At the Rainriver Zoological Gardens, one escape became the catalyst for a series of unfortunate incidents. The tortoise, Oliver, roamed the zoo as a fugitive, searching for his missing cage mate. When the Zoo-cam caught him interacting with the elephant, Shanti, zoo attendance spiked, putting more pressure on the animals inside and increasing crowd-related stress. The lion, Charlie, got his first whiff of hotdog when the bustling crowd began dropping things into his enclosure. The macaque, Gonzo, assuaged his caffeine addiction with a stolen latte, and Oliver, intent on continuing his search, enlisted the dubious aid of one of the zoo’s resident pigeons. Together, they searched for the aviary, to find the missing crane, Miranda. Pleased with the increased revenue, the zoo announced the first ever photo and video contest.
Oliver will spend the day in a playground. The pigeon leads him there, shows him a concrete tunnel made to resemble a prairie dog colony. She talks non-stop, but Oliver has grown accustomed to her prattle, grateful for the bird’s guidance.
Her voice is nothing like Miranda’s, but it is a bird voice. It soothes him. He remembers long days conversing with his love while she stalked through the reeds or fished for the dead minnows sprinkled across the shallow pond.
Oliver ducked into the pseudo-burrow at dawn, and he spends the day missing Miranda, remembering her high voice, and wondering if the pigeon will return when night falls again.
She has fluttered off in pursuit of crumbs, which she insists are more plentiful around the playground where he’s hidden.
During the day, children swarm the equipment. Many find Oliver, snug in the depths of their territory. He endures their rattling pats, and when he tires and tucks his head inside his shell, the pounding of small fists against his carapace.
They squeal and giggle, but he is unharmed, armored against their attention.
For a while he fears they will reveal him to They-who-keep-the-fences-barred, but their pronouncements that, “a turtle is in there,” are inevitably met with disdain.
“That’s nice, dear.” Or “Whatever you say, honey.”
Oliver waits, patient as the concrete around him. When the burrow mouths grow dark, he creeps to one end and finds the pigeon waiting.
“You’re back,” he says.
“The aviary is just across the way.” She hops in place, flaps as if contemplating alighting on his shell again.
“Show me.” Oliver heaves himself into the open.
“It’s that building right over there.” The pigeon bounces into the air, flies less than three strides before landing again. “Come on.”
Oliver hurries his feet. He’s been close, right across from the aviary all day long. Miranda waits for him, and he churns his stump legs and follows the pigeon with all his fervor renewed.
The warm nap in a concrete tube may have helped.
Oliver feels his goal now, just past the edge of his plastron. He runs for it, in as much as a tortoise can run, and only when he stands in its shadow does his next problem become apparent.
“How do I get inside?” he asks.
“Through the double doors,” the pigeon coos. “You’ll have to wait for someone to open them.”
“If they see me,” Oliver moans, “they’ll catch me, put me back where I started.”
“It’s the only way in,” the bird insists. But she follows Oliver, just the same, when he makes a ponderous circuit around the building, a fortress, it turns out, accessible only through that trap of twin doorways.
To her credit, she does not rub it in when he resigns himself.
“It’s the only way in,” he says.
The pigeon only puffs slightly and bobs agreement.
Peg convinces the tortoise to risk everything. He is desperate and carries opportunity in his massive domed shell.
They wait together through the long night. At times, he dozes. At times, he paces the aviary perimeter. Peg naps atop his shell. She dreams of a jungle where there is no battle with crows. No struggling over cast-off scraps.
When the first sunlight makes their position too conspicuous, she drives her partner to a nearby bush to hide while They-who-cage-animals go about their morning duties.
Oliver is restless, anxious. He shifts but doesn’t bolt. Not even when two of the staff briefly open the double doors.
“Wait,” Peg coos. “It has to be the guests.”
They-who-cage-animals are far too cautious. They never open both sets of doors at once.
Oliver stirs but does not step. He breathes loud enough to reach her but does not speak. The time comes when They-who-cage-animals move on, and the great gates are opened at last.
Peg shifts her weight from one clawed foot to the other. She watches the tide of visitors wash down the paths, and she whispers to Oliver, “Wait. Wait.”
The visitors lap up against the aviary entrance. They abandon their strollers, lift squirming children into their arms and begin the jostling dance that will lead them, a few at a time, through the double set of doors.
“Now,” Peg hops, forgets her perch is mobile, and nearly topples to the path when Oliver lurches forward.
He is too massive. Peg realizes this as they rock and stumble toward a moving wall of legs, a multi-hued barrier of trousers, sandals, skirts, and sneakers. The crowd is thicker than she expects.
But Oliver is determined. He is more agile than Peg believes, and the crowd is far less observant than she fears. It is going to work.
The tortoise ducks into the press, and the legs adjust, work their way to either side like a stream parting for a rock in its middle.
They are slow, but they are moving. Peg has to hunker, to cling and lower for fear of being knocked aside. The doors open, close, open. Each time too brief, too short to risk invasion.
Until Oliver wedges himself into the gap.
Someone presses the glass against his side, squeezes, and when he doesn’t give, bangs the panel hard against his shell before noticing why it will not close. Voices brattle nonsense above, loud, barking sounds that do not move the obstacle.
The door is ajar. Oliver heaves his body into the space between the outer and inner portals.
Peg flaps, makes ready.
The crowd is wary today. They read the signs. The outer portal closes, shuts in a tortoise and a bird, trapping them. Peg tenses, steadies.
Someone inside the aviary wants to leave. They do not look first, do not care about signs. The inner door opens and Peg launches. She flutters inside, flapping her wings as whoever opened the door ducks and squeals. Peg flies over their head, flies into warm, wet air and the constant singing of other birds.
She has made it. She is in.
She flaps to a high window, perches in a slash of light above the fronds, and surveys paradise.
Far below, the struggle to dislodge a tortoise from the space between doors continues. The crowd is divided, in or out, and Peg does not see what decision is made. She does not care.
She has attained her goal, and pigeons are only concerned with their own happiness.
Debra watches as the tortoise is recaptured. She has come to the aviary in search of gossip, but she finds her murder hovering at the roof’s edge. When she shoves her way into the line of crows, there is a ripple effect. The line bounces and grumbles, but all eyes remain down, fixed on the doors below.
There, a huddle of keepers has formed. They have cleared the area of guests and strollers, and a few break from the herd, stand back, and keep the crowd on the paths moving along to other exhibits.
The outer doors are propped open, held wide by a garbage bin and a wedged stone. Several keepers bend over, half in and half out of the space. They work at something, raise and shift and bend their knees under the weight of their cargo.
Debra hops and opens her beak but does not caw. The moment is too heavy, too perfectly dire to break the silence.
She sees them drag the tortoise from the vestibule. She sees his feet thrashing at empty air as the keepers manage to get him off the ground.
They set him down outside and, carelessly, release their grip on his shell. Immediately, he charges the doors again. They dive, struggle to drag him back while one of the open-sided zoo vehicles beeps its way through the crowd in the aviary’s direction.
Debra sees them load Oliver into its short bed. They climb in beside him while the crowd cheers. The clapping thunders, not nearly as satisfying as the report of a rifle. Still, the wanderer is caught fast. He has failed, and the crows celebrate by joining their voices to the cacophony.
Debra caws with them, cries until she is hoarse. But there is something wrong, too. Something she can’t quite name. Something that feels like a shadow draped over them all.
In the truck, the tortoise struggles, spins and lifts and nearly topples himself. He has tasted freedom, perhaps. He has found something that teaches him how to fight.
She knows he will be jailed again. He will not be shot, perhaps, but his freedom was always a ruse. Still, as the vehicle pulls away, she does not follow. Something is wrong.
In her dark belly, a new thing is born. It twists, and nibbles, and feels far too much like envy to be taken seriously.
Gonzo is outside when they return with Oliver. His troop has gathered near the bars, where the crowd sneaks them peanuts purchased from the elephant station. There are signs that forbid this, but the tide of visitors is too plentiful, out of hand, and obsessed with capturing their contest videos.
In order to watch the tortoise enclosure, Gonzo has to climb the ropes. He swings up, onto a high ‘vine’ in order to see over the many heads, the faces that always, inevitably, show too much tooth.
It irritates him to look at them, like a biting insect caught beneath his pelt. High in the ropes, however, he can breathe again, unclench his paws.
The tortoise is unloaded from the rear of a zoo vehicle. He is placed on a tarp that has been spread across the pathway, and They-who-keep-fences-barred lift the fabric on all sides. They raise the stout animal and carry him to his concrete wall, resting him on its top for a breath. Oliver teeters, swings his legs ineffectively. Then, with a final, coordinated, effort, he is wrangled inside again.
They settle him against his grassland, unwrap and free him with a great round of self-congratulation and cheering.
Gonzo presses his face into the bars. He clutches them at either side of his head. He watches, as Oliver drives a steady, straight path toward his open burrow. He means to leave again. Gonzo knows this in his gut, a warm certainty. The tortoise is not deterred by the futility of his effort.
Something has changed. It feels like more has gone wrong than just one tortoise outside his enclosure. An expectation hangs over the zoo now. A certainty that something else is about to happen.
And even though Gonzo is sure They-who-keep have filled in the long avenue of escape, he believes the tortoise will dig again. He will never stop digging.
Gonzo screeches encouragement. He bares his teeth and bounces on the rope. Dig! His heart chants it. Dig, friend. Dig for us all.
Gonzo sags against the bars. He screeches silently, a defiant stretching of lips. His nostrils widen, and he catches his bean again. It is everywhere in the crowd, as prevalent as the clicking cameras.
Today, Gonzo sees a paper vessel in each free, hairless paw. He sees them dancing just beyond the bars. It is forbidden to reach through. There are fences to keep the visitors back, stones and hoses to punish a monkey’s bravery. But today, the crowd ignores the signs. Today, the eager videographers lean close, shove, and shuffle, and even step briefly over the fence.
Gonzo leaps to the next vine. He hoots and swings, showboating for the crowd as he never does. He becomes a trooping monkey, a clown.
The cameras surge forward. They click like a hissing storm, but they bring the vessels with them. Gonzo watches. He is fast. He is cunning. When his paw strikes out, it is true. It is sure as the stones that will be thrown at him.
He snatches the vessel and snaps back, nearly losing it at the bars. His paws cradle, steady. He backs away with the treasure and is already bringing it to his lips. He drinks, and his body shudders, releases an orgasmic tension. It is worth the stones. It is worth everything.
Dig, my friend.
He guzzles the bean, shaking, trembling with relief and fear at his own brazen actions.
Then, inexplicably, the crowd begins to cheer. The teeth gleam around him, but no stones assault his hide.
They-who-gape clap, cheering for the macaque with his stolen latte. They sing to him, taking their pictures while Gonzo drinks.
The contest website fills with videos. Someone’s nephew, now promoted to webmaster, works full-time to keep the servers from crashing. There are 28 pages in the still photo gallery, and since he has allowed direct uploading, he is kept busy weeding out the irrelevant and the intentionally inappropriate.
When Gonzo’s latte video hits the stream, it leaps to the top of the lists. The hearts fly as viewers show their appreciation for ‘a good cup of jo’.
Commenters commiserate. Self-appointed internet police warn of the dangers of caffeine. One plucky student posts a history of macaques and coffee plantations.
For a total of ninety minutes, Gonzo’s latte escapade is the center of the zoo world’s discourse. When someone posts, ‘lion kisses little boy’, however, the hearts move along. The list shuffles. An addicted macaque pales beside the unfettered adorableness of Charlie attempting to eat his tiniest visitor.
The world watches, swooning as the boy squeals in delight, as the lion’s mouth stretches, and the enormous pink tongue washes a pane of clear, unbreakable glass.
Zoo attendance skyrockets.
The visitors become unruly, and the Board is forced to hire security.
Shanti plants herself over Oliver’s tunnel. Her four, tree-trunk legs cage in the irregularity in her paddock’s terrain.
She stands guard, and she counts the zebras as they circle. They trot in a frantic huddle around their perimeter while They-who-keep-fences backfill Oliver’s other hole. The equines are more flighty than usual, driven to constant panic by the growing crowds.
Shanti has dragged some hay out of her shelter. She tosses it over her broad back, a sign of her own nervousness. There are six digging. Three shovels and twelve boots that stamp down what the shovels throw into the opening.
She imagines Oliver will dig again. Though she spent little time with him, her impression has quickly cemented. He is stalwart, determined. Shanti wants him to win.
If she hides this exit, perhaps he will not have to dig so far. Perhaps, she will ensure that his flat face emerges in the right place. In the place where she can count him again.
They-who-fill-holes throw their dirt, stomp their boots into the earth. Shanti thinks they are not smarter than her tortoise. She thinks they will lose, and she stands guard over her secret, a massive gray sentinel waiting for the next escape.
Eventually, Alice speaks to the cat. She resists the urge until the boredom becomes unbearable, but this is not really as long as she’d intended. Creeping close to the front bars, she presses her nose into the aisle and whimpers.
“Your noise is irritating,” the cat says. “Your face is unpleasant.”
“Is not,” Alice whines. “It is my face.”
She remembers that the cat has told her this before, that she does not care for him, that he is mean and that he likes to lounge on his own shelf in silence.
But she is also lonely. She is afraid of this new-old cage.
“My cubs are missing,” she says. “And you are an unpleasant cat.”
“Sold.” The cat pads to his cage front and gazes out at her.
Perhaps he is bored and hunting for sport. Perhaps, he is simply a foul-spirited animal. Alice believes she is an easy target either way. She is lost, and the cat has all the power.
“When cubs are big enough.” He purrs and rubs against the bars. “They are sold to other zoos.”
“Why?” Alice sits, panting, flicking her ears as if to dodge the cat’s words. The horrifying concept. She is, despite her ignorance of the fact, a family sort of animal, and this idea of selling cubs disturbs her.
“Why not?” the cat tosses back. “My cage is too small to share. My belly is too hungry. If my get scatters to the corners of the world, it is only fitting. It is only the way of things.”
“For cats, maybe,” Alice says. “Cats have cold hearts.”
She snaps her heavy jaws, snaps at the cat and the idea of her cubs, lost, sent to other zoos with no matriarch to learn from. Alice remembers that she does not like cats. That this one, in particular, is vile.
“Sultan,” she snarls. “Your name is Sultan.”
“What of it?” He shrugs with his whole body. “What of cubs and hearts? There is no room in your cage for others, beast. There is no room in any of our cages. Why should we pine for what we cannot keep?”
Alice gives him her teeth. She would teach him a lesson if there were no bars. She would show him how unpleasant she can be. But there are bars. There is an aisle and a narrow ledge and three dark walls with no view.
Alice groans and shakes herself. She rises, pads to the rear of the cage where she can face a corner and pretend there is no Sultan.
This is not her cage. This is not her life.
She has no choice but to wait until it is over.
Charlie dreams of the veldt. His legs twitch against the straw in his den. His whiskers tighten, pulling his face into a grimace. He dreams while the sky is dark, and the zoo is quiet.
The veldt smells of meat. Dry winds wash the scent over the long grasses. They carry the heat and the aroma to a stand of anorexic trees where the lions wait, lounging in the shade.
Charlie has never seen a veldt, but this dream comes from a place of memory and instinct, a generational place that is absolutely certain of the grass and the trees. He knows as well that the biting insects are legitimate. Their little stings make his hide shiver, and their noise is a rushing buzz in his velvet ears.
The scent, too, feels authentic, though he is troubled by the detail of it. Something about the aroma feels out of place, artificial. His brain has substituted the squeaky meat, superimposing the experience of a waking zoo on the sleeping lion.
Charlie opens his jaws and huffs. His tail lashes against dust and smashed down grass.
In the distance, an animal screams. Charlie’s belly rumbles. The lions around him are unfamiliar, unfocused shadows beneath the trees. The dream blurs them, but out across the grass, Charlie’s vision crystallizes. He sees as clearly as if he were mere inches from the far-off scene.
A struggling beast thrashes on one side. Its hooves paw in the air as death spasms through its tawny body. Charlie is far away, but the dream shows him the gleaming of each hoof, the splatter of blood across a heaving flank, and the patterned swirl of individual hairs.
He salivates. He huffs and lets his sides heave with it. Beside their prey, two lionesses move, pale death in paler grass.
Their jaws clamp around the beast’s throat. They lift the front of it, drag it toward the pride beneath the trees.
Charlie’s belly growls again. Drool pools at the corners of his muzzle. He watches them come, carrying the limp gazelle one step at a time. He watches, and just when they drop the carcass on the ground before him, he wakes up.
Hector’s hip pinches when he tries to sit. He wakes late, and when his paws push against the den flooring, little pains dance through his wrists and neck.
He thinks he is an old bear.
He thinks it has been many years since he was fed from a bottle by Those-who-give-care.
He will miss the artist at this rate.
Wincing, showing his enormous teeth to the bare den walls, he forces his heavy, complaining body to rise. His ears lie flat against his skull. His black lips ripple, but he rubs his paws over his face and works out the little agonies with a slow undulation of his spine.
Some days are worse than others, but Hector remembers a time when he awoke with no pain, no stiffness in his bones at all.
The square door to his den has already been opened. The light sliding in through that gap is too bright. He has lingered over his dreams, played with his brother again, and the morning has run on without him.
Hector thinks of the artist and shoves himself to all fours. He limps only a few steps before the needle pains dim. By the time he trundles through the doorway, he feels like himself again. He is bear, king of his domain.
Warm sunlight against his fur erases the last of his stiffness. He lumbers, his body rolling with each step.
Beside his stump, there is a pile of chopped fruit, a few heads of wilted cabbage, and a miraculous sliver of honeycomb. Hector’s mouth waters, but he looks to the railing first. He gazes up, beyond the trench, to the place where the artist stands.
She has waited. Her paws wave to him.
Hector adjusts his gait, smooths his steps, and walks with dignity to the offering of sweet food. Only when he tries to sit again does the sharp pain return. His hip twinges, and instead of the graceful pose he intended, he flops into a half-lounge on one side.
Hector pretends it was intentional. He yawns to show how little he cares and reaches with one paw for the waxy honeycomb. His arm seizes. Hector roars against a shooting pain, lets the sound out before he can catch it. He falls to his side, curls around his shoulder and roars again. All thought of his dignity fades in the black wave that is his bones complaining.
Dimly, he hears the voices above, the crowd at the railing calling to one another. He thinks of the artist only for a single, dark breath, but he is too weak to focus. Too busy trying to find a position that does not hurt him.
He lies still, breathes for ages, waits until his body releases him, and then remains on his side a good while longer.
By the time he can sit, the artist is no longer at the railing. They-who-keep-cages-locked have joined the crowd. Everyone stares into Hector’s enclosure, witnessing, gaping, and not even taking a picture.
Oliver drags the soft dirt from his tunnel, packing it carefully to the sides or pulling it, step by step, to a branching passage he no longer has need of. He works for three nights straight before he reaches the place where he changed direction, diverting from the zebra enclosure to Shanti’s paddock.
The latter path stands open, has not been obstructed by They-who-keep-fences-locked.
Oliver sits in this junction and blinks, for long moments, in the face of his good fortune. It has not occurred to him that he might find any portion of his escape route overlooked, and the free pathway takes on an insidious aura.
He has heard about traps. He has recently re-learned this lesson. Thoughts of his recapture drive his head back inside his shell. He reconsiders the elephant tunnel, gauges how much night remains, and makes the conservative decision to wait for another day.
When his back faces that open exit, Oliver relaxes. He retraces his digging journey back to his own pen and emerges into inky night.
“There he is,” a voice above his head calls.
“There. There he is.”
Oliver hears that they are pigeon voices. He cringes, even before a rain of fat, feathered bodies land on the ground around his burrow mouth.
“Go away,” he snaps.
The pigeons shuffle, feathers brushing one another in the darkness. The birds bob and weave. They are shadows dancing, and Oliver has had enough of their kind.
“We want in,” one announces.
“It’s not fair,” says another.
“Leave me alone.” Oliver moans and pushes himself onto the cropped grass. “No more pigeons.”
“We’ll take you to the aviary,” one voice coos.
“We’ll find your friend,” another picks up the refrain.
“We want in.”
Oliver lunges for the latest speaker. The pigeon squawks and flaps into the air. Oliver turns slowly, but his neck is long and flexible. He stretches, waves his head at one after another of the birds until they give up and move to the fence where he cannot reach them.
“It’s not fair,” they chant. “We want in.”
“There’s no way in,” Oliver moans, gives in at last to his despair, and lets his limbs sag. What does it matter if the way is clear? There is no path into the aviary, at least not for a tortoise. His plastron rests on the cool grass, and he fights off a sob. “I can’t get inside the aviary.”
The pigeons coo and strut. They are not convinced. But it is a different voice that calls out next, a dreadful, scratching voice in the darkness.
“She’s not in the aviary,” the crow says. “She never was.”
“Who, who, who,” the pigeons echo one another.
“His bird friend,” the crow answers. She hops from the shadow of the macaque’s cage and bounces over Oliver’s fence. “She’s in the marshland, under the big nets.”
“Nets?” Oliver speaks, even though he knows the crow is made of lies. Even though, like all the animals she taunts, he hates her. “What nets?”
Debra tilts her head to one side, mantles her black wings, and lets her tail feathers open and close before answering. She is dragging it out, baiting him.
Oliver knows this, too.
When she makes her answer, however, he has already decided to trust her.
“I can show you,” Debra caws. “I can take you to her.”
The pigeons protest. They explode into a frenzy of bobbing, of hopping in place and puffing out their feathers. Oliver ignores them. He has heard about traps. He has learned. But he thinks he is wiser than the crow. He thinks he can out-play the bird’s game.
He thinks he may as well find out.
“Tomorrow night,” he says.
And the crow makes no answer.
Gonzo watches They-who-bring-food as they move between cages, but today they have left their vessels in the center of the aisle. When they bring fruit and biscuits to the macaque enclosure, Gonzo joins the others at the tub. There is no point in sulking, no hope of a stolen beverage this morning.
He has already enjoyed his moment of victory, and at least his headache has subsided.
Gonzo sucks on a dry biscuit. The latte’s effects have faded, but he can still taste it if he concentrates. He feels calmer, less irritable. When the troop members tumble into him, he is less likely to bite or scratch them.
He feels better than he has in all his time at the zoo, and his quick brain already wonders if he can risk another vessel grab. To his surprise, he has not been punished. No stones were thrown, and the crowd from which he snatched the drink showed only pleasure at his daring.
They cheered for him, and Gonzo wonders if they may have been testing his boldness all along. He wonders if they didn’t want him to steal the bean for himself.
He chews his biscuit, turning it over in his paws and tasting each side. The troop works its way through the fruit, then tires and begins its exodus out the little square door.
Gonzo decides to join them. He imagines a crowd gathered, a dozen fists clenched around paper cups. He chews his biscuit faster and even takes a sideways, shuffling step toward the exit before a strange noise stops him.
He turns back to the bars.
He-who-sweeps is standing very close to the cage. When Gonzo looks, he purses his pink lips and makes the noise again, a slurping, smooching sound that is accompanied by a gesture with both paws. They tap against the ledge outside the bars.
Gonzo screeches. He shows his long teeth.
He-who-sweeps looks over his shoulders, looks left and right, and then taps again. He smells nervous, twitches and smooches again.
When Gonzo bares his teeth and lunges, He-who-sweeps backs away from the cage. He collects his broom and rubs it across the aisle, but his eyes are still on Gonzo. He is waiting.
Gonzo sniffs in disgust. The act brings a strange scent to his nostrils, an aroma from just beyond his bars. It is both sweet and bitter. It is bean, but it is also something else, something new.
He cannot see a vessel, but his bean is there. He-who-sweeps has brought it. Gonzo shuffles to the bars and eyes the ledge. He pulls back his lips and inhales.
Three tiny coffee cherries wait just outside the bars. They are neither plump nor red, but they shine in the same familiar fashion. Their black surface makes a smooth skin, and Gonzo can smell the bean inside it.
His paws reach through. His eyes flick to the aisle and back.
He-who-sweeps watches as Gonzo snags the offering. He shows his teeth as the macaque places a cherry between his lips.
Gonzo cringes, uses his tongue to work at the sweet-bitter coating that, it turns out, is not a cherry skin at all. He sucks at it, finds it pleasant enough. When he reaches the core, however, Gonzo bites. He chews the bean, crunches it in his teeth and feels the rush of pleasure.
It is strong, smoky, and not green at all, but the act of chewing soothes him in a way the paper drink could not. Gonzo chews all three, bouncing from one foot to the other. He chews in ecstasy, in memory of a far-off jungle. He rolls the dry bean bits over his tongue, dribbling from the corner of his mouth. He holds it, holds it until the urge to spit is too strong.
Only when he gives into that urge at last, does he remember He-who-sweeps. His eyes focus, fly to the aisle where the other primate waits. Holding his broom still, showing his teeth, and bouncing, as Gonzo bounced, gleefully from one foot to the other.