Grandmother had used to tell stories about the rhinoceros, about how he was wise but jealously guarded his wisdom, about how he was quick to anger but quick to forgive, about how the powder of his horn could bring youth and health to even the oldest and most impotent of men. Nguyễn had listened, rapt at her feet, even as the hills had echoed with the combat of two wars.

For a long time, everyone had assume that the rhinos had long since been hunted to oblivion. And in the hard times during the war and the lean times after its thundering conclusion, Nguyễn had never given it any mind other than to chuckle at the counterfeit horn powder peddled by the local Chinese pharmacy. But then the government had announced with great fanfare that a few rhinos still remained, and began building a wildlife preserve nearby to attempt to reap tourist dollars. Nguyễn saw the occasional Western tourist, often with long hair and clothing that made a pretense of being half as expensive as it was. They often wore clothing with the stylized rhinoceros logo of the Cát Tiên park.

Nguyễn had been unable to get a job working for the park, and his small farm produced failed crop after failed crop. Even the small store that his wife operated on the side of their ramshackle home facing the road, seldom did enough business to cover the purchase of the items for sale. After Đức in the village had led a group into the forest to kill a rhinoceros and returned weeks later flashing crisp fans of đồng, Nguyễn’s wife had asked him to venture into the forest to set a snare and kill a rhinoceros of his own.

“The girls are hungry,” she said, over and over. “A rhinoceros horn could provide for all of us for years, and the snares are easy to make.”

Each time, Nguyễn made the same answer: “I do not want to be the man to kill the last rhinoceros in these hills.”

“They are not the only ones left,” his wife sniffed. “There are more in Africa and Indian and Indonesia. And who are you to put a dumb animal before the life of your family?”

Still, with the specter of Grandmother foremost in his mind, Nguyễn had resisted his wife’s calls year after year. In the rainy season of 2010, though, a flood and a herd of cows who had escaped from their pen combined to annihilate the rice crop and caused five hundred thousand đồng of damage. The dam was owned by the government, and the cattle farmer was a wealthy man with Party connections; no aid was forthcoming from any other quarter, and Nguyễn’s extended family could offer little but sympathy.

Quietly, Nguyễn dug up the rifle that he had buried in 1975. He spent a day silently cleaning it behind the chicken coop, using motions which had once been second nature, and took a roll of barbed wire from the destroyed fence as well as what little food he could scrape together.

The Cát Tiên rangers patrolled regularly but stuck to wide roads and trails; by drawing on long-ago experiences, Nguyễn was able to penetrate deep into the hard of the forest to set his snares near where Đức and his fellows had caught their rhinoceros. A day passed, and then another, and then another. Nguyễn made camp near a small creek, checking each snare daily and living off his meager supplies as well as whatever small animals happened to wander into his traps.

On the fifth day, Nguyễn had come across a sprung snare with a writhing mound of smooth, dark flesh caught therein. He saw flashes of frightened eyes, flicking of terrified ears, and perceived a series of low moaning bellows which seemed to echo in the deepest part of his stomach. The creature was small, male, and rather pathetic looking, but there was still the opportunity to release the snare and let it fade back into the foliage of Cát Tiên.

Nguyễn regarded the rhinoceros for a time. He saw Grandmother by the fireside, his emaciated wife and family, the rich Westerners, and the villagers lucky enough to work for the reserve. If, as he suspected, he had snared the last of its kind, the action to follow would affect all of them in turn.

“Forgive me.” The bolt of Nguyễn’s rifle cycled smoothly as he shot the rhinoceros. The shot tore open the animal’s leg, cutting its femoral artery; its cried redoubled but became weaker and weaker as it bled out into the thick, damp soil of Cát Tiên. After a time, the rhinoceros breathed its last through a film of bloody foam, and Nguyễn cut off its horn with a borrowed hacksaw.

The park rangers found what was left of it months later; DNA testing confirmed that it was the very last of its kind. And, ever since, Nguyễn’s waking and slumbering hours have been troubled by the gentle sound of heavy inhuman breathing and foliage parting in the dark.

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