy was hiding, and then bent down to eat. There was actually quite a lot there in the puddle, even for a rhino -- the creamed corn gods, wherever they were, were apparently feeling particularly generous that month -- and he was there slurping and munching for several minutes before the little crater was licked clean. Afterwards, he let out a great, satisfied sigh that sounded like the air being let out of a kids' bouncy tent, pawed at the ground a bit then kneeled down, and fell asleep.

After that, getting a nose boulder was comparatively easy. To be sure, it wasn't even remotely pleasant or in any way enjoyable for Jeremy to stick his hand into first one, then the other of the Great Purple Rhino's nostrils and go rummaging around for a giant booger. But he did find one -- just one -- and the rhino didn't so much as twitch. Jeremy studied the thing in the moonlight. It was about the size of a golf ball, maybe a little bigger, slightly warm and moist to the touch and surprisingly close to round, with a few thick nose hairs sticking out. "Not sure what the fuss is all about," he grumbled, as a wave of lightheadedness washed over him. He gritted his teeth, finally starting to feel all the dozens of places where he was bruised, battered, or pierced by acacia thorns, and stumbled off in his best guess of the direction back to the Range Rover.

The time passed slowly, as it tends to do in that part of the world. Jeremy settled in. Assuming he could expect to get -- on average -- one 'nose boulder' per month, he figured he'd be in Africa for most of the year if he wanted to end the curse. He rented a small apartment in Dar es Salaam, but spent most of his days just wandering around: he saw the Great Lakes, the Serengeti, some sort of giant crater, and some truly spectacular beaches. He even sent a few postcards back to Madame Mamie -- big flocks of storks, a guy with one of those big, zebra-hide shields, baboons lolling around in the grass, that sort of thing -- in case she was worried that the rhino might have eaten him. Still, no matter how wondrous and antelope-filled the view was overlooking the Serengeti, no matter how cool and coconut-flavored the drinks were on the beach, there was never any real peace. As the days passed and the moon grew fat and golden in the sky like it was slowly being filled with delicious creamed corn, he would become nervous and agitated. His hands shook. He tossed and turned in bed, chasing a sleep that was always just out of reach; and when he did sleep, his dreams were filled with monstrous purple shapes and death. But then, one or two days ahead of the full moon, a sudden calm would overtake him; his mind settled. He would gas up the old, dented Range Rover, pack up his rucksack with food, water, and four or five first-aid kits, and make his way back to the park.

After that first time, Jeremy never had much trouble finding the rhino. He would pull into the park, drive a few miles, and there he'd be, standing on top of a ridge, his great horn jutting defiantly into the air, waiting. And Jeremy would be ready, his fear melting away the second he saw the way the rhino dismissively flicked his ears at him, as if Jeremy were no more than a bug to be squashed. Because this was not about creamed corn, or 'nose boulders,' or curses: this was about battle. That was something Jeremy understood. He'd stomp on the gas and the Range Rover would roar to life. The rhino would roar, and lower his horn. One horrible, sickening collision, and the chase would be on. It would usually end with Jeremy on foot, running for his life, the rhino having flipped or otherwise incapacitated the truck, but Jeremy did have a few tricks up his sleeve: he would bring cayenne pepper, thumb tacks, small explosives -- whole bags of the stuff -- keeping it handy for when the rhino got too close. He also became adept at climbing trees and hiding in old abandoned termite mounds: anything to survive until the creamed corn began to flow. When it did, he could only hope he'd done enough to exhaust the great beast; usually, he had: by the end of the year, Queen Maybelle's necklace was nearly complete.

It had not been easy. For every soft, golden orb in Jeremy's backpack, he had a dozen bruises, a hundred scrapes, stings, and punctures, and at least one brush with near-certain death. The Great Purple Rhino had chased him, poked him, thrown him, and kicked him from one end of the park to the other with a gleeful ferocity that seemed to grow as the year progressed. For sure, Jeremy got his licks in as well, starting with the truck smashes and including any number of attempts to ride, gas, puncture, or entangle the great beast, some more effective than others. His greatest moment, his one true victory? When he managed to clamp one of those radio tracking devices to the rhino's ear -- surely the greatest indignity that can befall a wild animal. But the rhino showed no more sign of backing down than he did; and every month, he'd be there, at that same clearing. Waiting. Jeremy couldn't help but respect that. Driving out to Kilimanjaro Park for what he sincerely hoped would be the very last time, he had to admit he was going to miss the smelly old monster.

He checked to make sure he had everything before pulling into the park entrance. The rear of the truck was filled with spray paint and land crabs, which struggled and wrestled amongst themselves in three large buckets. He had something special in mind for this, their last battle. The plan was to hit the rhino with the crabs, which would confuse him enough to give Jeremy time to jump out of the truck and spray paint 'BOOGER' on him in giant yellow letters. It perhaps wasn't the greatest plan in the world -- he realistically didn't have much of a chance to get any farther than the 'B' before he'd have to run for it -- but it would have to do: the crabs were non-refundable. For the occasion, he was wearing the old shirt Queen Maybelle had sneezed her message onto so long ago.

Jeremy took a deep breath as he rounded the last curve on the narrow, rutted path that led to the clearing, the truck chuckling and grumbling like an old man. Standing in the usual place: five tons of muscle piled seven feet high on four stubby legs, covered with a thick purple pelt; one murderously long horn rising high between two beady little black eyes that seemed to glow with malevolence. The rhino snorted a loud challenge and pawed the ground, raising a cloud of dust. Jeremy revved the truck engine in reply, and it seemed that even that poor, beat-up old crate was straining to go. Just as he was about to stomp the gas, he heard a loud pop from the right of the clearing. The rhino stumbled and then kneeled, a red splash of blood spreading high on his neck, just behind his two tufted ears. Jeremy looked over to see the long barrel of a rifle slowly emerge from behind a tree trunk, cool and steady as a snake preparing to strike. He heard an excited shout. Without thinking, Jeremy leaned on the horn. The Range Rover bleated in annoyance, but it was loud, and it was enough to make the second shot miss.

Jeremy looked first at the rhino, now struggling to run off, then back to the tree with its now-smoking rifle. Of course such a large rhinoceros would be attractive to poachers, but to put him in a clearing like that, just standing there waiting in broad daylight? Waiting for Jeremy? Something snapped in Jeremy's mind. The Range Rover roared to life. He steered into the clearing, putting himself between the rhino and the poachers. Another shot rang out, and Jeremy felt something whiz past his ear. He pivoted to the right, trying to get the truck's nose pointed in the direction of that rifle barrel, his only thought to attack. The truck groaned, teetering on two wheels for a long, sickening second before righting itself and accelerating toward the poachers. He could see them now, there were three, armed with rifles. One of them fired, shattering the windshield into a spiderweb of cracks. Jeremy ducked down and pulled two of the crab buckets up to the dashboard; the plan he was working on now was even worse than the last one. As the truck slammed into the tree the poachers were hiding behind, Jeremy saw the expression of the closest change from faint amusement to confusion to stark terror, and for good reason. Those crabs were pretty mad, and who could blame them? Confined to a bucket with hundreds of other crabs for the long, hot drive from Dar es Salaam, and then sent hurtling through a window onto a bunch of poachers? It's enough to set anybody off. So they did what crabs do: they pinched. The poachers howled and pulled at the angry crustaceans, but it was no use: for every crab they managed to remove, two more would latch on, targeting tender spots like noses, earlobes, and the little flaps of skin between the fingers. One of the poachers managed to get one last wild shot off before Jeremy whacked him over the head with the last, crab-filled bucket, and then all the fight was gone from them. He took their guns, spray-painted 'Booger' on them in big yellow letters, and chased them off. Then he ran back to the clearing.

It looked bad. The rhino was lying on his side in a large pool of blood that also covered most of the upper half of his body. His breathing was shallow and ragged, and he didn't even stir as Jeremy approached. Jeremy knelt down beside his enormous, craggy head.

"I'm sorry," he said softly. He was amazed to find his tears springing to his eyes. "This wasn't what I wanted." The bullet wound was large, about the size of a quarter, and bleeding steadily. He cursed himself for knowing so little about rhinoceros anatomy or even the basics of large-animal veterinary science. Still, he'd have to try. He owed him that much.

Jeremy wiped his eyes impatiently. The first thing was to stop the bleeding. There was a first-aid kit in the truck, but the gauze and bandages inside were far too puny for this, so he whipped off his shirt and pressed it over the wound. "Apply pressure directly to the wound. Apply pressure directly to the wound," he muttered to himself. He wasn't expecting much, but after a couple minutes of applying pressure to the wound he was surprised to find that the bleeding had nearly stopped. He looked down at Maybelle's shirt. Although it was drenched with blood, the strange, multicolored design still shone through, almost pulsating in the late-afternoon sunlight. It seemed to want to cling to the animal's neck, and Jeremy felt like he could ease up on the pressure and the shirt would stay there on its own. Even so, he didn't ease up; he stayed until the bleeding stopped.

The rhino gave a gentle snort. He looked a little better, but his breathing was still shallow. "Sit tight, Chubbsy" Jeremy said, rising to his feet. "I'm going to get you some water." Jeremy knew the area pretty well, having been chased over, around, and through it so many times, so he quickly found a nearby stream and filled one of the crab buckets. When he came back, he first poured a little water over the wound, to clean it out. Then he dipped the shirt into the bucket and used it to drizzle water into the rhino's mouth. He kept at this for a while, dipping and drizzling, dipping and drizzling, until the bucket was nearly empty. Jeremy studied the rhino with a critical eye. He didn't look like he'd be jumping to his feet any time soon. "I don't think those idiot poachers have gone far," he said, looking off vaguely toward the horizon. "Which means I don't think I can leave you, not with nighttime coming." The rhino regarded him with one unreadable black eye. "Anyway, I'm going to need to make a fire. Just try not to stamp it out, OK?"

Jeremy stayed the whole night with the Great Purple Rhinoceros, sitting in the dirt with a rifle he didn't know how to shoot slung over his shoulder. Making a fire had been a lot harder than he thought it would be; after an hour of trying, the only thing he'd managed to burn was one of his eyebrows. Eventually he got one going using the cigarette lighter from the truck, and when the moon came up, delicious creamed corn came out of his head-holes, as it always did. The rhino lapped some of it up, and promptly fell into a deep sleep. Jeremy spent the rest of the night in silence, watching the countless stars wheel overhead.

He never did get that last nose boulder. When he woke, late the next morning -- he must have dozed off sometime near dawn -- the rhino was gone, leaving behind nothing more than a trail of large, knobby-looking hoof-prints. Jeremy stared at the track for a minute or so, knowing it would be the last trace he would ever see of the great beast. "You're welcome," he muttered to no one in particular. Then he loaded up the Range Rover and drove off in a direction he hoped might lead him home.

One month later, he was back in Florida, by the same bridge, by the same river, sweating and grumbling. He only had eleven nose boulders and he was supposed to have twelve, but Madame Mamie told him he should go, saying "Give it a try. I don't think they're so good at math." He'd fashioned the large, greenish-yellow masses into what he couldn't help but feel was a rather fetching necklace. It was made of strands of yellow and purple nylon rope woven through with fishing line and guitar string to give it that extra bit of sparkle and then threaded through the nose boulders, which had a curiously firm but malleable consistency.

"Are you sure this is the right place?" Mamie asked, peeking out from the dense foliage along the river bank. They'd only arrived about ten minutes earlier, and she was already about as wet and muddy as a four-year-old with a hose. Jeremy still wasn't sure why he'd asked her to come with him, and was alternatingly pleased and annoyed that she had.

"Yes, I'm sure."

"Are you sure sure? Cause there's a lotta places a manatee can live down here. Lotta places."

"Look, this is the place, all right? She'll be here."

Mamie looked at him steadily for a few moments, one of those looks that always gave him a mild heebee-jeebeeish feeling. "You got some crazy magic in you, Jeremy Mankins," she said finally. "You know that?" She climbed up the bank and sat beside him, eying the river expectantly.

"So what do I do when she shows up? Just toss the thing at her?"

"Does that sound like a good idea to you?"

Jeremy sighed, not bothering to answer. The early evening sun was low in the sky, but the heat still bore down on them like a thick, clammy blanket. After a while, Jeremy fumbled down to water's edge, the necklace wrapped around his arm. Soon enough, he could make out ripples on the surface of the water, off in the distance. Behind him, Mamie caught her breath.

"It's her!" she whispered.

Jeremy bit his tongue before the words big dumb swimming sausage could slip out. She was even bigger than before, the lunatic crown still nestled comfortably on her head bump. Jeremy reluctantly trudged into the water until he was chest deep. Maybelle swam right up and gently bumped him with her nose.

"What do I do now?" Jeremy called.

"What do you think? Give her the necklace."

"How?" He got no answer, only an exasperated snort. Jeremy reached over and sort of patted the manatee on the head, and then showed her the necklace by putting it in the water right in front of her snout.

"I'm sorry, but I could only get eleven," he said softly. She bumped him again in the stomach, a little harder this time, and then plucked the necklace away with her long, prehensile lips. Then she pulled herself back to the center of the canal, turned, and swam away.

"Do you think that'll work?" he asked Mamie when he got back to shore. Without thinking about it, he wiped off a glob of mud that she'd somehow gotten on her cheek.

"Does it matter?" she asked, taking his hand and pulling him back up the bank toward the car. "I mean, it's just a little creamed corn, after all. It could be worse."

The sun was beginning to set, painting the sky in shades of orange and red. Mamie sat on the hood of the car and motioned for him to join her. He sat beside her, their shoulders briefly touching. A cool breeze finally began to blow, as the first love-drunk frogs of the night started calling out to one another. To the East, he could just make out the curve of the full moon, pulling itself up over the horizon. Jeremy shrugged.

"Yeah, I guess it could be worse."

Article © William Schwarz. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-04-15
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