by Brittney Corrigan
When the northern white rhino shows up, Fin is ready for the rites. The animal’s massive
horn materializes first, followed by small, black eyes and then heavy, three-toed hooves. Fin had been watching the free-standing archway, waiting for the beast to step through the gnarled wooden aperture into the plain of light. Now, she stands before the arch, holding a tall stone pitcher of water. The gray armor of the rhino’s shoulders emerges, then thick, wrinkled flanks, a curl of tail. The rhino is nervous, confused, its eyes wide and wary. But Fin is never afraid of what comes through the arch. She steps toward the rhino, carrying the stone vessel with practiced
Fin can’t remember ever being anywhere but here. She has always been the receiver, the
celebrant, the caretaker of the beings that come through the arch. Fin is a fulcrum, standing in the middle of the plain of light, the horizon gleaming beyond the arch. And beyond that horizon, the creatures she’s already ushered through call to her, lonely in each other’s company as they wait for her to return. Their voices tug at her, and she aches to go to them. A few decades back she could spend whole days among them, smoothing their feathers and stroking their fur. But new animals come through so often now that Fin can never leave the arch, can scarcely keep up with the rites.
The rhino takes a tentative step forward, lowers its head before Fin. She places a hand on its front horn, then tilts the pitcher over the rhino’s forehead and pours slowly, so the water rivers between its ears and down its face. Fin walks along the length of the great ungulate, pouring water over its back down to its tail, which relaxes as the last of the liquid drips down its leathery skin. The rhino shivers its hide, and its body begins to shimmer. The animal lifts its head toward the sounds coming from beyond the plain’s edge. It looks back for a moment at Fin, who stands quietly, holding the empty pitcher. Then the rhino takes off in a run, charging across the plain of light.
The sorrow that inhabits Fin whenever an animal comes through the arch sometimes feels too heavy to hold. She remembers them all: the Pyrenean ibex with knobby, ringed horns whose back sagged with the ghost-weight of the fallen tree that killed it; the Tasmanian tiger still stinking of zoo as Fin washed its banded fur; the Xerces blue butterfly that landed on Fin’s shoulder, allowed the anointing of its delicate wings. And many centuries before, the flightless dodo, stumbling through the archway, unafraid. All of them burdened with their solitary passings. All of them the last of their kind.
Fin walks a few paces to where a bright turquoise pool glistens on the plain of light. She dips her pitcher, fills it once again to the brim. For some time now, at least three creatures have come through the arch every hour. Insects with colorful bodies, birds with astonishing feathers or feathers muted as stone, frogs no bigger than Fin’s thumbnail. Creatures from the oceans’ depths, floating through the arch in search of the sea. Fin tends to all of them, sends them off across the plain of light.
Fin fills pitcher after pitcher of water as the pace of creatures entering the plain of light
quickens. Sometimes animals from different continents come through the archway together, tangling with confusion and alarm. Fin cannot properly receive them, cannot give them the attention they deserve. She is coaxing a hawksbill turtle from the muscular arms of a mountain gorilla when a bird flies through the arch and continues right over Fin’s head, toward the clamorous horizon. Fin cannot tell what species of bird it was, may never find it again. She worries what will happen when it crests the horizon, unanointed. Fin’s pitcher is empty again. She lifts it with faltering hands.
A cheetah arrives at full sprint, streaking past her in a blur that becomes the plain of light
itself. Fin rushes to refill the pitcher, but the turquoise pool is empty. Fin stands rooted, wrestling with the unfamiliar disquiet that rises through her. The air is crowded with insect noise, squawking, and howls. Her head rings with the sounds of bats and dolphins trying to echolocate across the plain of light. Fin can feel the many species of whales calling to one another beyond the horizon, each in their own beautiful language. Then the plain shudders. Fin loses her balance, falls to the ground beside the arch.
A cascade of creatures streams through the opening, a mass of feathers and fur and
scales. There are so many of them, the ground disappears. The sky becomes a riot of wings. Fin struggles to her feet just as an elephant lumbers through the arch, swinging its trunk sadly from side to side, regarding her with vast, liquid eyes. Fin runs her hands along its flanks, but it shies away from her, turns its head toward the horizon. No animal has ever refused Fin’s comfort, her touch. She reaches for the pitcher, but it lies shattered at her feet. And for the first time in her existence on the plain of light, Fin is afraid.
For many moments, nothing else comes through the arch. All the creatures approach from beyond the horizon and fall silent, watching Fin. She turns her attention again to the archway, for now something else is approaching. Fin steps toward the arch to meet it, and relief washes over her like water. The creature before her is upright, skin smooth and barren except for long hairs sprouting from the slope of its skull. Its eyes are terrified, remorseful, and it hesitates before the creatures on the plain of light. As it passes through the arch, it flounders, and Fin reaches out. She takes its trembling fingers within her empty hands.
Brittney Corrigan is the author of the poetry collections Daughters, Breaking, Navigation, and 40 Weeks. Her newest collection, Solastalgia, a collection of poems about climate change, extinction, and the Anthropocene Age, is forthcoming from JackLeg Press in 2023. For more information, visit Brittney’s website: http://brittneycorrigan.com/.