Rio in Rhino’s Skin – Part 1 & 2

Rio in Rhino’s Skin – Part 1

It was a sunny Monday morning after the long weekend - An b, No 8, Kara and Super N laid in bed until they were woken up by Mum at the last minute as per usual.

An b, No 8 were in grade 4 while Kara and Super N were in grade 5 and 6 respectively. They all studied in the village’s local primary school which was called “Bring Your Own Brain Primary School” – often abbreviated to BYOB Primary School.   As they were getting dressed before breakfast, No. 8 heaved a heavy sigh.

‘Looks like it’s going to be a terrible day if we run into Rio again’, he said.

Rio was a grey, chunky rhino who went to the same school as An b and the others. Unlike most of the other students however, he rarely if ever talked with his classmates. In fact, he was quite rude a lot of the time - even if you offered him some snacks during recess, he would just shoot you away. 

No. 8’s remark spurred An b’s memory of his meeting with Rio.

‘Yes, he is really quite annoying,’ An b muttered.  ‘I accidentally left my book on his desk last Friday. When he saw it, he shouted at me and swiped my book on to floor immediately.’

‘No wonder he still has no friends in school’, remarked Kara. She knew Rio as her classmate in the year before. Rio was forced to repeat Grade 4 and thus, he became classmates with An b and No. 8 this year.

‘Finger crossed we won’t run into him today,’ said An b. Kara shook her head.

‘I don’t think that’s going to happen. After all, he often comes to school just so he can bully the other classmates.’

An b and No. 8 looked at each other and heaved a sigh together. 

After finishing breakfast, An b and the others started to make their way to school.

The school was a 20 minute walk from their home. Along the way, the friends greeted other classmates who were also on their way to school. For Super N, this was going to be a big day as she would start her piano classes. 

As they got the school gates, the 4 kids heard thunderous foot-steps from behind. Every student in the vicinity immediately rushed into the school building. They knew by instinct that Rio the rhino was on his way.

The friends saw the big rhino striding towards the school gates. Unlike a lot of other rhinos, his horn was actually quite small; in fact, compared to his brethren, he was actually quite small. He only appeared gigantic to the other students since rhinos were not a common sight in the village. Compared to the other kids whose appearances were those of youth, Rio’s skin was brittle, dry and wrinkled. The other students speculated that it was due to Rio not taking enough showers. Apart from his comparatively large size and his behavior, he tended to act awkward towards even those he wasn’t looking to harass.

Kara made a quick glance at the shambling rhino, which in turn caused Rio to spit at Kara.

‘How can you be so filthy?’ shouted Kara as she tried to wipe the spit from her clothes.

‘And how can you be so annoying?’ Rio tried to spit on Kara again. In response, An B, No 8 and Super N stood in front of Kara.

‘Stop that or we will tell teachers’, they shouted as they tried to protect their friend. In response, Rio gave them a threatening glance and then made his way into the school.

Seeing that Rio was longer in sight, the friends quickly cleaned up Kara and made their way into the main building just as the school bell began to ring.

In comparison to the schools in the other villages, BYOB Primary School was not particularly large. The campus contained a modestly populated library, a main building and two amenity halls. There was also a playground equipped with several swings and a slide behind the main building. If the students wanted to play football or basketball, they need to go up to the hill behind the school where there were some old courts and a football field.  For the years 1 to 3 students, all classrooms were located on the first floor of the main building, while students in year 4 to 6 held classes on the second floor. 

As An b and No. 8 entered their the classroom, they realized to their horror that Rio has be reassigned to the desk right in front of theirs.

As per the usual Monday, An b fell asleep in all eight of his lessons.

‘They should just rename Monday to Yawnday.’

By the end of the last lesson, An b no longer felt sleepy and looked around for No.8. Surprisingly, his twin sister was far less attentive to the lesson than what the so-called ‘teacher’s pet’ would usually be. Her eyes often wandered off from the blackboard; instead of taking notes, No.8 was tiddling a pen in her fingers. An b bumped No. 8’s elbow repeatedly.

‘What’s wrong?’ An b asked. ‘This isn’t like you – especially in a French class. I thought this was your favorite.’

‘Shhh,’ she whispered as she blinked her right eye. An b knew immediately what his sister was trying to say:

‘Shut up and I’ll tell you later.’

At the end of school day, all the students were filled with energy. They ran out of the classrooms as soon as they heard the last school bell ring and hurried to the playground and the hill. An b was looking at No. 8 as if she was mad – he found his sister sneakily jumping behind Rio as if she was some private detective. Everybody held their breath as they observed No.8; surely, Rio would give her hard time once he sees her! Perplexingly, Rio ignored her rather obvious jumping and just left the school without a word.

When the friends returned home, Super N stood in front of No. 8 with her hands on her waist.

‘Tell us what is going on, No. 8. Why you are jumping down and up behind Rio? Surely you weren’t trying to provoke him?’

In response No. 8, she put her finger to her lips and just gestured them inside the house. When the kids entered their bedroom, An b, Kara and Super N blocked No. 8 together.

‘Can you tell us now?’ An b said with a fake grin.

No. 8 let out a short laugh but shortly fell silent. Her face tensed up as she slowed her voice to a whisper.

‘I saw a hole on Rio’s head – I could see what was inside!’

‘You must be kidding!’ shouted Super N.

‘I’m not joking’, she replied. ‘Rio dropped his pencil on the floor during the morning lesson. As he went to pick it up, I thought I was hallucinating but there really was a hole on top of his head.’

‘Maybe your brain is going as haywire from all that studying’, remarked Kara.

No 8 half-closed her eyes and started to rub them.

‘I think so too; after all, I didn’t get much sleep last night. But when Miss Reeves asked me to stand up to answer a question, I caught another glimpse of his head and I saw-’

‘Stop, stop! I don’t want to hear it!’

‘I really did see a hole, I swear!’

Super N heaved a sigh as he listened to the arguing siblings.

‘I don’t think it’s possible either, but No. 8 isn’t really the kind of person to lie. Maybe we would double check tomorrow.”

‘Yeah, it might be best that we investigate this tomorrow. Maybe I’ll end up being the next Sherlock Holmes.’

Everybody laughed at An b’s confident demeanor and wished him the best. After saying good night to each other, the four friends hopped into bed early for a fresh start to their investigation tomorrow. 

The next morning, after they have brushed their teeth and changed into their uniforms, they hurriedly ate breakfast and left the house kissing their Mum goodbye. All of them were excited to confirm No. 8’s findings.

‘Hang on, kids. What’s going on today?’

It was their Mum speaking just before they left. Her instincts coupled with the kids’ odd excitement about going to school told her something werid must be going on.

‘We just like going to school now, that’s all!’ An b replied. Everyone burst into laughter – after all, this was coming from the student who slept through all eight lessons of the day.   

As the kids made their way to the school, rather than entering the gates, the four of them carefully hid themselves in some of the shrubbery near the school entrance. The only things visible in the bushes were the color of their eyes, and that’s only if you were to carefully inspect the shrubbery.

‘Here he comes,’ whispered Super N.

They could see Rio shambling his way to the school gates from a distance away. As usual, his footsteps heavy and exaggerated – each step shook the ground and drew more attention than an ambulance siren, such as students could easily avoid him by listening to the sound of his arrival. 

As Rio passed the shrubbery, the 4 kids climbed up onto nearby tree to get a better vantage point of the rhino’s head. To their amazement, they could confirm that there was really a hole one inch wide on his head. Before Kara could scream, An b covered her mouth with his hand. 

‘What should we do now? Should we tell the teacher?’

They were all too stunned to answer Super N’s question. An b then spoke up:

‘I’m not sure. He’s got a lot of wrinkles on his head; maybe that thing on top of his head isn’t really a hole. But if it is, I wonder if there’s any insects that’ll crawl out.’ 

No. 8 started to shiver as she imagined what sort of creepy crawlies could be nesting inside Rio’s head.

‘Anyway, let’s follow him home after school.’

As the school bell started to ring, the four kids climbed down and headed towards the school gates.

During recess, An b decided to observe Rio from a distance. He found the rhino as usual sitting on a bench in the playground alone. Most of the younger students wouldn’t dare to disturb him while the older students simply don’t bother to give him a second’s glance. Rio, have little company, often spent most of his time just sparing at the ground or his lap until the bell would ring for the next classes. For a brief moment, An b found the sight of Rio to be incredibly depressing. 

As school came to a close, the kids followed Rio as he left the school gates. They thought that they wouldn’t have to follow him for too long, but to their shock and horror, they found themselves trailing the rhino for close to an hour.

‘Hey! You sure he isn’t taking a detour somewhere? There’s no way it takes this long to get to his house! Why doesn’t he just take the bus!?’ Super N was close to collapsing from walking out in the sun for so long.   

‘No wonder he’s always so sweaty and smelly’, said Kara as she takes another sip of water. ‘Does he really walk like this under the heat for more than an hour every day?’   

After 20 or 30 more minutes, they could see from a distance Rio walking to a small hut.

As the kids observed their new surroundings, they realized that the hut was situated beside a small stream. Parts of the roof and windows seemed to be filled with holes and on closer inspection, what seems to be cloth was placed loosely around the holes in an attempt to cover them. The hut was small and only occupied about half the size of the kids’ own house. In front of the hut, there were some flowers in broken clay vases clumsily arranged. Despite the house looking so old and damaged, there were clear signs that people lived there regularly and had been taking care of its surroundings.

The kids hid behind a large mango tree close to the hut. They popped their heads out to see Rio standing in front of the entrance to hut, looking left and right. Moments later, Rio put his hands together on top of his head and started to rip his skin apart!

When they saw this, the kids started to scream. Rio turned to the direction of the voices. When the kids saw his face, they realized what they were looking was not in fact a rhino, but a hippo!

Rio, recognizing the kids from his school, immediately dropped his ‘skin’ and made a straight dash to the kids. The four started to run but the angry hippo was much too fast and tackled all four of them to the ground at once. Rio sat on An b and was about to punch him, but the other three friends held his arms back to stop him. Before An b could retaliate, a loud voice erupted from the small hut.

‘Stop right there, brats!’

As soon as heard the voice, Rio shook off the kids holding his arm and ran towards the hut. On the old porch of the hut, a hunched rhino stood on the doorway with his hands behind his back, observing the intruders while Rio rushed over and offered his arm to the rhino. He was completely white from his horn to his feet aside from his eyes, which were pink.  Deep wrinkles were scattered all across his skin.

The rhino then turned to Rio.

‘Why are you always gettin’ into fights, Rio? How many times have I taught you that you got to be nice to your friends?’ 

Rio bit his lips and turned his eyes away from the old rhino. He didn’t have the courage to tell the old rhino that those kids were not his friends.

The elderly rhino then turned to the kids.

‘You all hungry? All we got here are some old chocolates, I’m afraid. Haven’t had time to go shopping.’

By this time, the kids had realized this old hut was Rio’s home. They did not wish to intrude, espiecially when it’s Rio they are dealing with, but they couldn’t help but be curious about the promise of chocolate.  As the old rhino led Rio inside, he waved to the kids to come inside. As they stepped in, they quickly realized just how small the hut was. As soon as they stepped in, they could see two single beds side by side next to a large window just in the furthest corner. Next to it was a door to what seems to be a bathroom, albeit without a bathtub and a tiny shower. The stove, kettle, bowls and plates were all placed on a small dining table; they couldn’t see where the kitchen was. There was no sofas save for a run-down chairs that looked like they were on the verge of breaking. The four could see Rio sitting on one of the chairs, but he had his head turned towards the only window in the room.

The old Rhino then started to talk to Rio.

‘How many times have I told you that you need to stop avoiding others? We might be pretty poor, but that isn’t a reason for you to avoid all the other kids in your class. Are you scared that they’ll see where you live?’

The old Rhino then turned to the kids.

‘Sorry for not introducing myself earlier. I’m Loka, and this kid right here is my son, Rio. Sorry of the place is a bit too small for your group, I’ll try to make some more room.’

The old rhino started to shuffle around some of the things on the floor and arranged the chairs to form a semi-circle. Once he had finished, the old rhino started to search through what appears to be a small cupboard near the dining table. The kids then sat together as they looked at each other with puzzled glances. After an awkward silence, Super N was the first to speak with the old rhino.

‘We’re not the brightest kids in the village, but how can a rhino be the father to a hippo?’

‘Haha, even Rio here could work out why I can’t be his actual father. I actually adopted Rio a long time ago. Here, let me set these chocolates before I tell you how that happened.’

The sweet scent of chocolate mixed with the warm fragrance of tea filled the room as Loka returned from the cupboard. As he sat down next to the four newcomers, his eyes became misty and he began to tell the story of him and Rio. 



Rio in Rhino’s Skin – Part 2

Loka was born in a family that traced its descendants to a line of legendary warriors. His great grandfather, grandfather, and father all served as the Royal Guard to the King. When his father Luka was expecting his birth, he dreamt, with great anticipation, of all the good things that he would give to his son over the course of his life.  He even built a big tree house in the hopes of dedicating it to his son, Loka, who was named after his great grandfather.

Loka’s birth was a massive shock to the family. The baby that had entered the world was completely white from head to toe, with bright pink eyes that shone with a brilliant luminance. Luka could barely comprehend what he was seeing. His wife, Vivienne, did not want to accept the baby, refusing to hold her son nor even bear to look at him. 

Luka was lost and frustrated; soon after, he quickly left the hospital, leaving behind Vivienne and his new born baby. He walked to the stream next to the Palace and sat at the bank: he would not imagine why his son alone was cursed from birth.

In Rhino-land, all rhinos, whether they were male or female, old or young, possessed dark grey skin with hazel brown eyes. Up until their death, their complexion remain the same; the only way to distinguish their age is to observe the wrinkles on their faces. They, as a race, have always been proud of their unified appearances, which has contributed largely to their prosperity as a nation.

Throughout the history of Rhino-land, only one white rhino with pink eyes has ever been born. When the white rhino came into the world almost 500 years ago, every rhino across the nation travelled across vast distances to come and see the phenomenon. Initially, they were completely in awe at the exoticness and beauty of the rhino’s appearance. However, everything quickly turned upside down.

The year of the white rhino’s birth was a tremendous disaster to the whole nation:  tsunami battered the coastline villages, volcanoes long thought to be dormant started erupting and destroying many hillside towns, and earthquakes levelled many large cities strewn across the grassy plains. The most devastating incident that happened in that year was the assassination of King at the capital, which occurred almost monthly soon after. With no one to blame and desperate this end the string of calamities that had ravaged the nation, the king of that time ordered out of fear, that they will kill the white rhino infant in the next year. 


Outside the capital’s main cathedral, there was a sculpture with a large stone plaque that had been built soon after the king’s orders were made.  The art piece that had been commissioned by the royal house was designed by a sculptor from another land. It depicted a baby inside a cradle; a masked executioner held a large sword above the cradle. A mother and father were crying on the side. An ominous command was engraved on the stone plaque: 


The sculpture has long since stood in the capital; practically everyone has forgotten the history of the past and nowadays, the story is treated as nothing more than bed-side story.

From Luka’s memory, he has never cried once in his life. But now, he was in tears like the baby he had just abandoned. How could he kill his one and only son? But he did not know what he could do for his son or what would happen to his dear boy soon.

After staying near the riverbed for what seemed like an eternity, Luka went home with a shattered mind. 

Vivienne was staying at home waiting for her husband. She was also worried for her new born baby. When Luka arrived home, they embraced each other and drowned each other in tears. They desperately wanted to know what they should do, but their thoughts were completely jumbled.  As the two parents lamented, Luka’s father, Louise came in.

Louise was a short and chunky rhino. He smiled all time and looked like the kind of grandpa and that was nice to just about everyone. Despite his gentle demeanor, he was actually the martial arts champion in the country and was the head instructor for close quarters combat in the King’s army.

Louise entered the living room with heavy breath. He had a few pieces of rhino skin wrapped around his arm. He turned to the couple and whispered in a low, affirmative voice:

‘Enough sorrow, my son. The baby is one of us - and we will not let anyone hurt him.’

He then handed out the rhino skin to Luka:

‘Here are the skins of our ancestors which I collected from the family tombs. Use them to sew clothes to cover the boy’s white skin. Give him contact lens to cover his pink eyes.’

Luka could not think of any other solution and thus, complied with Louise without a word.

Since then, Loka had been living under the skins of his ancestors.

When he was a baby, his parents would never bring him out. They told everybody that the baby had died at childbirth. They locked up all the windows in the house and pulled up all the curtains so that nobody could see inside.

To Loka, that house was his entire world. When he was four years of age, instead of putting him in school where his guise might be discovered, his mother had decided to homeschool Loka. Throughout his whole young life, he could only peep from the windows of his bedroom and see the other kids playing in the streets of his neighborhood. He would only go out at night often times once a month with his father, where he would sing his ancestor’s songs with his father under the moonlight.

For the past eighteen years, Loka had lived through his childhood as if he was a ghost. One morning, without saying goodbye to Luka and Vivienne, he packed and left home. In the last moments before leaving the house, he looked to catch a last glimpse of the home where he had spent his entire childhood. He realized his father was standing next to the door of his bedroom. Luka already knew what his son was up to. He knew from the moment of his son’s birth that Loka had no place in Rhino-land and that he would eventually leave his parents behind. Luka did not say anything but forced his eyes to remember the last image of his son. Without a word, Loka bowed to his Dad. When he held up his head, he saw that his fathers’ eyes were filled with tears. Then his father shouted:

‘Go, my son!’

He then walked into his bedroom. That was the last memory that Loka had of his father. 

Loka hid during the day and travelled during night. After three days of wandering, he had finally reached the border of Rhino-land. He took a deep breath and took off his skin for the first time in his life. He had since travelled around the globe and after 30 years, he decided to settle in the Sweet Potatoes World.

Loka looked at the kids again. There was a quiet sadness in his eyes.

’Are you OK, uncle Loka?’ asked An b.

Loka was stunned: he had never been called ‘uncle; in his life. Those words brought him great joy.  He smiled and said to An b:

‘Yes, I am fine. I just cannot believe I have left my family for so long.’

No. 8 asked Loka whether he had seen his parents ever since.

‘No.’ Loka replied. ‘I have sent them letters over the years but with no response. I do not dare to go back to Rhino-land but I do hope that they are fine.’

‘So, you don’t need to wear the skin in here, right? How did you meet Rio in the first place?‘ asked Kara.

‘That’s correct, I only needed to wear the skin when I was in Rhino-land. I first arrived in Piggy Land after I left my home country. I was scared as I did not know how they would react when they saw a white rhino. I hid in the bushes during the morning, hoping that no one would see me. One day, a bunch of kids with their teacher were having a picnic in the forest where I was still sleeping. As soon as I heard their laughs, I sat up straight away and saw them standing in a circle around me. I was panic and screamed. But they were so scared of me that they screamed even louder than me!’

All kids laughed as they thought those kids resembled themselves a little bit.

‘The teacher approached me and said to me,

“Sir, are you feeling well?’ I looked up and saw that a big ox was looking right down at me.’

‘When I saw that ox, I ran away as fast as possible. The Ox chased after me, shouting that I had left my ancestor’s skin behind in the grass!’

‘When I looked down, I realized that I was all white. Never have I felt so vulnerable! But what I feared most was that teacher would report me to the police.’

‘I kept running until I ran head first into a wall. When I got back up, I heard a thunderous sound next to my ears.

“I was calling for you the whole time, couldn’t you hear?’ That was when I realized that the ox was standing in front of me.’

‘I was so scared that I started crying. The big ox started to pat my shoulders.’

“Are you really okay, sir?’ he said in a calm voice; his students all started to hand me chocolate.’

’It was very strange. I had never talked to anyone but my parents, but at that time, I couldn’t help but ask the ox if he thought my appearance was strange. The ox tilted his head and then turned the question back to me:

“I’m not a doctor, but I don’t see anything weird with you.”

“But I’m completely white!’ I shouted as I became increasingly anxious.’  

The ox then patted my shoulders again.

“In my youth, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Rhino-land on one of my travels. I’ve seen the grand palaces and the great monasteries of the capital. But the most surprising thing for me was the statue in the plaza: I thought you myself, ‘this is a little morbid for being in front of a cathedral!’ But when I looked up the history behind its creation, I can understand why it was built and why that message was written. We all want to blame something or someone when things go wrong.’

‘But that’s all in the past. Look at me: my tribe of oxen are all brown in color, but I’m red! What’s the problem? Color is just another aspect of nature created by God and this just makes the world more beautiful.’

Loka was stunned: this was the first time anybody had treated him like any other rhino.

An b and Kara then suddenly interrupted Loka’s story. 

‘Then uncle, when did you meet Rio?’

An b and Kara looked around the house for Rio, who was still sitting beside the window.

‘Well, after I met Mr. Ox, I travelled to various other countries without needing to hide myself. Eventually, I came to the Sweet Potatoe Land at one point. I was tired from all the travelling that I laid down next to a river to take a short rest. As I was sleeping, I felt the oddest sensation on my chest. When I opened my eyes, I realized there was something jumping on my chest! That thing actually turned out to be Rio.’

‘Rio looked at me with a big grin on his face. Then he simply just fell asleep! At that very moment, all of my instincts were telling me that I must protect him at all costs!’

‘I sat up with Rio’s on my arms. I looked around and shouted aloud for his parents; but there was nobody there. Rio suddenly put his hands on my heart and his head on my shoulders. At that moment, I vowed to take him under my care.’

After hearing Loka’s story, Rio sobbed and leaned on his adoptive father. Despite his young age, he had always known that he was an orphan. For all these years, he was glad that Loka did not abandon him. Super N then turned to Rio.

‘My dad is also an orphan but he’s really nice. Why are you so annoying?’

Rio became furious at Super N and tried to punch her. Super N quickly ran behind Uncle Loka and hid with a scared look.

‘Rio, put your fists down!’ Loka shouted. How many times have I told you to control your temper?’

Rio reluctantly put down his hands and gave an apology to Super N. An b then asked why the two were living in such an old shack.

‘I found this hut the same day that I met Rio. In order to take care of the boy, I was only able to work a part time job; at all other times, I had to take care of him since he was just a toddler. To save enough money for food, we hike up to the mountains to pick up fruit for the week. We also try to find some old furniture from the local garbage dump.’

Rio could not hide his shame as Loka said those words. Loka sighed.

‘Rio is always ashamed of our circumstances. That’s why he’s always using my ancestor skin to pretend to be a strong, scary rhino at school. It’s not something I want him to do, but I can’t stop him when I’m at my job.’

Loka sighed again.

Super N then spoke up.

‘Rio, don’t be stupid. You don’t look strong when you’re wearing that thing at school! You just look silly and annoying! Haven’t you realized yet?’

Rio couldn’t bring up any words in protest. Loka then turned to Rio and spoke with a gentle voice.

‘See, I told you. Looking tough doesn’t mean you are actually strong. Being strong means accepting who we are. I know you are too young to understand. But please just trust me and think of me as your guardian. Be yourself and enjoy your childhood. I didn’t have one but I wish that you will have a fulfilling and unforgettable childhood.’ 

‘Yeah, just take that stupid skin off. Oh, sorry Uncle Loka! I didn’t mean to be so mean!’

An b turned to Loka and apologized.

‘It’s fine. There’s no need to apologize for your honesty.’

Kara walked up to Rio. He tried to get his attention but Rio was unresponsive.

’Rio, please take it off. My Dad is also an orphan. You can come to our house and as him how he grew up as an orphan. Would you like to come as well, uncle Loka?’

Both Rio’s and Loka’s eyes brightened up and started to fill with joyful tears. Never in their lives were they ever invited to a stranger’s home. Rio was too shocked to answer, so Loka replied:

‘It will be our pleasure. We look forward to visiting your parents!’

‘Would this Saturday be any good?’

Rio, now armed with courage, quickly said yes.

Thus, a new friendship blossoms between two families.