We met the animals incarcerated in the Rainriver Zoological Gardens, a public animal experience. The zoo is struggling financially to meet the needs and requirements of its inhabitants who in turn struggle with the reality of life in captivity. Here the Sulcata tortoise longs for his missing cage-mate. The hyena pines for her lost cubs, and the macaque monkey struggles with his coffee addiction. Free from the bars which restrict the others, a wicked crow taunts them in their misery. Meanwhile, budget cuts forced the zoo to change all predators to commercial diet in lieu of raw meat.
Desperate to find Miranda, the tortoise, Oliver, escaped his enclosure. His tunnel led him to the elephant, Shanti, who assisted in getting him outside of the fences and into freedom. The escape spawned a flurry of gossip, led by the crow, who used the news to taunt the other animals. More significantly, the zoo-cam video feed caught Oliver and Shanti’s interaction, sparking renewed public interest in the zoo.
The gates are choked with visitors the morning after the video goes viral. Admission sales break the all-time zoo record, and the staff struggles to keep the lines moving. Counting is not standard procedure, as they have never approached maximum capacity before. The recent financial difficulties make it unwise to turn anyone away, however.
Someone calls a manager, who is delighted to pass on the news to the Board. More hours are requested, more staff required, but all decisions will be left to the next meeting. It could easily be a fluke, and the bottom line does not allow for any margin of error.
Shanti counts 300 peanuts, and the day isn’t even half over. She counts them twice, eying the crowd at the rail suspiciously. It is too many. There is no mathematical explanation for a 200 percent increase. More than that, she decides—they are still arriving with their cameras and their bags of nuts.
They cheer and shout to her.
Shanti rearranges the peanuts, sighs, and goes back to lining up straw. She divides yesterday’s nuts by three, multiplies today’s haul, and considers the increase. Something out of the ordinary is happening.
Numbers, she knows, do not lie. They do, sometimes, seem to carry a big stick, a stick that can knock and jab until you are forced to comply with them.
As if her thought summons them, They-who-sweep and They-who-bring-food arrive. Their sticks hang from their waists, and she admits that they are slow to use them. When they do, the prods and thumps are easy enough to bear.
Shanti obeys them without error. She remembers the circus.
Today they keep their sticks dangling. He-who-sweeps carries a broom. She-who-brings-food fills Shanti’s manger with fresh hay. At the railing, the voices lift and turn as one to questions. Someone waves a fluffy, stuffed effigy of a turtle.
Shanti blinks at it. She wonders if they have caught Oliver yet, if her crime has somehow brought the crowd, and if it has, whether or not she will face punishment. Her trunk lowers, swings. She watches the sticks and barely notices when He-who-sweeps erases her calculations with a deft swipe of the broom.
Beside the railing, the crowd surges and shouts. The phony turtle dances. She-who-brings-food seems calm. She leans against the rail, chats with the others.
She will not be punished. She turns back to her peanuts as another shower of shells lands.
There are too many.
Debra finds her murder in the elephant paddock. They have surrounded the huge, gray animal and are swiping peanuts the crowd throws to her.
The elephant uses her trunk to gather as many of the nuts into a pile as possible. She pivots, brushes the ground, and the braver crows duck in and steal from her pile.
Debra isn’t hungry. She has filled up on popcorn and is still feeling dizzy from too much latte. The sport appeals to her, however. She is faster than many of the others. She could slip right past the rubbery trunk.
First, she lands on a rock just inside the paddock rail. There are too many visitors today. The zoo paths are choked with bodies, but the densest mass grows like a tumor around the elephant paddock.
Debra quickly decides the two are somehow related. She knows They-who-keep-prisoners are searching for the tortoise, but if these others are here to assist, they are stupid. The fugitive has long since left this area.
Debra flaps and caws at them. Idiots. There is clearly no sign of the tortoise here. His tunnel emerges in the center of the paddock, and Debra flies to the dry opening to investigate. The hole is empty, as she imagined. A line of scraped tracks leads from the tunnel toward the elephant’s shelter.
Debra follows them, snatching a peanut as she passes the fray and earning a chorus of cheers from her cohort.
The murder shuffles, becomes bolder. They rush the peanuts three at a time, and the elephant lands a blow, swings her trunk, and sends one black body fluttering, stunned and bruised, across the packed ground.
Debra chuckles and struts. She explores the shelter and finds nothing but spent straw. She flies up, landing on the mounted black eye of the camera and presses her head against it. It is shiny and cool, and she pecks twice at the lens before flying off.
The tracks continue to the corner where the escape occurred, just as Debra knew they would. If They-who-keep-prisoners know the elephant helped, perhaps they are watching her, guarding her, until she can be properly punished.
Debra thinks she would like to witness that too. She thinks she should linger here, but she also sees the macaque huddling against his bars. She sees him, and her breath still reeks of coffee, still carries enough of his bean to drive him into a frenzy.
She leaves the paddock behind. They won’t punish the elephant while the crowds are here, and she has an ape to torture.
The wolf pack is led by a pale gray male and his mate. She is black from nose to tail tip, and her two pups look exactly like her. They are ten weeks old today, and neither of them pays any heed to their mother’s rules regarding pigeons.
This morning, three plump, gray birds have entered pack territory. They waddle across the short, border grass while the adult wolves are occupied with the minced meat that has been tossed into the enclosure.
The pups’ bellies are round and full of milk. They wrestle in the grass where the birds can clearly see them, and when the pigeons do not fly away in fear, the game shifts to one of stalking and hunting.
They crouch, tongues lolling freely, and watch the gray heads bob, the fat bodies move, one slow step at a time. They ease closer. Their haunches are tense for springing and chasing. Their hearts beat an excited music in their flattened ears.
“I wouldn’t do that,” the fattest pigeon speaks.
“It’s rude,” another coos. “Not friendly at all.”
The pups sit up. Mother has taught them of rudeness, but they’d never guessed it applied to pigeons.
“We’re hunting you,” the bolder pup announces.
“Rude,” the birds coo all together, suddenly huddled into a much larger mass of feathers. “Roo-oo-ood.”
“If you hunt us,” the fattest once again takes control of the conversation, “then we’ll never tell you about it.”
“About what?” the more curious pup asks while the bold one lifts a rear paw, absently scratching behind one ear.
“About the news, silly,” the pigeon says. “About freedom.”
“What’s freedom?” the curious pup asks.
His sister whispers into his ear, “Mom said pigeons are liars.”
“I think she meant crows.” The pigeon, having heard the insult, puffs up considerably. “Crows lie. Pigeons always tell the truth.”
Neither pup can imagine anyone always telling the truth. They exchange a look that says as much, deciding as one that Mother has been right all along. As usual.
“It’s beside the point,” the bird snaps. “Someone has gotten free, you see.”
“What is free?” the wolf pups sing together.
“Free is when you can go anywhere you like,” the bird explains. “Free is going outside, doing whatever you want.”
“We already have that,” the pups scoff, giggle, and make ready to bound away again.
Pigeons, it turns out, are boring.
“You don’t, you know,” the pigeon says. “Not really.”
“We do whatever we want all day long,” the brave pup cries.
“We go all over,” her brother adds. “I even went to the rock on top of the den once.”
“Liar,” his sister barks. “When?”
“But you can’t go over there.” The pigeon turns, stupidly showing them his back, and faces the high wall, the rock-that-cannot-be-climbed. “Could you go over there if you wanted? Can you leave this cage?”
The wolves, who have been considering pouncing on him, freeze and stare up at the barrier. They have never considered anything else might be out there, and it gives them an uncomfortable fluttering feeling in their full bellies to think on it.
“We could,” the bold pup says. “We just don’t want to.”
“Freedom,” the pigeon coos. “Now you know. Freedom is what’s outside. It’s what you can’t have inside.”
The pups stare at the high wall. The birds, certain their point has been made at last, take to wing, fly up, one after the other, over the top of the wall that is too high to climb.
The curious pup whimpers.
His sister growls softly.
“You know,” she says. “I think Mother was right about pigeons.”
Her brother lies down, rests his head on his paws and watches the wall.
Mother is always right.
Gonzo throws a turd at the crow. He knows better, knows it only debases him, that the crow will laugh harder for it. That it will rile up the other macaques until their flinging becomes a ruckus and the path outside is streaked in feces.
He cannot help himself. The devil-bird reeks of bean. She teases him with her breath, flapping her wings to waft the sweet aroma through the bars.
His turd nearly hits her.
The crow shrieks and launches into the air. Her mockery echoes in her wake, stays with him long after she has moved on to her next victim.
Gonzo’s cagemates scree and fling their turds through the bars. They leap and chatter, taking up the game with zealous ferocity.
Gonzo burns with shame. He slinks to the little square door and hides in the shadow of the rope vines. She-who-sweeps will not appreciate the mess he’s inspired. She may throw stones at them if no one is looking.
They are easy enough to dodge, usually ping off the bars anyway, but her anger makes him feel small and shivery.
It is the crow’s fault, his shame.
It is the bean’s fault.
Gonzo wishes for his home forest. He imagines sneaking from the trees, raiding the plantation for fistfuls of the sweet red coffee cherries. He salivates, grinds his teeth together. The cherries hold the bean, and the bean holds ecstasy.
The others tire of flinging and take to the ropes. Gonzo watches their shadows dance over the cage floor. He imagines his wild troop swinging through the branches. He imagines moist air and an entire jungle full of life, where the song of birds is never silent, and their voices cry of useful things: food, danger, mating.
There were no crows in his jungle. Only here, where madness lives, do the devils fly on jet black wings, their voices tasting of his bean and their words begging for murder.
RAINRIVER ZOOLOGICAL GARDENS
TO All EMPLOYEES
IT HAS COME TO OUR ATTENTION THAT ZOOCAM FOOTAGE HAS BEEN UPLOADED TO A THIRD-PARTY SITE BY ONE OF OUR STAFF MEMBERS WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF MANAGEMENT.
ALL EMPLOYEES ARE REQUIRED TO SIGN A NON-DISCLOSURE OF COMPANY PROPERTY AND POLICIES AGREEMENT UPON HIRING. IF YOU NEED TO RE-READ THIS DOCUMENT, COPIES CAN BE FOUND IN HUMAN RESOURCES.
AS FOR THE PERSON OR PERSONS RESPONSIBLE FOR HACKING THE ZOO WEBSITE AND POSTING THE “BEST OF RAINRIVER” COMPILATION, WE IMPLORE YOU TO COME FORWARD BY CONTACTING DR. WHEELER IN THE ZOO’S PUBLICITY OFFICE.
AT THIS TIME, WE CAN PROMISE NO REPERCUSSION OR RETRIBUTIVE ACTION WILL BE TAKEN.
Charlie paces the long grass beside his trench. Above him, the morsels clog the railings, choking out the sky and jostling for a better view of him.
He has been fed minced meat this morning, and his instincts shy away from the unnatural, pre-chopped meal. His belly is full, but he is restless, unhappy.
At the rail, they wave and flash. There are too many up there, and the cameras fire non-stop. Their arms juggle snacks, purses, latte cups, and the always-aromatic hot dogs sleeping in their paper boats.
The burr of electronic shutters clicking becomes a swarm of insects. The urgency of the crowd swells as their cameras compete for the lion’s attention. Someone bumps hard against the railing, pushed from behind and nearly toppling forward into a fateful plunge.
Their paper boat capsizes, and Charlie watches, suddenly still, suddenly the perfect subject, as a fat, fleshy hot dog somersaults into the trench.
He hears it land, hears the wet impact and opens his mouth, huffing in the meat scent that has infringed upon his territory but lies now just beyond the wire-that-bites.
It will drive him mad, that smell. It will linger in his memory for days while he digests the mince. While he rolls in the dung of distant zebras. Charlie eyes the wire, considers.
A small black body rockets into the trench. More follow, feathered bullets aimed directly at his sanity.
The crows scrap over the fallen meat. They caw and flutter. They tear the hot dog into bits, and Charlie hears it squeak, hears the flesh give to their claws and beaks.
He dares a step toward the wire, but the birds are off already. One by one, they vacate the trench, taking his instincts in their bony claws, and carrying them away.
Alice’s cage is three paces by four. She can leap to the second highest step on her rock in a single bound. On a slow day, the faces at her bars make her cringe and pant.
Today, the crowd blots out the bushes. She cannot see across the narrow paths, cannot see anything aside from the rows of shiny eyes and bared teeth.
When she carried her pups, They-who-sweep-her-shit hung dark cloth around the bars of her enclosure. They posted signs requesting quiet that were only ignored by the least sensitive of zoo patrons.
She wishes for those curtains today, closes her eyes and pants from the top of her rock. She wishes it were twice as high, wishes she could run for more than three by four paces.
Her sides heave. She ignores the massive knuckle bone she’s been working at throughout the night. She is crowded. Anxious.
She thinks of the strange rock and his quest for the aviary. It is the second path, isn’t it? She can’t remember where that knowledge came from now, if it is something she overheard or only something imagined. Couldn’t it just as easily be the first path… or the last?
Alice shivers and turns her body slowly so that she faces the wall. She tucks her tail against her legs, curls and hides her spotted head beneath her paws.
She is still. She is silent. She imagines she is an ordinary stone, holding her breath for longer and longer periods.
She has lived in the zoo her entire life, and she knows more than one trick. They-who-watch are easily bored. They do not linger over nothing. They do not come to the zoo to stare at stones.
Hector’s artist has taken her book and gone. His railing is a solid wall of expectant faces, and he considers lumbering to the square door and hiding in his den, but They-who-bring-food have hidden chunks of frozen fruit inside his stump, and the sweet smell calls to him.
His nose turns toward the odor, wandering as if it seeks to leave his muzzle behind. He sits, reaches with both front paws, and sinks his sickle claws into the soft wood.
Already, it bears the hieroglyphics of his attention. His marks cross and re-cross up and down the short tower.
The food waits in a hollow at the top of the stump, but the game must be played first. If only for appearances.
Hector claws and tears, lips rippling, and he imagines that someone, somewhere claps and cheers. Once he’s made a show of searching, he roots into the hidden space, uses his tongue to remove a cold, hard strawberry, and sucks on it.
At the railing, a dozen shutters click. They aim their phones and their cameras in his direction and try to capture his likeness.
Hector offers them his rump, continues to eat the fruit secretively, covetously. He snorts and rumbles, licks his black lips.
He has only one artist, and she would never stoop to photography.
Oliver waits until the pathways are vacant. He hides between a trio of garbage cans and an overgrown rhododendron. He has eaten grass all day, quietly munching in a narrow circle while They-who-come-to-stare enjoy the zoo.
He thinks it must be a special holiday, for the crowd is thick, and the noise of their steps and voices deafening. After the gates close, it takes twice as long to clean the zoo, and some of the trash is simply left to skitter down the lanes and into the bushes.
At dusk, They-who-sweep-and-bring-food-and-clean-poop rush up and down the paths. They shine hand-held lights into corners and crevices. Oliver knows they are looking for him, but this is not his first zoo, nor is it his first escape.
He waits until the walks have been silent for a long time before creeping out into the open.
“There you are,” a stupid pigeon nearly stops his heart.
Oliver ignores the bird and eases back to the nearby path, the second path, the one that will lead him to Miranda.
At least it’s not a crow.
“Everyone is looking for you,” the pigeon says. It has hopped down from one of the trash cans and now it bounces along at his side. “The zoo’s gone mad with it.”
“Let it,” Oliver says, heaving his great shell forward, “go mad.”
“Everyone’s talking about you.”
Oliver reaches the edge where the grass meets asphalt. He will make less obvious tracks on the latter but will also be more exposed following it.
“Are they still looking?” He knows better than to engage with gossips, but the rotten pigeons always seem to have a broader view of the world.
“No.” Taking his questions as friendship, the pigeon flaps its wings, hops up, and settles itself on top of Oliver’s shell. “Everyone gave up hours ago.”
Oliver thinks it hasn’t been that long. He believes, had he been a fiercer creature, that the pigeon would be dead.
Its claws tickle his dome, but he is not flexible, not fast enough to dislodge it.
“Where are we going?” it asks.
“Aviary,” Oliver huffs and steps out onto the asphalt. “This way.”
“The aviary isn’t this way,” the pigeon says. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
Oliver pauses. He stares down the path and thinks of Miranda, of the hyena who had surely never left her cage. Whose mind has been twisted by her life in a box.
“Where?” he asks.
“I can show you,” the pigeon says. “They’ll never believe it, never live it down, if I do it.”
“Where?” Oliver repeats. His limbs are cold already, and the night caresses his shell with fingers of ice. Only the spot where the bird rests is warm, and he chooses to take that as a sign. “Guide me.”
“You bet I will,” the pigeon says. “The crows will never live it down.”
Oliver sighs. He wonders if the hyena wasn’t right. But when the pigeon flaps and shifts against his shell, when it coos, “This way,” Oliver sets off, obediently, in a whole new direction.
Debra circles the park above the high fences and the short trees. She watches the search eagerly, her excitement lessened only slightly by the fact that They-who-search do not carry weapons.
There is too much chaos to be disappointed, too much action in a world that lives by routine, by feeding schedules, business hours, and state-mandated rules and regulations. There is trash lingering in the walks. There is a broken fence in the petting zoo where the weight of the crowd proved too much for the poorly maintained wood.
Debra watches until the search ends, then she circles on her own. Her murder has settled for the night, tucked into the branches of the tallest tree near the elephant paddock.
There is no point in lingering there. The tortoise has roamed far during the previous night. Debra has seen traces of him, followed bits and scraps of tracks from the African Savannah halfway across the zoo.
She flies over the cat house now, and she knows he will move again soon. He is clever, almost crow clever, and he’s been waiting somewhere for the paths to clear. She lands atop the cat house roof, hops down its length, and gazes out to where the deep pit trenches of the bear enclosures wait.
The zoo falls quiet. Everything sleeps, still as usual, ordinary as any other night. Except for the hyena. Debra thinks the hyena should be crying, curled up on her rock and whimpering to herself in her grating, feather-lifting voice.
And she is not.
Tonight, the free-standing block that houses the weird beast, that sandwiches her forever between the bears and the house of true cats, is silent. It is a very loud sound, that quiet. A heavy absence.
Debra dives from the roof, sweeps over grass and paths alike, and lands in a bush in front of the grieving hyena’s home. She expects to find the animal asleep, her sobbing spent at last. Instead, she sees the spotted body pacing near the front bars. Too quiet. Too quick. First one way and then the other.
“Hello,” Debra calls.
Interesting. Debra considers before answering, finds words that are open and as slippery as a wet vine.
“Perhaps.” She hunkers deeper into the foliage, hides her body, and softens her voice. “Perhaps not.”
“It’s not the second path,” the hyena blurts. “I told him it was, but now I’m not certain.”
“You told him?” Debra’s plumage prickles. “Did you?”
“I told him.” The hyena turns, trots to the far corner then pivots and skims right back. “He’s looking in the wrong place. I just know it.”
“Looking for…” Debra lets the word stretch into a compulsion.
“The aviary,” the hyena replies. “Looking for a bird, and all birds are in the aviary.”
This is not, in fact, true, but what would a hyena know of it?
“I see.” Debra shifts her feet and the branches crackle.
They hyena freezes, head up, ears swiveling. “Who are you?”
Debra tries to think of a slippery answer, but she has spotted the Sulcata’s tracks in the grass below and the excitement of this evidence dulls her tongue.
“Are you the stone’s mother?” Something in the tone of that provides the right answer.
“Yes,” Debra lies, sure now that she knows what ‘stone’ they speak of.
“He took the second path,” they hyena repeats. “But I’m not sure it’s right. I’m not sure he’ll find her there.”
“Find who?” Debra risks a direct question.
“The bird who used to live with him,” the hyena offers freely.
It is too delightful, too awful to bear in silence and Debra cackles.
The hyena growls, lowers and bristles all down her back. “Who are you?” she demands, suspicions lacing through her words. It is too much. Too perfect.
It is bound to end in disaster.
And Debra has already flown away.
There are even more visitors than yesterday, an impossible number of faces packed into a living wall around Shanti’s pen.
The peanuts are beginning to irritate her.
She steps through a sea of shells, crunching, swinging her trunk through the piles while another shower makes it all impossible to count.
Around Oliver’s tunnel, the demon birds have gathered. Shanti tries ignoring the crowd, tries counting the birds instead. One rotten crow. Two awful, obnoxious crows. Three…
“It’s all because of you,” one of the murder caws.
“You let him out,” another shouts.
“You’ll be punished.”
“They’re all here to watch.”
“Punishment.” They take that up like a chant. “Punish, punish, punishment.”
Shanti thinks they’re liars. It’s been three days, three long nights since the tortoise erupted inside her paddock. Three since she lifted the fence, and the sticks have not struck. She is not punished, and she thinks she will not be.
Four lying devil crows. Five…
She did help Oliver escape, and she does wonder where he’s gone with his domed shell and its thirteen perfect hexagonal tiles with twenty-four partials around the edges. Shanti enjoyed counting him. She hopes he has found his bird, but she wonders if he might wander back in this direction afterwards.
If he does, she will lift the fence for him. She will guard his tunnel for his return, and maybe he will let her count him all over again.
“Punishment.” The crows screech.
Shanti swings her trunk and charges them.
They scatter, cursing her, singing epithets.
Shanti counts their shadows as they fly. Six fat, furious silhouettes. Six sides to each hexagon.
She stands over an empty tunnel and waits for the tortoise to return.
ANNOUNCING THE FIRST EVER
RAINRIVER ZOOLOGICAL GARDEN
“COME TO THE ZOO AND CAPTURE THE MAGIC”
$3,000 IN CASH PRIZES*
1ST PLACE: $1500
RUNNER-UP VIDEO: $1000
BEST STILL PHOTOGRAPH: $500
SEE YOU AT THE ZOO!
*PRIZE MAY BE PAID IN ZOO BUCKS AT WINNER’S DISCRETION
The Board declares the viral video to be an unprecedented opportunity. The chaos at the gates seems quite sufferable once the daily admissions are tallied and profits totaled. Another lane is added, another booth opened, and talk shifts to the idea of promoting the contest.
Someone suggests contacting the local radio station.
Maintenance complains about the additional work, and one of the zoo veterinarians brings up stress and animal welfare. Both topics are tabled until the next meeting.
The contest goes forward as planned.
Gonzo sits in shadow while his troop dances for the crowd. His headache is not lessened by the steady clicking of camera shutters. Nor is it any better for the constant screeching and hooting of the other macaques.
They swing from one rope to the next. They race up, around, and over, tumbling and wrestling while the cameras fight over the best angle.
Gonzo has tried to go back inside, but the little square door is blocked. He is shut out. He is on display. It is his own fault.
Earlier, They-who-bring-food left one of their paper vessels too close to the cage bars. There had been three of them that morning, two carrying tubs of sliced fruit and chopped vegetables, and a third bringing them each a vessel of the hot, steaming, bean juice favored by They-who-sweep-and-bring-food-and-clean-feces.
The tubs were set in the center aisle, between the rows of ape house cages, and the drinks evenly distributed.
Gonzo watched the dance of vessels. He pressed his nose against cool bars and let his gaze drift from one end of the aisle to the next, following the bean.
The tubs were hauled to each cage door. The food was distributed, and every free, hairless paw waved a vessel, wafting steam and aroma from cage to cage. When the tub reached the macaque enclosure, it was heaved up onto the cage floor. The-one-who-manned-the-door passed their vessel to The-one-who-watched-for-escape, whose paw already lifted their own drink to pink lips. With a shrug, they took the second and set it down beside Gonzo’s cage.
And he was on it.
Gonzo leapt sideways along the bars, stuffing both arms through to his armpits. His fingers scrambled for the vessel, met with smooth hot paper, snatched, and lifted.
They-who-bring-food made a noise of challenge, a barking, choking sound that brought Gonzo’s teeth out, that peeled back his lips in defiance.
The vessel was batted out of his grip. Suddenly, it was tumbling, spraying hot liquid in a wasted swath across the aisle. The vessel hit the concrete with a hollow thunk. Gonzo shrieked and stretched for it, catching a single drop of spray in his paws. He drew his fingers in, stuffed them into his mouth, and sucked.
The taste was so brief, so muted that he might have imagined it. His fingers were burned.
They-who-bring-food shouted at one another, waving their arms at the aisle, the cage, at Gonzo.
He screeched and lunged at the bars, pressing the keepers two steps further into the aisle. He showed his fangs, howled, and slammed his fists against the cage floor. His troop fell upon the food, but Gonzo ignored them, continued to rail.
When the others finished, wandering out into the sunshine, he sulked, hunkered inside until a long broom pushed through the bars, pushed, and harried him until he followed the troop.
Then the door was blocked. The flat, unbreakable panel slid into place, and Gonzo was left to face the outside world, the constant flutter of the cameras, the troops frenzy.
He sits, in the rope shadows, and he stuffs his sore fingers into his mouth, sucks at them as if he can taste anything at all.
Charlie tries to ignore the morsels, but they are pounding on the clear, den wall. He lies against the barrier, back to the crowd and mouth hanging open, drinking in the scents that reach him only faintly.
From the railing, the meaty, tangy snack odors call like half-forgotten dreams, just out of reach.
Charlie’s belly is full of the tasteless minced meat. His ears twitch in time to the morsels’ pounding. Each impact of a tiny fist a hard finger against his spine. He narrows his gaze, blinks at the sunlight outside the den, where the lionesses lounge for the crowd at the railings.
They are basking in the attention, in the eyes of a crowd unlike any Charlie can remember in his life at the zoo.
A tap-tapping at the glass drags his head around. It is sharper, more insistent than the idle thumps, and when he looks, a round face has pressed into a pancake grimace right beside his own.
Charlie yawns, stretching his jaws wide enough to swallow the morsel’s whole head.
“I see you, morsel,” that yawn says. “I taste you there.”
The morsel squeals. It is a muffled sound, filtered through the barrier, but Charlie loves it. He curls his tongue and heaves to all fours, facing the tiny morsel and huffing a warning.
Both of the small one’s fists press in beside his face, smoosh against the barrier and pale, flatten.
Charlie bats one paw out, pats at the smooth surface until the morsel shrieks and moves. It doesn’t run. Instead, it dances up and down, batting its own paws together before pressing up against the clear wall again.
Charlie imagines it tastes like the squeaky meat sticks. He lets his tongue reach out and licks the barrier, runs his mouth over and over the morsel while, behind it, the tall ones clap and wave.
Alice wakes in unfamiliar surroundings. Three of the walls are solid, and through the short stretch of bars she can see a narrow aisle and another cage across from hers.
The stair-step rock is missing. There is a thin shelf along one wall, but it is too narrow, too insubstantial for lounging. She ponders it and remembers vaguely that she knows this from experience.
Alice sniffs, wrinkling her muzzle. Her head is fuzzy inside as well as out. She remembers eating in the evening, an entire bowl of meaty, strange-smelling mince. She remembers struggling to climb the stair-step rock and slipping, falling asleep instead in the straw at its base.
Now she is inside. There is no chattering crowd, but there is also no sun, no sky at all to tell her if it’s day or night.
There are lights, but they are weirdly too dim and too bright simultaneously. Impossible to look at. Pale enough to only illuminate half the cage. Across the aisle, a sleek shape moves in its own enclosure. It is low and lanky, some sort of spotted feline. Alice remembers she’s seen it before.
She has been here before.
Alice pants. She flicks her tail and rises, shakily, on her four paws. She begins to inspect the cage. Her nose presses into each corner, every crevice. It finds no hint of her own scent, but she is certain, by the time she finishes, that she has spent time here before.
Her paws remember how many paces fit along each wall. They track a familiar path around the space, easily, automatically.
Alice sits, stares at the shadow cat, and tries to think. It was before her pups but not long before.
That time, she tried the ledge and fell. That time she burned with her estrus, paced and paced until they finally released her back into her cage to find…
Alice relaxes. She believes this is temporary. She remembers, and as if on command, her body slumps. Her paws stretch, forward and back, and she rolls onto her side. Tired. Calm.
She closes her eyes and waits.